Ariel Pink: Can’t Rewind
It’s mid-morning on the West Coast and somewhere in LA, Ariel Pink is pacing the streets with a phone to his ear. “I’m doing something that I’ve never done here, you’re getting a first. I’m actually deliberating the interview process as I do it. I’m just thinking out loud right now.” On the other end of the phone, from a rain-beaten parked car in the UK, I’m bracing myself for a tumultuous conversation. Over the years, Ariel Pink (born Ariel Rosenberg) has become almost as famed for his provocative offhand remarks as his music.
I’ve gleaned from previous press that Pink can be candid but also very guarded, part-performative and partly just taking the piss. It seems only right to toss the perfunctory questions and angles aside and let him take the lead – which he does with pleasure. “It really keeps the cranks greased up if I’m able to stand and think as opposed to being sequestered in a gated dog park without any way out,” he says. “It’s like being interrogated for some crime I didn’t commit and then basically having to come back to the same question every half an hour. If I have to answer like a parrot every single time, you may as well just put a muzzle over it, why don’t you?”
We’re here to talk about Pink’s new album – his first in three years – although conversation only drifts this way for a matter of minutes before we’re back to Pink’s tapestry of immediate thought. The album, Dedicated To Bobby Jameson, is named for another outspoken Hollywood musician who, presumed dead for 35 years, resurfaced to write about his life with on a blog in 2007. He eventually passed away in 2015, having never enjoyed the success he’d hoped for.
The album was recorded with the help of “cohorts” Alle Norton and Kenny Gilmore at Ariel Pink’s home in Highland Park. Musically it stays true to Pink’s idiosyncratic variety of wayward pop, combining nostalgic references to garage rock, psych-folk and 80s synths with a dark and surreal use of irony. Love song Feels Like Heaven seemingly references The Cure, and there’s a nod to 80s punks The Queers on Bubblegum Dreams. Time to Live is a warped take on The Buggles with a heavy metal breakdown, while Another Weekend calmly reflects on reckless hedonism, and is perhaps the closest to guileless introspection on the album.
With no immediately noticeable reference to Bobby Jameson besides the title track, you might suspect the concept of the album is little more than a homage or a thinly-veiled decoy. So is there a deeper story to it? “There’s no story,” Pink claims. “I don’t know how to tell a fucking story. You got it right the first time. The story is about my sheepish and transparent attempt to derail any scrutiny on me, and that’s all it is about.”
Despite his desire for privacy, Ariel Pink is more open than I might have expected when discussing his personal life. Now on the cusp of 40, he lives a relatively unchanged and humble existence in a rented house in northeast LA. “If you come to my house, you’ll see a very lived-in bachelor pad,” he says. “There’s just a bunch of used furniture and there’s lots of people’s art on the walls. I’m not that materialistic. I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time so I don’t think about the money.”
He enjoys close relationships with a number of fellow musicians, many of whom he has collaborated with time after time. His work and play are impenetrably intertwined. In 2016 he appeared on Michael Collins’ Drugdealer album The End of Comedy, at the beginning of the year he released a collaborative EP with Natalie Mering, aka Weyes Blood, and Dedicated To Bobby Jameson sees him work with LA producer Dam-Funk once again. The night before our call, he has been “lounging around at home” making music with friend and collaborator Ben Brown. He has a longterm girlfriend who lives close by. Although, briefly vulnerable, he admits, “I’m not really relationship material, to be honest. I’m damaged goods. They just have to be crazy about me. That’s the requirement.”
His home, he says, is filled with magazines on science, astronomy, politics and current affairs among other more trivial matter. “I’ll read anything. I’ve got a very curious mind. I like music, I love movies. I’m a movie fanatic. I’m a junkie for things I’ve never seen or heard before. YouTube is the only website I like in the world. More input, more! The whole fucking thing. I like to butt into everybody else’s business, giving my opinion where it’s not welcome. ‘What are the chances of it lasting? Just break up now!’ I’m totally annoying. Any opportunity to not be the focus of attention. But it ends up backfiring. I end up making it about me!”
In a moment of direct interrogation, I ask Ariel Pink how he feels about the backlash to certain comments he made around the release of 2014’s pom pom LP. Having claimed to have been asked to work with Madonna by her label, Pink described the artist’s career as a “downward slide”, and he was subsequently accused of “delusional misogyny” by Grimes. Then, in an interview with The Guardian, Pink called Grimes “stupid and retarded”, suggesting that she may have been “angry that I’m the male version of her, who was at 4AD before her.”
“That was almost amusing,” Pink tells me, “it was like having a conversation with an android or a giant schizophrenic five-year-old with 20 tentacles that is trying to get a piece of me somehow.” Is there any truth to the criticism? “I don’t know how much of a stupid idiot I am, I’m sure I’m a total fucking idiot. They’re right. They’re right about a lot of things. But they’re not right about me being a misogynist. I have an equal amount of disdain for everyone.”
This particular scuffle came just a few months after Pink made headlines after an interview where he claimed he was “maced by a feminist”. Does he regret saying such things? “I don’t need to start double-backing on statements I’ve made and I don’t need to stand by anything either. It’s just something I’ve said. What I hope is that people will listen to my music because they like it and not because I’m a ham in interviews. Besides, the situation worked to my advantage. It means there are still things that are private and that the world shouldn’t know. I’m as real as I have to be and only as real as I pretend to be.”
Opinionated, abstruse and at times nihilistic – these aren’t qualities that translate so well on the page. But throughout our conversation he is committed to an uncontrived stream of consciousness, even as he considers the consequences this openness might have. Ariel Pink always seems to be in the driver’s seat, but always out of control. “I suppose someone should be telling me to do some damage limitation or check myself into rehab but that’s not going to happen with me because I don’t have any managers or PR. I’m not even trying to make it. I challenge the world to put me out of a job. Just don’t pay attention to me, I dare you.” He laughs. Even so, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. Does he think his cynicism might sometimes be to his detriment, career or otherwise? “I’ve been cynical all my life which makes me as innocent as I ever was, and it’s not even real cynicism. I’m just a cheery-eyed empath that’s got lost in the world of intention.”
"I'm sure I'm a total fucking idiot. They're right about a lot of things, but they're not right about me being a misogynist. I have an equal amount of disdain for everyone"
We get on to the matter of judgement, and how people’s fixed moral judgements can sometimes be needlessly reductive. Older generations, for example, might find it hard to adjust to a rapidly changing value code. “Maybe we should wait for them all to shuffle off and die and then we can have a party,” Pink suggests with enthusiasm. “You don’t know what it’s like to be an adult. I’m old-fashioned so I defer to authority and respect my elders. You wanna get deep now? Let’s get deep now. Is somebody racist if someone comes up to their window in a bad neighbourhood and they feel afraid? These people may have been children – slaves – who have been conditioned to feel the way they do and then we are taking their fear, whether irrational or not, and saying they can’t have it.”
It’s on that salient note that the phone goes dead. Ten minutes later I get a text. “Phone died!” it reads. I remember that early on Ariel Pink said he had 45 minutes to talk, and I realise the phone cut out almost to the minute. I ask if he’d like to continue the call. “Yeah… um… Who really wants to hear that BS anyway. That was a solid dose of me at my insufferable worst, let’s be happy the universe stopped us mid-sentence for extra dramatic effect.”
Dedicated to Bobby Jameson is released 15 September via Mexican Summer
Correction: An earlier version of this article included two mistranscriptions. The artist has since clarified that he said, “cheery-eyed empath” not “cheery-eyed impasse”, and referenced a “gated” dog park rather than a “dated” dog park.