What d’you call it?
What d’you call it? Garage? What d’you call it? Two-step? Definitions are devilish. Wiley knew all about it, and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti do too, carrying that heavy beacon of being a square peg in a round hole. Or the Round And Round pegs in the square holes. Crack caught up with them at a secret London show to talk genres, gigs and LA.
It’s a hot summer’s night when Crack finally pins down Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti for a chat. A climate fit for Californians, sure. But the grimy streets of Dalston are a far cry from the glitz of LA. You would think we’d be interviewing fish out of water. No sir. They are entirely at home here in the scuzzy Shacklewell Arms. This being their third London flex since the release of Before Today, the band are practically local, and certainly welcome. This ‘not so secret’ show saw many unlucky punters turned away and much joy brought to the night of those few granted entrance. It really was an amazing gig.
Afterwards we meet Ariel Pink and his bassist Tim Koh, perched outside the venue for a chat while Ariel paces like an Ancient Greek thinker. The man has far too much energy to ever sit still. “I like the intimacy of these small shows” says Tim. “I feel the energy, you can bounce it back and forth when you’re so close. It’s just like a big energy ball you’re throwing around.” It was. Crack caught it.
That incredibly awkward kid at school who stares at their shoes, who has obscure band logos drawn on their Eastpak, who is clearly brilliant but exists on their own astral plain, yeah you all knew one. Ariel Rosenberg was groomed for greatness by his parents, encouraging eccentricity (inviting E.T to Ariel’s 8th birthday party – a family friend in a mask and red hoodie) and encouraging his artistic talent by pointing him towards art college after high school. As early as his school days he knew it was music, not art, that fired him up. Since 2001 Ariel has chalked up eight full-length albums, an outtakes and lost tracks release and a nine- track EP. He also has over 500 unreleased songs recorded on cassette tapes, all of which were documented in a huge ring binder (until it was stolen at school). Prolific doesn’t really begin to cover it. He can remember all his early tracks, some are kept hold of and developed and evolve and grow with Ariel and his band. Three songs on Before Today date back to earlier albums. So, do the band have a favourite track?
“I think I prefer all of The Doldrums,” bassist Tim Koh offers, “but that changes all the time.” Ariel is quite firm – “No favourites. They’re all like my children.” Some songs however, are given over to the sands of time. “Like Sexy Lady – before anything else there was Sexy Lady.” Ariel sings it to us a capella, before explaining this track is the first song he ever wrote and like so many more in his head, has never been recorded.
Never appealing to label A&Rs, the early live shows were reportedly rather difficult to watch (Ariel found it tough to recreate the home recorded sounds such as his famous use of ‘mouth drums’ from his tracks when playing live), it was a dear friend of the band Jimi Hey (Beachwood Sparks, Indian Jewelry, The Rapture) who saved the day. He popped a CD-R over to NYC based Animal Collective, who had just started their label Paw Tracks. The gods of lo-fi recording smiled down on Ariel that day as Animal Collective recognised one of their own: a self-starting, multi instrumentalist home producer with a flare for experimentation and a skill for creating atmosphere. A great relationship began. Haunted Graffiti began touring with Animal Collective. Paw Tracks reissued some previously released albums – The Doldrums, Worn Copy and House Arrest. By 2009 Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti had been signed to indie mega-label 4AD and music bloggers had seen the band rise to the title of ‘chillwave’ gods. And thus began the pigeon holing. How do you define Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti?
You can start by reflecting on from whence they came. Los Angeles has a legacy of great musicians. An ambience, a sensation, a ‘je ne sais quoi’ that is unmistakable in albums traced all the way back to the 70s. Growing up amidst that musical history and all the glamourous madness of the place must have been tough, yet the band are still based there. How do they survive? “We huddle up, stick together to stay warm, make houses out of boxes.” The dead pan humour with which Ariel brushes off the question is incredibly charming and in no way offensive. He is either bored or uninterested about discussing LA. Yet we have his tracks Beverley Kills, Life in LA and West Coast Calamitiesthat show home is unavoidable. Is there anything he misses while touring for so long?
“My Mum” – not MOM? “No – Mum” Tim explains: “Hotel life can be pretty stressful and kind of solitary, but we’re used to it now.” They’ve just come from Russia and Eastern Europe, they are off to South America next. Maybe LA isn’t such a big influence. Tim reiterates: “Mine and Ariel’s favourite music is Ethiopian. You say that and most people think of The Ethiopiques. We like those artists, but we like the music they made later in the late 70s and 80s. Everybody is into world music right now, and African music, but I feel like nothing sounds like Ethiopian music. It has its own sound.”
So inevitably the question comes up. How do you define your sound? Tim knows what’s coming, before the phrase leaves Crack’s lips – “Oh you mean chillwave?” Yep, that is what was coming. “Oh it’s a Pitchfork thing. Ariel is labeled as the godfather of chillwave, but we’re not that. I don’t know. I mean, I feel like we sound like everything. We’re every genre you can think of mashed up in to one. With most bands I feel every song sounds the same and we don’t do that. We’re like no genres and all genres at the same time.” What does that phrase even mean? They laugh and roll their eyes and it is plain to see that Tim and Ariel are incredibly well traversed label dodgers. They have been called psych-pop, lo-folk, funk fusion, and the term ‘chillwave’ was created especially for them. Ariel offers another dead-pan explanation. “We’re ‘hipster garbage’. Chillwave hipster garbage.” But there have been a few sincere and heartfelt attempts of classification – Jimi Hey, friend and former band member coined Ariel and Tim’s preferred term, ‘dream-a-billy’. Both agree that it is a good one. At least it’s an explanation that came from one of their own.
Michel Foucault said of classification in The Order of Things. “It describes the processes and products of the consciousness.” Are we trying to understand the world around us, or just understand ourselves and what exactly draws us to Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti? Either way, one should remember that well worn adage attributed to the great Elvis Costello. “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture – a really stupid thing to want to do.” And yet we prevail, for what else is there for music fans to do when expressing their love and gratitude? All that’s ultimately important is that Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti had a great time on tour in South America and are excited to be back in the studio in LA to start work on a new album. What ever you want to call it, Crack can’t wait.
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Words: Lucie Grace