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Arrested Development

The Growing Pains of Ariel Pink's Haunted Grafitti

By Saelan Twerdy / Art by ZoŽ Alexander
February 2006

†††In November of 2004, I conducted the first interview that Ariel Rosenberg (aka Ariel Pink) ever did over the phone. Last week, on the eve of his newest release, House Arrest, I called him again to talk about his life and upcoming tour. After having grown up a "cheeseball goth" in the hills of LA, the son of Jewish-Mexican immigrant parents (his father is a successful dentist), he spent six years holed up in his one-bedroom apartment in the outskirts of Beverly Hills recording countless cassettes and CD-Rs on incredibly shitty equipment, never expecting anyone to pay attention. A lot of that work is stunning, unhinged genius. Completely whacked-out, damaged, emotionally naked baroque pop that sounds like every hit pop song, commercial jingle, and punk racket from the 60's to the 80's, coming in and out of focus on an FM radio band, heard while dreaming, or half-awake. Even when you're fully lucid, listening to albums from Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti series (an as-yet unfinished collection of 10 releases) is like trying to parse dream logic. The layers of fuzz and hiss are impenetrable, but the lingering emotional atmospheres are poignant and haunting. Just like the dreams you only half-remember, they seem to be hinting at something essential and important that remains tantalizingly out of conscious reach. That is, when he's not singing about how much he likes getting high in the morning. Did I mention that he doesn't have a drum kit, so he beatboxes all the rhythms?

The story goes on, of course. He got noticed by Animal Collective, signed to their Paw Tracks imprint, and sent on tour in support of a reissued version of The Doldrums, an album that he originally recorded in 1999. Since then, his sister suffered an accident that put her in a coma, his girlfriend left him, his mother and aunt, refugees from Katrina, moved into his apartment, and in every conceivable way, Ariel has been forced to confront the world. The picture I managed to form of him during this conversation has him at a crisis-point in his life. He's uncomfortably lucid (if still heavily self-medicated), creatively blocked, an obvious fuck-up and misfit forced to deal with the prospect of unexpected (and ultimately dubious) success, mildly delusional but definitely endearing. His obsession with music and its history (particularly with home-tapers and eccentrics like himself) is as obvious as his alienation from any kind of visible scene or hipster community. Essentially, he's facing the quandary that, at the age of 27, just as his opportunity has come along, he might be unable to cope with the life of a touring, recording musician (a professional musician, in other words), and he may not have anything left to record. The main subject of this conversation turned out to be what he's going to do with himself from now on.

So, you're not going to take a band with you on this tour? You're just going to do it karaoke-style?
Yeah, completely half-assed, no preparation. But it's going to be in a much more natural environment. Because I've done that for three years and, you know, it's not going to blow anybody away, but it's a more appropriate representation of the music.

Do you like playing live? With people or without?
It's not so much even a playing live thing, because I play with people around all the time, and I can jam and just play in my apartment and do whatever I want. And it's not like I can't do that in front of people. It's usually just a sound thing. And I have to figure that out. If a band offered itself up and they'd already learned all these Ariel Pink songs and they wanted to be my backing band, that would be ideal. I'd sing for them.

I was listening to House Arrest on the way over here and it's just so obvious how difficult it would be to get a band to play it. There's so many layers, and every one of them is you. You can really feel the hours that you spent by yourself tinkering with everything.
That's the thing, man. Why play live at all? I'm giving it one more year, that's what I say, and then I'm not playing live on anybody's dime.

How are things going with Paw Tracks?
It's like a schedule. Every six months, put out an Ariel Pink record. And then promote it. And now I gotta record new shit, right? But I don't have the fucking time! I spent nine months out of the last year touring, and now I'm looking at more than half of that for this year. Granted, I've had all this time to get my shit together, but I don't have my shit together. And now that's got to go on pause again now that I'm on tour. I know it sounds like I'm just all sour grapes, but I'm actually really excited.

From what I've heard, you've got just tons of stuff, like milk crates of tapes of recorded material. If they want to keep putting out albums like this, would you be happy with that?
That's the question, isn't it? And I'm putting out stuff on other labels, too. Basically, anybody that wants to put out stuff is allowed to. I'm certainly not looking for any record deals, but there's apparently a lot of labels and artists that want and can release my stuff. And I'd be more willing to go with a label that wanted to put something out with as little investment from me as possible. Because I can't have my attentions driven to that kind of stuff. I can just give them the artwork and the recordings and have them do everything, and have it end there. Because my commitments are just way too many right now.

Have you recorded anything lately?
Oh, yeah. I record all the time. But lately, it's taken a turn, I guess. I'm not so much recording on the fly anymore. Either I'm artist-blocked or I'm more cautious about what I'm going to do. I was much more self-indulgent in the past. I also feel an enormous amount of pressure to deliver it now, whereas before I never had to worry about, like a deadline or a date of release for anything. I just put it out. I was able to make it because I knew it wasn't going anywhere. With a distant dream, of course, but... sorry, I'm really stoned.

Do you think there were things in your life before that were inspiring you that aren't there anymore? Yeah, I do. I think a lot of bad things that I wasn't dealing with. I actually believe that my making music for as long as I did so relentlessly was the result of my not dealing with certain traumatic family issues when I was younger. I feel like... after my sister got in the accident, I really made a clean slate and got rid of my grudges with anyone in the family. My isolating myself like that was a product of some sort of childhood trauma. Now that I'm more willing to acknowledge that, I might be less inspired for it, but that doesn't bother me. It's almost like making art is a means to an end for me. The day that I don't do it anymore will be the day that I'm finally happy. It'll have achieved its goal, so to speak. I set out to purge something, not just endlessly.

Can you see yourself doing anything other than recording music?
No. I mean... I've done some very bad life-planning, I think. But it's amazing that people actually think about things in that sense when they're so young. There's always ways to make a living, but I don't have any professional aspirations other than making music. I don't want to work for anybody, man. I don't take well to a fixed environment.

What have you been listening to? Is there anyone around that you relate to in a personal way, that you feel is on the same level as you?
Yeah! I'm always listening to stuff, man. Have you heard any Harry Merry yet? One dude! He's fuckin' 36 years old, still lives with his mom, and he's a fucking genius, just like unbelievable, out of this world. And he happens to be a good friend of mine, too. But only after I discovered his music. And I'm like a drop-dead, total, gushing fan. I've been listening a lot to the Associates, and all my friends, like John Maus, Chaz Mountain, Supercreep, Bubonic Plague, Indian Jewelry. I tried to get Indian Jewelry to come on tour with me as my support act, but I've got a booking agent now. It's like, what the fuck's a booking agent? They want their artists. So I'm going to be going on tour with the Psychic Ills. Half the tour is them and half the tour is with Belong, who's on Carpark Records.

Were you actually under house arrest at any point?
No! I'm just carless. I haven't had my car since June. It got impounded for unpaid parking tickets. That's another thing I've said goodbye to. No more cars. And now there's a warrant out for my arrest, since I missed one court appearance. But what's the point? I don't wanna drive anymore!

So, I want to talk a bit about the home-taping gurus that you mentioned last time we talked. The guys that inspired you. What do people need to know about R. Stevie Moore, for instance?
He's the only guy in rock n' roll that has decided to take the daily snapshot, to the point where there's so much material you can pretty much account for every day of his life, in specific years. You can listen to it, it would take you like, three days to listen to all of it back-to-back. Distillations of afternoons spent trying to get the thing together. You can really get a sense of the time and place, and how long it took for rock and roll to become itself, to do itself. He was there, he was keeping track since 1967, when he was 14 or 15, all the way through now. And he leads this musical heritage life, his dad's a hero, he played bass on everybody's album. Stevie met Elvis Presley when he was five, in the studio. He actually got to be on a Jim Reeves single, "You Love Me, Daddy" (sic), as a five-year old. So, for me, he's like royalty to me. The fact he's been neglected even slightly as much as he has is beyond me. I can't believe The Wire never wrote something on him. You just go back far enough and ask who was the first to do this, who was the first to do that, and he was doing freaky fucking shit, man, since day one, he made the fucking freakiest music, way before The Residents. And it's not like a calculated art form, it's the real thing and it stands decades. I can't think of any other example of anybody that's created so much quality music and so much quantity and has survived the 80's.

You're so into the Cure, though, and all kinds of great 80's bands. Do you think the shift in the 80's was objectively bad? What do you think actually happened?
Video, dude. Video consciousness. It took it to a whole new level. First of all, MTV pretty much just changed the politics of pop music, the way people even bandied around about it. The whole outlook became different. It's a total medium change. That why the old guard, like the Eagles and Pink Floyd, all these others artists, had to consolidate themselves to it, but it was foreign to them, this new digital age with drum machines and stuff. And younger, cooler, funkier people from a different walk of life that were actually making a name for themselves in the only industry that they could potentially survive in, which was music, people like Dave Stewart from the Eurythmics. They helped them along. He was songwriting with Tom Petty and Bob Dylan, all those crap records from the 80's were produced by him. What I'm saying is that rock and roll, why nobody survived the 80's, is that everybody ducked out for a second because they were out of their comfort zone. Bands like Led Zeppelin had nothing to lose by just pimping out!

Hey, sorry to interrupt, but I just had a thought: do you like Robert Wyatt?
Oh yeah! So good.

If anyone survived the 80's!
Yeah, him and R. Stevie Moore, I see them as kind of the same thing. Except he's the British one. But he's not so much of a home-taper... he's actually much more dignified. He dealt with being crippled like a fucking god.

He has such a generous spirit. He's not the least bit embittered.
And he's so creative. The music gets him by.

He's got a healthy outlook on things.
That's what the music should do. It should keep you sane. It shouldn't make you more insane, it shouldn't be bringing out your bad side.

What you said earlier, about music being a means to an end for you!
I can't foresee myself not recording. That's just the facts. But I could stop at any time, that's the way I feel. I wouldn't be worse for it, if that's what I wanted to do. But I also have a lot of respect for what I think is the vital element in the music that I love, which is something that I think is fleeting in every artist. It's like a stage in their development. Not at the beginning, but two or three steps away from the beginning and everything after is shit, it's like the song-and-dance routine. So I'm very skeptical about proceeding if I don't have that element of not knowing, of the innocence you have when you first start doing stuff. If I get too comfortable writing stuff that's just going to be boring, then I'm not going to keep doing it. They say it's good to change your medium every ten years or so. You should try all sorts of things. I like to do stuff, to create. But even if I didn't want to do that, if I wanted to sit and watch TV all day, it would just be because I want to be happy.