"It's so lonely that way."
An interview with Ariel Pink
© 2006 Ross Simonini
Posted: January 13, 2006
Ariel Pink was born Ariel Rosenberg in 1978. He was raised in Los Angeles in an area that is sometimes called Pico-Robertson and sometimes called Beverlywood. He still lives there, in an apartment, next door to the house where he grew up.
His music is not contained within any genre. It is contained within every genre, like a compilation. Every song seems to come from an entirely different set of influences and interests yet, at the same time, all of his songs have a cohesive personality that is instantly recognizable. His albums Worn Copy and The Doldrums (both released on Paw Tracks) were recorded and mixed by Ariel in his bedroom, using an 8-track tape machine, a couple of effects processors, some basic instruments, and his mouth (both for singing and beatboxing--there are no drums, only mouth sounds). His recordings sound like familiar songs in unfamiliar settings.
Here's a fictional scenario that sort of describes the sound of Ariel Pink:
In the mid 1980s someone turned on their half-broken tape recorder in a room where a television played, at a loud volume. The TV was turned to MTV. The person left the room while the TV blasted through hours of music videos and commercial jingles. The person was then murdered, violently, right in front of the recorder, and the sound of screaming is documented in short bursts.
It is for this reason that Ariel's music comes across as something more believable or relatable or honest than other music. It is his personal documentation of himself and his surrounding world. It is a diary. -Ross Simonini
Ross: When did you start writing songs?
Ariel: Around age 10. I used to write the lyrics down, but I'd have the songs arranged in my head. I didn't learn how to realize what I heard until years later. It's been a very slow process, but I've paved it consistently for over 15 years and developed a musical palette and process that works for me. I still know a lot of my earliest songs from that era, lyrics and all. I used to have a large notebook but it vanished a long time ago. I'd hop from genre to genre as I consumed more music over the years, to an absurd degree, I'd research and listen to everything that even merely had a passing stint in the Rock n' Roll Halls of Fame/Shame, which inspired my own musical pursuits. All of this was a labor of love and also a way to escape daily school and family upheaval, and established and nurtured my own identity away from the norm.
Ross: Do you think your ten-year-old self would like the music you're doing now?
Ariel: Absolutely. I'm still him. I never strayed from the path— I always kept track of what I dug in the old days, from Michael Jackson to Metallica to Throbbing Gristle and everything in between. I've never been all that critical about it— it's 99% intuitive, and I've made it a priority to ensure I'm able to forge ahead with any path I choose, without cowing to any 'trends' or 'genre-exercises,' for better or for worse. I try to make music that I'd like to hear—something that I've never heard before.
Ross: Can you talk a little a bit your songwriting process? Maybe give a quick narration from the first idea to the final product.
Ariel: Melodies and lyrics float in and out of my brain constantly. If something feels really good, I'll train myself to recall the melody over a period of time, usually about a month. I rarely learn a song in advance. When I'm prepared to record a song, I sit down and figure the parts out right there for the first and last time on all the given instruments, starting with either guitar, keyboard, or bass, followed by a rhythm track (with my mouth) and then add layers of other melodies, with a desired instrument, and vocal overdubs happen last, invariably. Of course, many parts to a song may not be planned at first, so I kinda let my fingers wander on the first instrumental track, only to consolidate this "mistake" or "chance-sequence" with each subsequent instrument track, learning the song over many hours of listening, jamming, troubleshooting different approaches, and fine tuning the arrangements as I go, recording over the previous, less developed attempts. When I'm finished recording a song, I quickly mix it down to cassette via stereo RCA's direct into my home stereo cassette deck. I listen back and make follow-up mixes, sometimes as many as ten per song.
Ross: How many songs have you recorded?
Ariel: Too many to count. And what exactly is a song anyway? I've got hundreds of recordings, varying in quality and content, not all songs, and not all accounted (there just isn't enough time to sift through every instant recording session I've made on the fly), and I also have many songs that I haven't yet recorded, but could call to mind if needed.
Ross: Were you inspired by any basement-style recording music before you began making albums like The Doldrums? Or did that naturally evolve out of your interest in pop music? Obviously, The first people to make home recording/lo-fi albums were inspired by the music on the radio, and not other basement-recorders. So I guess I'm curious if we've reached the second generation of the basement song writers, the generation of musicians inspired by the home spun eight tracks.
Ariel: Well, what do you mean by "basement style" music? Does Bob Dylan qualify? All music starts in the mind, creeps its way into the audible physical realm, and then MAYBE it makes its way out of the basement or garage, if one is lucky. But to answer your question, yes, I was aware that there was an "underground" or "lo-fi" movement, but it never dazzled me as such in those terms. I read all the magazines. I bought thousands of records, had a gross hunger for bootlegs and unofficial rare recordings by artists I worshiped; ate them all up and adopted a certain criteria for what I longed for in music. It's practiced everywhere in the world of rock editorials—like most obsessed music fans, I advocate (in the case of rock and roll at least) raw, singular performances, that make my mind expand in real time. The search for a new form. The inherent reawakening of the Rock and Roll SPIRIT that paradoxically is channeled by this new form. You got me babbling. I don't know man. I worked in record stores for years before The Doldrums so that should tell you something . . .
Ross: I suppose what I meant by "basement-style" music was something like the music of R. Stevie Moore, who collaborated with you recently. Both you and he seem like two musicians who have a very intuitive understanding of pop music but, because both of you use more lo-fi techniques and methods, you're almost subverting pop music at the same time. Did you know of R. Stevie Moore when you started working on The Doldrums?
Ariel: "Knew OF", yes. I'd heard one album a couple of years before I recorded The Doldrums called Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about R. Stevie Moore but were Too Afraid To Ask. After that, I was hooked. I wanted to buy more, and he was just getting his website up at the time. So I sent him a surprise burned CD of The Doldrums, which I'd just finished, and an introductory note and a request for some cassette titles from his canon. He promptly replied in an email (my first EVER email, in fact, having just opened my first ever hotmail account!) and to my utter shock and star-struck glee, he was blown away by The Doldrums and instantly offered if I'd like to collaborate! I was absolutely beside myself, and humbled beyond words. That one-on-one breakdown of artist/fan/customer barrier was nothing short of a dream come true, and made a lifetime RSM customer out of me.
Ross: In general, watching your videos adds an entirely different layer onto your songs. For instance, in the video for "For Kate I Wait," the video brings something unsettling to the song that wasn't quite there before, almost like you are enhancing certain elements of the music. Is this your intention? Do you feel as though the song comes across more like you want it to with or without the video?
Ariel: Another good question. I'm quite happy with the video. I think I probably have more problems with the song on its own (sound quality, execution) but for better or for worse it is what it is. I had a certain feeling I wanted to capture when I set out to do both the song and the video—it's hard to say whether I achieved that or not. I'm probably too immersed in my own 'world' to be fairly objective. At times I think I'm the only person who CAN'T hear my music as it actually is, represented on tape or disc—although I'm sure there are plenty of people out there who claim they can't hear what's going on my music, either—HA!
Ross: What about the rest of your videos? I was sort of surprised to see five or six partial videos up on the Paw Tracks website. Have you been making videos for as long as you've been making music?
Ariel: Nope. I whipped them up more or less in the past 2 years. Many videos of my songs do exist, but I can't really take the credit for making them. I've assisted with a few, but they aren't finished. Mostly there's just hours and hours of footage of me in different locations, mouthing words to music not yet dubbed over. Scrap heaps. The snippets on Paw-tracks.com are pretty much random bits from those video feeds. I was into the idea of creating a catalog of video's AT FIRST, but ultimately it required too much $$, time and effort to really get off the ground. Maybe I'll start that up again, when I stop touring for an extended amount of time...
Ross: What about the "For Kate I Wait" video?
Ariel: That video was made in September of 2004 just before The Doldrums was released.
Ross: Can you talk about your background as a visual artist? How was Cal Arts? I read something in the LA Weekly about the "throes of a drug binge in art school."
Ariel: Oh, I'm sure those were my words, heh heh. I don't know. It was fine. I had a typical art school experience, I suppose, if you consider getting drunk at openings, partying with your 'teachers,' and shrugging off scholastic duties as often as possible as something typical of college experience. Cal Arts had a relaxed atmosphere, for sure. But did I get anything out of it?? A few critical, life-attitude-defining-post-high school years of my life, I suppose. Certainly wasn't worth what it cost to attend. First thing they tell you in the Fine Art program is that you're not likely to ever make a living from your art after you graduate. OK Great. My parents paid an arm and a leg for something I could have read about at the public library if I'd ever cared enough and something that I had already pursued for years independently in the privacy of my own bedroom before I ever thought about going to college! I never went to my graduation and I still haven't picked up my diploma from the registrar's office. My parents still lay into me about what a waste I made of their savings and my education, and LIFE.
Ross: With most musicians, there seems to be some sort of wall between their personality and the conjured personality they use for interviews, performing and general music-related encounters. With you, there really seems to be no barrier. Your website has family photos and your music feels, more than any other music I have ever heard, to be free of contrivances and almost completely candid. In fact, I think it's so intensely personal that it almost comes full circle and seems like irony. I could be wrong, but you don't seem very interested in the ironic to me. Am I wrong? Do you think there is anything particularly bad about creating these types of "barriers"? Is there anything wrong with being too open, too on-display, too candid?
Ariel: Of course there's nothing wrong with being candid. That's the point. Like I was saying in the case with my meeting Stevie — all those 'barriers' came crashing down for me on a fantasy level I met him. No more rock n' roll fantasies for this guy. My favorite artists are the ones that influence me in LIFE as well as in Music. Over time, I've found this isn't so much of an 'either or'—so many musicians are genuine and have their own way of connecting to the public. And the end of the day, I think people wear themselves on their sleeves, and you can see someone for who he is, even when it seems like persona. No one's fooling anybody, but everything is open to interpretation. I've devoted myself to being myself 100%, for better or for worse, as a qualitative measure for what I do musically, and self-expressively. I don't buy into the Rock Star thing, because in the end, I'd be an idiot if I were to buy my own hype. My commitment is not to my image. My commitment is to musical exploration and self-expression.
Ross: Are there any other hard-to-find musicians (R. Stevie Moore) that you might want to give some exposure to right now?
Ariel: Way too many to mention. Check out my myspace.com profile.
Ross: How would you describe your progression as a songwriter and recording technician from The Doldrums to Worn Copy?
Ariel: If there is any improvement, it's my abilities as an instrumentalist. I've learned to play six-string guitar in that time, where-as I only played a three-string guitar on The Doldrums. I can' say what's better. That's a matter of taste. But I just wanna get my chops down, and that's what it's always been.
Ross: For people who want to find your music outside of these two albums on Paw Tracks, where would they be able to find it? You put out some other material on other labels, right?
Ariel: Well, yes. BBP, Rhystop, Kittridge, Demonstrationbootleg.com. And you can contact me directly. I've been slack on handling orders lately though—the volume is too much and I don't have any time. Hopefully, more of my back tapes will be released in the near future.
Ross Simonini lives in Seattle where he writes, plays music and draws pictures.GO FIND ARIEL