Former home-recording maestro Ariel Pink has not only expanded his live and recorded line-up to include a full band, but he's also made the switch from the Animal Collective-curated Paw Tracks label to indie legend 4AD for his forthcoming record, Before Today. We had Warpaint's Emily Kokal, a fellow LA musician, talk with Pink about his new record—and just about everything that came before it.
Emily Kokal: So you're from LA, and listening to this record [Before Today]—there's a real lightness to it, even though it's sexy and dark and haunted and all that. When were you born?
Ariel Pink: June 24, 1978.
If I was in LA when you were growing up, I would hope that the music sounded like your music.
It did! Were you not raised here?
I was raised in Northern California and Oregon.
LA is one of those places that just had so much to offer musically that I wouldn't be surprised if you came across stuff like my stuff. It's the kind of thing that gets lumped with everything else, I guess. It's got a nostalgic feeling for a time I don't know. It's not something I recognize, it's just something I feel. I want to live in whatever the world of this record is.
If you saw the cover art, the vibe of it is completely opposite to what you describe. It's a shot of us in a sort of urban Detroit ghetto or something—not a very breezy California vibe. That was more of a concerted effort on my part. I wanted it to be our East Coast album.
It definitely has that dark element to it—I was dancing around to it this morning, and thought that instead of thinking of a bunch of questions I should just surrender to the music. Those basslines are so amazing! They just have a cool feeling to them. Kind of like Michael Jackson or something.
Yeah, well, he's obviously held in high esteem! He was my first love when I was really, really, really young.
Me too! He was my first crush.
He actually came to my fifth birthday.
It was held at Roxbury Park and my parents hired somebody, an impersonator, to come, and at the time he was still black, so it was like… it was a girl, I think. It was one of the many practical jokes that my parents played on me.
Sounds like they really love you.
My mom also sent ET. I was a big fan, obviously! She must've paid one of her friends to get up in a brown sweatsuit and ET mask and come and pick me up at the house! She actually expected me to believe that it was ET. I saw the back of his mask and it said "Made in Universal Studios" or whatever. And I thought, "That's not ET!"
Were you still happy about it?
I think I died a little bit that day.
When did you start playing music or know you wanted to make music? Was it something you planned on doing? Or did you have other plans for when you grew up, like being a marine biologist or something?
I think the first thing I ever wanted to be, job-wise, was a veterinarian—that was when I was really young. I didn't think of myself as being a musician for most of my childhood. And I still have issues with that title, but I feel like I'm as much of a musician as anybody else, I suppose—I started writing songs around eight or nine years old, just writing lyrics down but with full arrangements in my head. But I never really fleshed them out on any instruments because I wasn't really encouraged to do that. I didn't have any obvious talent for any instrument. I was a visual artist; that's what my parents encouraged me to do because I obviously had the talent for rendering and all of that stuff. It wasn't until high school that I got fully sold on the idea that I would be a rock star.
Do you remember what your first song was about?
Yes, I still have it to this day. "Sexy Lady" was the name of the first song—I could sing it to you right now, but I'm not going to. A few of the songs in our set are, at this point, taken from those first songs that I did. I've always tried to keep tabs on everything that I've done ever since then. Most of it's gotten lost. I used to have a huge binder of every single song I'd ever written—lyrics and all that kind of stuff—but it got stolen or something when I was in high school. By then, I had already graduated to death metal. "Sexy Lady" was whatever was on the radio, very Billy Idol-sounding, "Dancing With Myself" kind of thing. It's actually very much of the time—when we do some of the songs now, I try to revisit how I envisioned them back then, because it was really of the time, influenced by music as it was unfolding, getting worse and all that stuff.
It seems like a great idea to retain some of that energy from when you were first starting to discover your abilities.
It coincides with music going astray with every year. At a very young age, I felt a conviction, like, "Wait, wait, I just got here!" It was better a year ago!
There's a lot untapped from those time periods that can evolve from that place and get more interesting. I dunno if you listen to any of that Aphex Twin Analord stuff or any of what he did with 808 drum machines—sounds like new-school breakdance music.
This is right before rhythm kind of took over everything; it was right there. I actually videotaped MTV broadcasts, and I put them in the tape player every now and again just to kind of remind myself. I taped 120 Minutes of the 100 Best Videos of All Time kinda stuff, 1985, 1986. At the time, rap hadn't really just taken over yet, and the '80s were still kind of in Bruce Springsteen land, stuff like that. There was still a smidgen of the old rock 'n' roll in there, eventually to be fully replaced by heavy metal in my case.
I was gonna say hair metal! You have disco, early '80s, what I was saying about your bass/synth lines—every line seems to have its own great melody, there's a conversation between the instruments.
That's what it always is for me, even when it's just a rhythmic or sonic thing. It's always the interaction between the instruments, and the performances, and the sound qualities that really just contribute to make whatever it is that is a song or whatever you end up liking later on, like a recording of a song.
In my band, since we are a democracy and we're all writing our parts together, a lot of work goes into trying to create conversation where nobody's speaking over each other, unless we want it to be that way. Do you record by yourself?
For the most part… there's a good portion of the new record—I didn't record that all myself. This is the first record that the whole band… I don't play mouth drums, for instance. I used to produce and play everything on my own, and now I'm just trying to cultivate a real band dynamic, letting go of the rein. I know it's probably intimidating for a band to completely contribute freely, to say, "No, it doesn't go like that!" I can kind of trust them; they can pretty much read my mind.
Does that make performing live more fun, to have the interaction of a band?
That's precisely the point, that's exactly why I do play live at all. That's the only reason. If I had to perform live, which I do, and I had to do it all by myself, I'd hate myself and I probably wouldn't do it. This kind of makes me flex a different muscle.
It's so fun to play live.
It's a whole new chapter of my life. It's a real challenge. It doesn't come naturally. I pretty much started from not having any experience as recently as five years ago to now being a total veteran in my own eyes.
Do you know [performance artist] Marina Abramovic?
No, I don't know her.
I was just recently introduced to her. She said something about how anything that makes you go after your insecurity, that's the place to push towards. That's how I felt about doing this interview. I've never interviewed anyone, don't feel like I always have that much to say... Thought, I'll just go for it. Always pushing yourself to the boundary to see more of who you are than you believed in your own identity.
I'm one of those people that has always been spurned a little bit. Insecurity has been a very active motivator. The way I even got to the place where I would be able to pick up an instrument in the first place, it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't identified with much more degraded forms of music in high school. If I had stayed listening to heavy metal, I probably would have kept my distance: "Oh, I can't play that." Getting turned onto things that were more questionable artistic-ability-wise, aesthetically—that was very liberating for me. It gave me a world of encouragement and I identified with it, really got me to a place where I thought, "I can make my own avant-garde masterpiece," and sit down and grind it out on some tin pans or whatever.
That's the discovery a lot of times, with a lot of the music I love and art in general and people: working with limitations and coming from a new angle. You can express yourself however it may be. Steve Vai is a technically amazing guitar player, but I wouldn't call him my favorite!
I think a lot of musicians, they seem to be chasing after those kind of more… They're looking for the soul in music, they're not looking for the ability anymore. What makes musicians successful is that unnameable thing that makes it more than a three-chord thing, those kernels of memory, those things you grew up with.
That human element.
We live in a culture where the progress of hundreds of years of western tradition has gotten us to the point where we're pretty much celebrating the total dumbing-down of the age-old experiment of making progress.
Do you have any daily practices or routines? I just saw this David Lynch documentary where he meditates every day and he's very involved in every little facet of his creation.
I've got my routine, but it really doesn't even merit… it's just really, really boring and depressing stuff. It's not the artistic process—I'm not always doing that. At this point, I spend less and less time devoted to the artistic process because I find myself torn between a lot of obligations and all the things that I need to do to eventually have that forum to be creative.
Do you still do visual art? What other kind of creative things do you do?
I draw enough to know that I can draw, but I'm not really concentrating on that. The songwriting process and the recording process—I don't force it anymore. I used to record as a necessary evil: "Good days, bad days, whatever, here it is!" It was a very desperate form of expression that needed to come out, come hell or high water. It didn't matter so much that nobody gave a shit—that was very, very vital to my early process of recording. Nowadays, I just wait. I sit around and something happens to crawl up my butt and say, "Write this down!" If I don't end up writing any music for a year, that's because I'm not inspired to do so.
Are you comfortable with that now?
Yeah, I am. For the sake of the quality of what's out there, I really don't want to contribute to a world of shit based on my own neuroses. There's too much shit out there. I've gotten the acknowledgment that I need to feel comfortable doing what I'm doing. Maybe that marks the end of me in some people's eyes, but that's perfectly fine with me.
Sounds like you've found yourself. It's not the end.
I'm 30 years old and, hey, so what?
Do you have any other kinds of projects that you want to do before you kick the bucket?
Yeah, totally! I'd love to, if I had it my way. They say that you can only do one thing your whole life, or maybe a couple of things. Ultimately, I'd like to be president. If I had that gig for four years down the road… sounds like a good job.
It sounds like a heavy job.
If I fuck it up, I won't go to jail. Get to pass it on and let somebody else fix it. The kind of thing you don't have to really plan for—it's a good thing to have off in the distance. It'll never happen, so what's the harm in fantasizing about it?
What would your first plan of attack be?
I would get rid of all the things I think are bullshit, as much as I can get rid of it. I'd do all sorts of terrible things to this country, but I'd probably heal the world at the same time somehow. It might be the dissolution of America, but it would be the unifying of the human race.
There needs to be someone like that who can change everything.
I'd have more faith in the system if someone like me could be president. If you have the confidence and you don't shrink from the opportunity of it… I've dealt with adversity and people hating my guts, that's easy enough. It's just four years: not much of an obligation. It'd be like a little side job.
Well, I believe in you.
I also really love science and stuff like that. If I had another life, I'd probably be a scientist. If I were to dabble in science now, I think I'd be slotted in with pseudoscience because I don't know enough about it.
Like quantum physics, kind of incorporating all of science and spirituality?
I want to be strictly science, but I don't have the training to even begin to pontificate about it! If I were to come up with some sort of theory, it wouldn't get past peer review, and I'd be considered a total mindless hack. I don't know the actual equation for the mass of a proton so it would get in the way, and I wouldn't be taken seriously, and I would not to want to participate if I was considered pseudoscience.
I'm glad you got us here. One of my questions is that I feel like there are people that deny that death exists and there are people who have always known that they're gonna die. I wonder if people who live more fully are more conscious of the fact that they're mortal and people who deny death might be the lazier part of our society?
I think that denying of death is the hardest thing for people to do. I think that people don't deny it enough. I think for some people it depends on definitions. As far as I'm concerned, I've lived forever, because I can't remember the beginning, chances are that I won't remember the end… it's always ahead of you. It's almost like the universe is blocked off from death. You never get to experience it at any point, even though you know it intellectually. I think the problem with humans, the biggest folly, is that we think, our words and our thoughts shape things that we think are real, that we live in a fantasy world. We don't acknowledge that, for instance… I think that words are basically satanic.
I feel like I've created really deep and fulfilling relationships with people who don't speak English. A lot of the friendship is based on just being and experiencing together and relating to each other without words.
If you've ever had a pet, same thing! Same thing, man. I feel like almost all animals speak the same language. The universal language of "DUH YEAHUG! Get away from me, argh! You smell good."
I'm interested in that. I did a Vipassana [meditation] retreat where I didn't talk for 10 days.
Was [my friend] Jimi Hey there?
[laughs] No, he wasn't there that time.
He's been trying to get me to go, I've always wanted to go.
Jenn (our bass player) and I went, and it was interesting because we couldn't talk to each other. We learned a lot about where we're not completely comfortable with that silence with each other, because we couldn't talk to each other and we were around each other the whole time, the relationship of being near her without being able to express, "Hi, I love you. Are you okay?" I felt like I was ignoring her or abandoning her. There was a whole new relationship underneath the surface of how we normally communicate that wasn't as comfortable. I had a whole new reaction to how when you relate to other people, you come outside of yourself, you leave where you're really sitting in order to relate. There's some potential there for some really deep connection.
Did this damage your relationship or bring you closer?
It definitely brought us closer. I just had to deal with my own feelings, and it was great. In that silence, after 10 days of doing that, when we were allowed to start speaking again, that was the last thing I wanted to do.
Wow, that's amazing!
I felt, "Wow, I feel really grounded right now... I don't want to have to say anything." When I did start speaking, I've never experienced speaking so much from the heart. Everything that came out of my mouth was truly connected to how I was feeling. There wasn't really a glitch or a filter.
Do you feel that you've been able to take that, aside from having a really memorable experience, do you feel that you were able to… I'm sure you've settled back into reality and you're back to square one again very quickly?
It wasn't very quickly and because I don't practice the meditation as much as I used to. I definitely slipped back into my mind and believing in my thoughts... would even call it a laziness. But from that experience and other experiences I've had, I have more of a face. I know that the inner realms of me, I can always go into and there's reservoirs of untapped energy. I've learned that there's [a] place to go to get energy and to get peace. I think I really learned that if I'm ever really feeling depleted, I have the reservoir, the well inside.
Ask the wishing well! I love that.
I think that's a big part of how our band communicates, too. I don't know how it is to be in a band of all males, but to be in a band of all females—when we really hit our stride, we'll write a song and it'll go many places and it'll have many changes, and if we really trust it… we usually fuck ourselves up by trying to talk about it and explain to each other what we think. When we just let it go, it carries itself—we don't have to talk about it, and that has taught me a lot: that there's a lot more to be communicated and understood without trying to understand anything.
Start from a single note, and however long it takes you to muster up the trust, you guys let it…
Let it ride!
Let it arrive when it arrives. You gave it the opportunity and the sum is greater than the parts. That's the definition of a band in my opinion, that's beautiful.
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti's Before Today is out June 8th on 4AD.