Photo by Sasha Eisenman
Ariel Pink isn’t a fan of straight answers. Talking with the jumble-pop auteur can sometimes feel like driving a car along the contours of a giant pretzel—loopy, complicated, and dizzying, with plenty of stray digressions and the occasional feeling that he’s even confusing himself. Even when posed seemingly simple questions, his responses can be hard to parse.
For example: On the phone last week, I ask why his colorfully overstuffed, surprisingly intricate forthcoming album pom pom is credited to just Ariel Pink instead of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, as his last two albums were. “My music has always been my solo project,” the man born Ariel Marcus Rosenberg starts, his voice both calm and a little scrambled. “Ariel Pink never really existed because he was always Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, but then people started doing interviews with Ariel Pink as if Ariel Pink existed. But this record is technically the first Ariel Pink record. I finally came to terms with myself as Ariel Pink.”
As if to add more confusion, Pink further explains that pom pom is “definitely a group effort, more than ever,” and a wide-ranging cast of collaborators pitch in on the 17-track album, including members of his longtime band, as well as Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce, and notorious 75-year-old rock’n’roll huckster Kim Fowley, the singer/songwriter/producer best known for his own gonzo recordings and for assembling and managing the short-lived 1970s teenage rock group the Runaways. Though Fowley was originally considered to produce pom pom, his ongoing battle with cancer made that impossible. Instead, he “freestyled” a few song ideas from his bedside, which Pink then turned into gleefully odd album tracks like “Nude Beach A Go-Go” and the warped quasi-jingle “Jell-O”. “I love the idea of making music for commercials,” Pink excitedly says while talking about the gelatin-themed song. “Just the whole idea of there never even being a song there—14 seconds go by like it never happened.”
His last LP, 2012’s Mature Themes, was the first Ariel Pink record largely comprised of material written specifically for the album—previous efforts drew from his collection of home recordings, scrapped demos, and limited-press CD-Rs—and so it goes with the 68-minute pom pom as well. As ever, some of the songs can come across as aggressively off-color: “Black Ballerina” features a skit in which a protagonist visits a strip club for the first time, only to be ejected after groping one of the dancers, while “Not Enough Violence” finds Pink critiquing a culture too cowardly to face the world’s brutalities. “We have to mix our violence up,” Pink rhetorizes when I ask him about that song’s uneasy title. “Once a day we get some bad news—ISIS, or something like that—and then we get some nudie celebrity leaks, just to keep us attentive so we don’t get bogged down. It’s like, ‘Just one beheading a day, please!’”
There are also moments of strange self-reflection and drug-sick sadness, elements that have also run through the body of Pink’s work. Jangling first single “Put Your Number in My Phone” suggests a sincere wistfulness and, near the end of the spacey “Lipstick”, he asks into the void: “Who is this?/ What am I?” Still, Pink claims these more sincere moments are nothing personal. “I don’t really like to write lyrics about anything that has to do with me,” he explains. “I always wanted to get into rock music so I could cover up my real personality, change my voice, and create a false self to hide behind. My career is a burden, but I can’t just fade out like a pathetic sore loser. More often than not, I’m just making a fool of myself for the hundredth time, and that wasn’t part of the plan, initially. I’d be happier not having any kind of public presence whatsoever and just hiding behind the sleeves of the CD. I’d like to completely stamp out those parts of me that reveal anything about me. Those insecurities are, ironically, the foundation that I’ve planted for myself. It’s interesting that I don’t really know what I’m doing, and neither does anybody else. But I’ve still got fight in me and I’m as confident as ever, so I have a duty to stick around.”
Throughout the majority of our 75-minute conversation, Pink comes across as intelligent and thoughtfully scatterbrained—the exact opposite of how he presented himself several months ago on the web series “Alexi in Bed”, when he told host Alexi Wasser about his experience being maced by a “feminist,” which came across as trollish and misogynistic. When I ask him about those statements near the end of our interview, a switch seemingly flips: the thoughtful personality dissolves, his voice speeds up and sputters, and he resorts to a host of claims that read as thoughtless, lazy, and ignorant in any context. It becomes impossible to accept the notion that he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and that such outbursts are part of a larger game he’s trying to play; whether he’s winning or losing, it seems, is not his concern.
“It’s not illegal to be an asshole.
It’s not illegal to be racist, even.
It’s not illegal to do anything.”
Pitchfork: Near the end of the pom pom track “Sexual Athletics”, you sing about wanting a girlfriend; in another recent interview, you claimed that love is “for the kids—if it was for the adults, it wouldn’t be such a fairy tale.”
Ariel Pink: I’m trying to be a grown up when I say that I’m over love. Is it child’s play? Having been single for three years, I feel like I’m just entering my own as a grown man. I should have done it a lot sooner, but I didn’t. I was a serial monogamist for the whole of my 20s, and I had a very cynical and sour attitude towards marriage because of my upbringing, but I still allow myself to entertain the notion that I might be in love. And when I was happy, I was in love. And then it went away, and I was really bad, but that was an opportunity for me to get right with myself and dispel the notions of needing a partner. It’s a natural thing to want, but from where I stand I feel so much more comfortable in my own skin these days. I don’t have any need to be with anybody. I’m happy with myself.
Now, of course, if somebody proved me wrong and convinced me to think otherwise, then that’d be great, too. But I’m not going to hold out on that happening, and I certainly don’t want to sacrifice what I have, which is my own sense of peace and integrity. I’ve grown OK with myself, and that’s what people should do. Love is a fantasy that you shouldn’t throw yourself into unless you really know what you’re doing.
Pitchfork: I wanted to talk more about that Alexi Wasser interview you did, because your misogynistic comments made some people pretty upset.
AP: Were they upset for me, because I got maced? I don’t even remember what I said, but that was right after [the macing incident] happened, so you’ll have to excuse any misogynistic feelings I might have had. It was just my victim mentality kicking in—I’m going to get trolled for saying that. But the funny thing is, nobody came to my defense. And I don’t expect them to. I got over that. I could be an asshole, and that’s my right. People need to get over that. It’s not illegal to be an asshole. It’s not illegal to be racist, even. It’s not illegal to do anything.
You have to deal with other people’s bullshit, man. You live in this world, and we kill people. Humans kill people. Men kill people. Nitpicking about ideologies and all that kind of stuff is silliness. There are bigger fish to fry. We’re a very privileged culture. Everybody wants to have their sob story acknowledged. I lead a pretty healthy life, in terms of mental peace of mind—I don’t have many problems with myself, and I don’t have too many issues with other people either. So people just need to have a sense of humor and not take things so seriously.
Pitchfork: Do you ever worry about misrepresenting yourself as a person with these kinds of statements though?
AP: There’s nothing but misrepresentation if you harbor on the way the world nips at you, takes little things about you out of context, and throws up a consensus that doesn’t really exist. Journalistic prose is not revealing any fact. I can see it so clearly from this side. Human beings think they know so much, but I don’t know anything, I’ll be the first to admit it. Bullshit is bullshit. The way all these different interests and groups overstep their place when somebody else is trying to get their point across—it’s just so amazingly rude in practice. Nothing gets heard, everything gets obliterated by anything that humans bring attention to. There’s no care in treating those things. Everybody tries their best, but the machines make sure that everything is no better than a passing thought on the way to the bathroom.
All these people eavesdrop on your life but they have no idea who you are. And that changes as you get to know somebody. You start to see more, because there’s more there. Everybody wants to be able to write somebody off right off the bat. Everybody’s so cynical, and I don’t feel that way at all. If anything, I’m always the underdog. I may as well be a girl, OK? When I walk down the street at night, I’m no less vulnerable or scared than a girl. And you can find the statistics that say there are more rapes on men in the United States in every single year than on women—but I’m not going to go there because that’s bullshit too.
Everybody’s just being lifted up and shining a light on the more broken aspects of their traumatized psyche. The victims, the bullies, all these activists. I’m so happy I was bullied when I was younger, because in hindsight it made me who I am. It made me capable of dealing with a lot of things that people who weren’t bullied are dealing with now. And they don’t have the skin for it. Things don’t work out the way you want them to, and that’s good. Now we’re bullying the bullies. The bullies are going to be bullied into their grave, and nobody’s going to be paying attention to them there, because they’re going to be playing out a revenge fantasy on the world’s stage, and everybody feels like they had it coming. They don’t really care. They’re so used to having the court system fight their battles for them and getting their revenge. I know I’m simplifying it right now, but there’s all these societal protection devices to make people OK with not being OK with themselves, for whatever reason. That’s the wrong thing to take away from the luxury and advantage you have as a person that’s actually going to deal with past trauma.
There’s a reason why certain things have lasted as long as they have. There’s a reason why money is around—because we haven’t figured out any other way. There’s a reason why marriage has been around the way it has for so long. There’s a reason why, but you don’t know it necessarily. These are things that we’re at war with right now in society, so I do take a trollish stance on a lot of things. I’d be totally happy to be the Joan of Arc, you know what I’m saying? Like, you guys can burn me on the stake for being an asshole. I’ll be the biggest asshole, the biggest troll. I love the [infamously homophobic] Westboro Baptist Church, because I love being able to remind people that this a country where you can say, “You’re going to go to hell,” and you won’t go to jail. People hate that. They hate that these people are allowed to do what they’re doing, but they’re just exercising their free speech, and it doesn’t hurt you. They’re just inciting. They’re trying to play into your weaknesses, and they’re doing it very well, because they’re going to get your revenge fantasy on them. And you’ll do it carelessly without any remorse, because you didn’t get the right message from the lesson, and because everybody’s just getting lost in the fucking giant miasma of opinions, and there’s no sense to be made out of them.
That’s me: Rush Limbaugh Pink.