Update: Ariel Pink

Update: Ariel Pink

Update: Ariel Pink

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.

Overtones: Turn Down for What

Overtones: Turn Down for What

Overtones: Turn Down for What

Try memorizing a phone number—or following an anecdote, or filling out a spreadsheet, or remembering second-grade times tables—while listening to Ariana Grande’s Top 5 hit “Break Free”. It is an exercise in futility: Your thoughts are whiffle balls in a tornado. The song was co-written and co-produced by Max Martin, the Swedish guru who has been at the helm of pop music for two decades now, and it bears his stamp: You cannot, and will not, entertain non-“Break Free”-related thoughts during its runtime. Cue up “Break Free” and then read this paragraph again, just to prove my point.

This is what it means to not be able to hear yourself think. It’s not just an expression: The sounds on Martin’s songs—from “Oops!… I Did It Again” to “Since U Been Gone”—are compressed into weaponized high beams specifically designed to obliterate your focus. His productions, running back to his time as the go-to guy for boy-band smashes in the 1990s, tend to rely heavily on a brickwall limiter, a mastering tool often employed in the final stages of pop song recording. The brickwall limiter ensures that no sound in the mix “clips,” and in doing so, smooshes out any ceiling or floor in the mix. It’s a blunt-force instrument, and whoever named it chose well.

If you regularly read articles about music, you’ve probably come across someone grumbling about the loudness of modern records. This is the so-called “loudness war,” although the “compression war” may be more accurate. Loudness, like taste or smell, is tricky to measure—more perception than fact. In an extended inquiry for Sound on Sound in 2011, Emmanuel Deruty found that while music recordings in general increased about five decibels from 1970 to 2010, their perceived loudness—how loud they sound or feel to us relative to everything else—hasn’t changed much at all. Loudness, like pain, plays out on a different time scale than other sensations; it can happen in an instant or it can sustain itself over minutes. Its hard to know which way is “up.” 

Compression,which reduces the dynamic range of a recording, shrinking the space between the quietest and loudest sounds, is simpler. You can watch both sides of the loudness war play out in the upward swoop of a well-articulated sound wave. For people on the quietness side, a good producer or masterer is someone who respects the shape the audio signal is making. If you use a brickwall limiter, its opponents argue, you are, in essence, lowering the basketball hoop to dunk—the motion is the same, but, without the thrill of the leap, the meaning is gone.

So while music hasn’t gotten appreciably louder or flatter, it’s grown blockier, more modular: Decibel levels notch up and down according to a song’s structure, creating emphasis. In this way, manipulating levels and waveforms is now a kind of songwriting, used the way an earlier generation might have relied on a key change.

This approach—the tweezers followed by the hammer—characterizes about 90 percent of mainstream pop radio. You can hear it on the chorus to Chris Young’s country mega-ballad “Who I Am With You”. You can hear it in Sia’s “Chandelier”, when the singer’s hiccupy, odd little voice doubles up until it feels like a jet plane. And you can hear it on “She Looks So Perfect”, from 5 Seconds of Summer, a boy band with pop/punk affectations (or the other way around… it’s confusing). The mix for these choruses is smooth and rounded and impenetrable, and the only thing you can do to prepare for them is duck.

While the massive success of last year’s comparatively soft, richly dynamic Random Access Memories by Daft Punk pointed the path to a (potentially) quieter future for mainstream music, the truth is that garishly vivid production and mixing have a permanent place in pop, and producers turn to them when they want to accomplish specific goals. Like Michael Bay films or appletinis, they can be spurned or scorned, but they can never be vanquished.

The act of squeezing an arena’s worth of information into an audio file doesn’t belong to Max Martin, or to his protege, Dr. Luke. (There’s no question, however, that they are the best at it.) Their secret weapon is their mixing engineer, Serban Ghenea, who has mixed over 100 #1 songs, from Ke$ha’s “Timber”, to Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse”, to Pink’s “Raise Your Glass”. His mixes have no notches, no joints, no seams. They are the aural equivalent of a glassy wall.

And it is this towering, right-in-your-face style of mixing, as much as a given song’s lyrics or message, that usually triggers our “mindless” filter. All these sounds pressed into a hard, impermeable block tend to make the higher brain—the part used to parse out smaller elements and puzzle over them—wince in mercy. It’s a big factor in what makes those songs work so well in filling up huge spaces, and it dovetails with their overall message: Turn off your thinker, let’s party.

A quick way to signal to modern ears that you are a breed apart, then, is to surround yourself with a cavern of silence. It’s a powerful shorthand: Lorde’s “Royals”, a pop song about avoiding the glitz of other pop songs, would have its context capsized if a massive synth crashed in on the chorus. The finger snaps on the track, lightly touched with reverb, help make Lorde seem wry, wolfish, poised. Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”, meanwhile, focuses our ears on some low-lit piano chords, a kick, a snare, and nothing else. Smith doubles down on the “above-it-all” signifiers with lyrics about “not being good at a one-night stand” and a gospel choir, which is sort of a nuclear respectability option for pop stars. He’s not that kind of guy, Smith’s lyrics tell us, while the mix assures us that this is not that kind of song. 

But wide open spaces don’t magically bestow sophistication on performers. Sometimes, in fact, they do the opposite. Witness Robin Thicke, strutting around in a Beetlejuice suit and inviting the mockery of Western civilization with last year’s “Blurred Lines”. No one blames Pharrell’s backing track, a perfect, glittering retool of Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up”, for the silliness, the hashtags, the unpleasant whiff of horny-high-school-principal. The music, seemingly made only of cowbell and Pharrell’s shit-eating grin, is sly, sexy, and playful in all the places that Thicke is oafish, obvious, and clumsy: Sometimes a gorgeous sports car simply points out the inadequacy of the person driving it.

Nonetheless, music with a pronounced sense of space always stands out on the radio, because we can instantly sense that we are no longer listening to something seeking to maul us. Our agency returns, as does our capacity for thought. Very few words of this piece, in fact, were composed while listening to the bright, blasting songs it mentions—it was too difficult. For the analysis, I turned to FKA twigs, whose subdued, cavernous new album offers abundant room to accommodate daydreaming. 

After a steady monthlong diet of Max Martin, though, I found myself examining the spaces in music more carefully, and with new appreciation. I tried to imagine what would happen to the fragile mood of twigs’ music—bruised, carnal, profoundly alone—if these sonic openings closed. Imagine, for instance, that the synth for “Two Weeks” was pumped up to “Dark Horse” size. Would the song’s line “higher than a motherfucker” suddenly sound like a night at Señor Frogs? Would her boast “I can fuck you better” feel less like something murmured from afar and more like a brassy declaration? The intimacy, the ache: It would all disappear like an overexposed photo. There’s a reason we tend to instinctively say “give me space” when gripped by overwhelming feelings. Our messiest emotions require space, and music that offers it beckons like an invitation.

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