Is Ariel Pink finally being sincere?
Experimental artist Ariel Rosenberg (aka Ariel Pink) recently released his 11th album Dedicated To Bobby Jameson, named after a 1960s musician who fell from the Hollywood Hills into crack-addled insanity before reappearing in 2007 as a ruthless blogger determined to set the record straight.
We reached out to Ariel, who is appearing at industry summit Face The Music as part of his Australian tour this month, to chat about his latest project, where he feels it fits into his discography, and how much of his personal life appears in his music.
Bobby Jameson became that guy that felt he never got his due – the classic story of burgeoning talent with so much promise that just fell through the cracks. Did you feel a sort of kinship with him, given his desperate attempts for fame, his story, and his fight to set it all straight?
Yeah, I recognised it – I recognised it in myself, I recognised it in other people. I guess growing up in LA, it's one of those things that's around. Just this thing that you see. It's a part of this city, which is especially noticeable when it's just your hometown.
You mean like one of those cities where people flock to change their names and become celebrities?
Yeah exactly – the fame-chasing hierarchy, the stairway to heaven, or whatever you want to call it. It takes a certain type of ambition to "make it" and it's really a brutal kind of fight to the death to achieve it.
Everybody sort of comes here not admitting to themselves that they're fighting to make it. And even when they don't, the effects are pretty disheartening, because I think it just rubs people the wrong way. They see their … modest dreams or curiosity just brought down to size. People have this casual way about it, too, where they're not expressly trying to make it, because nobody seems to like admitting that. But also, at the same time, people like to just put a blindfold on and pretend they just put a tack on a map and just landed in LA by total coincidence, whereas it's pretty obvious why they're here.
Do you think people should accept failure more honestly?
Well, I mean, that's the reality. The exception to the rule are the ones who make it. The rule is that you are going to go back to your parents' house with your tail between your legs.
How did this album come about? A lot of people are calling it a return to Ariel Pink's home recording roots, after years of developing a big touring band with 4AD. What happened between 2014’s Pom Pom and now? What was the recording process? Did you just get friends to bring equipment over and help you record?
My vibe these days is that you've got to tease me out of retirement, like ‘I don't really do that anymore’. But then, eventually, I'll run out of money, so I'll sound the bell and gather up a division, gather up the troops [laughs] to make an album or whatever. And we'll get to work.
So, in July of 2016 I made the plan to record and write the record. It was going to be a two-month process and I wanted to keep it all very low-key, too; I didn't want to have too many cooks in the kitchen.
With Pom Pom, which was the last album after my band fell apart in 2012 with the [million-dollar] lawsuit of [the ninth Ariel Pink album] Mature Themes, I tried to get everybody involved. I kind of had my Rumspringa with it, because I was so fed up with people entitling themselves to my stuff that I just basically wanted to keep everybody very involved and hence distantly associated with it. But this time round I kept it very small with only a handful of people recording and playing at my house.
It feels like DTBJ is very much an Ariel Pink record, but there's also a stronger 60s sound on this, with Doors-y type songs like the title track or ‘Do Yourself A Favor’, which is more folky. Were you leaning in that direction because of the Bobby Jameson theme or is it coincidental and just came out that way?
It came out that way. It's been that way for as long as I can recall. I'm essentially still playing the same genre of non-genre music as when I started. I maintain it to be experimental music, and I personally consider it very depressing music, and a lot of people might consider it happy-go-lucky, Willy Wonka bubblegum stuff, which is amusing to me, but there's an underlying demented darkness in everything I do, whether people notice or not. But either way, I really don't have any kind of ownership on people's perspective towards it.
Something a lot of diehard fans have noticed with this album is that in many ways it's a return to old Ariel Pink albums, not just in the home-recorded sound but even the artwork in the cemetery is reminiscent of The Doldrums (2000), and the flannel outfit with the pitchfork is like the cover of FF>> (2002). Even the title track ‘Dedicated To Bobby Jameson’ is a mishmash of the songs ‘Time Dandelion’ and ‘Tinseltown Tranny’ (from rare tour releases)
That's exactly right.
So, are you nodding to your own career and diehard fans? Because you're essentially creating two types of audiences, releasing stuff in this way, depending on how well people know your catalogue.
Yes, which I always have been. A lot of great music was created and lost back then, and my whole obsession with the past and nostalgia demands a sense of timelessness in the sense that it is not attached to a time. This is why [the whole project of Ariel Pink] is avant-garde to me, personally, because here we are talking about a new album and how it came about, but if you look a little closer, it's exactly the same vision that I had back when I was 15. It's the same approach, the same aesthetic – all that changes is the listener in relation to time.
And how would you describe your aesthetic?
Basically having all my contradicting artistic tastes and heroes, The Cure, Throbbing Gristle, Michael Jackson, R Stevie Moore … go to war with each other while I try to do the impossible task of pleasing all of them. And I was possessed by it as a kid, because I knew the older I got, the more affected I was going to become by the world and I had to record it all before it was too late.
So, the whole thing about rediscovering past music and what eventually became known as my lo-fi sound, I never thought of it as lo-fi. I had a much more twisted and demented view of what I was creating. I thought of myself as some black metal, avant-garde, industrial music Columbine kid. I never thought of it as being in the same league as a Guided By Voices or an indie kind of thing.
People have said with this record it feels like you're being more sincere, with songs like ‘Feels Like Heaven’ and ‘Kitchen Witch’ and all the girlfriend references. Are you?
No, that's a total derangement of the senses. That means I succeeded. Music is an escape, it's the land of make-belief, and sometimes it's more believable than reality but that's just people listening to my songs and thinking of me as one way and I manage to slightly surprise them with a left hook, like ‘oh he's being sincere here, that's a new one’. But the way I construct it, it's just a series of sonic tools and sounds layered to make something that sounds like music.
The world is performance art— Ariel Pink (@arielxpink) July 22, 2013
But you can't deny that sometimes there's crossover. For example, you were single before and throughout Pom Pom there was this more swinger lothario-type vibe. Whereas now with DTBJ, you have a girlfriend, and there's lyrics from songs like ‘Feels Like Heaven’, including "Here I go again, falling in love again, I knew better just like before". There's a natural tendency to think, ‘Oh, he's being sincere now’. Are you saying that's coincidence?
I see, yeah, but no, [laughs]. I think part of the problem is that audiences have been raised on this connection between sincerity and making music, like the self-expression Kurt Cobain type thing. The whole "come as you are" thing, which is just an extension of The Beatles, or that boy-next-door quality of the everyday man.
There's a certain skill to that, where there's some story that they're bringing to the table from their small-town life in Liverpool or Aberdeen which gives listeners this feeling of 'that's me!' But that's just one type of music for me.
But that's the world that we've been reared into, and that's probably why a lot of my music confuses people. Because it runs the gamut from sincerity to make-belief and everything in between. It's post-irony, and that's not a popular art-form; they want the boy next door making them feel better on the way to work. Not the guy who lives across the tracks confusing the whole thing.
You've been coming to Australia for years. It's often said this was the first place you realised you could pull off your solo project with a proper band that knew your songs. Is that an exaggeration?
I had a band before that [2006 tour] but I think after I came back from Australia, I kind of saw that there could be a real band dynamic where people would learn stuff properly and play it well, and I kind of took it to heart and sort of started over after I came back.
But I do love coming to Australia. I consider it my second home, Melbourne especially. I probably used to like it a lot more when I could actually stay over there for a while and didn't have to fly out to a different show every morning.
I'm just grateful to be invited to come out and play the songs and speak at the events and if people like it then great. And if they don't, well, that's great too [laughs].