Photo by Kevin ScanlonRock & roll’s dead, it’s all in your head! Thespian city Now all the real music lies underground. It’s only living on tape It’s lost and found.
—Ariel Pink, “Thespian City”
Nothing is new and everything has been done. So goes the constant lament of rock music these days, and for the most part it rings sadly true. But listening to the crudely mixed recordings of a local shut-in named Ariel Pink — it just might be time to reconsider. The songs — a sort of lo-fi high concept he’s been assembling for years under the rubric of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti — sound like everything and yet nothing else, veering from melodic pop symphonies to noisy and purposefully abrasive sonic blasts. The effect is something like a radio signal simultaneously tuning in sounds from both the future and the past. It is definitely not for everyone, but it is pretty close to genius. Ariel Pink first emerged into the greater public consciousness last year, thanks to a homemade CD handed off at a Los Angeles nightclub. The recipients were East Coast art-rock stars the Animal Collective, who rewarded Ariel with their patronage and the first non-Collective spot on their newly formed Paw Tracks label. Ariel Pink’s homemade album The Doldrums was released, and another homemade CD called Worn Copy soon followed. The critical buzz was somewhat counteracted by four nearly disastrous tours across America and Europe, during which crowds quickly turned ugly, baying with disapproval and nearly driving Ariel from the stage. It’s been awhile since anyone’s broken from the script. Needless to say, I’m intrigued. Since Ariel has no car, I drive to Echo Park, where he’s been staying with his girlfriend. I’m expecting a petulant savant type. Not the case. Though frail and waiflike in appearance, he turns out to be engaging and talkative. Even better, his lack of ride turns out not to be some preciously cultivated auto-phobia, but rather the result of his car being booted and then hauled away for unpaid parking tickets. We cruise west along Sunset, dipping south toward Hollywood Forever Cemetery for a planned stroll and a chat. After some introductory banter in the car, I ask about his ill-fated live shows. “People boo me everywhere,” Ariel admits. “They don’t even hide their contempt. I’m used to it now. It probably comes from the fact that I’m not very good.” He goes on to explain how his songs were never designed to be played live. The music was recorded alone in his apartment, and he could barely knock it out that once. Touring is something he sees as a necessary evil to pay back the record company, so he does it knowing full well he might be decimating whatever fan base his records have attracted. Another problem was that he had no band. When he had performed locally in the Los Angeles clubs, he had simply danced around and sung to backing tracks karaoke style. But opening for an accomplished live band like the Animal Collective was a different matter entirely. “I know what a good rock & roll show is,” he says. “I didn’t wanna just be some freak out there.” So Ariel enlisted some musician pals as his touring band, though he had no resources for proper equipment or compensation. “The dudes in my band don’t get paid,” he says. “So I can’t really crack the whip and make them learn the songs. They just came along so they could travel. I let them pick the songs they wanted to play.” The result was an occasionally inspired but entirely unrehearsed outfit playing none of the songs from the latest record. Not exactly the kind of professional rock show audiences expect. “Hey, I’m giving audiences the real thing,” he says with a shrug. “For better or worse, I’m out there, and those are the circumstances. People don’t like it when it seems like you don’t know what’s happening, or I’m getting bummed out with certain aspects and I can’t hide it. I think people feel that pain and just think it’s bad.” We arrive at the cemetery and begin traversing the idyllic grounds at a brisk pace, the plan being to eventually visit a recently erected memorial to Johnny Ramone. Navigating around some nervous-looking peacocks, Ariel tells me he grew up in Beverly Hills and West L.A. — his father a Jewish immigrant from Mexico who has become a successful physician. In high school, Ariel was something like a goth, though he was promptly rejected by his own kind and labeled the cheeseball goth. “It’s redundant,” he says with a laugh. He was also an avid record collector and self-admitted music geek. He attributes much of his reclusive and obsessive nature to having been formed in a place like Beverly Hills, the virtual endgame for so much superficial longing. “Where do you go from there?” he says. “It’s a strange place. I see myself as the logical byproduct of Beverly Hills, much like the Menendez brothers and Monica Lewinsky.” We sit at a table in a cavernous room surrounded by funeral urns and flowers; Ariel lights a menthol, and the conversation turns to music. He reveals a long and well-rounded register of influences, beginning in early adolescence with the Cure, whom he still reveres, and then old punk rock like the Germs, ’60s psychedelia and proto-industrial-noise mongers like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. “I fell in love with rock & roll in my bedroom with the headphones on,” he says. “Rock & roll really meant the world to me. It was a promise of something. Who knows, sometimes I think I’m just some displaced import from another generation.” Upon first hearing, it’s easy to assume Ariel’s own music is the result of sampling — a restructuring and tweaking of almost familiar songs from some indefinable bygone era. “I think people have a hard time understanding what role I play on the records,” he says. “They think I’m sampling or pressing play on something. They don’t realize it’s me learning and then playing all the instruments as best I can. I played some tapes for my dad, and it just reinforced his utter confusion about me wanting to be a musician. He thought I was just pressing a button on a computer. The fact is — my music is firmly anti-sample. It’s really rock & roll at its core. I’m playing everything. The drumming is all mouth drumming, beat-boxing. It sounds like clicking, but put it into a mike and it sounds like Steely Dan.” After swinging by his father’s gleaming La Cienega office building to pick up a check, which Ariel immediately cashes at a local bank, we arrive at his West L.A. apartment. He says he’s been avoiding the place for fear of being stranded without a car, choosing instead to stay with friends on the Eastside. He also hasn’t had the cash to pay for hot water and electricity. The place is a modest stucco affair, situated right next door to a larger, very similar apartment building that Ariel tells me he grew up in. His father lives on the very same street, but a mile or so north in the more opulent area above Sunset. A neighbor woman is standing at the mailboxes and smiles warmly when she sees Ariel, saying she has missed him. When we approach his unit, someone has painted a large colorful and indecipherable message on the window featuring a prominent pink heart and a phone number. There is another message from a friend folded and tucked into the doorjamb. Ariel opens the door, and I have to admit I’m not exactly prepared for what greets me. To say his apartment is a mess would be like referring to post-Katrina New Orleans as moist. Every speck of floor or furniture is covered with piled-high debris. Endless papers filled with meticulous handwritten notes, beautifully rendered drawings and lists of songs are stacked on every surface along with various tapes and CDs. There are a few amplifiers, some other musical equipment, some rock and porn magazines, some cigarette butts. All that’s missing are 20 cats and a crazy lady. Ariel lights another menthol and acknowledges that it’s been both a great time and a horrible time in his life. After hiding himself away for several years and recording hundreds of songs, he was finally “discovered” and catapulted into the music world at large. His records have since been reviewed in national magazines alongside the likes of Christina Aguilera and Green Day. The result is an emerging cult status among the underground music intelligentsia. Yet he admits he is experiencing a creative block of sorts. His marriage recently dissolved, and his beloved teenage sister was in a car accident that has left her lingering in a vegetative state similar to that of recent cause célèbre Terri Schiavo. “It’s just devastating,” he says softly. “There’s no closure. So this record thing doesn’t seem to matter much. I mean, my sister’s in a fucking nursing home for the rest of her life. Every morning I wake up and think, ‘Wow — last night my sister died.’ The truth is, I’ve never been more down and out in my life. I’m totally miserable right when I should be most grateful and taking advantage of all these opportunities.” For the time being, it seems Ariel’s label is content to release compilations of songs he has already recorded at home on his cheapo equipment (including the forthcoming House Arrest, due January ’06). To be sure, there is no shortage of material there. Ariel motions to a large milk crate entirely filled with cassette tapes. “Those are masters,” he says. “There are easily 200 tapes there, and also anything else you see lying around on the floor. Most of them are completed albums or master tapes with about 20 minutes of music on each.” Despite his indie cult-hero status, Ariel understands full well the benefits of a proper studio with professional equipment and dismisses the whole coveted lo-fi aesthetic as merely a result of his own shoddy equipment and technical incompetence. “I tell the record company to just get me in a real recording studio,” he says. “I’ll go into mad-scientist mode, and it will be great. But that hasn’t happened. They don’t want to give me money, because I might release a shit album, which could definitely happen. I’ve got my good days and bad days, for sure. But the best rock & roll is all stuff you’re not supposed to do. Rock & roll is the history of rules being broken and people taking chances.” In fact, Ariel Pink is the closest thing to any real punk ethos to come around in a long while — far more than any spiky-haired, leather-clad revivalists or aging legends out for one more moment in the spotlight. But beyond all the iconoclastic rebellion he exhibits, there is also real sadness to his music that forms a perfect compliment to all the frantic energy and cleverness. It is the same melancholy sweetness found in the more haunting works of the Carpenters or Beach Boys, though far more deliberate and intense in its darkness. “I’m the king of bad vibes,” he says. “I always wanted to make the saddest music that ever was. I’m incapable of not doing it. So I make avant-garde music using pop music. The pop quality in my music is so sad because it’s nostalgic – it is the sound of a happiness that’s not there anymore.” Later that night, Ariel calls me at home to tell me he has finally deciphered the message we saw painted on his window. It says, “Ariel I love you, do you really exist?” When he dialed the number, no one answered.