Ariel Pink is a rock & roller from Beverly Hills. But Beverly Hills doesn't normally mint rock stars. It hatches doctors, lawyers, real estate hoarders, Cher Horo-witz, Rodeo Drive raptors carnivorously bound to “the industry” (aka show business) and the Menendez brothers. Also: Angelina Jolie, Jack Abramoff, waxen real housewives. Perhaps its most famous musical alum, Lenny Kravitz seems like an actor starring in a rock biopic.
“Who lives in Beverly Hills? Iranians, rappers and small-time crooks. Nouveau riche. It's not meant to last two generations before the grandkids squander it all. Systematic suicide,” Ariel Pink says with a smirk. The man who was Bar Mitzvah'd Ariel Rosenberg is eating at Folliero's restaurant in Highland Park, walking distance from the art-school-dorm squalor of his apartment, which is 15 miles and several zeroes removed from Beverly Drive.
It's scarcely noon on a Saturday, but the 34-year-old with marble blue eyes and shoulder-length fuchsia hair chases his pepperoni pizza with whiskey and Pacifico. Somehow, the man whose locks are flamboyant enough for his stage name is rapidly gaining ground on Mr. It Ain't Over Till It's Over.
Over the last eight years, Pink has been credited with resuscitating lo-fi bedroom recording and inventing chillwave — a micro-genre where blog darlings recast an alternate 1985 with neon synths, melted tape and unremembered nostalgia. Pink is royalty for the weird; perhaps Kurt Cobain if he'd never become more famous than The Pixies.
“The irony is that I see myself as completely normal. The weirdest thing about me is the music,” Pink says and pauses, twirling his hair, lips curling. “But maybe I'm not giving myself credit. I'm probably weird.”
His new album, Mature Themes, out Aug. 21 on celebrated British indie 4AD, is Pink's coronation as a rock star for those who don't believe in rock stars. It may the most anticipated and best L.A. other-ground album this year. Recorded shortly after the dissolution of his eight-year relationship with musician Geneva Jacuzzi, the record is as romantic and catchy as a Cure record and as hilariously absurd as Frank Zappa's We're Only in It for the Money. It's a karaoke-ready opera of nautical-themed '60s spy shanties, schnitzel boogies and tales of nymphomaniac, Beverly Hills–bred rocking.
Thanks to a bigger budget and a vastly improved band — Haunted Graffiti, who first joined Pink for his last album — Mature Themes is more polished than one would have expected from Pink's raw 8-track tapes, which bled like a tortured voice wailing out of some Sunset Strip Sinai a decade ago. Now, Pink stage-manages a saturnalia of 12-string guitars, psychedelic pop and organs that might as well be offering acid.
It's impossible to know when irony starts and stops, but the music retains an exquisite sadness. He suffers for his sins and those of his hometown. As he once titled a song about the shuttered West Hollywood nightclub Golgotha: Every night he dies at Miyagi's.
“I just want to be Buster Poindexter,” Pink says, wryly smiling, as we leave the restaurant and slouch down York Boulevard. The reference alludes to the alter ego of former New York Dolls frontman David Johansen on “Hot Hot Hot,” a novelty record cut by the progenitor of punk rock. “I feel like I'm devolving. I used to take myself so seriously; now I don't at all.”
Pink's a serious student of music but unable to dismiss the bleak absurdity of life. In person, he's ordinarily, endearingly eccentric, all mordant bon mots and philosophical tangents: Jim Morrison as written and played by Woody Allen. And like the Lizard King, he is the subject of speculation shrouded in drugs, sex and madness. His reputation as indie rock's enfant terrible was burnished by a 2011 Coachella performance where he spent the first 15 minutes smoking cigarettes with his back to the crowd, before strutting offstage (he eventually returned and performed).
Those seeking the nexus of styles next and wrongfully abandoned understand that this is the price of admission. They've worshipped Ariel Pink since Animal Collective's Paw Tracks imprint reissued his album The Doldrums in 2004. Recorded around the turn of the century, it sounded like an AM radio graveyard: a quicksand of spectral laments and '60s pop spooked by the reflection of fat, baby boomer faces. Innumerable releases and reissues followed, as Pink exhumed his backlog recorded between 1999 and 2003. Had he never recorded another note, Pink could have dissolved with a secure legacy, a mercurial genius in the (off) key of Syd Barrett.
“Its honesty and depth of emotion made it brilliant,” says Stones Throw modern funk messiah Dam-Funk, a frequent Pink collaborator. “He wasn't a stifled artist, unafraid to suppress his weirdness or worried about fitting in.”
When his excellent 4AD debut, Before Today, finally dropped in 2010, Pink had the mad genius mystique down to the vintage gown. There were comparisons to The Velvet Underground (impact), Cobain (looks), Zappa (comic imagination) and Beck (post–post irony). Strangely, the analogies all were reasonably valid. Pitchfork named Pink's “Round and Round” its song of the year. He's the current cover boy of British avant-garde monthly The Wire.
Which is why when we walk up the street to vinyl Valhalla, Mount Analog, he gets the whispers and stolen glances of a celebrity, but back in Beverly Hills, his Jem-colored hair would just elicit strange looks. Love-hate relationships with hometowns are biographical staples, of course, but Pink's is usually complex. He attended Beverly Hills High School in the Clueless era, when the cool kids bumped rap in Range Rovers, the stoners congregated on the front lawn and the Persians clustered around the Persian tree. Pink ate lunch in the art room and listened to death metal.
“Your environment raises you. I fetishized Beverly Hills in my mind. When I was getting into music, I loved the L.A. scene. You're growing up on this historic site, next to the Whisky and the Sunset Strip,” Pink says, flipping through Kraut-rock and world psych-rock records. “But I was also walking around in my Godflesh shirt, wondering, 'Why doesn't everyone love me?' ”
Pink's mother originally comes from rural Louisiana. His dad was a Mexico-born Jewish gastroenterologist, and they divorced when he was 2. Soon after his mom returned to her native Bogalusa, leaving him to be raised by a father who merely wanted financial stability for his son. Musician was the worst of all professions.
“I told my parents that I was an artist and that I was gay,” Pink says with a laugh. “I figured that when only one came true, they'd be OK with it.”
CalArts invited Pink, a drafting prodigy, to attend upon high school graduation. After a year at UC Santa Cruz, he accepted the offer and almost immediately had his hopes deadened when he took a historical art survey.
“I didn't want to know about other people's art. I just wanted to learn how to mix colors and stuff,” he remembers, now back at his three-bedroom apartment, a deluge of clothes, cassette tapes, records and empty Camel Lights packs. The walls are adorned with abstract paintings, maps of São Paulo and Nairobi and a stolen parking sign from Sea World.
After his teachers told him that representational art was dead, he and a classmate drew a photorealistic mural of the faculty, staff and students in a massive orgy. When the administrators saw the carnal scene, one woman was rushed to the hospital and later sued for sexual harassment (she lost).
“The lawyer representing the school interviewed me, and I told her that I thought it wouldn't be a big deal because representational art was completely dead,” Pink deadpans. “I didn't think they'd recognize themselves. I thought they'd see it as graphite concentration matter — a phenomenological and semiotic interpretation and critique. After that I went to music school.”
For the next half-decade, Pink earned subsistence wages working in record shops while making albums at night at a series of squalid apartments around L.A., including an ashram. After Animal Collective “discovered him” (when he passed them a CD-R after a show), he stopped recording for five years because, he says, he was touring and waiting for a legitimate record deal. Mature Themes is his second album since signing to 4AD, and it figures to make him as famous as a man who dedicated an album track to his love for Der Wienerschnitzel can be.
Catch Pink in a rare serious moment and he'll admit that he sees himself in the lineage of Frank Zappa, The Doors and Love. He's blessed with a rare alchemy of pop sensibilities and affinity for subversion, the native son made to squint but not maimed by the proximity to celebrity and fame.
What are you supposed to do when you grow up in Beverly Hills with a clue? There is nowhere up to go. So Ariel Rosenberg scored his sad stardust memories and transmogrified into the Highland Park rock & roller named Ariel Pink.
“Last year, I wound up in Star magazine's 'Fashion Don'ts' section. It felt better than any accolades or good reviews that I've ever received.”
Pink smiles with slight unease, skating the thin, weird line between satire and sincerity once more. This is the barnacle of Beverly Hills that still clings to him, the part of Pink perversely lustful for celebrity, one who wants to be worshipped for both body and brilliance. After all, everyone wants to be Dylan McKay; no one wants to be Andrea Zuckerman. “It made me want to be just a bobbing head for the rest of my career. If I could do that and survive, I'd be that.”