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
“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
“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.

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