Interviewing Ariel Pink can be a testing experience. Every sentence seems to twist and turn down an unforeseen wormhole; every initially measured response seems to morph into a rant as he pulls back his arrows and aims them at his many gripes. Governments, the press, Grimes – even the writer of this very article – all come in for criticism at the hands of Mr Pink. But just when I’m ready to hold my hands up and admit to being utterly and helplessly lost in the middle of one of his many diatribes, he’ll yank himself back from the edge and tie his verbose ramble right back to the question, giving the distinct impression that, despite pushing to the outer reaches of relevance, this is a character who knows exactly what he likes, what he isn’t so fond of, and what he wants to say.
When it comes to engaging with yet another music journalist, he is in turn prickly (“Just because you guys are bitter and you don’t fucking get out of the house enough.”) and disarmingly vulnerable (“Put me in the best light.”). Consistently energetic, however, it is to his credit that he comes across as infinitely passionate regardless of the topic. Apart from his hair care regime, which, sadly, he is quick to dismiss as a frivolous area for discussion. No matter; it’s all symptomatic of the bundle of contradictions that find themselves bound up in the mind of Ariel Marcus Rosenberg.
When he isn’t addressing all of the noise around his music, Pink seems much more at ease. The recent spat with Grimes and the resultant accusations of misogyny, that hypothetical Madonna collaboration, not to mention that recent band split and the lawsuit it precipitated are all just part of a growing canon of issues he finds himself batting off. And while he often doesn’t appear to want to do himself any favours, when he speaks about his music he seems to become unburdened. “We made a beautiful thing,” he says of the upcoming madcap opus ‘pom pom’, a collection which he has described as the first truly solo Ariel Pink album. It seems to remind him of why he started making music in the first place; before Animal Collective ‘discovered’ him and threw his outsider pop out into the world, when the sounds he made in his bedroom were to be found only on a couple of coverless CD-Rs. “People love music,” he enthuses. “It’s a labour of love, so why not do it?”
“Whenever somebody says: ‘In the past you said…’ I just go, ‘Uh-oh. Here we go again.’”
This is where the interview starts to devolve because essentially I’m trying to clear up any kind of misunderstandings from previous attempts of clearing up previous misunderstandings from previous misunderstandings. Basically, it’s like this game of telephone that has taken us far away from the facts and has muddled any kind of linearity to my own autobiography or whatever. Nobody understands where I come from, or cares. And it seems like every year it’s the same thing. It’s just a clarifying of one thing or another that I’ve said. And I really can’t be held accountable for the things I say 90% of the time anyway. It’s extremely frustrating to have to relive these soundbites, which have made their way to posterity.
“Making music is a lot like dealing with life.”
You sort of just do it. I approach music like I approach everything in my life. I see something that’s scary in front of me, or something daunting, and I attack it way before I know what I’m doing.
Essentially, you just get into it and you say what you mean and you say what you feel. You play the music as you feel it. I just go with my gut and I don’t think about it too much. And then things get locked into a record and then you can refer back to it and people can enjoy certain things that are sealed for reference. And then you can relive these moments, if they’re good enough, over and over again. And they take on this quality of having been there forever in this weird way.
“I came from the mud.”
I came from being unknown in my bedroom and there’s only one way, and that’s up. You can’t get more unknown than that. I’ll always be known to my parents but… I did leave my parents’ house eventually and that was a good thing probably. And that was the start. It started with one person, it started with two people, it started with a classroom, or a job, and then I started meeting other people and started to interact with individuals and the world at large and strangers. And basically, you know… I don’t know who my fuckin’ audience is. They’re all still strangers to me. I’m not asking to hear any kind of feedback about what people feel when they experience my music. I have no idea if it’s really happening. It may as well not be happening because it’s not happening in front of me 99.99999999% of the time.
99% of what you’re going to hear about what I’m doing is not true. I interact with the world of Twitter, and the world of interviews and people and fans in a very, very voyeuristic way. I essentially pretend like it’s not there. It’s almost like wishful thinking. If I were to think it was there I might get stage fright or something. I might actually start to get self-conscious or something like that but I really don’t think that I’m on everybody’s mind like that. I don’t think that at all. I’m one of many distractions. There are so many distractions and there’s lots of people who are vying for your attention a lot more than I am, that’s for sure. Even people that are peddling my name as the distraction de jour, they have more vested interest in distracting you with me than I do.
“I always felt way too famous for my own good, even when I was nobody”
It was always a matter of tempering down that instinct to be the centre of the universe. Obviously, that’s not a healthy thing to think about. It’s a narcissistic thing. It’s a defence mechanism and we all have it to a certain degree because we all like to think that we have souls and we have a unique place in the universe because we’re comforting the baby in us. We need to be individuals. We can’t be just clones that are just bumbling about without a rudder. We sort of find these special things in ourselves and these are things that were definitely cultivated in me from a young age.
I felt like I was just bred to be an artist. I think that was almost a mistake. It was a freakish thing. ‘Oh, he’s good at art,’ and then it backfires and it’s like, ‘Oh shit. He’s an artist now.’ I think that’s the kind of thing that I became acutely aware of as a sensitive Cancerian. I kind of grew up thinking that I was an artist and then at a certain point I was like, ‘That’s bullshit.’ Everybody wants to think that they’re an artist because it keeps them poor and it keeps them happy not being a piece of shit, consoling themselves. It’s starving artist syndrome. So basically I ditched that art mentality and I went for something that I really believed and loved, which was music. And music was a much more pedestrian pursuit. You could be a musician and be the dude.
“The world isn’t fair and you just have to be a little bit more of an asshole and own it”
I basically was trying to get everybody that I could to be on the record, being open to integrate anybody at any given moment, have people come and visit and have them not know that they were going to be used for anything. I just basically wanted to make sure that everybody didn’t know what their place was. That was my key. As opposed to the band dynamic blah blah blah. That went kaput with the lawsuit that I had, and I’m not going to go into that but basically I had to fire everybody and then start from scratch. And of course I’m not any less vulnerable to a lawsuit or anything like that, in fact I make myself way more vulnerable to it. No contracts, no sign-offs, the record label freaks out. I don’t own this stuff. [In 2012, former Haunted Graffiti drummer Aaron Sperske filed a $1 million suit against Rosenberg, claiming to have co-written songs on ‘Mature Themes’. The two parties have since settled out of court].
Politics and that kind of stuff can be fun in its own way if you open yourself up to the cruel realities of this world. It’s not a fairy tale. That’s what I thought that I did with this record. I didn’t let anybody bully me around on this record, or pressure me or make me feel like I had to bend over backwards to thank them or to show my appreciation for their wonderful contribution and their essential contribution, which… every contribution was essential to this record. It wouldn’t be the record it is if there were other people involved, so in that sense it’s extremely the product of these unique talents and musicians and my being able to orchestrate and juggle the responsibilities of being a very, very unpredictable boss.”
“I’m a people person”
This is the thing that people don’t know, and it might not come across over transcription when you’re reading it online or whatever. If you’re in the room with me and I’m saying these things to you that seem patently ridiculous and laughable, there’s a human there and you do get that vibe. There’s something missing from the transcription of these things that gives people the false sense of a madness that might be there. There’s nothing mad about it; it’s about loving people and it’s about enjoying the process of working with others and taking direction, not being afraid to take direction, not feeling ashamed or feeling slighted by it.
These are all things that musicians have to deal with all the time. It’s not about ego, it wasn’t about me – lest you think it is – it’s about making the thing good and right. These are things that typically need someone directing the proceedings and I was the one that was doing it this time.
“We’re stimulation junkies who are dying for something to talk about”
I see myself becoming much more unable to process all the different channels involved, the different sources of information. It’s endless. I do most of my work when I’m not talking. This is the exception – this is work as well as the opportunity for me to flex another muscle that I don’t get to do when I’m making music. I think, to take it down a notch, it’s really all about doing the good work, doing stuff that’s good for the world, and making people happy and that kind of stuff. That’s really what we should be always focused on. We should put our immediate families and all that stuff first. We need to sort that stuff out before we get all wrapped up in whether Woody Allen is a rapist or not.
“I stick with what I know”
It’s my ears and my intuition and my commitment to the first idea that I had about it. In that sense I never really progress. You’ll never see me incorporating rap any time soon or making any real strides in any stylistic futuristic direction. It’s just melodies and it’s beats and it’s grooves. This is my little formula. It’s not too dissonant. It’s a kind of an old-time traditional sort of a thing. It’s just melodic movements and I’ve got all these little parts, thousands of little parts, that can be connected at random like Legos and made, in threes and fours like DNA, I throw them into this mesh pot. They’re all pretty interchangeable. They’re just building blocks that you sort of start from and then you get to throw some personality on top of it to distract everybody from the banality of the whole thing.
“Who is Grimes?”
I love it. I love how Grimes is my only adversary. We’re not going to mention Madge. Madge is the real cash cow but we’re not going to make this clickbait. We’ve got to bring it back down to size, because she’s been tormented by her own fans in defence of the queen. Let’s just keep it between me and Grimes for a second, because we’re both on 4AD and she’s pretty much the girl version of me. Let’s duke it out. I think we need a celebrity death match.
“Anything that I say can be construed as misogynistic because I’m the man saying it”
So if anybody wants to hurl my misogyny at me, they have that, but not only that, if they want to hurl my racism at me, my total personality and my white privilege and my heterosexuality, they can go right ahead. I’ve got no defence. But I don’t subscribe to things that I don’t like, and pay attention to them or follow them to not like them. Who does that? Why is Grimes even linked in with my… oh, I guess she got linked in because she was probably following Madge. I hope she wasn’t following me, because that would be really sad, for people to follow people that they don’t like. What a terrible way to live. I’m much more blissfully unaware. I pay attention to things and I’m typically in love with, myself, so I automatically love it. [Laughs] I don’t spend much time thinking about the things I don’t like. I’m a positive guy.