Scared Famous: Ariel Pink Steps Into The Light
Thanks to the hard graft of the wonderful Lisa Paris, I got to speak with Ariel Rosenberg (aka, Ariel Pink) back in November. This week, the Groove Guide runs my feature about him ahead of Auckland’s Laneway Festival, but I thought it’d be worth putting highlights of the transcript up here. Along with two of my other favourite Laneway artists (Deerhunter and Beach House, since you’re asking), Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti stepped up to the plate in a resoundingly great way last year with an album that clearly straddled the boundary between ‘cult act’ and ‘music of our time’. That’s not as pompous as it sounds, because there’s no talent to obscurity, and APHG could have conceivably done the same thing, mixed to hissy cassette, for the next twenty years without risk or reward.
But if Before Today is a triumph in bringing Rosenberg’s niche interests to the masses and emerging from his decade-long sonic cocoon with mystery and dignity intact, I found the musician himself refreshingly reticent (albeit pessimistic) about his success now, what it would bring, and just how long it would last. One of the first and best batches of his home recordings was called Scared Famous, and it’s an attitude he’s stuck to. I joined him over the phone in the UK.
PP: Is this the same band you’ve been playing with for a while?
AP: This exact lineup…well, we’ve toured twice now in England. Joe was our most recent addition, so we’ve already been out here twice since the release of Before Today. Part of that I guess is 4AD is an English label. But I’ve been on average, here with some form of that band, twice a year for the past five years now.
PP: Growing up in LA, and Beverly Hills, you didn’t play with a band, though. You weren’t the sort of person who formed a conventional rock band and jammed with the other kids in the music lab at high school. You recorded by yourself from a very early age, and you recorded prolifically. Did you ever picture yourself fitting into that ‘touring, steady band’ existence?
AP: You know, I think I probably had fantasies. I didn’t really think it was my cup of tea – or more honestly, that I’d be up to the task – for many years. That’s changed with age. I’ve kind of just taken it as it comes. I never had a set plan, really.
PP: Even in the absence of a plan, did you feel like you were coming towards a sort of ceiling in terms of what you could accomplish recording alone?
AP: Yeah. I mean, I think it was a situation where I was possessed with a certain sense of inspiration when I first started. Like, this sense of missionary zeal about recording. So, I’d venture out into the wilderness and do it by myself. But that didn’t preclude working with other people. I never just wanted to be totally isolated, and I mean, I never have been. I’ve played with people since as far back as I can remember, even if it might not have been in the conventional way, like the ‘jamming in the music lab’ thing you just talked about. It’s not as if it’s been my own little…cubbyhole that I’ve been intent on keeping to myself.
PP: That said, did you find there was a different dynamic doing Before Today with more of a budget behind you and with that full band actually playing and debating what the final result would be?
AP: Well, of course. A different dynamic than working by myself? Definitely, absolutely. It’s a learning curve, I got there.
PP: The other legacy of those days when you were doing home-recording is all the genre tags you’ve been pinned with. There was a fair bit about you being the harbinger of ‘lo-fi’…
AP: Oh, lo-fi. Please, god, not lo-fi!…
PP: …which I never really quite understood. It sounded more like the description of, like, an early 90s college rock thing like Sebadoh. I mean, you probably both worked with tapes, but…
PP: So with that in mind, had you always had the support and the resources available, would you have been making this in higher fidelity?
AP: Well, I mean…I don’t think I’m unique in wanting better things. I mean, it was a means to an end to have, like, Scared Famous, FF, the way they were. It was borne of necessity, and I think it also reflected a natural progression in terms of ability towards sounding better. I wasn’t necessarily inspired by records I ever considered to be ‘lo-fi’. That wasn’t even a construct in my mind when I recorded anything. But of course, I had my aesthetic and my artistic sensibility and my choice of productions, and it’s now been dubbed ‘lo-fi’. I suppose it’s journalistic prose. It’s not me.
PP: A lot of it’s come after you, though. ‘Lo-fi’ was a genre tag back in the nineties. You’ve been directly or indirectly credited with stuff like ‘hauntology’ or even ‘hypnagogic pop’. Was it at least a little exciting to get connected with something entirely novel journalists dreamt up?
AP: Mildly amusing. Actually, sorry, I understate – really funny. They’re just words that crop up for a time and then they disappear. There’s a world of terms and those terms keep on changing, and now that’s happening at an increasing rate. I find it funny, but not so interesting to me anymore. I mean, I hope I spearhead a thousand different genres – whatever. I suppose I should take it as a compliment, but…
PP: You mentioned artistic sensibility before. Well before you went to art college, or the age where anybody goes to art college – let alone knows what they want to do after high school – you were already recording. Did you find that going ahead and studying fine arts as a discipline eventually fed into your music, or vice versa?
AP: Well, it definitely fit in in terms of what I was doing at the time. I was doing fine art but making music, and I felt like there was…well, put it this way. I wanted to be considered an artist in art school, you know, for doing music. When you look in, I dunno, Spin, and they’re unveiling the ’50 Greatest Artists Of All Time’, they’re not talking about painters, they’re talking about music artists. And popular music artists at that. And I guess part of my friction came from the expectation was in fine arts those boundaries could and should be challenged. You could be a painter; you could also be a musician. That shouldn’t detract from whether you’re deemed an artist or not. But there are still these narrow definitions, even in the confines of the art world.
So I was dodging all sorts of trappings of fine art when I was doing it, so in that sense it definitely informed the music I was making. I was turning my back on the art world. And I remained quite alienated from that world.
PP: So was it deceptively conformist then? In terms of what you might have been expected to do?
AP: No, I still think it maybe is, but then I do wonder if my take is a little bit skewed. I mean, I was a little rebellious in my teens and maybe I needed to feel like I was acting in opposition to something. But it was better – I mean the skill-set I had combined with what I was doing meant I was going to be accepted into a music school or something like that. So I was just happy being wherever I wanted, I suppose.
But I don’t like the politics of the art world. It’s just ridiculous, so why even play that game. I love good work in any medium, so it’s nothing to do with that – I still have rendering ability, I’ll sit down and draw something, though it’s not art or anything like that. But I find it a little difficult to operate in that mode anyway, being so many years removed.
PP: Before Today will probably end up being the overwhelming majority of people’s first experience listening to an Ariel Pink record. Do you feel a little bit like you’re working from a blank slate with this, considering you’ve got no history with the record’s audience?
AP: Yes! That’s exactly how I feel about this, actually.
PP: And with that in mind, do you start to feel a little more ‘half-full’ than ‘half-empty’ about what happens to you from here? If you have that chance to potentially start afresh?
AP: Well, the way that I’ve kind of made it, I’ve taken the stance of assuming that I’m still completely unknown. Every little bit of attention that comes our way is basically good fortune. I’m not gonna shrink away from it, I think that’s stupid. But I think tomorrow would definitely forget if I didn’t actively remind people that I’m here. That’s the way I see it.
PP: And is that an incentive to actively remind people that you’re here?
AP: It’s an incentive to have some sort of sense of goal and mobility in my life. It gives me a challenge, it keeps me getting up in the morning. It possibly keeps me sane, I guess. And it gives me an excuse to continue music.
PP: So has music effectively always retained a therapeutic element for you?
AP: Yes, exactly. I guess those are all means to an end, you know. Once we tackle one thing, and the one after. Addendum, infinity.