A conversation with one of music’s most idiosyncratic and most notorious artists about celebrity, creativity and controversy
Ariel Pink thinks he gives his music “a bad stink”. He hates the scrutiny that comes with being himself, a writer of weird and woozily nostalgic pop songs who’s become one of the most influential underground figures of the past decade and collaborated with everyone from Theophilus London to Miley Cyrus. Fronting his band, he says, is just a chore to deal with like any other day job. Yet here he is, talking a mile a minute, having flown across the Atlantic to introduce his latest pop timewarp, Dedicated to Bobby Jameson. Ariel Pink’s relationship to fame? It’s complicated.
It’s obvious he’d be wary of scrutiny. During the promotion of his last album, 2013’s pitch-perfect Pom Pom, a string of off-key comments made to interviewers – including the claims that he’d been “maced by a feminist” and was writing songs for Madonna to rescue her from a “downward slide” – threw him into a damaging cycle of controversy, with his own 4AD labelmate Grimes branding him a misogynist.
While it wouldn’t be accurate to describe him as remorseful for that sorry episode, these days he seems to have grown tired of being Ariel Pink. The new album is “less of a statement” than Pom Pom, he points out. Perhaps in an attempt to take the spotlight off his own unwilling celebrity, Dedicated to Bobby Jameson is a jangling tribute to a troubadour of 1960s Hollywood, whose brief brush with fame was doomed from the start thanks to a crooked manager-turned-cult leader with a penchant for pushing drugs on his charges. Jameson’s quest for fame eventually cost him his sanity; he ended up addicted and embittered, a decline he relays in an astonishing warts-and-all blog discovered by Pink a few years ago.
Pink “could have been a Bobby Jameson” too, had he not found the acknowledgement he was craving – but the spell is broken now anyway. Fame, he says, is a state of mind: “I don’t find it precious anymore.” So where next for Ariel Pink as he attempts to step back from the spotlight? For now he’s hiding behind someone else’s story. Holding court in a chic hotel restaurant, he’s cheerful, engaging and slippery at once – less wilfully antagonistic than the Ariel Pink of three years ago, though contrarian to the last.
Why dedicate an album to Bobby Jameson rather than any other ‘failed’ artist from pop history whose work goes unappreciated?
Ariel Pink: He can stand in for every other loser on the planet. I haven’t read a rock biography since I was in high school and I got completely swept up in his blog. The way he writes – he’s not a writer, he’s just desperately trying to explain his story to you. It’s like when someone doesn’t know how to play an instrument but they make a record. It’s incredible and miraculous that he even survived with his memory that intact. The picture he’s describing is somebody that’s as close to a crackhead schizophrenic you can possibly get – you don’t expect those people to live on for 30 years and make their memoirs. He does a very good job of putting the reader in his frame of mind.
Tony Alamo (Jameson’s manager) was way more famous than Bobby Jameson. He was actually a millionaire and he had a church. He died last month at 82 years old, in jail, serving a 200-year sentence for paedophilia. But before he was a born-again cult leader paedophile, he was a pot-smoking manager in Hollywood. His real name is Bernie Lazar – him and his wife grew up Jewish. It’s totally out of Hollywood. A lot of it parallels my life, with the same people, same bloodlines. Bobby was dealing with (famed LA manager) Herb Cohen, I’m dealing with Evan Cohen, his nephew. These were the people who inhabited the same buildings and streets that I grew up around.
I found it very poignant that Bobby had so many false starts. His name wasn’t even consistent across releases, so people didn’t connect (who he was). It’s poignant to me because I know the life of an artist – I’ve got friends of mine who think of me as being famous, but it’s a state of mind. It took nothing for me to feel famous, honestly. When I was 26 I finally got reviewed in Spin and I was like (makes an excited whirring noise). I was doing it because I wanted a little love and attention, and then all of a sudden, oh shit, that was it? I didn’t feel the desperation to do it any more. I had to figure out another reason to do it.
On Bobby Jameson’s blog he writes, ‘the pursuit of fame is as deadly as any narcotic I’ve ever had.’ I wonder which was more damaging for him – or for you?
Ariel Pink: Ultimately they didn’t kill him. I could have been a Bobby Jameson. (Fame) is a state of mind. I don’t find it precious anymore, I don’t even romanticise it. I only make music because it’s a job. It’s been stripped of its romantic quality. I record very infrequently. But I don’t think it was the pursuit of fame, I think it was the identity he invested in – in his mind he was a rock star for way longer. But he must have known somewhere he was damaged goods, and that’s when he started attempting suicide, jumping from high-rises. That must have been so crazy, to not feel that acknowledgement. I’m so lucky that I did, because once I did, I really let go of it. My ego was not that wrapped up in it. I don’t need to make music. I don’t think of myself as a ‘career artist’.
“(Fame) is a state of mind. I don’t find it precious anymore, I don’t even romanticise it. I only make music because it’s a job. It’s been stripped of its romantic quality” – Ariel Pink
Really? You strike me as exactly that.
Ariel Pink: It’s an illusion. I give a shit, but there’s an element of fun in there – I would be the person with the worst attitude if I didn’t feel grateful for the opportunity that I have. You complain about your job and then you do it. I personally like playing music, that’s the fun bit – and that’s the part I don’t end up doing. I have to be the singer in my band and be the face of my thing.
Is that why you’ve done collaborations with people like Miley Cyrus and Weyes Blood in recent years?
Ariel Pink: It’s way easier! That’s when I get to have fun. My shit is like a chore, the side projects are what I live for. This is just work to me, and people don’t get it.
You were saying maybe it wasn’t the pursuit of fame that was deadly for Bobby but the pursuit of an identity. But wasn’t ‘Ariel Pink’ also a rock star persona?
Ariel Pink: That’s what people thought, but there was never Ariel Pink – there was Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. I didn’t foresee myself having to explain every time a record comes out. It doesn’t matter, because what I say doesn’t matter. I don’t like the scrutiny, the delving into the brain behind it – because there’s nothing going on there, nothing interesting, it’s just me. The music speaks for itself. I tend to eclipse the thing. I give it a bad stink. I don’t like the me part.
Does that allow you to avoid taking responsibility for things that Ariel Pink has said which have aggravated people?
Ariel Pink: I take responsibility for it but that’s beside the point – the point is they’re looking for something. I feel if you’re worried about me, you’ve got bigger problems. Trying to make me the enemy, it’s hilarious. It makes me think the world is retarded.
But you don’t have to talk about yourself.
Ariel Pink: I could avoid your questions, I could be like Mark E. Smith. That’s creative. I’m not that creative. I’m doing my best. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.
Compared to Bobby Jameson’s story, the modern experience of fame is very different. Did the shitstorm that you went through with your last album have an impact on this album?
Ariel Pink: That was unexpected from the word go. The first interview I did, right out the gates, is some weird guy in Australia who’s obviously got a chip up his butt, sitting there waiting for me. I’m a little bit more aware now. I love Madonna. I can’t think of a person who has more singles that are fucking amazing than Madonna. I was writing songs for her because Interscope were like, ‘Her record didn’t do well, so we’re calling people to do songwriting camp for her.’ That’s not me thinking that! People should be suspicious when an article says Ariel said he was working for Madonna and then proceeds to throw her under a bus. Obviously I didn’t get the job. I basically lost my job because of this article. It’s not a big deal.
You often seem to take a purposely contrarian stance on any given issue. Have you always been that way?
Ariel Pink: Everything has to make sense in my world. I’m constantly making connections and new conclusions about things, and they’re all related. None of it is superfluous, none of it is not important. It’s my condition, it’s a character. It’s the way I communicate and there’s probably something wrong with it. I had too much therapy when I was younger. When I was young my teachers told my mum I was very spacey. They were like, ‘Ariel’s very interesting because he’s not like the other kids – you give them a test and they go down the questions one at a time, and whatever they don’t answer, they skip to the next one. Look what Ariel’s doing – the whole page will be filled randomly.’ I’ll be hitting up all of them randomly and making up the answer for half of them. These are all things that I’m trying to make fit in the crossword puzzle. It’ll fit because I say it fits.
“I want to escape into make-believe, not be myself – that’s the goal. But I keep on having to face myself. Maybe it’s a good thing. It’s a much more important lesson to deal with reality. You’re yourself, Ariel, warts and all” – Ariel Pink
If people stopped writing about you, would you stop making music?
Ariel Pink: Stop writing about me? I don’t care if they’re writing about me – I don’t read what they write.
Are you looking for a reason to not make music?
Ariel Pink: If there was no demand for me, if I wasn’t making money from it, then I probably wouldn’t (make music) – I definitely would be thinking about other things. Luckily I don’t know how to do anything else. I would probably do something related to it – an A&R man at some label, or tour managing. I’ve got my perspective that’s definitely unique. Nobody’s really walked in my shoes and I don’t really have a template that I’m following.
Do you still believe, as you once said, that love is a fantasy?
Ariel Pink: Yeah. I think it’s a terrible fantasy. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. It’s terrible! If I was in love, I’d never admit it to myself or anyone else. It hurts. You’re vulnerable. It’s a terrible thing. It’s better to not be in love in a sense. It just completely possesses you and turns you into a slave to it. And if you don’t have that love, you act like a banshee, you freak out. It turns you into a parasite.
Is it good for the music, though?
Ariel Pink: No. You could say there’s love in what I do, but it’s childish love. It’s a memory of some kind of love that didn’t really exist.
How do you set yourself up for a period of creativity, for instance if you’re heading into the studio with a finite amount of time to come up with ideas?
Ariel Pink: I’ve gotten very good at trusting myself. I don’t force it. I lead as stress-free a life as possible. Literally everything in my life is ordered around making myself okay so I can do my job well and it doesn’t impact it. I didn’t write a song for five years, and in that time I was focused instead on getting a band together, getting a grassroots following, getting signed to a real label – and I did that, but it took five years. And in that time I didn’t write a song. I was not inspired. There was a very real concern that there was nothing left. I didn’t focus on it, I just trusted myself that things would come when they come. You can’t force inspiration, you have to respect it. If it takes ten years to come, it takes ten years. I’m really surprised when I record a song at all and get through it. It’s like, just made it, yes! Still got it. I got another year in this thing, just by the skin of my teeth - that’s how it feels.
Do you surprise yourself with what you come out with under that pressure?
Ariel Pink: I do. I don’t know where the songs come from. I’m surprised when they happen at all. There’s different approaches I come at it, there’s not one thing I can say is a signature. I’m generally just thinking about other things – thinking about not doing those signature things. I want to escape into make-believe, not be myself – that’s the goal. But I keep on having to face myself. Maybe it’s a good thing. It’s a much more important lesson to deal with reality. You’re yourself, Ariel, warts and all. It’s like the Wizard of Oz has been revealed – now what? Maybe you’re good on your own. Maybe you’ve got another appeal you were never going for. You’ve got to get okay with that.
Mexican Summer release Dedicated to Bobby Jameson on September 15