The first of our in-depth features with Field Day’s musical mavericks focuses on restless LA native Ariel Pink, written by long-time fan and renowned music critic Simon Reynolds…
“I know I’ve left my mark already,” says Ariel Pink. “I know when somebody’s heard my music. I can hear it in their music.”
The Los Angeles musician, whose real name is Ariel Rosenberg, is talking about the dozen or more Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti albums he released in the 2000s and how their merger of exquisitely melodic pop with reverb-hazy lo-fi spawned an entire genre, chillwave. Its dreamy legion includes genuine talents like Neon Indian and Toro Y Moi, along with lesser outfits beyond counting.
Ariel confesses he doesn’t really like any of his chill-dren but says that it’s nonetheless been “fascinating to watch the ripples, left by having made an impression, make their way around the world a few times.” He adds that it’s “a million times more pervasive” for Animal Collective, the Pitchfork-universe gods who gave him his first big break when they rereleased early ultra-limited edition Haunted Graffiti cassettes and CD-Rs such as The Doldrums and Worn Copy as proper CDs via their label Paw Tracks. “To a much lesser degree, it’s happened with me. But you know, I’m really just grateful that anybody cares at all five years after the fact.” That’s a reference to his virtual disappearance from the scene for several years following the final Paw Tracks rerelease House Arrest in 2006. “I felt like I had my fifteen minutes of fame. It came and went and I didn’t deserve a second chance.”
While the chillwave swarm hatched in his absence, Ariel was undergoing a difficult transition: from a one-man band making albums in his living room to a proper rock group recording in a studio under the guidance of a producer, and from a do-it-yourself underground icon-hood in the intimate milieu of small labels run by his friends to having a contract with a major-league record label, 4AD (part of the independent-label conglomerate Beggars Banquet). The result was last year’s triumphant Before Today, widely rated as one of 2010’s best albums. In January this year Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti even appeared on mainstream TV in America, performing Before Today’s stand-out track “Round and Round” on the NBC chat show Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
It’s been a long, strange journey for a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist who started out making records at art school in Los Angeles during the late Nineties. “I was just doing music the whole time I was there, using it as essentially my concept art. At my opening exhibition, I sold The Doldrums–I had a kiosk and I sold burned CDs. I was extremely rebellious as far as the art department was concerned. An affront to them.”
Growing up in affluent Beverley Hills, Ariel had been encouraged to become a visual artist. “From the age of three I was an extremely skilled craftsman. Since a little kid, my parents were like ‘Oh my God, you’re like a Picasso’. They thought I was going to go into graphic design or something. That skill got me into art school, but I wasn’t interested in art per se. And art school turned me off it completely. Artists are some of the most sociopathic people. That world is just rife with creeps. And the way that the art market developed, it killed off any room for anything other than conceptual art. It all became about “is it art, or is it not art: that is the question”. And if you don’t engage in that question, then you’re not really going to have a career. Which is just bullshit to me. I always thought good art was like record covers. Put a name on any kind of image and make a great record cover: that’s good art to me.”
In those long before Before Today days, Ariel worked in isolation, laying down all the instrumental parts of his music onto a 8-track mixer in his apartment and, amazingly, simulating drums using mouth-noises. What resulted seemed to be a semi-conscious attempt to recreate the primal scene of the child falling in love with pop for the first time with an ear cupped to an imperfectly-tuned transistor. This illusion was created partly by Ariel’s artfully lo-fi production, out of focus and streaked by sudden leakages of colour-saturated noise, and partly by his stylistic disjointedness, the way incongruous melodies sometimes seemed to jut into a song like interference from another station’s signal. Ariel describes his music as “retro-licious”.
There’s definitely an element of pastiche: an obsessive fan-scholar who worked for a long period as a clerk in a record store, he has the rock formalist’s love of songcraft and period production styles. One minute he’s channeling Hall & Oates, the next it’s Blue Oyster Cult, or Men Without Hats, or The Police circa Synchronicity… But in his early music, Pink’s retro-pastiche tendencies were offset by a psychedelic urge to shatter form with kaleidoscopic chaos. So alongside gorgeous tunes like “For Kate I Wait” and “Strange Fires”, there’s eerie ambient lagoons like “Foilly Foibles/Gold”, a cornucopia of distressed and irradiated texture-tones. Somewhere between these poles lie epic multi-part songs like “Trepanated Earth” or shimmering, rolling dreamscapes like “The Ballad of Bobby Pyn.”
Although Before Today tidied up the loose ends and stripped away much of the trademark echo-haze, it was the logical extension of what Ariel started with those early albums. “I like to do things that I like, and what I like is something that I don’t hear, ” he says, talking about contemporary radio. “I see it as preserving something that has died. Something that’s going extinct. And just saying, ‘no!’ That’s all it is for me, as a music lover. ” But while occasional songs on Before Today remind you of particular artists–Fleetwood Mac on “Can’t Hear My Eyes”, Public Image Ltd with “Revolution’s A Lie”–mostly the echoes are less specific. His music is a puree of jumbled up eras, reflecting the fact that Ariel, who was born in 1978, belongs to the post-historical generation, shaped by the endless shuffle-mode of VH1 and classic rock radio, and, more recently, iPod and YouTube. “We have no concept of time,” he says.
His generation increasingly has no concept of space either, their curiosity about and hunger for fresh musical stimuli bypassing geographical borders and cultural boundaries. One of the most beguiling tracks on Before Today is the fusion-flavored instrumental “Reminiscences”. It is effectively a cover, or perhaps an interpretation, of “Liben Sitarochew”, an Ethiopian “golden oldie” sung by pop singers Yeshimebet Dubale and Kenede Mengesha. According to Ariel, the most famous song-form in Ethiopoia is tizita, “the song of nostalgia and remembrances”. Hence the title “Reminiscences”.
Although the Ethiopiques series of compilations of Sixties and Seventies Ethiopian/Eritrean rhythm-and-blues and funk has been a long-time favourite with hipsters and critics, Ariel’s particular passion is for the underground pop made during the Derg dictatorship of the 1980s. He explains that Los Angeles is, “the perfect hub” for this stuff because it has “a little Ethiopia. Go to the Mercato area and you can buy the cassette tapes that were dubbed by the musicians themselves during the time records were illegalized in Ethiopia.” Many of these musicians are the same ones you can hear on Ethiopiques, “but by the Eighties they’d become recording artists rather than a live thing. They were forced to do these recordings in the middle of the night, and they’d dub the tapes and disseminate them. By the Eighties and into the early Nineties it’s become this futuristic kind of funk, spacy and totally evocative, with really jazzed out, echoed-out trumpets and Simmons electronic drums. It’s the most glorious era of music that hasn’t even had its own blog yet. Although there is a lot of stuff on YouTube, because these singers did videos that would get shown on ETV, which was almost like a public access show.” You can also find these “oldies” on Diretube, the Ethiopian equivalent to YouTube.
Ariel first encountered Derg-era Ethio-pop through the cosmopolitan mix of Los Angeles rather than online. But the way it has crept into his palette of influences to nestle alongside Sixties psych, Seventies soft-rock, and Eighties New Wave, parallels the way that the post-Internet generation are growing up in a world-of-sound as post-geographical as it is post-historical. YouTube in particular, and the Internet in general, is a kind of archive-universe that keeps expanding as more and more culture-stuff gets stuffed into it: imagery and information, audio and video, that arrives from every corner of the globe and every crevice of our past, and increasingly from the pasts of all those foreign cultures as well.
Hence the profusion of blogs like Anywhere Else But Here Today… , Brain Goreng, Holy Warbles, Sea Never Dry , Ghost Capital, and many, many more. Then there’s all the labels that are increasingly becoming crate-diggers san frontieres : Finders Keepers, Cherrystones, Secret Stash, Soundway Records, Strut, Honest Jon’s, Stone’s Throw, Dust-To-Digital, et al. These blogs and labels are chasing down every imaginable kind of retro-exotica, from ethnological field recordings, to pop and showbiz (every nation has its domestic equivalent to schmaltz, schlager, variety) to hip sounds (South African disco & house! Indonesian hard rock! Angolan funk! Hawaian psychedelia!), in many cases sourced direct from the original cassettes or well-worn vinyl. “I’ve been on a different musical kick lately,” says Ariel, after talking at length about Ethiopian pop. “I’ve been so into the Communist stuff. All the Russian pop stuff.”
What saves Ariel’s music from just being record collection rock, mere music-about-music, is the real-life emotion that bursts through in his best songs, from the tremulous yearning of “Strange Skies” to the loneliness of “Life In L.A.” There’s darkness too, an almost exultantly bleak view of the world-that comes out in songs like “Trepanated Earth” (“the human race is a pile of dogshit”, he spits at the start) and “Revolution’s A Lie”, which was originally titled “Evolution’s A Lie”. “It’s designed to collapse, it’s all going to shit”, he says, on the subject of Human Civilisation, adding with a laugh, “And that’s for the good.”
And what about music? Does it have any future? Ariel’s music, so often praised by fans and critical admirers in terms of “ghost transmissions from a long-lost radio utopia” and similar metaphors, does seem dependent on mining the memory-seam of Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties rock. But just like the West’s oil addiction, surely Western pop’s addiction to its own past will ultimately causes all these veins of inspiration to collapse, run dry? Whither next for fresh (re)sources of retrolicious-ness?
“The Nineties will never come back,” Ariel insists. “Grunge is not coming back.” He makes a vomiting, gagging sound to evoke the decade, then elaborates: “There was a total negative space, in music and quality, between Nirvana and The Strokes. When the Strokes came around, I couldn’t believe it, I was like, ‘dude, I have a fucking chance: they’re playing guitars!”
Firmly convinced that there’s “nothing revivable” or worth excavating from the Nineties, Ariel believes that music will “stay around the 70s and 80s, kind of going back and forth, probably forever.” But he also envisages “recording becoming completely obsolete in the next five or six years and live performance becoming the only future for a band or musical act of any kind. People’s attention spans are going to shrink to such a degree that the live performance thing is going to be the most socially viable thing. It’ll be more about the social act of going to the show. It could be innovative music, or just party music, but it’ll happen in a live setting. And maybe that’s a good thing, a natural out growth of a post-materialist society. It shouldn’t be about products.” He says that in Ethiopia, “there are no stars. You’re just a musician–nothing too extraordinary.”
But doesn’t Ariel want to be star? He seems to have a healthy ego. “I’m an attention hog,” he admits. “I’d like to be president if possible. Way down the road. Maybe four years. I’d try a whole bunch of things. Then I wouldn’t even go to jail if they don’t work out.”
Simon Reynolds’s Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past is published by Faber & Faber on June 2nd. More info here