Ariel Pink - The FADER

Soft Truth: Ariel Pink’s Virtual Reality

Read our cover story on the weirdo-pop auteur from a 2010 issue of The FADER.

Photographer Jason Nocito

This week, Ariel Pink announced that his new double album, pom pom, will be released on November 18th; you can listen to "Put Your Number in my Phone" from that release right here. Below, revisit our in-depth cover story on the weirdo-pop songwriter from a 2010 issue of The FADER.

From the magazine, Issue 68, June/July 2010

Ariel Pink lost his virginity when he was 13 and living in Mexico City. His parents shipped their diminutive son there when junior high back home in Los Angeles became socially unbearable. On his last night before returning to California, his cousins led him to a brothel tucked in the back of a hair salon. It was an event they had been promising—threatening—for weeks. Pink was too young to be there but they let him in anyway, just as soon as a high-ranking diplomat was done. A woman named Sara with curly, licorice black hair welcomed him in, requested that he not cry and told him he would have to pay for each of his orgasms. Whether to avoid the expense or the tears, Pink went deep inside his mind as they made love, finally deciding to finish almost an hour later. His cousins were shocked. 

“They thought that she was going to come out with me in her arms and say, ‘Shhh, don’t wake him,’” he remembers. “Coming has always been something I’ve found hard to do because I get so distracted. I distract myself. I’m very much in my own head, but what’s the alternative?” It’s not an easy question to answer because Pink has never been easy to understand. He’s found one of the strangest musical careers in recent memory by shrouding his psyche with clouded recording processes and impenetrably bizarre live shows, by keeping his audience at arm’s length, if only because he never expected them to get close in the first place. His songs are the inspired, chaotic streams of a solitary and complicated consciousness, captured in the tapes that litter the milk chocolate carpet of his current apartment above a salon in Highland Park.

On a late spring evening in Los Angeles, not far from there, the last strip of sun on the horizon looks as though it’s been lightly stained with red wine. It’s pretty but dirty, just like many of the city’s streets and fingernails. Pink, born Ariel Marcus Rosenberg, is sitting in the passenger seat of our rental car, hunched and crunched over, twirling his hair wildly, blowing smoke out the window. Behind him in the backseat is Piper Kaplan of LA dream pop duo Pearl Harbor. They’re DJing a small party together in nearby Eagle Rock at a bar named The Black Boar, a gig lined up by Pink’s temporary roommate who went missing a few days prior because he had been caught carrying meth on the Metro.

"When I first started recording I was completely conflicted, and as a result, I think I made music for the wrong, very unhealthy reasons.”

As Pink and Kaplan take turns shuffling through records by Alan Parsons, The Smiths and ’80s French lothario Pierre Bachelet, the bar’s inn-like innards begin to fill with a few friends and some well-wishers. When Pink’s not pacing and vibrating his way back and forth and out to the back alley for a cigarette, he’s glued to records or hovering around the edges of the party before flitting elsewhere, his eyes always cast away. Everyone here seems to know who he is and everyone gives him his space, Pink able to determine the current in the room without talking to anyone at all. It’s a quiet night but excitement over Before Today, Pink’s 4AD debut, feels very real. The word “jamming” is thrown out by a friend as a compliment, though having heard first single/symphony “Round and Round” and its lathered chorus, you can’t help but feel like that’s underselling. Even the news that the album already leaked seems to have Pink buzzing. “I’ve never had a leak before,” he says, hair still wound tightly around his nervous fingers. “That’s not something that happens to me.” As people say goodbyes for the night, they hug, but each time Pink is caught in an embrace, he quickly turns his head and averts his eyes. He seems comfortable, at least more than one might expect, with this level of intimacy and his place in the Los Angeles music scene.

In summer of 2003, Pink was carrying a collection of songs around LA that he’d recorded to cassette, compulsively piecing together a warped history of jangly AM radio pop culled from the late ’60s to the glittering ’70s to the late ’80s—from solid gold to gothic black. The songs stacked vocal track over vocal track, often with Pink’s voice mimicking instruments, each layer more anguished and weirdly affected than the one beneath it. He called it Haunted Graffiti. “When I first started recording I was completely conflicted, and as a result, I think I made music for the wrong, very unhealthy reasons,” he says. “Whatever I’ve come to be known for, I was doing it out of a real desperation to be heard, even though I had nothing to say. Which is maybe the right reason to do it.” Pink handed a cassette full of these songs to the members of Animal Collective when they came through town. They eventually saw and heard in Pink what others have since. It was polarizing. It was maddening. It was time machine bliss. They re-released Pink’s 1999 album, The Doldrums, on their then-new label Paw Tracks, and subsequently two more previously recorded records in Worn Copy and House Arrest. Entangled in each corroded corner were ideas some call genius and others simply call unlistenable. Amid mazes of budget synths and crackpipe presets, of baby noises and inchoate moans, resided an intricate map of “everything good about music,” as Pink sees it. With the Paw Tracks releases, he was suddenly being recognized for his music in a world much larger than his own.

"Playing with a band is like using a brand new muscle. I choose not to play alone anymore.”

On the following Valentine’s Day, in 2004, Pink was hard at work in his kitchen, drizzling chicken with lemon for himself and his wife, Alisa. They’d been stumbling toward a divorce for some time and after much pleading, he agreed to spend this one last evening with her to ease the pain of parting. The phone rang, and as he picked up, all he could hear was his father sobbing on the other end of the line. He couldn’t remember hearing that sound before. “Ariel,” he cried, “It’s your sister.” Pink quickly put the phone down and without a word to his ex-wife-to-be, hurried to the hospital where his youngest sister Elana lay in a coma. She had been in a car accident while out with a boy that night, suffering brain injuries that have left her on life support to this day. She was 16 then and Pink was 25. He never stepped foot in that kitchen again nor has he been behind the wheel of a car. The Doldrums was released just eight months after his sister’s accident, and Pink’s public persona has been defined by music made years before everything in his life changed that moment. His visions of music before the accident predated the current lo-fi revival by internet light years, conjuring ghosts of pop music through intentionally primitive recording techniques. When I tell Pink some deem him the “Godfather of chillwave,” it’s both flattering and puzzling enough to elicit the kind of half-deranged Brando impression only he could muster. But just as everyone seems to be catching up to him, Pink remains predictably unpredictable. 

Before Today couldn’t arrive at a finer moment, nor could it be a more exhilarating trek through the ever-shifting synapses of Ariel Pink’s current state of mind. It’s both his first real studio album and his first with a real band behind him, a semi-permanent roster he’s been able to keep together after performing with literally dozens of friends until now. Recording began just before Halloween of 2009 in a studio owned by Tito Jackson, older brother to Michael and Janet. It was so clean and so smooth when they finished several weeks later that Pink and the band debated whether they might need to add some grime. Just a little. “Playing with a band is like using a brand new muscle,” he says. “I choose not to play alone anymore.”  It is the sound of great musicians helping Pink realize the freakish force of his gift. From the foggy-windowed highs of “Can’t Hear My Eyes” to the sweet, metallic decay of “Butthouse Blondies,” each song underlines a different strain of his brain. Rather than an oddball wrestling with himself alone in his room, Pink is stepping out like a frontman finally growing comfortable with the sound of his own voice. Though Before Today allows listeners a much clearer idea of who he is, Pink still seems genuinely unsatisfied with stasis or singular revelation, as if the title is a promise to give more tomorrow, that he’s dealt with as much of his past as he can for now. 

With Before Today, Pink’s challenge was to take responsibility for himself and the people he cared about: his band and his girlfriend of several years, Geneva Jacuzzi. “I listen to what I made ten years ago and it’s like hearing a different person,” he says. “I have no access to those impulses anymore. I feel like there are more important things than the self-obsessed, self-directive path I was on before. I needed to find a way to do this and enjoy it because if I didn’t I was going to kill myself. It was too embarrassing to watch them watch me have a meltdown each night I played. I feel completely heard now.” Of Jacuzzi, Pink says very sweetly, many more times than once, “The one thing that gives me comfort at the end of every day is that I can take care of her and be there for her.” 

“I needed to find a way to do this and enjoy it because if I didn't I was going to kill myself. I feel completely heard now.”

Two nights after his DJ gig in Eagle Rock, Pink is stretched out on the floor of an apartment in Silverlake, having his astrology chart read by a small class his friend Ivory teaches two evenings a week. The walls of her bedroom are decorated with nudes and stapled with tarot cards, Polaroids and Native American imagery. Next to the mattress on the floor, a sweet incense named Black Magic is pluming. The light is soft, the walls are cracked, Pink is a Cancer born in late June at 4:47 in the afternoon. Degrees. Planets. Orbs. Cusps. Houses. Retrograde. Because Ivory’s known Pink so long, she’s decided to test the class’ progress by letting them ask him questions and assess his answers according to a chart they’d just completed. Pluto’s in the 11th: “He’s an individual. He likes to break molds,” says one student. “If Uranus is in the 11th as well it must mean he’s erratic in nature, unpredictable and uncontrollable,” says another. Ivory offers some analysis of her own, suggesting that what they see means that Pink is constantly attempting to unearth his “personal truth,” that he’s a seeker of just that. He nods calmly. They go further, look to another house and suggest that Ariel Pink is someone who would feel better if he was always in motion, that he is a man who must always be honest, he cannot tell a lie. He nods again and Ivory is proud. 

After astrology class and some In-N-Out Burger, we head back to Pink’s apartment. It’s late, but he’s still pacing, still vibrating, the sound of his clogs trundling the floor as they brush from one room to the next mid-sentence. The air is stale and just as it has been every time we’ve stopped there over the course of the past few days, the television in Pink’s bedroom is on. As it hums in the other room, we begin to talk quietly about Elana and what her accident means to him. “I have a hard time making music anymore,” he says. “I always think about taking a Walkman down to the nursing home and playing it for my sister. But because she has no motor function, I feel like I want to play her something I’ve made, but it has to be beautiful enough, something she would want to listen to. I haven’t made a song that’s perfect enough.” That is not true.    

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Soft Truth: Ariel Pink’s Virtual Reality