Even though he’s been releasing music for over a decade now, Los Angeles-based musician Ariel Pink didn’t truly emerge on the larger cultural radar until the release of his 2010 album Before Today—a record that thrust the preternaturally gifted songwriter from the ranks of obscure freak-folk cult figure to indie-rock darling. Pink‘s most recent record, 2012’s Mature Themes, helped to cement that position, though the 35-year-old native Angelino born Ariel Rosenberg, who attended high school in Beverly Hills and grew up in the shadow of Hollywood, would be the first to point out that his journey is an atypical one—and that he is still the furthest thing from a conventional rock star. In fact, Pink is a relentless boundary-breaker, blurring the lines between rock-‘n’-roll and a kind of theatrical performance art—always in search of new ideas, new sensations, new places. His songs—sanguine and oddly beautiful missives—suggest a dreamy alternative universe in which AM radio never died, but rather became more ornate and romantic. His unpredictable live shows have also evolved over the years from solo performances where he would sing and dance along with his own pre-recorded backing tracks to more professional, full-band affairs. Nevertheless, Pink has retained his singular stage demeanor, which vacillates between hyperanimation and a kind of stoic calm, as well as his thrift-store glam, gender-indeterminate look, which is almost Bowie-esque in its mutability.
In September, Pink and his band, Haunted Graffiti, joined the likes of Beck, Giorgio Moroder, and Cat Power for multimedia artist Doug Aitken‘s roving Station to Station tour, a public-art project put on in collaboration with Levi’s, which made nine stops from New York to San Francisco and featured a mix of visual art, performance art, film, food, dance, and music. For Pink, Station to Station caps off a run of nonstop touring behind Mature Themes, and will likely serve as one last hurrah before he goes back underground in L.A. to begin working on new music. Within the last couple of years, Pink has collaborated with lo-fi singer-songwriter R. Stevie Moore—a big early influence—as well as Jorge Elbrecht of art-rock band Violens, among others. He has also toed the waters of fashion, appearing in one of Hedi Slimane’s campaigns for Saint Laurent Paris, and is in the process of putting together his first feature film projects. (Among them, Pink will compose original music for a forthcoming movie entitled Bad Vibes, a werewolf flick set in the psychedelic music scene of the 1960s and produced in part by Elijah Wood’s company, SpectreVision, and director John Landis.)
I caught up with Pink right before he boarded the Station to Station art train to discuss his origins as an musician and performer, what moved him to pursue a creative life and formed his approach, and where he sees it all headed in the future.
T. COLE RACHEL: You’ve been on the road for the better part of a year. Is this a little bit of a break for you?
ARIEL PINK: I’m actually about to hop back on the road, but not in the usual sense. The band is going to play some shows, doing the Doug Aitken thing.
RACHEL: You’re working on a movie now, too?
RACHEL: How is that coming together?
PINK: It’s coming together, I’m very happy to say. I can’t say much because it’s not announced yet, but that’ll definitely be a new flagship for me. Maybe I’ll do more movies. I’ve always wanted to do a movie, and I really feel the urge to do it now more than I did in the past. I mean, I grew up here. This is my town. I’m in Hollywood—I have no business not being in the movie industry. So why did I go so long avoiding it? Maybe I got disenfranchised a bit because my mom got me into acting classes when I was 10, so I went for broke on the music thing. And then, talk about a struggling artist having to work against enormous odds … But I love movies so much, so I’m going to do it.
RACHEL: I’ve seen you play a bunch of times over the years, and the experience has always been so exciting because it’s so unpredictable. There have even been moments where the audience has seemed uncomfortable because people weren’t sure how to react. Were you being serious? Was this performance art? It’s rare to have that kind of experience at a rock show these days. How has the way you approach playing live changed over the years?
PINK: During those formative times, I really didn’t know what was going on, and I was sort of torn in a thousand different directions with how I felt about what I was doing. Those things that really threw me off before as a performer have been smoothed over and dealt with. Confidence was never in short supply in my case. If anything, I think I overshot the mark with confidence way too early in my career, and gradually, it’s about just getting more humble and wanting to sit down more. [laughs]
RACHEL: Do you enjoy performing?
PINK: Absolutely, I do. There’s always room for improvement. I’m always focused on the results, and those are the precise things that I don’t really experience as a part of the performance.
RACHEL: How so?
PINK: I always want to be a member in the audience, and I want to hear it from their point of view and see it from their point of view so I can know if it’s good. But that’s just my issues, not a real problem.
RACHEL: Did you always want to be a musician?
PINK: In high school, I was pretty gung-ho about it. I knew what I wanted to do, which was to become a recording artist, so I definitely felt like I had a calling. The performing part was the part that I wasn’t sure about. But when making a record, I could don a new face pretty easily and use all these different devices to hide who I am—or who I was—which really had very little to do with what I was trying to convey. I wasn’t pouring my soul out or anything like that. I wasn’t speaking about personal things. It was much more about finding a pose that I could try to get away with. That was the excitement of it for me. As for performing live, I just never imagined how it would work out; for good reason, because it doesn’t just work out—not the way you think it will. It’s a chance that you take. I remember being very psyched for our first tours, despite not knowing about the endless stream of situations and setbacks that we’d face. I was all too confident and I really didn’t know what I was doing … And it’s a good thing that I didn’t because I would have been mortified. I was too young and too inexperienced to not just be engaged in the experience and discovering all this new stuff.
RACHEL: Seeing you play back in the early days, it felt like you were figuring it out—or making it up—as you went along, which is what made it so exciting.
PINK: In the years between 2000 and 2004, I always got the feeling that people were just starting to hear about me and they were all late to the game. I’d be out playing shows for records that I recorded back in 1999 that were just coming out. I had already kind of outgrown whatever record I had put out and was supporting, so I felt like I was not even engaging with the world in real time. But my music already has this oldish kind of quality to it, like you don’t necessarily know what era it was recorded in, so it all kind of felt surreal and weird. Night after night when I played live, I was really trying to figure it out in real time, and I still don’t know what effect I’m going for or what effect I actually achieve. Looking back, I feel like it would be arrogant of me not to appreciate the fact that I’ve been able to do whatever I want and still have an audience come see me. That’s really what keeps me playing live—that appreciation. And I guess I’ve made a lot of wiggle room for myself to try different things and discover what I’m doing, and the audience accepts it. I’m very grateful for the chance to do that over and over again. However, I do enjoy my solo time … I want to stay home and do soundtracks and watch TV in my underwear with a keyboard on my lap and just be a couch potato.
SELF-GRATIFICATION EVENTUALLY TOOK A BACKSEAT TO TRYING TO DO SOMETHING COLLABORATIVE WITH OTHER PEOPLE, TO TRYING TO MAKE SOMETHING NEW. Ariel Pink
RACHEL: What formed your approach to making music in the beginning? How has that evolved?
PINK: My approach is still the same in a general way. I still have a very nonintellectual, nonjudgmental relationship with melody and the music as I hear it all in my head. The things that keep me awake at night are things like textures and instrumentation and plotting out what things are going to do and what the sounds are that I’m trying to capture. You want to capture the unity of everything as it occurs to you. I think about music in the way that I heard music as a kid—like, Oh my god, there’s this weird rubbery ball of undulating things. The music usually occurs to me as a complete sound, and then I have developed the skill of being able to translate that into a fully realized song.
RACHEL: What kind of a kid were you? Were you a gothy teenager?
PINK: Oh, I had my gothy phase, but I was never a troublemaker or anything like that. I was a little bit introspective, a little bit morbid. I was small for my age so I was bullied and that kind of stuff. The first half of high school, I had a girlfriend, and then the second half I got to know these guys who would just get stoned and jam. I had struck the goth thing by then, but I still thought of myself as Ian Curtis or something. I envisioned all these people who had been admired for having been freaks in their own time, and I saw myself in line with them. I was very in touch with my weird. [laughs] I was just very into things that were the opposite of what other people liked. I didn’t want to listen to music that I could find at a friend’s house. My identity was really forged around that, and you know, eventually that kind of identity gets dismantled and fed to the vultures. But I was somehow on my own mission.
RACHEL: It’s weird when you get older and realize that you weren’t the only one who felt that way, and that, in fact, all your teenage melodrama is actually common.
PINK: It is weird. I was yanking around this ball and chain—this chip on my shoulder—which I dragged into my adult life. Like all of my music and all of that stuff I was going for … I was really going to war with the world. I’ve gotten over those issues, but I kind of keep them to a certain degree because that’s really what reminds me of what my vocation is. At 35, I’m thinking, Oh, I don’t have any of that initial inspiration that I had before, all that angst. I always thought I would burn out very quickly. It was not designed for me to be 35 and still doing the same thing. But in another sense, it’s like I’ve had an extended adolescence. It helps that I look young, too. [laughs]
RACHEL: I understand that youthful need to always be in opposition to something. But when you get older, what replaces it?
PINK: Oh, man … For me, self-gratification eventually took a backseat to trying to do something collaborative with other people, to trying to make something new. When I finally felt like I was being acknowledged for what I had done …
RACHEL: When do you first remember feeling acknowledged?
PINK: In the beginning, I felt unworthy of there being even, like, three people in the audience. But from day one, I was already famous in my own head. It didn’t take anything to make me feel that way. I know I’m totally not famous. I mean, it just depends on your perspective.
RACHEL: Yeah, but being acknowledged for your work does offer a nice kind of validation. It’s nice to know you haven’t been fumbling around in the dark for no reason.
PINK: When I felt that acknowledgement, I didn’t feel like Where’s Waldo? anymore—like I wasn’t just a face in the crowd, waiting, flailing his arms to try to get people’s attention. That was what all of that early recording was about. When I finally felt like I had been picked out for the sweepstakes and acknowledged for what I’d done, it was like I was actually starting from zero at that point—and I didn’t realize that before, that I’d been operating at a negative. From that moment on, I was like, “Okay, that was easy enough, but what do I do now that I have people’s attention? Maybe I should try to do something new or work with somebody new.” You know, I was still being my usual attention-seeking self, not being able to shut up, but I also felt at home in the world for the first time. I didn’t feel so angry. So with the attention, I tried to just do things like make some money, be responsible, help out other artists who I see have had a similar path.
RACHEL: Do you feel like you’re easing into this more responsible, adult portion of your life?
PINK: I am way into that part of my life. I feel like I got started on that path sooner than most, believe it or not—all appearances to the contrary. I don’t know what’s going to happen in two years. You can only be the next big thing for so long, and the kids decide what’s good or not, so that only gives me a limited amount of time in this realm. That’s one of the things I appreciate about this industry—there’s no magic ticket, and even if you have it, there are new kids coming up all the time, and there’s no way you can avoid that. Jeez, I don’t work under the illusion that I’m the next whatever. Every time a record comes out, if it gets a good review, I’m like, “Well, one more year, guys. We bought ourselves another year.” You really can’t complain about getting to do this. It’s really the creature of my own making from top to bottom. I appreciate that. And the good fortune, the perseverance, having the stamina to stick around longer than everyone else even after people write you off—that’s always been a good motivating force in my life. And you know, I’m always gonna be in opposition no matter what, but I can still cover my bases and do what I like.
RACHEL: So what’s the ideal for you—the dream?
PINK: Well, the ideal is to live forever, right? Or to live right now and just be grateful that I feel good. I’m definitely grateful for every second that I’m alive. At this point in my life, I definitely take time out throughout the day to just stop and be like, “Everything is cool.” It’s as good as it’s gonna be, because it only gets worse. [laughs] Appreciate it, make it last as long as possible. I definitely don’t feel a sense of jealousy or competition, and that’s a really good feeling.
RACHEL: In the end, it’s such a blessing to do what you want, or just not be forced to do things that you hate.
PINK: Yeah. You can pout about the way the world is as long as you want, but that’s not going to change it. You’ve got to figure it out. Everything comes with hard work. You never get to stop working. I don’t see myself ever getting comfortable enough to not have to worry about working.
T. COLE RACHEL IS A BROOKLYN-BASED WRITER. HIS WORK HAS APPEARED IN INTERVIEW, THE FADER, AND THE NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE.