American Graffiti: Prince Rama Interviews Ariel Pink
ABOVE: ARIEL PINK (RIGHT) WITH HIS BANDMATES IN ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI. IMAGE COURTESY OF PIPER FERGUSON
Good things come to those who wait. Ariel Pink had been diligently making music in his bedroom for years when he was discovered by Animal Collective, who would champion him as the first artist to sign to their record label Paw Tracks. That was 2004. For six relatively quiet years—long before the likes of lo-fi auteurs Washed Out, Neon Indian, Toro y Moi—Pink composed music at home, releasing no less than six records to little fanfare. “There was no bedroom rock ‘n roll back then, there was just rock ‘n roll—and I wasn’t part of it,” Pink told Fader in 2010.
That all changed with a little song called “Round and Round,” which brought long-overdue commercial appeal to the Ariel Pink table. Successfully wedding Pink’s signature DIY weirdness with more traditional pop sensibility, the song turned many a head and help land the Beverly Hills songwriter a record deal. Before Today was an unprecedented hit, garnering rave reviews from major media outlets. “Round and Round” was ranked at number one on Pitchfork’s Top 100 Tracks of 2010. No longer a mere niche performance artist, Pink began to sell out venues and headline festivals with the music he had been perfecting over the course of a decade.
Mature Themes, released this week via 4AD, doesn’t stray far from the aesthetic that launched Pink at the forefront of the alternative rock conversation. With a heady mix of love songs, a moving Donnie and Joe Emerson cover, and a track that includes a spoken-word segment where Pink can be overheard ordering a hamburger, it’s just as quirky—if not more so—as its predecessor, and all the more enrapturing for it.
In setting up this interview, we reached out to Pink’s friends and former labelmates Nimai and Taraka Larson, who together make music as Prince Rama. Pink, thrilled to speak with the band, dialed in on his way to lunch.
ARIEL PINK: Hey there.
JOHN TAYLOR: Hey guys! What’s going on?
NIMAI LARSON: We’re talking about very immature themes right now.
TARAKA LARSON: We definitely were. Ariel, why Mature Themes and not Immature Themes?
PINK: To say “mature themes” is more redundant, which is something I was going for. If somebody ever says something is a mature theme, it’s bound to not be. I mean, you shouldn’t fall for that. You can make it sound mature, but anything that’s about being mature is pretty immature.
TARAKA LARSON: Well, goddamn it! I fell for it. Like, “Nostradamus & Me” is pretty serious. People take that really seriously. They think it’s a really mature theme.
PINK: Well, that’s a song about me and Nostradamus just hanging out together as roommates, in a cabin in the forest. We hang out, we walk and we bike. We look up at the sky, and make predictions, we go home, play ping-pong.
TARAKA LARSON: Does Nostradamus ever hit on you?
PINK: It’s not that kind of relationship.
NIMAI LARSON: Are we talking about marrying a roommate?
PINK: Well, you do marry. You marry your friends when you stay with your friends. It’s hard enough to find a good roommate, let alone a good person you can live with and fall in love with at the same time. You might as well just take your roommate, if you can find one, and marry them. I mean, if you can find somebody that doesn’t drive you crazy, I would say marry that. That’s what that song [“Nostradamus & Me”] is about.
TAYLOR: I noticed that you close the record with a cover of Donnie and Joe Emerson’s “Baby.” Is that a song choice a riff on the album’s title?
PINK: You’re confusing the uses of the words. When I say “mature,” I mean “for mature audiences only.” And when I say “baby,” I’m talking about a girl. So there’s a sexual innuendo there, to give you an idea of where I’m going with this thing. Call [Mature Themes] a “break-up record.” I call it a “make-up with myself record.”
NIMAI LARSON: Awww.
PINK: Yeah! I got my mojo back.
TARAKA LARSON: I’m so glad. Did you write the songs more on account of [your recent] break-up [with ex-girlfriend Geneva Jacuzzi]?
PINK: No. We had to make the record, and lyrics really came at the last second. The music was written out, and nobody had even heard the lyrics to the melodies or anything like that until I just busted out with them. I was always kind of putting off until the last second. I probably drove [guitarist/keyboardist] Kenny [Gilmore] crazy because he was standing there for hours [while I] stared at a piece of paper, furrowing my brow, just not ready to do it yet. Finally, little by little, we got it.
TARAKA LARSON: Writing lyrics is really tough. I hate doing it.
PINK: I hate it!
TARAKA LARSON: Do you ever feel like you’re just coming up with syllables? Because whenever you write songs—at least for me—I feel like you’re singing along, but you don’t really know what you’re saying. And then that starts becoming more of the truth of what the song means.
PINK: Yeah, there’s only sounds—that’s why I like foreign music a lot. When it’s language I don’t understand, it’s much better. It sounds a lot more serious than, “Oh, that’s a love song.” You don’t wanna be saying nothing for the sake of it. But as soon as you start to think of that thing that you want to convey or say, you can always just say it much better than you can actually rhyme it or stuff it into a song. It’s very, very difficult to just kind of get your point across without going the back way. And you have to be good at that, to not think about things so hard. Let the pen take over, so that it’s somebody else’s job to dissect the lyrics and tell you what you’re all about.
TARAKA LARSON: Kind of like automatic writing.
PINK: Right. It’s close to this source of instant-ness. I want to not think about that stuff very much, because that’s the closest thing to being me, in a weird way. Which is important. But what is me and what is you? How far away from you can you get? And will that convince everybody that’s not you?
TARAKA LARSON: How far away can you get from yourself until you come back?
PINK: It’s just about pushing yourself to realms that are uncharted. I love to get to that place where I don’t know what kind of music I’m doing, I don’t know if it’s any good, I don’t know if it’s anything. It’s a big question mark. The idea is to have interesting results. That’s my bottom line. Not just a creative fantasy world or something like that, but a mood too. I hope people like [the new record] who don’t know any English, you know?
NIMAI LARSON: It’s just like any relationship you have. The idea of hollow words that you can just put an emotion through, and have that emotion come across when the words do not.
PINK: I hate not understanding the words, because it kind of squashes the song. It shrinks the visual landscape that you’ve made for the sounds. And, all of a sudden, the content eclipses things.
TARAKA LARSON: Sound is such a weird, formal thing. I feel it’s all about the space. Wherever you record in, that’s the sound that you’re getting. Because, what is sound? It’s nothing. There’s no particles to it. A studio is –
PINK: Dead. A studio is an isolation chamber. You want to have a vaccum. You want to be able to boost the frequencies. You have to amplify it.
TARAKA LARSON: Would you ever consider recording your next album in space?
PINK: Oh, my God. I would die to record in space. That would be the coolest. If I got the option of, going into outer space and hanging out there for a day, and then coming back home and dying the next day, or just waiting around to see if there’s any opportunity for the technology to develop so that I might experience outer space sometime in the future, I would probably take the ride today and die tomorrow. I’d be happy just hanging out between the moon and the Earth, getting a view. What’s above me, what’s below me, what’s to the left of me, the right… just seeing what the room looks like from that angle, that’d be enough. I’d be so stoked.
TARAKA LARSON: [pauses] Our voices are being transmitted to outer space right now, just to have this conversation! If you could record an album over the phone, then it would already be broadcasted into space.
PINK: I think about that a lot. At the time right here, right now, this is the biggest the universe has ever been. The universe is expanding, and every second that you’re alive, the universe is bigger than it was a second before. There’s nothing in front of us, exactly, other than the future, and there’s no space for the size, the density of the universe to go. Because it’s expanding at every point simultaneously.
TAYLOR: So the universe has expanded since we started this interview?
PINK: Yes. And it’s the biggest right now that it’s ever been. It’s growing exponentially faster, which is why scientists believe that there’s going to be a big crunch. Or a big show. Basically, all of the matter and all of the stars are going to go out. They’re too far away from each other. It’s kind of like Chinese checkers. You keep hopping over and over everything until there’s nothing left to hop over.
TARAKA LARSON: I feel like the biggest attracting forces right now are presumably black holes, although no one has really been able to determine where they are.
PINK: Black holes themselves? They dissolve. They go away after they eat up everything. They just disappear.
TARAKA LARSON: Have you ever met a person that you thought was a black hole?
PINK: I have. I’ve met several people. And I’ve wondered if I’m one myself.
NIMAI LARSON: What do you think it is about us that wants to be selective? If we could just listen to everything [at once], then that would be a complete song. A complete sound.
PINK: I think it’s the silence, and all the time we get to think on our own and talk to ourselves. Because we can’t really shut up, so we have to fill in the space ourselves when there’s nobody else talking. And that forces us to be creative. We can only really have so many dialogues, voices, or conversations in our head at one time. If you took all the noise in the world, and put it on record at the same time, that’s white noise.
If you scoop little things in that noise, then you get to the point where there’s a shape that’s being made. You can convince yourself that there’s no noise, and bring the volume up on one note, two notes, three notes. Those things are all we need for a song.
NIMAI LARSON: That would make you the sculptor of a song.
PINK: Right. Exactly. It’s a filter. We’re filtering out the song. For me, I’m jumping around on every instrument and always racing around, doing more than I need to. In the end it all ends up being one chord.
TAYLOR: Let’s all make a song together, right now. On the count of three. One… two… three….
[all hum in unison]
NIMAI LARSON: All rad! White noise rave!
MATURE THEMES IS OUT NOW, AND PRINCE RAMA’S FORTHCOMING RECORD, TOP TEN HITS OF THE END OF THE WORLD, RELEASES ON NOVEMBER 16.