ABOVE: JORGE ELBRECHT (LEFT) AND ARIEL PINK
Ariel Pink makes the sort of music that is more easily defined by superlative adjectives such as extraordinary than esoteric Pitchfork descriptions (though they, and we, have certainly tried). Even the most discerning critics adore him, and his fan base seems to grow in size and intensity with each passing moment. So when Pink puts out a song with an artist he himself is a die-hard fan of, one can imagine it would be worthy of the most ludicrous superlatives.
Behold “Hang On to Life,” a dreamlike track by Pink and longtime friend Jorge Elbrecht, front man of Brooklyn-based band Violens and guitarist in Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. The track is the second in a series of collaborations—the first was with Tamaryn—Elbrecht is doing for experimental indie label Mexican Summer. “Hang On to Life” has unquestionable Song of the Summer potential. We are delighted to premiere its hypnotic video here.
L.A.-based Pink and Brooklyn-based Elbrecht recorded the track in mere moments in the days following Pink’s February performance at Carnegie Hall. Perhaps it is the spontaneity that is the special sauce, or maybe it was the inclusion of MGMT’s Will Berman on drums. Regardless, it is evident the musicians were fated collaborators. Because the track has that beautifully indefinable quality characteristic of all Pink’s music, we challenged Pink and Elbrecht to walk us through its genesis. Like their music, the parameters of the interview were hazy, but the results are extraordinary. —Allyson Shiffman
DAVID JACK DANIELS: This track is pretty cool. This is the second installment of several things you’re doing for Mexican Summer, is that right?
JORGE ELBRECHT: Yeah. There’s no huge, overarching plan or motive. I like doing a lot of different kinds of music, and I don’t want to fit them all under one band name. If I lived in L.A., I’d be trying to work with Ariel on shit all the time.
DANIELS: I like the Hall & Oates vibe. It’s nice to hear the phrase “screw the pooch” out of nowhere.
ELBRECHT: [laughs] I actually learned about that phrase during our writing session.
[ARIEL PINK comes on the line]
ARIEL PINK: What’s up, Jorge?
ELBRECHT: What’s up, dude? It’s a three-way, man.
PINK: Oh yeah, dude. Conference call.
DANIELS: So one of the first things that I really liked about this track was the use of “screwed the pooch,” and Jorge said he wasn’t privy to this idiom.
PINK: He’d never heard “screwed the pooch” before, huh?
ELBRECHT: Never heard it.
PINK: All morning, we were coming up with all sorts of things before we got to that. And then it kind of just stuck. I procrastinate, and I push writing to the last available moment, because I don’t like to settle on anything. I guess you can call it indecision or you can call it holding out for inspiration.
DANIELS: Let me ask you about your writing styles. There are some similarities, but Jorge seems to be more exacting, like with his stuff in Violens, and Haunted Graffiti seems a lot more sprawling. Was it difficult to bridge that gap, or was it pretty natural?
PINK: I found it to be extremely natural. I was out there performing at Carnegie Hall that week, and it just happened to coincide with a date in a studio. We really only got together just the night before. We sort of talked about what we would do and came up with all sorts of conceptual detours, and then we really kind of chucked it all and went into autopilot first thing in the morning.
ELBRECHT: I think one of the main similarities is we both have a lot of ideas laying around, either recorded on the phone or on a computer somewhere. So we hit upon these two that sort of worked. They were actually in the same key and they sort of dovetailed into one another. That was the basis for it. Then we just started laying down the instruments and wrote lyrics for it on the spot.
PINK: And we had the pleasure of working with Will and having him come into the studio kind of blind and unprepared. We just translated the songs for him to bang out on drums and keyboards. It felt like it really took shape on the last couple of takes with all of us and we just kind of knew we had something.
ELBRECHT: For me, it’s the ideal way to make something. It happened really quickly, nothing was overworked.
DANIELS: It’s a heartbroken summer kind of vibe.
PINK: Yeah, I guess. It’s looking California but feeling Minnesota or something.
DANIELS: [laughs] So the video is kind of a departure from the VHS, early ’90s home video kind of look. Was that something you’ve been meaning to do?
PINK: I never feel confined to that. I always want to do something that just sort of fits the mood. It’s supposed to help the song, it’s not supposed to take away from the song or re-contextualize it. I always feel like the less you make it a conceptual territorial debut, the better. And I guess that would put it back in the retro mind frame because they didn’t really do very much at the beginning of MTV. All they’d do is show the band members looking good.
ELBRECHT: What I like about older-looking videos is the atmosphere in them, and I think that there’s so much atmosphere in this—the lights and smoke and the layers of video. Whenever I see a video that’s super sharp and crisp and clean or looks like early 2000s softcore porn or something like that, it’s not easy to get into the song when I’m watching it.
PINK: It’s less about it being a throwback and more of it just kind of sticking out. It sticks out by deduction, by taking things out. Keeping things simple.
DANIELS: Was the video also a collaboration?
ELBRECHT: We just kind of threw it together last minute. Literally at 4 a.m. …
PINK: 4 a.m. on the last day that we were gonna have an opportunity to do it. And after we’d gone through the trouble of filming the rest of the video from the initial idea. We had a storyboard, we had actors, and then it was last-minute, just like the song itself. I love having that impulsivity to change course. I think it’s key to keeping things fresh.
DANIELS: Do you find that when you make a record for something more formal, it can be kind of overwhelming and maybe this situation you don’t second guess yourself so much because it’s spontaneous and in the moment?
ELBRECHT: For me, absolutely.
PINK: Funnily enough, I feel the most free to be myself when I’m not doing my solo project. Whenever I’m in a situation when it’s a side thing or it’s something not so infused with my ego. When I’m all over everything, it’s a big responsibility and half the time leaves me in some weird nether state of insecurity and doubt.
ELBRECHT: I’ve had a panic attack trying to finish records. I’ve fucking had to take medication and not fucking freak out when I’m trying to finish the last three songs of an album. I don’t think I’m made to make albums. I like making a song and then another song; just thinking about it for a month or two.
DANIELS: How long have you been playing in Haunted Graffiti?
ELBRECHT: Two months, I think?
PINK: He’s a new guy. Adding Jorge to the lineup is sort of the final nail on the coffin for me. It adds such a beautiful dynamic. The band flourished because of it in a way that we’ve only just hinted at, and I look forward to collaborating with Jorge in so many respects. Frankly, I didn’t know whether he would take to it, but I took a risk and asked him if he wanted to join the band and he…
ELBRECHT: I’ve been a fan since 2002, so I was like, “Fuck yeah.”
PINK: And it’s totally mutual, too. I had that wonderful experience of getting turned on to Violens years after I’d met Jorge. The experience of not knowing that your friend made some music that you’re really into is not an experience you have very often in your life. It was definitely a wide-eyed revelation, and I could hear the Jorge in it when I listened to it afterwards again.
DANIELS: Both of you guys seem to have released your first records pretty much fully formed. I can’t think of an awkward phase for either of you, which is really rare. Do you both plan a solid idea of what you are going to present?
PINK: I don’t think you get to hear the whole story. You just get the edited, made-for-TV version. I’ve got plenty of awkward phases. In fact, the whole thing is just a giant awkward phase.
ELBRECHT: That’s how I feel about my shit, too. For sure.
PINK: And it started way more awkward than it ended up. If you ever get the chance to listen to my first recordings, it’s really taking it back to discovering what a note is, and a string. I pretty much learned how to play instruments via recording, so everything is just a giant rehearsal and a practice. By the time things made it to the public, it was already on it’s way to developing its own thing.
ELBRECHT: Ariel, did you ever perform just you with your 4-track on stage?
PINK: Oh man. The whole period between 1997 and 2003, I always performed just by myself with backing tracks and a vanity dresser that I used to haul up on stage.
ELBRECHT: [laughs] Dude, how did you drag a dresser to every show?
PINK: It was literally one dresser in particular, and it was left there on the street somewhere in Los Feliz or Silver Lake. I got rid of it after a while because it started to overshadow my performance. I got sick of people saying, “Hey man, I love the dresser.” I was just like, “Fuck you, man.” Those were good days. I find myself getting more and more uncomfortable on stage, strangely enough. Back then I was fearless, and I even played guitar.
DANIELS: I know Jorge is doing more collaborations, but do you see a string of these between the two of you over the span of a certain amount of time and eventually putting together a record?
PINK: I can’t speak for Jorge but I certainly look forward to that.
ELBRECHT: I’d love to do that. It’s just hard because we live on different coasts, but if we were in the same city for a month or two.
PINK: Or 10 days, even.
ELBRECHT: I think this is a “to be continued” situation. I’m just looking forward to future shit. I love playing in Ariel’s band.
ARIEL PINK AND JORGE ELBRECHT’S COLLABORATIVE SINGLE, “HANG ON TO LIFE”/”NO REAL FRIEND,” IS OUT NOW ON MEXICAN SUMMER. FOR MORE ON PINK, VISIT ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI’S FACEBOOK PAGE; FOR MORE ON ELBRECHT, VISIT VIOLENS’ WEBSITE.