Interview: Ariel Pink

The outspoken musician talks art, songwriting and the tragic story of ’60s singer Bobby Jameson

Ariel Rosenberg has a reputation for being a prolific songwriter and recording artist. By the time his breakthrough album, The Doldrums, appeared in 2004, he’d already self-released a swathe of CD-R sets and limited edition singles. Over the next decade an avalanche of material followed, first as Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti and later, simply Ariel Pink. He was lauded by critics as a pioneer of hypnagogic pop and chillwave, releasing music initially created using only the most basic of instruments and cheap, secondhand hardware.

Now firmly established, Rosenberg is nonetheless feeling the looming threat of middle age. His productivity has slowed, with 2017 set Dedicated To Bobby Jameson marking his first album for three years – an eternity given the frequency with which his previous material appeared.

In this revealing excerpt from his recent Fireside Chat with Red Bull Radio’s Arno Raffeiner, Rosenberg reflects on his career to date, his songwriting methods and the tragic true story that inspired Dedicated To Bobby Jameson.

Eliot Lee Hazel

I want to ask you about the birth of Ariel Pink. When was this persona born?

It's not a persona. My name is not Ariel Pink, it’s Ariel Rosenberg. In the early days, it was a home recording project and it was called Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. I wasn’t Ariel Pink – that was the name of the thing. This somehow was too hard for promoters to remember and for people to think about.

I started to get interview requests from people asking for Ariel Pink. For one campaign, I think, I maybe allowed these things to happen. I was like, “Ariel Pink will take your interview,” and that kind of thing. Well, this was a big mistake. Afterwards I tried to fix it and it was just impossible. People are like, “Now you’re Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. What made you want to start a band all of a sudden, Ariel Pink?” It’s like, “No, no, no, no! It’s nothing to do with a band! It’s a solo project and it was called Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. There’s no such thing as Ariel Pink.”

I tried to explain this. This happened at different points, so it wasn’t a birth of sorts. I guess it started in the ’90s, in 1997, when I came up with Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti. That was the name that I gave to my home recordings as if they were being released, but they weren’t even being released at the time.

I had other band names. I used to change them all the time. When I started, when I was 15 or something like that, I’d start one band, I’d start another. These were not bands. These were logos, essentially, on my [school] books. I was like, “My name is going to be Paper Mache or Attention or the Kraken.” There was also Ariel Rosenberg’s Thrash and Burn. That was first before Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti.

Ariel Rosenberg’s Thrash and Burn – Those Were The Days (Now I’m 21)

Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like when you started out as a teenager in Los Angeles?

When I was in high school, [living] at my dad’s house, I had a garage that I called the Lab. I just had a bass guitar, some kitchen utensils – cheese graters and stuff like that. I had one amp. I used to record on a handheld, miniature cassette recorder – a voice recorder with a little tape in it. I would just record what I thought were experimental pieces. They each had beginnings and endings and there were songs. But I was just very fascinated with recording at the time.

I would make these cassettes and I would make titles for these things. They would have very John Cage [style] titles. The song times were the most important thing. It had to be 16 minutes and three seconds, even though it wasn’t technically 16 minutes and three seconds long. It just said it on the cassette tape.

So you were a fan of John Cage at that time?

I was very into German music. All the German bands I was definitely very into were students of Stockhausen, as well as Kraftwerk. It was krautrock, but I didn’t call it that. I knew Ton Steine Scherben and even the bands that Americans aren’t supposed to know. I even learned even a little bit of German that I forgot already, so I’m not going to speak it.

After you finished school, did you go to college?

I went to college to study fine art. I was very good visually and I actually had a talent for that, whereas with music I had no discernible skills. With drawing, my parents encouraged me when I was three years old. They said, “Oh my God, you’re going to be the next Picasso,” and I believed them and I got better. In my mind I was always an artist. I just believed the first nice thing they ever said to me, it just stuck with me. I never had any other thing in my mind at all. Any kind of problems I had as a child, the voice in my head was always like, “Well, I’m different. I’m an artist. I’m special.”

What else am I going to do? I have no other skills besides recording and touring, and I don’t want to do the touring anymore.

I wasn’t interested in art, I just had an ability for it. After high school I went to University of California Santa Cruz. I left there after one year and went to California Institute of the Arts. I had friends there and they seemed to be really enjoying it and were very stimulated. I wasn’t very stimulated in Santa Cruz.

But I was recording a lot there, as well as when I went to CalArts. For my final in art school, I just had a kiosk where I was selling my record, The Doldrums, on CD. That was my art piece. I was so opposed to art at the time.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Gray Sunset

Sounds like a good piece, actually.

I was saying that what I was doing was art. I was an artist. I don’t understand why it had to be visual art. That was my whole point. This just goes over their heads, they don’t want to pay attention. I think I was very rebellious at the time and I wanted to block out whatever influence that they would have on me. I was somewhat resentful being there. My dad said that he would support me if I went to college, so I went to college and that’s why I was there. This is why I’m here. Because my dad said he would pay for me so I’m here, here I am. You happy, dad?

And then they tell you, “You know you’re never going to make it.” The first thing you should know when you go into art school is that you’re never going to make any money from it and all this kind of stuff and I was just like, “Well, that’s great. Thanks a lot.” I didn’t know what the hell they were trying to teach us.

Unlike other art schools, they didn’t focus on skills of any kind, specific color theory or anything like that. They were the only art school that was totally focused on teaching artists about the art market. They were trying to make the next Damien Hirst. They’re trying to make the next Jeff Koons. Those guys don’t need to know how to paint or draw.

That was another thing. I was a great artist and they were just telling me, “That’s really nice, Ariel. Take it to the 3rd Street Promenade [in Santa Monica]. Why don’t you set up an easel and you can draw.” I was just like, “Fuck you, I’m just going to record then.”

Of your early songs, which do you think was the biggest breakthrough?

“For Kate I Wait,” I guess. “For Kate I Wait” was a breakthrough, I think. I don’t know. It’s not really much of a breakthrough. I don’t know – it’s so long ago. Can we just move on from history? Let’s get more current. We’re not even in the 2000s yet. I’m 40 years old now.

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – For Kate I Wait

Are you really almost 40?

Yea, I’m pretty close. I was 20 years old when I recorded that.

There’s a story about giving CDs to Animal Collective. What can you recall about that?

That was four years after I recorded The Doldrums. I saw them play live and at the time I was just burning CDs and making handmade covers myself. I gave them some records that I had recorded after The Doldrums. I gave them to Geologist and Panda Bear – those were the ones I got along with the most.

I didn’t know they had a label or anything like that. I wouldn’t have expected them to even listen to it, to tell you the truth. I was shocked when I got an email from them three weeks later saying it had collected dust on the floor of their van for the rest of their tour, but then they put it in one time and they were like, “Wow, we have to put this out.” I was like, “Yeah, put it out.”

Then I gave them The Doldrums, even though that was recorded before all those other ones that they’d heard. When I first gave it to them, they passed on it. They’re like, “Why don’t you do something else?” I started to make another tape for them, but by then The Doldrums had grown on them and they actually wanted to put that out, so they eventually went with that one.

That one’s a good place to start as far as everybody’s concerned. I’d had releases before that, but they were so small that they didn’t get reviewed or anything like that. The Doldrums was a first impression for the world, which was appropriate, even though it was four years too late and it was not very current at the time.

You seem to be super prolific as a songwriter.

Back then I was working a lot. It was like one long recording session that never ended for eight years or something like that. Between ’96 and 2004, I was very completely single-minded. I had tunnel vision. I was just completely doing it like if my life depended on it. Now I definitely don’t do that at all. I barely record at all. And I barely write either. I only write when I have time blocked off to write the songs that I’m going to write for the record that I’m going to release such-and-such.

As long as there’s some kids that do listen to me, if they’re making music then maybe there’s a chance that I might have another year of relevance.

I definitely don’t have the same desperation I had when I was younger. I definitely don’t think I need to be heard anymore. There’s plenty of other artists that do the same thing, but better, or differently. Give other people a chance, is what I say. There’s plenty of Ariel stuff out there. I don’t need to have truckloads of records coming at you like Sonic Youth or something like that.

But you’re still enjoying writing songs?

Moreso than an office job. What else am I going to do? I don’t know. It’s my career. It’s been my income now since my mid-20s. I have no other skills besides recording and touring, and don’t want to do the touring anymore. The recording has always been fun, but that doesn’t make me any money, ever. The goal is to figure out what to do with my life, how to make that money that I have right now because it’s not going to last. Also, the industry is going to shit. I never expected anything from it anyway. I’m pretty lucky in that sense. I bought myself an extended adolescence, well into adulthood. I’m 15 at 40 years old, so that’s the reality of it.

Can you give us a little bit of insight on songwriting process? How do you do it these days?

These days I don’t write the lyrics down until I have all the music planned out and written out in my mind. I have to hear the whole song without the words. I hear the words as sounds and I just have to sing it to myself over and over again. I have to be able to remember it because I don’t read it [music] – I don’t write the notes down or anything like that.

If I get inspired and the songs come to me, they have to be good enough to stick around. I have my little voice recorder on my phone, voice memos. Whenever I have an idea or something I will sing it into my phone. Then I can listen back to it and I’ll be able to hear everything that I hear.

I couldn’t be less relevant now. If I was relevant at all, I’m definitely not now.

But I don’t sit down and do anything with those. I don’t learn it until I already have the whole sounds in my mind, completely unmistakable. A lot of times if you’re not careful, you just learn the notes on one instrument, but as soon as you learn that, it starts to replace the actual, full song because you don’t have to remember it anymore. You have the chords, so you remember the chords. That replaces the song.

So you have to do it from the opposite. You have to do it from the point of view of, “No, there’s no question about what all the other instruments are doing.” Right as I’m about to record it, nine months later, I will sit down and try and learn one of the parts to it. And it’s all at the very, very end of the whole process. Then the lyrics are the very, very last thing, right before I record it, because I don’t like sitting with lyrics. I will just change the lyrics constantly if I haven’t recorded them. It’s all a way to trick myself into not thinking too much about it, so that I can create a passable attitude or something like that. It’s just rock & roll. It can’t be too thought out.

Some have called you a lo-fi DIY artist. What do you think of that?

I never called myself “Lo-fi.” I’m the “godfather of lo-fi,” they say, or “the godfather of chillwave.” Or “Hypnagogic pop.” I didn’t name these things – they did. I think people are just having fun with ideas they get in their head. They find a way to frame artists in a certain way that makes them interesting. If I have a chillwave audience and I also have a lo-fi audience, that’s great. Maybe one day they’ll make a section for it. What is it? Glo-fi!

I just think nowadays nobody cares anymore. I’m old hat at this point and I’m just old. “Oh, Ariel, who cares about that guy? That guy is so five minutes ago.” No kids are going to listen to that because their older brothers and sisters listen to it. I couldn’t be less relevant now. If I was relevant at all, I’m definitely not now.

I’m like the equivalent of Death Cab For Cutie. Basically a bunch of people that go to their concerts, they look a certain way. They’re white, they have their wives there with their dresses and their big stomachs with the third kid coming in. They have a beard and they’re like a lumberjack. They never go out anymore, but they’re going to go see Death Cab For Cutie. “It’s part of my youth, of course we’ll go there.” It’s that kind of thing. It’s like dinosaur rock. It’s “Oldchella.” That’s what I am. I’m “Oldchella” for Pitchfork readers.

Of course, we don’t want anybody else to know this. As long as there’s some kids that do listen to me, if they’re making music then maybe there’s a chance that I might have another year of relevance. But I always feel like I just happened to just make it. “I made a record, yes! I have one more year in the game. I made it by the skin of my teeth.” I always feel like I’m barely there. Made it in the ring to just not really exist there and then I’ll disappear again.

But it’s okay. It’s about as famous as I’d like to get, because I’m not very into the fame thing or the attention thing anymore. As I get older, I’m not wanting the attention so much. But it’s a job, so I do it. I complain about it, but I do it. But I have to be myself, too. I have to get back in touch with something that was good about why I did it when I was younger. These are good things that people should be reminded of every once in a while in their lives. I don’t want to become too much of a Scrooge. My goal is to be like myself. I have to be like a superhero. “Just be yourself, Ariel, and don’t think too hard about it.”

I wanted to ask about your latest album, Dedicated To Bobby Jameson.

There’s a tribute in the title. It seems to be what my main stock in trade is. We’re going to roll out a new tribute today. “Let’s not forget Kim Fowley, let’s not forget Bobby Jameson.” They’re all about to die as soon as I roll out this cake. Sayonara. I’m like the grim reaper.

But in this case I was too late. Bobby Jameson died before I made the dedication. I read Bobby Jameson’s blog online, his autobiography more or less, and I was so taken with it that I canceled my plans that week. I wouldn’t even go out. I had to read it. I can’t remember the last time I was so taken with a book, much less a rock autobiography. I never read those anymore.

But it was written so well. It was written very close to the end of his life and he remembers everything very clearly. The perspective that he has is something that I definitely relate to. He’s sort of a tragic story. It’s a true story, by the way.

Bobby Jameson – All I Want Is My Baby

Bobby Jameson was supposed to be the next big thing in the early ’60s. He had a moment when he was poised to be the next thing, in his mind at least. But it never happened. He was discovered at 17 by Tony Alamo. His name keeps on changing for one reason or another. He gets mishandled constantly. His managers are psychopaths. He’s left basically being bitter before the Beatles even arrive in the States. He’s too early. He’s already talking about being fucked over. It’s like they tested the ’60s out on him to see what would happen.

There’s no summer of love in Bobby Jameson’s ’60s. It went straight to “Helter Skelter,” like right off the bat. All of his songs are so bitter and there’s no hope. There’s hope, then the dark side of the ’60s happens and reality sets in. Then the ’70s happen. You see this thread throughout everything.

He just became known as a guy who basically was always upset about how he hadn’t got paid for any of the things that he had done. People were just sick of him. They’re like, “Give me a break, man. Seriously, we’ve heard it a million times.”

He had some sort of dalliances with some of the early industry in Hollywood, with some of the same players. He played with the Rolling Stones and Frank Zappa. Those aren’t the good ones. Nobody pays attention to his solo stuff. There’s one record that’s more well known than all of his [other] records, and it’s one that he just recorded under a different name completely, Chris Lucey.

Nobody knew that it was him for years. It was actually a valuable record and they didn’t put two and two together. They didn’t realize it was Bobby Jameson and he had to actually come out and clear that up when it got reissued by Rev-Ola in the early 2000s, which he didn’t get paid for, again.

Chris Lucey AKA Bobby Jameson – Girl From The East

He thought of himself as a rock star from the early ’60s to the early ’80s. In his mind, he was a rock star. It got to the point in the early to mid-’70s, every single week he was trying to commit suicide. He became more well known for being the guy getting on the balcony ledge and stopping traffic every day. He was completely nuts. He was thought to be dead after this. His whole life was identity. He just thought of himself as this guy that didn’t get a break and he was just trying to do it so bad and it was his whole identity was mixed in it.

And then he left LA and he got sober. He went and lived with his mom and brother in San Luis Obispo, and he joined the Hells Angels. That’s where he was for 30 years. Nobody had heard about him and that he was even alive. When they reissued his stuff on CD they got in touch with him and they said, “You’re going to get paid.” And he’s like, “That’s great. I never got paid the first time.” And he never got paid. So nothing changed.

It sounds like a typically dark music industry story.

That’s the short version. I just really, really identified with it, with the anguish that he felt and his need for approval that was never satisfied. That speaks to me. That’s how I feel when I think back on the first 26 years of my life. Thank goodness I got put on Paw Tracks because that solved everything. I felt acknowledged and now I don’t even need to necessarily do it. I need to do it for money, but I don’t listen to music and I don’t really care about it. The identity stuff doesn’t really matter to me.

I would like to bring back religion. That would buy us more time.

You’re supposed to grow up, but not me. I’m supposed to actually stay young. I can’t grow up. My job is to never grow up. To connect with that part of me that was happy, creatively, against the world. I have to reconnect with that. In order to do my job well, I have to somehow figure out a way to do that.

But barring that, my job as a person in the world is to just basically not be an idiot and not be a childish piece of shit that is upset with everything. And disappointed that nobody loves them or something like that. You’ve got to get over that.

That’s one of the things that I think is very relevant now, too, because you have a whole generation of people that are growing up on the social networks and they’re getting a lot of endorphin rush. Their dopamine is flying on overtime. They’re getting a rush from expressing themselves over and over and over again, so that they think it’s a good thing that they’re getting.

Expression is a terrible thing. It’s good to get it out of your system, but after a while it’s not getting it out of your system, you’re actually getting high from it. People are going online, they’re like, “Thank goodness I have Twitter to say what I feel because I would kill somebody if I didn’t.” You wouldn’t. You’re just getting high from doing it. You’re not solving anything.

Is there a song on Dedicated To Bobby Jameson that you’re particularly proud of?

“Time To Meet Your God,” the first song on the record, is maybe closer to where people should be. In my opinion, people’s ears and bodies just glaze over as they can’t stand hearing about God. They’re so godless in their lives that they are actively repulsed by the word God and by any kind of suggestion that they should maybe start to think about it. Just kind of scaring people into actually realizing that they’re not going to heaven and stuff like that.

I would like to bring back religion. That would be a really interesting twist. That would buy us more time. Everybody’s making the Bible happen exactly as it predicted, even though they don't believe it. The New Testament is so intelligent because it’s pretty much playing out exactly as it said. But the people that don't believe in it are the ones that are actually making it happen, which is interesting. It’s weird. If you don't believe in it, then wouldn’t you do everything in your power to show that it’s not going to end up that way?

By Arno Raffeiner on September 14, 2017

On a different note