Ariel Pink: Ambivalent Genius

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By now, Ariel Pink (real name, Ariel Rosenberg) reckons, you’ve probably heard his story. He’s had to tell it enough times. Oddball L.A. kid starts making experimental bedroom recordings in high school and toils in obscurity for nearly a decade—without much in the way of emotional or financial support from Mom and Pop, thank you very much—before finding patrons in kindred bizarro spirits Animal Collective. In 2004, the indie luminaries released Pink’s The Doldrums on their Paw Tracks label, making him, for better or worse, a professional musician. By 2010, Pink was with heavyweight indie label 4AD, through which he released his breakout album Before Today, featuring earworm single “Round and Round” and launching him to minor celebrity status. Since then, he’s become known for winding, often cranky interviews, solidified an unwanted reputation as a lo-fi, and had his name bandied about as the Godfather of Chillwave, a term he finds only slightly less ridiculous than the others—hauntology, hypnogogic, glo-fi—that writers have coined to capture his idiosyncratic sound.

“I really don’t know if I would be making music anymore [if Paw Tracks hadn’t picked up The Doldrums],” he says. “I think there’s a good chance that I might be exactly like I am right now. And there’s a good chance that I might be somebody else completely that I haven’t met yet. Because really, The Doldrums didn’t do anything for me. The Doldrums, in my mind, I thought I was famous, but I wasn’t. It’s just a state of mind. A lot of people would say, ‘Oh getting recognized was the worst thing that ever happened to him. He had it, he was inspired, and he got caught up in his own head and believed his own hype and lost the plot.’ And that’s a very good argument, I would say, very honest. But I would say I don’t know that I would be doing this. I don’t know that I would be making music if I wasn’t making any money at this age, [34].”

Pink is prone to such winding, contradictory musings on everything from how he feels about music writers—“Ask your mom what chillwave means! […] Are these just writers wanking off or something like that?” and later, “I love writers! You guys make the world go ‘round.”—to the title of his new record, Mature Themes—“There’s nothing mature about talking about mature themes. Nobody is going to buy that for a second. It sounds mature to say ‘mature,’ but it just really immature.”

This fractured, tangled way of seeing the world is all over Pink’s music, and Mature Themes is one of the best examples yet of Pink’s ability to weave together his feelings, tripped-out sonic impulses and absurdist word soup into something that feels cut from whole cloth.

“I’m a more or less naïve person, so I’m an experimental artist. I make my way in the dark, you know. I don’t know what I’m doing,” Pink says, but Mature Themes gives listeners a reason to question whether that last statement is true. Stylistically, Mature Themes is all over the place, from the ‘70s folk-pop of “Only in My Dreams” to the pure, cascading ‘80s electropop of “Pink Slime.” Pink shapeshifts from song to song, delivering his material in the guise of a sort of 1930s “Monster Mash” drone here (“Kinski Assassin”), a child-like Bee Gees falsetto there (“Farewell American Primitive”). The whole enterprise gives the sense of something darkly giddy, just like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart did at their best. If Pink keeps it up, he may well land himself in the canon of time-honored outsider artists. Whether he’s able to do that will likely hinge on if he manages to psych himself out too badly before making a couple more great records.

“Now, getting a 9.0 in Pitchfork magazine [for 2010’s Before Today], I anticipate that this record will be panned,” Pink worried a few weeks before Mature Themes was released and greeted by the tastemaking publication with an 8.5 and the honor of their Best New Music label. “There’s no way this record is going to be not panned.” The sound of him wringing his hands was practically audible over the phone.

But Pink is used to the feeling that failure is just around the corner. Before its release and subsequent avalanche of critical love, he says, “I was real down on Before Today. I thought it was a piece of shit.” That kind of attitude, which Pink calls “rational pessimism or negative optimism” helps insulate him from the possibility of failure so that he can dust himself off and try again. “When people think that I’m supposed to fold it, it’s not like me to do that. I’m more likely to bring it back from the dead and make sure it redeems itself, in some other lights.”

That knack for finding redemption may come from Pink’s belief that there’s nothing that can’t be made worthwhile through hard work. “With my band, my firm belief is that anything, given enough attention and energy—it’ll become something! There’s nothing frivolous enough or immaterial enough to not become some sot of something if you give it enough TLC.”

It’s precisely that attitude that pushed Ariel Pink through learning how to play guitar, through years of making music as an unknown and now through the strange experience of media scrutiny that can sometimes cloud the music-making process. With Before Today and now Mature Themes, perhaps he’s finally proved himself right.

“I believed I would totally make it with enough time,” Pink says of his early career. “With enough time, I knew I would cultivate something interesting, something worthy of success. That proved me right, and that’s something that I didn’t learn from my parents, that’s for sure. That kind of perseverance is something I didn’t learn from anybody but me. And I don’t listen to anybody really. I kind of know what I’m doing and I kind of don’t.”

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