Photography: Natalia Mantini
GIFs: Kathryn Chadason
It’s hard to believe Ariel Pink is 40 years old. Sure, he’s written enough songs for three (really long) lifetimes, but a wide-eyed innocence permeates everything he does. Not that that means he’s naively optimistic—Ariel has a surprisingly level-headed view of the world. And that’s pretty shocking for a guy who makes lo-fi experimental music, part David Lynch, part ’80s pop gone bad acid trip wrong. His latest album, Dedicated to Bobby Jameson, is a forlorn love letter for a forgotten LA rockstar, that actually has nothing to do with Bobby Jameson at all. Mixing ’60s-style folk with Pink’s perverse pop sensibility, the record sounds like its from another era—though, I can never tell which, and I’m not sure it matters. With his music, Ariel creates his own kind of fantasy. “I’m an experimental artist, so I try to produce an alternate reality,” he says, “and I want to bring listeners into it—I want us both to get lost there.”
BULLETT caught up with the artist to talk Bobby Jameson and his band (or lack of thereof).
Tell me about the new album. Who is Bob Jameson?
The album’s called Bobby and it’s dedicated to him. He’s just this older artist who died a couple of years ago. He had a blog about his life—like an unpublished, unofficial autobiography—that I read and I was taken with it. So I dedicated my record to him. Pretty standard, I think.
Why were you so taken with it?
His story just really resonated with me. He was a musician in the early ‘60 who was famously mishandled, and sort of never even given his one shot—he pretty much died unknown for all intents and purposes and sort of suffered most, if not all, of his life trying to reconcile that. And in the mean time, everything in the world happened. The ‘60s happened. It’s an interesting perspective in the sense that you hear about lots of artists that had their shot but were always unknown and didn’t get the kind of acclaim they deserved. He was one of the earliest of those, and he had all these brushes with fame—he recorded with The Rolling Stones, Frank Zappa—all of his friends ended up going places, but none of that managed to rub off on him. He was just known as the guy that lost his marbles and was just always ranting about how he had been taken advantage of—there was definitely no hopeful ‘Summer of Love’ vibes coming from his stuff. And what’s fascinating to me is the way Bobby told his story—it’s a very real document, and in my view, it’s a miniature triumph and celebration of his life.
Does the record follow his narrative?
No. I mean, from the sequence of the songs you can infer a narrative—that’s just naturally what happens. But I didn’t write the song ‘Dedicated to Bobby Jameson’ with him in mind. I don’t have any ideas of what I’m doing—you slap a cover together, you put some art on something, you release a sequence of songs, you get some fonts, and you basically just fill in the gaps. Then you ask me some questions, they read the fucking interview, and everyone’s just like, ‘Wow you really know how to tell a story dude.’ But I don’t—I really don’t.
Is that the same thing you do with Haunted Graffiti? Is there really even a difference between what you do on a so-called solo record and what you do in the band?
I’m glad you asked because the answer is no. There’s no difference whatsoever. It’s always been the same thing and it will always remain that way. It seems to never stick with people that this—no matter what it’s called—has always been a solo project.
You’re more prolific than a lot of other musicians in the sense that you write and release a lot of music, but you also have so much stuff you haven’t released and probably never will. Why do you write so much?
I actually don’t actively write so much. I barely ever write anymore—now I square out some time, like a month or two, where I sit down to work on the record, and that’s really the only time I write. I used to just write and record all the time, like my life depended on it when I was younger. But that was a long time ago. I just happen to have a lot of that stuff because I was hoarding my own material, waiting for my train to come in. Then it did and then I caught the world up, one release at a time. But why was I so desperate and recording so much at the time? That’s a good question. I was inspired, or something like that, but I was always desperate for attention. Nowadays, I hold my stuff for ransom. I don’t want to record, I don’t want to release anything, you have to tease me out of retirement.
When you do write, do you have a specific process?
The music comes first, and sometimes, the titles come first—but the music always has to come before the lyrics. I try to really build and let ideas stir for a good long time in my head before I even learn them on instruments, so I can have a full vision in my mind of what production is and what the elements are that are making this. It’s really a process of just getting it right with my memory bank, so I can really channel what initially sparked the idea. It’s the eternal return to the kernel of the idea—to that moment when I basically sat around channeling these things. So I’ll smoke pot and wait for these melodic parts to come to my mind. And then I’ll activate the lesson, when I’m clear about what they’re comprised of. Then I eventually just do the task of recording them and learning them on instruments, but keeping the original thing in mind, always. And at the very last second, I’ll write the lyrics—just fucking trick myself and sort of settling for what’s there. That’s the worst part of the process for me.
I don’t like writing lyrics—I don’t have anything to say, I don’t know what to say. You just have to have an attitude, some sort of human with an attitude on top of it. And what that is, who that is, I have no idea—I don’t know yet. I can kind of hear him through a wall when I’m thinking up a song—I can feel the vibe of the guy, but I don’t know what he’s saying so I leave that to the last second. And then I just find the words to fill in the voice and that’s it. The net has been cast and I’ve caught it before it got away. And I don’t spend too much time editing the words or anything like that—that’s what ties me down and kills me and fills me with doubt. If I were to write the words first, I’d be going back and editing them for the rest of the production process, and I’d really never finish anything.
What do you think makes a good song?
I don’t think there’s such a thing—or at least I don’t know what a good song is. If something was just inherently good, then anybody’s interpretation of it would be good. And there’s so much more that goes into what makes something successful, or good. In the case of recorded music, it’s the production—a marriage of elements that make it seem like the song is carrying everything. But then the performance and the singer—you can have somebody sing a Bob Dylan song and ruin the fuck out of it. Where did that good song go? It doesn’t even exist—it’s just an illusion, a production trick to make you think this thing has a good song buried in it.
So what do you try to do with your music?
I try to make my own world, where things might actually be this way, and the goal is to make it believable. But that’s easier said than done, and really has nothing to do with me, per se, as a person. All the other stuff—all the cosmetic effects and all the interviews—you’re really taking away from the impression that it’s supposed to leave you with. I’m happy just giving you an album cover, a song title, and the music on your playlist. Then you can dream about what kind of asshole is on the other end, making this stuff.