In “Symphony of the Nymph”, one of the zanier and more delightful tracks on Ariel Pink’s new Mature Themes, the mad master of Haunted Graffiti proclaims himself “a lesbian,” “a nympho,” “a therapist,” and “just a rock ‘n’ roller from Beverly Hills.” With the exception (one assumes) of a lesbian, he is most all of those things. And we’ll add a few more: provocateur, horn dog, prankster, perfectionist, egomaniac, button-pusher, contrarian, an occasionally impudent performer, and above all, an artist with a remarkable talent for transforming the sort of Lite-FM sounds that some would dismiss as “cheese” into something far more modern and delicious.
His biggest moment to date came with “Round and Round.” The 2010 masterpiece of Picasso pop anchored the excellent Before Today, an album that marked the arrival of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti at 4AD Records, and saw a significant step up in terms of audience for Pink, after more than 10 years in the game and at least that many releases. And yet, capitalizing on a foot in the mainstream door is hardly in Pink’s nature. Mature Themes, while possessing plenty of pop hooks, may just have more twists and turns than its predecessor. There’s Ariel in his wickedly comical voice on “Kinski Assassin”, only to turn sweetly sincere and (we think) irony-free on the title track and “Only in my Dreams.” We get the dark mumblings of “Driftwood”, the bright, stop-start, goofy politics of “Farewell American Primitive”, and a lovely cover (with pal Dam-Funk) of “Baby” by the recently resurrected Seventies psych pop duo Donnie and Joe Emerson. It’s wild, thrilling, and unpredictable—in short, it’s Ariel Pink. Hive talked to Pink about not reading album reviews, what his therapist told him, and the virtues of selflessness.
“But what I do know is, once you get a good review, like an A or a 9.0 on Pitchfork, that’s just the beginning of the end.”
When we last talked, back in November, you said that you and the band had done a little recording in Kenny’s [guitarist/keyboardist Kenny Gilmore] garage, but that you were looking for a new space to really get serious and start working. That was only like nine months ago.
Yeah, well, we didn’t really waste too much time. After I spoke to you last, we ended up finding a space. We leased it out for fifteen months. But basically we got the place cheap, it’s three rooms, a control room, a window, we soundproofed it ourselves. We bought a board, furniture, a PlayStation, got it cozy, we went to town. So it was pretty quick, I suppose.
Before Today was really just a case of replicating songs that had already existed for quite a while. But was this one quite a different experience?
Totally, because we actually had time to sit down and write. It was a really great process for me. I had a lot of fun, and it just got me all excited about recording again. Because, in essence I’d been holding it hostage for five years prior. So it feels like a new beginning of sorts for me. I’m just getting back into recording, and that’s what I’d been waiting for all this time.
I don’t know if you think that Before Today was a game changer for you necessarily, but it definitely opened things up a lot and got a ton of acclaim. Could you just put all of that out of your head in working on this one?
I’ve been doing that since I was young. It’s easy for me to not feel like a rock star, because I’m the last person to hear about what people really think about me, you know? I’m just there in my fucking apartment, and I don’t have TV, and I don’t read Pitchfork, I don’t listen to new music, I don’t do any of that stuff. But what I do know is, once you get a good review, like an A or a 9.0 on Pitchfork, that’s just the beginning of the end. It’s destined to work against you because then that’s what you’re going to be compared to. And that’s to be expected. So I just expect to be panned every second of the day. And usually I am! I mean I know there’s been a lot of hype around me, and it’s not warranted. I’m just another fucking musician.
I don’t see much indication that this record’s gonna be panned in any way.
We’ll see, we’ll see. I’m not fishing for compliments and I am proud of it. It was just a lot more fun for me to do than the last record. I hope for the best, expect the worst. It’s just like a concerned father would be.
“I am definitely a nympho. ‘My name is Ariel, and I’m a nympho.’ So, it’s kind of like I’m in an AA meeting or something.”
As ever, the songs lend themselves to people wanting to figure out who Ariel is. And I don’t even know you, but I always come back to the idea those dark and funny tracks, “Menopause Men”, “Butt-House Blondies”, “Kinski Assassin”, “Symphony of the Nymph,” that those are who you really are. This wicked sense of humor, as button-pushing or subversive as he can be. So when I hear the more sentimental stuff, I always think this has to be ironic, there’s got to be a punch line in there. Like, when you sing “I want it to be good” in “Mature Themes”…
Oh I really do want it to be good. But at the same time, I really do vacillate between — I do have a problem of agency in my life, as my therapist puts it. I’ve got hang-ups and chips on my shoulder that I’m not fully aware of, and I’ve got baggage, and that stuff, it’s probably the reason that I’m so reluctant to write lyrics in the first place. My lyrics might just reveal a lot more about me than I am willing to acknowledge, because I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t take on personas as such, I’m actually terrible at constructing a narrative, a fictional narrative, I just don’t know how to fuckin’ lie. I definitely guard against editing myself too much. Words — they play out like they would on a Ouija board or a refrigerator. You know what I’m saying? You just kind of throw words up and see what comes out of the box. I’m not writing a fictional narrative, but I’m just not really writing as a thinking person, you know? It’s sort of the invisible me. On the one hand I’m a very talkative person and I’m not shy in the least and I engage with people, for five minutes. But I kind of want for a true companion. I’ve got a few good friends but that’s really it.
Definitely one of my favorite tracks over these past few weeks that I’ve been listening to it, is “Symphony of the Nymph”, cause like “Round and Round” it’s another one of those throw everything but the kitchen sink in there. There’s even a horse neighing sound on there. It’s great.
Yeah it’s like Fistful of Dollars. A Morricone soundtrack. And then there’s all these inside jokes too. All of the stuff on there is pretty close to being factual. “Dr. Mario, colonoscopist” — that’s my dad. And “I’m a therapist”, well I actually kind of think I am, and a patient at the same time, and “I’m a nympho,” I am definitely a nympho. “My name is Ariel, and I’m a nympho.” So, it’s kind of like I’m in an AA meeting or something.
But then you go into this little whiny voice on, “I can’t get enough of those bitches.” Which is genius, but at the same time I’m thinking, I don’t really think of you as a player with the ladies, because up until last year you were in a long-term relationship [with artist Geneva Jacuzzi], right?
Well you could say this I definitely have a different agenda than when I spoke to you last time. I feel like there’s so many aspects to myself that I am only recently becoming enlightened to. I never thought of myself as a sexual person, ever. I mean I wrote it off for so long, from such a young age, because I wasn’t getting girls in high school. Girls weren’t into me. So I was just like, “Oh well I don’t even want it! I’m an artist.” I threw myself into that lot, like, “I’m not really sexual!” and it’s a wonder that I had lasted so long. I just didn’t value sex. But I’ve learned a little but more about humans in the past year, and about women as well.
The album originally was going to be named after the track “Farewell American Primitive”, which is another really interesting song just because it’s got these little pastiche references to things like Guantanamo and North Korea and stuff. I know you’re not usually really didactically political in your songs. But what can you say about that song or why it finally ended up not being the title?
At first we just thought it would be a cool title. And then in like the same week that we told the label about it, I happened to notice that there are two other records coming out that same period that had “America” in the title—the Dan Deacon one, America, and Neil Young’s Americana. And I just felt like, “Ahh no, no, no.” This is one of those years where at the end of the year they’re gonna like — and I probably over-analyzed it — but it kind of put a bad taste in my mouth. I didn’t want any kind of meta-narrative getting stirred up like, “What is it with 2012 and America? It’s obviously been a concern for lots of artists.” And I didn’t want to be a part of that, I was just like “You’ve gotta change it.”
And as for “Farewell American Primitive” the song, though, are you engaged in this election? Are you interested in what’s going on?
No, no, no. But I’m not interested in dissing the election either. I’m just not interested. I guess for lack of a better term, I’m a small-minded socialist. And I wear that with pride, I’ll go out and say any day that socialism is the way.
I’m completely with you. I feel that way more strongly than ever. But of course it’s a dirty word in this country.
Of course, and in any other country, every other person is a socialist, I mean c’mon. And even we are socialists in our best moments. We don’t like to admit it, but we actually have had okay moments — moments of actually consciousness. And of course those moments should be celebrated, we should embrace them. Of course those are the things that are going to sink the fucking country because it really is a country of me, me, me. Pursuit of happiness for yourself. And you know what? No, man. We didn’t get anywhere by just looking out for ourselves. You gotta look out for everybody else. That’s the only way we got out of the Dark Ages.
Is it surprising to you that Mitt Romney is getting the traction that he is?
It’s not surprising but I don’t know how much of it is real. I mean, I can’t see him really winning. But I just might be proven wrong. And if that’s the case, I’m outta here.
Mature Themes is out today via 4AD.