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Ariel Pink: In Praise of Guilty Genius

Ariel Pink / Photo by Nick Haymes

Born Ariel Marcus Rosenberg in Beverly Hills in 1978, Pink was a recovering metalhead by the time he reached art school in 1997. A historian at heart, he was disgusted with the way grunge and alternative rock had, as he saw it, halted popular music’s forward progress, unwittingly giving birth to the aforementioned ramanah.

“It’s what happened because of this appreciation that grunge had for past transgressions,” he says of the moment that begat Hootie, Scott Stapp, and a hundred Chad Kroegers. “People who don’t necessarily like Eddie Vedder,” Pink says. “That’s the way it was taken up and reinterpreted by culture, without history. There’s no relationship to the narrative anymore. People want their own interpretation of history. We’re compartmentalizing, forgetting what came directly before, like it’s not a big deal. That, to me, is a crime. It’s going to lead to the end of everything, to people not being interested in anything or who they are.”

So Pink redirected the narrative himself, burrowing back through 40 years of indelible melody and into dark, neglected corners of the pop-music canon. Between 1998 and 2004, he wrote and recorded more than eight albums’ worth of material: a dissonant, discomfiting, deeply melodic ooze of eight-track exorcisms. It was outsider chiaroscuro doubling as bedroom Rorschach, bubblegum’s underbelly as revealed by a kid “desperate to be heard.” And very gradually, he was. After the 2004 reissue of The Doldrums, a wide-release on Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label, Pink’s idiosyncratic, visionary aesthetic presented itself as a left-field, channel-surfing blueprint for a generation nearly ten years his junior.

Though the reaction was delayed, his influence could be heard in the wallpapery echoes of chillwave, the punchline-turned-genre-turned-punch line that he’s now credited with inadvertently godfathering. His fascination with, and commitment to, recasting outdated, obsolescent media is still felt in indie rock’s rekindled, ongoing romance with similarly corrosive, no-fi recording techniques, and is now widely seen in the VHS-boosted, Polaroid-clad aesthetic embraced by a hundred blogs and apps. Pink’s vision was composed of pop’s entire history blaring and blurring at once: a torrent of flotsam harnessed before the Internet provided that very service, one that sounded like it was disintegrating in real time, at a moment when the notion of the physical was doing exactly that. And were it not for his work’s retromaniacal veneer, it’s difficult to imagine Lana Del Rey existing in the “indie”-based conversation that helped catapult her to pop stardom last year.

“I knew that I was doing something that sounded like the trace of a memory you can’t place,” Pink says. “I knew that’s what was special about it. But I was also embroiled in the process: the way to make the [eight track] sound okay was to take advantage of its limitations, to make the music I heard when I was a kid, a return to my first memories. I’m not interested in nostalgia, I’m interested in who I am. That takes me back to the earliest stages of my childhood. That’s what I’m constantly reinvestigating. That’s why it’s a subconscious thing, and that’s what I think people have picked up on it in a collective-unconscious way. So much so that now, people take it for granted. They think this is the sound of today. No, this is the sound of your life, and you don’t even know why.”

That sound was most loudly attributed to Pink in 2010, the year he released Before Today, a smoothed-out, single-spawning full-length (his debut on 4AD) comprising old material he’d re-recorded with his touring band, in a studio, with the help of a producer. It arrived at a moment when every movement he’d helped ignite seemed to converge: chillwave and lo-fi were at their height, nostalgia had become a Web-assisted, highly marketable pop-cultural currency. He’d finally caught up to himself just as his language had been translated for the masses.

Ariel Pink / Photo by Nick Haymes

Back in the Pasadena parking lot, Grimes is clawing into “Oblivion,” a song that makes particularly sly use of old Cyndi Lauper hooks, when Pink sends me a text message. “I’m tired. Wanna bail?” Two blocks away, he’s sitting in the shadow of the First United Methodist Church, its gothic stone walls towering overhead. “Every time I hear her,” he says of Grimes, “I hear a little of myself. It’s obvious, but it’s cool: You can see the potential for something.”

Pink claims he’s on a “quest,” which he contends is universal. “When a song blows your mind the first time you hear it, you don’t know where it’s going. It’s blowing your mind as it’s unfolding. Then there’s that sensation that you’re actually going to remember the song. You’ll say to yourself, ‘Oh, this is a song I can’t wait to memorize and hear over and over again.’ You just know. You just feel it.” He stands and laughs. “We resist, but it beats itself in anyway. And then you have to decide: is this a good memory or a bad memory?”

We walk down a sidewalk crammed with rubbernecking kids. Not long ago, Pink says, 4AD boss Simon Halliday shared a conversation that he’d had with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, a guy who has his own gift for recasting pop music’s past. Murphy told Halliday that 4AD should print and sell T-shirts that read: “IT’S ALL ARIEL PINK’S FAULT.” Pink lets a cigarette dangle from his mouth as he digs around in his jeans for a lighter. “It is,” he says with a definitive sneer. “It’s all my fault.”

When we get back to his apartment, Pink immediately falls asleep. It’s 7 p.m.