Ariel Pink is surrounded by contradictions. The 36-year-old singer-songwriter possesses a preternatural gift for straightforward, hook-filled songcraft, but injects his work with just enough eccentricity — lo-fi fog, spoken-word punchlines, titles like “Menopause Man” — that detractors feel plenty justified to dismiss his robust catalog of odd-but-pleasurable pop as little more than a mess of sketches and goofs. He talks publicly about the time a dominatrix “put something in his butt,” but also leads sweet sing-alongs with school children. The Los Angeles fixture — born Ariel Marcus Rosenberg — has strong, loud opinions, but expresses them in tangled sentences that stop, start, and fold in on themselves. For someone who jokes to the press about suicide and the Rwandan genocide, he’s fairly shy in person.
At least that’s what SPIN observed when we met with Pink in a Manhattan hotel to solicit his opinions on a handful of relatively bizarre pop hits from years past. In advance of his latest album — the sprawling, 17-track pom pom, out November 18 on 4AD — SPIN picked Pink’s brain about a few songs we thought he’d have a curious insight on: tracks that acheived surprising (in retrospect) success on the Billboard charts, whether it was in spite of a sci-fi sensibility or because they melded FM cheese and polish with studio wizardry.
In other words, songs that feel as though they’re a part of some alternate-reality history of pop, as if they belong to the same outré lineage as Pink’s latest effort — not to mention the two LPs (2010’s Before Today and 2012’s Mature Themes) that he recorded with his now-retired backing band, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Grafitti. When he wasn’t having knee-jerk reactions to our playlist, the pop savant discussed the making of pom pom, what it was like collaborating with legendary producer/songwriter/industry figure Kim Fowley, and why he hates the Eurythmics.
1) Zager and Evans, “In the Year 2525 (Exordium et Terminus)“
What is this, like, “Age of Aquarius” or something?
It’s Zager and Evans, “In the Year 2525” — a No. 1 hit in 1969.
Wow, 1969. I’ll do a cover of this one, I think. In about 10 years.
2) 10cc, “I’m Not in Love”
Oh, “She’s Gone.”
No, not quite.
Oh, oh yeah, of course — 10cc. [Harmonizes with the backup vocals.] I never remember the intro.
This was in Guardians of the Galaxy this summer. Did you see that movie?
Do you not care about those kinds of films?
It’s not that I don’t care. I was interested in seeing it, actually, because “Cherry Bomb” was on the charts again, due to its usage in that movie and, as a friend of Kim Fowley’s, it was very… He was saying all the things that he was doing this year and all this kind of stuff. He was in a Beyoncé video [“Haunted”], he’s got a song on Guardians of the Galaxy, and he’s got the Ariel Pink stuff — he’s super. The guy is just a workhorse. He’s got a colostomy bag hanging out over the side of his bed and he’s still written three books in the past year.
He ad-libbed “Jell-o” and “Nude Beach A Go-Go,” right?
[Nods.] And “Plastic Raincoats in the Pig Parade” and “Exile on Frog Street.”
Were you blown away just by watching him work?
Yeah, man. I mean, it doesn’t surprise me because I’m so familiar with his work, but it’s just great that he’s willing to share all that stuff and just to see how other people interpret his art — in the past and in the present. He still kind of has a sensibility that’s leftover from the 1950s, his youth, you know? And, of course you could put a techno beat underneath it and it might be different, it might be the same, but I hear these sort of jingles in these commercials and I wanted to stay true to that. I think we paid good homage to it.
Kim Fowley’s been fighting cancer for some time now and of course I imagine that would, at the very least, complicate his professional life. Was it tough for you two to find time to work together because of the circumstances?
No, no, no. He just kind of sussed it out. He asked me to bring a guitar over and we were going to collaborate in some capacity and he was like, “Alright, show me a riff, give me a riff.” And I was just like, “A riff? I mean, I got riffs but they’re my riffs. I don’t want you bogarting my…” And he’s like, “OK, this is how it’s going to go down: I’m just going to sing some ideas and then you’re just going to record them. Just start recording.”
And then he’s just [starts singing], “The sky was white and black and polka-dotted / Must have been an Ariel daaaa-y.” But I could hear it — I could just totally hear where his brain was going. And I mean, that was the last time he had heard those songs. He essentially just threw ’em out there and it was up to me. I sent him the songs soon after we did them and he was like, “Oh, did I do that?”
3) The Eurythmics, “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”
This one is a little obvious…
Yes, the Eurythmics. I prefer “Here Comes the Rain Again.” That’s my favorite one of theirs.
Do you prefer any of the cover versions of this track?
No, I don’t like the covers either. I don’t like Marilyn Manson. I really don’t even like this song at all, or the Eurythmics in general. I find them to be extremely foul, but “Here Comes the Rain Again” is mildly enjoyable.
What about this song provokes such a strong reaction from you?
I find [Annie Lennox’s] whole comfort level with the camera to be very off-putting. It was something of a novel thing back then, so she had some sort of charisma that translated beyond the normal performance. It’s just made for the camera. And [the Eurythmics’] Dave Stewart makes me want to fucking commit suicide.
He’s just like the Linda Perry of the era. He’s got his hand helping everybody writing songs. He was good with synthesizers and stuff like that, so all of a sudden all of these old stalwarts who didn’t know how to transfer over into the video era — Bob Dylan was calling him up, Tom Petty. And he was involved with everything because he was the person who could program shit and they didn’t know how to deal with this transition into the synthesized [sound]. That’s what was popular then.
Does that kind of collaboration seem cynical to you?
No, I just think it’s funny. I just think it was obviously not what these artists wanted to do. They were just doing it because they had to or they would lose their contracts. Nobody got out of the ’80s alive.
4) Todd Rundgren, “Can We Still Be Friends”
Ah, Todd Rundgren. He’s good. He’s kind of got that repulsive cynical personality as well, but I like him — he’s definitely admirable. He’s got almost as much of a God complex as Zappa, but he’s somehow more palatable for people.
Are you a big fan of Todd Rundgren?
No. I love some of his solo records — they’re really good, some of them. I see him as an experimental artist and producer. He’s all about the soul — very, very jazzy chords. Distinctive.
5) Marcy Playground, “Sex and Candy”
[Singing along] “Downtown by myself…” This was right before Sixpence None the Richer, right?
It’s around the same time, ’98 or so.
It’s just the most tired, stale era of music. Just… grunge hangover.
This song probably wouldn’t have been nearly as popular if it had come out at any other time in pop history.
No, because it’s so phenomenally boring. [Sings along] “Like disco lemonade.”
6) LaTour, “People Are Still Having Sex”
I forget what this is called. [Leans over to read the song’s title.] “People Are Still Having Sex.” I think this was the same time as, uh, [starts singing] “I’m a model / You know what I mean / And I shake my little tush on the catwalk.” And “Detachable Penis.” The whole spoken-word thing. Like, it’s rhyming but it’s not. [Shakes head.] Right Said Fred, man.