When your ex-drummer is suing you for a cool million bucks, congratulations, you've made it.
"Shock and awe," says singer Ariel Pink, a heralded art rocker from Beverly Hills, Calif., who also happens to be one of the strangest stories in music right now. The 34-year-old bedroom recording savant and self-professed "nympho" has become successful, much to his surprise, without completely shedding his outsider stripes.
Pink, whose real name is Ariel Rosenberg, says he must respond soon to the lawsuit from former drummer Aaron Sperske (Elliott Smith, Beachwood Sparks), who says they had an oral agreement for equal-partner membership before he was wrongfully ousted last summer.
"I've been the boss of this thing for 15 years. I write every last fucking note," Pink says of his group, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti. Sperske "wants to settle for more than I'm willing to give him, more than we have. ... With lawyers' fees, though, I may as well just break up the band."
Regardless of the legal drama, Pink sounds content. His deceptively silly new album, "Mature Themes" (4AD), is getting rave reviews. The music shuffles through decades with jangling Byrdsian guitar pop, new wave, ambient, and a cover of a soulful, late-'70s rarity by unknown brothers Donnie and Joe Emerson. It's unpredictable stuff; never lapsing into parody or simple nostalgia but rather thriving on a collagelike textural approach and Pink's surreal lyrics (lines such as "suicide dumplings dropping testicle bombs / kick-outs in Technicolor talk to yer moms.")
"I always find myself wanting to do everything in one song," he says.
Things weren't always so peachy. Pink toiled in obscurity throughout the '90s, crafting hundreds of lo-fi bedroom recordings of decaying, alternately goofy and sincere experimental songs influenced by goth and hazy AM Gold memories.
"All I listen to is AM, like AM 640, more stimulating talk radio. Amplitude modulation doesn't have the same sensitivity," he explains. "It's more muddy, thick sounds. Really, my music is just haunted by oversaturation of compression. Everything's up front and in your face, instruments forcing others out, vying for attention."
The waifish singer knows about standing out. Growing up, he was severely bullied at different schools before graduating from Beverly Hills High School. There was the tug of war between parents: his successful colonoscopist father and an artistic mother who moved to Louisiana after their divorce. "I played them like a fiddle, they played me. Mom was encouraging, Dad wasn't," he says. "It's all water under the bridge now."
All of their lives changed after his sister was severely injured in a car accident. "She's hospitalized for the rest of her life, like Terry Schiavo, she's totally vegetative," he says, his voice darkening. "It gets easier with time. My life is really high-paced now, and I don't get to visit her as often as I should. I suppose one could theorize that is me wanting to escape these close-to-surface emotions in my family."
His career break came when he passed a CD-R to the Maryland band Animal Collective in 2003. Enamored, the band reissued "The Doldrums" on its Paw Tracks label. Two years ago, Pink released his breakthrough album, the slick "Before Today," containing Pitchfork song of the year "Round and Round," a multilayered indie anthem that helped establish a global fan base.
Critics often credit Pink as godfather of the minimalist chill-wave genre, but he doesn't think that matters. "People are already influenced by people influenced by me and they're not even aware of the story," he says. "That's the disconcerting thing about current times. There is no narrative anymore." S
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti performs at 7 p.m. at the 9:30 Club in Washington on Sept. 13 with Bodyguard and Moon Diagrams. $20. For information, call 202-265-0930 or visit 930.com.
More highlights from our interview with Pink:
Style: Are you getting used to being more famous?
Ariel Pink:Yeah, well it’s pretty repetitive. You really do get used to it a lot quicker than it takes to become famous. I’m pretty used to the interviews and the work and all that stuff. But I don’t feel famous at all, really. Still feel pretty lower class or whatever.
So no women in prison writing you and wanting to have your babies?
(Laughs) I’d probably have to go to prison to have that kind of audience. Hack up a family or something. ... But I’m actually doing these Loveline type radio show things now at IamBoyCrazy.com. I play the Dr. Phil to Alexi Wasser’s Oprah. So it’s a male perspective helping out 17-year-olds. A lot of kids with kid problems and me giving them adult solutions.
Would you care to say anything more about the drummer situation?
Ryeland Allison is an old buddy of mine. Amazing drummer and has done so much for us. It’s gonna be beyond what it’s been. He’s been working for Hans Zimmer. Totally prodigious musician and all around great guy. We’re so happy to have him in the band.
Your new video for “Only in my Dreams” is a kind of polygamous fantasy. How did that come about?
When you’re being honest with yourself, guy, I think we’re hardwired for variety. I don’t know if girls are same way, but I know guys are. It feels that way. Unless a guy can’t get off unless he’s in love with somebody. When you think about what marriage is… We’re not designed to be with one person the rest of our lives. That doesn’t maximize potential in evolutionary terms. It does provide an economic incentive to support certain mechanisms of society. ... The state has been very adamant about keeping the institution of marriage to a conventional relationship -- one man, one woman … You kind of wonder about relationships after being in one for eight years -- it catches you off guard. I hadn’t broken up with Geneva for eight years, and I was on cloud nine the whole time. ... At the same time, we’re still really good friends. We even did this video together. I was able to use the video as a demonstration of my respect for her, and she was able to accept it. Step up to the plate and totally steal the show.
Her smile at the end is one of my favorite parts. It’s a beautiful, natural smile.
It’s genuine. It was between takes. I’m really proud of that video because I directed that thing, storyboarded it, wrote everything out. ... I actually think I almost proposed to her in that scene you’re talking about.
What made you move from writing songs that alienate to those that people can dance to?
I think it’s a little of meeting in the middle. I’ve been around long enough that I have an audience. I didn’t catch one. I didn’t buy one. I cultivated it over time, still cultivating. It eked along for years and years. We had a hit, whole bunch of new fans. Now there’s something more acceptable. Kids are more used to it. It’s not so much about me wanting to alienate people, I didn’t alienate them very well. I guess my music is weird, but I’m not weird. … At last count I had about .00001 percent of the world had heard my music. So there’s about 7 billion more to go.
One of your songs that I really like is “Phantasthma”—can you tell me anything about that one?
Oh yeah. That song was written in 1998 on three-string guitar. It was released, I think, as an extra track on the Japanese import of “Before Today,” though maybe you heard it on the 7-inch download. We put that out ourselves originally. There is a definitive version of that song, which in my opinion, kicks the new one in the dirt. I don’t know when it will come out. You may have to wait for the archives box set, man (laughs).
Does anyone in the band, or friends, pressure you to re-record certain songs from the past?
No, no, no. Nobody does that. Well, the label naturally wants to encourage me. Whenever they hear something they haven’t heard before, the label is like: “Oh wow, that’s something great. Why don’t you re-record that, that’s a hit song!” And it’s like, “Why didn’t you release it, you fuckin’ idiots? I recorded that when I was 20 years old.”
So anyway, I’m just eager to record new stuff. I don’t want to rest on my laurels. ... When I started, The Strokes hadn’t come out yet. When the Strokes came out, I was like, “They’re playing guitar?” Then the White Stripes came out. Now I was like, this is a sea change; maybe I will be well-known. They managed to get all these fans back into rock and roll. ... Before me, there was Royal Trux that had the same kind of thing. There was the death of the industry. Now all this bottom stuff is bubbling up to the top.
Do you feel like the media wants you as a fashion icon?
Oh yeah, man. I feel it. ... They see pictures of me where I might have been infected with some fashion thing. And they think that’s what I do. They don’t realize the horror stories. I will not make anybody happy in terms of dress, or composure, or appearance. Even taking a simple snapshot of me, I make it a real ordeal. I just have issues. A total chip on my shoulder. Like dressing up in a suit and not offending anybody at the table. I’ve been conditioned to just rail against authority.
If it all ends tomorrow, what do you think your legacy will be?
The second this whole rock thing disappears or morphs into the next thing, I think it’s not gonna be kids consuming shit. Once that goes away, those legacies, those classic histories are gonna fade. Civilizations come and go. I don’t even know if the Beatles will be remembered. I’m not so sure it will matter to the next paradigm. We don’t have a very good perspective of how totalizing these sea changes can be. New memories are made every minute. ... I’m not good enough to be a pop star, anyway. There’s a bit of self-sabotage in my whole thing.