“House is our pop music”: Exploring the hybrid sounds of South Africa’s electronic scene
Ariel Pink has just got up. He’s also a little dazed. Not so much because it’s early – this is the first interview of a second day of promo – but because he’s been unable to remove one of his new contact lenses for a day or so. He keeps blinking and looks in considerable discomfort. A bottle of cola later he perks up. We’re here to chat about his new album ‘Mature Themes’, the follow up to the universally praised ‘Before Today’ [2010, 4AD], but the conversation swerves off into musings on gender, humanity and sex. All themselves the mature themes of the record, observed through his quite unique, occasionally teenage, view on the world.
He clears his throat many times throughout the interview, part of the waking up process, and laughs often. He occasionally dips into college professor mode, posing and answering questions within his flow: it’s very much an audience with Ariel Pink. While there are many moments of warmth and vulnerability on the album – particularly Only In My Dreams and Baby, the latter a cover of 70s soul brothers Donny and Joe Emerson – ‘Mature Themes’ is also a darkly funny record. He sings a whole song about his sperm (“Pink slime is good for you”) and a little later shouts out dubstep on Live It Up. Then there’s Schnitzel Boogie which has a wonderful spoken interlude involving the ordering of a cheeseburger that also seems to convey some deeper human truth about how we rarely really listen to one another. For all his love of controversy, no one quite gets the sad, beautiful absurdity of life across like Ariel Pink.
I really like the album. It’s made me laugh an awful lot.
Ariel Pink: Good.
I don’t know that I’d really got your sense of humour so much until this album.
Ariel Pink: No, yeah.
What pushed that this time?
Ariel Pink: Maybe, I broke up with my girlfriend. Or she broke up with me [laughs]. I think it is funny, I don’t know. Maybe you take life less seriously when you’re older or something. But the sense of humour’s always been there. I think it just pushed the issue a little bit more.
I definitely agree on the taking life less seriously as you get older thing. I’m almost in my mid-30s now …
Ariel Pink: Yeah, me too.
There are lots of things you used to care about that you don’t so much.
Ariel Pink: Yeah, I’m out of 20s mania. I’m happy to be out of that. But the last record – most of the stuff I wrote on that one was written when I was in my early twenties. We were just playing it, so I was singing the stuff that I didn’t really feel anymore. If I ever felt it at all. But this one was really great because I got to write new songs and it’s good, it’s a more accurate…. depiction of my state of mind.
In this moment.
Ariel Pink: Yeah, in this moment.
“There’s food and there’s sex and there’s Satan. What are the other things that come up on this record?” – Ariel Pink
It feels like you are drawn to the absurd and ludicrousness in a way…
Ariel Pink: And the dark side too.
I wasn’t sure if that was because it’s a reflection of all of our inner lives anyway?
Ariel Pink: I think so. If it’s funny to you, it’s funny to me [laughs]. I don’t know – there’s food and there’s sex and there’s Satan. What are the other things that come up on this record? There’s a lot of that stuff.
There are a couple of songs that felt like your take on a rap song. Then there’s Live It Up with the dubstep reference. I thought that was brilliant – we’re in a funny period in time, a non-linear period in time – and in music criticism we’re at a point suspended between the whole retromania thing and the future – it’s just a really strange, exciting time and I felt that you ran at it headfirst by saying this record was going to be “retrolicious”.
Ariel Pink: I should end the era. That was then and this is now. Now we’re living permanently in retromania – it’s the kind of thing that happens when something’s been around for too long. It’s like the fall of the Roman Empire or something like that. The future-ness of our culture has been sort of been our proof that we’re the way – innovation and all those things, forging ahead and then, y’know, and having a good economy on top of that – it’s always been like, this is the way – obviously.
“You can really see the end coming near. You’re dealing with kids, what the kids decide.“ – Ariel Pink
But then, y’know, in something like music and rock and roll, the quality of music – in terms of the mainstream culture – has gotten so watered down year after year, generation after generation. You can really see the end coming near. You’re dealing with kids too, what the kids decide. There are new kids around the corner every day. There are people growing up every day. They’re getting subjected to whatever the people in control think is, they’re gonna like this, they’re gonna like this. But since they don’t have an idea about what quality is, since they don’t really care about quality, the quality gets lessened every year. What is the outcome of that? I think the outcome of that is that the industry in the state that it’s in where it kind of goes away and then you have me and you have stuff like me that’s cares about the quality a little bit more. And what is the quality? Okay, well, the quality is a historical quality, the quality is appreciating music from rock and roll, appreciating an aspect – that rare is good kind of thing. It’s always rare. We sort of bubble up to the surface all of a sudden as a viable alternative for the future [giggles] and that’s the irony, since I’m such a music appreciator and kind of like to point out things from different eras that are historically relevant, maybe we can live another day in this rock and roll world and push it, delay the end a little bit more.
Also I think it’s such a retro idea that stuff that happened in the past still can’t speak or have any validity any more.
Ariel Pink: Oh you think that’s retro?
I think it’s a retro idea to think that music from other decades is retro.
Ariel Pink: It is retro.
Surely we’ve got past that.
Ariel Pink: I’m old-fashioned. I’m a very old-fashioned person because I’m a romantic and all that kind of stuff. That’s the irony – I do consider myself quite old hat because I still believe in that stuff – the greatest, the innovation and all of that. However, I’m not completely post-modern but I am kinda. I feel like I’m right there, seated between the future and the past. So if that’s a good description of the times as they are right now, I think that’s probably it.
Do you think it’s tied into the way we’ve used and abused our planet in a way? The way we’ve been enamored with the idea of the future since the sixties and going to the moon and everything and then now…
Ariel Pink: We found the Higgs.
Ariel Pink: We just found the Higgs. It’s the end of an era. Finally we can all go to sleep now.
Or we could work out how we could sustain this life.
Ariel Pink: Well, we haven’t figured that one out yet. But we’ve been trying to figure out whether our theories are right. We’ve had these ideas, this standard model, for so long and we’ve been assuming it’s right but we still haven’t been able to prove it completely but I don’t know, er, I won’t talk about that.
“We just found the Higgs Boson. It’s the end of an era. Finally we can all go to sleep now.” – Ariel Pink
Okay, so going back…
Ariel Pink: Sorry, it’s really early in the morning.
I know. Is that your little poke at the times – the rap and dubstep references?
Ariel Pink: The rap and the dubstep. I don’t rap…
That line “I’m just a rock and roller from Beverly Hills. My name is Ariel” felt quite rap somehow.
Ariel Pink: That’s Symphony Of The Nymph. That’s definitely a pretty honest song about being a nympho. It’s kind of poking fun at the depiction of me as a…sort of a…just a…I’m just a rock and roller from Beverly Hills. It’s like the inside, inside joke. I’m not a prophet or anything like that. I’m just a nympho. I’m not a genius, I’m just a lesbian. It’s the whole…I haven’t read the article but in The Wire magazine they had “the coming of the beta male”. I’m sure I went off on my beta male theory with them and it’s just a…yeah…I’m single and I’m ready to mingle.
Does it feel really good to be that open and honest on the record? And to be actually living a record now…
Ariel Pink: Yeah, definitely. It makes me confident that there’s more to come. I kind of held my music hostage for five years. Prior to this I didn’t really write anything for five years. I kind of made the goal – I wanted to get a record deal so I had to focus on doing that so I did that by getting a band together. Since my doing stuff on my own – I’d recorded all those other solo things that didn’t really…you’d think they’d be knocking down my door. They weren’t. There was nobody knocking down my door apart from 4AD but still they weren’t really sure. But having a band and getting that together and really taking that seriously really helped. So there was no time to write music so I didn’t, I sort of refused to write music until I got the record deal and even then the first record, Before Today, was really just the outcome of years of playing with this band, playing songs I’d already written prior to them. Mature Things was the first opportunity I had to really sit down and have a period of time where I could write songs – and see if I could. So it was nice. [In a comedy voice] Still got it.
What period of time was this – when did you record the album?
Ariel Pink: A couple of months ago. We built the studio in November, started writing in December all the way through May. So five months to write, record and master the record.
Do you have any rituals when you’re writing? I’m not thinking Satanic rituals – or maybe?
Ariel Pink: They’re all Satanic rituals. When I say Satanic I really just mean pagan. I like ‘Satanic’ because it’s got such an air of…it’s so offensive. Yeah, the rituals. Well, yeah. The rituals that I wait for the music – the music comes to me. In a more or less completed form and then I have to preserve it. When I get some melodies, when I hear them, I have to find a way to…y’know, I don’t figure out a line on a guitar or anything like that. I have to keep the whole sound somehow in my mind. That’s a ritual in and of itself. The ritual is I avoid writing the song, writing the lyrics to anything, until the last second. Because that’s the way to preserve the realness of the lyrics, if I don’t think about them very much. They just have to be a retarded extension of myself, at the very end of the line. The last thing. If I write them before I record them there’s too much time to edit them and to change lyrics. That’s what I would do but it really doesn’t help to do that. It’s better to not write the lyrics and then just have to write the lyrics and then just get them down and that’s it.
Let them out – you can’t put them back in your mouth.
Ariel Pink: Yeah, I can’t think about them too much. So that’s a ritual. But it’s really just about music. It’s not that big a deal. It’s music and there’s a face you stamp on top of music and that’s the lyrics. And so my attitude hasn’t changed all that much since I was a kid. It’s a little recipe, it’s tried and true. The difference is now there’s a band and there’s all sorts of added considerations to keep in the mix. And all that stuff has to somehow work when we get to the final product.
And is operating at this sort of level, on this scale, what you thought it would be? What you wanted it to be?
Ariel Pink: Um, I never thought about what I wanted it to be. I’m happy to be able to continue to do it. I’m glad that people like it. I’m not even doing it so much for me anymore. I guess getting older in that sense is better. I’m grateful that I get to have an extended adolescence and take it into my adulthood – that’s where I am as a person. I’m just retarded, I’m just like a kid, just like I was in high school extended into adulthood. The people in the world have afforded me that privilege but I’ve pushed it from a very early age so it’s kind of a collaboration, y’know?
Well, we’re definitely all kids but some people pretend not to be.
Ariel Pink: Well no, it gets beaten out of them. It’s gets beaten out them. We’re all kids when we work in offices too but we’re just a little bit more disciplined. And I’ve been disciplined too but I’ve been teaching as well [laughs]. And I’ve been very stubborn and determined in my own sense but I’ve also been very lucky – this is kind of what I know a little bit. The music is what I know. And I know a little bit about business and I know a little bit about running a band and touring now. Those are new skills that I’ve acquired.
Do you still feel that playing live is this humiliating thing?
Ariel Pink: That’s an untruth that keeps on getting repeated because people read Wikipedia.
It was on a radio interview.
Ariel Pink: Really? Was it from 2005?
No, it was from 2011. On SiriusXM [For the record, he actually said “mortifying and embarrassing”.]
Ariel Pink: Oh. Well, you know it happens. Sometimes there are humiliating instances in life. I don’t mind facing those humiliations. That’s what makes me, me. The goal is not to make it humiliating of course, but I like to face my fears.
That’s the only way we get anywhere.
Ariel Pink: Right, right, exactly. And with live playing, y’know, I’m playing the same songs over and over again, and you have an opportunity to fail a million times and then still have an opportunity to prove yourself. So I really appreciate that endless opportunity to improve upon my playing. Maybe when I get it really right and I’m perfectly comfortable on stage maybe then I’ll move on. But I see there’s not so much a humiliating thing but more of a vulnerable thing, vulnerable. But I feel less vulnerable than when I was younger, so that’s better.
I imagine that this time around that you’re going to be playing songs that you feel right now.
Ariel Pink: Mmm. Well, not right now. Five months ago. You move on really quickly. But there’s different ways of presenting them, you actually improve on music sometimes the more you stay with it. You don’t embellish it too much but you learn to sit with it to where it has a lot less of a stiff, rigid structure. When you know something so well…everyone in the band is going to know this stuff like the back of their hand at a certain point and to think that we didn’t even know the song that well when we were recording it. You wonder what lends to the music and what that lends to the experience.
We all have days when we think a certain thing or write a certain thing and it’s a reflection of how we felt on a certain day but it’s going to get lost. As a recording artist putting something out, someone’s going to go, okay that thing that you did that many years ago – that’s you. And that’s how you’ll be known. That static-ness. Is that frustrating?
Ariel Pink: Yeah. But really that’s…the second you get a great review, it’s terrible because you get the feeling that now they have all the arsenal that they need to have in order to…that’s what they hold you to. That candle. For the next record they’re going to have all the weaponry to knock you down. Because you have to live up to that – live up to the great record that you made before, because impressions are made like that. Then you either exceed or disappoint them. It’s better to have a bunch of disappointing impressions right off the bat so you have the opportunity to comeback or change them. That’s kind of how I feel. Pitchfork gave me a 6.0 average out of 10 for five or six years before they gave me a 9.1, or whatever. 9.0. So now I’m expecting this one to get pummeled.
There are some of the most lovely melodies on there.
Ariel Pink: Doesn’t matter. I always expect the worst. That’s my protection in life. When it doesn’t happen I’m very happy [laughs].
What did you learn making this album?
Ariel Pink: That I’m always right. I don’t know. What did I learn? I don’t know…that’s a really, really tough question. Let me think about that. [Brief pause.] I don’t think I can learn anything right now. I can’t even learn how to take out my contact – how to put it in or take it out. I had to have the doctor put it in. He poked me in the eye; it was like Clockwork Orange.
What’s Farewell American Primitive about? That’s my favourite.
Ariel Pink: That’s an idea about being a Native American immigrant, like a bunch of Americans in other parts of the world being sort of the immigrants in other parts of the world. Like Americans being foreigners and looking for work, that sort of future. I came up with the title a long time ago. I saw myself as the last of the primitives that we’ve exported to the rest of the world. Rock and roll being this thing that we gave to the world, this indigenous offering culturally to the rest of the world and being this kind of corrupted…or this sort of vision…kind of comes from black poverty. Rock and roll is this seed from the people to the people, so the primitiveness of that was the beauty of it and that’s what we really offered to the rest of the world and it really lifted up a lot of people. But I think that’s it. Now we don’t have any other culture to give to the rest of the world. I saw myself as the last of the American primitives – or of the indigenous rock and roll primitives.
And “North Korea is me”?
Ariel Pink: [laughs] Yeah, that’s because they’re very genuinely primitive. They’re the most exotic savages on the planet. They’re not like a tribe or anything.
Ariel Pink: Think about all those people in jail – are they all in jail? What’s keeping them there? They like being there – well, that makes them kind of the same as us. You know, at least they think that they like being there or something. Who knows? The point is that it’s a very controversial thing to say so I decided to say it.
You like being controversial.
Ariel Pink: Well, you know, what’s really going to get under people’s goat in this day and age. It’s too politically correct everywhere. As a 30 year old white beta male I do feel the need to…I suppose I have a lot of testosterone to expel. But I also have an excess of oxytocin in my mind. I’m kind of like a man-woman.
Do you think gender is a construct?
Ariel Pink: No. I think it’s a biological truth that we want to sweep under the carpet. We talk about the same things. We share words as human beings but we refuse to gender-fy them.
Ariel Pink: Orgasm. You think that means the same for a woman as a man? It means totally different things, you can’t equate the two. We’re both entitled to them so we both have them but what understanding to we really come to with regards to what it is? None.
But surely between anyone – none of us know what the experience is for anyone else.
Ariel Pink: Obviously men have different customs. How come women don’t go whistling after men in the street?
Maybe that’s more of a nurture thing.
Ariel Pink: What do you mean? Raised?
Yeah, maybe it’s about what’s socially acceptable.
Ariel Pink: It could be. But I feel that it’s more biological. That’s just a hunch I have. I kind of feel that men are obviously slaves to their penises in a way that women aren’t because they don’t have penises. But to their orgasms in particular, so they’re ruled by this birthright…I have this theory but I’m not going into it now.
It’s too early in the morning?
Ariel Pink: You’ll have to read the [Wire] article.
Ariel Pink: What it comes down to is that women have something that men don’t have and that’s a…the human project is really to live with one another and all that kind of stuff. We have to have priorities, right? The goal is to figure out how to live with each other. We have to figure out how to not kill each other as a human race. We still haven’t figured that out. We’re a race that’s divided. And so all the things we want to do – save the planet, save the trees, save the whales, safe the animals – these are all just mechanisms to ignore the fact that we haven’t figured out how to live as one. We’re never going to come to any real agreement so we have to figure how to not kill each other first then we can move on to the animals, the trees – to the point where we are all Gaia, where we are all one planet. But we have to work our way back, we can’t just skip humans because humans don’t really appreciate humanity. We’re divided. We hate ourselves. Our biggest threat is another human. And our only hope is another human. So we’re completely confused and divided and completely fucked up. So we don’t know what to do. I think humans have the potential to be driven back on course with a few well placed words. But that’s my romantic notion. The best aspects of humanity – we’ve really come a long way, we understand each other, we’ve managed to empathise and to feel like we know another human is just like us. We’ve done a lot of great things – we’re not threats to each other in the abstract. But then we still live by that primitive notion of competition with the other human. Not our neighbour, but the neighbour of the neighbour.