Nostalgic yet prescient, trendsetting despite remaining staunchly removed from mainstream culture, Los Angeles DIY icon Ariel Pink remains an influential yet inscrutable figure in 21st century music. Any attempts to understand Pink’s musical arc haven’t been helped by the confusing state of his discography and chronology (for example, he self-released Underground on cassette in 1999, but it didn’t find its way into most indie fans’ hands until nearly a decade later), which is why Mexican Summer’s ongoing reissue series of his catalog has been so welcome. The latest to come out of the label’s Ariel Archives – Worn Copy, The Doldrums and House Arrest – capture a particularly prolific period, finding Pink fully in his autonomous groove as he wandered through an amorphous landscape evoking everything from ’70s AM gold to half-remembered ambient music playing in the background of an ’80s informercial.
That aesthetic – robust retro pop melodies refracted through the warm hum of a cassette or VHS player – would leave a distinct imprint on the next decade or so of rock, indie pop and even dance music, which Pink is happy to take some credit for, even if he’s not terribly optimistic about his overall legacy: “I don’t have that much faith in there being a linear historical timeline and those threads linking up across generations,” he insists. Chatting with Billboard recently, Pink noted that while his sound “became fashionable at some point, even that passed me by.” But he’s hardly bothered by that – or whatever anyone thinks of him, for that matter. “I’ll take a compliment here and there. I’ll take an insult in stride,” he says. “I try not to get hung up on anybody’s opinions.”
Gamely hopping on the phone to look back on the trio of recently reissued albums, here’s what Pink thinks about everything from the labels critics place on his music to the true definition of pop.
With this string of reissues coming out on Mexican Summer, do you have fond memories associated with any particular one of them?
They all have special places in my heart; they were seminal experiences and records for me. All were recorded at a point prior to my sort of comeuppance in music in pretty solitary conditions. I had virtually no audience, so there was no pressure foisted on me to pander to anybody. It was a more innocent, carefree time. They were all the outcrop of an initial surge of inspiration that started when I was a teen, essentially. There were a few people in my life at the time, but you could really count ’em on one hand. Doing multi-track stuff on my own on an 8-track recorder, Underground was the first of those experiments, and then one after the other happened over the course of six, seven years. I didn’t really do anything with any one of them — I just saw them as completed works as I barreled through them.
So no part of you was like “I gotta get this cassette or CD-R to the people or labels”?
No, right. Luckily, whoever had any interest whatsoever, I was more than happy to give [them music]. I was not engaging with culture in any way, so I didn’t see it as being a product of the times or anything. I was wholly removed from anything on the radio or what was popular at the time.
As you were recording these the whole ‘the’ band boom happened. Were you aware of that or listening to any of those bands?
I was definitely interested in older things, but as soon as the Strokes hit and then the White Stripes afterward, once guitar music came back into fashion, I was kind of like, watching, objectively realizing, “Oh my god, I might actually have a chance here to have a career. So strange.” I realized there was a zeitgeist, a culture cropping up around certain things and I wasn’t as isolated as I originally thought I was to be. And with Animal Collective, it became obvious there were other people coming up in a similar way with experimental music, freak folk or whatever they call it now. Proto-chillwave, lo-fi, hypnagogic pop [laughs].
Yeah speaking of all those labels people have used to describe your music, what do you think of them?
I think they’re funny. They were funny back then and they’re funny now. It must help people digest it, to box things into a collective scene. There’s no one person embodying everything all the time, but to be able to lump groups of artists together as being embodiments of aesthetics or a scene, it’s a journalistic trick.
Listening to these chronologically, it struck me that guitars seemed to become less important to your sound as you progressed, and airier synths started taking more prominence, sort of that whole ‘proto-chillwave’ sound.
Each record sort of introduces a new piece of gear I acquired. Between House Arrest and Worn Copy I acquired a wah pedal, so all of a sudden Worn Copy has a wah that shows up. It’s not a distinctive hallmark, but each record, the limitations were based on what I had at my disposal. With Underground, there was my three-string guitar and I had my way of playing that was unique at the time because I was just starting. The first time I learned to play six-string guitar was after that, and the introduction of six-string guitar is after The Doldrums. The Doldrums swept the plate clean in terms of my method of recording. I started laying down rhythm tracks first, as if I had the whole thing mapped out in my head.
I see The Doldrums as setting the tone for a sound that would really pick up in a wider sense 10 or so years later. Was there a point where you realized, “oh, other bands are taking some cues from me”?
There was a point where I could tell who had and hadn’t heard what I did. I know what mark I left, I know what I contributed: it’s a melodic thing. I was never exactly credited for contributing a specific thing or production quality: I was a lo-fi artist, and the way I slapped things together was seen as influential, but for me, I know it’s a melodic motif that blossomed in a lot of people. People don’t know exactly what I contributed to the current mainstream, and it’s a melodic sensibility that was noticeably absent from popular bands around the same time I was. The idea of pop being something even desirable was very much partly my doing. The Strokes, the White Stripes, none of those guys would never have spoken of pop in favorable terms or thought what they were doing was pop. But the way I was describing my music at the time was pop, and it was tongue in cheek, because I was just basically – pop, to me, is just what’s popular at a previous point in time. But it was taken to mean at some point that pop meant Beach Boys harmonies with an ’80s production or something like that. Which is not what pop is: it’s what’s popular at any given moment. I’m watching from the sidelines, seeing how the world has engaged with what I do and not try to engage with it too hard or steer the narrative. Just do what I do, let it do what it does and hope I’m still around.
Do you care about your legacy or impact?
I don’t have that much faith in there being a linear historical timeline and those threads linking up across generations. I feel we’re in a post historical period. What came before and what’s older has never been less in fashion. I’m simply just interested in still being a player that there’s a demand for or an appreciation for what I do. I don’t think there’s a specific demographic of person it’s targeting; there’s no scene involved. There might have been back in the day, but I don’t even believe that was the case. I don’t pander to genres fully; I don’t think of myself as engaging with culture. The world came to me very naturally rather than me going to it and I haven’t had to compromise my values or taste buds too much in the process. So I continue doing what I always did, doing this melodic experiment that stays the same and doesn’t try to update itself too much. I try new things, but I’m going back to refining what I originally intended.
I had a very narrow perspective of what I wanted to accomplish or champion. I wanted to bring out elements that were forgotten about from the ’80s. Not the ’80s so much but my childhood, mining my own memory banks from when I was a young child, which just happened to be situated in the ’80s. The ’80s part is a completely juvenile thing, it’s an experiment in psychology — a return to the first impressions I had of music and to recreate them in ways so not to be retro but induce the same kind of amalgamation of impressions I had as a kid hearing different things on the radio. It’s stuck in time. Cryogenically frozen in time, it doesn’t develop linearly, but develops sideways. I wanted to be an exception to the rule. I wanted to be completely against the mold, and it became fashionable at some point, but even that passed me by as well. But I continue on my path regardless.