Pop star is all Pink as new album proves a hit

Ariel Pink's new hit album comes as a joy after being sued by a former bandmate and labelled a misogynist for dissing Madonna

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm

Ariel Pink is craving a cigarette: it's the first thing he asks for when he arrives to talk about his new album, Pom Pom. A representative from his record label, 4AD, is dispatched to satisfy him.

While waiting for his cigarette, Pink paces around the back porch with his iPhone and tries to explain the virtual whirlwind that he has experienced in the months leading to the release of his third studio album for the label.

For the first time during the unveiling of an album, he has been "plugged into the world of first impressions" of those reacting to his 17-song work, he says. Filled with the artist's immediately identifiable lost-to-time pop songs, so strange and aggressively catchy, it's a singular work, an instant outre classic, and Pink has been in a social media wormhole exploring the reactions of those who have heard it.

The artist, 36, is witnessing the simultaneous ascent of his popularity and notoriety. The record's catchy first single, Put Your Number in My Phone, is a potent ear worm that revels in nostalgia. Rapper Azealia Banks has just covered his new Dada surf-pop song, Nude Beach a Go Go, on her new record, Broke With Expensive Taste. (She calls him Ariel Stink.) Breakout pop singer Charli XCX has tweeted her affection for Pom Pom.

But it hasn't all been roses. The artist, born in Beverly Hills as Ariel Rosenberg, has been mired in a lawsuit filed by an ex-band member claiming partial ownership of songs made by Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti, the name the artist used when releasing all of his work starting as a teen and stretching to 2012's Mature Themes.

Earlier this year Pink was commissioned by Interscope Records to submit song ideas for a Madonna record. He accepted - but was uninvited after he trash-talked her music in an interview. Shortly thereafter, popular singer-producer Claire Boucher, who performs as Grimes, branded Pink a misogynist because of the Madonna diss, and the way he sings and talks about women. Lipstick, for example, is a creepy gothic love song about a murder and a Lothario in lipstick.

"I've been wanting good things for us," Pink says as his cigarettes arrived, his jittery vibe relaxing. Despite being without an official band, he still speaks in the plural. "We need our profile to come out a little bit more. How do you get people to be interested? I guess this is how."

The buzz is warranted: Pom Pom is a potent creation. It resides in a realm that's peculiarly Pink.

Utterly strange, at times absurd, his concoctions upend expectations and seem to disregard the chronology of pop. Many read like strings of TV jingles and are so reminiscent of lost eras that you can almost see the screen's vertical-hold wobbling while a chorus bellows, "Plop plop, fizz fizz, oh, what a relief it is!" Describing the male voices harmonising during the catchy chorus of Put Your Number in My Phone, he suggests the run "could be a Folger's commercial", as if that's some sort of ideal. As a result, some people can't stand his music, weighted as it often is with a dollop of ironic distance.

"I want to stay in some era and remain there like a stupid idiot and see what happens when you try to pause time and not affect it," he says. "Not succeed. Not try to think ahead or think behind."

That immediately identifiable vibe of studied junkiness permeates Pink's work. It's in his recording technique, which rejects the standard practice of recording musicians and parts first and then mixing them later, in favour of a more immediate process. For each song, he says, "we don't leave the studio without mixing what we've done that day. So we're building it, but we're always finishing the thing. It's kind of like sanding something down. It doesn't ever revert back to its unmixed state for the mixer or producer to deal with later on."

When Pink states that musical progress is the enemy, he does so with a stubborn sense of purpose

From a sonic perspective, this is why his work seems so different. And his philosophy denies the assumed requirement of a contemporary pop song, which is to put a state-of-the-art spin on structures that have evolved over time. A great top-40 song prevails through a shock-of-the-now power. Today that sound requires dynamic hooks and choruses, beefy beats and a three-dimensional presence that envelops the listener's world.

"Each song is totally different," he says of his approach to making Pom Pom. "They each could exist on their own record, so to speak, and each song, within itself, is this patchwork, and that could be different songs, different styles. You have all these song titles and song time, and you put it in a certain order and you slap a cover on it. That's a record. That's how I've seen all my records."

To build the songs, he gathers the melodies that drift through his head like "floating proteins that you can link up in different ways. They're all interchangeable, and they somehow end up sounding like themselves and not like any other thing."

The first time I met Pink was in a man-made cave in Laurel Canyon in 2007, at one of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros' formative bashes. At the time Alex Ebert, aka Edward Sharpe, was renting this big compound formerly occupied by Frank Zappa, and as they practised Pink and I ended up crammed next to each other. Then as now Pink had a nervous energy. He's fidgety onstage too and often plays with his bleach-damaged dirty blond hair.

When I told him I was a music journalist, Pink spoke of his affection for the work of British writer Nick Kent, who documented his ragtag London 1970s and '80s life amid rockers for the New Musical Express. Pink bemoaned what he considered a lack of in-the-trenches scribes living within the music scenes as Kent, Patti Smith and Lester Bangs did. I left the conversation struck by his thoughtfulness, an artist keenly aware of music's kaleidoscopic narrative.

Who else but Pink, after all, would use as a muse the famous rock'n'roll impresario Kim Fowley, who helped co-write some of Pom Pom's songs, and boast that former Germs drummer Don Bolles plays throughout the album?

When Pink say musical progress is the enemy, he does so with a stubborn sense of purpose.

His is the sound, he says, of "going off to the side". He assumes the tone of a low-voiced critic: "He's continuing to write records, but is he progressing?" I'd argue that he is. Pom Pom is thick with frosting, layers of tones and aural effects that hint at untold riches buried within. Although they have received critical kudos, Pink now considers his previous two albums "sort of botched efforts. They've been mired in legal disputes before the sessions were even finished. They all put a bad taste in my mouth just from the stress I was under in that regard".

This one's different, he says, calling it "my first real record. That's why I dropped the Haunted Graffiti, to give it the feeling of an event, a little bit different from the norm". He's glad to be rid of that particular "block of ice", as he describes Haunted Graffiti - "a thing in my past that existed".

"But it needed to kill itself off before I was really going to - I guess I wasn't ready to own it. They needed to push me into this role where I was back in charge of every last facet of the thing, without any consideration of other people's feelings," he says.

But, he says, Pom Pom succeeded because he didn't do it alone. He credits collaboration, "having people there willing to take direction", with the success.

"That's really the amazing thing - really talented people giving themselves over to me like Play-Doh to guide them."

Los Angeles Times