September 10th, 2010 | Interviews

It took 234 years of American civilization and 43,115 years of human experimentation with sound and music to prepare for the triumph of Ariel Pink, whose new album with Haunted Graffiti dissolves ten thousand timid pretenders and proves what you can do if you access more than your last two minutes of experience. Before Today rips in a new way on every track and should be purchased and framed by anyone who wants to know how the old world and the real world overlap. Says Ray Bradbury: “What did I have to offer a world that was forgetting? My memory! By telling the young what once was! By considering our losses!” This interview by Chris Ziegler.

[The music has faded, but remains as a ghost echo all through the following.]

You were born June 24th, right? Do you know that was the statistically most likely day of the year to see a UFO?
Ariel Pink (vocals): No way. I’ve thought about whether I’m a UFO. I thought about, when they do the stuff about all these Luciferians and these Illuminati—what if somebody’s reading that and they’re a Luciferian or they’re a Reptilian? What if you can’t help being a fucking Reptilian? What then? What does it mean that you’re a Reptilian? Is that racist or something? I don’t get it. Why dis on the fucking Reptilians? They might not even know it. They’re all mixed in. They’re old, man. You gotta respect your elders.
You heard about how the reptile people supposedly have a hidden city underneath the L.A. Public Library?
No. I think that’s where the metro is now, man.
In the ’30s they thought they were going to find reptile gold.
Let me refer you to the La Brea Tar Pits.
Are the Tar Pits what the people of L.A. can be proudest of?
I think maybe the Walk of Fame, for me. Or the Griffith Observatory. Actually, the Griffith Observatory, to me, is the crowning arts achievement. That, and also the observatory on Mt. Whitney.
That’s the philosophical opposite of the Tar Pits.
It is. It’s anti-terrestrial.
That’s a beautiful concept.
I brought it back around.
Where do you think this concern you have with the absolute basics of life comes from?
I think it comes from a healthy amount of skepticism for our dictated history and for the words and the messages that we pass down to one another, generation after generation. When you think about it, we could be duped so easily. For me, it’s not at all out of the question that history can be taken completely for granted or the nature of it could be completely fabricated with a few really sneaky moves. Just a couple. And we know how history changes depending on your upbringing.
Depending on what textbooks they’re ordering in Texas this year.
Exactly. So, in terms of indoctrination—and we know the history of that— what makes us immune to that? Part of me is extremely skeptical of science and part of me is extremely defensive about it. I kind of want to know the basics in order to get to the meat of the matter but I am in no position to do such a thing.
Who is somebody in science that you back the same way you back a particular musician?
Honestly, I like Galileo a lot—but yeah, all the astronomers. Those guys to me … that’s a real science of miracles, you know what I’m saying? It’s almost like the only real science because it really points to who we are and what we see and hear. I kind of really like those abstract connections that we make. There’s something there and you’re not going to get to the indivisible part of it, I don’t believe. You can’t break it down but from on top—out into the cosmos—I think you can get a better view somehow.
Like a better perspective from the high ground?
Yeah, kind of like looking at the Valley.
I saw you touch on this in other interviews—do you think there is a pattern where we learn about what other people have done and then try to build on it and move things forward? Do history and culture progress?
I think we’re kind of ensnared. We’re taught language—we’re taught this method of exchange at such a young age that we can’t undo it. The problem is that life is a test and by the time you realize it’s a test, the game is already over. You’ve passed the test because you had a kid. And that keeps the game rolling. It’s predicated on not even knowing that it’s a test. And I think men are pretty locked out of the test. We’re just unwitting dupes in the whole thing and that needs to happen that way.
I think Mark Twain kind of felt the same way. Have you ever read Letters From the Earth? Where the angels go to Earth and write back to heaven about how fucked up and incoherent it is?
I haven’t read that.
It has this great quote in it where he says, ‘All sane white people hate noise.’
That’s great, man. You should make that my quote, man, and put it at the top.
What unanswerable question would you most want to see answered in your lifetime?
Oh wow, you put me on the spot, man. Are there UFOs? That’d be pretty insane but I have a feeling that there are UFOs. It’s not that much of a mystery cuz we’re the UFOs. The second that we get off this planet, we’re the UFOs.
How do you feel it affected your personality to spend so much time working on a record?
It’s fine. I don’t mind it because progress gets slower with age. Given that, it warms my heart that I can kind of make something last, going at a slower pace. For me, it’s much harder to just be satisfied on somebody else’s clock. I never really set out to make the record until I had one ready to go. I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to do that for a while.
Was there anything on your record where you felt like, ‘This might be my only chance so I’m going to do this’? Stuff you just had to get out of your system?
Nope. I feel vindicated every second of the day and nothing needs to be said. I don’t need to prove anything. I’m happy to take part in it in whatever capacity that I do and have some quality control in the midst of a lot of compromising—the compromise of relinquishing control of the whole thing in little ways and having to lasso it at the last minute and kind of trimming fat. I still feel very much like it’s my vision, which is really important for that to stay. I really like the idea of my not playing the instruments and doing a lot less in so far as actually being … just trying to pinpoint my part in the whole thing is more fun when it’s not me.
What’s it like to listen to the stuff now?
Well, it depends. It’s difficult for me. I’m super perfectionist about it. I definitely have issues with the record and that won’t change but I had issues with everything that I do. I feel that I have a certain something that I do want to say, but it’s the real goal to make it work. It’ll be little steps. It’s a little kernel of expression that I think needs to come through in all of it. Hopefully there is a sense of a journey there.
You said in an interview that you felt that music used to have a question to it and now it seemed that it was sealing up and fading away as time went by.
The question is ‘Have we done all there is to do? Is it worthwhile making new forms and is the journey that we’re making … Where does it start and what are we taking to the edge here?’ It’s not supposed to just fold back in and recycle itself. It’s supposed to be a lineage that comes back to a kernel called invention. It’s that inventiveness that got us through a very pivotal part in our history, which was the ’60s. But it also goes beyond that, back to the Age of Enlightenment.
Where do you feel like this is going and what do you think that it’s for?
You’re talking about ‘it.’ Where is ‘it’ going? I feel that we’re getting to the point where we’re seeking immortality and once we seek immortality we will have conquered nature, so to speak, and it will probably be in one person or one body and there won’t be any reason to replicate at that point because essentially something that is immortal doesn’t need to replicate.
Except for ego’s sake. Or creativity maybe.
I mean if somebody has a enough time in the world they could show their ego off and bring it back a million times and there’s nothing necessary. Everything is possible at that point and there is no need to break us up into little bodies and share a language and conquer the secrets of the universe one body at a time with accumulated knowledge passed down. All we need is one body to conquer it and then there won’t be a need for any bodies. I think that in so far as that relates to me and music and all that kind of stuff, I don’t know. I think music is a very cultural thing and there needs to be something transmitted in the music as a vehicle to express other ideas, but one way or another everybody has to share the language. We have to figure out how to not kill each other off and not just procreate mindlessly. That kind of stuff, yeah.
The stuff that I’ve always connected with is where as much as possible of the person comes through—the most intact personality and identity of the creator.
Yeah, it’s true. The best part about Western music and the idea of a band is the dumbing down of the elements; the group effort involved that brings us around. I think that there are limits to what one person can do and part of the lesson of having recordings in this century has been the ability to capture something that four people did at the same time and we can just gloat over it. We can listen to it in three-minute slabs and it can be the same chords over and over again and I think that kind of interplay is really essential because it’s a group effort. The thing about bands is that they really gel when they go and it’s kind of ecstatic; more than one person can do on their own.
Did I tell you the thing about Eddie Shaw? I asked him the meaning of life and he said the meaning of life is love because that’s the only thing that breaks you out of your ego; that’s the only way you break out of yourself and connect with another person. That’s the point of everything.
That’s beautiful. I wouldn’t have thought of that because I’m not from that generation and the thing is that I do see myself as preserving something that’s going extinct and yet I don’t even know what that is. Eddie Shaw … funny enough that you mention him because I used to be in a band with his son. In high school, before all this shit with me, I was in a band called the Black Monks and they had their heads shaved right in the center and they were just kind of passing on the tradition of his dad’s band. … I haven’t spoken to Eddie’s kid since then. The last time I saw him he was AWOL from the army and he was staying at my friend Ben Einstein’s house the whole time when the army was looking for him. It’s funny how history repeats itself in that case. He would tell me stories about the banjo player; how before he died he had lost touch with all of them and he had come over to Eddie’s house and they had dinner when he was a kid and they hadn’t seen or heard from him in ages and he was telling a story and a tooth fell out and the leg of a chair broke. He was just like a bad news, bad luck bear.
What is the most intense story of music shellshock?
The people who are never able to go back. I think the story of Phil Ochs is the most tragic. The story of, like, the kind of artist that he was coupled with the whole John Train thing. Phil was a protest singer in the ’60s and he was kind of like a third-rate Bob Dylan and he had some glory and some hits and stuff but he was forever stuck in the protest wagon and by ’69 and ’70 he decided to do the greatest hits album, which Van Dyke Parks produced. It was commercial suicide and he was the first Elvis impersonator. There were still other Elvis impersonators but he went on tour as Elvis. But basically by 1975 he was a barhop and he had taken to walking around with a machete everywhere and getting into bar fights, getting kicked out of people’s houses, like so many we know (Laughs) and he claimed he was John Train and went around saying that he killed Phil Ochs and the worst part of it is that two years later he comes back as Phil Ochs and he’s like, ‘No, I wasn’t serious. It was an art experiment,’ and by that point he had alienated everybody. That was the ultimate blow and then the suicide. I just think that somebody going to the fringe like that and losing it in the name of their own name is just really poignant. There are so many stories like that, it sort of hits a universal chord kind of thing.
I was interviewing Michael Davis from MC5 and I just asked him, ‘What did you think was going to happen when you got in this band?’ And he said, ‘We thought MC5 was going to be the next Beatles. Four working-class guys and we could play better than they could.’ And it was so tragic—death,  jail— they had no idea.
Yeah, they were all growing their hair for the first time and the last time. That’s the crazy thing. I think our generation is completely warped as far as time is concerned and they don’t realize that all these artists were doing it for the first and last time when they did it. And it’s very easy for us to just live in whatever picture-book fairytale year that we’re into. Like Haight-Ashbury, 1967—there’s still people who weren’t there, but they live there. It’s crazy how time flies is the point. It’s our parents’ generation, it’s not ancient history. It’s just started, really. I mean Paul McCartney’s still alive. We’re all playing in their industry that they set up for us.
We’re the last generation where the people who started rock ‘n’ roll are still alive. Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis … in the next ten years the living memory of the world before this is going to be gone.
That’s exactly right, man, and you asked me why I’m doing it. It’s just to preserve that, honestly. Cuz I see myself as one of the people that paid attention to it while it was dying. There was a flicker of that in the early ’80s and I knew back then it was going away. I was, like, 5 years old and never heard the Beatles but I knew—‘Hey, wait a second, come back,’ you know? Like the videos were better, the music was better—just like a year ago—and as it was going away, it essentially started my whole project, my whole fucking trip and that’s what I’ve been on. I’m the retro guy.
What was the point that you could see that things weren’t moving forward?
I think it was probably listening to ‘Material Girl.’ I remember the production of Madonna’s album before that. It was quite a staple of my youth at that point and I knew something had changed. That was like ’85, I think, when ‘Material Girl’ came out and I started to notice everything else too. All the music was evolving at a technological pace and so it really exposed itself for some of what it was.
Where do you think this came from: within or without?
I think it’s from within and also it was all an experiment. I think we’ve had that generation curl back on itself after they ditched the hippie ethic and I don’t know how many parts it has, but it’s a real lesson and it has to come full-circle before we can really analyze it. We’re Generation Nixed, man, and our value systems are really weird in comparison to the Millenials, so I think we’re gonna be a bridge generation but we’re gonna be somewhere between our parents and the next one.
What’s a bridge generation? Somebody gets to walk all over you on the way to something better?
Yeah, and you don’t get any of the credit for starting anything really. We’re nixed, man. Generation Nixed. They’ll probably forget us in a fucking generation anyway, man.
What do you miss most on planet Earth?
I really miss Rosebud. It’s the same fucking thing. I’m a sucker for sentimentality and all that stuff to the grossest degree. For me, it’s all about childhood, man. Just to think of the impossibility of it all, it’s really amazing.
How close are you to what 10-year-old you wanted to do?
What I’m doing right now, that’s exactly what I would have wanted to be doing back then.
So this is the Rosebud record.
Honestly, it’s what I’m doing. Case in point. It should just explain a lot of why I feel the way I feel. It’s juvenile-y motivated. It generally tended to happen that way. I think people need to have a little more longevity in their sights in the future than our generation typically does.
Where do you feel most at home?
Right here, man. Honestly, man. I have no idea what that means. It means nothing. The best people with the best music are the kind of people you’d want to go out and have pizza with.
When I interviewed Jason Pierce, he said the only reason he got into music was people like Alex Chilton and Roky Erickson, because he said, ‘I can do that. I can be this fucked-up weirdo.’
Yeah, it’s totally easy. It’s probably like what keeps Gary Wilson doing it. What’s inspiring to me was that the members of Can were all fucking 30 when they fucking started and I thought to myself as a 15-year-old, ‘I got plenty of time.’ And that was something that really gave me a lot of fucking confidence. It was already cliché at that point that you had to fucking do it before you’re 30.
And you’ll be dead by 27.
And you’re all washed-up besides. The only good inspiration comes with the first spark and as a person with the first spark at 15 I was like, ‘Oh no, it’s going away!’ I just bought everything I ever read and took it hook, line and sinker.
But that’s good because then it all fights it out inside your head.
Exactly. You find every example to contradict the status quo. Music and rock ‘n’ roll are the only things that have thrived because of the people who do it worse. You can’t be a medic and just get those kinds of grades on your fucking test. It’s one of those things that there’s no control over and there’s no dictating what makes something real or good enough or valuable. Everything else is statistical and everything about rock ‘n’ roll is an exception.
What are the actual real things you’ve learned about how music works?
The truest thing is also the thing that you might take for granted right off the bat and it’s going to make me sound completely wrong, but the longer you do it, the better it is. And that’s the kind of thing where people will be like, ‘That’s not true, Ariel! You don’t believe that for five seconds!’ They’re gonna say, “So you’re saying the Stooges are better now than they were in 1971?” and it’s like, ‘OK, point taken,’ but ask Iggy Pop and ask all of them how they feel about it and I bet they’re fucking stoked, man. They’re stoked that they can pick up their guitar and do it better than when they didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. It’s a selfish thing. Musicians have it. They actually did a scientific study on it where musical geniuses had this weird feedback loop in their head where they are creating this thing that intoxicates them so much and they love the sound of it so much that it creates this ecstatic reaction where the act of playing music … they derive so much joy from what they’re doing and it’s feeding back into their senses. I think it’s really a selfish thing but it’s worth something.
You said you were more into musicians who influence the way you live your life and not the way you play your music. Who are some people who did that for you?
I think like Stevie Moore, like fucking Robert Smith, everybody. Like James Hetfield, man. I don’t even know. They’re probably all fucked-up anyway but honestly I just … even Kurt Cobain, no use mocking it. I think they’re all just my musical heroes and they’re all based on their musical heroes.
How do you feel you fit into this chain of musicians and music? How do you influence people?
I don’t know. I’m evolving as an individual. I would hope that I’m everything that I claim to be and that I live close to my core values.
What are your core values?
This is too much, man.
Tell me your second most important core value.
Good humor.
You talk about being President a lot. What’s the thing that you want to most be the president of?
The United States, man.
You were born here, right?
Yeah, man, I was born here. Four years, that’s all I’m asking. See what happens when you give the car to someone else! See what happens!
What happened the last time someone gave their car to you?
We got there on time, is what I’m saying. We got there on time and we got there safely.