Ariel Pink’s big adventure
The Animal Collective’s odd new discovery is ready for Sacramento, but is Sacramento ready for him?
Play Ariel Pink’s album, The Doldrums, and people will either swear it’s a work of idiosyncratic genius or complain that it’s one big, no-fidelity mess. But why choose?
The artist that the Village Voice described—lovingly—as a “castrato beatbox upstart” is racking up critical hosannas for a wonderfully strange album he recorded five years ago on an eight-track in his bedroom. Antithetical to the prevailing aesthetic of artists-next-door using home recording equipment to emulate the digital sheen of professional “product,” Doldrums sounds more like it was recorded in a tiny bathroom crammed with poorly-tuned radios through which snippets of alternate universe classic hits go drifting in and out.
Recording primarily as a one-man band, the 26-year-old Pink does virtually all the drum tracks with his mouth (often emulating the motorik rhythms of Can and Cabaret Voltaire, two bands he cites as seminal influences). He then mixes in lead and falsetto vocal tracks, and layers together meandering bass, guitar and synth parts with generous portions of hiss, warp and flutter.
“Since The Doldrums, I’ve learned to play my instruments at least a little bit better,” confessed the Los Angeles-based artist during a phone interview last week on his way home from South by Southwest. “But I’m always trying to make it as difficult for myself as possible, so it’s never at risk of becoming slicked-out in any way. It’s never a smooth ride; it’s always really bumpy.”
To that end, Pink insists on using the Yamaha MT8X, an old analog eight-track that he describes as “a piece of shit” but still much preferable to its digital successors. “I did the Pro Tools thing for a while, and I lasted a week with it and I got really depressed,” he recalled. “I felt like I didn’t have any physical evidence of anything that I had made. It doesn’t exist for me. It’s just on a flat screen in some visual format, and I’m, like, twisting knobs that are not really there.” By contrast, Pink views his eight-track as an instrument in itself. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m really trying to write music for the eight-track,” he said. “To me, songwriting and production are one and the same thing.”
With a half-dozen CDR-only releases to his name, Pink was toiling in near-total obscurity until last year, when critics’ darlings the Animal Collective took him under their wing. (Doldrums is the first non-Collective projective released on their Paw Tracks label.)
Pink’s typical songwriting method is to take enough quirky pop hooks to fill a whole album and throw them all into a single song. “It’s like they’re all kind of interchangeable and you can switch ’em around—like making these exquisite corpses of songs,” said Pink. “That’s just the way I think. I get hooks in my head. And sometimes I get too many. And I can’t stretch them out for an entire song so a four-minute song will be just this series of random bits that I somehow link together.”
So how did Pink come to be inspired by bands and sounds that, in many cases, predate his physical existence? “Only fucking elitist dorks are gonna explore beyond what’s just fed to them,” explained the former record-store clerk, who counts himself among the dork ranks. “At a certain point, there’s nowhere to go but back.”
“Rock ’n’ roll, for me, has always been about the lack, the negative,” Pink mused in a philosophical moment. “It’s just like something really wrong, something bad or evil, aesthetically or morally. It’s the only art form where the worst is the best, in my opinion.”
Of course, how all of this will come across when his band hits the stage here next week remains to be seen. “You can be in a town where nobody’s heard of you and nobody’s coming and people hate it,” said Pink. “But then there are nights when you swear you played the worst show and people are jumping all over you. So I don’t know, maybe peer pressure goes a long way in my field.”