Ariel Pink was craving a cigarette. It was the first thing he asked for one recent morning when he arrived at my place to talk about his new album, "Pom Pom." I didn't have one, so a representative from his record label, 4AD, was dispatched to satisfy him.
While she was gone, Pink paced around the back porch with his iPhone and attempted to explain the virtual whirlwind he's experienced in the months leading to the release of "Pom Pom." It's his third studio album for the label and his debut minus his ever-evolving concern, Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti.
For the first time during the unveiling of an album, he said he'd been "plugged into the world of first impressions" of those reacting to his 17-song work. 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. 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 undeniably catchy first single, "Put Your Number in My Phone," is a potent ear worm that revels in its dusty nostalgia. Rapper Azealia Banks 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.) Last week breakout pop singer Charli XCX tweeted her affection for "Pom Pom."
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 — and 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," said Pink as his cigarettes arrived, his jittery vibe relaxing into a rhythm. Despite being absent 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 an unshakable, undeniably potent creation. Like all of the songs from the creator who trained at the California Institute of the Arts, the work 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 harmonizing during the catchy chorus of "Put Your Number in My Phone," he suggested 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 said. "Not succeed. Not try to think ahead or think behind."
That immediately identifiable vibe of studied junkiness permeates his work. It's in his recording technique, which rejects the standard practice of recording musicians and parts first and then mixing them later in favor of a more immediate process. For each song, said Pink, "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."
From a sonic perspective, this is why his work seems so different.
But too his is a philosophy that denies the assumed requirement of a contemporary pop song, which is to put a state-of-the-art spin on logical structures that have evolved over time. A great Top 40 song prevails through a shock-of-the-now power. Currently that sound requires thick, dynamic hooks and choruses, lots of beefy beats and a three-dimensional presence that works to envelop the listener's world.
Pink's songs prevail by sounding weirdly flat, stripped of depth but bursting with activity. They seem to negate the whole question of new and old. Like kindred spirits — many former Cal Arts peers — John Maus, Ramona Gonzalez (who records as Nite Jewel), Julia Holter and others, production and tonal quality are as vital as canvas to the painter.
He calls his work "this weird thing that's not supposed to exist. This sort of mediocrity that exists somewhere in the forgotten '90s and '80s. It's supposed to be the stuff that nobody listens to — the thing that got forgotten in the shuffle."
Like the European film movement Dogme 95 that decried over-produced moviemaking, Pink values both process and song-craft. He plays guitar and other instruments, but his primary form of expression is, like Phil Spector's, the production itself.
"Each song is totally different," he said 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. That's my only … that's my Dogme."
Take, for example, "Dinosaur Carebears," an oddball five-minute creation whose title captures the music's otherworldly ridiculousness. It opens with what sounds like the call of a snake charmer, a staccato synth-clarinet that also hints at 1950s cartoon music and a fast-tempoed sprint of rhythm. Sounds swirl. Voices chant in the distance like fading AM radio signals. They're listing California townships. Ninety seconds in, the sounds of a wood whistle mark a sudden diversion that morphs into a Nintendo-suggestive melody. All of this occurs before the meat of the track, a tropical soft-rock romp that could be a lost Hall & Oates jam.
To build the songs, said Pink, he gathers the melodies that drift through his head, which he described as "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."
His lyrics are as opaque as his process. It's tough to tell where or even if a true Ariel Rosenberg emotion ever inserts itself into lines about, for example, the woman in "White Freckles" who "got them at the tanning salon." The bluesy boast of "Sexual Athletics" recalls early Captain Beefheart: "They call it sexual athletics/ It doesn't rhyme with anything/ That's why I'm the king," he says, half singing. Yep, it's pretty dumb — but defiantly so.
A fidgety artist
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, a.k.a. Edward Sharpe, was renting this big compound formerly occupied by Frank Zappa, and as they practiced 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 of 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 Pink's 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 the former Germs drummer Don Bolles plays throughout the album? When Pink states that musical progress is the enemy, he does so with a stubborn sense of purpose.
His is the sound, said Pink, of "going off to the side." He assumed 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 received critical kudos, he 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, said Pink, who calls 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."
Pink will showcase "Pom Pom" when he converges his band and a roster of guests for a Nov. 28 performance at the Regent Theatre. From there he'll embark on a winter tour on which he'll work to wrestle his studio creations so they can be performed live. That's never been an easy task and one reason why Haunted Graffiti was so fluid.
He's glad to be rid of that particular "block of ice," as he described 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 basically back in charge of every last facet of the thing, without any consideration of other people's feelings."
At the same time, he stressed, "Pom Pom" succeeded not because he did it alone. On the contrary, Pink 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."