Conjunctivitis: Ariel Pink in Conversation with Animal Collective's Geologist
The story goes Ariel Pink was a relatively unknown musician working out of a bedroom in Los Angeles until the Animal Collective picked up a CD-R of Pink’s 1999 album, Doldrums. Geologist was one of the first members of the band to meet Ariel, who was signed to their label, Paw Tracks, a couple of weeks later. They’ve been friends ever since.
ARIEL PINK My experimental days were really an outcrop of my getting into different kinds of music, and getting out of metal, at first—which was kind of like a three or four-year study at the beginning of my musical education. I went from death metal, black metal, to death rock. And from death rock to industrial. And industrial opened up my horizons. It was all kind of, like, the original, the first wave of industrial, but it was very historicized in my mind, because I wanted to find the original sources for everything.
GEOLOGIST Are you talking about Einstürzende Neubauten and Throbbing Gristle?
ARIEL PINK Just a smattering of goth bands, which then very quickly graduated to the most influential players in that milieu, who weren’t necessarily goths themselves but were probably some outcrop of some other scene, overlapping, like post-punk or something like that, like Joy Division.
ARIEL PINK Throbbing Gristle was a huge influence at the time, and Cabaret Voltaire. They were introducing all these different sorts of weird sounds that weren’t right, sounds that didn’t stick well with the ear and weren’t what you would consider a good signal or anything like that. And it was troubling. It was definitely a disturbing experience, which was something that I would look for during most of my metal phase. I was drawn to the disturbing aspect. And even before that, I was very into horror movies, all throughout my childhood.
GEOLOGIST Did you find that that...
ARIEL PINK It all runs together, in my experience, all the horror, all the camp, all the seediness, all the bad things. I saw it being linked by a certain nihilistic something or other. I didn’t know what to call it, but it’s something like miniaturized evil. I also saw experimental music, especially 20th century experimental classical music, as being a real exercise in alienation, and in alienating previous forms. So when I started learning about Stockhausen, and Luigi Nono, and even Miles Davis, the experimental elements were the things that really spoke to me, like an outcrop of my appreciation of the raw, untutored sounds of Throbbing Gristle, which was the only comparison I could make to a lot of these experimental classical and very serious composers. But that they sounded close to the amateurish, primal ineptitude of Throbbing Gristle, and all sorts of other bands that didn’t know what they were doing coming out with this weird sound. That was where high art met low art, or low visibility, and it’s where I somehow figured I could exist as a classical composer, or be this completely ridiculous art band that was akin to the art prank that was Throbbing Gristle in its own time. That was honestly something that I was into, but also the punk style, and all that kind of stuff, and in a very subversive way—the youth expressions of rebellion, marketed towards post-World War II styles of nationality, nations, and nation-states. It’s like, music is meant to be consumed by drone citizens, and drone kids in particular, and their mothers, all the while having a worker bee father. Maximizing your utilitarian potential.
GEOLOGIST [laughs] That’s...
ARIEL PINK Sorry, I was kind of rambling.
GEOLOGIST No, no, it’s fine. I mean, it’s interesting that you’ve made the reverse connection, I think, that I did, which was starting with highbrow. But I came to those kind of things through horror movies. And I always felt a little like I wasn’t very nihilistic in high school, and I didn’t feel like I could take the contemporary classical thing too seriously. It wasn’t a joke to me, but I couldn’t find my way into it, other than on a purely aesthetic level. And so, there was always a disconnect. But then that led me to—
ARIEL PINK I bet you made the connection through the Grateful Dead. They had their Dark Star phase.
GEOLOGIST Well, I think Pink Floyd, or Syd Barrett, and how he was really into AMM—that was a big connection to me.
ARIEL PINK AMM, for those who don’t know, were communist. Well, I think Cardew was a communist, and he was a composer. The early half of 20th century classical music is very much in the idealistic revolutionary spirit of communism, and all of the promise that that might bring around the world. It was kind of like a reification of standards and language and progress. So, we have Schoenberg’s 12 steps, the making of a new alphabet, a new kind of music. He understands that it isn’t maybe necessarily communism, per se, but you see it as a revolution of sorts. And then there’s all sorts of little mini-revolutions under different names. But I think of AMM as being an extremely politically-motivated experience of creating with the moment.
GEOLOGIST Like in a more democratic, out of the—
ARIEL PINK —like a free-jazz context.
GEOLOGIST Right. Like out of the walls of patronage that a lot of the other serious composer music sometimes existed in.
ARIEL PINK Right. Like the UFO Club. Kind of closer to the sort of street-level of Pink Floyd, and the happenings and all that kind of stuff that were prevalent at the time.
GEOLOGIST See, we used to talk about that stuff to our friends who didn’t—well, essentially, didn’t do drugs, which is where I’ll take this next. But you know, friends of ours that dismissed things like Pink Floyd, or the Grateful Dead, then we’d point out AMM as this link, and they’d be like, “Yeah, I read about them in Bananafish Magazine,” or something. And then that led me to reading Bananafish and making the link between free jazz and noise, especially the really lowbrow noise—you know, quote-unquote lowbrow, like Prick Decay, or Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock, or all these kind of 90s cassette things. But to me, it all made sense. You could listen to the Grateful Dead, but I had to compartmentalize and compartmentalize each thing just to make sense of it.
ARIEL PINK Right.
GEOLOGIST But then at a certain point I was like, “Oh, you can just bring this all together.” And for me, the thing that allowed me to do that was drugs. And it’s hard for me to separate my appreciation of difficult composer music, or tape music, or synthesizer music, and cassette noise, without initially experiencing those sounds through drugs. And I don’t know how much you talk about drugs on the record, but...
ARIEL PINK When you say drugs, do you mean primarily marijuana?
GEOLOGIST No. More acid.
ARIEL PINK For me, it was much through the portal of marijuana that I experienced the most incredible sonics. I mean, it’s drugs, any way you cut it. But it was literally like my mind folding and opening up, and folding out in a thousand different ways when confronted and listening to all this music, privately, under headphones.
GEOLOGIST It was a part of your process? Do you just see it as coincidental that you happened to be into drugs and that music at the same time? Or do you see it as maybe, without the drugs, the music wouldn’t have gotten a hold of you?
ARIEL PINK I have to put the cart before the horse. It’s hard to make the case that this stuff preceded the drugs. I think the drugs preceded the music. There’s plenty of examples of this in history, and records. But for all intents and purposes, the whole 60s thing, and the whole American dream dissolved, and everything that’s common sense is a product of that sort of broadening of the awareness of the people. Pot, for starters, and acid not very far behind it. And then all these things like heavy metal, which I almost got into first, initially, could actually happen.
GEOLOGIST So you actually give the 60s credit for heavy metal?
ARIEL PINK I think you have to say that the drugs really do open up people’s minds and give you a glimpse into another world, and then that perhaps inspires people to present things in a completely new way that sets future humans on a path towards a certain point.
GEOLOGIST It’s sort of like asking what your take on the 60s and L.A. is. Is it optimistic? It’s like you just move out there and make your own reality. But I get Arthur Lee too. There’s a dark paranoia out there.
ARIEL PINK Oh yeah.
GEOLOGIST It feels more like the “Welcome to the Jungle” video than it does a Crosby, Stills, and Nash record, you know what I mean?
ARIEL PINK Historically, you consider the lives of the individuals. They’re all really fractured humans.
GEOLOGIST In your music, I feel like that. You can get the sort of sunset bliss out of it, but there’s always a darkness in there. And so I think of someone like you relating to a side of the 60s, and what drug culture did, and what California culture did—and then later going into heavy metal, which some people maybe traditionally haven’t
put a lot of thought into, myself included, and might say heavy metal kind of came out of an anti-60s sentiment...
ARIEL PINK Everything came around in the 60s, and sort of just stayed there. It seemed to live in a 60s, early 70s conglomerate,
and that’s where we exist, forever.
GEOLOGIST Yeah totally. But some people take an optimistic view of that, and some people take a pessimistic view. It almost seems like you take, surprisingly, both.
ARIEL PINK I don’t take any sides to it. I see myself as completely indifferent, a spectator, eavesdropping on that world of symbolism. But I definitely feel both sides. You can’t really have one without the other, as much as people might like to believe that they can. We’re in a situation now where we’ve been force-fed certain values a certain generation of Americans had time to gestate and absorb and to restructure accordingly, like our parents’ generation, and that’s the 60s. But we grew up in the 80s, and that was just essentially the product of our parents coming around to the fact that their own idealism was, to some degree, a farce, a failed experiment, and an escape from reality that was couched in a singular misunderstanding of things. And what’s happened is that we grew up in a more or less idealistic but diluted environment, and it’s all so separated from its source that we have this dogmatic, autocratic, sort of super-ego that’s presiding over everything, that takes on the form of spectacle, as Debord would call it. And really it sort of commands and dictates the stakes for interactions within society.
GEOLOGIST What’s the singular misunderstanding?
ARIEL PINK The most ancient misunderstanding, and
GEOLOGIST People are good?
ARIEL PINK It happened in ancient history, somewhere along the line: we understood that if we huddled together and worked in unison, with the guidance of certain tools—a specific language, syntax, words—we could communicate, we could actually overcome a lot of nature’s more predacious and scary aspects. We could share information basically in one body.
GEOLOGIST Right. But back to the music, if you want to go there. I think you’ve experienced something similar to what Noah [Lennox, Panda Bear] may have experienced—you’ve inadvertently birthed a lot of musical children.
ARIEL PINK Plenty of children.
GEOLOGIST When I hear people try and distill your ideas into their own music, I don’t get a lot of the darkness or a lot of the difficult, sonic interests that I think come out.
ARIEL PINK I wonder if what they hear is even darkness when they listen to my stuff. The awkward fan base that I’m touting and supporting was made overnight by “Round and Round,” you know? And that was a piece of smooth music for—for somebody.
GEOLOGIST Right, but you spend 30 seconds of that song literally just repeating the phrase “breakdown” over and over. And, I mean, there’s a lot of ways you could take that.
ARIEL PINK Right.
GEOLOGIST But it seems obvious to me, even if that’s not what you meant with that particular song. It’s ambiguous enough that it should hit that button in a listener’s brain. So can you explain how that “breakdown” can make it into a song like “Round and Round”?
ARIEL PINK My whole thing has been toil and suffer since forever. I mean, I really doubt myself, and I feel like I’m shrinking ever and ever away from a period in my life when I was a child and I was a bubbling ball of creativity that just had so much potential. I mean, I really want to raise my five-year-old self, and make sure nobody’s gotten to him, you know what I’m saying? Like, look at this guy, he’s going away, he’s dying, and you didn’t know what a genius this guy was. And that’s the poor guy I need to put to bed, you know?
And in lots of ways, Can showed me the path. They were all doing rock and roll in their 30s, and I was a mere 15-year-old, and I somehow knew or gleaned, from the little I was exposed to, the essence of rock and roll, its vital first instincts. It’s not rocket science. It’s just that 15-year-old or 16-year-old who just fucking picks up a guitar and, against all logic, just fucking does it. And I knew that that was what I had to be at that time, and really make the most of that reality. But at the same time I couldn’t conceive of wandering through my 20s without actually having other examples of rock and roll. If I was going to do it, it couldn’t be a temporary thing. And there was the practical side to Can: these guys studied Stockhausen and Boulez and then they started a rock band and that reassured me. They’re an example of a band that started off with a fresh palate halfway through their lives.
So the thing I’m getting at is the insecurity that I felt as a child, the suffering I went through. That insecurity was absorbed, and it was actually lived. I didn’t deny it, I didn’t repress it. I actually embraced it. I took it as a fact and I let it in my soul—that I was bad. And that I was all of these things. Not as a way to absolve too much of the guilt of anything but to allow a little space in my heart, a little more room in my heart, for things that were bad. Things that were wrong. You know, so I could forgive my parents a little bit.
GEOLOGIST This is something we’ve never talked about. Is there something that happened to you when you were five that you want to talk about or should we just let that be?
ARIEL PINK Nothing happened. My parents divorced. When you’re five years old, you don’t have any kind of say in anything. You live your life as a slave, and you live your life truly under the control of your parents. You’re left to whatever situation. They’ll give you relief. They’ll drown out the cares. They will stop the tears from flowing.
And I think I had a lot of initial typical baby experience that predisposed me to certain modes of coping without feeling like I could go to Dad, and go to Mom at the same time. There was a very big disconnect there. I was either with one or the other, and one was sort of the darkness and one was sort of the light. And that was reinforced throughout my childhood. So I’m definitely the product of a single mother, tempered by a father who had the fantasy of having a picture-perfect family.
GEOLOGIST When you say you allowed yourself to be bad, what do you mean?
ARIEL PINK At first I had a lot of anger issues that I was put in therapy for, I guess because my parents thought I was exhibiting signs, alarming signs, of some sort of crisis. And I was always really mad at them, because they were so cruel, because they didn’t give me the benefit of the doubt. They doubted my insight into things. They didn’t know if I was right or wrong, but I felt very, very convinced that there was nothing wrong with what I was feeling.
That was very presumptuous of me, but it was also presumptuous of them. Everyone believes parents know what they’re doing, but really, think about it: I’m eight years older than my mom when she had me. I’m five years older than my dad was when he had me. I mean, I can think to myself, “My mom was as big a kid as I am,“ because I know how young I am.
GEOLOGIST Yeah, my parents had me at 24.
ARIEL PINK You know how quickly time flies? Before you know
it you’re this parent. You don’t know how to do it, and you just do everything wrong. I mean, sure, you learn from your kids every day.
GEOLOGIST As someone who’s listened to your music, even without you having to tell us the story it’s there. If you listen to “House Arrest,” it’s the answering machine message from your dad. You put it all out there. And again, I think that’s something that separates you from everything else, whether you want to call it hypnagogic or chillwave. Anytime I listen to it, I say to myself, “There’s nothing raw here.” And the reason the hazy nostalgia works in your music, the reason I’m attracted to the safety of it, is because there’s so much darkness as well. You provide an intense contrast. But when it’s not there and you listen to somebody who just provides a safe, hazy, nostalgic production, it serves no purpose.
ARIEL PINK I don’t think that I was doing anything other than going back to that five-year-old self, because I knew that I couldn’t forget that, and I was desperate to keep that five-year-old alive. It just happened to be that I existed at a time when the regime would be the 80s and that would inform my first memories—basically what I was subjected to. But the whole idea of 80s nostalgia is really stupid, because, for one, it’s not so much about nostalgia per se, it’s literally my particular memories that I am constantly going back to.
As for the hazy, murky production—I knew exactly what I was doing by doing that, because I felt the disconnect with the music that I was hearing all around me. It was a magical force. And it’s almost like it was a dream from when I was five years old, which elevated it beyond being a mere pastiche of stylistic jargon. I saw it as a return to the memories of the 80s, informed with a new pedigree and historical background to work back to, that moment in music that gave voice to things like “Billy Jean.” So it was a conscious yet also consciously unconscious project. I didn’t need any Daniel Pinchbeck to kind of
tell me the way.
GEOLOGIST You went there for valid emotional reasons, not because—
ARIEL PINK Not because it was cool.
GEOLOGIST Not because it looked like a faded photo in a magazine or something.
ARIEL PINK I wanted to do something that was in line with horror.
I wanted to make the saddest record back then. That was my number one goal, as a disaffected Columbine generation kid but with an outlet. It was that. It was that I could be toiling in extreme disaffection—that was my definition of greatness at the time. Because, paradoxically, I couldn’t have been happier. Even after what I’d learned about all my heroes, the tragic bite that people have...
GEOLOGIST Are you still shooting for that level of sadness when you make a record?
ARIEL PINK It’s still important, but not so much. It’s less formulated in my mind. What would be sad is if I didn’t record at all. But the urge to record is something that has changed for me, so I don’t have the desperate inspiration that maybe I had when I was a surly, angry, young, ambitious little kid—whatever, teenager. But I also know that I have to avail myself of music in order to not be a failure. There needs to be some sort of coping mechanism for people to live productively. Or to just live. Like, you’ve never had a reason to hang on to life, now you have to create it. If you don’t, then you’re going to eventually stumble on the question of “Why? What is keeping me alive?” And then, when you’re faced with that question, you don’t really want to ever answer it. Then at that point you start to fill your life up with lies.
GEOLOGIST Are you acknowledging that the desperation to record isn’t there as much?
ARIEL PINK I don’t want to force anything. I definitely don’t want that. If I have to do it, then I don’t want to. On the other hand, I don’t necessarily do it for me anymore. I don’t do things for me anymore at all. I do things for other people. It only makes me happy if other people are happy.
GEOLOGIST I go back and forth between being like that and then sort of taking inspiration from bands like Sun City Girls, or even people like Stockhausen, who say, “I’m doing it for me.”
ARIEL PINK I agree.
GEOLOGIST Because you’re attracted to that sort of alienation, that intention. You respect the people that are like, “Fuck it, I’m doing it for me. If you want to come along you’re invited, if not you can leave.” But the more I go on the more I realize there’s a simpler, more pure enjoyment in just making other people happy.
ARIEL PINK When you get a family, that’s front and center. That’s the feeling isn’t it? It’s not your life anymore, you’re really here as a servant to your son, to your daughter.
GEOLOGIST And not in a way I resent at all. It’s fun.
ARIEL PINK Yeah, it is. I honestly feel like I do this for the people that got through their own stuff with my music, who encouraged
me to continue because of what I did for them. I really feel if it’s appreciated then I must be doing something right, because I’m
really not doing anything other than being myself.