Ariel Pink is firmly in control of Haunted Graffiti
Ariel Pink seems quintessentially L.A. He’s lived virtually his entire life in Los Angeles and can’t imagine living anywhere else. He’s written songs with titles like “Beverly Kills” and “Life in L.A.,” and echoes of the city’s musical past reverberate across his albums, from the Byrds and Love to Fleetwood Mac and the Germs’ Darby Crash.
Yet the frontman-leader of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti says that, compared with the cult love he gets elsewhere, “I’m nothing in L.A. It’s been at the same level for the last 10 years.”
Maybe that’s why Pink, who lives in Highland Park, is talking up his new record “Before Today” as his “East Coast album.” He describes the cover as “Ramones-ish”: It’s a painting of Pink and band mates leaning against what could be a flophouse or derelict burlesque theater in a rundown outer borough of New York.
In Manhattan the day before playing a May 4 concert, Pink is strolling along a post-industrial landmark in the formerly seedy meatpacking district: the High Line, a disused railroad viaduct recently converted into a long, narrow above-ground park. A small, hunched figure who gives off a vague aura of spiritual malnourishment, he’s wearing a gray-hooded jacket, an orange-and-blue-striped shirt with a torn neckline, and clogs.
Pink, whose real name is Ariel Rosenberg, is physically hungry too. He forgot breakfast, so the next destination is a Thai fast-food joint in nearby Chelsea Market. Gobbling noodles, he discusses the strange twists and turns of his career. Its unusual trajectory mirrors the paradoxical qualities of his music and the contradictions of his personality, where fragility and neediness battle it out with self-grandeur and control-freakishness. At one point during the making of “Before Today,” in fact, he quit his own band.
All this comes through in the music’s combination of the swagger and epic drama of classic radio rock with the passive-aggressive vulnerability and petulance of bands like the Cure (Pink’s favorite as a Goth-loving teenager). Like many of his indie-rock peers, Pink has worked as a record-store clerk and there’s an aspect to his songs that is pure pastiche. But cutting through the stylization and the arch vocals is the ache of real pain and longing, the sting of a spite and cynicism that has roots in a troubled childhood.
Pink’s signature sound — the collision of exquisitely melodic song craft influenced by ‘80s mainstream pop with the loose ends and reverb-haze of lo-fi indie — has been forged widely in the last several years. He’s the godfather of the blog-buzz propelled genre known as chillwave, whose dreamy legion includes Neon Indian, Tory y Moi, Tape Deck Mountain, Washed Out, and dozens more. “I know I’ve left my mark already,” Pink says, proudly. “I know when somebody’s heard my music. I can hear it in their music.”
Then he admits he doesn’t really like any of the bands he’s influenced, apart from a few that involve his friends and associates, including L.A.-based Nite Jewel (Ramona Gonzalez, the wife of his former guitarist Cole Marsden Greif-Neill).
Depending on how you calculate, “Before Today” is Pink’s ninth album or his 24th. The Haunted Graffiti discography is a chaotic sprawl of ultra-limited-edition cassette, CD-R and vinyl releases, confused further by rereleases and reconfigurations of earlier material. But Pink insists that “Before Today” is “the first album.” Not only is it his debut for a big-deal label (4AD), it’s “the first record I’ve made with any kind of thought or consciousness that I have an audience.” He and his band will begin a national tour at the Echoplex in Echo Park on July 9.
Pink’s cult stature arrived quickly middecade when he was discovered by Animal Collective, which rereleased “The Doldrums,” followed by “Worn Copy” and “House Arrest,” on its fledgling label Paw Tracks. But not only were these rereleases of records Pink had put out a few years earlier on tiny labels operated by friends but the actual material had been recorded as far back as the late ‘90s. Until now, virtually everything he has released was created before November 2004.
What’s he been doing these last five years then? Eking out a living by touring and releasing limited-editions collations of the old material, he says, while “trying to get a record deal. I didn’t want to make any new music until I got paid for it.”
Everything Pink made before “Before Today” was done solo. He operated as a one-man band, laying down all the instrumental parts onto an 8-track mixer in his apartment and, amazingly, simulating drums using mouth-noises, human beat-box style. “Before Today” represents a total reversal of this modus operandi: Pink worked with a proper band, in a professional recording studio, under the direction of a producer.
The transition was “fraught with complications from Day 1,” he says. Bassist Tim Koh, longest-serving member of the group and Pink’s friend since he put out “Worn Copy” on his own micro-label Rhystop, sounds fatigued as he describes the “really long process. We went through tons of people. Ariel quit, and I quit at one point. And Cole our guitarist quit but never came back. It got a little … difficult.”
Pink describes it as “a learning experience.” What he learned, though, wasn’t how to get along with others but that “ultimately I do have absolute control. I had to basically take control of my band. Stop calling it a band.... I got very good at telling people what to do, essentially.”
All that tension and unpleasantness has paid off handsomely. “Before Today” strips away a lot of the echo-laden wooze that swathed Pink’s earlier music. What emerges, glistening and majestic like a yacht through fog, often sounds like chart material. The only catch is that these would be radio smashes in 1986, or 1978, or whichever year that a particular song refers to stylistically. You can’t imagine anything on the record making a dent on today’s radioscape.
The title “Before Today” speaks to Pink’s alienation from contemporary music. “Oh, they’re all retro-licious, man,” he quips of his songs. “My music is pure retro.” “Before Today” is the logical extension of what Pink began with “The Doldrums” and “Worn Copy,” where tracks such as “Among Dreams” and “Trepanated Earth” felt like ghost transmissions from a long-lost radio utopia. “I see it as preserving something that has died. Something that’s going extinct. And just saying, ‘no!’ That’s all it is for me, as a music lover. I like to do things that I like. And what I like is something that I don’t hear.”
What’s odd about Ariel Pink is that the lo-fi, mumbly-vocal DIY tradition that his early music belonged to was originally vehemently opposed to the slick, big-budget AOR and ‘80s rock ‘n’ soul that he’s so inspired by. Hall & Oates are a perennial touchstone, while on “Before Today” you can hear Blue Oyster Cult circa “Don’t Fear the Reaper” in “Butt-house Blondies” and the Police circa “Every Breath You Take” in “Round and Round.”
More often, though, the echoes are less specific, his music like a puree of jumbled-up eras. Born in 1978, Pink belongs to the post-historical generation, shaped by the endless shuffle-mode of VH1 and classic rock radio and more recently iPod and YouTube. “We have no concept of time,” he says, talking of how some people in his generation “who like ‘60s music, they live there forever.”
With so much contemporary music, its primary emotion is directed toward other, earlier music. Pink is a scholar of the history of rock production, and his music occasionally succumbs to formalist whimsy. But his best songs are fueled by real-life emotion: the tremulous yearning of “Strange Skies,” the romantic uncertainty of “Round and Round.” There’s darkness too, an almost exultantly bleak view of the world.
Pink’s parents divorced when he was 2. There was child therapy and a difficult transition from a Jewish private school to a public junior high in Beverly Hills. His response to being “made fun of a lot, [because] I was very small” was to get into death metal. “You could say I was the equivalent of a Columbine kid, except this was before Columbine.”
Being sent to Mexico for a while “cheered me up a bit” and he upgraded from death metal to Goth. In the late ‘90s, he attended CalArts, where he was “extremely rebellious, an affront to the art department.” At the end-of-semester exhibition in 1999, Ariel’s contribution was a kiosk at which he sold burned CD-Rs of “The Doldrums.” “I was using music as my concept art. I was just doing music the whole time I was there.”
Turbulence continued well into the 2000s, with a chaotic domestic situation and a lifestyle whose flavor is caught in the “House Arrest” anthem “Getting High in the Morning.” Then, just as his career took off with the rerelease of “The Doldrums,” a beloved sister suffered a terrible car crash, leaving her in a permanent vegetative state.
Perhaps because he has two sisters and because of his parents’ divorce, Pink seems to identify with womankind. He has an androgynous quality reminiscent of glam icon Marc Bolan and plays with gender in his songs. Throughout the interview he threads his fingers through his long, fine hair in a nervous, girlish way. In the video for the killer tune “For Kate I Wait” from “The Doldrums,” he wears a dress.
And “Before Today’s” “Menopause Man” is a transgender anthem whose lyrics beseech “make me maternal, fertile woman” and vow “I’m changing today/ I’m a lady from today.” Pink says, “I feel like I’m neither a girl nor a boy. I don’t feel like a man. I look in the mirror sometimes and think, ‘Wow, you’re a beautiful woman.’” He smiles wryly and adds, “Of course, it’s very male to think like that.”