How Ariel Pink Got His Groove Back

This is Ariel Pink’s year. Actually, 2004 was Ariel Pink’s year, but not enough people knew. That was the year he paused his endless bedroom-recording routine and started parceling out a cache of homemade tapes—numbering in the hundreds and sitting in a milk crate, according to one reporter. And that was the year he stepped into a weird interzone where he became the Ariel Pink everyone, well, sort of knew . . . and sort of loved.

Animal Collective gave him his first push when his Doldrums became the debut release on their Paw Tracks label, and that led to years of unpredictable live shows and endlessly fascinating micro-pressing releases. He made pop songs sticky with character and sophistication, but they came shadowed in multitrack-tape hiss and general seediness. (Imagine if Michael Jackson was trying to be Rocket From the Tombs.) Pink would play live at the Echo and be alone onstage doing basically karaoke to his own cassettes. What you got with him was the unreal deal—sometimes mind-blowing, sometimes brain-draining. This was Pink’s private reserve. “Ever since I started—ever since I’ve been covered and toured and all that stuff—I had never recorded anything for an audience,” he says. “Or even with an audience in mind.”

The five-year plan, he says, was to save up and wait for a record deal to come to him. And it would have if people such as Girls’ Chris Owens ran record labels. The New York Times called Girls a “revelation,” but Owens reveals one of the few people who got him playing in a band in the first place was Pink, whom Owens calls one of “the greatest musicians I know [who has] been playing music for the past 10 or 15 years—and nobody’s even cared.”

Except, of course, every active semi-famous “chillwave” band of 2010, using the Pink-fi sound to clog up blogs and fill the bottom end of festival fliers with poorly conceived names. Until this summer, it looked like Pink was destined to be one of those constantly copied noble nobodies—what Fugs singer Ed Sanders called a living example of “the truism that the theoreticians of a movement can make a better living out of it than the practitioners.” But then, after a decision process that must have developed molecule by molecule, giant indie 4AD—home of the Pixies, the Cocteau Twins and the Birthday Party—finally emerged from the darkness to give Pink a contract and something new to him: plenty of time in a real studio.

The result is Pink and his hotshot band Haunted Graffiti’s Before Today, one of the best records of the year and possibly in living local memory. Shocked? “You may come to the show and expect the worst show you’ve ever seen—that’s what everyone used to say,” says Haunted Graffiti drummer Aaron Sperske. “But mid-show, you’ll be dancing your ass off, and at the end of the show, you’ll be a total convert. That’s how it was for me—night after night. Everyone is dancing, and everyone is digging it—the way it’s meant to be dug!”

They were both kids who bought records every week and devoured them, Sperske says, and that’s probably why Before Today is so nourishing. In its first two minutes, Pink and Haunted Graffiti deploy dub, kraut rock, Hawkwind-ish space noise, Rinse Dream-style porno sax, Arthur Russell loft-disco melodies and plosive Beefheart-y exclamations. That’s an entire, serious record collection in itself, and that’s just the music while the curtain comes up. Every song after is ferociously dense—would it be too reductive to say this guy knows everything and got together a band that can play everything, too?

“In a nutshell,” says Sperske, “people saw Ariel before—with his home-bedroom recordings—as outsider art. But now it’s like somewhere between prog jazz and high art, but punk and rock & roll, too. He’s an artist first and foremost—he really is. He’s an artist-slash-musician, not a musician-slash-artist.”

“I’m so good at telling people what to do,” Pink adds. “I’m way better at that than playing my own instruments.”

Ever since he was a kid, Pink says, he has heard all the music in his head—instead of individual instruments, he visualized some giant, jellied blob just pumping out music as easily and naturally as breathing. And now on Before Today, he has his monster. It’s a living, breathing recording that takes every good idea in Pink’s head and uses it to stomp over anything in its path.

“Groundbreaking,” says Pitchfork.

“Pop perfection,” says the Guardian.

“Leaps beyond,” says The New York Times.

Rips fully, says me. This will be Ariel Pink’s year, whether he’s ready or not.

“I’m stoked,” Pink says. “I have to pinch myself! When I see people lined up at shows, I still feel like they’re there for the opening act.”

So after all this, Pink is still humble? He snorts. “Yeah, right! They won’t buy it for a second—‘ARIEL PINK: STILL MODEST!’”

Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti perform with Puro Instinct and Teen Inc at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; Sat., 8 p.m. $10. 21+.

This article appeared in print as “Ariel Pink Gets His Due: How Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti churned out the album of the year.”

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