I’m walking toward the elevator after interviewing Ariel Pink at the office of his new record label, 4AD, and I somehow manage to pass him coming the other way down the hall, even though he left the room only 30 seconds before I did. He is hunched and stiff. His chin dips below his shoulders’ latitude. His black hair is scattered around the deep neck of his long-sleeved shirt. “Do you know what’s—,” he begins, as if usually surrounded by people who know where he’s supposed to be next. “Oh, wait, of course you don’t.” He waves his hand and unlit cigarette in a get-out-of-here motion as he walks past.
Pink is in from L.A. to promote Before Today, his first record of new material in six years. He doesn’t want to be here, but he has to if he wants to make money—a subject that comes up more often than I would’ve expected in talking to someone with a reputation for being a savant. (The phrase “bought and sold”—as in, “You should expect a bad review if you’re not bought and sold”—is evoked three times during our conversation. Record-label advances are discussed three or four times. Paying rent comes up twice, taking his girlfriend on vacation once.)
His career—which is, I get the sense, what he’d like to ultimately call it—started with a series of self-recorded cassettes released in tiny editions between 1998 and 2004. The music is a jumble of ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s pop-rock that sounds like it’s being performed under less than ideal circumstances by someone who has no idea of what he’s doing. (He’s been honest about that, having once described his albums as documents of him learning to play his own songs.)
He’s a frequent beatboxer; the other instruments (guitars and synths, usually) sound plastic and two-dimensional. Home cassette-recording usually involves a lot of a process called bouncing: basically, moving two or more recorded tracks onto one to make more room on the tape, which usually makes the tape sound overstuffed and degraded. And at the bottom is Pink’s voice, an instrument that only sounds more extreme in this context—a karaoke meltdown. Sometimes, it’s a goth-kid wail; other times, it’s deadpan, neither ironic nor sincere. (“Take out that loan,” he sang on “Life in L.A.” “It’s now or never.” Joke? Threat?) Pink is 31 and once said that MTV was his “babysitter” while growing up, an image that only strengthens the impression of his music as a kind of swamp of memories where everything that gets fished out is half-rotted.
Animal Collective’s label, Paw Tracks, began reissuing his tapes in 2004; for the past six years, he has toured regularly and built a reputation on music that is now sometimes more than a decade old, influencing a class of young bands playing hazy, nostalgic music that he explicitly doesn’t care about. “I’m lucky as fuck—I’m lucky I invented ‘chillwave’ and ‘glo-fi,’ ” he says, laughing and aggressively twirling his hair. “Keep it coming, man. Let me invent more.”
At least one difference between Ariel Pink and the bands he supposedly influenced is that Ariel Pink gives me the fucking creeps, and his protégés do not. And the creeps—the true creeps—are something I make no apology for wanting. They’re too rare to let good taste get in the way. His songs are melodic and conventionally structured, but his presence is a little like Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs: Daddy, daddy, look at your baby boy. Bedwetting and breakdowns. Puerile fits that most people grow out of and revisit only for therapeutic purposes. The glory of shame, the theater of trauma—the moment where the pervert stops caring about his perversions and lets himself unravel in the town square.
Onstage at Mercury Lounge last Tuesday night, he conflates glam preening with facial contortions that make it look like he’s being stabbed—a snuff-porn pose, a howl from a dark bedroom. (It also reminds me of Laura Dern in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet or Inland Empire—the way she warps her mouth into a figure eight, that prehistoric revulsion.) He announces that Before Today will be out in June 2008—a joke about both the time-fucked nature of his music and how everyone in the sold-out room has probably already downloaded the leak. He plays with a band now, another decision he talks about as if it were a concession to eventually getting paid. (“If I said, ‘I need $30,000 to make a record,’ what is that going toward? My rent? But that won’t fly—you have to be worth investing in, and if I have a band, it’s worth investing in. Alone, I’m a fucking bum on the street.” Incidentally, he quit the band partway through the recording of Before Today: “I called 4AD and was like, ‘Sorry. But you’ve got a great record on your hands.’ ” He goes on to explain that, despite his reticence, he felt compelled to be “the fucking boss.”)
Everyone at the show is real excited and crushing forward to get a good look at the myth. The four-man band (guitars, keys, bass, drums) takes the stage with zero ceremony. Then Pink announces that bassist Tim Koh is “taking a squiggly.” House music comes on. The show finally starts. The band runs “the hits,” and several of them sound as distant onstage as they do on record. Between songs, Pink points out that Michael Jackson died on his birthday. After “Round and Round”—the gauzy prom-ballad single from Before Today—he starts clapping rhythmically over his head, mocking the feeling that we’re all getting a big, warm, stadium-rock rush in this little room. “Not that kind of event,” he mutters, and looks off to the side of the stage.
Toward the end of the show, I notice I’m standing next to a friend. “Are you enjoying it?” she asks. I could be honest and say no, but then I’d have to explain that I’m not in it for the fun, per se—that I make time in my life for experiences that bother me in elemental ways, and that, sometimes, that feeling of being bothered is a lot richer than having fun anyhow. But I don’t want to be an anti-social blowhard, so I say, “Yeah, it’s pretty good.”
At one point during our talk, Pink says he only started making music to upset his family. (His father, a doctor, appeared on his album House Arrest, in the form of a voicemail about Pink’s car being impounded: “You are unbelievable. Call me when you have a chance.”) “My parents got divorced when I was younger, and it fucked me up,” he says, “but I’m all over that now.” Then he immediately brings up the fact that there are family tragedies he’d rather not bring up, and keeps gathering steam, shifting around on the couch and saying “fuck” every 10 words, a mess of nerves in a tiny room without air conditioning, minutes before a thunderstorm, not sure what to say next but unable to stop talking. He tells me he doesn’t need to make music. He tells me there’s no way he could make it like he used to anyhow. He tells me there was a time he was a deadbeat. Now he’s got a record label. Now he’s got all the love he needs. “I’m all filled up!” he says, tensing his neck and staring at me.