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Ariel Pink is firmly in control of Haunted Graffiti

It's his band — even if he quit it once. And he takes full responsibility for it.

June 06, 2010|By Simon Reynolds, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • BIG INFLUENCE: Ariel Pink, standing, looms large over Aaron Sperske, left, Kenny Gilmore and Tim Koh.
BIG INFLUENCE: Ariel Pink, standing, looms large over Aaron Sperske, left,… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)

reporting from new york city — — 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.

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