There’s a moment during You Think You Really Know Me, the 2005 documentary on 1970s Midwest cult artist Gary Wilson, when the filmmakers acknowledge that their subject is not necessarily as weird as his music. “I thought he would be a little bit more,” says Christina Bates, coowner of the defunct Motel Records, which reissued Wilson’s 1977 jazz-rock curio You Think You Really Know Me to much acclaim. Bates’ voice trails off. “He’s really in complete control of his image.”
The same could be said of Ariel “Pink” Rosenberg. The Los Angeles musician follows a long tradition of outsiders whose recordings invite speculation on their mental stability, from enigmatic recluses such as Wilson to the late (and rumored schizophrenic) Syd Barrett. But, as Ariel Pink summarizes during a phone conversation, “I’ve never been in the closet, by myself or reclusive like everyone says. That’s a myth.”
Ariel Pink’s releases — which he began recording and issuing as CD-Rs in the late ’90s, moving to Animal Colllective’s Paw Tracks imprint with 2003’s The Doldrums — sound like a melting brain. Heartbreakingly melodic keyboard tones float around like smoke from burning embers. The songs — including “For Kate I Wait” from Doldrums, which became a college radio novelty hit — barely hang onto verse-chorus structure, and Pink’s muttered ramblings unveil feelings of warped alienation and deep melancholy.
Often issued under the “Haunted Graffiti” rubric, Pink’s aberrant synth-pop has proved influential on younger musicians, many of whom have been lumped under the semi-mocking hipster term “chillwave.” But while Neon Indian and Toro y Moi tap into the cultural zeitgeist via krushed grooves and distorted vocals, their overall tone is cool and distant, suggesting a familiar kind of postadolescent anomie. In contrast, Ariel Pink guffaws, grunts, lilts in a cooing voice reminiscent of a whining dog, and shouts nonsense lyrics, all in pursuit of a song’s emotional center. “I’m a necro-romantic! I’ll be suckin’ your blood!” he riffs on “Fright Night (Nevermore),” a track from his recent, excellent Before Today, evoking dewy memories of richly ambiguous ’80s horror flicks and John Carpenter soundtracks.
Perhaps music fans and critics occasionally call Ariel Pink a savant because he’s unafraid to look foolish. His interviews have teased and strained against that perception. “I have something to do with it, too,” he admits. “I open my mouth and say things, and certain things make it to posterity, and make it to Wikipedia, and people think they’re doing their research when they read Wikipedia. So a lot of misconceptions get repeated.”
During the interview, Pink strikes a professional tone, saying that he’s grateful to be signed to 4AD (a subsidiary of major indie conglomerate Beggars Group) after years of struggling as an indie artist. 4AD booked him on an international tour for Before Today, which reached stores in June; and he calls from Plano B, a nightclub in Porto, Portugal where he and his backing band, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, are setting up to perform. The long-distance connection leads to frequent shouts of “Huh? I can’t hear you, dude.”
Before Today marks a new, post-bedroom phase for Ariel Pink. Recorded with his band, songs like “L’estat (acc. to the widow’s maid)” and “Bright Lit Blue Skies” benefit from the type of sharply navigated time changes and vivid instrumental colors that can’t be realized through bedroom production techniques. Meanwhile, “Reminiscences,” an easygoing lounge number, draws inspiration from Ethiopian singer Yeshimebet Dubale. “Arguably the most famous type of song form in Ethiopia is tizita, the song of nostalgia and remembrances,” Pink explains.
Ariel Pink admits that past live performances were often chaotic and uninspired affairs where “I didn’t care about anything and just thought about me. That didn’t get me very far.” Musicians shuffled in and out of Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, adding to the instability. He’s cautiously optimistic about the prospects for his current lineup, which features Tim Koh, Kenny Gilmore, Joe Kennedy, and Aaron Sperske. “I don’t know how long the current incarnation will be around for — we’ve only been together two weeks,” he says, noting that Kennedy just joined the group. “I’m always trying to get a bunch of guys to stay with me.”
After years spent mostly working alone, Pink welcomes the challenge of learning to perform with — and lead — others. “Ultimately it’s more fulfilling for me. It’s no fun doing it alone! Seriously, it’s boring as fuck.”
ARIEL PINK’S HAUNTED GRAFFITI
With Magic Kids, Pearl Harbour
Sat/10, 9 p.m., $15
Bimbo’s 365 Club
1025 Columbus, SF