Ariel Pink is hot on the trail of something. He's got his hands buried in his pockets and his shoulders maintain a permanent slouch, but he's circling the room at a manic pace, sniffing at the air like a hound dog that's caught the scent of a fox. He pauses by a tall bookshelf.
“I … I smell it,” he stutters rapidly. “I feel it over here. It's almost like … it's like …” From behind a curtain of stringy brown hair, his eyes light up. “Girl! It's girl mixed with wood.”
He bares his teeth and lets out a high, insistent twitter — laughter?
A glance around the living room of the Pasadena post-and-beam that Pink has chosen as the location for our interview — it's a John Lautner original, owned by a friend — shows no one else here seems disturbed by this strange display. Drummer Aaron Sperske continues breaking up a pungent nugget of pot on the dining room table, while Haunted Graffiti keyboardist Kenny Gilmore, 21, sips water from a plastic bottle and sinks a little deeper into the midcentury modern sofa. Bassist Tim Koh is en route.
Pink's frenetic circling hews closer and I notice a blue rectangle protruding from his jeans.
“Do you always carry your passport in your back pocket?”
Sperske answers for him, wearily, like a concerned mother: “Yes. And it's amazing that he never loses it. I've seen it dangle — “
But Pink cuts him off as both settle onto the upholstery. The singer explains that he left his last vehicle at impound “after they put the boot on my van for the final time.” He has had no use for a driver's license in five years, which may be the least surprising thing he's said all afternoon.
One of the oddest details among oh-so-many in the Ariel Pink saga is that until Before Today, his band's newest album and his first for 4AD, the polarizing pop experimentalist hadn't recorded any new music in the entire time he's been a well-known act. Though the L.A. native has maintained a vigorous release schedule since 2004, when Paw Tracks (the label co-owned by Animal Collective) began to issue his work, the eight (or so) albums that have come since have been culled from tapes that predate his exposure to larger audiences.
Ironically, it's Pink's seemingly prolific nature that has caused listeners to either label his pop-kissed home-recordings as so much preciousness, or else hail him as a lo-fi rock savant on par with Jandek, Daniel Johnston or his mentor and occasional collaborator R. Stevie Moore.
“It's the natural, obvious outcome of my pathology,” says Pink. “I had already decided I was going to be something that I'd find in my own record collection, forgotten and discarded. Do you know I used to pride myself on the fact that I'd never booked a show in my life, but that I'd played so many because I'd been invited? Like I was doing the world a fucking favor.”
He scoffs at himself and pushes his hair behind his ear a little too forcibly.
“I had to make a decision about two years ago to get it together,” the 31-year-old continues.
“Because if it wasn't then, it would've been later, and if it was gonna be anything at all, it probably wouldn't be worth anything then. I'm not just going to go back to my bedroom, get a job and 'get real with myself' — come on. I'm already too old and I'm lucky to have a job at all.”
This is a different Pink from the one who spoke with L.A. Weekly in late 2005. Accolades for his breakthrough album, House Arrest, were pouring in, but he was broke and depressed, mired in the details of a divorce and a car accident that left his younger sister in a vegetative state.
The Pink of today, granted, is peculiar and prone to outbursts. (On deciding to leave Paw Tracks: “Now I know why people go and commit suicide after selling their soul to the devil.”) But he takes responsibility for derailing his solo career via “shitty performances” and laziness.
Pink and the quiet ones — Gilmore and Koh, who has arrived with his left arm in a sling — head to the backyard to share a cigarette.
“Some people are guided by this passion and honesty,” mulls Sperske, lanky and stoned, draped over an armchair, “where I don't think they're aware of whether it's going to rub people the wrong way or cause some chaotic effect. It's fun to be around. That's that thing that injects itself into your day like, 'Hey. I'm fucking living.'”
Sperske, who has played with Beachwood Sparks, Lilys and Elliott Smith among others, has made his mark on Pink too. The very existence of the band marks a considerable transformation for the former shut-in, whose somewhat infamous M.O. was to generate every sound on his own, whether that meant beat-boxing the drums or learning new instruments as he needed them.
“I didn't have to try to be a guitar player because I was just getting through the phrase,” says Pink. He'd record exclusively to 8-track. “I literally had my toe on the recording button — the skill was cutting and stitching. The quality control was so little in every part of the process.
“Most people wouldn't get as far as I did laying down a track and saying, 'It sounds like shit! I'm fine with that!' Doing another track on top of that — 'I love the results! Let's release it!' I don't challenge myself enough to do anything useful with it anymore, but with the band I can.”
Before Today isn't as dramatic a departure as one might expect. Despite the presence of Pro Tools and accomplished musicians, songs like “Bright Lit Blue Skies” and the grunge-caked “Butt-House Blondies” are still unpredictable, out of time, hazy and freaky. They're just better.
In a 2005 interview, Pink joked about not having to worry about second-album syndrome, since he had nearly a dozen records in the bag already.
“So what does that make this?” I ask.
“This is first-record syndrome, man,” says Pink before hopping up to chase some smell or unseen demon out the front door. On his way out, he yells back: “No expectations!”