The digs at Klearlight Studios in Dallas, Texas are a far cry from the cramped bedroom space in Los Angeles where Ariel Pink is used to recording, but according to the vision for his latest album Before Today, a well equipped studio, far removed from the rat race of Southern California, it was necessary. For those who’ve marveled at Ariel Pink’s cracked version of A.M. pop radio and warped ’60s psychedelia from the beginning, the first thing they’ll notice is that the record does not sound like it was transferred directly from a dusty four-track cassette left to bake in the sun. Instead, his sound has been processed for the good of humanity. Sonically his often overzealous and grotesque mishmash has been smoothed out—there are bridges, clean lines, and bolstered harmonies. A lot of that new vision can be attributed to Pink finally becoming whole with Haunted Graffiti, who were hand-picked about two years ago to be his live band, but who now share in the overall creation of the songs. As a result, Before Today boasts saxophone (both alto and baritone), trumpet, violin, grooved bass, and for the first time in his career, drum beats that weren’t made with his mouth. At times you’d think you were listening to a band plucked from a time-warp residency at some Sunset Strip lounge where the freaks come out at night.
Of course the instant-hit creaminess of soft-rock ballads “I Can’t Hear My Eyes” and what may just be the single of the year, “Round and Round,” will transfer to a whole new stable of fans, but he’s really become the crooner you always imagined he wanted to be. Under the spotlight, Before Today echoes an alternate history to the decadence of the fabled ’70s album-oriented rock bands, from bombastic high art of Love It to Death-era Alice Cooper and Roxy Music (circa For Your Pleasure) to breezy boner ballads and library-filmstrip prog. Given that Ariel Pink has been doing this for more than a decade on his own, in the current indie landscape he’s earned his own currency, and for that, he sounds like nothing else. If it had a name, the closest I could come to describing it would be to call it face-melting pop, like taking the dial for a spin and never quite landing on a frequency, even for a second or two.
The only defeat that comes with an album as deservingly hyped and glorious as Before Today is the attention the artist must give it. Ariel Pink and his Haunted Graffiti are slated to tour for the rest of the year, which leaves little space for Pink to continue his prolific streak of home recordings. But after talking with him right before he was about to get back on the road, the extra time has truly helped him discover who he wants to be as a musician, even if that perfect album in his head remains ever elusive.
I’ve been listening to you since The Doldrums, so even though you recorded Before Today in the studio with a full band, it really isn’t all that different from what you’ve done in the past conceptually. It’s just now it’s on a larger scale, I suppose. Is this the album you’ve always wanted to make from the beginning?
Ariel Pink: Every record has been the record I’ve always wanted to make. There’s always been this weird hierarchy of albums in my head with them just getting bigger and bigger and that’s just where this one fell.
I guess what I’m asking is what prompted you to make Before Today within these parameters?
AP: Well, I had Haunted Graffiti as my live band for two years prior to making the record. At first it was really easy to play with them, but when we got to the studio and we were put in that creative position, it became a pretty slow learning curve. We met some resistance at first and throughout the recording, but the next record with them will be far easier.
The songs that really stand out on have both already been released as singles. “I Can’t Hear My Eyes” and “Round and Round” seem to have a direct influence from soft rock like Fleetwood Mac and Hall and Oates. Do you have any theories as to why you preferred those sounds on Before Today?
AP: That’s just what songs demanded. There was never any overarching theme or sound that I wanted to emulate. Maybe in the end, when you tie it together with a cover and an album title, you think of something cohesive, but this is just the path I take to that better record I hear in my head that I’m never going to end up making. It’s actually kind of tragic.
Before Today comes across as a somewhat conceptual reflection of the decadence in L.A. Is that concentration of industry people and plasticity something that you are mocking here?
AP: Those are just my songs. That’s where I’m from—I’m talking about my hood. I just leave it to other people to determine if it has anything to do with my environment. Everyone always wants to ask if the music is caused by Los Angeles and my environment. I leave that to musicologists in Europe who want to say that Ace of Base is what Sweden sounds like. You know? What is Amsterdam supposed to sound like?
Does that environment make it tough to do what you do at all? I have the feeling you are likely maligned in the scene there because of what you do?
AP: I think maybe I’ve been here too long. I’ve been here 32 years and have always been maligned. What am I supposed to do, move to Berlin and start over? This city is huge and vast, but definitely cultivates what you would call a scene of insecurity about what’s worth going for. I hate to sound cynical about it because even though I’m an outsider here, there are a lot of great, like-minded musicians that are my friends. I’ve found there is no shortage of outsiders here. And I play on their records and they play on mine. But everyone else out here is in a rat race trying to impress the rest of the world.
I’m curious if now that you are constantly touring and promoting this record it has stifled your creativity and your prolific recording streak?
AP: Of course. No doubt it has stifled me putting down what’s constantly going on in my head. It’s actually been really good, though, because now I put a little more time and more of my heart in it. The time off from recording and the waiting is something that I have to do. I have the courage now where I don’t think I need get right back to making the next record. I have an audience now too, so I don’t have to be desperate and move on to the next thing. I guess I’m famous now.