"My rent is $1,100, not including utilities." Animal Collective may have famously boasted of wanting "four walls and adobe slabs" for its members' daughters, but it's that outfit's longtime associate, Ariel Pink, who will straight-up tell you what he pays in rent. "Rent should account for a third of all my income during a given month," he tells me over the phone. "So I need to earn at least $3,300 every month from music in order to be comfortable. Not there yet."
In a recent interview with Pink in The Village Voice, writer Mike Powell was struck by how much he appeared to worry about rent, label advances, and having good reviews allegedly "bought and sold." The surprised article was reflective of Pink's fanbase — indie kids who perhaps frequent an art space but don't want to have to hear what their favorite psychedelic artist needs to survive. Maybe some fans were even a little upset by the notion that their heroes would want to make money at all. "I shouldn't reveal so much in interviews," Pink confesses over the phone, and he may be right. But it's hard not to think that more psychedelic indie musicians should be this candid.
The crucial distinction between the 31-year-old Pink and his escapist peers is that he's not very good at escaping. A lot of accountability and anxiety — and paying utilities — seeps through on his benchmark new album Before Today (as Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti). That makes his music not only more down-to-earth than the legions of four-track artisans working in odd-pop atmospherics and nostalgic effects (see "chillwave," which Pink is amused to be told he "invented"), but more interesting as well.
Similar to the way that Pink seems utterly incapable of playing the bullshit mystique dance in interviews (me: "What's your least favorite subject in interviews?" Pink: "Why did you decide to record in a studio, blah blah blah"), his songs refuse to settle for nostalgia points and AM-radio haze alone. Instead, they're filled with tons of tune and groove. Standouts on Today, such "Beverly Kills" and "Round and Round," evoke a druggy disco in some 1980s movie — it's impressive how Pink seems to effortlessly insert himself into music from the past, like a psych-pop Bill and Ted. When I ask him what band from any era he wishes he could have fronted, he says the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, and, surprisingly, Alice Cooper. (A joke? He also imagines his music as accompaniment for "doing astrophysics.")
Another galvanizing thing about Before Today is the harsh morality and fear that bubbles under its airy-funk surface. The provocative pleas of "Rape me, castrate me, make me gay" in "Menopause Man" recall Nirvana's most controversial chorus. "Beverly Kills" twists the knife in its title ("I know a guy used to bowl in the league, yeah/He's dancing in the street"), while "L'estat" concerns a widow who drowns her maid when she finds the maid in bed with her gardener. The despondent "Butt-House Blondies" tells of a doomed 16-year-old who "used to care," but "now all she knows is that she can breed."
If anyone has told pulp fiction like this before, it's never been on AM nostalgia records (or Animal Collective records). Pink hints that his own demons may be closer to home. But as with his music, the allowance of a few personal details doesn't necessarily mean we'll get the whole picture.
"I'm more relaxed these days, though family life is difficult," he offers near the end of our interview.
"Which of these questions did you like the least?" I ask.
"The rent," he replies.