By Jim Schutze
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It's been five years since home recorder Ariel Pink (né Rosenburg) landed on Animal Collective's Paw Tracks imprint, which released his years-in-the-can album The Doldrums and, later, a pair of reissues.
His freaky, no-fi work initially played like outsider art, with its strange shrieks, primitive delivery and incidental noise. Dismissed by many as a falsetto-abusing emperor in new clothes, he was equally embraced as a Syd Barrett-ish cult idol, and since, the Los Angeles-based eccentric has put his name to releases on an array of obscure labels.
But though Pink's merch table may be crowded with limited-edition vinyl, homemade CD-Rs, live recordings and tour-only releases, a cottage industry he isn't: "The real reason I have such a patchy release schedule is because I don't really have a record label," he says.
Pink has acted as an adviser to Los Angeles' multidisciplinary—and, in a bold move, soon-to-be nonprofit—label Human Ear Music, but he isn't signed to it, nor is he involved in its administrative decisions. Instead, he seems to be looking for a larger label, in part because money from his home-recorded back catalog—he's been self-releasing material since 1996—and constant touring are barely allowing him to break even these days.
"I'm eking out my rent like everybody else, or probably less than most people," he says. As a result, he's often touring instead of recording and selling old work instead of new. Even being aligned with the crossover-achieving Animal Collective—a dream for any aspiring indie artist—seems to be worth little to Pink at the moment. Despite what people may think, he isn't actively signed to the Brooklyn-based Paw Tracks.
"I think I cost them a lot of money," he says, alluding to either low record sales or, more likely, his past struggles with live performances.
That's another thing: In recent years, even naysayers have been shocked by Pink's transformation into an actual frontman of his touring band, Haunted Graffiti. The well-oiled five-piece is a huge leap for a guy who used to mouth his records' drum sounds. Whereas his recordings flit from wobbly psych to tinny new wave, Haunted Graffiti plays like vintage art-rock with shades of '70s glam and '60s garage, and Pink couches many of his eccentricities to simply sing and play guitar.
"I'm trying to turn a new leaf," he confirms, "and show people I can record sounds that aren't just nasty and overdriven." On the same note, he's trying to prove that an erratic pattern of far-flung releases isn't what he's after. "I think the image that's been projected is that I've been only too happy to be prolific and non-discriminate with whoever I put things out with, which is not the case."
In an era when so many artists are self-releasing material and avoiding record labels altogether, Pink has been going the DIY route too long. He now seems to crave the stability and support of a proper label.
"I've been so lax and almost altruistic, like it's charity," he says. "When I came into the public eye, I was really happy to just give my stuff away. And it's been a double-edged sword, because I probably suffer from undue overexposure."
With that said, his past few tours with Haunted Graffiti have restored a lot of fans' faith in him. Despite just scraping by after splitting tour money with his band, Pink intends to keep at it regardless of whether a label comes knocking.
"As long as I can do it, I'm content to do it," he says. "I'm not thinking about retirement anytime soon."