Emerging from a pizzeria in Cleveland, Ariel Pink has found a light for his Camel cigarette, and we begin our discussion. For approximately an hour, Pink and I will walk around Cleveland Heights—a partly commercial, partly residential portion of the city catering mostly to students from nearby Case Western Reserve University—discussing everything from technocrats to his cinematic ambitions. As Pink launches into a spot-on rant about tastemakers and music, it's evident that his agile mind is constantly on alert.
"There are new kids deciding what's going to be important tomorrow," Pink said. "Once you're discovered and they can't make money off you anymore, it's over ... I never had any illusions about making it or anything like that. I figured I'd be doing something wrong if I didn't fail."
Granted, failure is relative and Pink laughed at his bold declaration ("Of course, I'm a success; I'm just one person, man"). By any measure, Ariel Pink has done all right for himself since 2010's vibrant Before Today exponentially increased the exposure for him and his outfit (Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti), catapulted in no small part by the disco-pop single "Round and Round."
"I'm happy I'm not in my bedroom eeking out a living with some retail stuff, trying to record all night," Pink said. "I can actually say I do this for a job and I don't have to do anything else."
Last year's fantastic Mature Themes marked another step in the evolution of Pink, whose early success was as a musical autodidact for the lo-fi set. Written and recorded after the dissolution of a long-term relationship, Mature Themes is a robust, mystical release that eschews any expectations of what might constitute a breakup album. Instead, Pink traipses heartaches and anxieties through a cavalcade of disparate genres—pop, goth, soul, metal, glam—gloriously fusing them with vocals careening from affected to affecting. The title track, for instance, is a trilling, baroque dose of synth-pop that mixes hammy presentation with gutting pathos ("I want it to be good").
"Hopefully I've improved and that's the natural course of things," Pink said. "You go from not knowing anything to gradually learning how to make certain disasters not happen. I assume I'll be getting higher-fi ...but only slightly. It's just a matter of polishing a turd. We're not going to go full bore; we're not going to be the Neptunes or anything like that."
In several hours, Pink and his bandmates will tear through an enthusiastic set at Cleveland's Grog Shop. Justifiably, Pink had boundless praise for this current iteration of his band.
"It's actually a lot easier in a lot of senses because I don't have to worry about trying to re-create all these things that were recorded very, very erratically but very, very painstakingly by myself," Pink said. "Now I've got a band that can kind of read my mind. ... The musicianship is impeccable. I mean, I'm definitely the weakest link in the whole thing."
Pink is being modest. Mature Themes spotlights his ample talent. Whether it's the perverse, kinky pop of opener "Kinski Assassin," the electrified shuffle of "Is This the Best Spot?" or the dance-floor goth of "Symphony of the Nymph," Pink has unique compositional chops. Similarly, he is an ace performer with a knack for melody—check the jangly dream-pop of "Only in Dreams" and the liquid soul-funk murmurs of "Baby." Lyrically, Mature Themes offers another entrancing batch of Pink's singular surrealism, occupied with everything from Wienerschnitzel chow to "bogan she-males hopped up on meth," pink slime and the "bad breath of a cross-eyed goat."
Pink obliquely references legal concerns, and there's a $1 million lawsuit by a former drummer looming, but responsibility occupies much of our conversation. Passing the Cleveland venue for the fifth time, Pink contemplates his future and, as expected, it is a struggle between duty and instinct.
"I'm the kind of guy who likes to make music when he's happy," Pink said. "Depression doesn't inspire me. So if you keep on hearing from me that means I'm doing what I want to do. If you don't hear from me ... chances are either I don't have any inspiration, and in that case that's a good thing because I'll be happy when I don't have to fucking record like a madman. ... Also, if you don't hear from me it's probably because I'm fucking tied up in some legal quagmire that has me being a slave to something I refuse to be a slave to, and I might have to quit doing things under my name with any kind of visibility that comes with success."
Pausing on the sidewalk, Pink turns his pack of Camel Lights over in his hand like he's palming a crystal ball.
"I might have to go underground and become my own bootlegger," he said. "Take my Chevy out with my dog, hit up Tucson, and go back home."