Unrattled by the Rush: An Oral History of Pavement's New York City

Though Pavement, the long-deified, freshly reunited Gods of Indie Rock As We Know It, traditionally self-identify as hailing from Stockton, California, their New York City roots run deep. From roughly 1989 to 1994, when the band released instant-classic genre touchstones Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, four-fifths of the band resided here. Now, in honor of their (finally!) imminent four-night stand in Central Park (with a bonus gig at the Williamsburg Waterfront), we present an oral history of Pavement's time in New York, as told by the guys themselves (save ever-elusive frontman Stephen Malkmus), along with their friends and backers at Matador Records.

Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg, singer/guitarist: New York was definitely a big influence on the early records, on Stephen's writing and his influences. It'd be hard not to be influenced by what was going on. People think of us as a California band, but it could've just as easily been that we were a New York band as well. We were always a band that, when we started, we got together to rehearse, make a record, and tour, then all go our separate ways. It was never the case of having to live together like a typical band.

Bob Nastanovich, multi-instrumentalist: I moved to New York in September of 1989. The first couple months I was there, I worked loading tractor-trailers for UPS. Once I put down all my money for first month's rent, security deposit, and renter's fee, I had like $50. I had no aspirations of being in a band.

They looked so happy here.
Gail Butensky
They looked so happy here.
Malkmus at Easley Studio in ‘94
Courtesy Matador Records
Malkmus at Easley Studio in ‘94

Steve West, drummer: I was a bicycle courier, but I was on foot. They called me "John on Foot."

Mark Ibold, bassist: I came to New York because of my interest in food. I actually also worked at Tower Records, the one on Broadway—I was the manager of the Cassette Department. I should clarify: I wasn't even the manager of the Cassette Department. I was the manager of the Blank Cassette Department.

Prior to moving here, Malkmus had recorded a few singles with his childhood friend, Kannberg—they went into a Stockton studio owned by an older dude named Gary Young, who'd go on to become Pavement's original drummer, known for his onstage antics and heavy drinking. Those three recorded Slanted and Enchanted in December 1990; Kannberg spent time afterward sending the tape around to labels for possible release.

Based on favorable fanzine reviews of the previous singles and Slanted and Enchanted's continuation of that lo-fi, scattered scuzz that hallmarks their early work, the tape started making the rounds via dupes. All of a sudden, Pavement realized they probably should figure out how to play a live show. Nastanovich lent a hand on percussion to help Young keep cool, while Ibold was still a curious fan. West, too, was still on the sidelines, but working a day job alongside Malkmus uptown.

SK: The very first show in New York City was at the Pyramid Club. That was our big break, that show. Matador got involved and started. It was pretty sloppy. We were kind of like the Replacements. We drank a lot of beer and could barely finish our songs.

BN: It was great: There were, like, 100 people who were really intrigued about this band that put out these funny little records and basically wanted to see who was making this stuff that garnered praise. That was very interesting, because we didn't really know what we were doing at all.

Chris Lombardi, co-founder (with Gerard Cosloy), Matador Records: I don't know if we got the phone number from the original letter they sent, or in the [Slanted and Enchanted] cassette—I don't even know if the original tape had a case. I think it was Scott who sent it, but Steve and Bob were living in Hoboken. I remember they lived upstairs, and me and Gerard picked up some beers. They had this tiny little apartment with a game on—it was all kind of awkward, and I think everyone just slightly knew what to do. At the time, I had signed artists that I befriended first. So meeting people clearly cold, I don't know if that had ever happened before. Stephen had a wiry way: He'd shift his weight from side to side, talking and jerking his head back and forth, and poking his head back in the other room to check the score. I think, at the time, Steve was asked why they signed with Matador, and he said, "Well, they had a fax machine." We couldn't offer very much money. It may have been $600 or $1,200—I think it was $1,200.

SW: David [Berman], who worked at the Whitney Museum with Stephen, was taking the summer off. So he recommended me to replace him. Stephen would do crosswords, and David would try to sneak around the room before the head guard came through.

MI: We got to know Stephen, and the cassette version of Slanted and Enchanted was around; everyone had been listening to it and was really excited about it. That was distributed among friends and fans for about a year before it came out as a record. You felt like a part of a special group of people that had this thing.

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