Stephen Malkmus: "Being in a Band Is More Fun Than Being a Writer"
Photo: Leah Nash
As Pavement's literate, sardonic frontman, Stephen Malkmus redefined indie rock in the '90s with a lo-fi, slacker sound. After the band dissolved in 1999, he turned his creative attention to a quasi-solo career with his trusty band of Jicks. During this second act, Malkmus has never appeared bothered by any expectations for Pavement 2.0, and his six albums with the Jicks are relaxed, playful affairs filled with guitar and lyrical heroism.
Before Malkmus's stop at Bowery Ballroom (Feb. 26) and Music Hall of Williamsburg (Feb. 27) we caught up with him during his lunch at a European tour stop in Copenhagen. The conversation detailed the Belgian recording sessions for his new album, Wig Out at Jagbags, how his approach to his lyrics has evolved, the Pavement reunion tour, and life on the range
Congratulations on coining the album title of the year -- I was hooked before I even heard a note. Does the title hold any specific meaning or significance to you, or did the combination of words just sound too good to resist? [Laughs] Right on. That's it, pretty much. I don't know, I had a hundred titles, and in the end that seemed the most interesting. There's no real reason, but I think it's cool, you know?
The album was recorded in rural Belgium. Did that inject a similar sense of European discovery that you experienced during your time living in Berlin? Kind of. It was also sort of practical, because I was living there, and for me to go far away would have been uncool for my family. Also, the guy who recorded it [Remko Schouten, Pavement's venerable soundman] is from Benelux. He's from Amsterdam, and he kind of set it up. I don't really know where to go there except for England. If you told me that they didn't make a rock 'n roll record in Europe over the last 20 years, I'd probably believe you. Other than like Rammstein or something, I don't really know what's going on there. So, he hooked it up. He's been there before. Hey, remember that band Bettie Serveert?
Yeah, I sure do. He recorded with them. They are still going. You wouldn't know it in America, but they are still plugging away.
Palomine was such a great album. I'll always love that record Tell me about it. Remember that song "Tom Boy" off of the first album [Palomine]? That is like a Matador classic.
This new record is a real jammy, guitar-heavy album. Did that evolve naturally out of the rehearsal sessions, or was that the sound you were going for straight from the start? It just kind of evolves, you know. Things are even more woolly and loose, and then it just becomes trying to make an album in the style that I really like. Like Flip Your Wig by Hüsker Dü or Hootenany by the Replacements, you know, they all have pretty short songs with different angles on them and stuff, and they're pretty compacted in the end. And you know those guitar parts that you called "jammy," those are pruned down like a French garden or something, really manicured as far as I'm concerned.
Has your approach to your lyrics evolved over the years now that you have different stories to tell? Or are you still trying to veil your narratives behind playful non sequiturs? Well, to me it all makes sense. In my mind, the synapses of the past, the circuits and the conduits, it's not non sequiturs. For so long, there's been a traditional way that we see the way a narrative should go. Just like in an art museum, you always see there's a 19th Century room, and then the 20th Century room, and here's the 18th Century room, and we go from room to room, right. Because that's just the way it's done. And that can be nice, in a way, because you know which way to go, and if you're a teacher. But the reality is, if you go to the museum, right, don't you maybe see something in the 19th Century room and something in the 21st Century room and you kind of take those two things together home with you. Not in some order. That's how my lyrical style is. To me, it's just what I've always done. It's like a realistic representation of how my mind works. And how ALL of our minds really should work, if we're not just doing things because we're supposed to or because that's the way it always was.
How did you hook up with Fran Healy [Travis' lead singer/songwriter] for the album, and how did he help you capture the vocal sounds you were after? I've known Fran Healy since 1998. I met him in London while he was doing some recording. We went to go see a movie together about Radiohead called Meeting People Is Easy. We went to the premiere of it because we're both big fans. It turns out, he likes Pavement a lot, as well as the Jicks. And I also liked his band, Travis. And so, when I moved to Berlin, I found out he was there. And he lived literally across the street.
So he said 'I've got a studio,' and in the back of my mind I was thinking -- since I know he won't mind because he's a really generous guy -- that I would just sing in his house. And it turns out he's an engineer, and he just made it happen really easy around his schedule. We're really lucky. I did a lot of double vocals on this record, and I haven't done that in a while. Quite often, I just sing one and kind of do a true life representation as a singer, just my voice. But more often, you hear Eminem or Macklemore or Cat Power -- it's always a double.
So, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain just turned 20-years-old. Do you ever reflect back on the utter brilliance of that record? Or at least draw pleasure from how your fans cherish and revere your work? That's nice of you to say. Absolutely. It warms my heart that people are still interested in what we do, and what we did back then. It seemed really special to me when it was all happening. I remember listening to "Range Life" in the studio when we mixed it, and being really surprised at how good it sounded, like it was sort of luck or something. You don't really know how stuff is going to work out, but yeah, I'm happy that people dig it, and that it's still got legs.
Was it fun on the Pavement tour to play for your younger fans who only knew the band from your recorded work and not from your live shows? Yes. It was definitely good to have a mix. It's great to have a mix of people of all ages, because if it was all over-40s or whatever it would be kind of odd. Then you should maybe just be in a sit-down venue.
Did you ever think -- or hope -- while you were making Slay Tracks that you would still be making music 25 years later? Yeah, but not to be actually talking to people about it. I'd still be doing it, no matter what. Everyone in this band, we would all still be doing it. It's just a matter of what kind of music or at what level we'd still be doing it. Talking to somebody in a paper 25 years later after I started, I'd probably be surprised about that. But I'd definitely still be jamming. I don't have any other artistic aspirations. I'd be writing if this had not worked out. But this is more fun. Obviously, being in a band is more fun than being a writer, at least in your 20s or 30s. I mean, wouldn't you want to be in the band?
Oh yeah, most definitely. Are you inviting me to join the Jicks? Because I can get on a plane right now. [Laughs] It gets harder when you have to travel a lot, but it's a fantasy. It's a justifiable fantasy ever since the Rolling Stones became these handsome outlaws that got all the chicks. And they got all the best drugs and just kept going.
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