Stephen Malkmus Makes Magic Out of 'Basic Hard Work' on New Jicks Material

Stephen Malkmus (he's on the far right) and the Jicks headline the 4Knots Music Festival July 11.
Stephen Malkmus (he's on the far right) and the Jicks headline the 4Knots Music Festival July 11.
Photo by Leah Nash

In August 1995, Foo Fighters played their first substantial gig in England at the Reading Festival. As Dave Grohl recalled to the NME in 2007, the band's side-stage headlining show was packed to the gills: People were passing out from the heat and climbing the tent poles to catch a glimpse of the then-new band. Pavement, meanwhile, had no such issues with crowd control, because they were playing on the main stage the next day, on the same bill as Soundgarden and Neil Young. An iconic Danny Clinch photograph from the day shows frontman Stephen Malkmus crouched down, playing the guitar in front of a vast sea of people that stretched as far as the eye can see.

During the summer of 2012, Malkmus again found himself playing a festival with Foo Fighters, this time at Belgium's Pukkelpop. Circumstances were slightly different, however: He was there with his long-running, post-Pavement project, Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, and the Foo Fighters were headlining. "There were bands like Wilco [and] Odd Future on our stage," Malkmus says, calling from his home in Portland, just before heading into rehearsal for the Jicks' 4Knots appearance. "We all played, all these bands — people were cheering — but when the Foo Fighters came, the whole place shut down, basically. Everyone went to [see] the headlining Foo Fighters; they knew every song. It was palpable, the love and attention. Basically, people just paid to go see them. And the rest was icing on the cake for some.

"I was pretty impressed," he adds. "I didn't quite realize their cultural impact on this rock 'n' roll realm."

At this, Malkmus laughs — not ruefully or with jealousy, but almost incredulously, at just how huge Foo Fighters really are. It's easy to forgive Malkmus for not realizing the magnitude of the band's popularity. After all, his entire career, both with Pavement and with the Jicks, has been about perpetuating a skewed version of rock 'n' roll. The former's music is a diffracted, funhouse mirror maze amalgamating R.E.M.'s jangle-pop, off-kilter British postpunk, the Australian indie-noise scene, and shambling psych-garage. The Jicks, meanwhile, further diffract this distortion while adding hefty doses of classic-rock inspiration. It's not a stretch to say Malkmus inhabits his own musical reality.

Appropriately, he's also an easygoing, rambling conversationalist. Our nearly hour-long chat covers the recent NBA Finals and his admiration for LeBron James ("I'm always for the artist, and he's the artist"), his stage fears (getting shocked), the somewhat polarizing response to the Jicks' recent Taylor Swift cover ("We usually don't get any attention for anything, but somehow people thought that was funny...I don't know why people get that upset about it. It's all in good fun!"), and near-future plans (he's seeing Rush for the first time later in July). At the moment, Malkmus is also slowly working his way through new music, a process somewhat complicated by the fact that he recently upgraded his digital recording gear.

"I had more basic, crappy-sounding stuff," he says. "And I just went to Guitar Center and got the best thing you could get at Guitar Center. I didn't throw down and become a studio owner. It's more, as a musician, you're probably supposed to have this stuff."

Indeed, Malkmus humorously (and rather dryly) admits he's not a "studio rat — yet," but notes he's making a concerted effort to get up to speed on his technology. (In fact, he called up Tape Op editor Larry Crane, a fellow Portland resident, for gear advice before buying anything.) "It's pretty amazing, the stuff you can buy now," Malkmus marvels. "You need a couple thousand dollars, but you can get amazing recording gear and record yourself. These tape plug-ins and stuff...You think about this giant, heavy machinery you used to need to record records, and now you can really trick your ears into believing you're hearing the same thing in a little thing you downloaded from the internet. I'm sure it's normal to other people, but to me, I'm still kind of mind-blown, getting my head around it."

Malkmus is also still puzzling through what form his new music might take. When talking about the material he's working on, he leans toward describing an approach and writing process, and what he's thinking about as he's creating. As a result, his descriptions tend to be vague (something to which he admits), although that's not a bad thing. Malkmus is at the philosophical stage of recording, in a sense: trying to sort through whom to work with (if anyone), deciding what would serve the music best, figuring out what he's trying to accomplish.

"I want to make something before the year's over, and I have tons of stuff," he says. "Tons of good stuff, I think. It's just a matter of how to present it — how can you make magic out of your basic hard work, you know? There's things that can throw [the music] off into a more special area. I'm always sort of curious about it. I'm trying to think about that."

Being deliberate isn't necessarily something for which Malkmus gets a lot of credit. In part this is a lingering holdover from his tenure in Pavement; to this day, there's the (not necessarily incorrect) perception that the band were rather laissez-faire about the execution of their work. The forthcoming release of The Secret History Vol. 1, a double LP capturing live tracks and rare detritus from the Slanted and Enchanted era, also does nothing to refute that impression. But the Jicks' loose, languid grooves and psychedelic-tinted jams have always possessed their own internal logic and rigor. Exhibit A: The band's latest LP, 2014's Wig Out at Jagbags, on which compact songs such as "The Janitor Revealed" and "Cinnamon and Lesbians" are packed full of disparate ideas.

This juxtaposition makes sense, because the Jicks are buoyed by contrasts. In a strange way, they've always managed to feel simultaneously low-key and high-profile. "Pavement was a band that had a moment, where for a lot of people it was the most important band — or a new band, and a new thing," Malkmus says in response to that characterization. "Even if we didn't get sales and stuff, we were there for a certain...shift in what bands could be like. It's not like we were the original ones to do it or anything. What indie music could be and the type of people that liked us — they related to the freedom of it and devil-may-care values regarding...producers or song structure." Malkmus laughs. "I think the Jicks benefit from that beyond our music."

Of course, Malkmus also notes that his tenure in Pavement and the accomplishments of other Jicks (such as bassist Joanna Bolme's ties to Elliott Smith; she co-mixed 1997's Either/Or and 2004's From a Basement on the Hill) help the band. "We have some roots in what is still happening that are maybe...they go deeper," he says. "So we get some props for that. It sure isn't, like, hit singles." He laughs again, although he's not necessarily losing sleep about this lack of exposure, either with Pavement or his current project.

"It would've been hard for the Jicks to outdo Pavement. Someone like Björk, she outdid the Sugarcubes, but she's a bit of a different level than me," Malkmus says. "Nick Cave, he outdid the Birthday Party, in a way. It's somewhat rare. Neil Young outdid Buffalo Springfield. And also Pavement had more albums and a longer media dalliance than those people had with their other bands, you know? Really, I would probably be as big as those people if Pavement had only made one album or two." With a laugh, before this can be misinterpreted, he quickly adds: "I'm just kidding."

* * *

The Village Voice’s 4Knots Music Festival 
The fifth annual 4Knots Music Festival takes place July 11 on Hudson River Park’s Pier 84 from noon to 10 p.m., rain or shine. General Admission tickets are on sale for $25; V.I.P. tickets are available for $50. For additional information, visit villagevoice.com/4knots.

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