Stephen Malkmus on Getting Hit By a Big Rock. . . and Badgered About the Pavement Reunion
Guess which one of these people has a man-crush on Caron Butler?
Pavement questions are like "getting questions about the giant monsoon you survived but [that] killed your whole family"
Stephen Malkmus's latest release Real Emotional Trash, the first with former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, begs comparison to '60s-era jam-band staples like the Grateful Dead and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Fittingly, Pavement's former mastermind was recently tapped to provide the singing voice for Cate Blanchett's Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes's 2007 biopic I'm Not There. Like Dylan, Malkmus continues to be prolific as he matures--seemingly to spite the ebb and flow of critical reception--and he's also one of America's more lyrically clever rock stars.
Recently, we caught up with Malkmus by phone, where he proved ramblingly lackadaisical and poetic as ever. He and his band the Jicks play three New York dates, starting tonight at the Bowery Ballroom.
VV: Wow, your voice sounds awful.
Stephen Malkmus: Yeah I'm okay. But after five days of shows, my voice is lost for a while.
VV: What was your mindset while producing this new music?
SM: It's something I just do without thinking. It's always a struggle for me. We just wanted it to be great, and I don't know what else to say. There's no real goal other than making good strong songs that aren't like other people's and are instrumentally good, and also to have some aggressively emotional moments musically. Maybe lyrically, too--you know, playing music and the primal trance formation, some technique involved, physically hard playing. It's not just brains and words and cleverness. It's beyond that.
VV: How about the historical dimension? There's something archetypally early-60s era jam-band about the sound. Compound that observation with your vocal reproductions of tracks for Cate Blanchett's Bob Dylan portrayal in I'm Not There, and one wonders if you're getting dangerously close to being stereotyped as "retro."
SM: Not that Bob Dylan thing so much, because it really had very little to do with me as a movie. But perhaps Cate Blanchett is retro too. Everybody associated with that movie is retro, so let's throw that out the window. But the music reviews? [The new tracks] are definitely in that genre. It's of that time. It's more comparable to '60s music than it is the '80s or grunge or disco.
VV: Was that deliberate?
SM: Well, I think that kind of songwriting and playing is more suited to the way the river flows in my body and that's just where I go to. I don't know what the future is or anything, or what it knew, but I'd hope that we have enough censors in our mind that our sound isn't a parody or quotation. I think there's enough originality in my voice and song structures that they haven't exactly been done before and, you know, you need some materials that are signifying, otherwise it's not going to mean anything to anybody. So that's what we chose to use. I think everything we hear is at least a mix of something that's happened in the past. It depends on your time frame--if you choose, like, six months or 12 years or, like, all 40 years of electric whiteboy music (laughing).
VV: You've been living in Oregon, but Pavement was in New York for a while, and of course there's that famous footage of you being hit by a big rock while performing in West Virginia the mid-'90s. Are you scared to come back an play the rough-and-tumble venues in Kentucky, Virginia, Philadelphia, New York?
SM: [laughing]...Sure, that was at Lollapallooza. That show was just 'How on earth?' I personally would have thrown something at anything. It was hot, miserable and so poorly organized. It was like the natives were restless, and they were just taking out their frustration, and so became cunning. It was funny to be there. What an awful place [laughing].
VV: The crowd embarrassed itself.
SM: No, no, no...it was just a couple of people so uncomfortable in the mud and heat, and I can't believe they had to pay to do that.
VV: So, whom are you secretly hoping might be in the audience on the East Coast this time?
SM: Obviously Caron Butler from the Washington Wizards. Both women in the band have a crush on him, and I have my own man-crush on him. It's a great story. His mom was basically a crack addict in a really rough area of Wisconsin, and he's managed to keep the team in the playoffs. It'd be really nice to meet him. Not anyone specifically from within the Beltway so much.
VV: I have to ask. Every journalist asks you about the prospect of a Pavement reunion tour. Does that irritate you after a while?
SM: [laughter] ...I noticed you didn't ask, and neither did the last journalist earlier today [still laughing]. That's the thing...I guess you just try to block it out of your mind. But it never happens. Shit, you survive an earthquake in India, and eventually you have to block it out. That's sort of what it's like: getting questions about the giant monsoon you survived but killed your whole family. That's what Pavement questions feel like. It's not bruising, but it gets repetitive. It's a verbal repetitive stress injury. That's all.
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