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.
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.
Gerard Cosloy: Spin gave Slanted a very favorable lead review—only trouble is that it ran three months before anyone could buy the album. We weren't intentionally trying to fuck with people's heads—we just had difficulty manufacturing enough copies to satisfy demand.
SK: It seemed natural that the tapes of Slanted were being passed around and reviewed by these people before we even put it out.
MI: Pavement became popular very quickly. That first album was very well received, so we basically were able to go on tour and do headlining shows.
CL: Slanted felt tangible. . . . It felt like a success. It was something that was—all of a sudden, we actually had work.
BN: Pavement didn't become a real serious endeavor until 1992, when Slanted and Enchanted came out. That's when things really started to change from being just an interesting little hobby that gained critical acclaim to becoming an actual entity. Of course, we retained a substantial amount of amateurishness, which some people found charming, for some reason.
SW: I was in the band for about eight years, and we maybe rehearsed six or eight times. It was more like we'd get together and hash out for one day . . . even that, we'd just go straight on tour and hash it out for the first four or five shows.
SK: When Steve West joined the band, he lived in Williamsburg—and that was really fucking scary.
SW: We lived in some pretty shady areas. My van that I had when I lived in Manhattan—it would get broken into all the time, and they'd have crack parties inside. I remember going to Max Fish a lot—that was kind of the rock place. Stephen and I lived together briefly in my loft in Williamsburg, and we would go to this place called Teddy's and Brooklyn Nights; we would play a lot of pinball and drink beers and listen to music at the bars.
BN: Things were harder; bands were harder. There were some that had drips and drabs of grunge, but there was no mass appreciation for the Stooges in our band or anything like that. There was more interest in Wire and Swell Maps and Can and things like that. I'm sure there were other bands around the country that were like-minded, but in terms of the New York music scene, we felt like outsiders. We were basically looked at as smart-ass college kids who thought it would be cool to move to New York and think that you're somebody. We dealt with a fair amount of snobbery when we lived there, but we sort of invited it. We were pretty obnoxious, I think.
MI: I think we were in CBGB's when Stephen asked me to join Pavement, and I said, "Sure, I think I can do it." Every time I've been asked to be in a band, my first question is, "Do you think I can do it?"
CL: Pavement played a show with Superchunk, opening up for My Bloody Valentine at Studio 54. People were there to see My Bloody Valentine, but people were really there to see Pavement, too. That was the real eye-opener for me: that we stumbled into something bigger than I had imagined.
After touring worldwide behind Slanted, the band started to evolve into its final incarnation—Young left the group, while West and Ibold officially joined. As the "alt-rock" movement of the early '90s was in full swing, Pavement entered into a Midtown studio (i.e., some dude's apartment) in August 1993 to record Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, the album that would yield "Cut Your Hair," a single that nearly made them Smashing Pumpkins–big. Though raw and eccentric like its predecessor, Crooked Rain was a noticeable leap in production quality, classic-rock nods, and Malkmus wit.
SK: We had rough mixes of the songs that we'd put down on cassette tapes, and I'd just kind of go back and forth between cassette tapes to figure out what songs fit best together, what the order would be.
SW: I had that loft, and we'd go and jam there. Stephen played some songs that he'd already recorded with Gary and some new ones, and I'd try to figure out what he was trying to get after. I guess we played for maybe a week or so, and then went in to record. It took about a week to really get natural with them, and then one day, we recorded two-thirds or half of the album and got all the takes we liked. Not that they were perfect takes or anything, and that was good. We did the rest of the songs probably in another day, and then started doing overdubs. It was pretty lo-fi, low-key. A lot of it was just us in some guy's apartment—just me and Stephen, and Scott would come in and Mark would come in at different times and add their two cents. But a lot of it was Stephen just pressing "record" and running into the room with me on the drums and playing. Usually, Stephen had a real strong idea of how each song would go. Even during the taping, he'd tell me we were going to stop here or go there. He'd just kind of talk me through it. That's why some of it has a slacker feel: We were learning it and he was learning it as it was going on.
CL: We had a deal with Atlantic Records at that point—[for the Crooked Rain advance] I think they gave them $100,000, profit split. Insanely good deal for them. But it was all one-offs, short-term deals which we've extended over the years.
SW: Stephen lived and worked in Manhattan, and was influenced by the bands that came through. Most of the band lived there and worked there and really loved that scene. I think the beginning ethics started in Stockton, but Pavement grew and changed over the years. It's always evolved.
SK: We definitely came out of a scene, where there were cities where bands were from: Minneapolis, Athens—I guess Seattle, later on. We felt part of that. Even though Stephen and Mark and Bob were all living in New York, I think we still felt like we were a California band. At least when we started, we thought it would be cool to be from Stockton. We were part of the whole indie-fanzine scene.
BN: I think that the songs were always good—the presentation of them in a live setting was always a bit of a mystery. I think we were fortunate for the first several years of the band there, through '94, that crowds would really be on our side—sort of rooting for us to do well. We cared about it, but there was one interesting aspect about Pavement: We never really lived close to each other. We never rehearsed and basically just got together a few days before, and Stephen would show us what he was working on. He did a lot of the work at home, by himself. When Steve West joined the band, they'd jam together occasionally. But we'd have to get together and it'd be like cramming for exams—figuring it out all very fast. There'd be situations where we'd get together and start practicing 48 hours before we were about to play in front of 2,500 people. So it was a pretty haphazard way of doing things. But we took it more serious than people think.
SW: We made a whole lot of songs in a fairly short period of time—and I think over the years, people really appreciate the catalog and not the overproduction or the shine you get from bands these days, or before, when it was very well thought out and planned. I think that's one of the things that's helped our music hold up better over time.
Pavement would go on to release three more albums before disbanding in 2000. Malkmus moved to Portland, Oregon, sometime around the release of Crooked Rain. Kannberg never left California. West eventually left New York to return to his home state of Virginia. Nastanovich left New York in 1993 for Louisville, Kentucky. Ibold recently left the East Village for the spacious hillsides of Queens, though he can still be found working shifts at the Great Jones Café or touring with Sonic Youth. In September 2009, Pavement announced their first reunion show, to be held in Central Park on September 21, 2010. But, like the early days of their career, it just sort of blossomed into something more.
Pavement play the Williamsburg Waterfront on September 19 and Central Park SummerStage September 21–24.
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