Stephen Malkmus is one of the most storied songwriters in recent musical history. As the frontman of the unassailable Pavement he redefined indie pop: his lyrics tumble out in torrents of non sequiturs and witty wordplay, while his unconventional vocal melodies seem to emerge fully-formed, lazily weaving around angular guitar parts, atonal blasts of noises and interesting rhythm sections. In short, Malkmus is a brilliant man. He chats to Nathan Jolly about his enviable back catalogue.
When did the idea come up to work with Beck? Had your paths crossed throughout your career?
Probably about six months before we recorded [Mirror Traffic] he rang me up to catch up, but what he was really doing was saying he was a producer now, he wanted to produce some bands, because he had a recording setup in his house, and he was in a time when he wasn’t working on new material, or he was having trouble with that, or something. And so it just happened, I mean I dunno. Either someone told him to contact me or he did it of his own devices, so I thought, ‘Yeah, sure, why don’t we do it with him?’ He’s got all the cool stuff, he’s not gonna, like, try to over-charge us or do any of the things that you have to consider when you’re dealing with a producer, and I know him: we did Lollapalooza together in like ’96 or something, with Hole and Sonic Youth [actually ‘95] – he had the Loser song, but it was before he did the album, Odelay, that hadn’t come out, so he was not a big star yet but he was a novelty star – so I was like ‘I like that dude’ on that tour, we got along, and then I hadn’t seen him for several years- and in that time he put out a lot of records.
Were you worried he’d be a little heavy-handed in the studio?
Not really, because I don’t think anyone could… I mean, if we didn’t like it, or if there were some kind of bad vibes, it just wouldn’t happen. Everyone is too headstrong. Janet Weiss was still in the band back then; if something was really whack, she’d be the first one to go, ‘This sucks, we need to say something.’ So if anything happened, we would have just packed our bags [laughs]. I didn’t expect there to be. We talked about it, he was like, ‘I’m into tasteful, vintage-style microphones set up with Echoplex, I use delays’ and some of these things we often use on records. ‘My engineer is this guy and he did Radiohead and other things’ – and I liked how those things sounds. He was really into this studio: Sunset Sounds, and I liked that place, historical studio, so I knew it was going to be fine. I have to say there’s nothing really that I disagreed with. A couple of mixes, he would prefer ones that were smoother on the low end. I sometimes like rougher ones, but it was like splitting hairs. It’s nothing you would notice and nothing that I was willing to let be a deal-breaker.
The Pavement reissues contain a wealth of bonus material; it seems that a lot of songs were being written and recorded during the time of each of those records. Is that still the case?
You know it gets to be a bit a little more focused. Although, unlike a lot of people with ProTools and home recording, I’m not recording myself that much, anymore. Back in that Pavement time, I was ducking in and out of studios and I guess I was extra-excited about anything that came on tape, you’re blown away: “That’s me, I can’t believe it,” and you’re sorta surprised about how you sound, so you want to get back in there and keep playing with it. Now, I’m a little bit older and I know pretty much how I sound; in fact I’m sometimes afraid of how I can sound – what notes can I not hit, anymore? So I just wait ‘til we go and record and just trust that moment you go is going to be that magical moment… or just going to be slightly less-magical, but still solid if the songs are good.
Do you treat The Jicks and Pavement as separate catalogues, or do they all blend together as your body of work?
To me it’s all the same. Of course there’s a difference in eras and how I sang, what I wanted to play – and things change. Different players have such an impact on what you do. In early Pavement we had this drummer named Gary [Young] – quite insane and an amazing drummer, that was such an influence on the sound, ‘cos there was only three of us, then we had Steve [West]… I mean drummers have the most influence, I can always group things by drummer, the drummer is always gonna turn things a different way. I’m doing the same thing, I didn’t try to reinvent myself when Pavement ended. I tried to do some different stuff, but that was happening in Pavement already.
Terror Twilight is miles away from the early EPs.
That was completely different from Brighten The Corners, even. I think it’s cool if they are a little different from each other, within reason. It’s not going to be that different, but if the sounds are different…
When was the last time you listened to a Pavement album from start to finish?
I listened to some of Terror Twilight recently. We’ve been playing the song Speak, See, Remember on this [Jicks] tour. It’s not like the biggest banger songs but Pavement never really could play it, we played it once. So I listened to some of those tunes – it was fun to listen to.
What were your opinions, listening back?
I thought that song was cool, Billie is weird, I mean it’s a weird album. Nigel [Godrich]’s good sound, but it’s kind of weird songs, in a certain ways. It’s a strange record as far as I’m concerned. I guess I tend to gravitate towards Crooked Rain and Slanted and Enchanted – they have a certain energy to them that’s hard to even remember working from so I kinda like that. Then the band slowly started settling into itself, and other ideas too, and they were cool, too. [The remaining albums] are more band-sounding to me, they sound more like a classic band.
Wowee Zowee is possibly the oddest record of yours, though.
That was, when we were talking about me going in the studio a lot, that was done in different places, all mixed-up, me playing drums and me doing a lot of stuff, because the band was split in lots of different places, so that has a unique feel, too.
[As this point Malkmus fields a phone-call that he suspects might be his daughter’s school. There has been a head-lice outbreak, and parents are on stand-by. Thankfully, it isn’t. “I haven’t seen one yet, my daughter didn’t have them.”]
Mirror Traffic sees you take a break from the extended guitar breaks on the most recent Jicks material. Was that a conscious decision, or guitar fatigue, so to speak?
I just wanted it to be a get-in-and-out-quick type of album. I didn’t want to sit around with, like, seven pedals and plug them into each other backwards and forwards and sit there on a chair with the engineer for three days, which is normally what goes about on albums. I wanted to kinda just play it live and get the solos and everything live. I don’t know if we had a plan to do that, but once it started – we had some jammier songs but we just got on a roll on recording in a room, just like boom, boom, boom – like an early Beatles session, not that that came out – that’s our version of it. Maybe it was the studio we were recording in too, it was like a ‘60s pop studio. It’s a place Buffalo Springfield had recorded – so really, it’s a place you go in and play your West Coast-style guitar pop, psych rock and every song is like three-minute. That’s how we were thinking. I think we sorta blew our wad–that’s not my favourite adjective, but we… spent our energy on guitar solos on the last record. Playing those songs live, it was exhausting by the end of the cycle, to bring this energy to these longer jams. So, we just pulled back a little bit.
Does living in Berlin impact the music you write at all?
We’ll have to see. I don’t think so, really, I mean it’s such a big city you can take it anyway you want it. It could be a real hippy place if you want to go to the woods and the lakes, or you can stay up ‘til six in the morning at dance clubs. I haven’t really made any deep connection with the electronic scene here. I’ve been out a few times to discos, but my grasp of the technology isn’t there. I have some inkling of things I like when I hear that music that I’d like to perhaps incorporate, but then you get back to the people you’re playing with and their strengths, and what is really special about The Jicks: to self-consciously adopt new influences might break what is really special about what we do as a live band. Maybe that energy is more special. It’s kind of a philosophical question. I guess it could influence us, if I go that way.
You’d have to be one of the most widely interpreted and feted lyricists in popular music. How does that sit with you?
I think it’s nice; it sits well with me. I mean I’m self-conscious and not confident about lyrics and I don’t think I’m one of the great lyricists or anything, but I try to develop, you know, my own sort of iconography, and just be myself – and that’s all I can really take credit for. If people don’t like that, I can understand that, but then it’s a little bit of a condemnation of my vibe and what I’m like, so I’m glad people take the time to show they like it – I’m happy. But I don’t over-think lyrics or anything, that much, so I also understand that people like things a little tighter. I could see someone wishing there was a little more effort sometimes. I mean, I give enough but I could give more. It’s not like I’m sitting here working on lyrics all the time, maybe that should be my job as a writer, if I take my craft seriously, but it’s hard to say. A song like Eagle Rock by Daddy Cool: it’s got nonsensical lyrics, but its great. It probably took, like, five seconds to write, if someone even wrote them down. There are a lot of ways to get to good lyrics.
If you had to pick an under-heard moment from Pavement’s catalogue to bring into the spotlight, what would it be?
I guess the most under-heard is either Terror Twilight or the EPs. Those EPs, at the time there was quite a buzz about them: Perfect Sound Forever, there was a buzz in fanzines. A pre-Internet buzz, but people were into it. So, I suppose Perfect Sound Forever, someone could listen to that, it’s pretty cool…
On the flipside, what would your choose as an entry point for someone who’d never heard Pavement, in order to lull them into it?
I guess Crooked Rain, it’s pretty digestible.
There is a 5/4 jazz instrumental on it…
I mean it depends on the person. There are a lot of ways you could go with that. If it was a youngster, I’d probably go Crooked Rain – then again, a youngster might just like Skillrex so, I dunno, you might have trouble.