He's Got a Range Life

Stephen Malkmus settles into post-Pavement life with a new album and a special new band.

Warren Zevon once said, in response to an interviewer asking whether he was being ironic or sincere in a particular song: "With all due respect to Alanis Morissette, if you define that you're being ironic, then you're automatically not being ironic."

"Irony" is a word you can't get away from when discussing Pavement or its former frontman, Stephen Malkmus, who is currently touring behind his recently released post-Pavement debut. But Zevon's comments illustrate the difference between Pavement and the multitude of sarcasto-cryptic, grad-school-dropout, sweater-destroying bands that followed in its wake. The smug-hipster imitators have never been certain enough of what they were doing to allow the joke to carry itself off quietly. They always wave the flag of Irony with a capitol I and go with the most obvious permutation available. Pavement, on the other hand, understood subtlety.

Irony was widely declared DOA after the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. But Malkmus, for one, isn't buying it.

"Irony is alive and well," he says from his home in Portland. "It is a completely natural state of mind. Such concepts as truth and free will have already been shot to shit by philosophers." If that's true, it leaves us with...what? Small-i irony.

At the height of Pavement's reign over the college-radio airwaves, songwriters Malkmus and Scott Kannberg were able to let their amused detachment speak for itself without beating the crap out of you with it. For seven years, Pavement made it look effortless (often, it literally was, since the bandmembers lived in different states and rarely rehearsed together), yielding sharp, funny, fierce music -- if not the kind that was terribly profitable. The band's first full-length record, 1992's Slanted and Enchanted, was as weird and tuneful as anything released by the Velvet Underground, alternating jangling atonal outbursts with the cynicism of the '90s and odd, compelling song structures, all superimposed over seemingly simple pop hooks. Slanted was lauded by critics and musicians, but it never really attained wide recognition, which was a shame: Pavement's lo-fi slacker motif was the perfect counterpoint to the greedhead drive of the boom '90s. Rather than seek the debauched kingdoms of yesteryear's rock gods, the bandmembers -- Malkmus, Kannberg, Steve West , Gary Young, Bob Nastanovich and Mark Ibold -- created the impression that they were plenty happy living in their parents' basements. Pavement made non-anthems for thousands of non-achievers who were slouching their way back to the suburbs in their Passats, racking up two or three years of student-loan debt and plenty of cynicism -- but still no degree. Over the course of five full-length releases, Pavement communicated perfectly a general sense of dissatisfaction with the world along with a complete lack of motivation to do anything about it.

Pavement actually scored a semi-hit in the form of the catchy but subversive "Cut Your Hair," from its second CD, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, though the band's tunes and lyrics eventually proved to be too off-kilter for the MTV crowd. Malkmus and his mates comfortably slipped back into the outsider status they cherished, and Pavement's listenership remained on the college-radio level. Over the course of the band's next three albums -- Wowee Zowee, Brighten the Corners and Terror Twilight -- a sense of self-consciousness (and, consequently, even more irony) began to emerge, which tainted the last two records. Suddenly it felt as though the bandmembers were fatally aware of themselves as part of The Rock Band Pavement, not just five guys playing music. Still, the band's output surpassed that of its peers in terms of originality. In dozens of similarly spirited but more creatively limited acts, one can see Pavement's legacy -- albeit in a cheapened and obvious way that often misses the point altogether.

Now, nearly ten years after the release of Slanted, Malkmus says he's assumed a more straight-faced approach to his music.

"Smirking...implies an elitist stance," Malkmus says. "Nobody calls an artist over 35 smirky or sarcastic. I've probably smirked on record once or twice, but I was 25, and that is what unconfident 25-year-olds do to cover their insecurities."

Not anymore. Early in 2001, Malkmus released his first solo album with the decidedly unironic title Stephen Malkmus (instead of Swedish Reggae, his first choice), backed by his newly formed band, the Jicks. A sort of Portland supergroup, the Jicks claim drummer John Moen of the Maroons and bassist Joanna Bolme of the Minders as members. With Malkmus at the helm, the Jicks are now on the road for the second time, taking a month-and-a-half-long swing through the middle of the country.

"We have fun, and we're actually good," Malkmus says. "If we weren't good in concert, I wouldn't go out again. I didn't know when we started that we were good, but we are. And when you're good, it's fun."

Touring at 35 doesn't seem all that different to Malkmus than touring at 25.

"You get a little tired, but there's not such a big push for this music," he says. "It's a medium push, a medium tour. When bands get burned out these days is when they are on the big push, trying to be on tour for [longer]. This is about as long as I'd want to tour. Really, it's not all that hard."

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