He's Got a Range Life
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."
Malkmus seems like a guy who has found a new way to be happy, someone who has turned a corner he didn't even know was there. He sounds relaxed. He's soft-spoken and says "Whatever" a lot. And despite the laconic, stoner patois with which he disguises his obvious intelligence, he is widely thought to have been the one who ran the show in Pavement, controlling everything from which songs appeared on records to how they were produced in the studio. (Kannberg has been quoted as saying that it was a "bummer" that Malkmus didn't want any of his songs on Terror Twilight, and tales of the pair's power struggles are legion in fan circles.) Today, though, the easy voice on the other end of the line sounds more like it belongs to the recent victim of a wake-and-bake than the voice of authority.
"I like to be a controller," explains Malkmus. "Well, I don't necessary like to, but I think someone has to. To bring something to fruition, you need somebody to be the determiner of what's going to happen. There's something I sort of admire about some control-freak musician guys, like Prince or something -- those perfectionists who go, 'Bring me the session musicians. I'm going to get this done right.' There's something cool about that, but I'm not that kind of guy."
Stephen Malkmus will be instantly recognizable to Pavement fans. It contains all the smart-but-mysterious lyrics and twisty, jangle-pop tunes that made Pavement the unelected masters of lo-fi throughout the '90s. But along with Malkmus's trademark wit, there is a bouncy lightheartedness to much of the record, a sense of a weight being removed. Malkmus says some of the songs on the record were conceived as Pavement songs before the band faded away in 1999.
"Those songs would have been on the next Pavement album, but they would have sounded different," he says. "Once I was doing it, it sounded more up. I started getting a feeling from the people I was playing with that started to inform it, maybe made it sound more carefree and liberated. Pavement had its own internal rhythm of what everyone played. I'm definitely glad to be away from it, because I'm just happy to be working with new people. But, he adds, with Pavement, it "wasn't like I was really just rolling my eyes or looking at my watch or something."
With a slightly more subtle, less bombastic sound than Pavement's, the Jicks complement Malkmus well. Stephen Malkmus abounds in goofy, absurdist songs, including one that explores Yul Brynner's filmography ("JoJo's Jacket") and a strange ditty about being kidnapped by pirates ("The Hook"). Conversely, "Church on White" is a sincere, emotional examination of death and friendship. Polished and cleanly produced, the album feels similar to later Pavement efforts, but it still sounds different. Songs like the aforementioned "JoJo's Jacket" are so seemingly easy and joyful that it's hard to imagine they were inspired by anything but a feeling of genuine happiness, a silly sort of freedom. Like finally being able to breathe after a lengthy head cold.
Of "Jacket," Malkmus says, "It's kind of just off the top of my head, that song. I decided to leave it, because I didn't want it to be serious. I have some other ones that are well thought out, and some that are thought out even less -- kind of a mix. I guess what I was going for is just a sort of freshness -- like rap music, in a way, when people just pull shit out of their asses. That was the kind of thing I was going for in that song. People were just like, 'Whoa, what's he on about?'"
Most press about the new album has been positive. Underlying dissatisfaction with later Pavement outings may have contributed to that: Some critics may simply be relieved that Malkmus is still recording at all. But the truth is, the new songs are fresher and more alive than anything he has produced in years. For Malkmus, the recording process, at least, hasn't changed much from band to band.
"It wasn't particularly different," he says. "There were different people, and different personalities obviously contribute different things to recordings. But I worked in a very similar style, with people chipping in where they could -- very similar to Pavement."
It's hard not to miss an outfit as innovative and rippingly fun and smart as Pavement, even if its story ended on an unsatisfying note. The band's prolonged breakup was half-assed and offhand, much as its live shows could be. Some people claimed to have learned of the band's dissolution when Kannberg shut down its Web site without comment; others said they were tipped off when Kannberg and Malkmus each started making solo records. (Kannberg's post-Pavement effort, the Preston School of Industry's All This Sounds Gas, has been enthusiastically received.) The official story is that Malkmus accidentally announced the band's demise when he casually mentioned in an interview that Pavement wouldn't be recording together again. Still, in subsequent interviews, both Malkmus and Kannberg have insisted that there are no hard feelings, that it was just time for it to be over. Malkmus has even claimed that he wouldn't be opposed to a Monsters of Rock-style reunion tour at some point in the future -- though he has made it clear that he is not interested in recording with Pavement again. For him, it's over -- which means it's over for everyone.
"I got everything I wanted out of [Pavement]," Malkmus said. "There was nothing for me to complain about. I got to tour with these people I like and creatively do what I wanted, relatively, so there's not really anything [controversial] there.
"I wouldn't say I was really frustrated. I was just tired of it, you know?" he says, laughing. "The routine. I guess frustrated people can be tired and a little bit bogged down or something. A little turgid, slow-moving, like a slow-moving ox. I was tired of being this ox. A lot of bands get that way once they're more established. I liked the feeling we got from our records. We just had problems communicating our ideas."
And, of course, nothing lasts forever.
"There's a time to go out," he said. "You don't want to be a crocodile in this modern world, some prehistoric animal. Anyway, it was a good time to go. This is fun, what we're doing. It's more than fun. It's like, beneficial to humanity, I think. Not in such big terms, but, I mean, there's good music coming from it."
Just good music, or a boon to humankind? Laughing, Malkmus quickly recoils from his momentary lapse into pomposity.
"It's not really beneficial to humanity," he admits.
Even as he talks about the supposed importance of his music, Malkmus gives us a verbal shrug.
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