It's Getting Harder
Travel with us now way, way back...to the early Nineties. It was a time when modern rock was the popular music of the moment, and indie rock, its not-too-distant cousin, melted the hearts of hipsters everywhere thanks to practitioners such as Pavement. The band, which got its start in the anti-hip environs of Stockton, California, epitomized the latter genre, making elliptical, enigmatic lo-fi whose appeal was only amplified by its members' apparent lack of ambition, commercial or otherwise. Widely championed efforts such as 1992's Slanted and Enchanted and 1994's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain were casual and off-hand -- ideal soundtracks for an era in which caring too much was sometimes seen as a personality flaw.
Cut to present day -- just a few years later, yet a very different time. Modern rock may not be dead, but it's really sick; the only acts of this sort consistently moving product are those trafficking in dumbed-down, angst-free variations on earlier themes. Indie rock, meanwhile, is generally ghettoized, seldom reaching beyond a relatively small cadre made up of the previously committed. And Pavement? Well, Pavement is still intact, and the remnants of the alternative press that sprang up in response to the Rise of Grunge continue to offer support. But even after putting out Terror Twilight, their most accessible long-player in ages, earlier this summer, the players -- frontman Stephen Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich, Mark Ibold, Steve West and Scott Kannberg -- find themselves in a world that's not nearly as welcoming as it once was. So what have they decided to do?
That's precisely the response most people would expect from the men of Pavement, and they're unlikely to change their tune in the future. If this ship goes down, it'll do so with all hands on deck, calmly watching as the icy water pours over the bow. "From my standpoint," says Nastanovich, "there's always been the feeling that I'm really lucky and fortunate that I've been able to do this and have a really good experience with my friends. And if it ends now, I'll be perfectly fine with it."
Not that Nastanovich, who contributes vocals, percussion and keyboards to the mix, is announcing Pavement's demise. He's speaking from a New York City restaurant at a party commemorating the tenth anniversary of the band's longtime imprint, Matador Records, and celebration, not a last goodbye, is on the menu -- both for executives and for the group, which has been around for a decade as well. But the occasion has left him feeling a bit wistful, perhaps because of the occasional reminder that a decade in Pavement doth not a rock star make. Midway through this interview, for instance, Nastanovich is indelicately expelled from the restaurant owner's office, where a label rep had told him to go for some privacy. "I guess the owner said that one guy could sit down there, and I wasn't him," Nastanovich explains from his subsequent position, the sidewalk in front of the eatery. But he's not offended in the slightest. "I was like, 'Whatever. Cool. No problem.'"
Rolling with the punches is a regular part of the program for Nastanovich, the most self-deprecating member of the band's supporting cast. "Pavement music at this stage is Stephen Malkmus," he says. "He's the main songwriter, and the other four guys in the band are trying to make his songs as good as possible both on record and on stage. I know who the talent base in our band is, and I know I wouldn't be talking to you right now if it wasn't for him. He's an old friend of mine, and he's basically toted people like myself around the world with him for the last ten years. Basically, the main reasons I'm here are to make him laugh and to play Scrabble with him. And I'm comfortable with that."
Nastanovich first hooked up with Pavement in 1990, a year after Malkmus, Kannberg and drummer/studio owner Gary Young issued the first Pavement seven-inch, Slay Tracks (1933-1969). But he was originally prized more for his muscles than his sonic skills. "I was supposed to be the roadie," he notes, "and I ended up playing in the band because Gary was frequently incompetent due to overexposure to alcohol. But I never played music before I was in this band, and I've hardly played music with anybody else since being in the band, so I have no musician's ego at all. I know that the main reason Stephen turned over all of the harsher, screaming parts to me several years ago is that he didn't want to rag out his voice." He laughs. "He doesn't give a shit about my voice."
Likewise, even many true believers feel that Pavement isn't all that concerned with putting on good performances. Even as reviewers were raving about discs like Slanted (named 1992's best platter by Spin), they took the combo to task for being wildly uneven live -- and in Nastanovich's mind, they had no shortage of reasons to do so. "We were erratic," he concedes, "and a lot of times, we still are. Pavement fans are, in general, very honest, and sometimes I'll be talking to one of them and say, 'Did you see that show? It was bad.' And they'll be like, 'Yeah, it was really bad.' So I know that happens sometimes, and part of my job, actually, is to save situations like that, either with comedy or with something else. I'm supposed to gauge the situation from my corner, and if it seems like it's a bit of a disaster, I'm supposed to pull it together."
In the studio, however, Nastanovich and company are mainly at the mercy of Malkmus, whose muse can be hit or miss. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, featuring the semi-hit "Cut My Hair" and the amusingly pissy "Range Life," remembered for its lyrical swing at Smashing Pumpkins ("Out on tour with Smashing Pumpkins/Nature kids/They don't have no function/I don't understand what they mean/And I could really give a fuck"), suggested that the band was on a major growth curve. But 1995's Wowee Zowee, the next Pavement offering, was considerably more quizzical, upping the ante on oddball lyricism (Malkmus's first words on the CD are, "There is no castration fear") but falling short in terms of indelible numbers. Even less satisfying was 1997's Brighten the Corners, in which Malkmus came across as a guy who had been reading his laudatory press clippings a little too closely. The language was frequently clotted and uninspired (especially on the cynical opener, "Stereo"), and the compositions tended to meander even more than usual. Pavement seemed to be testing its listeners on the disc, and apparently, plenty of them failed.
The lukewarm reactions to Wowee Zowee and Brighten the Corners coupled with the record industry's sudden abandonment of the alternative style meant that Pavement was under more pressure than usual when it came time to make its next project. The result, Nastanovich says, was at least one false start. "We were supposed to make the album in Portland, Oregon, where Stephen lives now, but we just ended up jamming and spending, like, two hours a day instead of ten hours a day just fiddling around with the songs that Stephen had made in his home studio. They just weren't coming together."
Frustrated, the bandmates, whose previous efforts had been mainly self-produced, decided to seek out (Nastanovich's words) "somebody from the outside to actually influence the sound," eventually settling on Nigel Godrich, a hot property because of his work on Radiohead's OK Computer and Beck's Mutations. Godrich convinced his charges that it was time for them to move beyond the bargain-basement recording approach they'd relied upon since the beginning in favor of something more contemporary. "We started making the album in the Sonic Youth practice space, where they have this really old, idiosyncratic 16-track machine," Nastanovich says. "But Nigel wasn't comfortable working with that, so he put us into a 24-track studio that met his needs, and he pushed us along. Which we needed, because we weren't getting anywhere without him."
Godrich implemented other new policies as well. According to Nastanovich, "In the past, we'd go into the studio and try to make as many songs as possible. That way, we'd have leftover songs that we could rerecord or flesh out live, and we'd also have a lot of B-sides. But Nigel wanted to spend a lot of time working on the twelve best songs we had and discard the extras. He basically wanted to make the songs perfect, which has never been a priority for us."
The musicians didn't entirely cede final authority to Godrich. "There were actually quite a lot of things we edited out because we just felt that they weren't very Pavement-y -- a lot of tricks and stuff like that," Nastanovich says. But the blend of these two disparate sensibilities resulted in an album that sounds more polished and radio-friendly than its predecessors without seeming unduly slick or vacuous. Even better, the compositions are considerable improvements over those on Brighten the Corners and sometimes compare to the work Malkmus did at his creative peak. Despite its title, "Spit on a Stranger" is gentle and melodic, and "Major Leagues" and "Ann Don't Cry" are similarly warm and inviting. "Folk Jam" and "Speak, See, Remember" seem modest as well, but they eventually make an impact, as does the concluding "...And Carrot Rope," a delectable pop confection that showcases Malkmus at his most beguiling: "It's all right to shake, to fight, to feeeel," he sings just before rhyming "red, red ropes" with "periscopes." There are no revelations on Terror Twilight, and precious little terror, either; it feels somewhat minor when compared with Pavement's finest efforts. But it's often charming and eminently listenable, proving that there's life in these guys yet.
Whether all that many people care is another matter. Terror Twilight came out in June, but you'd hardly know it judging by record charts, radio-station playlists and the like. Nastanovich, though, isn't worried. "From our perspective, things haven't changed all that much since the beginning," he says. "We've always had fans, even when the band was really small. The first shows we ever played, it was amazing, because there were always 150 people or so out there who'd heard of us and were anxious to see what we were all about. And we've still got a built-in, large cult following that's really important to us. We really only consider trying to entertain Pavement fans and don't worry about carving new paths business-wise or any other way."
Nevertheless, Nastanovich realizes that nothing stays the same forever. The five cohorts don't even live in the same city anymore: Malkmus remains in Portland; Kannberg calls Berkeley, California, home; Ibold's address is New York City; West has a place in Lexington, Virginia; and Nastanovich is based in Louisville, Kentucky. "Steve West and Scott are married, too," Nastanovich points out. "And you never really know what's going to happen with your friends, especially when they all go in different directions at the end of a tour. And if someday it ends, it'll be okay. I think we'd all walk away from it thinking that it was a really good way to get through your twenties."
But looking back will have to wait; despite the negative turn of music-industry trends and his own anniversary-enhanced nostalgia, Nastanovich sees no end of Pavement in sight. "Right now we're going to do an American tour, and then we're going to do an Australian tour in January," he says. "And after that, we'll probably take our usual six- to twelve-month hiatus, and then everybody will get bored and we'll be like, 'Oh, okay. It's time to do Pavement again.' Because it's a fun thing to do."
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