Music News

It's Getting Harder

Travel with us now way, way 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?

Nothing much.

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."