Q&A with Stephen Malkmus

Stephen Malkmus, left, with his band, the Jicks.

Former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus is an eccentric fellow, which explains in large part the idiosyncracies of this Q&A, conducted for a Westword profile published in advance of his Thursday, November 6, appearance at the Gothic Theatre. But that's not the only reason for the weirdness of what follows.

The main problem? I apparently bumped the power input to the ancient Radio Shack cassette recorder with which I have taped my interviews for lo these many years -- and I only noticed a few minutes into our conversation. So as soon as we were done chatting, I immediately created a document and paraphrased everything I could remember prior to the plug-in being reconnected. Fortunately, I was able to recall pretty much everything -- I think.

I began our chat by mentioning that I'd interviewed Pavement drummer Bob Nastanovich back in 1999, just before the musicians decided to split up. (Indeed, that piece -- which can be read at the new blog entitled "Vintage Pavement Article Hints at the Breakup to Come" -- all but predicts the de facto divorce, which wasn't made public until months later.) "He's a really nice fella, isn't he?" Malkmus interjected -- and I agreed. Then I mentioned that Nastanovich had spoken to me from the tenth-anniversary party for Matador Records, Pavement's label at the time, and asked if Malkmus had been there. At first, he didn't think so. But then he asked, "Was it at a restaurant?" -- which it had been. That suggested to Malkmus that he'd actually attended, but he couldn't be certain, because Matador had thrown a slew of pricey restaurant bashes during those years, when the imprint was part of the Atlantic Records empire. There'd be tons of cash available in what he referred to as "the fat '90s," and the Matador big-wigs had taken advantage of every last dime.

Things were very different for him these days, Malkmus went on, briefly referencing his life in Portland, where he lives with his wife, Jessica Hutchins, and their two young daughters: Sunday, who'd just celebrated her first birthday, and Lottie, a couple of years Sunday's senior. But before we could go off on that tangent, I noted the strange air of finality to Nastanovich's comments back then and wondered if the decision to discontinue the band had already been made when we spoke. No, Malkmus replied, but there was a general feeling that they'd taken this particular project as far as they could and it might be time to try some new things -- at which point I saw that the tape's cogs weren't turning and quickly fixed the situation.

From there, as you'll see, Malkmus discusses the casual formation of the Jicks, his current backing group; the point at which he and his three new accompanists -- Mike Clark, Joanna Bolme and John Moen -- began to bond; his opinion of his four most recent platters, including the newest of the batch, Real Emotional Trash; Moen's departure to join the Decemberists; the energizing arrival of former Sleater-Kinney timekeeper/current Quasi member Janet Weiss; his knack for unusual lyrics, as opposed to more typically programmatic imagery; and Lottie's love of the Beatles, which may or may not have had an influence on his creative process.

And now, let's join the interview, already in progress:

Stephen Malkmus: …the feeling of repetition. The feeling that it wasn’t going anywhere. That we’d done everything we’d set out to do, and there’s no reason just to continue on creatively. I think I had maxed out that relationship for that time being. That was the only possible negative thing. The positive thing was that we’d done everything we wanted to do and it was time to change and move on. There’s nothing wrong with change. In fact, it’s a good thing generally, even though when you go to your twentieth reunion, people might be upset. But fuck them (laughs).

Westword (Michael Roberts): After you’d made that decision, was there a certain excitement about being able to step out of the comfort zone and into new areas?

SM: I guess. There wasn’t too much thought. I kind of move without thought, like many men. I’m not guided by anything, particularly. It was more like, “We’ve got new songs. What’s the new thing?” The nuts and bolts of it, something that was nice for me, is that I lived out here. I moved to the Northwest a few years before Pavement broke up and I was able to take advantage of the scene here and the people here and keep it all local. Pavement was all spread out and sort of a logistical nightmare. So it was more of a cottage industry here. Like, “Let’s just meet some friends and play some music.” How it starts for most people, that was the rebirth.

WW: At what point did it go from “I’m going to play with some friends” to “I’m going to play with these specific friends in a band called the Jicks”?

SM: I guess I sort of was going to record something. At least back then, I still had a real urge to go in and be excited by the magic of the studio, you know? Laying down things on tape and hearing yourself back over the speakers. So I was just going to go in, and I vaguely knew the people who played on that first record. They weren’t like old high school bros from way back when. It was just like, “Let’s go in and record this and it’s going to be a record.” I could say that with confidence – that we were going to go in and make one, because I had these songs.

At the start, unlike Pavement, it was very goal-oriented – like, “These songs are going to be on a record. Let’s learn them.” Over time, things have changed a certain amount, as I become better friends with everybody. Of course we want to make songs and make albums, but the process – there’s more enjoyment in it and more favoring the process instead of just focusing on the product at the end. Like, before you go to a studio or something, in the rehearsal room. The temporal time of that is something we focus on more, and that’s something new for me, because I’m kind of just used to bashing things out really quick with arrangements and overdubs and stuff like that. Just kind of really doing it on the fly.

WW: How long did it take to achieve that kind of camaraderie with Mike [Clark] and Joanna [Bolme] and John [Moen]? Was it when you went out on the road and had a chance to spend a lot of time together?

SM: Yeah, we went out on a long trip. We were still young in a certain way. Some people wouldn’t say we were, but we were in our early thirties, and we just wanted to bolt. No one was really settled down in any real way, so we just bolted out on the road. And for some of them, it was the first time going to a lot of these different places, so it was fun for them. Most groups and people, you take what you can get in a certain way, in terms of gigs and the size and the amount of tours and how cushy they are and how rough they are. You try to get as good as you can get, and then when it’s not good, you do less. Because the gigs are smaller and the tours are smaller. But we were at a level there where people were still buzzing off the Pavement name – so we were able to do some pretty nice venues and there was some good feedback on the first album. Even though in retrospect, it’s kind of a jokey album, it’s got its moments.

WW: Jokey in what sense? Did the material feel jokey to you?

SM: Maybe some of the lyrics. I’m not saying it was flimsy or anything, but there’s some stuff that’s not going to stand the test of time, probably. You know what I mean? When you really think about the other albums that are coming out and everyone else’s other efforts. It’s within the context of me, and if you’re a fan of Pavement and me and the people in that band in particular, it’s got a meaning and it relates to the other pieces we’ve all done. It’s interesting in that way. But I don’t think in and of itself, as an object, I don’t think it’s particularly jaw-dropping in retrospect (laughs).

WW: How have the Jicks evolved over the course of their four albums? When did you think you hit your stride?

SM: The record after that, called Pig Lib, I certainly think that’s an idiosyncratic and worthwhile record sonically. Some of the songs aren’t fully developed in terms of the performance, but some of them are, in quite a good way. And it has sort of a classy sound that’s not common by people in our genre – in terms of the sonics of it and the compression and the recording fidelity. So I think it’s an interesting album. It’s got a vibe. Everyone thinks their records have a vibe, but this one does have one (laughs). A formidable vibe… Oasis, like, their records have a vibe. They just flush it – like, “It’s a rock-and-roll vibe!” But that’s not really a vibe. It’s more like a feeling or something. It’s not really a very sophisticated vibe, I would say (laughs).

At any rate, I think we did a great job on that. And then the one after that, called Face the Truth, it’s maybe more like the first album. It had a lot of interesting, trashy sonic experiments. It’s more of a garage-sounding record. I think it’s got some good ideas. Maybe it’s a little bit incohesive, but that’s okay, too.

WW: And Real Emotional Trash?

SM: I guess that’s more back to the Pig Lib style. It’s in that category of long, jammed-out songs. A bit more complex in a certain way. Other than that, I don’t know what to say. I think it’s good. It got good feedback from the intelligentsia and some of my friends. Maybe there’s something there. It has a polish in a certain way.

WW: You said “some” of my friends in a way that makes me wonder if others weren’t so wowed by it…

SM: I don’t know. I think they were all happy with it. I’m working with a new drummer, Janet Weiss, and I think everybody’s happy about that and sees it as a positive. John Moen, who drums with the Decemberists now, it’s painted in a way that makes it seem as if he wasn’t as good or something, which is ridiculous. He’s amazing. He’s an amazing accompanist as well as an amazing drummer. He really has a feel for songs. But every drummer’s different. They all have their ticks, their tones – just like the guitarists. They sound like themselves in the end. It’s kind of nice in a way.

WW: Did those stylistic differences between John and Janet energize this record? Take it in a direction you might not have foreseen?

SM: It did, yeah. I’ve done different things over the years. Like things in more of the fragile folk style – almost British folk moves that I’ve had on guitar going through my mind with some of my alternative tunings. But things got more electrified with Janet, because she’s such a hard hitter. She’s looking for that moment. She doesn’t just want to chop wood, you know? She doesn’t mind chopping wood – for one song, maybe (laughs). Like in her band, in the band she wants to be her band that she’s really behind [Quasi], she doesn’t want to just be a wood chopper. But she can definitely chop wood if she needs to. She toured with Bright Eyes, and that’s more of a wood-chopping style. Great lyrics and memorable melodies, but the drums are a little bit shackled, you know? So yeah, I think she pushed me in a wilder direction. Not that it’s this kind of freeform drum explosion.

WW: For me, the arrangements of the songs have some interesting contradictions. They have a jammy feel, as you mentioned, but they also seem structured. It’s not as if they’re flying in ten directions at once. Is that a combination you like? Loose, but with a sense of direction?

SM: Yeah, definitely. If it’s totally wild, it’s hard to do that kind of thing on a record and have it withstand prolonged listening. And I guess there’s still a part of me that appreciates the right side of the brain – that’s the more analytical, rational side. Is that true?

WW: I think so. I can never remember… [In fact, people who are left-brained are said to be analytical and logical, while right-brained individuals tend toward randomness and intuitiveness;]

SM: Well, whatever it is, the wild nature of the woods are nice, but a walk in the garden is cool, too. I guess it’s the gardening instint – make it neat and tidy, a little bit, within its messy constraints. What you’re noticing oftentimes comes from guitar overdubs – guitar parts that are maybe improvised the first time, but then they’re doubled or tightened up. Re-doing it makes it a little more – well, not necessarily symphonic, but just more of a song. The music parts are more of a melody – something that’s maybe more memorable in a pop way. Of course, it’s not pop, but it gives it a fighting chance to be memorable.

WW: Lyrically, there are tracks on the new album that seems almost like collages of images. “Gardenia” is an example. You go from an Afrikaner candidate for mild reform to Richard Avedon. Do you write something like that in a linear fashion? Or do you take images that may have come for a bunch of different places, and then you sit down later and combine them?

SM: That one was a problem of having a lot of syllables in the chorus, and some things that were just sort of the same that went with both choruses, but they went with the idea. The idea of the song was about a guy that likes a younger girl and he’s not in her league. But that felt sort of corny to me, so I tried some other things. I wrote the Afrikaner part. And, you know, the choruses are kind of like that. You make some kind of over-thought-out metaphor for the way this person is – like a meaningless metaphor. I guess things get more prolix when you’re trying to overcome your own banality. It sometimes leads you up your own ass, those clever images. But that’s the way out for me. I’m not really interested in writing the perfect boy-meets-girl pop song or something, unless it’s perfectly done. Because it’s already been done perfectly. And I like fresh, weird imagery. I guess I’m more interested in lyrical people where you’re invited into an original and odd mind at work instead of somebody who’s just trying to write a song in a genre, or falling back on something that’s been done over and over again.

WW: A lot of the recent articles about you have focused on fatherhood and domesticity, and I’ve heard a little one’s voice behind you as we’ve been speaking. Who is that?

SM: That’s Sunday. She just had her one-year-old birthday party yesterday. She wasn’t cognizant of the fact that she was one, but she liked the attention. She knew something was up, I think. And her older sister was trying to open all her presents. You know how that is.

WW: What kind of music does she listen to?

SM: The real little one, she goes to this music-together class that focuses on really simple melodies. But the older one, she likes the Beatles. She likes little-kid music and the Beatles, pretty much. She doesn’t really have much tolerance for anything else. We’re haven’t spent much time trying to spend her mind. Like, I know some kids really like the Ramones. But we happen to have this Beatles compilation: “Here Comes the Sun” and “I’m Looking Through You.” Those kinds of songs. They’re really amazingly appealing to children. I wouldn’t have known that. I know they’re great melodies, but I didn’t really know they’re so much like nursery rhymes or something. Even “Strawberry Fields” is a hit in this house.

WW: Has watching her respond to music had any impact on the music you’re writing – to make you want to go in a more melodic direction, or conversely, to make you want to go in the complete, opposite direction?

SM: Not really. You can really only do what you’re going to do. “Here Comes the Sun” is a perfect pop song, but it has so many nice extra things sonically that make me like it more than just because of the melody. It’s not a Paul McCartney song, but you could hear him do it “Hey Jude”-style and it could be an awful song. Or not an awful song, but it would be kind of cloying. But the arrangements and the keyboards and all the George Harrison ideas on there make it great. So I guess I could take some of that from it, but I’m not really ready to write that kind of sing-songy thing.

Well, really… Not to talk about me a lot, but a lot of my melodies are pretty sing-songy, nursery-rhymey to be honest. I don’t write really super-complicated melodies. So maybe I’m already there.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts