I made all the wrong moves," says Stephen Malkmus. "Don't you think sometimes life is about making all the wrong moves? In the end, it's making the wrong choices — trying the wrong drugs, dating the wrong girl, taking the wrong class, crashing into the wrong tree when you're drunk."
In this case, the wrong choices Malkmus is speaking of have nothing to do with any of those things. Instead, they have everything to do with studying history at the University of Virginia. "For some reason, I was dumb and thought I should do twentieth century," Malkmus recalls. "So I thought I wanted to be in twentieth-century history, but that's not even history, really — it's like news. I majored in reading the newspaper; that's basically what I did. It's pathetic. I'm all for delaying education because of all the willy-nilly mistakes I made."
Before all that, though, Malkmus came of age in California, where his first exposure to music was cringe-worthy in its own right. "I went to this real soft-rock stuff — Manilow, Elton John," he remembers. "I saw Werner Erhard live. He didn't really play very hard, but it was sort of like a concert. There were definitely worshippers there. I was only eight, so I was easy to be hypnotized. But Manilow, I didn't like that, either, or Elton John. I liked Captain and Tennille. I didn't see them in concert, but I saw them on TV a lot."
Not exactly the type of act you'd expect to hear name-checked by the man who would go on to develop one of the most influential guitar and songwriting styles of the '90s and beyond. Upon the release of its debut album, 1992's critically acclaimed Slanted and Enchanted, Pavement, the act Malkmus fronted, became one of the most important bands in the American underground-music scene.
Malkmus's loose — or "sloppy," as some have uncharitably and imprecisely described it — and endlessly creative guitar style can be heard in most of the underground rock that has come along since. Though he was in punk bands throughout high school, his earliest guitar experience did not come from playing along to a Ramones record, but rather from Jimi Hendrix.
"He baffles me," Malkmus declares. "I don't know what I learned, but that wah-wah's cool. I don't know how to play like him; he redefined the instrument. I learned that he was a cool dude. He was always up for a jam session. He didn't care who it was with; he was egalitarian. I'm that way, too. I don't need to be jamming with the guy from Blur or something. I'll play with anybody."
Indeed. After Pavement split up, Malkmus moved to Portland, where he played in a band with Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore; was a member of Silver Jews, with David Berman; and worked in yet another outfit with Jim O'Rourke and Ikue Mori. But the Jicks have been Malkmus's main musical focus since 2000. Initially a solo effort, the Jicks became a full-fledged band by the time of 2001's Stephen Malkmus. The music that Malkmus has made with the Jicks is more fluid, psychedelic and dreamlike than what he produced with Pavement, with songs that are informed by humor and offer a sharply poetic insight into the human condition. He's also released more music with the Jicks than he did with Pavement.
Malkmus's latest album with the Jicks came out last month on the Matador imprint. Titled Wig Out at Jagbags, the record is richly varied and chock-full of genuinely clever turns of phrase; Malkmus is clearly fearless when it comes to making a great, dumb joke. Musically, there's Big Star-like texture and melody on Wig Out, and that's no coincidence, it turns out.
"They tend to be trebly, some of their guitars and stuff," he says of the legendary Memphis pop band featuring the late Alex Chilton. "I will say they're sloppy at times, Big Star, and they make it okay to be sloppy, especially on Radio City. So I'm just kind of inspired by how they make you feel okay to be a little bit around, and that just gives it a loose feel, a real feel. Somehow, all the Chilton stuff — I like almost everything he does. Even when he's not trying, I like it."
Prior to new album's release, Malkmus talked a bit about what inspired the music, pointing to some unexpected and refreshing touchstones in newer underground rock, like Sic Alps. "They have, to me, taken some of the trashiness of Royal Trux, which is a band I liked a lot, in the right way," he says now. "Sometimes you'll hear these bands like the Kills and MGMT say, 'We're into the Royal Trux.' And you listen to them and think, 'Where is the Royal Trux in this? I don't hear it.' Okay, maybe you're a duo, and you smoke cigarettes and you're tough. You don't get to call yourself Royal Trux-influenced.
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"But Sic Alps," he explains, "has a kind of deconstructed womble, and I like that kind of music. I haven't even listened that closely to the Sic Alps; I just kind of feel them. I don't know them enough to rip them off. I love their spirit. One of the best shows I saw in the last three years was Magik Markers — them and Eat Skull. It was a really fun show at one of those Legion halls."
It is this spirit of openness — taking inspiration from wherever it comes and giving it back — that has always informed Malkmus's music, and his approach to life in general. An individualistic, creative person with a strong inner vision, he takes in new information and incorporates it into an ever-evolving universe of his own imagination, and that's one of the things that has made him not just an interesting artist, but an influential one.
Asked whether he feels that he helped create a new vocabulary for music in the '90s, Malkmus says, "That would be nice. I mean, I have unfortunately gotten stuck on this Jimmy Page open-D tuning. I try to mix it up and try to give myself some new hurdles with tuning, and that keeps it sounding different. I'm not trying to play like Led Zeppelin; we're done with that. I love the way their albums sound and stuff, and their production. I hope I'm more minimal, more like a Lou Reed guitar solo, but also like Jimmy Page and Brian May. I like fucking around."
"It's original," acknowledges Malkmus reluctantly. "You don't want to copy things — though I do copy a lot of things, but I try not to steal that well. But I don't want to sound like too much of a narcissist or something by saying I can't even steal well."