Smart Alecks

Pavement battles the growing impression that it's too clever for its own good

"Steve Malkmus is a fucking snob."
So proclaimed the title of a summer release by an obscure Virginia duo called September 67. The song's writer, Shannon Worrell, explained in a press release that her attack on Pavement's sardonic leader was a form of "tough love," adding that "I love their music so much, but I think they've become complacent in thinking that being smart and clever is enough. It's not enough."

Well, even if the whole September 67 exercise smacked more of publicity stunt than genuine musical expression, Worrell shrewdly picked up on a sentiment that's been blowing in the wind for a couple of years. Pavement, once the most worshiped band in the alt-rock constellation, was now vulnerable. Like a cocky heavyweight whose reflexes had slowed a bit, Pavement had to stand and take it when adversaries unloaded on it. The major bone of contention: This band might just be too smart for its own good. For some, Malkmus' smart-ass lyrics, his too-cool-to-hit-the-pitch vocals, and even his perpetual smirk suddenly shifted from endearing assets to annoying liabilities. Some questioned whether the members of Pavement really cared about anything, or whether the whole shebang--including their career--was just an existential joke for them.

"We're not that smart," reassures guitarist and founding member Scott Kannberg. "If we were, we'd be superstars. We would have infiltrated everything. We can only do it so far."

The mini-backlash began in 1995 with the release of Wowee Zowee!. Up to that point, everything Pavement touched reaped massive acclaim and exceeded the band's always modest expectations. When Kannberg (also known by the nom de rock Spiral Stairs) and Malkmus first recorded together in 1989, all they hoped for, according to Kannberg, was "to put a single out, to have something in the history of music."

A veritable Glimmer Twins of the Pacific Coast, Kannberg and Malkmus met in third grade on an elementary school soccer field in Stockton, California. In high school, Malkmus moved to Los Angeles for a couple of years, and returned to Stockton with newfound underground-rock influences. It set a pattern for their friendship.

Malkmus would go off to college and come back to share record collections with Kannberg. They would record a few tracks, and Malkmus would head off to Europe. When Kannberg raised the money to release the tracks as an EP (Slay Tracks 1933-1969), the response was shocking. Letters began pouring in from avid fans, among them British DJ John Peel and members of the Wedding Present. Like a Garfunkel stuck in New York while Simon's living in London as their single blows up, Kannberg awaited Malkmus' return so they could record a follow-up.

Soon they were augmented by a full band, including Gary Young, a fortysomething studio owner and gloriously sloppy drummer known to suck on a vodka bottle like a baby with its pacifier.

The slightly delusional Young believed Pavement was on a commercial par with U2 and told the band it could sign with a major label for $5 million. Perhaps the best of many Young stories involves him duping the vice president of Sony into sending a limo for him to meet and negotiate a deal, unbeknownst to the band. While waiting in the Sony offices, he downed a bottle of vodka. It took only five minutes for the Sony exec to realize that the incoherent man in front of him didn't speak for the group. In typically unambitious Pavement fashion, the band laughed off such potential embarrassments.

"We came from the school of seeing bands like the Butthole Surfers, who were total fuck-ups," Kannberg says. "We didn't think this was anything different. We thought it was great."

At every step, the band members looked upon their music as an occasional diversion, something they would do for their own amusement. All that changed in '92, with the release of their first full-length album, Slanted and Enchanted.

Slanted was alt-rock's second pivotal release of the decade, and although it came only a few months after the first--Nirvana's Nevermind--the two albums couldn't have been more different. Whereas Nevermind was a consciously big, powerhouse production rife with a lifetime's worth of pent-up rage, Slanted and Enchanted was lo-fi and loaded with ironic word play. Like Lou Reed in his naive Velvet Underground heyday, Kannberg and Malkmus could sound like 3-year-olds ripping at their guitar strings for the first time, then stun you with the kind of off-kilter brilliance that a more studied player would never consider.

Thanks to a new road-tested cohesion and Young's departure in favor of Steve West, the band reached a new level of accessibility with its next album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. With the irresistibly giddy single "Cut Your Hair," Malkmus mocked the absurdity of rock careerism ("Did you see the drummer's hair?"), even as he realized that the joke's on him, too. On "Gold Soundz," he caps off an infectious first verse by singing, "We're coming to the chorus now." Like some twisted postmodern magician who gives away the secret of his tricks before performing them, Malkmus seems to say that in this jaded era, the old rock formulas must be honestly exposed before they can again be used.

The breakthrough of Crooked Rain caused some swollen heads in the Pavement camp, at least according to Kannberg. When it is suggested that the band's follow-up, the much-maligned Wowee, evokes the reckless sprawl of messy masterworks like the Clash's Sandinista!, Kannberg agrees, adding: "Yeah, they thought their shit didn't stink." Apparently, Pavement, too, thought its poop smelled like patchouli.

"I think we did think that," Kannberg says. "Crooked Rain was pretty successful for us, and I think we thought, 'Hey, we can just put anything out. People will buy it. People will like it.'"

Half of Wowee's 18 tracks were recorded at Easley Studios in Memphis. The other half, however, were thrown together in New York under rushed circumstances. The result was an album of overlooked beauty (the countryish "Father to a Sister of Thought"), but also padded out with freestyle nonsense like "Best Friends Arm" and "Fight This Generation." It wasn't quite Malkmus' Self Portrait, but it wasn't Blonde on Blonde, either.

As confident as Pavement may seem to its fans, Kannberg says the members weren't immune to the shots they took with Wowee. "It affected us," he says. "We didn't make the same mistake [again]. There's a lot of good songs there, but it's like 10 great songs and eight B-sides on it."

The biggest obstacle to Pavement's creative future has long been that its five members litter nearly every corner of the country. Malkmus lives in Portland, Oregon; Kannberg in Berkeley, California; West in Lexington, Virginia; bassist Mark Ibold in Los Angeles; and percussionist Bob Nastanovich in Louisville, Kentucky. Because they usually only get a couple of weeks' rehearsal time before recording an album, it's important for them to find a comfortable recording environment that allows them time to absorb the material. For their most recent release, this year's Brighten the Corners, they found that environment in North Carolina with former R.E.M. producer--and Let's Active leader--Mitch Easter.

"It was great," Kannberg says of recording at Easter's house. "My vote would be for us to do the next record there. He's just a mellow guy, but he's really enthusiastic about music. His biggest contribution was he had tons of instruments, different devices to use. He didn't really produce it or anything."

Although reaction to Brighten the Corners was slightly blase--a good album, but nothing new--the album holds up over repeated listenings nearly as well as Slanted and Crooked Rain did. Malkmus retains his seemingly effortless ability to throw out a clever turn of phrase, such as this gem from the single "Shady Lane": "You've been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life."

Perhaps the novelty has simply worn off for critics, or maybe the band is getting karmic comeuppance for poking fun at Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots with the 1994 song "Range Life." But most likely, some just sense that the band is too cool to break an emotional sweat. Beavis and Butt-head captured this viewpoint when they trashed the band's "Rattled by the Rush" video, infuriated because Pavement "aren't even trying" to sound good.

Kannberg doesn't sound like someone who thinks his band is too brilliant for the masses. In fact, when questioned about the possibility of platinum-size commercial acceptance, he pleads humility.

"We're not a good enough band to be that successful yet, to play to 10,000 people," he says. "We could do that at a festival, but every night, like Bush does, I don't think we're that together as a band yet. And that to us would be successful, to get to that point. We're still in the double-A league."

And what does he make of the major-league target that Pavement seems to be for September 67? Kannberg responds with characteristic Pavement phlegmatism.

"I haven't even heard it," Kannberg says of the song. "But it's pretty funny. I'm glad it's not 'Scott Kannberg Is a Fucking Snob.'"

Pavement is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, September 23, at Gibson's in Tempe, with the Geraldine Fibbers. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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