Fresh Ground

Stephen Malkmus leaves Pavement behind with a slanted and enchanting solo debut

Stephen Malkmus is discussing the high-tech, corporate domination of 21st-century America, and he's getting righteously indignant about it.

That wouldn't be such a big deal, except that the former mastermind of '90s indie-rock über-band Pavement has long been celebrated for his detachment, his ability to make an eloquent joke of everything, from the careerist ambitions of his musical peers to his own attempts at constructing a credible three-minute song.

This is, after all, the guy who once took the piss out of Stone Temple Pilots by dubbing them "elegant bachelors," questioned whether Geddy Lee's speaking voice was as high as his singing voice, and mocked his own craftsmanship by warning, at the end of a verse: "We're coming to the chorus now."

Crooked Reign: Stephen Malkmus kicks off his solo career with a new self-titled effort.
Crooked Reign: Stephen Malkmus kicks off his solo career with a new self-titled effort.
"We ran out of different ways of saying the same thing together," says Malkmus (bottom, center) of Pavement.
"We ran out of different ways of saying the same thing together," says Malkmus (bottom, center) of Pavement.

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This Dadaist, too-cool-to-care aura made Pavement the perfect band for the irony decade, but it also had a way of getting up the noses of the unconverted, including animated couch potatoes Beavis and Butt-head. They famously dissed the group's 1995 "Rattled by the Rush" video, infuriated that Malkmus and his mates were "not even trying" to sound good. And in 1997, the publicity-seeking Virginia duo September 67 lashed out at Pavement with a single titled "Steve Malkmus Is a Fucking Snob."

On record, Malkmus' cocky disregard for the laws of tonality may come off as the aural equivalent of a smirk, but in conversation, his slow delivery, slightly whiny timbre and propensity for yawning suggest a sleep-deprived biochem grad student more than a bohemian underground-rock icon.

Malkmus doesn't come across as someone who gets irritated easily, but he's still smarting over his decision to mix his recently released, eponymously titled first solo album at FutureRhythm recording studios in San Jose, California. Aside from putting him in the company of the once-famous -- MC Hammer hung out at the same studio, and apparently displayed the same hyper, Taco Bell-shilling manner that once made him too legit to quit -- the San Jose experience put Malkmus uncomfortably close to the ugly truths of the new economy.

"I thought it might be cool to mix somewhere different than we recorded at," says the 34-year-old Malkmus, who recorded the album in his current hometown of Portland, Oregon. "But it turned out that it was in industrial San Jose, and you have to drive through all these horrible traffic jams, and it's really dark and miserable, and overpriced for what it is. And it had this weird '80s vibe there.

"I thought I might be able to channel some Silicon Valley-like success, or the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses vibe might help me, but it turned out to be a fucking nightmare. And I'm really mad at California for sacrificing that part of the nation for their get-rich mentality. Scumbags. I hope the NASDAQ goes down to 1,000, but it won't."

Malkmus' summer bummer in San Jose was the only sour note in what he describes as a remarkably positive, smooth experience working on his solo debut. A pleasant grab bag of smart, tuneful indie-pop, the album is also a perfect illustration of how the differences between a "band record" and a "solo record" are sometimes more a state of mind and marketing than a musical reality.

Consider the history: When Chrissie Hynde made albums with a bunch of hired guns, the results were inexplicably billed as Pretenders projects. When Paul Westerberg cut All Shook Downwith a variety of session players, it was regarded as a Replacements album, but when he did the same thing two years later with 14 Songs, it was promoted as his solo debut. And when John Lennon recorded "The Ballad of John & Yoko" with backing from only Paul McCartney, it qualified as a Beatles record. Nine months later, when he recorded "Instant Karma" with help from George Harrison, it was a Lennon solo release.

For his part, Malkmus ruled Pavement's recording sessions so completely, he hardly needed to change his approach for his solo album. In both cases, he routinely overdubbed most of the instrumental and vocal parts himself, while the other musicians sat and watched. If anything, Pavement's 1999 swan song, Terror Twilight, which Malkmus and producer Nigel Godrich pieced together with little band input, was even more of a solo effort than Malkmus' new album.

"This was pretty similar to how I did all the Pavement records," he says of his solo debut. "Except for maybe [1997's] Brighten the Corners. We tried for a slightly more ensemble sound on that one, although I was doing most of the piano and guitar on that one as well. But on that one I just tried to restrict it to making it sound like five people."

Despite Malkmus' enduring affection for his former bandmates, Pavement became a drag to him because its members were spread out in every corner of the country, and it was impossible to maintain any sense of musical cohesion. By the mid-'90s, the band was essentially nothing more than a live touring vehicle for Malkmus, albeit a vehicle so ramshackle that "the first three weeks of a tour were always really embarrassing," he recalls.

"The drummer and the bass player were instrumental -- no pun intended -- to making it work," Malkmus says of Pavement. "But because of the fact that we lived in these different places and we never really had a particular, kinetic, intense musical relationship, it made it so they'd come there, and I'd just try to get the best rhythmic tracks I could get, and go from there. Because we didn't have time to really develop into an ensemble jam thing.

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