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.
Malkmus: Master of the smart-ass non sequitur and the angular guitar hook.
Malkmus: Master of the smart-ass non sequitur and the angular guitar hook.

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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.

"Maybe if we were all musical geniuses, it could have all worked in that short span of time. We could have kept it all going. But I think we ran out of different ways of saying the same thing together."

If Pavement provided Malkmus with little creative nutrition over the years, it did offer him a sense of kinship that he was reluctant to part with. Guitarist Scott Kannberg has been Malkmus' closest friend since the third grade, when they met on an elementary school soccer field in Stockton, California. And the racetrack enthusiasm that Malkmus shares with percussionist Bob Nastanovish resulted in them jointly investing in a promising racehorse (which, like Pavement, has since been put out to pasture).

"I would just as soon hang around with a lot of those guys as anyone else," he says. "My friends kept it going. It wasn't really an aesthetic. The band had been suffering slightly for many years. But I think we were still doing an admirable job of keeping up with the tide of pretty-goodness and almost-greatness that was the '90s."

After completing the lugubrious Terror Twilight, Malkmus was looking for a new musical spark, and he found it in bassist Joanna Bolme and drummer John Moen, Portland music veterans introduced to him by former Spinanes leader Rebecca Gates.

The resulting music will be familiar to any longtime fan of Malkmus' gifts for the smart-ass non sequitur and the angular guitar hook. But the album delivers a few stylistic curveballs, such as the breezy pop goof "Phantasies," in which Malkmus' "oh-uh-oh" chorus tips its hat to the 1983 After the Fire novelty hit "Der Kommissar."

With "The Hook," a metaphoric coming-of-age yarn disguised as an account of being kidnapped by Turkish pirates, Malkmus ventures deeper into classic-rock terrain than ever before, with a chunky guitar riff and cowbell beat straight out of "Honky Tonk Women."

As if to show that his writing can be more than "sublime nonsense," as a sympathetic critic once said, Malkmus even sustains a coherent narrative with "Jenny & the Ess-Dog," the story of a doomed May-December romance, coupled with one of the most infectious melodies he's ever conjured. Best of all, the gorgeously lilting "Church on White" -- a requiem for author Robert Bingham -- confirms that as he gets older, Malkmus is increasingly willing to drop his sardonic shield, and convey real emotional vulnerability.

But Malkmus believes he long ago found his particular musical niche, and he doesn't see any reason to venture too far outside the limitations he's placed on himself. To the degree that he wanted the album to differ at all from Pavement's established sound, he simply hoped that it would be "a little peppier."

While the sluggish tempos of Terror Twilight suggested that Pavement's collective energy level was beginning to dim, the band nonetheless managed to sidestep the pitfalls of music-biz whininess and jaded world-weariness that dragged down so many of rock's cult heroes.

Pavement's saving grace may have been that, unlike the Ramones -- who never got over the fact that being influential couldn't get them the airwaves -- or the Replacements -- who knew they were a great band and were permanently deflated when they didn't attain commensurate stardom -- Malkmus and Co. kept their expectations low and were never disappointed. When Malkmus and Kannberg put Pavement together as a four-track recording project in the late '80s, their only goal, as Kannberg once put it, was to "put a single out, to have something in the history of music."

Any popular success was gravy for these guys, and the underground phenomenon of Pavement's 1992 debut album, Slanted and Enchanted, merely signified to Malkmus that he could say goodbye to his job as a guard at the Whitney Museum. With the release of 1994's tuneful Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, Pavement officially became rock's flavor of the month, name-checked on The Larry Sanders Showand praised by metal bands desperately trying to look au courant.

Though the band's subsequent work continued to hit such peaks, its aura of invincibility was permanently shattered by the negative reaction to 1995's Wowee Zowie, a frequently beautiful but sprawling mess of a record that can best be described as Pavement's Sandinista!.

The most sure sign that Pavement's stock had dropped came from that notorious name-dropper and pop-culture weather vane Courtney Love. In the spring of '94, Love swooned to Spinmagazine about Malkmus' dreaminess, calling him "the Grace Kelly of indie rock," and saying the only hip thing Madonna could do at that stage of her career would be to date him. But only a year and a half later, after touring with Pavement -- among others -- on the '95 Lollapalooza tour, Love publicly bemoaned the fact that there were no male artists on the tour with legitimate rock-star sex appeal.

But if Pavement was no longer fashionable, it continued to exert a huge musical impact on bigger-selling bands. Everything from Beck's giddy streams-of-consciousness to Marcy Playground's aloof affectations to Blur's rejection of tidy Brit-pop in favor of chaotic Amerindie rock can be traced back to Malkmus.

Ironically, since Blur's Pavement fixation made it sound more American, Malkmus himself is something of an Anglophile. He cites the Kinks' Face to Faceand the Fall's Hex Enduction Houras two of his favorite albums. He's a friend and fan of Elastica front woman Justine Frischmann. And his appreciation for the Stones has surfaced on his latest batch of tee shirts, which ask the rhetorical question: "Who the fuck is Stephen Malkmus?" The design is an obvious homage to an early '70s photo of Keith Richards in a tee shirt that read, "Who the fuck is Mick Jagger?"

In fact, when discussing the cesspool that is contemporary radio, one of Malkmus' biggest complaints is that rock stations don't play any British bands. Otherwise, he sees little difference between the current state of radio and what Pavement was up against a decade ago.

"It's the same type bands that were around before, like Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails, there's the new version of that, with Creed and Limp Bizkit," he says. "There's a lot of bands that I really don't know what they're called, but they kind of have that same macho sound.

"They [radio stations] really like these kind of gothic type things. It doesn't even have to have a hook. It's weird, but they like that. It somehow goes with tattoos, and younger people like it. I don't get it, but I'm not fretting by it. I kind of like Korn and Deftones, in a certain kind of way. I don't own their CDs, but I like those two better than Limp and some of the other ones I've seen."

In trying to navigate his way through the morass of leather-lunged metal-rappers and ex-Mouseketeers clogging the CD bins, Malkmus has plenty of elder-statesman cache to fall back on, but he's resisted the temptation to lean on his back catalogue during his current tour. Rather than revisit Pavement material, he's chosen to pad his sets with obscure covers from bands like Fairport Convention and the Wipers.

"It just feels weird," Malkmus says about performing Pavement songs. "Any time I imagine playing one of those songs, I guess it just brings all this cognitive dissonance into my brain. It's not like I hate the songs or anything. I guess the flatline of overtouring Pavement comes into my mind."

Malkmus has branded his new band the Jicks, initially envisioning them as a fictional musical family, much like the Carters. But his current concept for them might be a more accurate reflection of how he sees his place in the music biz.

"I don't really think of Jicks as a family anymore," he says. "I think of them more like ticks or something. Like, you lift up the seat cover and there's one underneath. And you're like, 'God, there's a jick.' And your wife is like, 'Ugh, I hate jicks!'"

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