Stairs' Way to Heaven

Former Pavement guitarist Scott Kannberg strikes out on his own with Preston School of Industry

There is a song on Preston School of Industry's new full-length, All This Sounds Gas, that harks back to Scott Kannberg's stint as guitarist for one of the greatest indie rock bands of all time.

Actually, there's more than one tune on the record that brings to mind Kannberg's role in Pavement, a group he co-founded (under the pseudonym "Spiral Stairs") with his Stockton, California, high school chum Stephen Malkmus. In fact, there are references to his former act sprinkled like confetti throughout the album, Kannberg's first since Pavement's unceremonious split in late 1999. However, the most recognizable remnants of the group appear in "Whalebones," the record's opening track.

Kannberg says the song's lyrics were inspired by driving Pavement's tour bus "Gina" home after a long spell crisscrossing the U.S. "After every tour, I would have to drive Gina home," says Kannberg, who has lived in Berkeley, California, for the last five years. "It's like you're driving the bones of the whale home after all this emotional damage. You're exhausted after being on tour, and you get to drive across the country and think about it all."

Scott Kannberg: Stepping out from behind Stephen Malkmus' shadow with a new record.
Peter Ellenby
Scott Kannberg: Stepping out from behind Stephen Malkmus' shadow with a new record.
Kannberg, far left, with his former bandmates.
Kannberg, far left, with his former bandmates.

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A genial, modest sort, Kannberg seems sincere about that rather simplistic explanation of "Whalebones." But lyrics like "Driving the whalebones home again/Twenty hours to go/They played their final show of a lifetime" suggest something deeper -- perhaps a nod to Pavement's breakup, which was far from amicable, at least on the part of Malkmus and Kannberg.

After further conversation, Kannberg concedes that "Whalebones" is indeed the "end of the story," but suggests that the story is about more than just Pavement. Kannberg says that the 11 tracks contained within All This Sounds Gasare about many things, including "my life, making this record, and the history of California."

Such lyrical territory might seem ambitious for a guy who spent most of his musical career in the shadow of the much-lauded Malkmus, who's been called nothing less than the greatest songwriter of his generation. But if songs like "Doping for Gold," "Encyclopedic Knowledge Of," and the charming first single, "Falling Away," are any indication, Kannberg's role as Pavement's second banana has been underestimated.

To begin at the beginning of Preston School of Industry (named for a Stockton reform school), it's necessary to talk about the end of Pavement, a group whose split marked the end of an era for many listeners. After some prompting, Kannberg cautiously discusses Pavement's demise, something he hasn't done much in the U.S. press. Much to his anger, he says, he was goaded into expressing bitterness over the band's breakup one of the few times he did talk -- to Magnet's Jonathan Valania for an April cover article on Malkmus.

On the contrary, Kannberg says, he was more perplexed and disappointed than pissed off when Malkmus said he didn't want to do the band anymore. Kannberg refers to a Phoenix show in October 1999 as "the beginning of the end," although he says he wasn't aware of that at the time. "I think in Steve's mind, he kind of thought it was the end," says Kannberg. "But unfortunately, he didn't tell any of us, and then a few shows later he just started freaking out."

Kannberg says that while he has no regrets, he still wishes Pavement hadn't ended as dramatically as it did -- with Malkmus wearing handcuffs during the band's last show and comparing his experience to being in prison. "Everyone was a baby at one time in that band, but the thing is, there are ways to deal with it and there are ways not to have it so clichéd, which it turned out to be," Kannberg says. "It was ridiculous. . . . I just wanted it to be cool and I didn't want it to end stupidly like that."

Ironically, it may have been that sort of drama that served as the catalyst for All This Sounds Gas.

"When Steve finally said, 'I don't want to do this anymore, Pavement's over,' I really started sitting down and writing songs," says Kannberg. "When Pavement broke up, I was just like, 'All right, I'm going to just start another band and have fun.'"

This was at the beginning of 2000, and those new songs ended up on two records -- an EP called Goodbye to the Edge City that Kannberg released this June on his own label, Amazing Grease, and the full-length, which Pavement's former label Matador released in late August. Unfortunately, the two Bay Area musicians Kannberg hired to be in the band, bassist Jon Erickson and drummer Andy Borger, aren't around anymore.

Erickson and Borger recently told the East Bay Express that they left the group because they were upset with both the compensation and the credit they received for their contributions, and that they should've been given some engineering or production recognition. In response to the charges, Kannberg says his treatment of the two musicians was fair.

"Jon and Andy did not write or arrange any of the music on the record, and in most cases I wrote their bass and drum parts," says Kannberg. "They were paid $10,000 each to play on the record, and anyone who knows anything about this kind of music and this kind of a band would see this as an astronomical amount of money for the time and energy they put into it. And they did receive credit -- credit that reflects what they did and [what] was written while they were still in the band."

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