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Stairs' Way to Heaven

Scott Kannberg: Stepping out from behind Stephen Malkmus' shadow with a new record.
Peter Ellenby

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."

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 Gas are 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."

After the split, Kannberg hired guitarist Mauri Skinfill of Glitter Mini 9, ex-Creeper Lagoon bassist Dan Carr, and Oranger drummer Jim Lindsay to play the songs live.

Strangely enough, PSOI's label also released Malkmus' self-titled solo debut earlier this year. When asked about the album, Kannberg won't comment except to say that he's heard a few songs.

Fans, however, aren't so taciturn. Asked to compare the two records, members of the Pavement Message Board at www.andrew.cmu.edu/~paw/music/pavement.htm suggested that neither effort strikes the same resonance as Pavement's work did.

In one post, a fan from Los Angeles named "Fitten" wrote that the two albums prove why the chemistry between Malkmus and Kannberg made Pavement so special.

"The only thing I can tell is how much they need each other," writes Fitten. "SM's always been the wordy, silly one, and his debut could have floated away like a feather for its whimsy overload. Spiral's always been the lyrically repetitive, serious one, and he needs to have a few Jack and Cokes before he writes the lyrics next time. . . . In the end, our favorite band broke up, but we got two pretty cool albums."

Regardless of fan misgivings, All This Sounds Gas is a fine record. Musically, the album shows a more eclectic range than Kannberg's previous songs would indicate. He can write breezy pop ("Falling Away"), mild-mannered alt-country ("A Treasure @ Silver Bank"), or string-soaked laments ("Monkey Heart and the Horses' Leg"), all with a sense of assurance. In explanation of his newfound scope, Kannberg says his songwriting ambitions for PSOI were modest, similar to the original vision of Pavement.

"We were just trying to be like our favorite bands," he says of his and Malkmus' first songs.

For his PSOI songs, Kannberg was heavily influenced by folk singer John Prine's penchant for strong narratives. "He tells some really warped stories in his lyrics, and I kind of wanted to do that," says Kannberg. "Before, I never really did. I'd just always string words together and make it sound good."

This new aesthetic lends weight to Kannberg's lyrics, making them seem more personal than Malkmus' -- less clever, but somehow more real. If Malkmus is the ironic genius you admire from afar, Kannberg is the approachable sage with whom you want to drink a beer.

On All This Sounds Gas, Kannberg isn't afraid to reveal a glimpse of the person behind the lyrics -- existential struggles and all. On "Doping for Gold," he sings, "So you wanna be golden/And you wish you were gold/Tired of this life and all the things it holds." In this song -- and in other lyrics on the record -- Kannberg seems to be trying to make sense of his past and the experience of moving forward on his own.

But Kannberg says that he never saw his success in Pavement as anything extraordinary, and therefore has limited expectations for Preston School of Industry.

"We'll see how it goes," he says cautiously. "I kind of have the next five months planned out to [tour], and then, when we come back, hopefully I'll write another record."

He does admit, however, that sometimes his former success as co-founder of a highly influential band seems a bit surreal. "It's weird to think I spent 10 years doing that," he says. "It went by so fast, and now I'm 34. I'm just like, 'Whoa.' I can't imagine being 24 again and doing that over."


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