an interview w/ Stephen Malkmus (on getting older, what “indie” is, the future of Pavement & more)
Stephen Malkmus @ Bowery Ballroom in Feb. (more by PSquared)
Whether it’s “Independence Street” from this year’s Jicks release Wig Out at Jagbags, or a jam like “Range Life” written some twenty years ago during the Pavement days, you know a Stephen Malkmus song when you hear it. The songwriter’s mellowed out bari-tenor vocals are just as unmistakable as the abstract lyrics he’s been writing now for well over two decades. While his lyrics float in some abstract cross-section of bizarro Americana, Malkmus has always been able to ground the absurdity in the roots of rock ‘n roll at its most memorably unadorned. With Pavement, that kind of offhanded simplicity was jarring to an audience of the early 90s who at the same time were already witnessing another revolutionary catalyst for both pop and punk music just a little further north in Seattle. Now six albums deep into his work with The Jicks, that same simplicity is just as relevant and applicable to a listening culture that’s changed much more drastically than any music over the timespan of his career. At forty-seven, Malkmus is in no hurry to wax retrospective just yet. The man is not far removed from his music as our conversation finds him carefully gauging his own thoughts in short bursts of curious introspection and an earnest kind of self-doubt devoid of the sort of self-involvement one might expect from one of the most respected and enigmatic songwriters of the last quarter century. None of that really concerns Malkmus, and once we’d performed the awkward formalities of introducing ourselves, it didn’t concern me all that much either with the topic of our conversation quickly lending itself to a mutual fascination with how time and age affects our perception of music and art in all its forms, and, perhaps more importantly, what we can hope to learn about ourselves along the way.
BV: From a creative standpoint, how have you seen your approach to songwriting and even music in general change since those high school punk band days, or has that kind of creative impetus largely stayed the same since then?
SM: It’s hard to say. The original impetus, when I was doing the punk band, and I was writing our own songs, and having our own identity as a band – that’s still there, I guess. I don’t really know where it came from. It was fun like writing short stories when you were a kid or doing anything, just creating something. That still exists, but I suppose as time goes on, there’s different achievements, and now it’s like actually playing with a band or a little bit of working on textures and techniques and production and that kind of thing, I wouldn’t have thought about that back then. It wasn’t an issue. Those sort of style things – you don’t really think about that when you’re younger. You kind of just do it. Even in early Pavement stuff we had bands that we emulated, but we didn’t really think about what it all meant quite as much when I was doing that. Things inevitably become more curatorial once you have the knowledge and the self-knowledge. It’s inevitable and healthy as you get older.
What do you value most about creating music, and how have you seen that specifically evolve or change as you’ve gotten older?
Just to be surprised. Something may not seem surprising to the listener who’s the critical one where it all makes sense how one thing’s related to the thing that came before. It’s not particularly radical changes, but for me it still is. When you have a germ of an idea that just starts in your house with you searching with the guitar, coming to believe in what you’re doing, and then have it however it comes out at the end, and how you can alter that or make it go in a direction or the directions. You’re led by what comes before all the time. The end result of making something – I still like that, or it still makes me happy to see it be successful. The process of doing it.
So it seems like a very instinctive process and one that’s not inherently directed or conscious, necessarily.
Yeah. I think so. I just kind of do it, and I try to be aware of pitfalls that could be uninteresting or not relevant to what we’re doing because I’m self aware, but not too much. You want sort of a balance there. It’s like a painter. My wife, she’s an artist, and she was just saying that she didn’t know about this artist Sigmar Polke, he was a German artist, but she wasn’t aware of some of his work, and then she turned out some work recently that was seemingly derivative of his work, but she didn’t even know it. She’s supposed to know that really, in a way, just because she’s a fine artist, and it’s all about theory, and they have to do a lot more artist talks than a band does.
Is our current culture where the opportunities at least seem limitless one that’s more conducive to experimentation in art and music than it was for you when you first started playing music, or do you see it being largely the same?
There’s two different things. There’s personal growth and personal achievement regardless of success or commercial success, and then there’s connecting with people and becoming relevant or meaningful to other people, and I mean people outside how your thing is perceived. As far as just the creator, I mean, it could be great now just in terms of what you can do with cheap gear, for one thing, and how you can put your stuff out there, and how you can manipulate your image or your message in any way you want, really, if you have the patience for it. There’s that, but in the music side, what your tools are – you should be able to make do with whatever tools you have within reason. Back then maybe we had less – less knowledge, less opportunity to use production tools and stuff as they were out of reach financially or something, and also the cultural gates were a little more blocked by people on certain labels. I mean, it was even better for us than it was in the 70s or something. There was like thirty classic rock bands, and then the rest were bar bands or outsiders making privates presses practically. So yeah, I think it has become democratized, and also music is a very serialized thing to begin with compared to fine art. Everyone can hear the same thing for the same price, which is kind of nice, and it’s still like that. Although people do try to make limited editions of things – limited edition vinyl records and stuff like that. Jack White, for instance. He’s always making things that are artificially collectible.
It’s collectible in the sense that there’s a demand for that from a very specific fan market. Whole droves of fans will buy that stuff right up.
Yeah, there are limited things, of course. I like rare records, too. Less and less as I get older, but I went through a time of being into “the thing that I have that other people don’t have.” [Laughs] Willing to pay for it, and it’s just like a luxury good or whatever. But a luxury good that has some cultural value like a rare book or an ancient manuscript or like an ancient manuscript will be one day.
Generally speaking, any conversation regarding indie music is going to include Pavement as one of the bands. My question for you, though, just concerns the relevance of that term in the social media age. Do you see that term being used more so now as a kind of marketing strategy for any number of scenes, or was it always that way? Is anything really indie or mainstream anymore?
I think there is. Well, actually, I don’t really know for sure because the way it is now, what is pop music, there’s obviously still radio music and it’s still like radio music like it was thirty years ago like Madonna or Michael Jackson, and that’s obviously not indie. Lady Gaga’s not indie or something and Justin Timberlake’s not indie. When we started, when Pavement started, there was at least some guitar rock music. I think with guitar music or metal even, except for Metallica and the dinosaurs, most metal is indie now like Autopsy or some kind of big metal bands are basically indie bands as far as I’m concerned. Although they don’t have the Fugazi ethos or anything, they’re operating on independent labels, selling not that many records, but they’re loved, they book their own tours, they don’t run so much different than Sonic Youth or something. They’re just in a different genre. So with guitar music, yeah, I think it’s sort of a useless construct, except for when we’re just talking about obvious dinosaur bands like Creed or those kinds of bands. All of us are kind of indie now just by the nature of the economically driven. Beyond that 90s fear of major labels, most people are kind of ‘Do It Yourself’ within reason now. Most of those things are the same, but it’s also different now.
With music and art there’s obviously something to be said about the importance of retrospection, but at what point do you see that retrospection turning into a kind of nostalgia worship and causing a kind of creative or even critical pitfall? Is it a potential problem? What are the benefits from your perspective?
It really depends on the new bands and what they do with it. I heard Simple Minds for the first time on the Breakfast Club soundtrack. It was in a movie, and I was instantly nostalgic. Sixties music is that way for me or any past music, really. It exists kind of dually. It exists in the nostalgic way, but then I think there’s also a true pulse that comes through the really good stuff. It’s a built up canon of what’s really good. Everyone has their own tastes, but I hear a certain rhythm from rhythm and blues music from the fifties or sixties, and it’s timeless. That’s not really nostalgic. It’s the fact that they played better. They got it right. I don’t know how I got to think that. It might be nostalgia, but in my heart I’m like ‘That’s rockin”. That’s its own animus, really. You hear it when you’re drunk at night or something, and you suddenly have a clarity. That’s great. For the 90s, there’s bands like that, too. The ones that we talk about in reunions, they touched people in some way in a deep chord. Those people that go to the show that aren’t the extra people who just go because it’s entertainment or whatever, they believe that band did it right. They believe it. I believe this. I feel this. I wanna go see it again. I don’t think that’s so bad. It depends on how the band performs, too, I suppose. If it’s weak as water then it’s not a good thing, and people might not be educated enough to know that it sucks, and then they try to be like that watered down version. But if someone’s good, then there almost always gonna be good. We have geniuses in our life that are really talented people, and they can keep going.
What lies ahead for you and the Jicks once this tour is done?
We’re playing some shows in England and doing some festivals there, and that’s all we’re really doing. We’ll be done at the end of August, and that’s really all we have scheduled. We would have played some other outdoor things if something got offered that was cool, but I guess nothing did that was respectable, so we’ll just be kicking it in Portland in the fall as far as I know. Maybe working on new stuff. It’s been a busy winter so that’s cool, but there’s no real victory lap or something like that. I don’t know if we get victory laps anymore. Most people now don’t have the time or the money to see you more than once. There’s so many choices now. Every band has either reformed or splintered into three bands. It’s just like our population. The bands are like a mirror of our population growth. These bands that stay out all year on tour, they’re the really successful or buzzy ones, but the next time they come out in the three years there’s seven more just like them. There’s kind of only one victory lap. Then again, I’m not sure about that. I’m kind of a mid-career person. Mid-late-career. [Laughs]
Pavement toured in 2010, and obviously there’s still a demand to see you guys do some more shows. Is that even a blip on your radar at this point?
I don’t see us touring or playing any shows for a while. There’s always a chance in like five years or something if there’s some kind of fun festival or something or for charity. We could throw together a show for that, but nothing’s planned but nothing’s off the table, either. We’re gonna be pushing fifty two by then, and I know it doesn’t matter how old you are in this world, but there’s also appropriate venues and styles of things to do depending on how much you can jump around or how fast you can play. I mean, we’re playing twenty-three-year-old guy music, and we’re twice that old – it’s kind of funny. It’s fun in a way. It’s like going to the gym and playing pickup basketball games with these old guys I play with sometimes who’re still wearing headbands and tanktops and tight shorts.
Stephen Malkmus — 2014 North American Tour Dates (all with Speedy Ortiz)
Thu Apr 10, 2014 Vancouver, BC Rickshaw Theatre
Fri Apr 11, 2014 Victoria, BC Lucky Bar
Sat Apr 12, 2014 Seattle, WA Neptune Theatre