Pavement’s enduring influence: Dan Bejar, Parquet Courts & more musicians reflect
After self-releasing their Slay Tracks EP and putting out a few singles with Drag City, indie rock group Pavement released their debut album, Slanted and Enchanted, on April 20, 1992 via Matador Records. While it didn't have the immediate cultural and commercial impact that Nirvana's Nevermind did seven months earlier, the album was nonetheless a lo-fi bombshell that undeniably changed the landscape of indie and alt-rock.
Recorded in early 1991 in 10 days by the trio of Stephen Malkmus, Spiral Stairs (Scott Kannberg) and drummer Gary Young (who owned the Stockton recording studio where they made it), Slanted and Enchanted songs almost sounded like they were recorded by accident and miles away from what was being played on commercial alternative radio. Record collectors and indie snobs heard the influence of The Fall, Swell Maps and New Zealand label Flying Nun, and others were drawn in by Malkmus' obtuse wordplay, but you didn't need to be a college radio DJ, record store clerk or Lit major to appreciate the pop hooks of "Summer Babe," "Trigger Cut" and "In the Mouth a Desert." It was lo-fi but inviting, and that definitely inspired many people with less than stellar musical chops to pick up a guitar and a four-track recorder and lay down some songs.
“Slanted and Enchanted is probably the best record we made,” Stephen Malkmus, who definitely has guitar chops, told GQ in 2010, “only because it’s less self-conscious and has an unrepeatable energy about it.”
The album sold 100,000 copies by the end of 1992, an impressive number for a noise rock band on an independent label, and Pavement went on to become one of the iconic indie rock groups of the 1990s, releasing four more great albums before breaking up at the end of 1999.
Thirty years on from Slanted and Enchanted you can still feel the influence of Pavement in today's current indie landscape. With the album's 30th anniversary, not to mention the 25th anniversary of Brighten the Corners, the new Terror Twilight deluxe reissue and Pavement's impending reunion tour, we talked to a few artists about the band's influence and continued appeal. Some of them are '90s contemporaries, while others were born after Pavement broke up, but all count them as a creative touchstone.
You can pick up classic Pavement albums on vinyl, including Slanted & Enchanted, Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, and Wowee Zowee, in the shop.
You can also read our review of the Terror Twilight: Farewell Horizontal box set, and our look back on Brighten the Corners for its 25th anniversary.
PERFECT SOUND FOREVER: MUSICIANS TALK PAVEMENT'S ENDURING INFLUENCE
DAN BEJAR (DESTROYER, THE NEW PORNOGRAPHERS)
Like Stephen Malkmus and the late David Berman, Destroyer's Dan Bejar is fond of using word collages, going more for feeling thatlinear intent. (Bejar and Malkmus were also involved in early, unused sessions for Berman's Purple Mountains project.) Dan told us earlier this year, ahead of the release of Destroyer's LABYRINTHITIS, that Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted "was massive for me."
Slanted and Enchanted was massive for me. It robbed me of 10 years of my life because probably in 1992, I totally turned my back on music from the UK, which had been my whole world since the time that I started listening emphatically to music. I was super into Manchester, super into shoegaze. My Bloody Valentine were like gods to me. And then I heard Slanted and Enchanted, and it was like 'this band is saying what I'm thinking.'
They were loose in a way that seemed new and were not scared to be melodic. But mostly, it was the first time that I was really hit hard by lyrics. I started writing as a precocious teenager, but I didn't really care about lyrics in music from the age of 14 to 19 or whatever. It was really with Slanted and Enchanted that I got really into that. And it made me think, 'Oh, maybe this is something I would like to do. I've never pictured myself going on stage. That seems terrible to me to be in front of people.' I don't think I'm a singer. I can't really play guitar very well at all. But there's something about this approach that speaks to me, and The Silver Jews a couple years later, hearing that would be truly where I doubled down on that feeling.
My main memory though, is of going to see them play on the Slanted and Enchanted tour. It was a few months after the record came out, so a sold out show. Not in a big place, probably held 300 people, but sold out for a while. The venues on the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, it was a neighborhood that was just really messed up with gnarly street life. I was a college kid and I remember waiting in line to get in. This group of guys just coasted into the venue. I was like, "There sure are a lot of fucking frat dorks at this show." And of course that ended up being Pavement.
But then also, inside the club, there was a guy who really fit the bill of the kind of person that lived on the Downtown Eastside in the early '90s. At the time there was just a lot of people walking around, living on the street, wasted and fucked up on drugs. There seemed to be one of those people at the show, who just seemed to wander up on stage. Then he would play the drums for a bit. Then sometimes, he would just wander off stage into the crowd and stop playing for no apparent reason. And the band would look around confused, maybe a few people would wander off. The singer would start playing a song, maybe a new song that the band didn't know, or maybe had never heard. In my mind, I think it's a song off Crooked Rain, but maybe that's not true. And it's like this old, wasted hippie, it ended up that was [original drummer] Gary Young.
There was a lot to take in at that show. It was actually, Oh, this is an interesting, messed up band. Aside from the fact that every song was just so good. I discovered Drag City working my way backwards from 'Summer Babe,' so it was a porthole into a lot of things and a memorable show for me."
Parquet Courts declined our invitation to contribute to this feature, probably because they used to get compared to Pavement all the time (guilty) and are tired of people asking them about it. Fair enough, but luckily they've talked about it elsewhere. "How could I forget," drummer Max Savage told Kreative Kontrol's Vish Khanna when asked if he remembers those comparisons. "Every day for the first couple of years, people were telling us we sound like Pavement," but he also admitted that both he and his brother, PC singer A. Savage, were huge Pavement fans back in the day. "You'd like to think at the end of the day you transcend your influences and establish an identity of your own...but being fans of Pavement, you have to take it as a compliment because they're a great band."
Bassist Sean Yeaton told us last year that when they first formed they made a shared playlist of what they might like Parquet Courts to sound like. "I'm certain there was Sonic Youth on there. I'm sure all of that, I'm sure Pavement was on there, all this stuff. I'm trying to think back to the shit people said we sounded exactly like, back in the beginning." He also contributed to the Pavement episode of podcast Bandsplain, saying, "We initially got a lot of heat for sounding like Pavement, which was fucking crazy -- or totally true, however you want to look at it. At any rate, big fan. And they did it to The Fall, people said that same thing to them. Look, it's just the way that it is. Steve [Malkmus] once busted my balls for a song of ours, but in a way that was nice. It was lovely...it's gotta be a little bit nice to find out that youngsters like ourselves are taking notes. Their ability to be somehow smart but also like pranksters who can be kinda compassionate about things. That Pavement essence is rooted in their ability to play together as musicians which is something my band is really good at too."
SADIE DUPUIS (SPEEDY ORTIZ, SAD13)
Unlike some artists who have gotten compared to Pavement frequently, Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz and Sad13 will be the first to tell you about it, and her fandom runs deep. Really deep.
I got into Pavement relatively belatedly, around when the Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain reissue came out toward the end of my time in high school. I already preferred songs that were a little oblique but was immediately wowed by how many places Pavement could go within a seemingly traditional rock structure. My first year or two with a driver's’ license were synonymous with 'listening to Pavement CDs in the car,' and I dipped my toes into Pavement tunings around 2007 when I did a home-recorded, too-many-guitars cover of "Cream of Gold."
"I jumped fully in the lake when a few friends and I played in a short-lived Pavement cover band called -- I can’t believe we called it this -- Babement. Prepping for that was a self-inflicted guitar bootcamp, thanks to which I’m probably still way better at the instrument. It was several intensive weeks obsessively translating the zany magic I’d heard on Pavement records, and it was so much fun.
"With my Pavement fandom came a love for the Malkmus solo and Jicks albums—which are honestly even more up my alley than Pavement, in terms of their arrangements, though I love both discographies so much. And so one of the more surreal highlights of my life was getting to tour with the Jicks, and to do what Steve referred to as a "Babement reunion" by singing "In The Mouth A Desert" with them on the last night.
ROLLING BLACKOUTS COASTAL FEVER
Melbourne, Australia's Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever have a sly, hangdog charm -- and a love of jamming out on a few chords -- that one could equate with Pavement, though you'd be hard pressed to say they really sound alike, apart from a shared love of '80s Flying Nun Records. This is from Tom Russo, one of Rolling Blackouts C.F.'s three singer-guitarists:
Pavement have been a big influence on me and on our band. As a teen, getting Wowee Zowee on double CD helped take me out of a fairly straightforward angsty punk/indie/grunge phase into an era of shaggier poppy weirdness. At first I was drawn to the pedestrian (haha) imagery of the name, taking something banal and injecting meaning into it seemed somehow really deep and cool. I liked the obtuseness of the lyrics, the way the songs resisted easy definition. "Gold Soundz" and "Range Life" were pretty much custom made for skating around the city and feeling teenage feelings. It seemed so effortless the way they stuffed the albums with hooky gems and fried experiments in equal measures, although I got the feeling they weren’t as slack as their reputation suggested.
A few years ago our band ran into Malkmus at the airport after a festival in Bilbao we had both played. Turns out he had watched our show and was very gracious in his compliments, which of course blew our tiny minds. We talked about the funny similarities in the arty cities we had lived in like Portland, Berlin and Melbourne, and he impressed us with his up to date knowledge of our local underground scene. It’s not always a disappointment to meet your heroes.
Young Chicago trio Horsegirl have DIY indie rock running through their veins, the kind championed by their city's Drag City Records, who released early Pavement singles and EPs. Horsegirl and Pavement are now Matador Records labelmates and Matador will release Horsegirl's debut album this summer.
"Pavement was an integral part in the formation of our friendship," say Horsegirl. "Falling in love with Pavement while starting a band was a very special experience. They’re a band that’s really great to listen to as a teenager. 'Summer Babe' was especially important to us– learning that guitar part taught Nora what an awesome tuning drop-D is, and we all know the words to the song by heart. Putting 'Winter Version' at the end of the title is also the type of not-taking-yourself-too-seriously that we all really appreciate in a band. The song 'Here' is another favorite of ours. It’s beautiful, understated, and fairly simple. It does just as much as it needs to do. Pavement as a whole has been incredibly influential for us as songwriters. As kids who have gone through many technique-oriented music programs growing up, listening to Pavement as teenagers gave us permission to let go of some of the rules we had been so firmly taught."
Pittsburgh's The Gotobeds and Pavement certainly share a love of The Fall and a lot of other bands, not to mention an affinity for smartass wordplay as heard most recently on their 2020 Sub Pop album 'Debt Begins at 30' which featured a song with Pavement's Bob Nastanovich. Frontman Eli Kasan tells us, however, he came to the band a little late.
Sum dickhead used to come into the record store I worked at and asked for things that were “critically acclaimed, and critically acclaimed only." I handed him the recent deluxe CD reissue of Slanted, even though I hadn’t heard it. A sale is a sale. A coworker was aghast at how much I loved Swell Maps but hadn’t heard something he thought hewed so close to that bone...so in 2002 I became obsessed with Pavement. It was the perfect marriage of slop n’ rock that drove my metalhead coworkers so nuts. “Why aren’t they trying? What tuning is this?” These are questions you really should be asking at Guitar Center, not an LP, folks.
In an interview years ago Malkmus’ said that when he was young he liked Mark E. Smith because he was shy and MES was tough and mean: everything insecure young men covet in an anti-hero. Though I also love that same type of bile n’ bullshit, I glommed onto Pavement’s Slanted in a similar fashion, hearing melodies and singed guitar lines that felt more honest, fun and free than anything else I was hearing at the time. A simple thing with style, in this case, confounded some but thrilled me to no end.
Cary (Gotobeds famous stick-man) wants it known that Gary’s drumming is a lodestar, and that he was more inventive than Neil Peart.
Art pop collective Superorganism, who have members scattered around the world, are not shy about naming Pavement as a major influence, especially vocalist Orono Noguchi.“Yeah, kind of like that lazy 90’s kind of thing," she told Radio Milwaukee back in 2018. "People would ask me about my vocal style and people compare it to that girl, Kimya Dawson, and stuff like that. But I'm more ripping off what Stephen Malkmus sings like." She added that when the band were working on their debut album for Domino Records (Pavement's label in the UK, by the way), "I was listening to a lot of Pavement. I was just like ‘I’m going to sing like Stephen Malkmus.’ It doesn’t really sound like Stephen Malkmus but that’s what I think in my head." Superorganism covered Pavement's "Cut Your Hair" in 2018 and are gearing up to release their second album for Domino which features a guest appearance from Malkmus himself.
NADA SURF'S MATTHEW CAWS
Nada Surf got their start in 1992, right around when Slanted & Enchanted was released and both groups lived (mostly) in NYC at the time. Matthew told us about the direct influence they had on Nada Surf's first album:
In the spring of 1992, my then-girlfriend worked at WBAR, the Barnard College radio station that had a a t-shirt that said "I don't get it" on the back because the station's signal was so weak it could only be reliably heard in the cafeteria. She played "Summer Babe" for me and it was electrifying. We bought Slanted And Enchanted and listened to it obsessively. I lived around the corner from Rocks In Your Head and had soon bought all the earlier releases too.
So many aspects of Pavement's sound gripped me right away. I didn't understand what the guitars were doing exactly (I didn't realize they were in open tunings, and often tuned far down), but I knew it sounded like a new style. Drones and fuzz and flashes of folk melodicism, hints of shoegaze, each song was a catchy thrill. And I loved the drumming.
But what sealed the deal, what made Pavement my instant favorites, was the singing and the lyrics, delivered in an off-the-cuff style that left me convinced that Stephen Malkmus was making up the (wildly good) melodies on the spot. He had an instant imprint of both laid-back skater nonchalance and casual erudition. He didn't seem to be sweating anything, and/but nailed every landing. You couldn't hear him trying, but he was clearly a poet.
Their unintimidating lo-fi accessibility and strong sense of place helped me identify with a California youth that I hadn't known, but suddenly almost felt I'd lived, as if my earlier life had been dropped into a house on the street where E.T. was shot, with pot and good friends and books, listening to punk and krautrock and playing sports well without caring about being good. This had not been my youth (at all), but it was (almost) easy to imagine.
On June 19th, 1992 there was a triple bill at the new Ritz, temporarily uptown in the old Studio 54 building: Pavement, Superchunk, and My Bloody Valentine. In a fit of generosity and pop-pushing evangelism, I bought six tickets, one each for me and my girlfriend, and the other four for the friends who I thought would most appreciate this new sensation. "Pavement are playing at eight-thirty sharp, don't be late!" All my friends missed them, haha. The show was brilliant. We were right up front and they sounded great. Drummer Gary Young had multiple trash bags of leaves collected that day in Central Park. In the middle of the set, he paraded in circles around the drum kit, throwing leaves out onto the stage and into the audience.
I'd been playing in bands for years, but just like when I heard Surfer Rosa in 1988, I felt temporarily paralyzed by an overpowering "I just want to sound like this now" feeling. I managed to shake that off eventually, knowing that imitation was a) a dead end, and b) impossible anyway. But it wasn't easy.
The clearest line of influence is to our first single, "Popular." After hearing "Conduit for Sale," with its tumbling reading of an unnamed text and its sometimes overlapping vocals resulting in a wordy blur, along with the Velvet Underground songs "Temptation Inside Your Heart" and "The Gift," I had it in my mind that verbal chaos and confusion were good things. When I came across a book of etiquette called Penny's Guide To Teenage Charm And Popularity in a Goodwill, and read its ridiculous and improbable advice, I wanted to build a song around it. I had an half-dissonant guitar riff that sounded a bit like Sonic Youth or Pavement, and I proceeded to put the song together on a Tascam 4-track.
We played the song at some early shows and asked friends in the (very small) audience to come up and read at random out of the book while we played behind them and jumped in to sing the choruses. For the recorded version, I asked our friend Catherine Talese to read from the book. My idea was that her voice would be on one side, while mine would be on the other, riffing from the same pages, and both would be mixed low in an indecipherable mess.
Our debut album was recorded twice, about a year apart, with different drummers, because our first one left the band. While the final one was produced by Ric Ocasek, the first version, which was never released, was mixed by Bryce Goggin, who we chose because of his work with Chavez, Come and Pavement. He'd helped make Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Wowee Zowee and Brighten The Corners (the latter along with Mitch Easter). While he was setting up to mix "Popular," I explained what I imagined. He asked for a little time to get the track into shape. Twenty minutes later he asked me to come into the control room. He said something like "ok, so you said bury the voices on either side, but check this out" and hit play on the tape machine. Catherine's vocal was gone, and mine was centered and turned up, loud and clear. I protested and asked him to make it all indecipherable again, but he held the vocal fader in place and said "do you hear that? it's a pop song."
I listened to Slanted and Enchanted for months on end and have revisited it year in and year out, but the moment I remember the most fondly was listening to "Zurich Is Stained" on repeat while trying to sleep on a train in a very hot sleeper car. I was on the top bunk and the window was open, train moving fast, very warm wind blasting in. I had taken valium and was in and out, and the song kept playing.
"Tell all the truth but tell it slant" - Emily Dickinson
THE GOON SAX'S JAMES HARRISON
Brisbane, Australia trio The Goon Sax got their start making ramshackle indie rock guitar pop and released their debut album while still in high school. Having released their third album, Mirror II, via Matador Records in 2021 they're set to tour with labelmates Interpol and Spoon this summer. The band's James Harrison tells us about the impact the band had on him.
Pavement for me are the quintessential angst band.
They were my first introduction to heart-felt scrappy rock music. I moved from listening to "MAPS" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs into Pavement's awesome Slanted and Enchanted, and I loved it! So, I scoured their whole discography and listened exclusively to them for years.
When I was in high school and sad, I’d watch the "Gold Soundz" video on repeat and see the whole band running around in Santa suits shooting arrows. It was so absurd and random, but also so fun. They looked like friends having silly fun who made the best euphoric music possible when they were combined.
The songs seem ‘90’s converse shoes’ trashy but are delivered brilliantly and often heartbreakingly to the point. Bob Nastanovich seems like a total energetic whimsical wild card of a member too.
I learnt from a documentary about their performance at Lollapalooza and how their audience threw food at them on stage because they hadn’t practiced at all before the show, which seemed like the coolest, most Pavement thing ever to me, and very angsty.
I think the most influential element for my own songwriting are Pavement's massive choruses. The songs often seem to pop into another gear so effortlessly from the verses and make me feel like I’m flying and melting. Some of the lyrics simply cut my soul up, while still calming me. And I'm not even sure why!
As her song "I Wish I Was Stephen Malkmus" moved Filipino-British singer Beabadoobee from bedroom pop artist to a viral sensation a few years back, the influence of Pavement and other “raw, inspiring” music “from a time I didn’t exist in” is pretty obvious. “My influencers are Sonic Youth, Pavement – this shit that totally shaped me,” Bea told NME in 2019. “They shaped the way I dress, how I speak, act and just everything I am. With this EP, I was just craving a little bit more. Like, I wanna sing like Stephen Malkmus for fuck’s sake! I literally want to be Kim Gordon! I’m paying homage to good fucking ‘90s grunge.” Malkmus is a fan and went to see her when she played Portland in 2019. Beabadoobee just played Coachella and will release her second album in July.
ACTIVITY'S TRAVIS JOHNSON
Travis Johnson, who leads Brooklyn band Activity (and Grooms before that) is one of the biggest Pavement fans I know, and leant me a DVD of documentary Slow Century when I needed to see it for an article a couple years ago. As Activity are finishing up their second album now, I asked Travis about the impact 'Slanted and Enchanted' had on him
Slanted and Enchanted is the album that made a few things make sense, without which I very possibly would’ve tried to be an architect or lawyer or something else my parents couldn’t have afforded. Instead I toil away at music because I heard, in this record, a way in. Ideas that mattered more than the way they were recorded or the skill with which they were executed (though it's recorded in a cool way and the playing is great). Fun! Sad! Mysterious! “She shivered like a vein slashed bright and new” - ouch. Still kills me.
I was way too young to have heard Slanted and Enchanted before Weezer and Blur or after The Fall and Swell Maps, and I’m very thankful for that. Once I'd heard the bands they'd supposedly ripped so much from, they still stood on their own. Plus: The Fall's Mark E Smith wrote "Elves" so he doesn't really get to criticize people stealing ideas and making cool things out of them. Also I love "Elves."
There’s honestly not much '90s rock, indie or otherwise, that I like all that much. Most of it seems super silly to me for whatever reason. Lots of awful guitar sounds I guess. Ridiculous lyrics. But not the Pavement stuff. It’s weird to be able to trace so much back to like 35 minutes of music. For a month or so after my friend played it for me I listened to nothing but this and New Order, over and over, which probably explains a lot. I didn’t have to be able to sing or play all that well anymore to be able to make something really good. Just takes ideas is all. Songs can be anything you want them to be. It changed my life...and it’s not even my favorite Pavement album.
Pick up classic Pavement albums on vinyl, including Slanted & Enchanted, Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, and Wowee Zowee, in the BV shop.