Stephen Malkmus discusses the folk influences on his new LP ‘Traditional Techniques’
Stephen Malkmus has made three very different album in three years: 2018's Sparkle Hard, a "classic Malkmus" record with The Jicks; 2019's "bedroom digital" experiment Groove Denied; and now Traditional Techniques which is largely acoustic and heavily indebted to '60s/'70s weirdo folk. How indebted? We asked Steve to give us a list of records that influenced the vibe on "Trad Techniques," as he likes to call it, and he sent list of 10, most of which are obscure or cult titles, many of them private press releases, and all but one not on streaming services. Most can be found on YouTube though, and Malkmus says "they're not like the high ticket items, more like forgotten things."
All 10 of these records are pretty interesting, too, and when when we sat down to chat with Steve about the new album, we ran through the list. Read that conversation, complete with song streams (where we could find them) -- and listen to Traditional Techniques (it's great) -- below.
10 RECORDS THAT INFLUENCED STEPHEN MALKMUS' TRADITIONAL TECHNIQUES
DOWNES & BEER - DANCE WITH THE MUSIC (1976)
I had never heard of any of these records before you sent this list, and I still have not heard some of these records because there were more than a few private press... usually you can find almost anything on YouTube but...
Maybe not Downes and Beer, I could see that.
That was the first one on your list.
Okay. So those guys, that's a cool album. I bought it in England, just in a crappy old record store in the folk section. It's got a pencil drawing of two hippie guys and there's full instrumentation -- bass, drums, songwriters, a rough compressed sound and it's on this label called Sweet Folk and Country. Apparently, they live in one particular suburb of England and they have loose connections to late period Fairport Convention. One of the guys, Beer, said that he was into Full House, that's the first all-dude Fairport convention album. This is me just reading after listening to the record again. I thought that was interesting. They're still alive today. They're still kicking around folk festivals...
There's definitely YouTube video of them playing live recently. That's all I could find.
Anyway, when I thought about making an album that is acoustic and is a singer songwriter... the Downes & Beer album is not reels and jigs, it's songs. I don't really want to play reels and jigs and that's not folk to me, and that's not British folk to me. Obviously, I like more like Bert Jansch and Pentangle. Those bands are, of course, things I could put on there that everyone's heard before. But I think that getting inspired by more obscure artists tends to happen to me more now than... I love the Rolling Stones, but I'm not going to put Beggars Banquet on a list like this.
Did any of these records specifically come to mind when you were making the record?
I was in a mindset of private press folk for sure. Trad Techniques' cover art has that feeling, but for better or worse, it's pretty high fidelity. Because the room we record in, it's dead silent, like a fancy room and all the players are pretty good. So I think it has a more high-fi sound than a lot of these records on this list. They're very low-fi. But I think in that way, that's what I would've been thinking -- you have just like four days make your record and you're throwing a band together behind the artists. So in a way this is more like I'm the folk singer guy, and we're going to have these guys play that behind you while you play your like, strummy folk tunes. That's the idea. That they drag this guy, me, off the street. Of course, I'm 50 years old and have made a million albums but that's the conceit. You got this guy playing his basic songs. These guys are like, "I can play that in my sleep." So they're like [makes jammy guitar sounds] just like cookie cutter'd out behind my songs. That's how it works.
GWYDION - THE FÄERIE SHAMAN
Number two on your list is a guy named Gwydion who I was pretty sure was going to be a Welsh...
That's a good guess.
... and from, like, Cardiff, but he was like from California. He died right after making this album, I believe.
Oh, he did? This is his second record. He sounds to me like just a sort of California activated hippy dude. It's also pretty Oregon. There's a place called Brighton Bush, which is a place you can go where they have hot Springs and some paths you walk through, a center yoga and hippy spiritualism. He has that feeling and he's a little bit of a... He's called the Faerie Shaman here. So there is some element of this record, which is in the singer’s occasionally a bit of a… if not a cult leader, then he’s got some sort of aspirations to be on some of the songs, to be giving advice, a kind of spiritual advice. Not like Manson but like in that realm of time where there was Father Yod or this guy. You could see him being a father figure. I get that feeling from this guy. He reminds me of like the early Arthur magazine, Devendra Banhart, early Joanna Newsom. Of course, this is like the 1980s. He thanks some people in New Mexico on the cover, which is perfect. He would have friends in Taos. The music's of varying quality. There's some really cool trippy folk songs on there. There's also some annoying Irish jigs on it that I don't really like, but I think it's maybe the album cover, the spirit of it.
WATER INTO WINE BAND - HILL CLIMBING FOR BEGINNERS (1973)
Number three is Water Into Wine Band - Hill Climbing For Beginners. They were like a Christian band...
Yes. They were actually on the label called Myrrh, which is a really Christian soft rock label from the '70s. I listened back to this record and I didn't like it as much as I thought it was going to. When I was talking a little bit about the Messiah vibes of the singer, as to me and this album, I was thinking that way in the kind of fragile folk style of this group. The name of the band is great, and there's actually two versions of this record. They re-recorded it and stuff like that, and I can't remember which one's the better one. I might even have the worst one. [Laughs] When I heard it, it was more out of tune than I remembered and not quite as like psychedelic as I wanted it to be but I like some of this Christian folk music. I like the idea of having some of the quality voices and choral group singing learned in church, but mixed with already having heard the Beatles and Pink Floyd... and maybe tried some acid or something, decided that's not cool and going back to your faith, but having that mixed in can have this real authenticity.
They sound like they might've been Presbyterians, which is what I was raised as.
But they don't drink wine in Presbyterian church.
Good point, it's just grape juice. Presbyterians don't believe that it actually becomes...
Yeah. So the transubstantiation doesn't exist. Presbyterian is a really popular church in America. There's a lot of members dude.
It's very mellow.
Yeah. I was raised Episcopalian, we're mellow too.
But Episcopalians, you use real wine, right?
Yes, we do.
I think Presbyterians were one step further into protestantism than Episcopalians.
Yeah. I went to my parents' church on Christmas. I was of course deathly bored in church and could not wait to get out. When I was a kid there was no...
Were you part of the like the youth fellowship?
I was confirmed. I had to go because my parents went but I just don't ever remember connecting once. I never believed, I was always bored. I was always just waiting for donuts afterwards.
MICHAEL WENDLING – THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT THE ARCO DESERT (1975)
I had trouble finding anything about Michael Wendling's There's Something About the Arco Desert.
Oh, this is cool. The reason I put this in, this is on a label called Sheepeater Records. It's just specifically related to Idaho, where my parents live now. These albums are really lovingly printed. They have like a late period Tacoma records -- which was John Fahey's label -- feel. They're definitely more bluegrassy with an '80s folk feel to them. But they're really beautifully pressed and they're primarily instrumental. But the reason that I like them is that just precisely because I relate to the area. It's really seems like a specific group of people that were totally committed to roots music, not necessarily in a technique way more like a lifestyle way. In my mind, it's like they live out in the boonies of the Wild West and they're playing mandolin, flat pick guitars and string guitars and they're just like bored shitless because they live out there. They probably have to teach guitar for a living in this town or whatever. I would imagine they're giving guitar lessons and playing. Sheepeater Records is a cool label. I guess I just relate to the pureness of the music itself. Playing acoustic music as a lifestyle. There's some technique involved in these records, but it's more primitive, it's bridges towards Fahey instead of towards a lot of late '70s, Flying Fish Records and lots of folky stuff. They look like math teachers, though these guys seem more like they actually have cowboy shirts on, instead of a math teacher vibe for the folk people. [Laughs} Anyway, the albums are really good. There's a few on Sheepeater. I'm not surprised that you can't find anything about it, but it's real.
TIM ROSE - TIM ROSE (1967)
Next up is Tim Rose.
Tim Rose is classic macho '60s singer who did a great version of, "Hey Joe." He was signed to Columbia Records then evidently -- I learned this after I sent you this list -- that Nick Cave rediscovered him in the '90s and helped to revitalize his career. I can see Nick Cave liking him because he's got kind of a deep voice and he's like got a brown cherry cigarette on the album cover, and he's kind of macho guy. I think we have some instrumentation of his style, but I would say he's a little more like a Tim Hardin kind of guy -- very produced albums with backing singers and horns. As to how it relates to my album, I would have to be the Tim Rose character, getting myself produced by Chris and his backing band.They're like, "oh we got this guy, maybe we can make a hit with him." I think all his arrangements, he's famous for his arrangement of "Hey Joe" because it's the one that Hendrix did. He did "Hey Joe" in a slower way which Hendrix eventually did.
TRES & KITSY – DANDELIONS (1971)
What do you know about Dandelions?
Yeah. Dandelions is an album from Utah...it's perfect to be released by Numero Group or something, if it hasn't been already, it's a self-made album of two 14-year-old sisters. I believe they're Mormon. They're singing about their faith but also like issues of the day. It's more like the gas crisis, instead of complete crisis like we have now. Their uncle is playing drums way too loud and they also sing about him in the songs. It's a really touching record, and has got a Shags feel to it. It's really cool. I use them occasionally as touchstones for some of the production ideas, like on [Traditional Techniques] song "Flowin' Robes" as far as the drums go. There's a song called "Children of Sunshine" by Dandelions that I was like "if it could sound like this." I heard them back in the Zeros when this guy, Jeffrey Weiss -- a really big record collector guy who used to work at Warner Brothers -- had discovered this record and gave my friend the copy. It's got that very, no ironies sincerity. A thousand percent real people vibes.
Kinda like the Donnie and Joe Emerson.
But even more primitive. But they sing, they're pretty good singers the girls. They're singing really high and it could be grating. But if you're in, you like it. I guess it's just like people will listen to Pavement, and be like, "he can't sing" and the sound's scratchy and out of tune. But like if you're in, you're like, oh, that's cool. So it definitely will rebuff people
SAFFRON SUMMERFIELD - SALISBURY PLAIN (1974)
Next Saffron Summerfield, Salisbury Plain. She's Fairport Convention adjacent, right?
She was in Tudor Lodge, I think and/or Trader Horne.
Trader Horne, right.
Trader Horne, I really like that record too. I didn't even know that until I looked it up when I realized I was going to have to talk about this. She's like that style of second-generation folkie, after Steeleye Span and Pentangle and the first wave of electric folk, she was still bumping around in the '70s playing folk festivals and finding her own way. I don't hear anybody really talk about her -- I get it, because she's not really psychedelic at all on these records. It's pretty standard. There is sometimes stark darkness to her sound that is bordering on what people would be interested in, like hipster folk. But a lot of it is, I wouldn't say "ham and eggs," but it's just like traditional songs played well by a lady that has a nice voice. She's only like 30 here, but it's still has a maturity to it or just like a borderline Dad Folk. But it's also cool. I don't know. I say Dad Folk, even though she's a woman, but it's like she's playing just classic songs. She's not trying to be hip, as we know it, which Fairport Convention was, probably. They were hipsters and I don't feel like Saffron Summerfield's like that. There's nothing wrong with that.
PETER HOWELL & JOHN FERDINANDO - TOMORROW COME SUNDAY SOUNDTRACK (1969)
Alright. Number eight. This is the Tomorrow Come Sunday soundtrack, very hard to find, but cool.
Yup. That's on YouTube. I wanted to make sure it is this on YouTube and I think you can, I bought the reissue at some point. There is a bootleg reissue of it with an orange and white cover.
These are like two guys who are both part of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop...
Eventually, they did that, I think they were in this band Agincourt, that like some collector types would be familiar with. This is actually sounds more like what we're doing [on Traditional Techniques] than these other ones on the list [laughs], in that there's some other instruments, there's flutes and 12-string guitar and almost rock instruments played acoustically, which we have a little bit of that on our record. That's just a really fun album to listen to, I think, for anyone who listens to "alt." You might not like Water Into Wine band or Saffron Summerfield, to be honest, unless you like to smoke a pipe and think about all the elements, but this is catchy.
It's Kinks-y a little bit.
Yeah, totally. Catchy, Kinksy songs. Belle & Sebastian-y even. I don't know, it sounds more current certainly than a lot of the other crap that I am making you listen to.
Do you remember who hipped you to this?
I don't know. I might've known what Agincourt was, and then it was just in a used record store in England and it was like 10 pounds or something and it looked cool. So maybe I knew, I think it's on this Kissing Spell label, which is known for putting out cool reissues in the '90s, in the rush to reissue things. There was really a time then when you could just like put something out with no effort and everyone was psyched. But now everything has to be like super well-curated and documented. Which is good. The artists get paid too. But these are like bootlegs, I would think. Now it's like Three Men and A Beard...
Yeah. That kind of guy, that concept of that guy, the man with the beard accurately compiling everything and with expert mastering and really great liner notes, it's so competitive now. Back then it wasn't, I guess. I think that's what that re-issue is from the more, the trashy era of just like throw it out with a five-second mastering.
FUTURE - DOWN THAT COUNTRY ROAD (1969)
Number nine is Future, not the rapper but a California band?
Mhmm. They're from Santa Monica. Like, I remember I bought this in Portland. It's on Uni or a subsidiary of Uni. I don't know if you're familiar with Uni, but they did like Strawberry Alarm Clock and a lot of exploitation psychedelic music, maybe like The Rainy Days, Acapulco Gold. So these guys are totally like riffing on the Byrds and maybe Gram Parsons, but they're just like three nice guys with pretty good voices. This is an underrated record I think. They're playing like roots music, a lot of slide guitar which we have on the record. Like, trad arrangements and you're in this really specific pocket of time in Los Angeles where the boys are wanting to be cowboys and moved to Topanga. Neil Young was touched by it too. I guess it's The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Gram Parsons, like really that niche. But these guys are a little younger. They seem like they're just like in college, like they're probably handsome young guys that were like someone saw them in a bar and said like, we can do this. They have, I think, session musicians behind them playing the harder parts. The record's really good.
I like what I heard and listened to.
Yeah, there's a little ham and eggs country rock, but it's definitely before the Eagles and before Poco -- upbeat, pretty rockin'. I don't know if they have any standing in the collector economy. Not to mention just people's minds because it is... I don't know if people care about electric country-rock in a huge way. People love Sweetheart of the Rodeo and this kind of just stops there. From there it just skipped to the Eagles.
OREGON - MUSIC OF ANOTHER PRESENT ERA (1972)
Then the last one, the only one that's on Spotify. Oregon - Music of Another Present era. Very different from the other records.
Yes. This is jazz music. When I was in college, I took Ethnomusicology and it was like history of jazz and we finally got to fusion towards the end of the class and the professor actually played this record. That was part of my syllabus. Certainly this record was on my mind a little bit when we were making Traditional Techniques. Not only do we live in Oregon, but we got some jazz guys to play on the record. The bass player and the drummer and Quai [Essar] and the dudes that played the world music instruments on my record were just improvising. Yeah, that Oregon record, Ralph Towner is a great guitar player. There's no lyrics on it, and ours is way more like songwriter than that. But we touch on in a bit on the first song, there's a little bit of Oregon in there. They did definitely have some world music elements where they just pick up any instrument, whether it's a bouzouki or whatever, and they're wearing dashikis and they're total hippy dudes as you can see the album cover. It's pretty clear. It's a cool record.
Read our more traditional interview with Stephen Malkmus about Traditional Techniques.