Stephen Malkmus
photo: Samuel Gehrke

Stephen Malkmus talks 'Traditional Techniques,' Pavement reunion & more in BrooklynVegan interview

Stephen Malkmus went four years between Jicks’ albums Wig Out at Jagbags and Sparkle Hard, but the latter set off a prolific streak that gave us last year’s electronic-leaning Groove Denied and the excellent new Traditional Techniques which draws inspiration from jammy ’60s and ’70s stoner folk. He made it primarily with The Decemberists’ Chris Funk, who produced, and old buddy Matt Sweeney of Chavez. While there are new, patchouli-scented sonic avenues explored, it’s also his most emotionally straightforward and sweet record yet. All in his own way — the most tender love song on the record is called “The Greatest Own in Legal History.” There is also a folk song about deep diving the darker corners of the internet (“Shadowbanned”). It’s a Stephen Malkmus record.

About a month before the album’s release, I sat down with Stephen in Matador Records’ SoHo offices to talk about the new album, the prolific streak he’s on, his inability to yell anymore, using Reddit for writing research, his upcoming tour, and the Pavement reunion that’s happening at this year’s Primavera Sound Barcelona and Porto festivals.  Read the interview below and if you want more Malkmus, we also talked to him about 10 records that influenced Traditional Techniques.

You went four years without a record and now you’re three for three years. Is there a reason for this creative streak?

I don’t know if there’s a reason but other than… I have mentioned before that I was doing this soundtrack music for this Netflix show, Flaked. That got me into making my demos more “official” because those are basically things I record myself and ended up on the show. So that got me not only making more songs but thinking outside of us, the genre of the Jicks. I was happy to just keep rocking that because I was busy with other things in my life and I was just like, “this is people I like to work with and this is cool.” But when I started doing some of those songs for the show, playing all the instruments and doing not just songs that are “me,” more like just songs or something that got me to think differently. That also led to different style albums, like the last two I did — one of which is folky and one which is more like bedroom digital, or a one man digital band record, Groove Denied. Then Sparkle Hard is more in the burnished indie rock, indie guitar rock, loud tradition.

“Classic Malkmus” is what I would say. So the songs on this record, did you write them in a similar way to what you always have, or was it more like jamming with Chris and Matt?

A couple of them — “Cash Up” and “What Kind of Person” — existed in different forms as potential Jicks songs  I did full band arrangements with digital drums for the band to hear, but then I peeled those back to a more basic sound. A couple of them I made specifically for the record, once I had talked to Chris, that we were really going to do it. This one called “Shadowbanned” and “Amberjack,” the last song on the album. So those two I think I just made up on the spot. Also, “Xian Man.” I was like, I want to do a Tony Joe White or Gordon Lightfoot type of sound, which changed a lot when the band members played on it. It got more of a Velvet Underground Africa sound, or more Creedence-y chooglin’. Then a couple of them were just little scraps that I had never developed because I thought those won’t work with the Jicks. But I concentratedly put that all together just a month before everyone was coming. The demos, I played all the songs by myself on 12-string and sent it to those guys. I didn’t send them the fuller versions. I just sent them these new versions in a new key. I also tuned everything down to a B. So my guitar is an open B, which is very deep, very low. With a 12-string, they’re often really tight actions so you can go down pretty low. I redid everything in a lower register so I could sing. I don’t know if you noticed, but I sing in a lower register.

Yeah, now that you mention it.

It’s also singing quietly, but also I was writing to my range, which you never even think about doing when you’re a young person, you just know the songs are in D or G. I never used a capo. Maybe I wrote more songs in D, or because I could sing better in D than F or whatever. But I never really thought about adjusting the key of songs until recently.

Are there older songs you just can’t do anymore, even when changing the key?

Hmm, I don’t know. Luckily I was never particularly pushing my range. [Laughs] It was more just yelling. I don’t yell anymore. It’s almost amazing how you can go from being a yeller or a screamer to being physically incapable of screaming. That’s weird. I don’t know if that’s a fact…some people have a signature way that they yell. Also, it’s like a controlled yell, whether it’s like the AC/DC singer or just certain people are screamers. I imagine they’re not like blowing blood vessels in their brain when they do it. They just have a voice. But when I do it, it’s kind of just all-out yelling and I think I just lost that range to do that.

One my favorite songs on the new album is “Shadowbanned.” I really like the juxtaposition of the music which is very like English folk sounding to me at least…

It’s an attempt to be in almost like John Parish / PJ Harvey’s backing band or something like that. That’s what I thought it was going to be like. But like you’re saying, the lyrics.

Right, it’s old-style folk but a song about darkest recesses of the internet. Do you do a lot of deep diving on Reddit and stuff?

Sometimes, but more on Twitter. There is like a certain type of account which is…it’s nobody’s real face. They’re basically troll accounts that are accelerationist, like woke in a really a sarcastic way. And memes. All without, of course not knowing who the people are. All this exists in a world that you would not want to come forward and actually say it’s you. You know what I mean? So some of that I do. Reddit, I’m not on very often. I have some friends who use it, even writers. If you’re looking to write a specific character, if someone’s just a truck driver or a plumber, it’s amazing how specific you can go to Reddit and get realistic testimonials from people. I know it more for being a place for politics or just trash memes and millennial porn or something. [Laughs.] But yeah, I was talking to my friend who is writing a book, she’s like way offline by most of our standards but she goes to Reddit for characters she’s writing, to fill in details in areas that are not her specialty.

I don’t spend much time on Reddit.

I have the app on my thing but my friend [the late Silver Jews / Purple Mountains frontman] David Berman, he was like a Reddit addict in his… not his best self. He was on Reddit a lot. He was trying to come up with making some memes himself. He would send them out to me, but he was one step behind just like all of us are at our age.

Have you started practicing for the upcoming tour?

By myself, but we’re all going to do it in March when everyone comes out to Portland. We got a band.

It’s more than just the three of you?

Yeah. There’s Matt and me and Chris, which is great that they all want to do it. Brad Truax, who played with Interpol recently and stuff, as well as Endless Boogie and Soldiers of Fortune with Matt. A whole bunch of things. He’s a friend of mine, and he’s playing bass, and Jake [Morris] from the Jicks is on drums. So that’s it. We haven’t practiced yet but Jake and Chris and I will start rehearsing before those guys get here which will be helpful because Jake didn’t play on the record. Also Chris overdubbed a lot of things after the fact, he was often just recording while we were playing. He was helping to engineer and then he went in and played on it, like most of those slide stuff. So obviously he needs to remember what he did because, because there’s some really cool shit, like in the first song, “ACC Kirtan,” he’s doing all this like trippy slide and then jam part at the end. Anything slide is him. Sweeney’s always on the right and I’m on the left, if you listen to the stereo picture. Sweeney plays the guitar solos, if there are any. Usually the electric ones and most of the acoustic ones. There was a stand up bass player, but he’s not coming with us.

Will it feature radically reworked versions of older stuff to fit within the vibe?

I don’t know. I think we might break out some electric stuff halfway through or at the end and maybe try some rural “Cortez the Killer” type American guitar jams. I was thinking that or we might try old songs done that way and/or a couple of covers that are in the same world of music. We only have probably like 35 minutes from that album, assuming that we can’t do one of the songs or something because it’s not turning out well. So we need another 25 minutes — not that we’re dying to fill that space but we have to, because otherwise we’d be like [mimes looking at his watch and whispering] “we got nothing.” {Laughs]

On a similar note, your Pavement shows at Primavera are coming up. It’ll be here before you know it. What plans have you guys put together?

We are very organized because there’s a manager guy helping out and everything’s planned. Rehearsal times, light show, setlists, just getting everything period correct. That’s important to me. I don’t know how much the other guys care but…

You mean pedals and stuff?

Yeah, pedals, amps, tempos. Maybe not the same amount of drinking, but a lot of things have to be period correct. For me to do Pavement, that’s how I think it should be. If we came out there with Steinberg guitars with no necks, or Marshall amps that we never used… I don’t know. It’s a middle ground, though, where I wouldn’t mind if some of it was closer to the records than it ever was with some of the parts that some people play. So I’m urging like Scott {Kanneberg], the other guitarist to learn some parts that he never played live because either we just never had time or we just slacked off. I’m like, listen to the record and you can play that part. Let’s at least try that in our rehearsals. Let’s see if we can get some of those parts that we never bothered to learn because he didn’t play them or he made his own part that was awesome live. But let’s see if we can get some of those 12-string guitar, electric guitar parts on “Spit on a Stranger.” We could learn that finally. Stuff like that. So we’re going to take some time. That might not work, and we might end up just with whatever we end up with. So yeah, period correctness in relation to album mixed with…it’s not like I’m going to watch live footage or anything because that would be really torturous. I don’t think I ever listened to even one. I know some bands listen back to their live shows afterwards, if someone taped it, and they’re like, hey, we kind of flubbed that bit, let’s play it faster. I don’t think we ever listened once. I don’t know if bands do that but we didn’t.

Has there been any talk beyond Primavera?

No. You can look online, you can ask any booking agent, there’s nothing planned. That’s truly, that’s all we’re doing, because there would be whispers in the industry, not like they’d be echoing like they would be if there was like a Frank Ocean tour or something. But someone would know something if I wasn’t telling the truth. There’s nothing planned. So we’re just doing that and we’re just going to have fun and we’ll see how it goes.Yeah, it’s fun. I’ve always had a good time there — of course, I’m staying in a hotel right across the street and I have immediate entrance and there’s beer on tap anywhere I walk and everyone likes me and stuff. So it’s easy for me to say, but the weather’s sunny, it’s close, the lineups are usually like a mix of electronic and R&B and indie that I like. I’ve always had a good time there. So that’s one reason I was like, psyched or really wanting to do that for Pavement at their place. Yeah.

Get Pavement vinyl in the BrooklynVegan Store.

Stephen Malkmus – 2020 Tour Dates:
Tue. March 31 – Minneapolis, MN @ First Ave
Wed. April 1 – Milwaukee, WI @ Turner Hall
Thu. April 2 – Chicago, IL @ Thalia Hall
Fri. April 3 – Louisville, KY @ Headliners
Sat. April 4 – Nashville, TN @ Cannery Ballroom
Sun. April 5 – Atlanta, GA @ Terminal West
Tue. April 7 – Asheville, NC @ Orange Peel
Wed. April 8 – Carrboro, NC @ Cat’s Cradle
Thu. April 9 – Richmond, VA @ The National
Fri. April 10 – Washington, DC @ Black Cat
Sat. April 11 – Philadelphia, PA @ Union Transfer
Mon. April 13 – New York, NY @ Webster Hall
Wed. April 15 – Boston, MA @ Royale
Thu. April 16 – Montreal, QC @ L’Astral
Fri. April 17 – Toronto, ON @ Danforth Music Hall
Sat. April 18 – Cleveland, OH @ Beachland Ballroom
Sun. April 19 – Detroit, MI @ St. Andrew’s Hall
Fri. June 26 – Vancouver, BC @ Imperial
Sat. June 27 – Seattle, WA @ The Showbox
Sun. June 28 – Portland, OR @ Wonder Ballroom
Tue. June 30 – San Francisco, CA @ The Fillmore
Wed. July 1 – Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey Theatre
Thu. July 2 – Phoenix, AZ @ The Crescent Ballroom
Fri. July 3 – Santa Fe, NM @ TBD
Sat. July 4 – El Paso, TX @ Lowbrow Palace
Mon. July 6 – Austin, TX @ The Mohawk
Tue. July 7 – Dallas, TX @ Granada Theater
Wed. July 8 – Oklahoma City, OK @ Tower Theatre
Thu. July 9 – Lawrence, KS @ Granada Theater
Sat. July 11 – Denver, CO @ Gothic Theatre