This is the direct transcript of a twenty-six minute conversation I had with Stephen Malkmus in June 2008. It was for an Analogue piece, and you can read the polished, non-Q&A format version at the Analogue site. Alternately, if you hoard magazines as much as I do and you passed by a magazine rack in August 08, you could seek out your physical copy of Issue 4, with Times New Viking on the cover.
The reason I’m posting this, as well as just for the sake of posting something, is that it’s probably my favourite interview I’ve done, along with Vampire Weekend. Not necessarily that it’s a great interview or anything. Just that hanging out and talking about music with the guy who wrote some of the best albums ever is about the best way imaginable to spend an evening.
You can go on ahead with any questions if you so desire…
Okay, this is the last date of the tour right? Of the European tour?
Actually, we’re going to Brussels. There are three more days. Last day of UK and Ireland.
And has anything interesting or different happened?
Um, not really. It’s just kinda like work, you know. Not in a bad way, but it’s just like, up at six, drive, do the soundcheck, go to the hotel, play… we’ve had some good laughs amongst ourselves. The crew has a good sense of humour. I mean, ferry rides? You’ve probably been on the ferry, it’s hard to get into any mischief on there. It’s usually senior citizens. We could steal their wallets or something I guess, or try to smuggle some weed maybe.
Nothing would happen…
Yeah, no-one even cares now about that. They didn’t even check Remko and he’s from Holland, he likes it. He probably has some. But mainly it’s been nice to do shows, and mainly in the UK, to connect with some old fans who’ve stood by, and younger people who are into the Jicks or maybe into the Pavement legacy. Playing music itself, when it’s not soundcheck, is pretty fun.
What’s your opinion of Ireland’s character in general as a place to play?
It’s hard to say. Pavement didn’t come here that much, and I’ve been here once or twice. It has a reputation as a place that appreciates music and would have its own view. To my mind, I don’t know. By clichéd standards, you would think people are gonna like singer-songwriters and acoustic instruments, which is not necessarily true at all. There are plenty of guitar bands and noise and stuff. It’s just, maybe in America there’ll be an Irish bar, and there’ll be, like, fiddle tunes or something.
I think Irish crowds like to think that they like everything more than anyone.
Well people seem really passionate, and I’ve had some great conversations with people.But Dublin’s changing so much, and I know you guys are probably young, but you’ve seen it changing and transforming into more of a bourgeois, service economy and business hub. And getting more expensive. I don’t know what kind of effect that has on the music scene. For student bands, I’m sure they’re still going strong. It’s still a college town too, right?
Well there seems to be kind of a ceiling for college bands here
Well there should be, I mean, I never tried to be in a good band in college. I kinda knew. I did go to school, everyone in America does, it’s not like a… it’s obvious in America that most of the good bands are student bands, and the bad ones are generally like Creed or something, the really big bands, they’re the working class bands. And probably some of them went to college too. But in the UK you can be like… “fucking student band”.
It seems to be the distinction in America that a college band will be more interesting, or that kind of angle, but here it seems to be just a smaller version of Bloc Party or whatever British bands.
I think you’re right.
It’s just replication of that stuff.
The same sound, playing a bit up on the neck and being emo, having cool haircuts. The feeling I get without even knowing it is – down to earth, and less concerned with fashion than London or something. Trying to get to the heart of the matter.
The new album is a Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks album, but the last album wasn’t. Why is that? Why does it flip?
The one that came out before was kinda like… I recorded it myself almost in a demo fashion, Face The Truth, and it was just not done properly, in a way. But I was hoping that it would have a different feel to it, hopefully a good feel, sort of an improvisational, temporal thing, like a DIY record from the 80s, bands like the Desperate Bicycles or the Homosexuals. These are British bands that were kinda on the outside of punk rock, post-punk, they just said “we’ll do everything ourselves, we’ll record ourselves, we’ll do it really cheap and make a 7″ with a black and white cover. Everyone can do it.” So that was kind of the spirit of that record, not to make it too perfect, and I really didn’t think anyone else deserved to have their name on it.
There could be some mistakes or some brilliance on there. But it was my prerogative, I think I’m allowed to do that. I’ve made like ten albums, and you can have in your catalogue and album that’s like that. So coming back out of that for this new record, it was really introducing myself to Janet (Weiss, ex-Quasi and Sleater-Kinney drummer) and being more focussed in the rehearsal room and trying to make an album statement of what we were getting at, at that time.
I don’t really love having a name like Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, it doesn’t sound that great. Probably should’ve just gone with the Jicks straight away, but when I first started, they wanted to keep it related to Pavement. And once I started the first one named Stephen Malkmus, that always has to be in the name now, just for cataloguing purposes. Because you could go to some store and they’re like “The Jicks, what the hell is this? Where does this go?” Not everyone knows. Indie shops, they know. And people are just getting lost in the record store.
You put out a 10″ for Record Store Day. Did you play your local record store?
No, we were on tour at the time. I heard a lot of stories of things that were gonna happen, I dunno if they did. Like, in Nashville, Lambchop and the Silver Jews were gonna do caricatures, but I don’t even know if they did.
A lot of stuff seemed to happen. Metallica played their local metal store.
Really? That’s surprising. They’re a weird one, because they were the ones really against the home-taping, or internet downloading or something. They must really want documents that you have to pay for. They got really upset about that. They’re gonna make all their money touring at this point anyway, they really don’t have to worry.
Yet they played their local store…
Yeah, maybe they’re changing, did you see that documentary about them? They’ve been going through group therapy and trying to… it’s all sweet, everyone can use a little bit more empathy and humanity. But it’s kind of a ridiculous documentary, you should see it.
It’s kind of a Sopranos-esque concept, these guys who make their living out of being angry, trying to stop being so angry at each other.
(laughs) Yeah, I know. Good point. I don’t know how it translate. I guess it’s just like showbiz at this point anyway. They could just put on Kiss make or something, that’s their character, being the Metallica guys. I guess they tried to make an album St. Anger, all about their feelings. Supposedly it’s a travesty, I haven’t heard it though. A trainwreck. They won’t be reading this, so I can say that. And I got that second hand.
Is your songwriting process changing as time goes by?
With different people around, it’s always a little different. I think it’s pretty much the same, except that in the very early days I wouldn’t even have bothered to make a demo. I would’ve just started it on tape, or been more the orchestrator on the tape. Back then tape was cheaper, and studio time seemed cheaper. There was also less riding on it, in a certain way. Not in the fact that there was less people listening, but now the older you get, time gets a little more precious, your time to work on music. It feels like everybody’s got a big life. Everyone in the band’s busy, so you have to say, oh we’ll practice this day, on Tuesday, whereas when you’re 24 or 5 with your friends and you’re just all living in the same house, there’s nothing to do except watch TV and go to work and drink beer or go to the pub or whatever. I think that benefits the younger man, besides being more driven or something to make a message now. So yeah, I guess it’s a little more focused now.
What about even the shift of focus to instrumental parts?
Yeah, that’s this album, I went that direction. I like a lot of crazy guitar music from the 70s and the 80s too generally. I generally know my way around the 90s and I didn’t really want to know my way around the 80s. I feel like I know what I like from that time. So the 70s and the late 60s are still a point of discovery for me as a fan of music, a lot of records that were in the wake of albums by the Beatles and Hendrix and Cream and these big bands you never need to hear again, there’s all these little guys getting it wrong and releasing albums that sank like a stone. And they’re recorded better to my ears than a dodgy indie band from the 90s, and there’s more to discover, so I guess I listen to that music more, and that’s more of an inspiration, and that’s led, for better or for worse, to more instrumental parts and more solos. That was kind of the name of the game back then. But hopefully not to do it in a big macho cock-rock way, kind of like Television tried to do, or did do. Or even the Grateful Dead, a band I don’t love, was also a kind of exploratory band without overtones of male dominance and major label excess.
I read a review that called the new album “axe wank”. What do you think about that?
I don’t know, there’s only one point, at the end of the song Baltimore, where there is actually a wank. I would consider that to be mindlessly playing notes with no purpose and no melodic intention.
Are the solos improvised?
They were originally, and then I tidied them up and turned them into parts. Maybe some things I remembered from touring. And then in the studio, during the rough takes I would play and listen and decide to double it or tidy it up or change it. So to me it doesn’t sound very wanky. I love Dinosaur Jr., but to me when J. Mascis kinda gets in one range and shreds for a long time, the same five notes… he’s brilliant at it. That’s good wankery, or when it’s good it’s good wankery. Or just one guy playing a blues scale over and over, that’s wankery. But I dunno just, maybe someone who was used to no solos at all and only choruses at all, could see it that way. it depends on your tastes.
I was wondering, do you think it’s worth trying to pick apart your lyrics for deeper meaning? Or is that kind of reading into things too much?
I dunno, yeah it’s alright, I try to leave it a little bit not so narratively… I’ve alway admired people who are more kind of direct. Like my friend David Berman in the Silver Jews, he’s a brilliant wit, and his songs are kind of airtight in a certain way. That’s just not the kind of person I am, I’m just not capable of that. You can only do what you do, and I’m just kind of a California kid, you know, just a little bit hang loose, like some Neil Young stuff from his prime era when things were kind of vague. That’s where I would like to be, in that vague, but more than the sum of its parts place. But sometimes I’ll just be funny, funnier than someone like him. I dunno. I just wanted to be original I guess, I don’t really care about the meaning. If no-one else is doing it, that’s a good start, within reason. You could make something completely unlistenable that no-one else is doing, that’s not fun either. Or it could be completely meaningless, which i don’t want it to be either.
I read in an interview online someone trying to read into ‘Do Not Feed The Oyster’ some sort of greater fear of being eaten by sea-creatures.
Well that one, part of it is kind of an apocalyptic, post-environmetal disaster world where oysters bite and animals are kind of like dinosaurs come back to earth. That’s the start of the song. But then it kind of goes off somewhere else, to be honest. I was just trying to fit with the music and have something that was kinda cool sounding. It’s not really a good thing to have to say in an article. To me that’s what rock and roll was, you could listen, and then maybe come back and listen a little more. Kinda like the Stones, you don’t even really have to listen the first couple of times, and then you listen closer and the whole thing comes together, with the Stones and their whole ideology. It’s a kind of impression i get from bands too, it’s coming slowly to me, not getting obsessed with them right away, maybe, like some fans. Just kind of take things in, and then I’d decide to focus more on it, or I’d want to hear it over and over.
Well the impression I get is that certain lines or images would stand out, and that would be really impressive, which is why it struck me as strange that people were trying to read overall messages into songs that didn’t seem to have…
Some of them don’t, you know. Some albums have vulnerable songs, and self-obversational, and observing other people, or just being psychedelic, and there’s a million things in there, it’s not fun to really have to own up to it all in print or something. I’m happy that people don’t even really talk about my lyrics that much any more. It’s kinda nice. Not that i don’t want people to like them, but it’s a little bit embarrassing. Not that they’re like journal entries or anything. Like, the kind of guys and girls that write journal entry lyrics… I mean, that’s pretty rough if people start going through it, I dunno.
What are you doing better now, or worse now, than you were when you made Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain?
Back then, you feel sort of indestructible and have all the time in the world, and also there was a feeling of anticipation, that there wasn’t much out there. People were really interested in what we were going to do next on a wide level. I also knew already after we made Slanted + Enchanted, which had a lot more success than what we’d already did, that I had this idea to make this completely different kind of album. So I felt pretty confident. Maybe some groups do that, and they don’t even have any new songs, they’re just sort of blown away that it even happened.
And Slanted + Enchanted was kind of like that, but I already knew that we were gonna use bass on the next album, and it’s gonna sound big and melodic, and it’s gonna have a different colour and a different feeling. But now, it’s more like we have every two years to do this. And we feel often like we’re yelling into a cavern. People are still listening and connecting, but it’s not the same feeling. It’s more doing it for yourself, admitting that and knowing that it’s what it’s really apart. And just being grateful that it’s really this good. It’s like a different outlook. It’s like twenty years later so…
Still, making the records is still just as fun as it ever was, in a certain way, actually recording and the mystery of what’s gonna happen. And I guess there’s more responsibility to other people now because we all have lives. People are married or have dogs or lots of bills to pay. So you have to respect everybody, whereas in Pavement it was sort of like “you can come along, come on over or don’t come. We’re gonna finish the record, and then we’re gonna go on tour maybe next week, or maybe not.” You have to plan everything much farther ahead now. That’s the way it is, it seems, for gigs. I guess it’s more competitive now, more competition for the nice venue on the right night. It’s really odd to me to plan for April in October, because I’ve never really been that kind of person.
Do you still remember all your words and guitar parts from Pavement?
I think they would come back, within reason. I play them acoustically sometimes. I played the Pitchfork festival, and then I played down in Argentina at a book festival. And a couple of other charity events. They really come back fast. it’s more the chord changes and the weird tunings that would be an issue. And I’m usually just playing the ones that would be easiest to play on acoustic guitar that would go down well that way. But I think, the words, once they’re in there, with a couple of run throughs, you’re kind of on auto-pilot. I mean, you’ve seen a lot of bands, they never forget their words. Like, old guys like Johnny Rotten or something. It’s hard to imagine him forgetting Anarchy in the UK. But I guess he does. I like them, though. They’re a cool band.
Have they gotten back together yet?
They’ve been doing some reunion tours. I would go to that if it was within 180 miles of my town
Bren: they’re playing here this summer.
Bren: Yeah, they’re playing Electric Picnic, a festival here.
I think I would go, just because I don’t mind a certain kind of nostalgia. And from reading about it in Mojo, it seems like a genuine thing compared to some reunions. I mean, they genuinely want the money, but they genuinely love the band and want to play the songs, and they didn’t even get a chance really to do it that much. They were around for like two years, and then it was all hysteria.
Bren: I couldn’t believe that My Bloody Valentine actually did it.
I know, they’re coming, man. That’ll be fun to see too. One of Pavement’s first big shows was with My Bloody Valentine, at this thing called the New Music Seminar in New York, which still goes on. They had just finished Loveless and they were doing their tour, and we got to play with them, it was kinda the buzz show of the festival. And then I went to see them in Philly. They were great. They were famous for being real loud, of course. And they were. But you had ear-plugs in, of course, which you should at 90% of shows if you’re going to be up the front. So it wasn’t too bad.
Do you think a Pavement reunion would be good in a nostalgic sense?
Yeah, I think it would if we did it right. I think if I was going to do something like that, I would just do hit after hit, whatever a hit is for Pavement.
Like The Pixies tour kind of?
Maybe, I didn’t see that. But I would just wanna play songs that people liked. And maybe in the encore throw in some obscurities. But if you’re really gonna do that, I say pull all the plugs out. Because you’re going to be playing at some festival with today’s chart-topper, or somebody with at least four hits. So you might as well go up against them playing big songs that people are gonna like, instead of mucking around with the B-sides. I just wouldn’t be indulgent if I was going to do something like that, or too indulgent.
Do you think there’s an indulgence factor about doing it in the first place?
Yeah. Well if we did it for free, I’d say, be indulgent. But usually, these people are just doing it for the pay. And enjoyment too. Of course, it’s fun to be loved and adored and play on a bigger stage that you never played on. But it would be really nice to do it for free, or to say “it’s on you, give 50 euro to your favourite charity”.
That’s a big trust issue.
I know, it’s never gonna happen. That’s like thirty more pints for a student, they’re probably never gonna do it. I don’t really see it happening for Pavement any time soon. There’s gotta be somebody who doesn’t do it. Besides us, and The Smiths.
You don’t seem so negative about it. In interviews with Morrissey he seems dead against it, it’s dragging up a dead dog. It doesn’t seem to be like that with you.
People would love it, but even though it’s a hard ass approach, you gotta hand it to him for sticking to his guns and saying “no amount of money is going to turn me around”. He’s inherited so many Smiths fans, he’s got enough fans for his own thing. He’s not at want for love and attention. He’s got a real close relationship with a lot of his fans, like on his website he’ll go on and post. And these people I know run his fan-club in New York and he’s really close with them. He’ll say (bad English accent) “The new album’s out, I’ve got the new album for you” and they’ll say “We listened to it in the dark three times, and song seven is amazing, that line!” and he’ll say “really, what do you think about it?”. It’s interesting. And I see him like, at a show, to the front row, “Ah Julia, are you well?” It’s kinda cute.
Julia! Is she real? Does she actually exist?
I guess so. She was in Spain.
I’ve seen him twice, and she was there both times, and she’s on the DVDs and stuff.
She’s gotta be real. These people follow him everywhere. Maybe he’s doing it for a showbiz act.
Yeah, like an imaginary ur-Morrissey devotee
Yeah, I know what you mean. That could be, but he does have these people who go to every show, and they’re all up front. They’re this group of obsessed people, they haven’t missed any shows. The Mexican population in Los Angeles is mad for him. There’s this huge following, in Los Angeles it’s really strange to see these cruisers, these Vato kinda people in khakis and white tank-tops and tattoos, and they love him. It’s really strange. Do people know about that here?
I don’t think so. His guitarist is Mexican, he kicked out the guy he’d been working with since 1989.
Yeah, maybe he’s… he kinda likes these rockabilly like guys, right? That’s the sort of players he likes.
Despite not playing rockabilly.
Yeah, sorta looking that way, or something.
Okay, I’m down to the sort of incidental stuff now. Name something that you’re listening to right now, that you’d like to recommend.
It’s not been great. We haven’t been listening to a lot. We listened to some Sebadoh. We had some Sebadoh in the van, and it was great to listen to them again, all the great songs. They played at a festival we played at, Primavera. I could more like tip some live acts I saw. The Polvo reunion was really great to see. They took it quite seriously, had their guns all ready to come out there and shoot. And this band called Pissed Jeans, they were on Sub Pop, kinda like this metal-punk hybrid, kinda retro in their way. They had this singer that was kind of like David Yow or this old band the Cows, from Minneapolis. He was coming out and acting creepy with his beer and pouring it down his pants. It kinda reminded me of this time when there were these lead singers that would kinda scare you, instead of like “who’s the cute guy with the nice cheekbones?”
Gigi Allen is dead.
Yeah, they have some of that with a little metal. And they also have a normal looking bass player who looks like a student or something. He had a t-shirt, this Dischord band called Void, a Void t-shirt on. That was good. And Devo reformed was really great to see. And The Cribs. I like them, they’re nice guys. Gary’s moved to Portland, the drummer. He’s extremely nice. I expect more good stuff from them. Also a band from Portland that’s great is Blitzentrapper. They have a new album, it’s probably gonna get some buzz. They play sort of West Coast… rootsy but mixed with Pavement, not too back-porch stuff. With some weirdness. And their new album sounded really cool to me. Kinda like this new band the Fleet Foxes, I just read about them on Pitchfork, we’re playing some shows with them.
Do you ever find that you like these bands and then realise that they’re citing Pavement as their biggest influence?
Generally not, I generally already know about that if I met them or they say they like. There’s a divide, there’s bands that are in our genre and they like it. And it seems to be with guitar bands, there’s either that kind of thing, or the angular, Gang Of Four and Talking Heads were the best bands ever kind of thing. And then there’s more like song-based guitar, like I still like it loud, and add some weird instruments in there, and sing melodically and not too retro. And they like Pavement.
Have you ever met anyone who has completely surprised you by loving Pavement, like with Tony Blair and Oasis.
Well, the bands, it’s usually pretty obvious. It’s surprising with how well known we are that we’ve never had one superstar say they like us. Like Pete Townshend, or like how David Bowie is always coming out for bands, saying the Arcade Fire is great. I guess Radiohead. But they’re like our age. They said they liked it. But not these old geezers. I don’t know why. It’s probably a good thing really. Those geezers, they’re not gonna go out to a gig really unless they’re especially asked and they have a nice air-conditioned place to sit, and it’s private. That’s kinda disappointing. Well it wouldn’t really make me feel that much better if Neil Young came out and said “that’s alright”.
Maybe a reunion would flush them all out?
Usually I think these guys would be like “god, these guys can’t play. They really can’t play, but they seem to have something going”.
And the kids seem to like them.
Yeah. That’s more important in a way.
Okay, just lastly, for some reason I wanted to ask you what you thought of Vampire Weekend, seeing as everyone else gets asked that.
Yeah, this is a new thing, it’s a bone of contention with many musicians rolling their eyes at the instant success of this band more than the songs I think. It’s like, how did they get to make this one record and get a lot of attention. I think if you boil that away from it, it’s kind of like a friendly pop record, and it’s not something to be that upset about. There’s some good songs on there, and it’s catchy. If you see them on a bigger stage or playing on Saturday Night Live right away, you know they’re probably not ready for it. And I’m not going to be crying too many tears when it all goes south for them because of that. Because they got it maybe a little too easy. How did they know it was gonna turn out that good though, they probably didn’t. When people say it kinda sounds like Graceland, that scares me. I just try to think of it as just a Strokes without the leather and the cigarettes and rockstar posing. They’re also wealthy kids from New York, they’re just a little more nerdy about it or something. I’m alright with them.
This won’t be the next beef then?
No, I can kinda relate to them in a certain way. Preppy guys. I went to a preppy school for a while, so I know how it is. How do you like them?
I like them. I was kind of surprised that people like the guy from Islands came out really denouncing because they were doing the Paul Simon thing first. Like, Islands were rehabilitating what my parents were listening to first.
Bren: And then the other flip of the coin is Times New Viking, success isn’t coming as quickly for them.
Yeah, they have like an agenda, a manifesto with the lo-fi thing. I love them. But I think maybe they need to get more on the Jesus and Mary Chain side of it, and less on the dictaphone side of it. They’re a cool band and they’re really nice. I’d be quite happy if those roles were reversed, if they were the ones on Saturday Night Live or on the cover of Spin. If they wanted to be, obviously.
There are a lot of stories in rock and roll about the woulda-coulda-beens, the shoulda-beens, like the Pretty Things, when the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were starting out, they were just as good and they could’ve been as big as the Stones but they had bad management. Like Love for instance. It’s hard to fathom, you know, that Coldplay can sell 11 million records and we can sell 30,000. It’s like… so many more.
And you’re playing a pretty big place. There’s another tier below you again.
Well we’re not selling that well this show I heard, so I hope people come out. We’ll see. This is like 1300 people if it’s sold. And we’re probably only good for 500 or something. 250 really happy people is enough for me.