by Eric Broome for Mean Street magazine, March 2001
For a band often regarded as the indie-rock force of the past decade, Pavement exited with surprisingly little fanfare. The group's murky final album, Terror Twilight, wasn't as celebrated as earlier discs, and even the split itself lacked drama -- initial talk about a "hiatus" hedged the bet, before leader Stephen Malkmus finally admitted that, um, yeah, Pavement wouldn't be coming back this time.
Malkmus' first solo campaign has no such understatement. Matador, his long-time label, makes sure we know he's a star. The new album doesn't have another detached, elusive title -- the cover just says "Stephen Malkmus" in large, stylized letters. Yup, a self-named release. The classic singer-songwriter move. Factor in the sleeve photos -- a magic-hour shot of Malkmus, aglow and teen-idol cuddly by the Hawaiian ocean, and an even drippier pose of him feeding a pony -- and the message couldn't be clearer. TRL, this one's for you.
All needling aside, Malkmus' latest effort doesn't stray far from Pavement's trademark sound. Recruiting bassist Joanna Bolme (also of the Minders) and drummer John Moen to form an intimate trio, Malkmus serves up 12 familiar tunes which are hardly a radical statement of creative revision. There's some frisky pop ("Phantasies," "Jo Jo's Jacket"), a lovely tribute to a deceased friend ("Church on White"), a bit of grinding rock ("Black Book") and an adorable fable about a counterculture couple ("Jenny & the Ess-Dog"). Other tracks can be sluggish, but Malkmus generally retains his off-kilter charm.
The weary hero squeezed in a short phone call, during a packed day of media interviews.
Is there ambivalence about going under your own name? I gather that you'd rather the album be credited to "The Jicks."
Well, I got these other people who played on the record, and contributed to it in a big way...or in a certain way, at least. I'd like them to get some credit. It's probably not that much fun to be in a band called somebody else's name, you know? Also, it's just the fact that it's your name. It's kinda schmaltzy. Or maybe it's cool, like Willie Nelson or something. If it's somebody who has earned it, then I want to see their name. But sometimes, it's somebody who didn't even play on the album. They just sing, and it's all image. There's a lot of people like that. Let's say, Jewel. She might play acoustic guitar and write the songs, but she has these huge amounts of people making music behind her. I'm getting off on a tangent, but...yeah, there's ambivalence.
Did you always want to start a solid new band, or did you think about just having guest musicians on each track?
Yeah, I could do that. That's one of the advantages of using your own name. It leaves you more open for whoever you want to work with. It's not like, "OK, we're a band now, and you're playing drums forever. Get used to it, and don't relinquish that throne." I was just into working with these people, on this record. It's easier. I like how they play, and I don't know that many people who play up here. And I don't want to use certain people who are overused. Like, Joey Waronker is a really talented drummer -- he's with Beck, and has played on a lot of stuff -- but even though I love the way he drums, I probably wouldn't play with him just because he's overexposed. I like to find the diamonds in the rough.
I know a couple of the album's songs are older, but were most of them written, knowing it would be a solo record?
Yeah, most of them. It wasn't like I really thought about that, though. I was just making them up for a rhythm section or the next album, no matter who was going to be on it. Some of them, I was doing after the last album with Pavement was already recorded, but I was just kinda doing them in my spare time.
As far as arrangements, what did you do on this record that you wouldn't feel free to do on a Pavement record?
I would've done the same thing on a Pavement record. It just would've turned out differently, because there's a different drummer and bass player. I would've tried to get them to play these songs, but I just had a feeling they would turn out listless if it was a Pavement album. I didn't want to take that chance. So, that was the only real thing. I mean, everything went a lot faster. It was easier to move quicker, so that affects everything. You don't have to spend weeks finishing some drums or explaining the songs to everybody. It was just boom, boom, boom, boom.
What inspired "Jenny and the Ess-Dog"? I can't recall many songs you've written which are so "touching."
Yeah, the sweet one. I don't know if I've done that lately in Pavement, that kind of song. It's pretty traditional. The chords are slightly generic, you know what I mean? Maybe I wouldn't have done something like that on the last record, I don't know. But I liked doing it. It's OK to be traditional, sometimes.
What about all these "pretty" publicity photos used of you, nowadays? Do you have an ironic attitude toward them?
Sure, I don't see who couldn't. At my age and with what I've done, it's obviously going to be a little ironic. Just about all the best things in the entertainment world are, right now. There are some things that aren't ironic that are amazing, coming from, like, Iran, European cinema and maybe China. But when it comes to image and stuff like that, I'm like Madonna. I have to be a little ironic, at least in my photos. I mean, I hope she's ironic. It's like "Mr. Show." Have you ever seen that? It's amazing. I just want to be like those guys, you know?
The fans are even debating whether your haircut on the cover is a mullet!
No, it's not, but it's close. I didn't want to look too good on the cover, you know? So I picked one where my hair looked sort of long. Now I'm kinda regretting that photo. I didn't want to be, like, "I'm so cool." In some of the other photos, I looked...uh...cuter, I would say. But it's not a mullet. It's just kinda waggling. Getting out of the ocean, sometimes the saltwater fucks it up, you know?
Well, I guess that's the definitive word on the subject. Are you at all nervous about touring with a new band?
Not really nervous. I'm not too worried. It's not that I don't care, but I'm just going to go up there and try my best. I just think, "Well, there's worse bands and worse shows than ours, no matter what. Maybe we're going to be great, maybe we're not going to be." I don't know yet. We played a few shows in Europe, and they were pretty good. We're still learning how to be a band. We've only played five times, but we're playing pretty big places for a band that has played five times.
What's up with you touring with Elastica's Justine Frischmann?
I invited her on the tour, and she was going to be on it. But then she popped off to the Grenadines or somewhere like that, some islands, and she came back too late. She's like "I want to be on the tour, still!" and I'm like "It's too late, man. You're going to stick out like a sore thumb." See, we've been practicing down in the basement. This is not Pavement. You've gotta know how to play. Just kidding. But yeah, she's not in it.
I didn't want to ask you too much about Pavement, but when you see the model of, say, Guided by Voices, where the whole lineup keeps radically changing, did you have any thoughts of just getting a whole new Pavement?
Mmm...nah. Scott, the other guitarist, invented the name. It's his name. He can keep it. I can move on, anyway. My name's kinda weird and hard to pronounce, and it's probably not a very good Hollywood name. But I'll stick with it.
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