Interviewed when Pavement reformed for a tour in 2008 (and a Jicks album was out)
Photography Jason Nocito
Your History: Pavement lo-fi legend Stephen Malkmus on how a few Californian slackers almost made it to the top
“I grew up in Santa Monica for seven years and then we moved to Stockton, California. It’s pretty suburban, with not a whole lot going on. I was about 12 when I went to high school, I really identified with Kiss, the perfect band for an adolescent, I drew their pictures in notebooks. Then in the 80s, punk hit. Local bands like Black Flag and Dead Kennedys came to our town and played. I immediately joined a band. Scott (1) was around then, but he worked at a record store, and was really into new wave – he was more of an Anglophile, though I liked that stuff too. Eventually, that came through in Pavement. Pavement was a product of the seven-inch scene, bands like the Television Personalities (2) – just doing it, and maybe some day people would be interested. It wasn’t meant to be a touring band, we didn’t have any aspirations… it didn’t seem possible, we were just an art document.
We recorded with this local guy Gary Young, who became our drummer – he had a home studio in his garage, we just went in there and knocked Slanted and Enchanted off in a day for a couple hundred bucks. I didn’t know anything about the ‘lo-fi era’ – we thought the album sounded pretty big! We just didn’t know what we were doing. But we were also imitating bands like Chrome from San Francisco, who were very dirty sounding, a weird band for sure. I never really liked The Fall when I was younger ‘cos it’s sort of tuneless. But once you get your head around that, you can get lost in The Fall for a while. That was a nice influence to have (3).
I didn’t know anything about the ‘lo-fi era’ – we thought the album sounded pretty big!
In London, you generally have a friend of a friend who’s a pop star, but in America it’s much more spread out – you just don’t think anyone’s going to pay attention unless you’re near the power structures. There’s no svengali tradition like there is in England, with A&R men like Tony Wilson, Geoff Travis, Alan McGee or Malcolm Mclaren. Of course, we have people who discover artists, but one man with a label can have more influence in England… they can change the world in a second.
At that time, Kurt Cobain had the power to say, ‘Mudhoney should be up here.’ (4) I don’t think I’ve ever had my photo taken so many times as I did backstage there. Our record label guy had managed EMF, so he was well-versed in hype, and I’m sure he was back there saying, ‘These guys are going to be the next Nirvana, you’ve gotta get a picture of them now.’ There were like 40 to 60 photographers in line – we were getting sunburn from all the flashes.
We went on tour for too long, tensions rose too high. We were of the opinion that major labels were evil, basically. Our drummer was older, and his brother was saying, ‘strike while the iron is hot, and get lots of money.’ But we were young and couldn’t be bothered. So Gary Young walked out on us (5) – he was a great drummer and although I can play with anyone, it was sad to see him go.
We didn’t do some things that would have got us bigger… we never had a manager. I would have been fine with that kind of success – we wouldn’t have got a manager still, it would have just washed over us, and we would have mismanaged it all like we did at the smaller level! We were young, we were touring, and we were confident we were good… that was all that we cared about.
It was a deliberate mock-wind-up (6) – it was playful, but the Pumpkins took it all a bit seriously. It was meant to show the triviality of rock rivalries at that time. It was just a joke, really. The Smashing Pumpkins had some good songs – they should have been confident in that and not taken it so personally.
Wowee Zowee wasn’t popular with the people. I was like, ‘That’s cool, but in ten years time people are going to realise this record is great’. And the thing is, it came back in the end – it is a good record. But it was a little disheartening… though it’s not like we didn’t have it coming, we’d had a great run up ‘til then.
The idea of playing the old songs, the idea of doing that for 20 years, was just impossible. It wouldn’t be genuine to keep doing that. It seemed a good time to stop (7) , because not too much damage had been done.
I saw the Silver Jews as a side project. David (Berman) hadn’t taken seriously the idea that he could be a songwriter, he was just messing around in the basement, stoned and drunk. It blossomed with his ambition, it became his baby pretty fast, so he deserves all the credit. I stopped being involved after the first record… when we went to do another one, he had a nervous breakdown or something, and left us high and dry down in Memphis, and got some new people to record with… after that, it was his band and I just played on the records. Which I did on American Water, which is one of my favourites of the records we did together, and one of my favourite records I’ve ever played on, so it’s not like nothing came of it.
I don’t know why I chose Portland (8) . It was the best place that wasn’t New York, where it wasn’t working for me in terms of relationship stuff. It was pretty boring for three years, ha! No scoring hot chicks and no parties every night… and rainy. But two, three years ago, I became a family man, now I’ve got two kids – having responsibilities to people other than myself has meant getting music out has been a challenge. But it has made this album, and the preciousness and rarity of being able to do something like this, more exciting. Or maybe it’s just always exciting two months before the album comes out… before your hopes get crushed!
That Milwaukee gig was just to entertain ourselves and throw a wrench into our small works (9) . It was something just to surprise people. Especially in Milwaukee, which is a bit off the chart culturally in America – it’s not that it’s a bad place, it’s just a random place. Yeah, it does kind of raise the bar for the next Milwaukee show… but we’re not going back on this next tour. We’re sort of scared of it now.
There’s a lot of groups in Portland, what can I say? I don’t know if England loves it, but America does. I’m not of the really old school like Poison Idea and The Wipers – there’s the next school, grunge like Pond, and then Sub Pop, Elliot Smith – I came in round then… since then, we’ve had The Shins, Modest Mouse, and The Gossip. Now, there’s bands like Yacht. I guess Portland’s more laid back than Williamsburg, but there’s plenty of hipsters. Which is fine, I like hipsters.”
FOOTNOTES ON STEPHEN MALKMUS
1. Scott Kannberg was a childhood friend of Stephen and the other founding member of Pavement. He went by the name of “Spiral Stairs”, and these days he has his own band Preston School of Industry (also signed to Matador)
2.Influential British DIY band started in the late 70s by singer/songwriter Dan Treacy
3. Though Mark E Smith might disagree – “Pavement: it’s just The Fall in 1985, isn’t it? They haven’t got an original idea in their heads.” (The Wire, September 1996)
4.Reading Festival 1992. Nirvana headlined, and were influential on the main stage’s line-up that night, which included Mudhoney, Beastie Boys, L7, Pavement, and, er, Bjorn Again.
5. Young’s whacked-out behaviour on the Slanted and Enchantedtour probably didn’t help – he would hand out plates of cabbage to bemused gig-goers, and stop playing drums to run around the venue and do hand-stands.
6.The single “Range Life” from second album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain contained the lyrics,“Out on tour with Smashing Pumpkins / Nature kids / I… they don’t have no function / I don‘t understand a word they say / And I could really give a fuck.” Singer Billy Corgan had something of a sense of humour failure, threatening to quit Lollapalooza in 1994 if Pavement remained on the bill.
7. Pavement called it a day in 1999 after their fifth album Terror Twilight.
8.Portland, Oregon. Where he now lives with his wife and two kids, and plays with his band The Jicks.
9. On 23 May, 2003, The Jicks surprised fans by playing a show consisting only of Pavement songs.
Originally published in Dazed & Confused, March 2008