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Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Stephen Malkmus, Music, Pavement, The Jicks, Janet Weiss, lou reed, R.E.M., Velvet Underground, eagles, Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Carpenters, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, nirvana, Stereolab, 90s, '90s nostalgia, Editor's Picks, Entertainment News
When Pavement broke up at the end of the 20th century after a period of quiet bitterness, singer Stephen Malkmus seemed like a guy who’d veer into esoteric hobbies or drift so far into ironic distance that he’d never be heard from again. Often noted for his don’t-give-a-shit manner – not limited to his affectless singing voice – he led a band that was perhaps the ’90s finest, but that rarely summoned convincing enthusiasm onstage.
“As the frontman of Pavement, Stephen Malkmus was always the Nineties indie rock god who loved mocking his era’s pretensions,” Rob Sheffield wrote recently in Rolling Stone. “Yet he turned out to be the guy who lived up to those Nineties ideals over the long haul: persistence, independence, staying true to the muse.”
Malkmus, who recently returned to Portland after spending most of the last two years in Berlin, has just released his sixth solo record, “Wig Out at Jagbags” (like most of them, this is with his backing band The Jicks). His solo records are never revelatory the way “Slanted and Enchanted” was, but they are consistently tuneful, surprising and funny, and with the song “Lariat,” the new one has a potential alt-radio hit. (The song, characteristically, rhymes Tennyson with venison.)
Talking with Malkmus is a bit like trying to decipher his lyrics: He’s one of the smartest, best-read dudes in indie rock, as well as a master of indirection. He spoke to Salon from Matador’s New York offices.
It seems like in the last few years a lot of artists — rock musicians, classical musicians, writers — have moved to Berlin. I hear that Anton from Brian Jonestown went over there and was getting really into Can and Neu and making stuff influenced by them, so I wonder what sent you over there and if you think it had any real impact on this new record. I’m not really hearing krautrock in it, but maybe something else came to you over there.
Yeah, I mean, not so much musically. For me it was certainly new environments and just the different feel and getting a touch of what we were doing there — that changed me. But if it changes the man, I guess it would change what comes out of him. But there wasn’t really a musical — I wasn’t really going there for that. Anytime you go somewhere new to live, even if it’s a different city in the states, it’s eye-opening and invigorating and stressful, so it was more like that. I was kind of just a participant with my family. It’s kind of not that interesting. I mean, we traveled all these great places. It was more about that. Also, my partner, the love of my life, her career was also flourishing over there — she’s an artist, and it’s real central for the European art scene, so she had a lot of shows there and made a lot of friends. It was cool.
How long were you over there?
Two years. I heard that the guy from Brian Jonestown Massacre was — I knew some people who knew him but I never made it to the studio. They said it was a really nice place and that he was a sweet guy. I’ve only seen a movie about him and he seemed a little bit like a drug-fueled, dominant guy. But I think he’s grown, or he’s sober, and he’s doing a lot of great stuff. I heard a lot of great things about his studio.
That’s what I’m hearing too. A lot of the talk about your music — old stuff, new stuff — concentrates on the lyrics and the attitude and the kind of sonic thing you go for, but you’re also a guitar player, and there’s some great playing on the new record. There’s a solo that opens “Houston Hades,” there’s some great fills on “Janitor Revealed,” I think it’s called. Is guitar playing something you still work at, get excited about — do you still practice it? Do you have favorite players you try to learn from? Do you geek out when you get a new instrument or a pedal or something? Or are you just over all that stuff by now?
I hate to say I’m a little over it in a certain way. It’s kind of — you know, it’s certainly more comfortable to talk about guitar than lyrics, because I’m a little embarrassed by the lyrics sometimes — I mean, they’re good and stuff, but there’s so much revealed and out there that it’s easy to take the piss out of it.
But the guitar is pretty solid. Sometimes I’d listen back — like with the lyrics I make some moves that I just didn’t think about too much and then maybe later I’m like, well, that’s kind of cheesy — but it’s not as — it’s also the quotation marks that can be on a guitar part are less, they’re a little more playful. They might reference heavy metal instead of some geeky obsession with Graupel or something, you know what I mean? So you don’t feel particularly naked in that. But I’m still fiddling. With the guitar it’s more — as a songwriter, I’m still trying to, well, make my way around some very rudimentary classic tunings and writing from that perspective, and then kind of playing solos in those tunings where I don’t know the scale, so a couple of notes are different. It keeps it fresh for me and sometimes makes some different steps, different scales and moves that are sort of original just through luck, really — luck and lack of knowledge. But also probably — not to keep talking — but, yeah, I have a lot of skill built up, inevitably, over this time.
You mostly play a Strat when you record?
Yeah. I went off it for a few years, but it was my Pavement guitar and I came back to it. When I play with my fingers with that guitar, it has a certain roundness and with a pick it can sound a little brittle. I don’t know, once you know some instrument so well, you get really used to the subtleties of how they react — pickups and things like that. I pick up new guitars now and then, but almost because I have to or should more than because I want to. Pedals, too — I’m kind of minimal on the pedals these days. I’m thinking of bringing more out on this tour, but when you’re singing and playing medium-complex songs, to add those extra pedals in is another thing to think about.
There’s already a lot going on, between the singing and the tuning.
That’s why I have to, like, close my eyes when I play. It’s not really because I’m nervous — really I’m just trying to keep time and play.
Well, no matter how long you live or how many records you make, you’ll probably be associated with the ’90s, whether you want it or not. There are kind of two views of the ’90s: one says it was the decade where all this great, innovative stuff happened, like Stereolab and Yo La Tengo and your old band, and other people say, well if you look back at what was really popular, it was like Hootie, Alanis, Creed — or the beginnings of that Christian hard rock thing — and that this explosion of great stuff that was supposed to unfold after “Nevermind,” there was supposed to be this utopian thing that never really arrived. The good stuff stayed obscure and the popular stuff sucked, just like every other period. How does this seem to you? Was there an explosion of good stuff or just another business-as-usual kind of decade?
Probably business as usual. There were really talented people. Just like in the ’80s there was Prince and the Replacements — whether they were popular or not, they’re singular artists who did really amazing things — and in the ’90s I think it’s the same thing. There were some things in England that were popular and interesting — trip hip-hop and even a band like Blur, they’re chart toppers. And Nirvana was cool. I mean, I really, really liked Stereolab, and I think sonically and stuff they hold up so well. Also I was lucky to play a lot of shows with them back when they were especially burly sounding, real kind of heavy sounding — they got a little softer as time went on.
Right, they had that really rich, overloaded organ the first few records.
Their drummer was tough and the bass player, like whatever their backing band was I was really impressed by them. When we would play it would be — we’d have to get pretty drunk to make up for our lack of the power that they had. It sucked playing after them sometimes. You don’t think of them that way, but they really were that way. It was pretty awesome.
I guess it’s just your perspective of when you grew up and when music hits you. There’s usually a three- or four-year period where things really develop and you kind of develop your core. If it was during the ’90s, you’re going to think that was the best.
Right, ’cause you sing in the song “Lariat” about “the best decade ever,” and I guess that’s what you’re trying to say — it’s always the best, depending on when you were born.
Yeah, I think certainly the 10-year demarcations is as good a way to do it as any, and I tend to think in those 10-year things about most cultural things, just as a fallback, or I’ve been trained to — how long our lives are, it’s pretty perfect just to think in those 10-year bits that end with zero and start again. I’m a child of the ’70s in a way — that’s when things seemed really foreign to me and I was almost an adolescent, so for any reason, with all things — whether it’s pornography or movies or music — I tend to like the ’70s and that’s just the way it goes.
One thing that’s changed since you started playing is that world of labels and record stores and big CD sales and so on. It’s pretty much gone as we get into the Spotify/iTunes years. Some people say we live in the best of all possible worlds now — creativity has been democratized, musicians just need to get with it and start selling more T-shirts or whatever. How does it seem to you? Is this a great time to be a musician and have your stuff streaming and available to people all over the world?
In a way I think so. I’m not particularly thinking it was so great before. I don’t know — it’s sort of hard just from a marketplace thing to know just exactly what it means. Yeah, there’s a lot of bellyaching by certain stars about the royalties they’re not getting. But one thing is it’s not certain how many times you’re going to be able to resell your art now. Maybe you’re only going to be able to resell it so many times that it will equal that one sale you got back then. That song “Lucky” by Daft Punk, you’re going to be able to keep buying it over and over, and people aren’t even really caring if they lose their last unit. They’re like, “Oh I’ll just buy it again for a dollar.” Even if millions aren’t buying it, the fact is it’s for sale virtually forever, in a different way than a vinyl record would have been if it was only vinyl records. It’s just so quickly there. I don’t know. I certainly have fun on YouTube just finding what I want in a moment without paying for it and just having a thrill off it. As a consumer, I like it. And I mean I still have a backbone of “buy what I want if I really want to have it.” It’s part of my physical surroundings. I don’t know if young people have that so much. When you’re young you just want to accumulate things and later in life you want to get rid of them, so I think that will still happen for people. You still want to fill your house with some identity bits, other than just on your iPad or something.
Another thing that’s just — and I think this is connected to record stores and some of the other stuff — is the way local music scenes used to be really important to the way different styles developed. The Chapel Hill scene, Seattle, Manchester, whatever. And those scenes sometimes came up in unlikely places and the bands all influenced each other and a bunch of them sounded kind of the same, but some were different, and you could kind of tell the history of rock that way for a long time. I think the Internet has made cultural life less local probably in every genre.
But Pavement was kind of a funny hybrid, because some of the time you guys were in New York, some of the time I guess you were in California, but I guess you were sending files through the mail or by email or whatever. So you guys were kind of part of a scene and not. Do you feel like any kind of geographic trend shaped what you did at all?
Yeah, I still think it exists today. Just going to see shows in New York, there’s definitely a character to New York which is just a little smarter and a little better somehow. I just think a group of bands can get — you know, you’re playing out and people are still going to see you, so you’re going to be a certain way if you play here. This is not answering your question so much, but I do see sort of a washing out — a ringing out the speakers — toward east and west. I have less hope, for whatever reason, with places like Minneapolis or Denver or something is going to have a scene in the next 20 years. San Francisco, you know, there’s kind of a psych [scene]… It only takes a town of 15 people to make a scene, because you’re probably only going to have three bands that really matter anyway. People still go out and bands bond and develop as a scene. Even sub-media, obviously, is always going in punk rock venues, and house parties — at least in Portland — have that.
But you think it’s happening more on the coasts these days?
I don’t know — that’s just my feeling. It might just be how it seems. It seems my friends are gravitating toward one or the other these days. It might just be a bourgeois artist thing that they’re in, which, unfortunately — maybe somebody’s in Austin or something. Probably similar for you.
Yeah, I mean, when we were teenagers, Minneapolis seemed like the coolest place in America.
Yeah, well, the Replacements were the best band, so that was enough for me.
The Pavement reunion was surprising in some ways. You did almost no press for it; the other guys in the band did. You talked about how it was the last time you’d tour as Pavement; and at, I think, it was the first U.S. show in Pomona, at the Fox Theater, I remember the first couple of songs your body language was turned off like you were there against your will. And then something snapped, and you just — the band and you played with a lot of force. That was the best Pavement show I’ve ever seen. That and the Hollywood Bowl show that was a few months later.
That was really fun. If I had any body language it was probably just fear or unconfidence. It’s just the first times you’re doing something, even now when I’m doing this — whether it’s shows or interviews — it seems like you’re at the bottom of a mountain and you have to get up there and the first two days you’re really sore or something. I’m sure that’s what it was. You’re like, oh my god, what have I gotten myself into? But you really want it, or you wouldn’t do it.
What was it like to play those songs again? Were you bored by some of them and excited by others? It must’ve been strange.
It was just fun. It was nothing, really. Just a good time. I don’t know how to say it.
It seemed like you guys were enjoying yourselves on stage for that tour.
I know the songs really well, and they were easy to play, and that’s kind of fun — I could, you know, throw the guitar around my body if I wanted to because I’d know right where my hands go. Yeah, I would’ve never thought that Pavement shows were good for showmanship, but they potentially could be compared to what I’m doing now. Like I was saying before, I have to close my eyes to even figure out what I’m playing.
Right, the songs have gotten more complicated.
Yeah. We definitely — the fourth chord — when there was a fourth chord it was like “Oh man, why is there a fourth chord? This is — this is getting deep here.”
Right, right, right. Have there been other kinds of music besides rock or punk that have made a big impact on you? Jazz or experimental classical or folk or something like that?
Currently folk music, British folk. A lot of the smaller — Bert Jansch and Mellow Candle, Jackson C. Frank — all these songwriters of that time.
Yeah, “Blues Run the Game”…
Yeah, that’s beautiful songwriting. Even on this new album it’s sort of — there’s some very dubious influences in there. Doobie Brothers-ish dubious, Billy Joel, and Weezer and Soundgarden — things I don’t really even like that much, but I was like “I’ll throw this through.” It’s kind of like a test to see — it’s almost like when Pavement did “Crooked Rain,” we thought “We’re going to do the Eagles and Free, but like, indie rock. We’re going to see how much of this people can take, or how much we can take.” There’s a certain self-hate involved in it or something.
Did you come out of that with a new appreciation for the Eagles, or did you end up hating them a little bit more?
I still hate them. There’s too much — it’s not even the music. It’s kind of like “Graceland” for me, that album too. There’s levels of evil in it to me. We know what they are but I don’t want to go in print saying too much. Not the Eagles. I already knew — my parents had the Eagles’ greatest hits. I’m a child of the greatest hits. Eagles’ greatest hits, Elton John’s greatest hits, Carpenters — there’s maybe two albums they had that weren’t greatest hits, like “Tapestry” or something by Carole King and “Rumours” or something — so that’s basically a greatest hits.
Stuff that you were already tired of from the radio by the time you played it.
Jim Croce’s greatest hits, Neil Diamond’s greatest hits — that’s just…
My parents had the same record collection. The one Stones album they had was probably “Hot Rocks.”
They had “Hot Rocks.” They had Steve Martin, they were into that — that was kind of a curveball, I guess. They had the John Lennon “Two Virgins,” which they got as a novelty gift — ”Oh lalala naked.”
That’s like the ringer in that set.
That’s like a weird album, too. It’s just like taping him having breakfast.
You recently said some critical things about L.A. as this kind of superstar-driven swamp. As a longtime Angeleno and someone who runs a blog about West Coast culture, I wanted to resist and denounce you, but I found myself sort of laughing sadly in recognition. What do you think does it? Is it the movie studios or the weather or the Laurel Canyon thing? The music industry?
I don’t know. I’ve got millions of friends there that are just real people; they’re obviously not concerned about that. They’re going to parties with each other at their houses and having a good time. But it’s more like a sort of media blanket of — it’s like you’re yelling into the void or something if you try to comment on Los Angeles or say anything about it. They’re like, “whatever, I’m just doing my thing.” It was more like that. I grew up there, I was born there –
How old were you when you moved to Stockton?
I was 7 — only 7, but my relatives were still there and we were always going there. And, as it’s turned out, it’s come full-circle, because my wife’s brother works there, and her dad, and they’re from Chicago — but all Chicago bros have moved there. They love it. They either love it or they say they do because they want you to come move there. There’s a little bit of insecurity to the new person that moves there. It’s like, “Yeah, it’s good, you should come!” Because they kind of don’t know for sure, just like anywhere maybe, but bigger because it’s Los Angeles. I don’t know. But when you get down to it it’s more that you’re just not talking about stuff that doesn’t matter — it’s about your family and neighborhood and the weather. It’s a pretty good place.
The food is definitely good. What are the consequences of what you’re talking about, though? Is it that the good small bands can’t break out or something like that, because the industry is here?
I just feel it’s kind of hierarchical, just like England with — I mean, there’s good people doing good things, and there’s like agents that want to help the cool talented people and they don’t necessarily care if they’re going to make money or be famous. Even the Eagles, these rich hippies talking about money or something… David Geffen is maybe the perfect focal point: “We’re going to do peaceful, easy feelings and make a ton of money off it.” If you were picked it was great, but it was kind of a shut-out. Once someone has all of it, the rest isn’t with someone else, only with them.
There’s definitely less guilt and anxiety about big money here than there is in Portland or New York or something. There’s a sense that, as you say, it’s not true of everybody, but there’s a lack of worry about the corrupting effects of money.
Absolutely. And there’s sort of a respect for having a lot no matter how you got it. I just have — I’m a participant in our market economy, and I believe it seems to be the best solution, at least for now. Well, I’m not sure about that. But when people make money off nothing it bothers me. Like someone that hoarded Internet names — I’m happy for them if they were on the street and they did that and now they’re rich because they just beat someone to the punch registering Internet names, but there’s also something just kind of sad about that. If we’re like, “It’s amazing, he was so genius, so great, he got three houses and now he’s changing them again because he can have any prefix on the Internet name and now he’s got those and he’s even richer!”
Welcome to the 21st century.
I’d be thinking pretty hard about giving most of it back before I died.
Let me hit you with two more questions and I’ll let you go. Since the ’60s, I think, there’s been this custom of calling rock musicians “recording artists,” and in the ’70s we got “art rock” as almost revenge or something. Your partner is a working visual artist. I wonder if you see a lot of parallels between what you do and what a visual artist does. Do they seem to be similar fields?
Not really. For better or worse, in the kind of hypnotism to sell visual art there’s a lot of jargon and philosophical stuff. You have to be quite literate about what you’re doing to even have a stone’s throw of getting into the canon. So, while there is an entertainment element to it, again, we — the music people — are still more of a pop-culture/showbiz world. You can say high art is doing the same thing but lying about it and making it something more than it is, but it isn’t. It’s pop, what we’re doing. This isn’t Caravaggio or Bach. It’s really more like TV, unfortunately. Good TV or something, but still — I’m not going to say that “The Sopranos,” as good as it is, it’s still not like “The Conversation.” Just not to me, it won’t be. Even the best TV isn’t up there with other art. Progressive rock tried to address that, I suppose, and it kind of failed. It was best when it was just catchy — progressive rock like Yes, that was kind of pop progressive.
You had that awful singing with Yes, though, which I can’t get over no matter how good the harmonies are.
That didn’t bother me but yeah, I know what you mean. I didn’t like it originally.
Well, let’s close. I wonder if you want to say something about one of your big influences who died in the last month or two, Lou Reed. Does his solo stuff or Velvet’s stuff still have an influence on what you do? And why does that stuff draw you? Because when we were kids in the ’80s they were fairly invisible, I think.
Yeah, they just started with R.E.M., maybe people started hearing about them. Yeah, I mean, the first three albums, there’s just nothing as cool as that. It’s just cool stuff. But it also has a sense of humor. I would argue that Lou was — and I’m sort of considered to have a sense of humor in my writing, and sometimes it’s a pejorative, or considered lesser for that reason, ’cause it’s not, like, I don’t know, somebody really serious like Leonard Cohen or something, I don’t know who’s serious. But most of Lou’s lyrics are soulful at times, but a lot of it is extremely funny. The drag queen stuff. He’s just, like, fuckin’ around. And so I relate to that. He’s got this great cacophony of noise genius songs, and then the on top stuff is funny and cool — also funny, though. I really think he’s one of the best. When you talk about these male rock titans, there’s him, and Bob Dylan and Neil Young, I guess. In the U.S., I guess — England has their own.
Did that really aggressive sound of “White Heat” and songs like “The Gift” and so on really speak to you when you were young?
Yeah, absolutely, in college. I thought it was really awesome “fuck you” music. It was juvenile and bratty and it was like punk. Not a fast, but — in the same way I like the Dead Kennedys or the Replacements, I guess, is sort of rebellious music. It’s definitely, “I don’t care about you, fuck you.”
What teenager wouldn’t respond to a message like that?
It was great. It’s still great. You don’t need me to tell you that, because it holds up.
Scott Timberg, a longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, runs the blog Culture Crash. His book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class" comes out in January. Follow him on Twitter at @TheMisreadCityMore Scott Timberg.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)