Stephen Malkmus stares into the "Mirror"

Speaking with alt-rock veteran Dean Wareham, the former Pavement frontman says he's surprised to be a "rock lifer"

Published August 22, 2011 11:01PM (EDT)

Stephen Malkmus.
Stephen Malkmus.

After reuniting with Pavement for a high-profile tour last year, Stephen Malkmus returns today with "Mirror Traffic," his fifth album with the Jicks. (He's now made as many albums with the Jicks as he did with Pavement.) Produced by Beck in Los Angeles, the album is concise, slinky and witty -- but also sad and beautiful when it wants to be. "No One Is (As I Are Be)" almost recalls Bobbie Gentry or Tim Hardin. The reviews are going to say this is the solo album that sounds the most like Pavement, but most of the time Stephen Malkmus just sounds like Stephen Malkmus -- playing and singing better than ever. 

I picked up Pavement’s first little EP, "Slay Tracks," at In Your Ear Records in Boston in 1989. In the years since he has proven himself the best American lyricist going. There's always a line that sticks in your head, whether "out on the road with the Smashing Pumpkins" a decade and a half ago to "I know what the senator wants -- what the senator wants is a blow job" on the new album. 

Stephen and I performed together exactly once, in May 1999, forming an impromptu wedding band for the marriage of his friend Robert Bingham. Stephen, Matt Sweeney (Skunk, Chavez), David Berman (Silver Jews) and I performed a few covers, including "Sweet Child o’ Mine." Six months later we saw each other at Bingham’s funeral. In 2001, I saw his first performance with the Jicks, at the Bowery Ballroom in New York. 

Last week we caught up via iPhone; me at home in Brooklyn, N.Y., Stephen sitting in his car in downtown Portland, Ore. (he said the reception was better out there). On the eve of a tour and his big move to Berlin, we discussed being surprised to find ourselves in a third decade of making music -- and lamented that Kanye West and Jay-Z haven't sampled either of us yet.

I want to ask you about the title of the new record, "Mirror Traffic." Is that about cocaine?

That didn’t come to my mind when I made it up, but one guy at Matador said, "That’s an awesome title. It has multiple associations." The first one he came up with was a coke party in the back of the Queens of the Stone Age’s dressing room. I’m not sure they’d even do that. But ...

I read the email exchange about L.A. Guns (which was going to be the album’s title until record company lawyers vetoed it, concerned the '80s metal band might sue). Aren’t you allowed to title an album anything you want?

There’s something to do with trademarks. I think suing comes down to "What do you have to lose if you decide to do it anyway." We have something to lose. We get advances for records. In the end, messing with the '80s heavy metal guys in any way is probably a bad move. I’ve found whenever I’ve messed with anybody who has a remotely metal history, it’s caused me problems. It’s probably something you should learn.

It’s hard to know what counts. On YouTube, you can watch any video with stock footage over a song, ripping off bands, and no one cares.

There’s always a double standard. There’s Girl Talk, who makes mashups and is super popular with the college kids. He doesn’t have to pay sample clearances for some reason, even though he’s totally taking these songs. Meanwhile, someone like Beck wouldn’t even dare use an (uncleared) sample. He’ll have the tiniest thing you barely thought anybody could notice, and all of a sudden there’s a form letter out of the blue saying, "You owe us $100,000." I wonder how much Jay-Z and Kanye West have to pay. I saw a video where they took the whole song and just rap over it. They must just pay the outrageous price. They should.

I wish they’d do that with one of our songs. Speaking of Beck, he produced your new record. It sounds like Beck produced it, I think. Not like "Odelay," but still ... How long did you spend working on it?

Before the Pavement reunion, we booked five days at Sunset Sound studio in Hollywood, and then it was a year until it was finished because I did that tour. Then we didn’t mix it until a year after that, but it didn’t feel like it was dragging or anything. It really doesn’t matter if you’re busy with other stuff and not thinking about it too much. I think it’s important to hit the songs live in the room when you’re not tired of it.

Sometimes I think it’s right when you get to the end of making the record that you really know the songs -- and that would be the time to go in and record them.

That’s the worst! I’ve been in that situation. Luckily, we weren’t in that situation for at least eight of the songs. A couple of them became more about the performance and capturing a version that was good. "That’s the version of it," is what we would say. It wasn’t [the way] I thought of it in my head exactly.

What did Beck offer as a producer?

He was positive the whole time. I’d never worked so much except once with a producer. Most engineers might say, "I like that," but they’re afraid to offer ideas. Beck didn’t really, either, but if someone you like and respect says the songs are great, it gives you come confidence.

It seems like part of being a producer is just spreading good cheer and good energy. I don’t suppose Beck had ideas for your lyrics? I think he’s a great lyricist, too.

He likes it real loose. He had the mics set up so I could keep anything I said on the tapes. The free, off-the-top-of-my-head stuff -- he was really going for that. Some of the words wouldn’t be maybe the best in my mind, but they flowed with the track and the spirit of it. I think he was going on his own experience. You know how it is, where you do the track and then take a week off, and say, "OK, I’ll do the lyrics now." They start to sound forced or it's not flowing. Maybe it’s a good point you’re making or it’s clever, but it sounds like it’s sticking out.

I don’t think you know until you stand there and sing it. You can write it on the page, but the moment you stand there and sing it -- sometimes you just go, "I can’t sing that! This is ridiculous!"

(laughs) I know! I’m totally open to people. I’m not precious about the words. I want people to like it. I don’t really need to get that clever line in there ... usually.

There are so many great lines on there. I love the first line of the album, "I caught you streaking in your Birkenstocks." That’s something I love about Pavement, too -- the number of lines over the years that have stuck in my head from your songs. It kind of reminded me of "Caught my dad cryin'" (from "Rattled by the Rush").

I think I get enough good ones in there. I run into parts where I don’t have anything good to sing, and I just sing borderline clichés or things I hope no one is really listening to. When that happens, I just think, well, it’s like classic rock. Or, that it puts the other things in a better light, the lines that stick out.

The lyrics don’t have to be brilliant all the way through; it’s nice if there’s a moment in a song where a couple of lines really stand out.

I agree with that. If it gets too tightly locked down, you start to wonder about the writer -- they’re almost bragging or something. I guess rappers, they do it, but I can’t. There are too many words, too, and they can’t all hit -- especially phonetically for me, with my natural rolling with the melody.

People love to compare writing lyrics to writing poetry but it’s a completely different thing. That’s the challenge; you have to fit the words to melodies.

And you have to be able to sing those words. I end up going to words with hard Cs or hard Ps. I’m really wobbly on some other words.

I like the line in "No One Is (As I Are Be)" -- "I cannot even do one sit-up/Sit-ups are so bourgeoisie/I’m busy out spending your money." That’s a long way to go for a rhyme.

It’s true.

I read a review online and somebody called it cringeworthy. That has happened to me -- sometimes the lyric I like the most gets singled out, "This is a terrible pun!"

I know, I know! I was just kind of singing it like Billy Joel -- [hums "Movin' Out"] -- but in a deeper register and more like a Bert Jansch.

Did you need to rhyme with "spending your money" or did you need to rhyme with "bourgeoisie"?

I had the bourgeoisie, and "I cannot even do one sit-up." I was worried because there’s a song by Smog about 17 push-ups or 37 push-ups, and it was sounding a little Smog to me, though it’s a little more elegant. I had to change it to sit-ups. I do hate doing sit-ups. I don’t know anyone who likes them.

I don’t know if you were in grade school in America -- we had to do these calisthenic exercises. It was kind of funny. From first through sixth grade they would test you: You can do nine pull-ups and 47 push-ups. It was odd. "You’re athletic enough to get to the next grade!" It was the '70s. I wonder if they stopped doing that. Cheetos were just entering people’s diets more. A new junk food hit the world in the '70s.

My headmistress called Cheetos "little yellow horrors." She’d get really angry about them. Other reviews of "Mirror Traffic" have talked about an "aesthetic mission." I'm wondering, is there ever an aesthetic mission for one of your albums? For myself, there’s usually an aesthetic mission for each song, but I don’t really approach an album that way.

I think only as it relates to the last record we did -- or some kind of remembered frustration about what I did wrong the time before. I can’t think more than one record back.

That happens -- the record you make is a reaction to the one you just made.

It’s more in the songwriting phase. Very early on, you take what you didn’t like from the other one and strike that. I don’t usually go farther in the same direction on the next album -- it’s normally some other direction, and it focuses on the negative of the last one, not the positive, unfortunately. We were jamming out more on that last one. We had Janet Weiss as our new drummer. She was at a time when she’s like, "I’m a progressive shredder!" We were going to build these West Coast swells up and down, these mystery jams where people didn’t know where they were going.

On this one, everything’s shorter.

Yeah. It was based on the situation, too. When we decided to work with Beck and we decided to go to Sunset Sound, which is a real studio, I wanted to feel like a '60s band. In the '60s, there were a million bands going into studios and making albums; they had four days and they went through a cookie cutter. I wanted to be on the cookie cutter. We were going into the studio, Beck’s going to do us, and we have to go in there and play and leave it all to the Gods or something.

That’s a good idea. Whatever happens in the studio should be what a record is, rather than obsessing over some ideal of what it should be.

That can be a problem.

I like some of the sadder songs, like "Fall Away" and "Long Hard Book."

Those are slower. Some people will call them "lumpy" and "not enough energy."

Those are beautiful. Those are my favorite ones.

I’m glad you like "Fall Away." Beck had some influence on that one. We were playing it faster, like a "Rubber Soul" Beatles song, or something from that era. It was really pretty quick. Beck says, "You should really slow it down and sing in a different register." He had a real idea of playing slower in the studio -- usually for me, way faster is probably better. If you play things too many times, they start to get lethargic. He was like, "Slow it down. Real slow. Slow slow."

That is producing! Do you find it easier or more difficult to write lyrics, to write songs, without Pavement?

It’s all the same. How is it for you?

I think toward the end of Luna, the rehearsals were just driving me crazy. It also seemed like it was getting more and more difficult to finish things. But now that I don’t have the band as a unit, I can see that at least it drove us to rehearse every week and pushed us. Now I’m not in a particular hurry to make the next one.

There’s a little bit of that; to keep the band alive, for the band to make enough money, we have to tour a little bit more than I would like to.

We were the same way.

There’s a push in that, but it was there with Pavement, too. I write all the tunes at my house by myself. But I’m most excited when I bring a new thing in and we play it, and they like it, and it sounds like, "Oh, we got one here." I feel like I achieved something that day. I like having a band ... Inactivity pushes me; I feel worthless in a certain way.

That must be why I feel worthless lately. I read this on Wikipedia, that during the "Terror Twilight" sessions, Pavement’s last album, you spent a lot of time playing Scrabble. Luna, on our fourth album, we set up a Scrabble table in the middle of the recording studio. It was bad.

I guess it’s better than smoking crack. It’s a version of that for your mind.

It’s avoidance of work.

Absolutely. You shouldn’t book more time than you need. I told Beck we needed a week. He said how about five days with a day off in the middle. "All right, Mr. Laid Back California." Let’s just be ready to play and burn $1,000. But he was right. By the fifth day we didn’t have that much to do and it was "let’s just mess around." On "Terror Twilight," we definitely spent a lot of time dawdling and making weird mistakes. Once you’ve gone too far, you’re fucked. It builds up; you can’t get away from it.

Are there nights you stand onstage and say, "What the fuck am I doing here?"

Definitely. On a month-long tour? I like playing live and I appreciate people coming to see us ... but it’s an "Is this really my life?" kind of thing. I’m admitting this is my life. I’m a rock lifer. This is what we do -- we play in Minneapolis on Oct. 23 every three years.

You go back to the same places again and again. You’re in the same dressing rooms.

I try to think it’s a showbiz thing -- Chuck Berry did the same thing. It’s kinda cool if he did it.

By Dean Wareham

Dean Wareham fronted Luna and Galaxie 500, and currently plays with Dean & Britta. His most recent release is the album "Dean Wareham." He is the author of the memoir "Black Postcards: A Rock & Roll Romance."

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