Stephen Malkmus: trashed but talkative in London town
Former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus is about to release his fourth solo album, Real Emotional Trash, and it marks a return to form after the homemade Face The Truth. Little wonder - he made that album pretty much on his own, while for this one (his second record that’s properly credited to his band, The Jicks) he’s got a revitalised set of musicians around him. Former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss has stepped behind the kit, and her pounding rhythms and backing vocals provide vigour and sparkle, while bassist Joanna Bolme and guitarist/keyboardist Mike Clark take full advantage of the opportunity to shape a full record after only brief cameos on Face The Truth.
Malkmus didn’t tour Face The Truth because of family commitments, so it was a rare treat to get some face-to-face time with the 41-year-old singer on a recent promotional trip to London, even if he’d had to sit through two solid days of interviews before DiS got a turn. It’s quite incredible he didn’t throttle us as soon as we mentioned “the new album” - in a stroke of both good and bad fortune, he was almost too tired to sit up straight. Still, we gleaned a few nuggets of information…
Video: ‘Dark Wave’ from album two, Pig Lib
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Have you had all the excitement drained from you about the new album yet, or are you still excited by its release?
I’m not really excited about the release or the songs, but I don’t mind talking about it. I’m not drained by that. It’s been a while since we started working on it. If there is a good reception for it, I’m really happy. I’d be happy if there is one. Because it’s a step out, even to do it or try something different, and it could easily be taken for granted.
Are you one of these guys who once you’ve made the record you kind of let it go, then? That sounds like you don’t stay very excited about the songs.
It’s not that I let it go - it’s purely a matter of ear fatigue of mixing and listening to it too much so you can’t wrestle any more out of it, the actual sound. And so by then it’s just worry: is it as good as it could have been? Do other people hear what’s good about it? All that’s left at that point is to be a little bit critical about what you don’t like about it. All the decisions of “this is good, move forward” have already been done, so it’s only backsliding. That being said, it’s not all that serious either. It’s not like I’m constantly worried about that. Now it’s just go out and talk about it and do some tours. I skipped the press tour last album, so I figure I have a pound of flesh to pay back. And I want to do right by the band members. I want to keep it going because they’ve invested time and commitment to it, and it’s a bit of a leap of faith because who knows where it’s going to go? My schedule is a little more rigid than theirs, with two kids, so it goes by my schedule, and I want to give back as much as I can by talking about it.
Has having a family and getting married changed you? Has it been a revelatory experience, having kids?
That is a big thing. I probably haven’t completely taken it all in. I’m just kind of living it, trying to be in the moment and be more present. How it reflects to music, it just makes it more precious, the time you get to do it. It doesn’t bleed into me making sentimental songs for children, kind of like McCartney got real soft when his children came. I don’t see that happening to me. The music still exists in a world that competes with other music. My life bleeds into it a little bit, but it’s still about just rockin’ and sticking true to the certain values of music that I value. There’s no sort of religious conversion to the soft rock with the kids.
Do you think you’re going to be able to keep going and making music? Making an album can almost be a nine to five job if you want it to be, but with touring and promoting… can you be bothered any more?
Yeah, because if I didn’t do that…
Would you lose your mind?
Yeah, you feel sort of purposeless. To be a house husband, that’s an honourable thing to do. But everyone in this band, we’re all lifers to the rock thing, for better or worse, so we take what we can get. I mean, within reason. I’m not going to go out on six-month tours. I probably wouldn’t want to anyway without a family at this age. But it’s more that you limit the touring to a couple of weeks, and realistically it’s only every two years, even if you were releasing an album, that that would happen, unless you had a mega hit or there was some real reason to push it. At this stage in our lives, we’re going to do the sensible thing - do some tours, people come see us that want to see us. We’re reaching out to more people if they want to, but it’s not like we’re trying to jam it down your throat, like: “Look at us, this new thing.” We do it because we like to do it. It’s fulfilling.
How’s the feeling in The Jicks generally? Does it feel permanent now?
We’ve got a new drummer, Janet [Weiss]. John Moen was my drummer, and I would’ve stuck along with him, but in the time that I was having a kid and down-shifting The Jicks, he started playing with The Decemberists, and they blew up a bit, at least in America, and that became his full meal ticket. But then, luckily for us, Sleater-Kinney broke up and Janet came along. She’s been a real saviour in terms of conviction and getting the ball rolling again. It’s hard to gain momentum once you get stuck going: “Errr we could record that?” She was like: “Let’s go, let’s do it. I get really depressed if I don’t play drums. Let’s go!” I get depressed when I play guitar and when I don’t, but let’s do it anyway! The records could be called The Jicks. I go on the promo tours because it’s easiest for me to do it - most people do want to talk to me. We could do some more where you talk to the whole band at the same time, but you get worse articles, and the photos are dicey when there’s four people in them. Even four supermodels together, it’s hard to make them look good. And it’s still called Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks more for a filing thing because, at least in America, you have your section, and a lot of stores don’t know who I am - they’d be like: “Jicks… where does this go?” It’s hard enough to sell CDs these days with being confused about the name. The hardcore weird fans that actually follow us and like us, they would buy it anyway - if we changed our name to The Penguins or something, they would know.
The Jicks (l-r): Janet Weiss, Mike Clark,
Stephen Malkmus, Joanna Bolme
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Does it feel like a fresh start, or is that misreading it?
Yeah, it feels fresh again. To me it does, to us it does, on stage it does. It feels new, or just kind of exciting. But then again, there are things that are just like another gig: it’s loud, and sometimes it’s not good, sometimes you’re tired. But the basic thing is that there is maybe something new that could happen and this is just the beginning of it; this is just dipping our feet in the well. It’s good.
The new album feels reinvigorated from Face The Truth, which obviously you did pretty much yourself.
It does. Just more drum and bass undercurrent of action. Face The Truth has a couple of songs like that, but a lot of them are just built up by me. They’re virtual demos. They’re cool, and it’s a sound. But the overall feel of Real Emotional Trash is pushing on the edge of the tempo even though it’s mostly mid-paced. You can feel heavier muscles.
The photos of the studio where you recorded it look amazing (pictures here) - it’s like a gorgeous holiday home. Where were you?
In Montana. It’s this guy’s mansion and it’s really beautiful. That part of America is especially wild. There’s bears running around. You’ll see bear shit when you’re going on a hike. And you take one of these spray cans, but you don’t know, if you run into one, if that’s going to do anything, and supposedly it doesn’t, I later read. But they’re worse, I guess, right before hibernation. It’s a beautiful area. It’s great for nature, hiking and skiing - more than for making rock ‘n’ roll - but we did it.
You had problems with the mixing didn’t you?
Yeah, it probably shouldn’t be such a focus. It’s not like anything other bands haven’t gone through before, but our tape started shredding, we had mixing problems a little bit, we had to find a new studio - some hardship, just as much as the settlers of the west had the struggle to get there, going through the snow, and they lost a couple of wheels on their wagon, the aunt died of tuberculosis or something… it was kind of like that for us…
But you came through it, you reached the end…
We made it! What exists is a true representation of that struggle. It’s a testament to it, really!
So many people are still getting inspired by your music. Who are you enjoying listening to at the moment? Do you still enjoy listening to and discovering stuff?
Discovering’s hard. It’s more like I’m given things. Archie Bronson Outfit, I like those guys. They’re on Domino. This band Blitzen Trapper we just toured with, that was fun to see them. It’s hard for me to get out, unfortunately, so I don’t get to see as much live music, which is my favourite place to see a band or be committed to a band. Lavender Diamond - that name I can’t stand, but they were pretty cool. The singer was really charismatic. I was into her as a singer. She has a great voice. When we were at Green Man, Vetiver played and they were good, and seeing the Super Furries’ Gruff do his thing by himself. I saw James Yorkston there, and that was my favourite thing I saw during the whole festival. There’s this band called Raccoo-oo-oon from Iowa that’s like this organic noise rock band. My friend gave me their record. That blew me away. There’s always new stuff. My friend’s in Endless Boogie - that’s just a shameless plug. They’ve got this singer who’s an absolute hippy freak. He scares you. And they play a straight-up wall of sound. It’s hard rock, but it’s not really being played this way anymore. Sometimes you’ll see girls dancing to it - it’s kind of cool to see.
There’s something a bit depressing about an entire venue of blokes doing a bit of chin rubbing, isn’t there?
Yeah, there is. It’s not why you get into it. There was this guy, I think he was in The Godfathers or something, in Mojo in a sidebar, and he was saying: “I want stars on stage. If the band looks like the roadies then they’ve lost the point and it’s completely horrible.” But 90 per cent of the time the band is boys, and I don’t want to sleep with them, so I don’t need them to dress up so much for me, you know? I want some image, some coolness and some decent clothes - I don’t want a complete slob up there - but I don’t need a star up there. I want the music to be the star. You’re dressing up for the girls, really. Music is not made by true stars. It’s made by the little people like Joy Division or something - they were the little guys who came up and made the big music. The Smiths, too - the little underdogs. They made the people’s music. They became stars afterwards, but they weren’t stars. They got elevated by the people. Their music made them the stars. I hate that attitude - it’s a sort of British attitude about it. Suede tried to have that attitude, too: “We need more glamour and more stars.” You become a star because you are. Go to Hollywood if you want to do that. There’s plenty of people ready to make your fake thing there. I’m picking a fight with this Godfather. He’s probably a totally nice guy.
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Video: debut single ‘Jenny & The Ess-Dog’ on Letterman
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Photos: David Torch