The tendency for some writers to indicate every time their subject laughs has always felt like a journalistic faux pas of sorts. Early on in my 50-minute phone call with Stephen Malkmus, it’s clear that ignoring this particular unspoken rule of thumb would result in the following conversation being littered with dreaded “[laughs]”. You see, 51-year-old Malkmus has every claim to the status of being music’s supremely chill quinquagenarian. Brimming with the same slacker, yet distinctly erudite spirit that steered Pavement through the 1990s, and his own solo career into increasingly wonderful territory since 2001, he is testament to following one’s creative impulses without neglecting the pure and perfect simplicity of what it means to be an artist.
Malkmus has just released his solo chef-d'oeuvre, Sparkle Hard. It’s packed with every bit as much of earworming aplomb and genre-warping majesty of anything he has released in his thirty-year career to date. Ahead of a four-month tour that takes in the UK and Ireland in October, we talk to him about the price of nostalgia, his “childlike” approach to songwriting, the new Arctic Monkeys album, listening to old Pavement songs on YouTube, fellow Stephens, reunions, Kanye’s philosophy book, and more.
DiS: Good morning, Stephen. It’s just turned 9am where you are. Are you a morning person?
Stephen Malkmus: By force of duty. I couldn’t sleep past 9 o’clock any more. I don’t think it’s possible once you’ve been getting up at 7 or 6.55am. I can’t sleep more than seven hours anymore.
Apart from a spell in Berlin from 2011 to 2014, you’ve been living in Portland since Pavement broke up in 2001. How are you finding it there nowadays?
You know, in almost any city you can crack a code and find people that are doing it right. That’s sort of how Portland is. There are some people who are doing it wrong here too and it’s a bit crowded now and rainy. Those material realities aren’t so great. Then again, if it was too empty and sunny all the time I’d probably find a reason to complain, too. Where are you? You sound like you’re from Ireland.
That’s right. I’m in Belfast.
Aren’t you guys technically part of England?
Technically, it’s part of both the UK and Ireland. It’s a little complicated...
That’s bizarre. Pavement played Belfast once. I don’t remember much but people were gracious and grateful to have us there. We went to this really cool old pub, that a lot of tourists probably go to, with little booths. It’s not far from the quote-unquote most bombed hotel or something. That was a beautiful place. That’s all I remember about it - that and the nice people.
Yeah, there are some nice people here. You’ve just released your seventh solo album, Sparkle Hard. I think it’s probably your strongest solo album to date.
I made a conscious effort to make – I don’t know if relatable is the right word – but an album that’s approachable but still weird. We have the studio here in Portland, which I’m going into after I talk to you, to work on another project. Chris Funk, who runs the studio, he plays guitar in the Decemberists and he is a very connected guy within the music community. He had a different perspective. I sometimes feel a little closed off in a secret prism and he kind of broke that open by getting other players in. That was cool.
Was he involved in the inclusion of the likes of piano and autotune on the album?
The autotune was my decision, for better or worse. But he was involved in getting some strings and fiddles in there. He would hear the songs and have opinions about things to add to them, which I was open to, you know? He had the ability to just call somebody. I don’t have a manager or Rolodex, I’m just kind of used to ploughing ahead. All the numbers on my phone are of my kids’ teachers and old friends who don’t play music. His is filled with cool shit and cool people he’s bumped into before. That’s awesome.
I get a real sense from listening to the album that you took the time in the studio to get the songs just right. For me, highlights are ‘Kite’ and ‘Difficulties/Let Them Eat Vowels’ – with that one, I’m getting Quasi at the start but instead of Sam Coomes it’s you, before evolving into Neu! territory featuring cyborg Stephen Malkmus from the band Pavement.
Totally. That’s a low filter mixed with my real voice. I bought this plug-in, it’s called Nectar. These days you can buy so many plug-ins for like $180 - the price of a guitar pedal. You can totally entertain yourself at your house. You just run through different sounds. I’m approaching it from almost a childlike perspective and a very low talent level. I’m just fucking around and entertaining myself and trying to make something that sounds dope. It all comes with experimenting with stuff. In some ways, it’s baby steps, because other artists are very good with things that just sound of this time – whatever the sound is of today. I’m not going to say that I have any hope of doing that, so a song like ‘Kite’, that one’s been around since the last Jicks album. We tried to record it but it just didn’t have a good vibe, so I went back to the original demo of it, then I re-created it and stuck on an acoustic intro. It took a few years for it to come to fruition, which is pretty cool.
The way it evolves from the acoustic intro into the full-blown second half - that contrast gives the impression you were really having fun with it.
It’s interesting - on ‘Difficulties/Let Them Eat Vowels’, it has the same chord progression in both songs but you can’t entirely tell. It’s sort of an experiment to see how much you can warp something. How many levels of concept do you go through? You start with just four chords - it’s a major, then a minor, up three steps. How do you warp that into something that’s interesting at this time? That’s why they’re connected. I thought, “Why don’t we just go a little progressive here?” The first part is sort of Scott Walker, Mercury Rev, Jason Spacemen-type effort or something. I don’t know that band that well but I know what he sounds like. Then it goes into the rock band thing – which we tend to do when we’re jamming.
I’ve noticed a lot of people mentioning ‘Bike Line’, which doesn’t surprise me at all. There’s the lyrical backstory there with the death of Freddie Gray on that one. You don’t often put stuff that’s in the news into your songs. Were you hesitant to do it?
Yeah, I was a little hesitant because I made the tune up in my basement by myself. You sort of project – when I write a certain kind of song I sit and try to imagine what it is. I try to imagine the audience while I’m playing. I’m thinking of characters. “What am I’m hearing? Oh, I’m this kind of guy.” Off the top of my head, I started singing, “Another beautiful bike lane.” That’s what I came up with, which made me think of a character. “Here I am, in my safe, European home.” Just thinking, Jesus fucking Christ, these people going on about their bike lanes. Don’t we have more, deeper things to worry about? For the next part, whatever – we just made up a ham and eggs, rock n’ roll bit with the boogie-woogie piano and stuff. I kind of stayed with the idea of lifestyle and first world problems. It could have been obvious – sort of, do we need a white guy making fun of first problems? That’s when I was like, I can take it to something that’s really fucked up. It’s a little like the Beatles’ ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’ or something. You say something that’s totally fucked up but with a sweet melody.
Do you spend a lot of time crafting and analysing your lyrics much nowadays?
Yeah, I do. Even more so now. When you’re writing tunes, I don’t know if you do it too, you get a vibe going and you listen back and think, “Now, this is a song.” What is it about? What words can excite me? And what do I react to? And taking into account what others will perhaps see in it. I do think about that. Some things are vibe lyrics, I call them. Sometimes something that flows well will be more important than the message. Even the guy in the Arctic Monkeys talks about that. At least on their first album, he did some amazing lyrics.
Have you heard the new album?
I haven’t but I read a review of it. It sounds interesting. It sounds like something I’m going to like more than the ham and eggs rock n’ roll that they play.
I didn’t particularly like it, but I can imagine you appreciating parts of it.
I’ll definitely check it out. It’s on Domino so I can get one...
Domino is probably the best record label around, right?
Yeah. They’re so sick. I like that new Jon Hopkins record. I think that’s cool sounding. It’s really interesting.
Have you caught him live or perform before?
I haven’t. I’ve only heard these new songs on the Internet and they sound awesome. He seems so together, like he just knows what he’s doing. He’s handsome, and his name is Jon Hopkins. I’m jealous of his complete awesomeness sometimes.
You’re a fan of electronic music generally, right?
Yeah, I just tweeted about the new Oneohtrix Point Never record there. It looks so cool, I know it’s going to be good. The album cover is so mysterious, I just want to know what’s going on in there. He’s, like, Sixties Aphex Twin with hipness. Aphex Twin is not hip, and that’s what’s cool about him. He’s just a nutter.
That’s one way of putting it. You’re pretty active on Twitter. Your presence on there is kind of how you approach your lyrics – it’s a layered joke, but you’re probably not thinking about it too much as there are different levels.
Do you see it as a distraction, something useful, or a way of ridiculing the concept of social networking in itself?
It depends. Half of it is news and think pieces that are easily clickable by quasi-intellectuals and politics. For me, it’s a mix. Yeah, give me a couple of sentences or weird memes and stuff – I like that too. You know, social silly things. There’s that. But it’s also my news source, in a way. If I see an interesting article that I think people should read I’ll forward it on, if I read it. There’s some self-promotion and it’s a tool that we can use to get what our vibe is across, too. It’s free. It’s not free in that there’s labour involved in what we do, in deciding what to write. For me, it’s partially a promotional tool, as bizarre as that seems. My concept of promotion. But I’m not just going to retweet every positive article about the Jicks. Sometimes I will, but I don’t use it for that.
You’ve got four odd months of touring around the States and Europe ahead of you. Obviously, you’ve toured quite a bit in the past. Do you enjoy doing it and what do you get up to when you’re not on the road or soundchecking?
The idea is that I will enjoy it. We love each other and we like to tour and hang out. But it’s a lot of work – there is driving and setting up and playing. Once you’ve got everything set up and you’re up there, it is great but in rock n’ roll there’s all this gear. I do get jealous of people who just bring a laptop. There is a lot of work and you can’t really just party your way through it. It’s one way or the other. You either can go into it thinking, “I’m going to get drunk a lot and feel shitty every morning and I’m going to plough on that way”, which is one way that some people have dealt with it.
Or you approach it like, “I’m going to save my voice and not do some of the things that I’d like to do because I’m working.” I was talking to Chris – he just went on a tour with the Decemberists and he was like, “It’s almost tiring that you have to go to the cool coffee bar in the town.” You’re kind of forced to interact with towns that you go to. Or you’re just going from the hotel room to the place to backstage and you’re kind of trapped back there, but you’re also kind of forced to go out. Sometimes you don’t feel like doing that. That being said, going on the road in America, there is still some Jack Kerouac-like going out and being on your own and sharing your iTunes with others in the car and pulling over at funny little stops. That still exists, to an extent.
You speak about it semi-romantically. I’m sure these things don’t really change. Do you ever get nostalgic about being on the road with Pavement?
Sometimes. Just the vibe of growing the band and having people be into it and being really psyched. We never made it to the top of the table that way, but still, some rock n’ roll fantasies were happening, relative to us. I do miss that excitement and not knowing where it was going to go next. It’s not that that can’t happen again, but once you’ve done a little bit, it’s probably not as much of a thrill. That comes with ageing and things evening out a bit. They have to, you know? Or you’ll just die.
That’s not ideal. I’ve got to be honest, any time I’ve read an interview with you over the last few years I get a little knot of dread in my stomach, just waiting for the obligatory “Pavement reunion” question…
It’s alright. If people want to ask a question it’s up to me to say if I don’t want to answer it, and I always answer every question, which is ridiculous but…
That’s just you being a good guy. And I guess a lot of people interviewing you are doing it because they like you and your music, and they’re not getting paid for it or whatever.
That’s true, yeah.
But I read a recent interview where you said, “A reunion with Pavement would just feel like another 1990s reunion.” Maybe give it a few more years until the 1990s feels far enough away?
That could be an idea. I get offers, even in the Jicks, to play with other groups from that era – like package tours and stuff. Maybe that’s where it might come up. It’s like, how do you want to present your current thing? Is it nostalgia or is it today? I like to go see bands that I love, and I don’t care that they’re old or for whatever reason they’re doing it. If I want to go, I want to go. I want to hear those songs. I don’t think it’s a definitely bad thing but it’s just something that’s uncool. I guess for me I’m having more fun and more jazz talking about Jon Hopkins or something that’s happening today than some things that already happened, or trying to contextualise that. I still have to do that – I still have to contextualise the 1990s. In the Jicks, it’s less overt. But you have to unpack your history and how it relates to the other thing. That’s important as it gives some context and it gives a reason why you should hear this, rather than just another geezer with a guitar.
Brendan Canty from Fugazi has this new band the Messthetics with Joe Lally from Fugazi and Anthony Pirog. I recently interviewed him about the Messthetics but the Fugazi question crept up. Even though I was wary, he was like, “It’s totally fine, we can talk about it but we’re really enjoying what we’re doing now.” I can see the parallel with the Jicks because I think Sparkle Hard is right up there with what you’ve put out over the years and I think a lot of people are in agreement with that.
I think that’s great. Fugazi were so in the moment and into what they do. I can just see – he just thinks about it in terms of the day-to-day of being in the band. He probably doesn’t think about what they represent. I’m sure it felt good and it was worth keeping their principles of what they were doing. That was something they got off on a little bit, too; it’s not like it was totally just giving. So, yeah, I can see him being like, “That’s just the band I was in. That’s what we did.” He probably doesn’t get to talk much about the music – the actual music and the playing. Sometimes that might come up – his drumming and how they made up this song or that song, or what he was really thinking. You might get a big charge from him when you ask those kinds of questions, but that can also be a little too fan geeky. You want to keep it open to more general things.
That’s interesting, because if this wasn’t for a straight interview piece I’d probably just ask you about certain chord progressions, intervals, changes and stuff like that.
That’s why when you asked me about ‘Difficulties/Let Them Eat Vowels’ I opened up. I was like, yeah, that was this – you hear the person perk up, instead of asking the person about the band, what it means. Everybody’s kind of like, “Uhh, I kinda feel this…” Then you’re kind of reaching for the right tone, because it’s not really based on facts.
On which note, do you ever secretly listen to old Pavement albums on headphones?
Not my headphones, but I listen to individual songs on YouTube, trying to just figure out what song would be interesting for the Jicks to cover or what would be right. I do get surprised by certain tracks. Then I hear stuff about the production or things I don’t really remember and how they sound today. That’s kind of interesting. Yesterday, we practised a Pavement B-side, ‘No Tan Lines’. We sounded pretty good but then I was like, “Maybe we should just do ‘Shady Lane’?” Pavement never really did that song justice. I mean, it was good but I thought we could have done it better, in a certain way – a little more up and stuff. I was like, “Maybe we should do that? That would really freak people out.”
You should do it. Just play it in Dublin and nowhere else.
Good idea. Maybe I will. I’m going to mention it at the rehearsal we have this afternoon. Just be like, “We should do that” and see what the group thinks.
That would be a good way to sell tickets, if you were to choose just one date randomly from the upcoming tour – you could put out a tweet being like, “We’re going to play ‘Shady Lane’ in this city. Ticket link below.”
That’s true, because we are playing a show in Pittsburgh and supposedly it’s not fully sold out, so, yeah, you’re giving me some totally manipulative ideas. Thank you.
I expect to see this on Twitter at some point in the coming days. Speaking of Twitter, Kanye West has, of course, been reportedly writing a philosophy book recently. Would you read it?
I probably wouldn’t read Kanye’s book, because I just couldn’t believe it was anything other than a publicity stunt. Not that almost everything people do is a projection of their status or something; I don’t deny that there’s some of that, even when you don’t think it’s happening. We’re doing that more than we think. I get enough of Kanye from his music. Sometimes these country musicians in America, they get mad, because maybe they’re conservative or something, and one of their cohorts says, “Fuck Donald Trump” or something and they respond, “Stick to music! That’s what you’re good at it.” But when I really like someone’s music, like Kayne West’s, I’m almost like, “Yo, stay in your lane! I just want to hear the songs. Don’t pollute it with this other stuff.” But I understand. It’s not for me to say. I’ve done a lot of interviews – it’s free promotion but it is half an hour of my time. People often ask me funny questions, almost like, “What is he going to say about this?” and I’ll answer it. So I can see people thinking that about me too, like, “I don’t need to know what Steve thinks about taxidermy” or something.
Speaking of which, whatever happened to the squirrel from the ‘Stereo’ video?
That’s a good question. We don’t own that prop any more. I mean, it’s a real squirrel but we don’t own the prop. It was made by this amazing artist called John Kelsey – the video is essentially him conceptually slumming with Pavement. He also made the ‘Father To A Sister Of A Thought’ video. He’s a really cool dude. I could ask him, he might own it.
On the ex-visual collaborator note, would you ever work with Lance Bangs again?
I would but he’s so busy. He lives here in Portland. His wife, Corin Tucker from Sleater-Kinney, I see her around more, because he’s always off travelling. He has such a full schedule. But he’s the sweetest guy, so nice and I’m sure he would help out anybody who has a question about how to exist in the film world. He did it all. It’s really impressive. He did it just through sheer force of will and the willingness to carry a camera on his arm.
Absolutely. Did you see the Slint documentary he did, Breadcrumb Trail?
I did. It’s great, right? Slint were amazing. Oh my God. Spiderland? I sometimes do these list pieces and I need to do some more where I talk more about my own cohorts. But I think that people know how awesome Slint are already so I kind of skip it, even in my own mind.
Not quite Slint territory but do you have a preference over Cardi B and Nicki Minaj?
Cardi B seems to be a little more real or something. Her story is intense. In as far as the music and the overall weirdness, I’d have to go for Nicki, because I’m older too and I’ve more backstory with her. Like that song ‘Stupid Hoe’? “You’re a Stupid Hoe!” That video is so funny. She’s awesome.
Good choice. You’re obviously called Stephen, Stephen. You’re one of the better Stephens, but who is your favourite Stephen and why?
“Little” Steven Van Zandt, man. Steve McQueen is always the one that we Steves take as our, “Look how cool Steves are” Steve. Steve Drozd from the Flaming Lips. He’s an amazing drummer. I would have him. Isn’t there a Steve in New Order? Him too.
Morris, yeah. Two drummers… interesting...
We’re all searching for good drummers. You know that from being in a band. We will just totally kiss their asses because they make the band. For better or worse, it’s true.
It is. Do you think ex-Jick Janet Weiss, also of Sleater-Kinney, Quasi and Wild Flag, is one of the best drummers of all time?
Yes, she’s amazing. She has this project with her boyfriend, and I’m going to play a guitar solo on it soon. I was supposed to do it a month ago but time ran out. She has new stuff in the pipeline. She toured with Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett for a bit. She’s amazing.
Final question. You’re 51. If you were to sit down and bend the ear of 26-year-old Stephen Malkmus, what advice, if any, would you give him?
Well, I had already made some mistakes with my art before I was 26 to know you think you want to be like these really awesome musical heroes. I’m not saying I wanted to be in Queen or something but you would hear something by Queen and think, “I could never do that”, but you might try and be like that, or make music where you’re getting close to your heroes. And then you make something else, maybe, that is broken-sounding or small or things that you think are negative. They turn out to be the positives. In finding your voice, don’t be afraid of some things that you are afraid of – things that might be vulnerable or revealing. I’m not saying go full emo or anything but that kind of thing is good advice.
Sparkle Hard is out now via Domino Records. For more information about Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks, including forthcoming UK & EU tour dates, please visit their official website.