Stephen Malkmus: My Life in 15 Songs
A wise man once sang that you can never quarantine the past. His name was Stephen Malkmus, the year was 1994, and he had stumbled across something profound. Decades later, the zany, beautiful music he and Pavement were making in those days has transcended temporal limits, showing up as a Biblical influence on indie-rock bands from every subsequent generation. In 2010, when they put out a greatest-hits set to mark a brief reunion, they called it Quarantine the Past, like wizards trying to call back their most powerful spell.
On a recent morning at the New York office of his longtime record label, Malkmus is doing his best to make sense out of all that. He slumps back into an armchair, pulls a dingy orange-and-white baseball cap low over his eyes — he’s a teeny bit snoozy after attending a Brooklyn Nets game the previous evening — and thinks about his creative process in Pavement. “I was just trying to hit the notes and have it flow and maybe evoke something,” the 51-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist says finally, in a characteristic understatement.
This Friday, May 18, Malkmus obsessives can sink their teeth into Sparkle Hard, the seventh album he’s made with the Jicks since forming that band after Pavement’s 1999 breakup. It’s a superb showcase for his mature style of songwriting, heavy on the melancholy ballads (“Solid Silk,” “Middle America”) with a guitar anthem or two thrown in (“Shiggy”). There are, notably, fewer jokes on this album than the last couple. Malkmus demoed Sparkle Hard starting in 2015 at the “unglamorous basement studio” he keeps in his Portland, Oregon home, later recording the album with his bandmates — keyboardist Mike Clark, bassist Joanna Bolme, and drummer Jake Morris — and producer Chris Funk of the Decemberists. “I’m liking that people like it, and I’m trying to keep my positivity up, but who knows, you know?” Malkmus says of the album. “Every day’s different!”
With release day approaching, he chose 15 songs to sum up his life in music. Pavement are represented by the first and last songs on each of their five studio LPs (except for 1995’s Wowee Zowee, which ends with guitarist Scott Kannberg’s “Western Homes”; Malkmus picked “Half a Canyon,” the next-to-last song on that album, instead). The Jicks get a motley selection of five album cuts.
And what do these wake-and-baker’s dozen songs reveal about Stephen Malkmus, the man, and how he’s changed since the early 1990s? Your guess is as good as his. “I’m unfortunately the same person with more time and more life experience,” Malkmus says. “No big, fundamental shifts. I think it would have to be radical, like a religious conversion or sobriety, but that hasn’t happened. I say that kind of wistfully. But it’s too hard, isn’t it? Nobody wants to change.”
Single, 1991; Slanted and Enchanted, 1992
“Summer Babe” is the start of Pavement front-loading their albums with the catchiest song first. Shots fired by Pavement! It’s just three chords, if you can call them that, so musically, it’s all about what you can wrestle from those chords. How far can you go? The lyrics are kinda silly. It mentions “Ice Ice Baby.” There’s some imagery from Stockton, California, where we recorded it, mixed in with a cryptic story about a girl and a guy. I don’t think it makes all that much sense, but it’s got some cool imagery.
I was living in Hoboken or Jersey City when I wrote it. I said, “I’m not gonna mess around with this noisy art thing. I’m going to make some real songs that people remember.” So I had “Summer Babe,” and I played it for Kannberg. One thing I can say that’s good about Scott — I can say many things, but one thing specifically — is you know when he likes something. I remember showing it to him, and he’s like, “Yeah, that’s good, dude, you gotta do that one.”
Slanted and Enchanted, 1992
This one is very related to “Hip Priest” by the Fall. We were running out of time recording the album, and I was like, “I got this last one. I’m not even going to bother teaching it or doing any over-dubs, just get in here and play a waltz beat.” Just some frustrated California 22-year-old. It has a certain directness and freshness that makes it a nice closing for the album.
There’s another song on Slanted and Enchanted called “Conduit for Sale!” that’s very similar to “New Face in Hell” by the Fall. There’s a song called “Fame Throwa” that’s very Fall, especially the chorus. And “I’ve got one holy life to live” [a.k.a. “Jackals, False Grails: The Lonesome Era”] is “The Classical” done differently. So that’s four solid songs I can directly trace to the lineage of specific songs by the Fall. The rest of the album, I don’t really hear the Fall. But that’s a lot.
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, 1994
A couple years pass. We tour the world, get some success by our standards. We’re like the Cinderella story: We got picked, the shoe fit. We probably think we’re pretty hot shit, but we’re also so grateful that this even happened. So now I have to go back and think of some new ideas.
Around this time, we parted ways with the drummer on the first album [Gary Young]. He was kind of a hippie drummer wild card, and we fell out for multiple reasons. I was still working part-time as a security guard at the Whitney Museum in New York, and [drummer Steve West] worked there with me. I started jamming with Steve at his loft on South 5th Street, right by the bridge in Williamsburg. Steve’s got a different style — slower, groovier — so the songs become a little different with him.
“Silence Kid” starts with a broken classic-rock intro. It’s funny to hear us do that. Obviously we weren’t skillful rock stars. Then it’s spinning through a lot of hooks really fast, and all of a sudden it’s over. Lyrically, it’s some kind of subconscious thing. Somebody in the city talking to a friend — definitely not me. At the end, the guy is on drugs, and maybe he’s gonna masturbate. I just made some provocative lyrics and tried to sneak them by, like “What the fuck?”
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, 1994
As Crooked Rain was growing, the sound came to have some fake grunge, and some Eagles, and some Free, and some pop things. There were some lyrics about being in bands. It was almost conceptual — music about music. This last song encapsulates that. It’s a little bit tongue in cheek. My voice sounds ragged, like I’ve been having some late nights as a hipster in New York. “Every night it’s straight and narrow…” It’s kind of intense.
When I sang, “Goodnight to the rock & roll era,” I wish I had been more like Wire and actually wanted to kill rock & roll. We did neuter many of the silly things about rock, but we still embraced a lot of them, too, because we’re party kids and we like a Bo Diddley beat. I wasn’t saying goodbye to that. I was probably hoping it would keep going and that we would be the best ones.
Wowee Zowee, 1995
We went down to a studio in Memphis called Easely and recorded 60 percent of Wowee Zowee there. “We Dance” could’ve been a B-side, but you put it first and it becomes important to the album. It sends a statement. That was one of the only albums I sequenced by myself. In my mind, it all fit together.
I had another version of “We Dance” that was kind of glam-rock. It was a little “Taking Care of Business,” mixed with Simon and Garfunkel. But on the album, I did it in a down-and-out way, like the Frogs or David Bowie or something — a little torch song thing. I thought, “That’s a good introduction to the album.” It showed that we were doing something different.
“Half a Canyon”
Wowee Zowee, 1995
This song is pretty sick for a couple reasons. The lyrics are meaningless, so let’s skip the lyrics. In a song like that, they’re just there for decoration. But it has a really cool guitar tone that totally blew out the speakers of the Fender Twin reverb — this hideous, over-driven sound that I had never heard in my life. So I take credit for that.
I’m acting like Damo Suzuki at the end of the song. I do this scream, and I scream as though my life depended on it, and I scream as long as I could. I passed out nearly afterwards. I thought I was going to have an aneurysm. I screamed so hard that I scared myself. I never screamed like that ever again. But at least my scream exists on an album, instead of at some gig, you know?
Brighten the Corners, 1997
I wouldn’t say that Wowee Zowee was a success. We probably had a chance, had I focused a little more, to capitalize on the attention the band got for Crooked Rain. For whatever reason, it was squandered, and back to the drawing board we went for the fourth album. So we went to Mitch Easter — I can’t remember if it was Mary Timony from Helium or Matador who put that idea in our minds. Mitch had a studio in his house in North Carolina, this old house wired with vintage gear. We liked to go to the South to record.
“Stereo” is based around the lead riff, which is more like a bass line. That’s the whole song. The lyrics are in the realm of Beck or the Beastie Boys. I’m kind of rapping, but my voice sounds like there’s been air deflated from a football or something — just sing-speaking some wacky lyrics, trying to get a rise out of people, like with the Geddy Lee line. The “fact-checkin’ cuz” part probably had to do with my friend Hunter Kennedy, who started an amazing magazine called The Minus Times. But really I have no idea why I wrote any of it.
Brighten the Corners, 1997
This is kind of a jammer. The singer seems a little bit emotionally taxed by the song. It’s got those epic, Neil Young-y, last-song-on-the-album guitar solos. Slow feelings, pianos, echoes. The feels, before we even used that word.
“Spit on a Stranger”
Terror Twilight, 1999
This song has a Beatles feel to me. It’s a pretty song in the standard tuning, which, as Rolling Stone readers know, means tuning your guitar to EADGBE, in the way that the Lord told us to do it. And it has that Nigel Godrich production — he can make the average guitar sound so good. But in Pavement fashion, the singer has to say, “I could spit on a stranger,” which is a slightly bizarre hook. Kind of dark and fucked-up. It’s a sweet love song except for that. Maybe I was feeling the love for somebody. I can’t remember.
After Terror Twilight, it was nearing 10 years of the band, and I felt like it was going to be a struggle instead of a joy. I’m sure U2 has struggled through many albums and they’ve stayed together. But if it’s not fun, that’s going to come across in the recording. Maybe it’s good to stop when everyone’s got the love and the self-respect. In the end, it was more or less my decision [to end Pavement]. I tried to spin it as a positive: “It kicked ass. Let’s leave it as a relatively special thing in our minds.”
Terror Twilight, 1999
Some people might say that “Carrot Rope” is a rather odd way for Pavement to leave the Earth. Terror Twilight had a lot of interesting arguments about sequencing. In the end, one of the members of the band won out, and “Spit on a Stranger” went first and it was front-loaded. And one of the guys that wasn’t in the band that worked on it a lot wasn’t into that order, and he was right probably, but he wasn’t in the band, so….Anyway, I have no idea what’s going on with that song. Just completely absurd. Almost like a show tune.
Stephen Malkmus, 2001
I had just moved to Portland. It took me a year to find some people that I thought it would be fun to record with. I was oblivious. Through friends of a friend, I met Joanna and the drummer, Johnny Moen, and Mike on keyboard. It was fortuitous that they weren’t really working in any bands and they liked me.
That was the end of the music business, as I see it, around 2001. There was the Internet, and passing a torch maybe to younger artists like the Strokes and the White Stripes. It wasn’t my torch to pass. But all of a sudden it was a new century, and I was continuing on the struggle.
“1% of One”
Pig Lib, 2003
I was into some meandering British folk things — Mellow Candle, Fairport Convention — so I wanted to write my version of that. The lyrics are kind of stupid. They’re about a soundman listening to this band playing, and he’s getting blown away. Maybe he’s stoned. He trips out, and the song goes off into a dream world. The band is us, of course — who else could it be? Our sound man, Remko Schouten, from Holland… He’s not the first person to ever have a spliff while he’s working, but that’s that.
“Kindling for the Master”
Face the Truth, 2005
I did most of Face the Truth by myself, although the Jicks play on significant amounts of it. This is one song that nobody but me plays on — this indie dance thing that I recorded in my basement in Portland with a real tape machine. It’s based around a sample that I took out so I wouldn’t have to pay for it, or even bother to ask. I’m not going to say what it was. If “Kindling for the Master” was on a Pavement album and it was a tiny bit more together, people would’ve been into it, but as it is, it went by the wayside. I was in on a new genre without knowing it.
Real Emotional Trash, 2008
We had a new drummer, Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney, and she had in her mind that we were going to be a hard-rocking band and push each other to new heights of psychedelic expression. She’s a very ambitious person, and I was very lucky to get to make some albums with her and tour with her. “Elmo Delmo” reminds me of Janet and that era of the band. I loved it, but it was also like, how much more do we need of that, after we did it? It kind of exhausted me. But I like the lyrics in this one, for whatever reason. They’re trippy in the right way. It’s an acid-rock song, with “Led Zeppelin on badder drugs” lyrics. What kind of mystery will unfold?
Wig Out at Jagbags, 2014
This song is a little dark. It’s driven by an intense bass sound, almost like if the Pixies were into scaring people again. Lyrically, it has some rather complicated ideas about Christianity and the need for limits — something about how there can’t be morality without sin.
It’s got some funny things that have nothing to do with that, too. Like “I’m a connoisseur of scrapple.” I thought that was apropos of our world now. People are trying to make the best hamburger or the best taco or the best bacon, so I put in scrapple, which is a people’s cheap meat.
As we juggle through all this bullshit that I’ve made that is quality at times — cheap meat — it’s still there. A line like that could easily have been in “Summer Babe,” except I wouldn’t have been worrying about life-hacking fast food. So, yeah, times have changed.