Interview Stephen Malkmus: ‘Music Is Still Important To Me’

Effortlessly cool and nonchalantly erudite, Stephen Malkmus has defined an era.

Effortlessly cool and nonchalantly erudite, Stephen Malkmus has defined an era. Now 45, DIY caught up with him to talk about what inspires him to make music and whether being an indie rock icon will help him get to heaven.

Ask Stephen Malkmus to discuss his importance in the grand scheme of alternative rock and, of course, he finds the perfect bon mots: “People always say ‘Oh, you’re an indie rock icon’, but, you know, is that going to get me into heaven? I don’t know.”

This is a man who, with Pavement, led one of the most important bands of a generation and their reunion tour last year made people of a certain age weep tears of appreciation.

Pavement were always about Stephen Malkmus and his songwriting. He penned almost all of the band’s material, making their off kilter take on pop music - one which married obscure lyrical references with a perfect melodic nous - sound easy.

They produced five haphazard yet brilliant albums and a handful of EPs before finally collapsing in on themselves at Brixton Academy – and it was at Brixton where they returned last year, a decade later, to play four triumphant sold out shows.

We briefly touch on the ‘Pavement thing’. “I sound boring whenever I talk about it because all I say is ‘It was good’. There was a lot of love in the air. Sometimes I feel like I sound insincere.”

Now after that nostalgia-filled magical tour Malkmus is back to the day job of playing with the Jicks: “It’ll be interesting to go back to the real world with the Jicks. We’re just a real hard working band so we’re back struggling in the real world of bands instead of nostalgia.”

The good news is his new record, ‘Mirror Traffic’, is as focused and direct as anything he’s produced as a solo artist.

I ask whether the intention was to make a more immediate, ‘poppier’ record. “Intentional in relation to the last record. I thought it was fine for what it was. That record was getting to know Janet who was new. Her main excitement at that time was ‘I wanna be Janet and rock and get heavyish’ and so I indulged that side. But this time I was like we’re gonna concentrate on songs a bit more, a little more direct, less solos - more focusing on the vocals and that’s more pop I guess.”

It certainly seems like he has taken more control of the sound and focus of this album. “The band were a little more in line with the song, think of yourself as you’re in the wrecking crew and play to the track and not to your heart as much. Everyone liked it though. The reason people stay with me in that people are free to have some creativity within those constraints. Everyone wants a song, that’s the thing we all want to get out of the process.”

Asked to describe the album he sees it as having three gears: “there’s up beat, kind of rocking, there’s sort of angular and then there’s the slower jams.”

You might have already heard the up-tempo tracks ‘Tigers’ and ‘Senator’ while ‘Stick Figures In Love’, ‘Spazz’ and ‘Tune Grief’ are literate but angular rockers and catchy as hell. Then you have tender songs such as ‘Fall Away’ and ‘On No One (Is As I Are Be)’. The latter is like nothing Malkmus has ever done before and it’s sublime.

“I really like that because it’s so different.” Are there any other songs that he would pick out as favourites on the album? “A song like ‘Tigers’ - we were kind of surprised that people like that, but as it turned out the chorus came out really good – so I’d probably pick that one.”

A lot has been made of the fact that Beck has produced the record - the first producer to work with Malkmus since Pavement. How much influence did Beck have on the sound? “Whoever is in the control room has an influence on the sound that is big. They have likes and dislikes about drum tones and balance… everything but luckily I was in agreement with him almost always.”

“It doesn’t matter what you do as a producer as long as it comes out good. He could have done nothing and I wouldn’t mind. He did do stuff but the definition of what a producer does is so undefined.”

Whatever he did, it worked. Recorded at Sunset Sound studios in LA and at Beck’s home, the album sees Beck drawing out one of the most sharply defined albums Malkmus has produced as a solo artist. He also helped out by playing on some of the tracks: “Tambourine, keyboard, harmonica conducting horns on some songs - he could’ve played more it just didn’t come up. With guitar he’s pretty basic so we didn’t need him for that.’

So are you good friends? “He’s not a good friend, like I wouldn’t call him every time I go to LA. I might now that we’ve caught up. We sort of lost touch at the end of the 90s. I did come visit him a few times but then he went through some label changes and relationship changes and he kind of dropped off the map. But I always would think I’d catch up with him and I always knew he was the same dude he always was – just like me.”

He may say he’s the same guy but Malkmus is now married, has two kids and is moving to Berlin to live (“It’s an artsy city. There’s also some mundane reasons: it’s cheaper, we could get in schools for our kids”). So what inspires him to make a record now?

“At the basic level it’s writing songs - I get turned on by a really good melody and what I have in my head, it’s not really lyrics or words. It’s something that sounds vibey, a nice chord progression and sounds different to other things. That’s it really, the rest is carrying it through and bringing that to the band and the world eventually. And when people say ‘I dig that’ then I’m happy.”

I mention my surprise that someone perhaps regarded as one of the finer lyricists of recent times (this is a man who has written an imaginary history of R.E.M. and used a US Open tennis match as a civil war metaphor) is not that turned on by lyrics.

“Words are a source of panic for me and they’re extra tricky, finding the right voice and the right amount of reveal and unreveal. You’re limited by your imagination but also the phonetics and the things that sound good said are limited - some things just sound dumb to sing about.”

“I mean, I really like it when there’s good lyrics and I’m proud of it but I’m also running out of words and it’s a little bit frightening - but I’m not running out of songs.”

Yet the lyrical wit is still there. You’ve probably already heard the line from ‘Senator’ about blowjobs (and if you think you can come up with a better, cleaner way to end that line go here: Elsewhere ‘Forever 28’ is another song that showcases this: “That song is really about someone who is being a false narrator and everything’s cool but really you’re as scared as shit. It’s saying you’re never above it all it’s always a little bit scary.”

So, what does he hope for from this record?

“Just Top of the Pops and when I ask the Arctic Monkeys to support us they don’t feel too bad about it!” he laughs. “Just relevance really. I don’t know what to hope for, I try to be realistic I guess.”

“I just did press in France and Germany and there it [his influence] doesn’t seem like very much. In the day-to-day existence of a band you determine it by how big a venue you play or what your guarantees are. It doesn’t matter if you’re an icon or a survivor. For me it’s in this middle ground where we’re respected and have a great camaraderie with bands I’ve met and liked and are influenced by us. But there’s also shit like I wish we could do a bigger tour, an easier tour, where things are even cushier and everybody could buy a house. But we’re not young things so you’ve got to take it if you want to make music.”

And you can tell that he still does want to make music. “Music is still important to me and I’m still telling my story and I think I’m telling it well.”

He’s bringing his story to the UK in November. We discuss his relationship with a country that has embraced his ideas and his sometime Anglophilia. “I feel so American I always did so I was never a classic Anglophile but when I flew in yesterday it almost felt like I was coming home. I’ve been here enough to have that feeling – and I remember some great shows.”

And the tour promises to provide a treat for Pavement fans. “We’ve always had enough material. Lately I’ve been saying why don’t we play something, like one of the weirder ones off ‘Terror Twilight’ like ‘Speak See Remember’ – Pavement could never play that song. I played all the instruments on that because no one else could.”

Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks’ new album ‘Mirror Traffic’ will be released on 22nd August via Domino.

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