Thursday, August 25th, 2011 | interviewZ, musiX, pdX
I was recently asked by Spin Magazine to hang out at Stephen Malkmus’ house and talk to him about random objects that were ineteresting or held some sort of significance to him. I closed the e-mail, changed my underwear and schemed how I would call in sick to my day job in two weeks. “There’s something going around,” I schemed.
I rarely get starstruck these days—only Rhett Miller holds that distinction—but that’s only because he’s so darned good-looking. Malkmus is a pretty handsome fellow, too. And aside from a few more gray hairs, he’s hardly aged. But I wasn’t starstruck—this was more like, “I’m going to hang out with Stephen Malkmus. At his home. What?”
I walked up to his door, which was attached to a very large, very old house in a cluster of other very large, very old houses near a popular park in Portland. His wife, artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins, answered the door. “He’s on his way,” she informed me. The videographer and photographers were already there trying to decide which room had the best light. It was my job to scour the home for quirky trinkets that would lend themselves to even quirkier answers. While the photogs began setting up their elaborate gear, the videographer Aubree and I headed to—where else—the basement.
It was exactly what you would expect: Records, guitars, some recording equipment, old books, genius-at-work clutter. We noted the signed copy of Sterolab’s French Disko on the wall, which Malkmus would later explain: “We did a big, long tour with them in Europe—and at the end we signed records and there were tears and champagne.” Sadly, there were no half-eaten Twinkies I could sell on eBay for a couple hundred bucks. The best part about all this? I was (sort of) casing Stephen Malkmus’ home because that’s what I was supposed to be doing.
Malkmus arrived about 45 minutes later, which doesn’t really qualify as “on his way” (man, he is such a slacker). He was wearing black jeans, a pair of white Adidas and a blue-and-white flannel (yes!) shirt. Atop his head sat a Detroit Pistons cap. Malkmus disappeared into the kitchen, and I could hear him and Jessica chatting, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. It sounded like married-couple talk. He re-emerged and we all introduced ourselves. I think I was the only one who was really familiar with/enjoyed Pavement and/or the Jicks. After some small-talk, Malkmus and I decided to scour the house to find more what-nots and what-have-yous.
We headed back down to the basement. He rummaged through a closet and pulled out a few things, including a small plaster sculpture of his head as a young child. I pointed out the Stereolab record. We made our way back upstairs. His two kids were not there, but the tell-tale signs were: toys, a nook with children’s books, scattered Cheerios on the kitchen floor. Malkmus disappeared upstairs and came back down with a framed photo of his mother as a young girl, a Jamaal Charles Jersey and some tape reels that included demos from Pavement’s Terror Twilight. After we rounded up what we thought were enough “curios” as he called them, we ended up back in the kitchen to talk about the new Jicks record Mirror Traffic and, of course, working with Beck.
“He gave me a call about two and a half years ago and he was just getting started in producing, and he’s like, ‘I’m a producer now, and I’d like to work with you,’ Malkmus explained. “I ran it by the band because we were thinking of ideas, and everyone really wanted to work with a proper producer—I think they were getting tired of the sort of willy-nilly way we were doing it.” Malkmus was making himself breakfast—English style—a fried egg and tomato on toast. Prior to that he had managed to sneak out for a smoke, which truly made it an English breakfast. It looked delicious … the food, not the cigarette.
“We did recording of the basic tracks in five or six days,” he continued. “It was pretty painless, and [Beck] was positive emotionally about everything and pretty mellow like a musician. He said, ‘I might be better at this than judging my own stuff.’ That’s one of the keys, I think, from the standpoint of the band—you want someone who can be like that, that doesn’t want it to be their thing, and can see what’s good about you. I don’t think everyone would be right for it, but he definitely seems to have a talent for it. And I think he’s going to be pretty busy.”
It’s true. Beck’s touches aren’t ham-fisted. Mirror Traffic is far less bombastic than 2008′s Real Emotional Trash, but maintains a warm quality that Malkmus was shooting for. “I didn’t really know what I wanted, I just wanted it to sound good—have a good fidelity that we liked. That’s what I was more worried about—having it sound too digital or modern.” Best of all, Joanna Bolme‘s bass is high in the mix—a good thing, as she’s truly a secret weapon (listen to Quasi’s American Gong for proof).
Recording stalled while Malkmus was out for a year on the Pavement cash-grab extravaganza. During that time he was getting antsy, as were the rest of the Jicks. We convened at the kitchen table, where he chatted between bites. (“Sorry I’m eating while we do this.”) The band finished things up this year and released the album’s first single “Senator” back in early June, a song with a memorable chorus that was accidentally timely in the wake of the Anthony Weiner political boner.
“The chorus is just what I sang for the part, and I just made that up—so, I don’t know, that just came from my subconscious,” he explained. “It wasn’t really like shooting fish in a barrel, to tease guys like that, or to be something that would be on The Daily Show.”
The Jicks released Mirror Traffic on August 23, the final album to feature longtime Jick/pal Janet Weiss, who will be focusing most of her attention on Wild Flag. Joggers drummer Jake Morris has joined the lineup, rounded out by Bolme and guitarist-keyboardist Mike Clark. The record is less jammy, filled with well-crafted pop that manages to keep Malkmus’ quirks intact. It might be Malkmus’ best, most Pavement post-Pavement release.
“For me I decided to make it a little more about melody. That could be what I’m better at. I can try to be a big shredder psych-rocker guy, but I’ll let the memorable vocal melodies be the thing you take from the song.”
Jake the photographer came in and told us they were set up and ready to go. I headed toward the bathroom. “Umm, there’s no toilet paper in there, but I can run upstairs and grab some if you need it.” As much as I wanted to tell Stephen Malkmus to grab me some toilet paper, I assured him it was only No. 1. When I entered the living room, he was seated, surrounded by his own artifacts—among them the plaster head, the Charles jersey (a gift from Pavement bandmate Bob Nastanovich) and his diploma from the University of Virginia, where he got involved in college radio and punk rock in a small city in an even smaller red state. (“It was sort of like a mini John Hughes movie—where you would find weirdos and freaks, and you’d be like, ‘Oh, you’re my people,’ amid the uniformity.”)
Malkmus has come a long way since then. He’s come an even longer way since the day his grandmother sculpted a plaster statue of his head. But not much has changed, and that’s a good thing. He’s still mindful of the DIY, punk aesthetic. He still reads poetry from obscure avant-writers like Louis Zukofsky and Tom Clark, who did the cover art for Mirror Traffic. And he still makes interesting music that means a lot to a lot of people. He’s not hip, but he’s not irrelevant either. Throughout the morning Malkmus joked that he’s too old for this or too old for that, or questioned his coolness. I think it’s something he must think about as he eases into middle age.
Of the dozen or so objects we end up talking about, it turns out that one of Malkmus’ most prized is a drawing by Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart.
“He is an inspirational musical genius,” Malkmus said. He wasn’t smiling, or even smirking when he said this. “You know, he played this really insane music that sounds like outsider music, but it was all planned out. He knew what he was doing, and he still made it sound like it was completely original. To me it’s an inspiration that somebody can be such a weirdo, but also be a calm artist.”
That statement right there speaks volumes. I think Malkmus is going to be around for a while. He’ll definitely continue to be one of the most relevant irrelevant artists of his generation. And he really is a cool dude.
“Senator” – Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks
“Tune Grief” – Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks