Stephen Malkmus on Kiss, the Milwaukee Bucks, and his first punk song

Stephen Malkmus on Kiss, the Milwaukee Bucks, and his first punk song

Everybody has to start somewhere. In Firsties, we talk to some of our favorite pop-culture figures about the many first steps along the way to their current careers.

Stephen Malkmus is an indie-rock elder statesman at this point. The one-time frontman of ’90s darlings Pavement, Malkmus and his bandmates spent a decade perfecting the art of hyper-literate, lo-fi rock. Solo since the turn of the millennium, Malkmus and his new backing band, The Jicks, have continued that trend. The group’s sixth and latest record, Wig Out At Jagbags, is out now.

The first song written for Wig Out At Jagbags
Stephen Malkmus: “J Smoov” might have been the first one. That one might even be from pre-digital days, before I had Pro Tools. I had that one for a little while. I brought it back to the floor.

The A.V. Club: How long ago was that?

SM: That demo might be as old as five years old, but it doesn’t sound much like what we’re doing. It doesn’t sound exactly like we did it, because of the way I did it with the tools and it didn’t have vocals and it was a light jazz-feeling thing. It’s a whole new feeling with a band and how people play and how it sounds with real instruments, not fake saxophones and digital drums and those kinds of things.


The first time he played with the current iteration of The Jicks
SM: “Iteration,” that’s a fancy word. It was some practice in Joanna [Bolme]’s room. I can’t remember it, though. It was an unremembered first.


The first song he ever wrote
SM: I know that pretty well. It was a punk song, and I do remember it.

AVC: What was it called?

SM: “Psychopath.”

AVC: When did you write it?

SM: That was in, like, 1981. That was the first song with lyrics and words. It went, “I’m a psychopath / I’m fucking weird / Better stay away, man!” Those were the first lines.

AVC: Do you remember why you decided to write your own songs, rather than continuing to play other people’s material?

SM: I got the hardcore bug. And songs were really stupid—a lot of them. We kind of liked really juvenile, stupid songs like “Anarchy Burger (Hold The Government),” which is a song by The Vandals. I thought that was good, so that’s on me; that’s not on them. And we liked the Angry Samoans and “Rodney On The ROQ” and [Dead Kennedys’] “MTV Get Off The Air” and Redd Kross’s “Annette’s Got The Hits,” just funny songs that weren’t particularly political punk. We didn’t have the art of Patti Smith or Malcolm McLaren, and we didn’t have the politics of working-class England or even the fashion politics of The Clash. We had funny and fast. We liked it fast and aggressive; we had energy and California sarcasm. Maybe the Dead Kennedys were responsible a little bit. They were also political and very satiric and kind of offensive.

AVC: California punk is different than, say, D.C. punk.

SM: Yeah, that was political and this was nihilistic fun. Bands like Fear and Angry Samoans, we’d be like, “That’s genius.” New York is okay if you like saxophones.


The first band he ever really loved
SM: It would probably be Kiss, at least when I was in charge of my own destiny in a certain way. Other things, luckily, someone else was leading me there. If I liked The Beatles, that was someone else’s curating. But Kiss, if you’re 11 years old, no one has to tell you that Kiss is cool. Someone might have, but it’s pretty obvious that they were like comic book characters come to life. That and there was—at least on the first album that I got, which was Hotter Than Hell—this kind of sex/mystery/magic-with-a-“k” on the back of the cover with all the foam and half-naked women. I didn’t really understand what that was, but I knew it was bad and dangerous and kind of naughty.

They went to a more cartoon zone later. Perhaps Destroyer—when they were drawn as cartoon characters—was when they fully became not just a rock band, but a glammy, bubblegum metal band that’s also sort of a comic book thing. I don’t know really.


The first song he learned to play on guitar
SM: Well, there’s “Smoke On The Water,” but I don’t know if I knew all the parts to it. I think I just knew the riff. “Susie Q” was one of the first sort of sophisticated songs I ever learned by Creedence, so I would say that.

The most sophisticated early song I ever learned—which was not the first song, but the most sophisticated song I learned—was “Something” by The Beatles. It has a lot of diminished chords in it and a coffeehouse troubadour from Stockton taught me that. He taught me “Sunny,” also, by Bobby Hebb, and some Jim Croce.


The first concert he ever attended
SM: It’s a close tie between [Barry] Manilow and Elton John. I can’t remember which one it was. It was probably Manilow.

AVC: You wish it was Elton John.

SM: Yeah. I’d like to be really cool and say it was Elton John, but I have to be less cool and say it was Barry Manilow, to be honest.

AVC: Did you go by yourself or did you go with your parents?

SM: Oh no, with my parents. I wouldn’t go to that alone. This was their idea. You wouldn’t have caught me there. I liked some Elton, but I didn’t like any Barry. You know how your boyfriend or your girlfriend drags you to some shows? Well, that’s how this was, except I wasn’t a boyfriend or a girlfriend, I was a son.

AVC: Well, that’s nice of them in hindsight. They had to pay for that ticket.

SM: True. It was. They bought the drinks and the Cokes and the popcorns and the McDonald’s before they took us out.


The first time he ever saw himself on TV
AVC: Do you remember the first time your heard yourself on the radio, or saw yourself on TV?

SM: No, but I’m trying to think of it. First, we were on MTV Europe. I remember that. They taped some of our concert. We played a song called “Here.” We were in a big venue and my hair was really too long and I looked, unfortunately, like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.

I still have people say that to me now, which is not a compliment. I spent a night in the Amsterdam airport; it’s a long story. Actually, it’s not that long. I missed a flight. With the European time, I was really busy and forgot. I thought the flight was at 9:59 and it was 9:59, not 21:59. So I got there and I was fucked and I had all this heavy stuff and I didn’t want to reintroduce myself to my friend’s apartment that I was staying at, and I was also embarrassed by my idiocy. So, I just stayed there at the airport overnight and it was actually pretty nice. There weren’t that many people there. It was kind of peaceful and there was stuff open 24 hours and they also have a pod hotel inside the airport. My wallet had been stolen from me, or something, so I had 50 Euros and nothing else, and I was just trying to get back. I couldn’t afford to stay there, so I loitered there and the lady there was super bored, so she was really chatting me up out of boredom. She told me that I looked like Shaggy. That was only six months ago and that’s not the way to keep me there, you know? If you want a friendly ear, don’t call me Shaggy.


The first date he ever went on
SM: I didn’t really go on dates except to a junior prom. That was obviously a full-on date with a carnation, or whatever you’re supposed to bring, and a girl wearing fancy clothes and stuff. It wasn’t a prom dress or anything, because we weren’t seniors, but that was the first, I’ll say, where I had to ask somebody. I was really nervous or whatever, because it was sort of a left-field ask and she was a little disappointed. She said yes, but maybe she was hoping for something better, like a senior or something. But no one else asked her.


The first book he ever liked
SM: I guess I liked the C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. I was really into that.

AVC: Why?

SM: Why did I like it? Because it’s good. Why do millions of other boys that age like it? And girls. Maybe I was attracted to the hidden Christian messages in there as an Episcopalian. I don’t know. The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe—it’s all there. Need I say more?


The first basketball player he ever really liked
SM: I almost can’t remember. There were a bunch of UCLA guys I liked like Marques Johnson. I also really liked Sidney Moncrief, who was a guard for the Arkansas Razorbacks and also for the Milwaukee Bucks.

I was really into the Milwaukee Bucks in ’76, or ’77. They had a cool team. They had a guy named [Brian] Winters that had a super shaggy beard. He looked like Garrison Keillor or something with a beard. I don’t know how he managed to star in the NBA, but those were different times. Moncrief was the real thing; he was a shooting guard that was super athletic, but he had bad knees, which I think did him in.

AVC: How’d you get into the Milwaukee Bucks?

SM: I don’t know. I really liked the Brewers, too. There was something about them. The Brewers were quite good back then, too. They had Cecil Fielder, who is Prince Fielder’s dad. They had Paul Molitor and Robin Yount. They were the outsiders, the “Bad News Bears” compared to the—actually, the Pirates were—but this year the Brewers had a fun vibe to them. And the uniforms were bright, funny colors compared to the Dodgers or the Giants or the A’s. It probably had something to do with the colors… and the players, too.

AVC: There’s also something appealing about a small market team with a funny name and a mascot that slides into a mug of beer.

SM: Yeah, it’s a funny name.

The history of sports teams with alcohol-related names is limited. There was a NASL team called the Oakland Stompers. They existed for a couple of years and were named after grape stompers. They had grapes on their pennant, because I have their pennant.

AVC: Do you think that’s why the A’s mascot is called Stomper?

SM: Maybe. I don’t even think of Oakland as wine country, but maybe they were trying to appeal to the Oakland soccer moms that were coming.

There’s also the [San Jose] Earthquakes, who are named after a catastrophe where lives were lost, so that was kind of funny. I know you can say, “We’re going to rock this place,” but I think after the Washington Bullets, there won’t be an earthquake kind of team. It’s not cool.

AVC: Yeah, it’s not the New Orleans Hurricanes; it’s the Pelicans.

SM: There have been Hurricanes, but there won’t be in the future. There’s the Miami Hurricanes, I wonder if they’re still called that.

AVC: I think they’re just referred to as the Canes now in an attempt to make people forget their original name.

SM: Yeah, that might be it. There’s also the Tampa Bay Lightning, and everyone says they know somebody that got hit by lightning, or that there was some fire that started in Idaho, because of lightning, so I don’t know. Maybe there are more natural-disaster names than I’m giving credit for.

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