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Since splitting with Pavement in the late 1990s, Stephen Malkmus has commanded a fruitful solo career, parlaying spastic guitar-noodling and absurdist lyrics into four relatively well-received solo LPs. Malkmus' latest—Real Emotional Trash—was recorded with sometimes-backers the Jicks (now featuring former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss), and is a knotty, noisy collection of prog-pop jams. The A.V. Club recently chatted with Malkmus about his new band, living in Portland, indie rock, and Tom Cruise's "big glow of nuclear radiation."
The A.V. Club: This last recording session sounds like it was a real American odyssey: Portland, Montana, Chicago, Brooklyn.
Stephen Malkmus: Yeah, pretty much. We stayed north. We started in Montana, which is an odd place to go, in a way, but for us, it was within driving distance, and we could bring our gear over there. Then we [moved] to Chicago because the engineer, TJ, had worked at Wilco's studio. TJ was like, "I could get us in free to this studio." It is a great place, and it was really generous of Wilco to let us go there. Toward the end, when we mixed it, we needed to go to a cultural center like New York to validate everything. [Laughs.]
AVC: Was it frustrating to have to move around that much?
SM: I didn't mind. It was just one step at a time. We finished the basic tracks at that place in Montana, and then we were just like, "We need to do this now, so what are our options?" We considered everything. We didn't just stick to some plan, like the Iraq War or something, you know? When we noticed that there were some problems or something, we approached them one at a time instead of letting our ideology dominate.
AVC: Is it important to you to get out of Portland when you're recording?
SM: Yes. All of us have been here for quite a long time, and we know all the options here. Just to get something unique was my goal, just to go somewhere that I hadn't been, out of the comfort zone. I know the sounds of the rooms here. I know we could have done a good record here, but we wanted to be surprised by the air in a different place.
AVC: People talk about Portland—and the Pacific Northwest in general—as a kind of comfort vortex, which can be dangerous, in a way.
SM: It has that reputation. People get sucked in. But you know, you can turn that on its side and consider that a benefit—it's affordable for a band to live here, so they have more time to work on their stuff. It used to feel like it was a little off the grid. Not so much now. But if you're in Williamsburg, you feel like there's 40 other bands, and your influences are out getting cosmopolitans, and everyone is trying to be cool or something. And you really don't have to be cool here. I think that's a good thing—that you can feel sort of isolated here. But it is changing.
AVC: Do you feel like there are more bands there now than before?
SM: There's more young people, there's more awareness of the arts. The music scene is a point of pride in the city, I guess. As [the city] grows up, there's more of a cultural elite or something—that class has grown up from Nike and these advertising agencies and some of the tech companies. I don't know—[the city has] got some pride. But it's a different kind—not just "We're weird, liberal libertarians."
AVC: It seems like there was a big Northern California influx.
SM: Northern California and Minnesota, Chicago. When people decide to leave the cold climates of the Midwest, they come here. I think it makes sense, you know? Usually younger people want to go somewhere after college, or go away from their hometown. And they go to New York or San Francisco—at least, when I was younger, that was where people thought about going. And then they go back to like, Richmond, Virginia, or Milwaukee or something, wherever it is they're from. Portland is a good place for that, though, if you're just looking to spend a couple of years working in a café, or you don't know who you are yet. It's a safe, comfortable place. And those kinds of service-economy jobs—like, waitstaff jobs and stuff—they have some pride here. You can be a coffee-slinger and have some pride and be kind of cool here, whereas in New York City, you're going to work on Broadway at Au Bon Pain.
AVC: Besides going from The Jicks to just Jicks, the band dynamic feels a little different this time—it feels like more of a full-band record.
SM: Yeah, we've become more about the performance and what people are playing than the song or the songwriter's vision, I guess. It's more about the sound in the rehearsal studio and capturing that sound. In the Pavement times, it was more [about] existing on the tape, and it didn't really matter what people were playing—it was just a conglomeration of sounds, and the song was the band or something. And now I feel like it's a live band documented on tape—or computer, as it were. It's more of a living entity that we tried to get captured on a CD. It's a little more out of control, which is nice. The band is really good, and everybody's got a level of confidence in their musical ability. These are the kinds of things I would have never talked about 14 years ago. Other people talked about it all the time.
AVC: Janet Weiss and Joanna Bolme have played side by side in Quasi before. Was it an advantage for you to have two people who were already familiar with each other's styles and preferences?
SM: Yeah, definitely. They're into it. Joanna, she's been with me for a while, and so she knows how I'm going to play. Everyone has an internal rhythm, and she has figured mine out over time. I'm not much of a follower, you know? When I write the tunes, I'm leading the charge a bit more, and she knows how to rein me in. But if you're playing and singing, you're [also] kind of out of control more than if you're just playing the one instrument. Janet's also kind of out of control, in her own way—you know from hearing her on later Sleater-Kinney records and in Quasi that she's an avalanche. In a good way. So that creates a nice dynamic, and they're one of the better teams I've played with, as far as I can remember. I've never really played with a rhythm section, but they kind of qualify as one.
AVC: Do you think this particular incarnation of the Jicks will stick for a while?
SM: Yeah, no doubt. I mean, I want them to. I see it as a pretty solid band. I mean, we have to go out there and play and still love each other, you know? I don't see any blindsiding things happening. Janet plays a lot, she wants to play a lot, so who knows. Hopefully, like, Pearl Jam won't ask her to be in their band or something, and she'll just have to do it.
AVC: How is making an indie-rock record now different from what it was, say, 10 years ago?
SM: Well, 10, it's probably not so different. But 15 years ago, or when we started, obviously [the scene] was smaller. I just got back from England, and with the advent of these groups like Arctic Monkeys, and, I don't know, there are other ones—I can't remember who was on the cover [of NME] this week. But the major youth music is "indie." So I don't know. We just do what we do. I would quantify our sound as more underground than indie, in that it's not catering to a fashion, so much as indie happens to be a fashion now. But the underground lives on regardless. It always does. Because there are so many people making music, and there are enough people just making it to their own taste. In-your-face type music. The indie moniker has obviously grown with movies like Juno and The Arcade Fire or whatever. U2 wants to hang around with Arcade Fire. U2 didn't want to hang around with Pavement. It's too different, you know? Maybe they're better or something. Or maybe we were, you know, not a threat. The difference between U2 and Pavement was quite vast. It's grown narrower—closer, I guess. Radiohead being the biggest band in the world.
AVC: Do you think that's a product of cultural tastes changing? Or because of the Internet?
SM: Internet and advertising. It just seems new. There's pop stars like Kanye West—he's got Daft Punk on his thing, and is playing with that guy Jon Brion, who worked with Elliott Smith. Things kinda come together, I guess. Everyone's worried, and they want to get an association with something that seems new, that seems modern and of the era. So I don't know, it just all comes together. Of course, there's always a pop industry, pop stars, and radio music. That still exists. There's Mudvayne, Nickelback—radio music for people who don't love music, but like music. It's still there.
AVC: The word "indie" has been re-appropriated in so many ways. Do you feel a disconnect when a Pavement record is called the greatest indie-rock record of all time?
SM: Well, it's the greatest indie-rock record of a specific kind of indie. Like that Lou Barlow/Sebadoh song, "Gimme Indie Rock." He said it well. It came out of hardcore, because American hardcore was indie. Then he started smoking pot and listening to slow music, or admitting this '70s music was okay. And that kinda became the template for early-'90s indie rock. So yeah, we were one of the guiding lights of that. Not the best, maybe, but we were part of that. It's mutated into people just picking new influences. Everything can go through the indie vortex.
AVC: Everyone's trying to figure out what the new influence will be. Maybe Christmas music will be next.
SM: Christmas music, yep. Modern country. Country music has even been [turned indie]—Drive-By Truckers and these bands like that that I read about recently, they're part of it. It doesn't really matter, you know. They're just nervous and don't want the same influences as other people. They want to name-check different things.
AVC: The title of the new record is ambiguous—it works as an insult or a compliment. Where did it come from?
SM: Initially, it came from the chorus of the song. So just subconscious lyric-writing or whatever. It seemed to fit that song. But when it's taken out of that context as an album title, it has a more impressionist, expressionistic quality. You know, that's good for an album title. They're solid words, all three of them. They're very solid words. It's not two words, it's three, which is nice for me. To have a three-word title. Without "the" or "and." And the album cover is striking. Looks like some sort of liberal, environmental postcard or something.
AVC: Was that something you had a hand in designing?
SM: Yeah, I did. I designed it, but, you know, Matador, the art department, they make it come alive. Computer programs, too—they really finish it off. I have a lot of input in it, always have, and I'm not especially passionate about it. I still take it as a DIY thing, that you make your own cover art. That's part of it. You make everything. You don't have an art department. You have to make your own image. I don't know exactly how common that is. I don't know if Wilco designs their own things, or what the average Sub Pop band does. I'm not sure. But I just always assumed you were supposed to do it. It's not like there's so much at stake, either. Sometimes I'll send them stuff and they'll say, "That's ugly." And then I'll say, "Okay, I'll try something else." I'll take advice. I'm not just like, "This has to be it. I know." I'm very easily swayed when it comes to visual things. I mean, everyone puts visuals first. That's our strongest association. For men, obviously, visuals are an important thing. Madonna wouldn't be a star if she didn't have a visual side. Movie stars are much more psychologically in your brain than rock stars. Because we see them. Compared to the average music pop star, they have some big glow of nuclear radiation or something.
AVC: What about, like, Bono?
SM: You know, obviously, he's mega-famous. But I can't imagine him in a room with a movie star of equal… If you put him in a room with Tom Cruise—Tom Cruise is crazy, of course, but Tom Cruise is gonna have some kind of radiation coming off him that's greater than Bono's, even though Bono's an artiste, or whatever. There's going to be this heat coming off him, the movie-star heat, that's bigger because of the visual thing. Harmony Korine, he's a film director and he's a really nice guy—I've met him a couple of times. And the kind of fan mail he gets is obsessive and excessive and psychotic, almost. It's not like what Silver Jews got, or what Pavement got, you know? These people would have this relationship with him and his work that was times the fifth power, you know? And it didn't have to do so much with the power of his work, which is strong, but I think it had to do with the visuals. And the movie thing, it just blows up.
AVC: Presumably anyone who's spent any time digging through bins of old records has bought records based exclusively on cover art.
SM: Yeah, cover art. But then the person, the personality—like Björk, she had this stalker guy who killed himself eventually. Based on her videos, I'm sure. He maybe listened to her music in the dark without the videos on and developed this psychotic relationship to her, but I'm sure it started with pictures of her and her videos. Visual is dangerous.
AVC: In general, it seems like you think of lyrics less as means for narrative and more as instruments. When you sit down to write lyrics to a song, do you think about it in terms of what individual words and rhythms sound like? Or do you think about stories?
SM: I write with a filter of trying to avoid the completely obvious. Trying to avoid Lenny Kravitz-style rhymes. I guess I'll stray toward the more obtuse or weird image rather than a straight rhyme. If I can't come up with anything, I'm going to go toward the weirder. But that being said, it's all pretty organic in that I don't have to think about it too much. It just sort of happens. It's who I am. That's what I do. Like Morrissey or something. Morrissey does that. He's the way he is. He's not thinking, "I have to be like Morrissey," you know? He is Morrissey. [Laughs.] And that's how lyrics are for me. Whereas maybe David Bowie, or something, he's a trend-sniffing magpie, and that's his art, his talent.
AVC: So it's stream-of-consciousness—it just comes.
SM: Yes, I would say. Within reason. I'll look back at lyrics and try to make some sense of it. It's not completely off the top of my head. Some songs are pretty straight—well, not straight, but they are narrative. If the song structure is plain and simple, the lyrics will be more along those lines, as far as I'm concerned. There's a song called "Hopscotch Willie" on the record, and the guitar chords are very campfire-song rudimentary, and I thought it needed to have some kind of story, even if it was a weird story—it couldn't be psychedelic imagery all the way through. It doesn't go with the form. So there's some craft, I guess. Not every song has to be a crafted pop song. There's some indulgence there.
AVC: Do you ever step back and worry that there isn't a hook, or that it isn't catchy enough?
SM: Well, I worry enough to put some songs that aren't like that on there. I mean, I like that kind of music, so it's not really a problem for me. The goal is to make a 45-minute sound package, and if it's too much of a test—I mean, we did pull back. I don't like records that are too much of a test. It's not too much of a test for me, I guess. It's not too much information or too "unhooky" for me. So it's just, what we made up is what we made up. But we try to spiff it up enough to make it passable. It's presentable.
AVC: Do you think some of the vocal aggression of the early Pavement records—of your earlier work in general—has transferred to guitar here? There's less screaming, but more shredding.
SM: Yeah, that's true. It's inevitable for an older man. I'm more mature, I guess. Just like I shouldn't be out clubbing and taking Ecstasy, I shouldn't be screaming. But the guitar is another story. You can still rip with your fingers. There's still some aggression left.