“They’re just great guys, all of them. And they even gave us an extra couple hundred bucks for gas money to help get us home when we were flat broke at the end of the tour,” Jack White told me about Pavement back in 2009, recalling the then unknown White Stripes’ opening slot on the tail end of Pavement’s Brighten The Corners tour. The White Stripes’ experience wasn’t unusual. Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite once said, “Pavement would go out to dinner every night and let us eat off their deli tray, which we really appreciated because we were poor and hungry.” It’s a common refrain about Pavement, and it reflects a generous ethos learned from their own heroes, including R.E.M., Sonic Youth, and Echo & the Bunnymen.
While swapping emails with guitarist Scott Kannberg about the focus for this interview, it was clear he didn’t want to rehash Pavement’s recent Terror Twilight reissue or dissect the band’s upcoming fall reunion tour. But when it was suggested we discuss the bands who’ve supported Pavement over the years, and the bands they learned from early in their career, he jumped at the chance.
The A.V. Club caught up with Kannberg, bassist Mark Ibold, and percussionist/keyboardist Bob Nastanovich for a lengthy discussion about supporting acts, hilarious tangents on the band’s often shambolic live shows, and some keen insight into why Pavement’s casual genius resonates as much now as it did during their original run in the 1990s.
The A.V. Club: So before we delve into the openers on your upcoming tour, I wanted to touch on some of the great bands who opened for you in the ’90s and again in 2010. Polvo, The High Llamas, The Dirty Three, Stereolab, US Maple, and Royal Trux are just a few who come to mind. You’ve always challenged your audience, and they were nearly always amenable to being pushed a bit.
Mark Ibold: Yeah, I mean, we were sort of influenced by Sonic Youth in that respect, as they always had interesting bands playing with them, us included. [Laughs] Just choosing bands that wouldn’t be the obvious choice. I’m thinking about US Maple. They were so loud and dissonant and experimental. Royal Trux was another band like that.
AVC: I recall Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux saying a few years back on social media that she wasn’t a Pavement fan, and Bob [Nastanovich] responded that he was fine with that. I get the impression all of you guys were. You loved them even if they weren’t into your music.
MI: Yeah, we were Royal Trux fans, and they played some great shows. But I’ve got a funny story about them touring with us. There was one time they’d had a tough show in a small town, maybe Norman, Oklahoma, and they were playing to a young audience who probably barely knew Pavement, and there were some dumb dumbs yelling at them, and they were bothered by it. So Bob was doing whatever pre-show stuff he does during their set, pacing and drinking. I’d been watching and it was tough. I was kind of grimacing. So shortly after their set ended, Jennifer came into the dressing room not feeling so great, and Bob walked right up to her and said “Great set, Jennifer,” and gave her a big bear hug, and walked away before she could say anything. [Laughs] The next day our tour manager wanted to talk to us, and Neil from Royal Trux had said to him that they didn’t want to hear any comments about their shows from anyone in Pavement again. Everybody looked at one another and said, “What?” Except for me. I’d seen what had happened and explained what had gone down. [Laughs]
AVC: You’ve run the gamut of openers, from bands like The Royal Trux, who never had a whole lot of mainstream appeal, all the way to The White Stripes, who became massive shortly after playing with you.
MI: Wow, I’d forgotten The White Stripes even played shows with us! The first day we played with them we ate near the venue and came back to hear them soundcheck and they sounded like Zeppelin with Jack White’s singing and the guitar riffs. And then we walked in and they looked like teenagers! They also had another guy, from the Greenhornes in their band who was amazing [Jack Lawrence].
AVC: What about the bands you played with back in 2010. It seemed like you chose a lot of the ones who played NYC. Any memories of those shows?
MI: Wow, there was Times New Viking, The Beets, Thee Oh Sees, and a lot of others. But I actually missed most of their sets because I’d just had a baby, so I was really busy and really only able to play our set and then leave.
AVC: Are you excited to tour again? It’s hard to believe it’s been over 10 years since the last reunion in 2010.
MI: Well, this tour isn’t gonna be perfect because we haven’t done a whole lot in a while, and we’re not in the groove yet. So there’ll be mistakes. And the COVID policies are driving us nuts. It’s like nothing that’s ever taken place before. This has changed everything with our crew and the protocol and how everything’s working, and the quarantine. That kinda shit never happened before. It’s really frustrating. But I’m really happy to be playing shows at all, and hopefully things will run smoothly once we’re out on the road.
AVC: There’s almost a mythology surrounding you guys, which is great. And you have such a young following. People are so excited for these shows.
Scott Kannberg: Well, bands like Wilco and The Pixies come around every year or two so there’s not the same excitement associated with that, but we’re doing it every 10 years, and that’s more exciting I think.
AVC: You remind me of R.E.M. through the years in a lot of ways, exposing your fans to great bands they wouldn’t have heard otherwise.
SK: We were lucky to be able to do that. The Dirty Three, Polvo, and US Maple were all bands that we felt really challenged our audience. I mean, all the bands we really loved turned us onto great bands. R.E.M. turned me on to Mission of Burma, Wire, and Big Star. Even the Velvet Underground and Echo and the Bunnymen turned us onto Leonard Cohen and Television. It was all just out there to be discovered differently than it is now. Hopefully on this tour it’s the same kind of idea with these openers.
AVC: Who were your personal choices on this tour? And what was the process like in choosing the bands? You have a lot of different openers this tour.
MI: Yeah, definitely. I chose 75 Dollar Bill, they’re a great band. Steve Gunn is someone I’m happy about also. Weak Signal is a band I picked who are playing Philly. Mike Bones is in that band, and he’s a guy I know well and love. On the West Coast there’s Guerilla Toss, who I think Stephen [Malkmus] chose, and I like them a lot. We’re gonna play a few shows with them. There are a few bands our booking agent and maybe our label chose. Horsegirl’s one of them that I really like.
Bob Nastanovich: Well, we prioritized having young people opening, and I felt like there was a void from 2007–2013 with regards to great female acts, although I might’ve missed them because you can’t hear everything. But now there’s a great myriad of young female artists out there and I chose quite a few of them to play shows with us, like Annalibera and Katy J Pearson. We don’t need to worry about ticket sales for the most part, so we’re excited to give these acts who haven’t played to a lot of people before a bigger audience. It was going to be a different tour for us no matter what since Rebecca Cole’s in the band playing keyboards.
SK: You know, this time was difficult. Last time was a lot easier. Maybe because there are less shows this year it’s more difficult. So we said, “Who do you want to hear from your part of the country?” So there’s a band called Film School and I put out their records and they’re opening for us in San Diego. Then I picked Kelly Stoltz, who’s a buddy of mine. He’s playing L.A. and San Francisco. I left the rest of the country up to the other guys. Mark’s got the Northeast, West had a couple ideas, Bob’s got the Midwest, Malkmus has a few from the Northwest. So hopefully folks will enjoy them. I don’t know who I’m looking forward to the most—well, the bands I picked. Other than those, I’m not sure who else I’m excited for. We’d picked the Goon Sax, a few of us, but they dropped off. [Laughs]
AVC: Digressing, but did you know The Delgados reunited?
SK: Oh no, I didn’t. Wow, if I’d known, I would’ve asked them. Hopefully we’ll see them in Scotland. They opened a bunch of shows for us in the ’90s. Mogwai were another Scottish band that played a bunch of shows with us.
AVC: Mogwai were helped immensely by opening for you guys I thought.
SK: Well, they were a great band anyway. But it opened up the wormhole for them. They’re cool kids, well I still consider them to be cool kids. But during Primavera they played last minute, Bob was grabbing them beer and sorting their backstage rider.
AVC: It sounds like Bob has a special relationship with a lot of openers. There was that Royal Trux incident Mark mentioned.
SK: Yeah, they were special little flowers back then. I was recently watching a VHS tape of them opening for us back in the ’90s, and they were out of their minds. They were really great, but they were also really funny. And The White Stripes. They were just kids then, but we were happy to help them get home.
AVC: Jack just spoke so highly of you guys when I interviewed him years ago, as have just about nearly every band I’ve spoken to who have played with you. That’s sort of rare.
SK: Well, we hope COVID doesn’t take away the camaraderie on this tour. We’re obviously older now and we need to preserve our energy so we won’t be hanging out as much. But we’ll still have time to spend with both the bands and fans I hope.
AVC: I was curious to hear any memories you have of your tour early on with Sonic Youth, which seemed formative. You guys seem to treat your openers with the same respect they treated you with.
BN: It’s the only significant tour we’ve done opening. I was outvoted 4–1. I didn’t want to do it. On the tour, there were good things and bad things about it. You’ve got to understand that Pavement could’ve played venues close to that big on their own back then. But we all got along well, and were huge fans. EVOL and Sister changed my life, and “The World Looks Red” is my favorite Sonic Youth song. And I always enjoyed the banter with Thurston, who was hilarious.
In hindsight we had a good time. The highlight was straying from that tour for awhile and playing gigs on our own. One of the most excruciating drives of my life took place then. I drove our van 16 hours from Rome, largely along the Mediterranean Sea. You know that line from Repo Man, “the more you drive the dumber you get?” It was like that. I hoped my bandmates would carry the torch. In Bilbao these rich kids played Yo La Tengo covers, and then we played Barcelona, and there were 300 people there, and at least 100 were snorting cocaine off of spoons. When we finished, there was a Pavement afterparty. I didn’t know Barcelona was a 5 a.m. kind of town, and they played nothing but Pavement songs. Gary Young got carried away with the fan love, and now he was getting it on an international level, but he probably enjoyed it a bit too much. He got really bombed, danced with these kids around a pole, head butted me in the face, and I was out. I had a giant black eye. It was like I’d been punched by Sugar Ray Leonard in 1976. I looked like I’d been in an awful fight.
So when we rejoined Sonic Youth in England a few days later, with my giant bruise, and instead of telling the truth I told Thurston that Gary was getting messed with by the police in Barcelona, and that I helped him get away and ended up getting hit in the process. Thurston said, “Whoa, that’s amazing.” Then later, I watched Sonic Youth’s set from the side stage, and Thurston dedicated “Teenage Riot” to me. [Laughs] I didn’t know he’d believed my fiction until then, and he probably thinks I’m more of a badass than I actually am to this day. But they were great to play with.
AVC: Filmmaker Lance Bangs once told me you were the only band he’d ever known who would admit when you’d played a show that sucked. I’ve gotta admit that there were some shows that weren’t so good in the ’90s, but I thought the shows in 2010 were much better. I’m hoping these shows are just as good, if not better.
BN: Well, sometimes Remko our soundman, who was also a good critic, would come back and say, “It was okay tonight, but I got really good sound.” [Laughs] But there were some nights that we’d finish and we knew it sounded great and the crowd was great, and there were other nights in the second half of the ’90s when I’d say to myself, “I can’t imagine very many bands playing tonight in the world were worse than this.” [Laughs] There were two sides of the coin and that was a part of Pavement’s erratic nature. We had a unique fanbase that, in a way, it was like they were seeing a sports team and rooting for them so they could enjoy the experience. They didn’t know if it was gonna be awful, good, or just okay, but it felt like they were rooting for us to do well so they could at very least be entertained. But Rebecca makes us better than ever, allowing us to play so many songs better than ever and also play 10-12 songs we’ve never played before. She makes us more versatile. We still aren’t badasses, and we don’t affect a swagger. We’re just ourselves, and we hope these shows are fun for our fans.