Unlike most cult rock stars, Stephen Malkmus seems to enjoy his status as the arch, oblique spokesman for a generation of sarcastic DIY noisemakers. During his decade-long run as the de facto leader of Pavement, Malkmus balanced his band's increasingly slick production with shambling playing and singing, as well as lyrics that ranged pointedly from literate to painfully silly. Since dissolving Pavement in 1999, Malkmus has retreated to his home in Oregon with a handful of accomplished musicians that he's dubbed The Jicks. On their two records to date–2001's Stephen Malkmus and this year's Pig Lib–Malkmus and The Jicks have developed a sound that mixes quirky tunefulness, impressive musicianship, and freeform exploration. But while his music sounds increasingly mature, Malkmus still indulges his clever side, often in his interviews, where he offers pithy, pissy opinions about popular culture in a flat, halting voice that reveals how off-handed and good-natured his japes are, even if they don't always read that way in print. As Malkmus prepared for a recent New Orleans gig, he spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about his singing technique, insulting celebrities, and the future of rock.
The Onion: Prior to the first Jicks record, you said something about how when people are at a party at 2 a.m. and everyone's had a few, no one wants to hear some esoteric indie thing–they want to hear some meaty classic rock, like Exile On Main Street. Is that still where your head is at with Pig Lib?
Stephen Malkmus: Yeah, but I think it's impossible to expect that our stuff is going to get played at that moment. I mean, there's lots of dudes trying to be like "Dude, man, Skynyrd, AC/DC." It's not a case where you can just try to do that. You can imitate it, but that would be sort of… imitative. It wouldn't be personal enough. But we want to play physical music, not just songwriter stuff. We want it to have some oomph, because I'm like that. But we're… smarter, I guess? Or we're more knowing? We're too smart, really. Lyrically and stuff. [Laughs.] It would get boring doing songs about "She's got backseat rhythm" or something. It wouldn't work.
O: Still, there does seem to be more sex on this record.
SM: There's some, yeah. Somebody gave me a Village Voice article where this guy was talking about that. Yeah, there's more boy/girl shit. But I had that going on in Pavement. It's just that, because there's a wah-wah, it sounds more [whispers] …sexy. [Laughs.]
O: With the songs more wide-open and more instrument-oriented, when you play them live, do you find yourself going into jams more often?
SM: Not really. When we do those songs live, we have "1% Of One" go where it wants to go, but the other ones have become pretty ironed out. In a lot of ways, as soon as I make the record, some of my relationship is over. We could try to spend all of our free time making the songs into jams, but we did so much of that before we did the record. Now we're playing them sort of straight. It's a pretty tight show, not too wanky.
O: So you improvise, then make a script from the improvisation, and then stick to the script from that point on?
SM: Kind of. That's how it's been, yeah. The rooms we're playing haven't been the greatest for having super-great sound, thus far. We played in Los Angeles, and that was good. In Europe, everything is great. But the swing through Texas and stuff… It's okay, but you're always kind of struggling a little bit with the monitors. They're too weak, and the clubs are kind of bad, so you're not really going to be able to hear yourself. It doesn't always sound beautiful on stage. I've kind of spent more time talking on this tour. I was looking in the New Orleans paper today, and at House Of Blues, they have, for bigger stars, when they play the smaller room, they call it "An Evening With…" And charge more, you know? Like "An Evening With Steve Winwood"… $47. Just because he's playing a small place, by himself. It's oh-so-deep… [Whispers.] "An Evening With…" We've been doing a little bit of "Evening With," in that we've been doing more stage banter. I think we know when to stop, but we chitchat and fuck around with the crowd more, which is good. But you can't do that every night. It depends on the place. If it's Austin and Los Angeles, it's kind of hard to do that when it's like 1,000 people. But in Tucson and Houston, when it's like 250, then out come our rapier-like wits. [Laughs.]
O: On record, it sounds like your voice is very deliberate at times, and at other times it sounds more natural. Do you sing the songs differently on different nights, or in different takes?
SM: Again, it's harder to hear through the monitors, and you tend to sing louder, and it's more direct, for sure. The only pro thing that I try to do, when I sing quiet, is that I try to sing to somebody at the back of the room, like I'm talking to them. I've been doing that lately, for fun. Otherwise, I'll sing louder, and that makes everyone's life easier, though I'm not sure how good my voice sounds.
O: Do you pay attention to American Idol, and its followers' idea of what constitutes good singing?
SM: A lot of this… [Fake warbles.]
O: Exactly. You're not taking any pointers?
SM: [Laughs.] Not me, no, I can't do that stuff. I mean, I know when I'm not hitting a note, at least, which is more than I can say for my dad or something. That puts me ahead of some of the population. That virtuoso stuff, like Christina Aguilera… She learned to hit some note, you know, the high C or middle C or something–some weird note no one can hit. They just have to make it like an Olympic sport. But with those things, too, sometimes the best singer doesn't win, right? On American Idol, it seemed like the first time there was an African-American girl who was really super-good, and then for some reason America didn't want her. She wasn't fallible enough.
O: When you did stuff like appearing on Letterman or Leno, did you feel like the show presented you at your best, when you had three minutes to impress America?
SM: No, that's tough. I mean, I think now I'd feel better about it. The first time we did it, I think we were all just a little self-conscious of our indie roots, and doing this corporate thing. I mean, that was an issue to us. To do that kind of stuff, it seemed sort of absurd. We just wanted to be sort of punk about it–young, loud, and snotty, or whatever. It worked for The Sex Pistols, but not for us. [Laughs.] No one cared. It was an empty gesture. You can change the world, but if no one's listening, it doesn't matter.
O: There were some nights in Pavement where you guys would be making a mess for about the first 30 minutes, and then it would all come together. Was there something satisfying about making order out of chaos?
SM: Um… Not really. [Laughs.] We were always trying 100 percent. I remember a lot of great gigs with that band. People overplay the chaos factor often, like it's unique or something. Some of the early live shows were definitely chaotic, but with the records, the only reason they're more chaotic is because it's loose overdubs by me and the drummer, playing most of the stuff. [Laughs.] Maybe people like that better, but it's not really Pavement. It's like a mythic thing, I think. Or maybe I was into looser things and singing out of tune, and maybe I was playing the "sloppy genius" guitar more.
O: Could you have made Pig Lib five years ago?
SM: Not five. Maybe three or four. With Pavement, it's always been so predicated on the timing, and where I went to record it. I've just tried to be brave about that–to go to new places and work with people I don't know. And work in different ways a little bit, hoping that sonically, the atmosphere will rub off and make things sound different. Because I think most musicians know if they make the same record twice, even if they say they don't. Jon Spencer, he probably has to worry about that. Jon Spencer has like one thing he does. He rocks out. [Laughs.] For me, there's gotta be some rub, you know? Some uncomfortable thing.
O: When you go into a studio with somebody new and work out these ideas, are there times when you have to just walk away and say, "Well, this is not what I wanted, but this is as close as it's going to get"?
SM: Normally, you just say, "Well, this is a month out of our lives." I mean, if it gives me a really sinking feeling, I toss it. But some people I've worked with… Like Bryce Goggin, he mixed Crooked Rain and Wowee Zowee basically on his own. I mean, we were there riding phased faders and saying "Don't do this," but he was way more advanced as a mixer than I was. He took what was on tape and made it sound way better. That's the only time that's really happened with any engineers. All the other ones have done a great job, but I wasn't groveling at their feet, and I kind of felt that way with Bryce a couple of times. But he would miss pretty big, too, sometimes. [Mutters.] God, he was good.
O: Do you feel like you have that level of self-criticism?
SM: It's hard to say. I've sort of started taking the tack now of being positive. Basic hypnosis… [Laughs.] It's the best way to make people think things are good, these days. Because some records, just a little turn of perception can make a big difference in people saying it's good. And that's my attitude now: I'm just like, "It's great!" And you have to believe that, you know? Because of course you have doubts. So now I'm into positive hypnosis. I say, "It's great, it's great," and look into interviewers' eyes, thinking that.
O: Back when you first started with Pavement, you said you wanted to make something as mysterious and maybe even as unsettling as the post-punk and proto-indie bands you were listening to. Do you ever wish you had made that "great lost album" that only a thousand people bought and only hipsters and rock critics remember?
SM: I'm happy with the way it is now. The amount of touring and press and records that we released, and I released, have enabled me to still do this, and maybe I wouldn't have been able to if there'd just been the one. You know, there's a lot of sad stories with those bands. If you asked them, they'd be like, "Yeah, it sucked, our label sucked, they were giving all the money to fucking Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and it's not fair, and, you know, thanks a lot." But some of them have a good spirit, I'm sure, if they got a cute wife out of it or something.
O: What was it like to suddenly have bands coming out with music and artwork that was described as Pavement-esque?
SM: That took some time. It's all nice. It's more of a validation that what we did had an impact on people, who took it to heart. Not only people I met in the crowds, but other bands. It shows that things are always feeding off one another. And that's not bad. I'm glad that we were visible enough to reach those people. Luckily, there were no lawsuits.
O: Why do you think Pavement connected so broadly when it did?
SM: I think it was good timing. The times were right for the people who were our age at that record-buying time. Or it related in the urban centers, I don't know. [Pavement's label] Matador had good connections with some of the mainstream press people, some of whom came out of college radio at that time. A lot of those workers in the music industry were a little different than the ones from the '80s, with their ponytails and reverb. As things were slightly changing, the young people were like, "Hey, you should like Nirvana"… and us, too, maybe. There's sort of been a halfhearted attempt to make it happen again with The White Stripes and The Strokes and The Hives–except, you know, because of the Limp Bizkit-ification of rock, it's not such a revolution as maybe Nirvana was. It seems like the media's limply trying to make it happen. I don't know if the public is buying it, but maybe they are.
O: So you think there's a chance that this will blossom into another mid-'90s?
SM: [Laughs.] Well, it's hard to say. Maybe it's already over, too. But the success of The White Stripes, at least… You know, they're stronger than they were on their first album. They're not going anywhere, yet. But I don't know, those Good Charlotte-type, Headbanger's Ball-like, tattoo-type guys, maybe they think it's just hokey. There's a lot of kids like that, probably still.
O: How did you feel about last year's Pavement nostalgia, with the Slanted And Enchanted reissue and the Slow Century DVD?
SM: It was cool. I think the record's pretty cool. It sounds better than a lot of the records from that time. I mean, it sounds lo-fi… It sounds like shit-can production. But I do think it still shines, in a way. We were prescient enough to make something that was unique. Because a lot of things from '91 sound not so exciting, I think. [Laughs.] From '91 to '94, the after-Nirvana, like, grungy things. So I'm glad about that, and I'm just happy that they did a good job packaging it. I'm not Mr. Nostalgia by any means. I'm a move-on kind of guy. I mean, I wouldn't have gotten off my ass to re-release it, you know what I mean? I was happy enough with the success and how well the record was known. But I'm glad that they did do that. Matador–and, to a lesser extent, Scott from the band–made that happen.
O: Do you ever read your clippings? Did you read any of the stuff in the press about the record when it was re-released?
SM: No, not really. Not much about Slanted. I've seen a lot of stuff about our new record. We get reams of press.
O: Does it feel strange to be picked over the way that you are, where all your lyrics are analyzed and considered?
SM: At this point, when you release a record, you just want… Well, everyone wants to be loved, generally. If you released a record and nobody said anything, if you didn't get any feedback from people you don't know, i.e. the press, you'd be sort of upset. To me, any press is good press. [Laughs.] It sounds like a whorish thing, but to me it just means that someone's taking it seriously, giving it like 1/50th of what we gave when recording it.
O: One of the strange things about being in indie-rock is that a large portion of the audience always thinks that the best thing you ever did was your first single, and that you've gone downhill ever since.
SM: Yeah, absolutely. But that doesn't bother me anyway, if I'm heading slowly downhill. Very few people, if they start as high as we did in some people's minds… I mean, where can you go? There's nowhere to go but slowly down, to those people. If they're still listening, that's a victory.
O: You're not going to give up to make those early fans happy.
SM: Exactly. And we have new fans–people who like the same music that I like, and know why we do it the way we do. And even they don't like some of the songs. They think I could do better. Or they think, "Hey, that song's perfect." Everyone's got an opinion.
O: Coming back to when you were a college radio DJ and you were listening to the music of that time… You've been a music buff pretty much all your life, right?
SM: Yeah. I've just become more of one the last couple of years, strangely enough. I never had many records or CDs in college. Even up to when I was, like, 30. All of a sudden, I decided I should start buying records. I started collecting records, on vinyl. I make these compilation CDs of bands with all these fucking guitar solos, and every once in a while, I do say "enough." [Laughs.] Like anybody, I get tired of music. Paradoxically, being on tour, I listen to less music. I guess because I live on a busy street in Portland, I'm always putting records on to block out the car noise.
O: Do you try to stay current?
SM: I generally just hear the ones on our label, more or less, and some hipster things like the kind of bands that Sonic Youth would recommend. Like Erase Errata, or other Troubleman Unlimited bands. I hear that, or much weirder things. But usually it's just Matador and Domino and Drag City. I hear all those.
O: Why do so many of your interviews feature you talking smack about some celebrity or rock star?
SM: Who did I get this time? You mean like in Entertainment Weekly, with Halle Berry and Sting and stuff? That guy got me. I didn't know he was going to run all that. He just thought I was trying to be funny. It's easy to be negatively funny about personalities in the media. It's just kind of a cheap laugh. There's really not much to say. I've kind of said everything. [Laughs.] I've done a lot of interviews and there's not… I mean, you'll get some good stuff here, but the funnier stuff or the more revealing stuff is not so much in the questions, but in the side things.
O: But you would do it in your lyrics, back in the Pavement days.
SM: I know, like Smashing Pumpkins. But that was not really… That got blown out of… That was… Yeah. That's a lark, you know? I really couldn't care less. I mean, if I really cared, I wouldn't say it. I'd just be stewing. I never lost sleep over the merits of the Pumpkins or Stone Temple Pilots. Actually, surprisingly, both bands have some good songs. [Laughs.] And then Billy Corgan went and hijacked all these indie-rock superstars for Zwan.
O: Mary Star Of The Sea is actually a pretty good record.
SM: I've heard some of it on a listening post. Those are so unfair to records. It makes everything sound the same, kind of. And maybe it is kind of samey, sonically, the Zwan record. But when you listen to it on a listening post, it's just like [makes guitar sound] "Bwaaang!" Another thick song. "Bwaaang!" Another thick song. I don't know. I'd like to hear it again. I like the single. [Sings in a whisper.] "Honestleee…"
O: Are you tired of hearing Trey Anastasio's name come up in connection with yours?
SM: Not really, because it hasn't come up lately. And I still haven't crossed over into a jam-band thing. I don't know what's holding us back, because, like, Ween… Somehow, they have a jam-band following. We don't really stretch it out that much yet. We still have a post-punk stick up our ass that makes it not a feel-good environment, entirely. I can't help it. I mean, those bands are essentially feel-good, "Everything's all right," and "It's easy being white and middle-class," or something. And I don't think it's easy. [Laughs.] No matter what stratosphere you're on. Like, Jack Johnson and Ben Harper and those guys, you know? My friend promoted their tour in Australia, and they just go down like gangbusters in Australia, those bands. It's like a laid-back surfer clientele there, you know? The weather's nice, so the music fits in perfect. I can see how it works, but… There's stormy weather at our shows.
O: Your audience isn't the laid-back surfer type?
SM: Not yet. It seems to be just really sweet young people who are glad to see us, and like the music a lot. I mean, that's what they're there for. That's why I would be there–the people that I meet at the T-shirt booth, that actually come up and say "thanks." It's really nice.
O: Watching the Wilco documentary last year, it made it look like the after-show, backstage scene was the biggest nightmare of Jeff Tweedy's life, with people hovering around telling him how much they like his music.
SM: Oh, really? It doesn't bother me anymore. I'm sure he'll get over it, if he has a couple of bad-selling records. [Laughs.] Or maybe he's just really nervous and uncomfortable. I mean, there's a game face that you have. Or maybe it's his fans. Maybe they're geeks. There have been times when I've felt that way, too. But I wouldn't go out by the T-shirt booth if I felt that way. And after a show, it's kind of hard, too. Before a show, maybe you didn't feel that good. But after a show, it's just too much stimulation to have people pumped up, 'cause you're tired and sweaty, and you're like, "No, thanks, I'm punching the clock."