When rock icons go solo, they often find themselves eclipsed by the music of the band that made them famous. Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus faced this very problem in the two years between his band’s final album, Terror Twilight, and his now classic, eponymous, solo debut. But, skeptical anticipation gave way to admiration once the record was released, its songs chock-full of the guitar hero hooks and bizarre imagery that had always characterized his songwriting, albeit with a tad more classic rock structure. Since then, Malkmus has released three more stellar albums with crack backing band The Jicks. His fifth solo effort, the excellent, freewheeling Mirror Traffic, will be released by Matador in August. Talking from his home in Portland, the singer-songwriter discussed working with Beck, moving to Berlin, and why senators enjoy blow jobs so much.
I have all your Jicks albums on my iTunes, but some of them import as “Stephen Malkmus” and some import as “Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks.” Which ones would you consider official Jicks albums?
The first one was done with, like… I didn’t know that everyone was going to be in the band for 12 years at that time, even though they were friends of mine. So, I just called them my own name, and Matador recycled that. I’ve heard before that… I can’t remember who it was… but somebody like Little Richard was giving someone advice, and he’s like, “Listen, son, put your name first. When you make up your band, just put your name first. They’ll remember you, and you’ll make it, you know?” So, it was, like, a 50′s-style rock ‘n’ roll band name. And after that, everyone was in the group, and it was a full-time touring band, so the next one was with “Jicks.” And the next one I kind of did by myself. It was almost like I didn’t want to blame them for it as much as I wanted to blame myself. It was kind of self-recorded and trashy.
Do you not like Face the Truth as much as your other records?
Um… I do, I think. I liked it at the time. I mean, I was really stoked on it when I was making it, like just discovering things. The way I recorded it, I was making all the sounds and putting the mics up. And I had never really done that, where I was in control of the sound and the spaces. The joy of discovery was really fun in the basement. I didn’t have anyone there to tell me things. I’m proud of it, in a way. But, I wouldn’t want to do it again, after that. It was a lot of work, punching buttons with my toes and stuff.
Does the word “Jick” come from anywhere, or did you just make it up?
I think we just made it up, me and John Moen, who’s in The Decemberists now. I think we were just in the studio with cabin fever and kept making up words. I think that’s how we came up with it. If we were more famous, that would be, like, a really important question. If we were The Beatles, or something, it would be a story of lore. [laughs]
Speaking of The Decemberists, and Portland, and everything, have you watched Portlandia at all?
Yeah, I’ve seen it. I know Carrie [Brownstein] and Fred [Armisen]. I’ve met them before. And, yeah, they did a good job, good enough that they have another season.
Are you ever going to guest star on it? With all the musicians, I was hoping to see you on it last season.
I wasn’t around, because of the Pavement tour. They didn’t ask me, but if they asked me, I probably would. But, by the time this prints, it’ll be over. So…
That’s true. Maybe you’ll get lucky with Season Three.
When Season Three comes, when they get picked up by Fox or HBO, I’ll be in there.
You’re holding out for the big networks.
Definitely. They have advertisements on IFC now. It’s sort of irritating. They used to have no advertisements on that station. That’s just a little aside.
So, for Mirror Traffic, was Beck different from other producers you’ve worked with? Was the experience or the process different?
Yeah. We didn’t really talk about what was going to happen. It was kind of just musician style. He doesn’t overtalk things too much. He picks his words well, doesn’t say anything negative, ever. I guess producers don’t, usually. Really, you just want someone to be positive and be sort of a passive life coach. He wasn’t the kind that tried to make you dig deeper into your soul or anything. I’ve heard about those guys. Kind of rage rock producers that try to break down your psyche so you can get that on the album. Maybe with a different band he would do that.
How did you guys get connected originally?
It came through the grapevine that he was a producer now. I knew him from the grunge years. We were on some tours together, and we got along, always. Just, like, “Hey, dude, what’s up?”, and we hung out a little bit at that time. He wasn’t a big party-er, so he wasn’t at the hotel bar at, like, 1 a.m… So, there wasn’t that kind of bonding. But, I always liked him and always respected his recording. You don’t want to alter the content too much with someone like me. It’s going to be what it is. It’s hard to break an old horse, a wild horse like me. [laughs]I wasn’t expecting that, but he is a sonic perfectionist of a certain kind. Or, if something’s bad, then it’s bad for a reason, you know what I mean? There’s a reason for those things in his albums, so I thought, “Well, that’s what I want for a producer.”
Not to sound like a gossiper, but I have an uncle who lived in California for a while in the early 90′s. I guess he lived in this huge commune-style house, and Beck lived there as well, before he was famous, or doing music professionally. My uncle said that while everyone else was partying, Beck would be in the bathtub writing songs. I always thought that was cool. I don’t know true the story is.
Well, I believe that. He grew up in strange environments. Like, his mom was kind of a scenester in the L.A. punk scene and, before that, in the art scene. And, yeah, he tells stories of being under the dining room table, or something, in a really smoky room, and just wanting to go to the library and listen to blues albums. Or being afraid of the partying and the tough kids at school or whatever.
With your Jicks records, reviewers have said that they have more of a classic rock feel than your Pavement records. But I’ve always thought that Pavement was catchier, and more rooted in traditional song structures than people sometimes gave you credit for.
Yeah. I think starting with Pavement, I was trying to maybe simplify, or take out some extravagance, take it a little to the essence of a song, which is the first four chords. We did make songs that were just four chords, and the chorus was like… Well, like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is a song like that, too, although it has a little turnaround… Anyway, yeah, I’ve always been a little bit of a student of what makes a good song, and, as I’ve gotten older, it’s hard to be some kind of trailblazer at that point. There is a little bit of settling into a style that you’re comfortable with. There’s more song-y stuff. Or, I’ll just try and go around my record collection, try and push myself around when I can to see what sounds good. You know, what’s to pull off. Sometimes, I probably don’t succeed entirely, like with some of the heavier stuff. I want to try and do that, but maybe I’m not that guy.
Yeah. Like, sometimes I would like to do, maybe, something that’s… I don’t know, not Black Sabbath-y but something heavy. But maybe it’s not my natural best thing to do.
I think that “Dragonfly Pie”, especially the beginning of it, has a Sabbath-y kind of vibe to it… the slow and heavy thing.
It’s okay, but I felt like that song was going to sound different and was going to be kind of jazzy somehow. But it ended up being more heavy, you know? You don’t really know until you record something.
It’s funny that you say “jazzy,” because that’s the thing I notice about Mirror Traffic, especially with the drumming. You guys have a new drummer, right?
Janet [Weiss] played on the album, but she left. She just got reined in a bit more on this album, for better or for worse. You can hear her finding her fills. There was a little more, like, “You’re kind of a session drummer on this album. You can just like play the beat for a little while.” In Quasi, or something, she’s more wild.
Was there any sort of aesthetic mission in mind with Mirror Traffic?
When we were recording the album, the takes were a little more live-sounding. That’s just how it started sounding, and it sounded good. The second song is a classic kind of recording, like a Tony Joe White song. I don’t know if it was jazzy, but it was kind of un-arranged. Improvisational.
Matador is currently running that contest where you’re asking people to take the song “Senator” and replace the word “blow job” with something FCC-appropriate. Have you been keeping tabs on the entries?
Not that much. But, I’m ready. My Mom put in “nosejob.” I know that.
I actually saw that on the Web site. A lot of people are going for dirtier stuff, but I almost think it’s funnier if it’s not dirty at all.
Yeah. The idea is that it can be played on K-Rock, or whatever, which it wouldn’t be. But, yeah, [Mom] put in that, and I’m going to vote for her. You know, because blood is thicker than the mud. It’s a family affair. If she wins, that’d be good. She was just being real practical. And I like that, man. The church woman in her was, like, “This is how we’re going to do it.”
Is it just you deciding, or is it the entire band? Who all is voting on it?
We will all vote, and Matador. We’ll get it whittled down that way, then we’ll see. It’s silly, really, but you know…
It’s a cool thing. Are you guys looking for something that rhymes with “blow job,” or does it not matter at all? I’m mainly asking because I’m going to enter something.
It just has to be kind of clever, I think, and have a similar amount of syllables. So, “the hooded leprechaun,” that’s not going to win. It’s too many syllables. I won’t be able to sing it. That’ll probably be too funny or too sticking out like a sore leprechaun.
Like a sore leprechaun thumb.
I think if you just go with, like, two syllables… I think you’ve got to spend a lot of time on it, really. [laughs] I wish I spent a longer time on lyrics sometimes, but in a song like that, there’s so many words that not every word is going to be a winner.
With “Senator”, what I get from it is that it’s about this dude who became a politician, but it describes what his life used to be like, how normal he was, and how what he’s doing shouldn’t be surprising. Would you say that the song is sort of political in that way, not in taking a political stance, but in viewing politicians as normal people?
Yeah, that’s basically it. I think, yeah, that everyone wouldn’t mind to have a blow job, you know? I know what the senator wants, because I know that people want blow jobs. That’s definitely the deal, that they may want a curious favor, or to be loved, or to get some kind of gain out of what they’re doing. Not many people are doing it at this point for the public good. It’s a little bit of “What’s in it for me?” on both sides of the coin, especially in our political system. We spend a lot of time worrying about who’s good or bad, but, unfortunately, there’s not a vast amount of real change that comes to either side. And they both want a blow job, you know? They both want to win or to come back into the picture. Back and forth.
I have my beliefs and what not, but I almost don’t trust anyone who would want that much power.
Me too, me too. If you have friends who are people that are involved in elections, and the real nuts and bolts of staying in office, it’s about winning. That’s what it comes down to, just getting back in office again. Similar to when people ask… Like, I did an interview with Pitchfork, and they were like, “How do you feel about your legacy?” And I think the right answer is “I feel so great.” The official political answer is “I love all the young bands that I see that are influenced by us, and being part of the dialogue is amazing.” And just, you know, “In my wildest dreams, when I started, I never imagined that people would still be talking about our music.” And that’s true and everything, but also, the day-to-day… being in a band and writing songs, you’re like, “I’ve got a tour to do. And how big’s the tour? Oh, we’re playing that room again? That’s going to be kind of tiring. Why do we have to play that place again? Why couldn’t we play this place?” The fact that people love you, you forget that, you know? Dealing with your life.
Feel free to give the political or non-political answer, but how do you guys feel about The Vic? I think that’s where you’re playing in Chicago in August.
I do like that place. We kind of booked our tour late. There’s a million groups, and everyone’s booking tours, and the fall’s so busy. I didn’t ask them until April, and supposedly now it’s like six months in advance to get the really good room in Chicago or New York on a Saturday night. In Chicago, we did alright. I know in Minneapolis and New York, we got okay places, but maybe not our first choices to play, because we did it late. And, I’ll see people on our Web site complaining, like, “Why the fuck are they playing there? You suck! You’re just trying to take us for money, and you’re playing that big place with bad sound.” I don’t write and say, “You know, this is why it happens,” but that’s why sometimes you end up playing places that aren’t your ideal room. It’s like, when a big fan will say… if the album’s done in March, they’ll be like, “Why don’t you put it out in May?” You don’t realize all the things you have to do to make it viable and release it.
Are there plans for the Terror Twilight: Farewell Horizontal edition to come out?
It’s coming out. I don’t know much about it, ever, with those reissues. They let me not deal with that. It would be mentally confusing to be thinking about Pavement, so I kind of just totally compartmentalize the Pavement stuff to, sort of, the past, or other people who are more enthusiastic about the reissues. I’m totally proud of how they turned out, but I think other people are better at it than me. I don’t know if you’re this way, but if I get an inch into something, if I really want to get into it, then I have to go all the way.
Photo by Leah Nash
Anything you want to say about the album in general? Or touring? Or any movies you’ve seen recently?
The album, not too much. The movies… I’ve seen that Werner Herzog one about the cave paintings. I don’t like 3-D very much, but I like the idea of seeing those paintings from 35,000 years ago. Certainly gets you thinking a lot. Kind of a mindfuck. I don’t know if you need to pay 14 dollars to see it or anything. I saw a whole bunch of movies on the plane. Cedar Rapids, I think it was called. That was pretty good. Comedies are definitely the best thing to watch on planes. I watched one with Owen Wilson. He got, like, a hall pass, so he could cheat on his wife, but then it had a good message.
I thought it was kind of good, too. People hated that movie.
I thought it was totally entertaining. It was fun, man. I laughed. If you have to listen hard on a plane, your ears get fried, unless you have special headphones. I watched Easy Rider again. They had that on there for some reason. I watched some stupid movie with Liam Neeson where he lost his identity. He was a spy. [laughs] He was a spy, then he got into an accident. Then he…wait, no, he was an assassin. He got into a car accident, and he got a concussion and forgot that his cover was a cover and thought he was a real guy, you know? So, he was fucking up the assassination, which was an evil assassination that he shouldn’t have been doing. But that was set in Berlin, and I’m moving to Berlin. Me and my wife and the kids.
Yeah, we’re moving there at the end of August.
We have a one-year lease, so it’s an experiment, I guess. So, that’s pretty exciting for us, to live somewhere else.
Any cool button you want to end the interview on? Any profound quote?
No.[laughs] I left it all on the stage. I left it aaalll on the stage.
Mirror Traffic, Stephen Malkmus’s fifth solo effort with the Jicks (depending on how you look at it), hits stores August 23rd via Matador.