The Rumpus Interview with Stephen Malkmus

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Stephen Malkmus—founding member, lead singer, guitarist, and main songwriter for one of the most critically and publicly adored bands in indie rock history (arguably the “first” indie rock band)—walked away from his super-stardom.

I was doing other stuff during the ‘90s, so I managed to miss Pavement in real-time, but I had my Come To Pavement Moment a couple years after they’d broken up. I was living in Paris at the time, going through a breakup of my own, Gallouise-and-espresso depressed, filling empty days lying on the floor of my tiny bathroom-less chamber, able only to listen to music, and often, only to Pavement. They were my anchor—a lifeline back to a world I’d fumbled. Their music celebrated a lean, slap-dash American intelligence that sounded to my displaced ex-pat ears like Charles Ives bashing his way through “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” on the Liberty Bell.

I knew nothing about the band members or their disastrous interpersonal dynamics. I had no idea how big they actually were, or how close they’d flirted with massive mainstream success. I didn’t get Slanted & Enchanted, and I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to like Brighten the Corners.

It wasn’t long after Brighten the Corners that Malkmus pulled the plug on Pavement and immediately, the priorities of his music changed. There was a shift toward more careful record making, production, craft. Songs are perhaps vetted a little more strenuously. Simply stated, Malkmus cares, and caring demonstrates maturity. Malkmus was always one step ahead of the game, and in the game, everyone grows up, even Gen-Xers.

Whether it was stubbornness, restlessness, savvy, self-preservation, or even absolute idiocy that drove Malkmus to unceremoniously ditch the success of what could have been the perpetual Pavement machine, it allowed him to set the foundation for a long, sustainable creative life.

While his solo work hasn’t yielded any Pavement-level hits, it also hasn’t yielded any duds or throwaways, which Pavement albums delivered reliably (though generally not attributed to Malkmus). But Malkmus is maybe not going to have a swing-for-the-bleachers, Graceland-style solo moment that vastly overshadows the achievements of his famous origins. As he says in the interview, he’s not a “larger-than-life personality,” and he correlates his life and work to the mild-mannered poet George Oppen. “It’s not an alpha male situation,” Malkmus says.

He didn’t come to be intrinsically associated with the word “slacker” by complete accident. Malkmus actually is a pretty chill dude, lanky and loose-limbed, personable, charming and easy to talk to. He treated me with immediate familiarity, gave me some vinyl after we spoke. He spent most of our interview lying on his back looking up at the ceiling or with eyes closed, thoughtful and disarmed. And when he’d talked enough, he just wandered away from the table to fix himself a snack and shifted out of interview mode into casual conversation.

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The Rumpus: When I do these interviews I usually feel like I have a sense of what the person is going to be like or their autobiography just from their music (regardless of whether I’m right or wrong). But I was realizing on the way over here that I had no clue what to expect. I get a general sense of who you might be from your music—of a philosophy, a set of aesthetic beliefs. But there is a distinct lack of overt autobiography.

Stephen Malkmus: That’s true. Even back in ‘60s music, political songs, they just rub me the wrong way. I didn’t really like confessional poetry or things. They seemed sort of dated to me, or just corny.

I like visual imagery in my head. And I like a narrative, even if it’s fractured, or kind of psychedelic. But my favorite thing is if I hear words and I close my eyes and the connotations or the image I get in my head, combine with the sound of them—sometimes phonetics. I’m just stringing those together.

Stephen-Malkmus-And-The-Jicks-Mirror-TrafficMaybe I don’t have the patience to make a virtue of necessity—the patience to carry something all the way through, and to actually say something. Lately, the songs are more jagged and they don’t really lend themselves to that. I just take it one bit at a time. Usually [the lyrics] go from one word to the next word—there’s no finish line. The music was that way, too.

I don’t really know where the songs are coming from often. Many of the best things I made up were just off the top of my head. Not sitting there with a book and trying to write something. That’s the best I do, if I’m just playing around and riffing in a fantasy world, and then I’ll write something down. Hopefully I write it down.

I feel the most natural thing is for music to come that way because it’s sort of like poetry. Though I do think with poets that I like, like Charles Olson or Ezra Pound, they were rewriting constantly, until the poem becomes a diamond. But with music I don’t really feel that way. Classical music, perhaps. But this kind of flowing West Coast person that I like, it’s more…that’s me. I’m better when I’m an autodidact and things just come. Or you’re just blessed. I’m not bragging or anything, it just comes to you.

Rumpus: Is there a physical component to it?

Malkmus: It’s playing and you’re in a zone. It’s normally in the morning, just playing around. And I’m not saying everything I make is great, but that’s what I do. I can’t even remember how I wrote stuff.

With some songs, I have written narratives or I’ve tried to carry it through, but generally the things that were more genius, as far as I was concerned, were not that. The narrative songs were well-written, like an article in The New Yorker. They’re nice and pat. They’re more like I’m just showing I can do that when I write a song like that. It’s not my true calling. Even though I like The Kinks somewhat, I don’t think it’s a big deal or it’s like magic. You want magic and something that surprises.

Rumpus: What are some of the moments that you feel came to you through that magic, or through that process?

Malkmus: A song like, “In the Mouth a Desert.” That was on Slanted & Enchanted. If you ask me what that came from, I can’t say anything except that I took mescaline at Earth Day in New York. It was, like, ’91. On the way home, I heard the melody, or the rhythm. I was just playing it on my teeth. Simple thing, like [humming]. I didn’t have any lyrics. But that song came to me through drugs. Not many things do, because I don’t take drugs very often. …Maybe I should.

And then the lyrics…I remember thinking I sound a little like the Fugazi singer, which I don’t. I also get things wrong. I think they sound like something. I’m blessed that way, too, where if I try to imitate things I don’t get it right. I mean, The Fall, I got it pretty right, but usually I don’t. I’m thinking, I’m singing like Ozzy Osbourne, but I don’t sound like him enough, ever. Where other people get it just right and they’re kind of doomed. Certain pure archetypes, like Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, I could do really well.

But with lyrics for me, it’s usually musically-based. It’s not really poetry- or writer-based. It’s rock-based. It doesn’t mean that I’m aping rock lyrics, but I’m writing from a music standpoint. I’m thinking more of music heroes, if they’re in my mind. Not William Blake or John Ashbury. Sometimes maybe I thought of him a little bit. Or Wallace Stevens. I don’t even really fully understand either of them.

Rumpus: Do you feel like there’s something inherently different between rock lyrics and poetry?

Malkmus: Something taken off the page can sound great, I guess. Usually it doesn’t. It seems like lately Pitchfork is trying to champion lyric writers more. Lyrics are back, maybe. It seems like there was a bit of an attitude that lyrics are not important.

Rumpus: Do you agree with that?

Malkmus: In my personal taste, I’m kind of that way. It depends on the music, obviously. In the end, they do matter. There’s got to be a standard. So much of rock lyrics is just a mirror of real feeling. It doesn’t feel dangerous to me. They just feel like “rock lyrics.”

Rumpus: Place holders?

Malkmus: In a way. And people will sing with feeling. I’m not denying that they’re feeling it when they wrote it, or yelled it. But it’s not meaningful to me.

Going back to where you were saying—“You don’t write about feelings in your lyrics.” I was maybe trying to do something different, or something that maybe wasn’t new, but wasn’t being addressed entirely, or developed. That could be taken from reading modern poets and working at the Whitney Museum as a security guard. Having friends, like [David] Berman from the Silver Jews. Smart people who are pessimistic about what’s going on.

What else can you do? And, in a way, in the early ‘90s, it felt like there was space—there was like an empty feel. There was nobody really doing this. Maybe the Pixies were, a little bit. Their lyrics were also disjointed, more psychosexual or something. That’s part of youth, too, maybe, that you just feel like you’re doing something different.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little bit more about your relationship with Berman? Your writing has a lot of similarities in some ways.

Malkmus: We come together on a lot of stuff. He’s writing more. He’s more opinionated and there’s more anger. There’s love there, too. He’s a little deeper probably in a certain way, but I’m more earthy. He’s more mental. He’s working harder, which is a good thing. But to what end, I don’t know. I might get more done. He might just be on the Internet messing around like I do. He’s not into sports as much as I am, he doesn’t have two kids, and he doesn’t play music as much, so it’s less time wasted on that. I know he’s got journals full of stuff. And plans.

Rumpus: Are you guys in touch?

Malkmus: Yeah. Well, we could be more so. I’m a fan. I like his criticism and what he says about what’s wrong with things. (He doesn’t publish that.) And the writing, and everything.

Rumpus: Did you used to write poetry?

Pavement_Gail Butensky

Malkmus: No. Just little one-sentence things, riffing off the art or the people. Making drawings and killing time and being twenty and maybe going to start a band. Just messing around. [Berman] probably had plans to do something—not music—but writing. And then he went to UMass and got an MFA. Also, Bobby Nastanovich [a member of both Pavement and Silver Jews] lived in New York, too. He’s not a writer but he likes words. Thick words. He’s more of a storyteller person, a real character when he’s on his game. He’s a mess, but he was inspiring, at the time.

That was fun. And Pavement started without David—with an old friend [Scott Kannberg] from Stockton, who I was in another band with. And it was just my thing, but Scott was there, as a foil. He also made things happen, and was very enthusiastic about everything. He was good—not about words. He was like, “Yeah, that ‘Summer Babe’ is two, three chords. That’s great.” I wouldn’t have done that song, maybe. Or I would have added a chorus. It’s good that he would just keep it that way. I’m grateful for that. We outgrew each other pretty fast.

Rumpus: How was it getting back together with the band, playing shows and stuff?

Malkmus: The Pavement time? That was fun. It’s hard to remember it. It just kind of came and went. When you are in a band that’s at that level—I’m not trying to talk like I’m a big rock star—it’s sort of a machine and you’re just part of it. Everything’s planned out for you.

It’s not like being in The Jicks, where we book our own tours. We play decent places but we drive a van and we try to cut corners. [The Pavement tour] was kind of, “Here’s your ticket, you’re going here, and they’ll pick you up here.” The shows, too, some of them were great. It got bad at the end a little bit, or boring. Initially there was a burst forward that carried us through. Good energy. Easy to play, easy to sing.

I could play those songs behind my back. So that was fun. But I’ve wanted to not play as much. I would like to just sing now. Even though I don’t think I’m a great singer, I wouldn’t mind just—not being a frontman, per se, but singing and not playing.

Rumpus: It’s interesting to hear you talk about focusing on singing. I was noticing on Mirror Traffic, that second song, “No One Is (As I Are Be),” it really struck me that you were singing in a different way than maybe anything that you had done prior to that.

Malkmus: Yeah, that’s true. I was kind of going for like a Bert Jansch style.

Rumpus: It was more intimate.

Malkmus: It was one take. That was cool. I didn’t know how I wanted to record that song. I’d made a demo, but it came about differently at that studio. We did it late at night. Beck [who produced the album] had a nice Martin guitar—whatever $80,000 guitar that he’s got. So he made the mistake of letting me play it.

Rumpus: You got your drool all over it.

Malkmus: Yeah. He’s got a lot of shit. He likes everything kind of slow. That West Coast sound. We tried that, and it sounded great right away. We were like, “Wow.” That’s why you go to a nice studio. You can get a magic take. You don’t really have to do anything to it.

Rumpus: Is that pointing in the direction of where you would want to go, in terms of taking your singing?

Malkmus: It’s something else I would do. This time I didn’t. We made a new album [Wig Out at Jagbag’s] and it’s really good but it’s maybe a little too dense. I wish there was one song that didn’t have as much singing in it. Every song is tight. I just imagine that every song in and of itself is great, but when you add them all up, it’s too much of me maybe.

It’s hard to go back and change [that density]. We did the record in a week and that’s how it came out. I did a lot of double vocals. They sound really strong, and the lyrics are good. Better, in a way. I’m happy with it, but—

Rumpus: Better than what?

Malkmus: Better than usual, I think. To me, they’re just a little better. It’s not more serious, but the conviction is a little stronger. There’s a few less flubby lines that are obviously placeholders put there because there’s nothing else I could think to say.

Like, on Mirror Traffic there’s a song, what’s it called? “Brain Gallop.” “There’s not much left inside the tank today.” That’s okay, it goes with the song, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just filling space, like I was saying other people do.

But that’s a complicated rhythm, so there’s not much you can say. If it stands out too much, it’s bad. There’s less of that on this new album. I think it’s more captivating. But I can’t tell.

Rumpus: What’s your mechanism for quality control? If you are saying you don’t edit a ton.

Malkmus: If things really stick out and I don’t like them… In this new album, there’s a song—it’s maybe going to be first—it’s called “Planetary Motion.” It’s sort of pseudo-cosmic. Not cosmic, but earthy, primitive lyrics. They’re not good or bad, they go with the song. They’re pretty good.

But then there’s one part, it goes…I say, “Yellow odyssey” for some reason. I don’t like the word “yellow” and I don’t really like “odyssey.” It could be a car. It’s about the sun, but it’s kind of bad. It always bothers me. I spent six months on it, and either I’m too lazy or I couldn’t find anything to sing. I had another chance to sing it, so what I did was I just covered it with this other vocal that’s nonsense sort of. It blends into sound a little more, so you don’t really notice that the guy’s saying “a yellow odyssey.”

Other people in the band didn’t hate that line. They don’t care. They don’t even think about it that much. But it was killing me, to the point it couldn’t be the first song on the album. I played it for Kim Gordon, and she’s like, “That song’s great. It should be the first song. That should be the single.” She hasn’t listened to it seventy times. She doesn’t notice the “yellow odyssey.”

Basically, no one else gives me any opinions on lyrics. I don’t ask for them. If they did, I would listen. They have before. On the new album we had this one song that’s a semi-show stopper. We played it a lot. I wouldn’t call it a show stopper, but it’s a good jam. It never had lyrics; I was just making them up every night.

Rumpus: Totally improvising?

Malkmus: Yeah. I just kind of mumble. Live, by the eighth song, no one’s really listening. On old songs, when they know it—

Rumpus: Sure, you can’t get away with it.

Malkmus: —but on a new song, it’s too much to take in. I just sing quieter, so it sort of blends in. I do that all the time. With any new song, I don’t have lyrics until the end.

Rumpus: But you’ll perform it with improvised lyrics?

Malkmus: Yeah. I’ll just make up whatever. Maybe I’ll have one line to start with.

Rumpus: Do you have a stock thing that you go to when you’re improvising?

Malkmus: Yeah, I probably do. I used to say things about waiting a lot. The word “down,” is very musical. It just always comes. “You,” “I.” We’re breaking up or things are going bad. It doesn’t really matter.

But for this [semi-show stopper] song, I made this big, long thing. It became about the flower children, how they let us down. It was in a funny way. But once I listened to the whole thing, it was just too much. It was too strident.

Rumpus: Too direct, or overt?

Malkmus: Yeah. It was a full psychedelic narrative. But when it was all done, it was just, uhhh—it was too much. But it was a song that had a no-singing part, so it would have been nice to have on the album. It had a space-out part. In forty minutes, you need to zone out once, or no one’s going to make it through. No one’s probably going to make it through anyway, unless they’re a big fan, in this day and age.

Rumpus: Why do you say that?

Malkmus: I just don’t think people listen. I mean, they can’t listen to a whole album closely without checking their iPhone or wanting to skip to their favorite song, or putting something else on, practically. That’s why the zone out is a good thing.

Rumpus: It’s like a commercial break.

Malkmus: Yeah, you could conceivably work in your art studio and have it on and it doesn’t…because this album is really getting at you, maybe more than people want these days. It’s kind of ‘90s-sounding, almost. Which is cool. No one knows ‘90s like us.

Stephen Malkmus_SXSW_Tim GriffinRumpus: That kind of gets at some other, broader issues. Like, what do you perceive of as the function, or use, of these songs? What are you making songs for?

Malkmus: I think it’s just entertainment for people that are interested in the form. To sing along to and be psyched by. Psyched that someone’s writing the kind of songs you want to hear.

Rumpus: Is it fostering community?

Malkmus: That’s the reason to put it out. Otherwise I would just do it for myself, I guess. For us, just to make something that is in this world of things that we loved—like The Beatles and the Stones and punk rock—to be part of that, it’s great. And to be heard and seen. Most people want to be seen or heard. You want to shine. That’s my way of shining.

For other people, I just want them to like it and it exists as an inspiration to people that want to play, or to lead the culture in some direction. To say, “This is what we’re really like, and we can go this way.”

And it’s paying respect to those that served.

Rumpus: And somehow joining their ranks also.

Malkmus: [Saying] “This is important. This kind of music changed our lives, and it can change yours too. And it’s fun. You should do it.” All the ingredients are there, you don’t even need to know how to sing or tune a guitar.

I was a kid, I loved music, that was our social thing. That’s what we bonded on. That’s what my Saturday nights were, looking to see what bands were playing. And some of those people were the coolest people ever. I want to participate in that. And I hope other people feel that and they’re like, “Yeah man, this is part of it, this is why I love music.” There’s something in life that’s cool, it’s relatively cheap, and fun, and populist. Even when it’s elitist.

Rumpus: It seems like, with Pavement, you achieved that. Pavement got that kind of recognition, both critical and from the audience.

Malkmus: Yeah.

Rumpus: People already project all these titles onto you. Now where’s the motivation to work? You’re not necessarily striving to be accepted anymore. You’ve already been accepted into the canon.

Malkmus: It’s just a compulsion to create something new and stay busy. I don’t know how to do anything else. It was never exactly right. Those records came out in spite of their flaws. And because of their flaws they were good. Or whatever. They weren’t what I heard in my head. Nothing ever is. There’s always a chance, a goal to make something different and get it right, finally.

Besides, going on tour and playing songs and arranging things, going to practice, it’s all I know to be productive. At this point, I’ve lost my writing skills since college. I couldn’t write a book. It would take a long time.

I just think I’m doing what I’m good at. And it’s fun. There’s no reason to stop. Who knows what’s around the bend? To participate, meet new people. It’s mostly other musicians and people like you, or anybody I meet who’s in this, that keeps me going.

I spent two years in Berlin basically doing nothing. That was fun, too.

Rumpus: Were you writing?

Malkmus: I did some writing. I was just taking the kids to school. I did a couple things and we did some tours. It was a lot of downtime.

Rumpus: You wrote this recent record.

Malkmus: Yeah, I did that. But it was at a leisurely pace. Mirror Traffic didn’t come out right away. It was recorded even before the Pavement tour and that was ages ago. It’s been a long time as far as I’m concerned. But I’m not dying for everyone to hear everything we do. Forty minutes every two years is sensible.

Rumpus: Is your motivation to write or compulsion to make stuff the same now as it used to be?

Malkmus: It’s hard to think back. I didn’t even know I was going to do it, make actual records. But I was always making up songs, once I figured out that you could do it. I think it’s pretty much the same, but there’s less urge to get it moving out there. There was a time when it seemed like it was really super important to the audience and now it’s just medium-important for people to like us. But that’s okay.

Rumpus: On the one hand you are talking about this saturation—who has time to listen to music all the way through? And the distraction factor. But you’re also encouraging people to go out and start bands.

Malkmus: Absolutely. If you’d rather learn how to ride a horse or something, I would say do that. That’ll keep you out of trouble. You would think a band would get you in trouble, but I think it’s the opposite. You know where your kids are. They are going there to drink and smoke weed. Hopefully some of these outmoded archetypes, like Johnny Thunders and the Libertines guy [Pete Doherty]—people are over those ideas like “Drugs make you a better musician,” or something. I told a mescaline story, but…

It’s relatively wholesome. When I see four young kids in a band, I think, That looks really fun, no matter how shitty they are. You develop your own thing, and get excited about your band name. It’s all so harmless.

Rumpus: Do you listen to much music still?

Malkmus: Not in the last couple of years, but in concept I do. Traditionally, when we lived here [in Portland], we have a record player in the living room, and there’s lots of stuff playing, all different kinds of music. I don’t listen to any of those Internet radio things. I have iTunes on my thing, but I’ve never bought a single thing on it. Except for “Call Me Maybe,” for the kids or whatever. Carly Rae Jepsen.

Rumpus: It sounds like you’ve been exposed to a lot of culture, ranging from pop to high art and everything. Your wife is a visual artist.

Malkmus: She’s high art, relatively.

Rumpus: Where do you see rock songs fitting in? How do you conceive of what you do in that context? Or even just songs in general.

Malkmus: I don’t know. At this point, our music, it’s an acquired taste. It’s almost cult, even at our level. It can mean nothing to somebody and it can mean everything to somebody else. To somebody, it’s “Call Me Maybe.”

Rumpus: You mean it’s as important to the fans as “Call Me Maybe” is to its fans?

Malkmus: I think it’s as important. My wife says that I changed people’s lives or ways of thinking and that I should always be proud and grateful. If I’m dismissive of what we do sometimes, a little bit, she’s like, “I was a fan, you changed my life,” or whatever. That’s what she says.

Rumpus: That can’t be the first time you’ve heard that.

Malkmus: Yeah, but from her it means more. Or you, or a friend, or someone I trust, that’s great. If there can be some paradigm shift thing that you can be part of, that’s cool. I don’t know where songs stand. Obviously songs and musicians mean a lot to people.

Things tends to often [consolidate] like Disney. It’s the same with music. There’s Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young and Patti Smith. There’s these three people that everyone seems to agree on. No matter what they like, they seem to like those three.

Rumpus: A lot of writers will talk about one or two specific readers that they are writing for.

Malkmus: I could see that. This friend of mine, Jesper Eklow, he’s in this band, Endless Boogie. He’s been a big influence on me musically and he’s passed on a lot of great, obscure music through time. He has a positive attitude. At times, I’ve been, like, Is that cool enough for him?

Rumpus: That’s the bar you’re writing for?

Malkmus: I’ve let go of that. But there’s times that you get influenced by certain people, or look up to their taste. David [Berman], to a certain extent. I know what he’s not going to like maybe, but some stuff you can’t help but do because it’s just who you are. I keep doing it even if I don’t want to. I maybe don’t even notice until afterwards. I know the world doesn’t need maybe another of [a particular type of song]—the same thing again—but you can’t help yourself. And some people like it, but you kind of know in your heart that it’s a lesser version of what you’ve done before. But maybe it has a good tempo, or it feels fresh, but it’s still not.

Rumpus: Do you listen back to your older work?

Malkmus: Not so often. It’s a little bit depressing to do that. I don’t know if you look back on your life and just see successes, but probably the first things that pop up are the regrets. It’s four solo albums and it’s my name on them, and they are all okay, but they’re not… If they didn’t come out, it probably wouldn’t have mattered. It’s your voice on all of it, and it’s, like, me me. I mean, there was a band there, but… What could have been done differently? I tend not to do that.

There’s a mix of what music you really like and what you can do—what you can do well. I want to do some different kind of songs, but say I want to do riffs, but I don’t come up with any riffs that I really think are great. Then I can’t do a riff album. I’m more of a song, melody person.

Rumpus: I was noticing that. On all the Pavement records, there’s no riffs in any of your songs. There are starting to be now, it seems like.

Malkmus: I like riffs and stuff. I didn’t back then.

Rumpus: There’s not even a single blues lick on any of those Pavement records, in any of the solos.

Malkmus: No, there’s not. I had different guitar tunings. It was more melodic. When I was a kid I really liked the guitarist of The Doors [Robby Krieger]. He plays blues, but he plays a lot of melodic things. He plays scales that are kind of unusual, and some bent notes. But I thought The Doors were the greatest band for a while.

Rumpus: Really? Where do you stand on The Doors now?

Malkmus: I loved the first album. I thought it was so great. I still think it was amazing. And even the other ones. Certain songs, especially.

Rumpus: Is that part of your new frontman complex, wanting to not play guitar and just sing?

Malkmus: Yeah, I’m going to wear leather pants and get blowjobs in the studio. That would be nice. They are definitely not cool, but I like them. I don’t listen to them, but I like them when I hear them on the radio, normally.

Rumpus: I’m not speaking particularly about musical influences, but is there somebody out there that has a body of work at the end of their career that you would like your body of work to look like, or have a similar impact?

Malkmus: Everyone loves Neil Young; he’s kind of had the perfect music thing. He started in a band. He did folk rock, dark rock. Now he’s old and everyone still wants to see him. He wrote some good lyrics in his time. He wrote—when he was on his game—some of those blurry, stoner, genius songs.

Rumpus: “Cowgirl in the Sand.”

Malkmus: Or even, “I was living in a burned out basement” [from “After the Gold Rush”]. That kind of song. It’s trippy but it’s meaningful.

There’s poets. My wife is a big fan of George Oppen and I got into him. I could have a career like his. It’s not an alpha male situation, George Oppen. It’s quiet. It’s poetry, you know. He just lived a life of an intellectual poet.

Rumpus: He wasn’t a rock star poet.

Malkmus: Not really. Like Charles Olson or something would have been. He wasn’t a larger than life personality, but I’m not either. And he lived a long time, so he was happy. Going down in flames is fine, too.

Rumpus: It sounds like you’d rather have a long, productive career.

Malkmus: Yeah, I mean, the body of work stuff is great, but some people have more fun with a worse body of work. Or their life is awesome. I don’t want to be in Mötley Crüe or something. Some people, they’ve had a lot of fun, even if it was dumb fun and a shitty body of work. But it was a fun trip. Where there’s probably some boring, tidy bodies of work.

I’m playing it safe now, with the kids. It’s a little bourgie. But it’s still fun. There’s joy in that. And family is the best. I can honestly say, it’s a gift that is beyond making art. I didn’t know that when I got into it.

Rumpus: Did you have a fear that it was going to encroach on your creative work before hand?

Malkmus: It does. I knew it would. [But my music] exists in a world that’s of its own. It’s like a fantasy world, and life dips into it. Like when a band means a lot to you, you build the fantasy more than the reality. Always. When you hear a heavy metal record—well, maybe Slayer actually was in there with beers and head-banging—but all the other ones, they recorded it then added overdubs sitting there, in those studio chairs, with their long hair and Dockers on.

Rumpus: Where does the work go from here? Do you have a sense of the specifics that have changed over time? Where you are coming from and where it is headed?

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks_Mirror TrafficMalkmus: It’s the people that I’m working with. That’s always important. A new band. I try to make different situations to record in and change some environmental things. Don’t go to the same studio twice, or work with the same engineer twice. I’ve been playing piano lately and I’ve been thinking of doing some piano songs. I’m bad at it, so I think that’s a good thing. And maybe some new stuff will come from that.

Now that this new record is finished I’m going to try the next thing. We are going to have a few songs like the ones on this recent record, but more groove-based. Some sort of spaced out things. I don’t want to solo over it so much. Now I don’t really like solos that much. I like parts with guitar. I like instrumental parts a lot.

Rumpus: Have you thought of doing instrumental music?

Malkmus: I have. But I always think of it as a lesser art. I can’t help but think that way—that it’s a partial cop-out, or less than a human voice with lyrics. I think that they just can’t sing, or they didn’t have a singer. It’s not fair but it’s probably just a chip on my shoulder because I do it. I always feel like things are unfinished when they are that way.

Rumpus: There are instrumentals on some of your records.

Malkmus: That’s true. I tend to think of them as just cheeky. I could try it. To me, that would be easier, because I often don’t relish making the lyrics.

I’m not dying for things to say. Maybe that’s the point? I was maybe finding a way to say something cool, and I didn’t really know what I wanted to say. Or if I even wanted to.

***

Featured image of Stephen Malkmus © by Alex de Mora.

Photo of Pavement © by Gail Butensky.

Second photo of Stephen Malkmus © by Tim Griffin.

Photo of Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks © by Leah Nash.


Scott Pinkmountain is a writer and musician living in California. He is the creator and host of The History Channeler comedy podcast and has written for This American Life, A Public Space, HTMLGIANT, and other publications. He has also released dozens of albums of both instrumental music and songs including the recent No Country Music. He can be found at http://www.scottpinkmountain.com/. More from this author →