Clip: Stephen Malkmus
Slanted and still enchanting: Stephen Malkmus goes completely solo
By JAKE COYLE
NEW YORK - When discussing his beloved fantasy sports teams, Stephen
Malkmus might as well be talking about his music persona: "If I have a
winning team, I act really cocky, and if I have a losing team, I act sort
The former Pavement frontman has just released his third solo disc, Face
the Truth. It's now been six years since his seminal, California-based
lo-fi indie group disbanded - but they've remained relevant.
Two of their five albums, Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked
Rain, have been reissued in deluxe packages. Other retrospection has
included a book (Perfect Sound Forever: The Story of Pavement, by Rob
Jovanovic) and a documentary (Slow Century).
But even without these small tomes, Pavement and Malkmus can be found
seemingly every week in music reviews, mentioned as an overt influence on a
new band in the ever-burgeoning indie scene.
"I'm glad to be a part of it," the wry 39-year-old recently told The
Associated Press at the New York offices of Matador, the esteemed label
that Pavement went a long way toward establishing.
Matador, like much of indie rock, has grown up over the years. Today, bands
that might have previously lived in the underground, turn up on The O.C.
"I started when it was still college rock, which it is still somewhat," he
says. "It seems to have become more institutionalized in big cities."
Now, Malkmus is far from out of touch, but his music tends to be listened
to mostly by old fans (whose numbers run high enough for him to sell out
most concerts). The shaggy-haired indie hero lives in Portland, Ore., with
his girlfriend and their newborn child, which has led him to cut down on
"But I've still got commitments and I think the record's good," he says. "I
want to play it live and give it a little bit of life, which is hard if you
don't tour at all."
Face the Truth is Malkmus' first solo disc not backed by his new band, the
Jicks ? they appear only as guests. The album has been met with the typical
critical acclaim for anything SM, as he was once known.
"We hail this thief because his structural influences fold into a signature
sound as wholly individual as folk-rock guitar gods Richard Thompson and
(the Smiths') Johnny Marr," wrote Spin magazine. "For good and ill, this
jumble couldn't come from anyone but Malkmus."
Pigeonholing exactly what that jumble sounds like isn't easy ? even for
Malkmus, who humbly accepts his contribution.
"I can do this sort of sludgy, weird, indie rock thing and it's original in
He describes the opening track, Pencil Rot, as "British" and "ready to kick
ass and take names or whatever." He adds, "It's sort of like as hip-hop as
I would be."
Known for a kind of accidental genius guitar playing in his Pavement days,
Malkmus has increasingly been noticed for his riffs and solos.
Whether his playing really has matured, it's certainly less common. More in
vogue nowadays is a churning rhythm of chords (see Interpol, Arcade Fire,
Broken Social Scene). Here, he lets loose dizzying, key-shifting licks on
the eight-minute No More Shoes.
On the other hand, Mama is glowing, falsetto-rich Americana. Though one
expects a David Lynch moment of devastation, the cheery romanticism isn't
cracked. Kindling for the Master adds digital effects to the mix and Baby
C'mon is a rock anthem that would put the Rolling Stones back on top.
But the standout is Post-Paint Boy, a relaxed indictment of modern artists
(before Pavement, Malkmus was a security guard at the Whitney Museum of
American Art in New York). He sings, "You're the maker of minor
masterpieces for the untrained eye."
"That song is about artists, but it's as much about me or any person that's
struggling in the scene to get a little success and it goes to their head,
potentially," he says.
Malkmus long ago became comfortable with his place in the music world. In
its individual creation, Face the Truth may represent his unique niche more
than anything before.
"This record, more than any, is just my sound, whatever it is. It's just
what you like and can do. ... It's not going to be that different unless
you get a co-conspirator - somebody else pushing harder against you."
David Berman has been that opposite aesthetic force for Malkmus in their
band, the Silver Jews. Though it's essentially Berman's outfit, Malkmus is
a frequent collaborator with Berman, a published poet who sings bewildering
country in a deep drawl.
The two (along with Will Oldham and others) recently finished cutting a new
disc in Nashville to be released this October. Malkmus says the new album
is more rocking, and doesn't expect it to be the group's last.
Their 1998 release, American Water, remains one of the best and most
underrated discs of the last decade. Malkmus still remembers having a
"special feeling" about it.
"All of us who played on it, in the studio, we were like, 'Yeah!'" he says.
"Maybe we don't do that anymore because we're too old or something."
As the years go by, the expectation for a Pavement reunion grows. At their
final performance in London in 1999, Malkmus took the stage, gestured to a
pair of handcuffs attached to his microphone stand and said, "Kinda like
being in a band."
"That was stupid," he remembers now, regretfully. Though there was
obviously some tension in the breakup, it appears to have been largely
amicable - many of the Pavement guys are in Malkmus' fantasy baseball
league, after all.
But Malkmus says he still hasn't "really unpacked it that much." Even
though the Pixies and Sebadoh (two other '90s indie stalwarts) have
recently reunited to tour, don't expect a Pavement reunion anytime soon -
but don't give up hope, either.
"We're still a few years off from that, I think. I think it's better to
wait until you look old. When the clapping makes you shudder because it's
too much, that's when you should do it."
For now, Malkmus plans to keep making albums, and will get back together
with the Jicks for the next one. In the end, going solo isn't his thing.
"This is what's fun to me, to build more like a band, like a fake band or a
real band, with an attitude, sort of. That's what I like to do."