October 12th, 2011 | by CASEY JARMAN Music | Posted In: QandA

Extended Q&A: Stephen Malkmus

stephenmalkmuspressThe Jicks - Leah Nash
Stephen Malkmus has done a lot of interviews in his 20-odd years fronting Pavement and the Jicks. So when we talked on the phone in advance of the latter group’s Portland stop—it will be the first time the latest incarnation of the band, which features Jake Morris of the Joggers on drums in addition to longtime Jicks Joanna Bolme and Mike Clark, has played Portland—I wasn’t surprised to hear him answer my questions in playful fashion.
But on the Jicks’ new record, the Beck-produced Mirror Traffic, Malkmus balances his wry, playful writing with self-aware and emotionally direct lines about illusion-shattering that feel as sincere as anything in the songwriter’s back catalog. Much like talking to a half-awake Malkmus—who moved from Portland to Berlin this summer—as the band drives through Virginia, it snaps between sincere and outrageous at a moment’s notice.
What follows is our entire 25-minute conversation.

WW:How’s the tour been?
SM: It’s good. So far so good. No complaints.

I’ve heard the Jicks are doing a bad job of thrashing hotel rooms?
Well, New York brings out the worst in everyone. Everyone gets totally trashed they are no matter what age they are—even people who have sworn off alcohol, it gets twisted there. We just got out of there with our lives.

You had one night of rock starism?
Well, you know, every night is a little bit of it. Everyone has to drink a bit for the show to make it so it’s not just like going to church or something. Which is, you know, what it really feels like if you’re not drunk...in life.

Can you play sober these days?
I can do that. I don’t like to be drunk before I play, it makes me burp. It makes me feel tired and bloated in my stomach, so I can’t sing as loud. I used to get more smashed when I was a twentysomething, and now I just take one little shot before I play, or two. One medium-sized shot and have a couple beers after. It’s actually, as boring as it is it’s a lot of work to tour, so you can’t go totally ape shit one night or you’ll totally pay for it afterwards for a three days, maybe lose your voice or something like that.

Is this tour a little more DIY than the Pavement tour was? Are you handling more of the duties?
A little bit. I mean, it’s typical of what I’ve been doing for the last 13 years. It’s just two vans, we got a guitar tech and a tour manager. Our own rooms. That’s almost the same, but without a tour bus and more people screaming for Pavement songs.

I heard you were just in U2’s studio doing an LA Guns song?
That’s true, I don’t know how that got out. It’s not U2’s studio, but it’s a place they recorded recently. Some of their gear was lying around there supposedly. I don’t know what the deal was with the studio, it was kind of a cryptic place—that was the only thing cryptic was that U2 had been there.

L.A. Guns, "The Ballad of Jayne"


Do you have kind of an obsession with LA Guns? I heard that you almost named your new album LA Guns, too. What is it about that band?
Like the videos and the rocking on the cars and the Sunset Strip and the will to power. If you have the will to power to make it on the strip you can make it, even with very few songs. You can just, like, evoke the Sunset Strip lifestyle and just be it and you are it, you know? I guess Juliana Hatfield said it perfectly: “Become what you are.” LA Guns embody that, you know? It’s just pretty amazing. You have to watch a lot their videos and look at their cover art and just stare at it. But don’t listen... [Cell phone connection fails. I call back, and Malkmus answers “Happy Birthday!”]

[Startled] Whoa, really, did you know it was my birthday?
Yeah, absolutely. What do you think we talk about in this van all the time, dude? No, Jake [Morris] knew. Jake knows because his birthday is tomorrow, too. And you should know that. So I was saying, I just stare at the covers while I look at the videos, just turn the sound down. It’s just LA. [Tracii Guns] was there when Guns and Roses were founded. He met Axl [Rose] on the strip. He was just walking by the Whiskey or something, a couple of strippers on each of their arms. Or they bumped into each other, maybe at Guitar Center. I’m not really sure, but anyway, they were like “you’re guns, I’m roses.” And that’s how the band was made. And Guns N' Roses, obviously, is a much more important band than Nirvana in music history. Everyone is championing this band Nirvana, who is just like a pale imitation of Guns N Roses, really.

Do you really believe that?
Yes, absolutely. I do believe it. And I know that Guns N' Roses are much better than Nirvana, there’s no doubt about that. But I can name like 700 bands that were better than Nirvana that were from that year. So.

Are you not a Nirvana fan?
No, I love ‘em. I just think that LA Guns are there at ground zero at this very important time that we used to celebrate. And now people sort of make fun of people, they make fun of David Lee Roth and the party times and the good times. I was there in the ‘80s—I was there to experience it. That’s why I named the title LA Guns [the actual album title is Mirror Traffic].

But it doesn’t seem like you strive for the overkill and the grandeur of that era.
I know, but it was different times, you know? We were all just after—all we wanted, all of us, just wanted drugs and girls and money. There’s different ways to get there. Stand-up comedians do it one way. And in the ‘90s it was a different game. There was the rise of the indie girl. To get her, you could not play Guns N Roses music. Not to mention the fact that there was also the rise of boob jobs, which I am not a fan of. And so indie girls were the way to go, so we made music to cater to them.

To woo them.
Yeah, exactly. Form follows...whatever...the chicken, the egg. We followed our second brain to indie.

You dispensed with the eyeliner, though.
Yeah, no eyeliner. My hair doesn’t look long or teased, it just goes out in this ugly neo-Ramones look. So I was kind of forced out.



I wonder if you’re scared about moving at all?
Not really, we’ve been there for a month. It already happened, the scary part. So not really. There are a bunch of college kids walking around and like, Canadian backpackers. I’m not afraid. If a Canadian backpacker can handle it there, I can handle it there. The hard parts are stuff that don’t move. The school is not great, that our kids are in, and that’s causing us a lot of headaches. But it’s a livable place, you’d be surprised. It’s hard to get mugged. You can walk around saying, like “mug me! Mug me!” They won’t even do it. They’re not into mugging.

Can you say “mug me” in German?
Not yet. And of course there are parts of the town you could go to where people would do it without asking. But most people say “I walk around holding my wallet out or holding Euros, one of the strongest currencies in the world, and no one will mug them.”

Are you going to miss US sports?
Yeah, that’s one. America’s spectacle sports are great, and we don’t really have them in Europe. But we do have this thing called ESPN America, and it shows a lot of games, it’s just the hours are weird. If I have time to watch, I’ll do it. I don’t know, it’s probably good for me to not do that, and get some culture or something. Like, read a book or some history—get into architecture. That’s something you can always do in your 40s.

So you think you might step away from being a sports obsessive for awhile?
Well, I don’t know. I don’t even know if I’m obsessed with it, it’s just—it’s all I do. Just kidding. There are other things to get excited about in Germany. Like the transit system: You could write a whole book about it! The whole East vs. West, the lingering prejudice against Eastern Europeans—they’re like belly-scratching, McDonalds eating, Faygo-drinking hicks, you know?

They sound like Juggalos!
They might be kind of related, that’s the feeling I’m getting from these West Germans. I’m not gonna name names. The ones named Bridget. Or Bridgeta, rather.

What are you going to miss most about Portland?
Nature? The wildlife? The nightlife. Clubbing. I’m not going to be able to go clubbing anymore, around Portland. I’ll tell you what I’m not gonna miss. Basketball. I’m not gonna miss basketball.

Because there’s not going to be any?
Exactly. And I’m not going to miss when my Jaguar gets stuck in traffic all the time, trying to get to the country club.

All those fucking bicyclists getting in your way?
Too many. There are lots of bicyclists in Berlin. And we got an SUV right when we got there, of course, but they’re everywhere and they’re just like little ants. And they have really liberal rules about riding on your sidewalk with your bike, because children ride on there. And I guess I agree that they shouldn’t be on the street, like five-year-olds. But there’s not much I’m gonna miss about Portland. I’m gonna miss my friends. But to say you’re gonna miss good coffee or something, that means your life is kind of pathetic, as far as I’m concerned. I think I can get by with decent coffee. There’s good little restaurants in Portland, right? And the trees, and stuff. But I’m coming there in just a month, you know—I’m looking forward to seeing how much it has changed. It has been like 40 days.

It does change fast.
Yeah, it does change fast.

I bet it has changed a lot in the time you’ve been here.
Yeah, a lot. How long have you been there?

Six years? Seven years? I grew up in Oregon, but I guess I’ve been here for seven years now.
Well, you know what they say—just like New York City, there’s Portland, and then there’s the rest [of Oregon]. I think it’s a great place, seriously, it’s a great place. Everyone agrees that it’s a great place. So I’m one less oxygen-taker in this place where there’s just gonna be more people coming.

Do you think there’ll be like a critical mass at some point?
What I’ve noticed, sometimes, in America, is that people are moving to certain places more and more and they’re cutting out the middle. It’s like a modern mastering job on a rock record, where they’re taking out all the high mids—middle America—and leaving the top and bottom, like New York. I think Portland could be a recipient of that, like a draining out of places that are nice and organically fill these places. I can see more and more people coming.

I am a big fan of your lyrics, but I wonder, is there any pressure at this point in your career to be more straightforward in your writing.
Sometimes. Sometimes I feel like I could be more direct. There are often things I want to say, but I don’t want to come off as a grumpy old dad, you know? And if I’m too direct, that’s eventually going to start happening, because I am. No, I’m not, but if you’re going to say “we need some change around here!”—when protest songs are written by older guys they are cranky old man things. When they are written by Bob Dylan when he’s 17 or 21, it’s like, he’s the spokesman of a generation. As a big huge music fan, and in a quest for timelessness, I tend to stay away from temporal things and more direct talk, because the multi-tiered imagery that reflects them back on each other and the multi-layered things that will last longer. That’s the state of the way lyrics should be if they’re going to be artistically truthful to our times.

Do you have as much fun lyrics when you’re writing lyrics as you ever have?
I don’t know. It’s fun when it’s fun, and when it’s not—not that that’s a big revelation—but it’s not. Something has to be coming down the pipeline. But the source of inspiration is the moment and you don’t know when the moment is gonna come—you have to be ready for the moment. If you’re playing live or in your room. You’ve got to be diligent about writing things down that are clever. I forget a lot of stuff, too.

Do you always carry a notebook with you?
I don’t but I want to. Now I type it on my iPhone, in that little yellow pad thing, which is kinda lame. I take pictures that aren’t very good with it and write down things that aren’t very good and read websites that aren’t very good and talk to people I don’t like. [Tried not to let this hurt my feelings. -Ed.]

It sounds like everything sucks.
I’m just talking about the iPhone.

Do you ever get a kick out of people singing along to your most abstract lyrics?
Yeah, I mean, I’m surprised if anyone is that big of a fan of us to start, so yeah. Anyone singing along, I’m flattered. We want to be loved. We want to fill seats in hockey rinks, you know?

Does it still surprise you when people like your band?
Well, now we’ve played long enough and we think we have some sort of quasi-pedigree, and people know who we are. So we expect to have somebody there. I guess it’s not that surprising, but it’s cool. When you go on tour you’re working hard and you want to make it a party situation, so we can get out of our heads a bit.

Do you have stock advice that you give young musicians? You don’t seem like a guy who would offer advice unwarranted, but...
Yeah. I would say, pretty much, sell all your bonds, because this bear market is gonna end. I’m sure you’re already out of these tech stocks like Cisco Systems and Microsoft, but I would check the fundamentals behind a lot of these companies. A lot of these companies are actually profitable and they’re buying back their stocks, so you’ll be getting their dividends, but don’t—

[Laughing uncontrollably] I guess “stock” was the wrong word to use there.
Oh. Not stock advice? Oh, just generic advice.

Yeah, I’m sorry, I forgot that you were big into the markets.
Yeah, I didn’t know. Sorry. There are a lot of young musicians that need advice on that. Especially in Portland.

Sorry, just disregard that one.
No, I would say—that other stuff is much more important than what I’m about to say–but I would say, you know, listen to a lot of music and really follow your heroes. And copy it. Copy it so often until you don’t even notice anymore. That’s what I would really say. And expand your horizons, too. I’m not saying just because you like U2—maybe you need to like more than one band. But listen to a lot of different bands, and find a mix of all those bands, and hopefully if you have so much love in your heart for all of these bands it’ll rub off and you’ll have something original. I don’t know, that’s the only advice I can give.

I think that’s good advice. What have you been listening to in the van?
We’ve been listening to Neil Young. We just listened to Tonight’s the First Night, which is a bootleg of Tonight’s the Night. We heard Seals & Crofts Summer Breeze and it’s sounding just crystal.

Do you have a good sound system in the van?
No, not really. But that ‘70s stuff, if you’re an audiophile you can just geek out on the production. Actually, the chord progressions are quite clever. It’s kind of dark, at least in the verse.

Is this Portland show going to feel bittersweet?
It’s going to be emotional. It’s gonna be the best show of the tour, I would say definitely. It’s going to be towards the end of this tour, too, so me and the guitar tech are going to be hugging and crying and trying to say goodbye. And my illegitimate children, I’m going to see them. I haven’t seen them in 40 days.
 
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