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 groupâs Portland stopâit 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 PortlandâI wasnât surprised to hear him answer my questions in playful fashion.
But on the Jicksâ 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 songwriterâs back catalog. Much like talking to a half-awake Malkmusâwho moved from Portland to Berlin this summerâas the band drives through Virginia, it snaps between sincere and outrageous at a momentâs notice.
WW:Howâs the tour been?
SM: Itâs good. So far so good. No complaints.
Iâve 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 areâeven 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 itâs not just like going to church or something. Which is, you know, what it really feels like if youâre not drunk...in life.
Can you play sober these days?
I can do that. I donât like to be drunk before I play, it makes me burp. It makes me feel tired and bloated in my stomach, so I canât 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. Itâs actually, as boring as it is itâs a lot of work to tour, so you canât go totally ape shit one night or youâll 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, itâs typical of what Iâve been doing for the last 13 years. Itâs just two vans, we got a guitar tech and a tour manager. Our own rooms. Thatâs almost the same, but without a tour bus and more people screaming for Pavement songs.
I heard you were just in U2âs studio doing an LA Guns song?
Thatâs true, I donât know how that got out. Itâs not U2âs studio, but itâs a place they recorded recently. Some of their gear was lying around there supposedly. I donât know what the deal was with the studio, it was kind of a cryptic placeâthat 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: âBecome what you are.â LA Guns embody that, you know? Itâs just pretty amazing. You have to watch a lot their videos and look at their cover art and just stare at it. But donât listen... [Cell phone connection fails. I call back, and Malkmus answers âHappy Birthday!â]
[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. Itâs 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. Iâm not really sure, but anyway, they were like âyouâre guns, Iâm roses.â And thatâs 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, thereâs 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 âem. 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 â80sâI was there to experience it. Thatâs why I named the title LA Guns [the actual album title is Mirror Traffic].
But it doesnât 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 afterâall we wanted, all of us, just wanted drugs and girls and money. Thereâs different ways to get there. Stand-up comedians do it one way. And in the â90s 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 doesnât look long or teased, it just goes out in this ugly neo-Ramones look. So I was kind of forced out.
I wonder if youâre scared about moving at all?
Not really, weâve 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. Iâm not afraid. If a Canadian backpacker can handle it there, I can handle it there. The hard parts are stuff that donât move. The school is not great, that our kids are in, and thatâs causing us a lot of headaches. But itâs a livable place, youâd be surprised. Itâs hard to get mugged. You can walk around saying, like âmug me! Mug me!â They wonât even do it. Theyâre not into mugging.
Can you say âmug meâ 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 âI walk around holding my wallet out or holding Euros, one of the strongest currencies in the world, and no one will mug them.â
Are you going to miss US sports?
Yeah, thatâs one. Americaâs spectacle sports are great, and we donât really have them in Europe. But we do have this thing called ESPN America, and it shows a lot of games, itâs just the hours are weird. If I have time to watch, Iâll do it. I donât know, itâs probably good for me to not do that, and get some culture or something. Like, read a book or some historyâget into architecture. Thatâs something you can always do in your 40s.
So you think you might step away from being a sports obsessive for awhile?
Well, I donât know. I donât even know if Iâm obsessed with it, itâs justâitâs 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 Europeansâtheyâre like belly-scratching, McDonalds eating, Faygo-drinking hicks, you know?
They sound like Juggalos!
They might be kind of related, thatâs the feeling Iâm getting from these West Germans. Iâm 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. Iâm not going to be able to go clubbing anymore, around Portland. Iâll tell you what Iâm not gonna miss.
Basketball. Iâm not gonna miss basketball.
Because thereâs not going to be any?
Exactly. And Iâm 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 theyâre everywhere and theyâre 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 shouldnât be on the street, like five-year-olds. But thereâs not much Iâm gonna miss about Portland. Iâm gonna miss my friends. But to say youâre gonna miss good coffee or something, that means your life is kind of pathetic, as far as Iâm concerned. I think I can get by with decent coffee. Thereâs good little restaurants in Portland, right? And the trees, and stuff. But Iâm coming there in just a month, you knowâIâm 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 youâve been here.
Yeah, a lot. How long have you been there?
Six years? Seven years? I grew up in Oregon, but I guess Iâve been here for seven years now.
Well, you know what they sayâjust like New York City, thereâs Portland, and then thereâs the rest [of Oregon]. I think itâs a great place, seriously, itâs a great place. Everyone agrees that itâs a great place. So Iâm one less oxygen-taker in this place where thereâs just gonna be more people coming.
Do you think thereâll be like a critical mass at some point?
What Iâve noticed, sometimes, in America, is that people are moving to certain places more and more and theyâre cutting out the middle. Itâs like a modern mastering job on a rock record, where theyâre taking out all the high midsâmiddle Americaâand 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 donât want to come off as a grumpy old dad, you know? And if Iâm too direct, thatâs eventually going to start happening, because I am. No, Iâm not, but if youâre going to say âwe need some change around here!ââwhen protest songs are written by older guys they are cranky old man things. When they are written by Bob Dylan when heâs 17 or 21, itâs like, heâs 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. Thatâs the state of the way lyrics should be if theyâre going to be artistically truthful to our times.
Do you have as much fun lyrics when youâre writing lyrics as you ever have?
I donât know. Itâs fun when itâs fun, and when itâs notânot that thatâs a big revelationâbut itâs not. Something has to be coming down the pipeline. But the source of inspiration is the moment and you donât know when the moment is gonna comeâyou have to be ready for the moment. If youâre playing live or in your room. Youâve 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 donât 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 arenât very good with it and write down things that arenât very good and read websites that arenât very good and talk to people I donât like.
[Tried not to let this hurt my feelings. -Ed.]
It sounds like everything sucks.
Iâm just talking about the iPhone.
Do you ever get a kick out of people singing along to your most abstract lyrics?
Yeah, I mean, Iâm surprised if anyone is that big of a fan of us to start, so yeah. Anyone singing along, Iâm 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 weâve 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 itâs not that surprising, but itâs cool. When you go on tour youâre 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 donât 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. Iâm sure youâre 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 theyâre buying back their stocks, so youâll be getting their dividends, but donâtâ
[Laughing uncontrollably] I guess âstockâ was the wrong word to use there.
Oh. Not stock advice? Oh, just generic advice.
Yeah, Iâm sorry, I forgot that you were big into the markets.
Yeah, I didnât 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 sayâthat other stuff is much more important than what Iâm about to sayâbut 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 donât even notice anymore. Thatâs what I would really say. And expand your horizons, too. Iâm not saying just because you like U2âmaybe 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 itâll rub off and youâll have something original. I donât know, thatâs the only advice I can give.
I think thatâs good advice. What have you been listening to in the van?
Weâve been listening to Neil Young. We just listened to Tonightâs the First Night, which is a bootleg of Tonightâs the Night. We heard Seals & Crofts Summer Breeze and itâs sounding just crystal.
Do you have a good sound system in the van?
No, not really. But that â70s stuff, if youâre an audiophile you can just geek out on the production. Actually, the chord progressions are quite clever. Itâs kind of dark, at least in the verse.
Is this Portland show going to feel bittersweet?
Itâs going to be emotional. Itâs gonna be the best show of the tour, I would say definitely. Itâs 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, Iâm going to see them. I havenât seen them in 40 days.