Stephen Malkmus is enamored with losers, weirdos and bygones.
"I think a lot of us who are music fans, we eventually get exhausted of what we like," he tells WW by phone. The former Pavement frontman and longtime Portland resident cites late-'60s blues-rock supergroup Cream as an example. "Cream signifiers are worn out," he says, "and I just can't hear a band that sounds like Cream."
Instead, he's gravitated toward an obscure 1969 album by an oddball named Darius. "He's an old man who tried to jump on the psychedelic bandwagon from the younger generation," Malkmus says. "He's like, 'Oh, they all like psychedelic music!' And he's a crooner, Elvis guy. But he made this psychedelic album called Darius, and I'd rather listen to that album than Cream. It's better to me."
By way of an extended metaphor, Malkmus is explaining the thought process behind his new album, Groove Denied, which is due for release Friday. It's as far from psych rock as it is from anything else in the indie icon's extensive discographies with Pavement, Silver Jews and the Jicks, but it shares some sort of kinship with Darius and other ill-advised but endearing musical blunders throughout the ages.
Imitating imitators might seem harebrained, and indeed, it does yield some messy results. But if anyone's going to succeed at it, it's Malkmus, whose early work with Pavement is revered (and, by some, loathed) because of—not in spite of—its amateurish, rough-hewn charm.
"There's a combination of wanting to change but also wanting to capture what was really awesome that you did on your first record when you didn't know what the fuck you were doing," says Malkmus. "Hypothetically, that's more possible when you're using tools you're not completely in control of."
The first taste the world got of Groove Denied was the single "Viktor Borgia," a queasy, primitive flirtation with vintage, lo-fi synth pop. Its sound is extremely out of step with Malkmus' usual guitar-based style.
"'Viktor Borgia' is, more than anything, playing with German music from the '80s, rather than trying to sound like Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark or anything," Malkmus says. "[It comes from] this place of naiveté and lo-fi synth music that I guess is cheesy, but also adorable. It's working in this angular way with a really simple arpeggiator, like a really 1980 first idea of trying that—not fancy like Kraftwerk, more like misguided German bands that wanted to jump on the bandwagon."
For the most part, Groove Denied was built from a digital audio work dock, drum machines, patches, and Ableton software, united to create what Malkmus deems "bedroom electronica." He's previously used some of the same equipment to demo Jicks songs. But while working on the band's 2018 album, Sparkle Hard, as well as his solo soundtrack to Netflix's Flaked, he landed on a sonic and thematic thread he thought demanded a project unto itself.
When asked what separated Groove Denied's 10 tracks from the surrounding pile of demos from which they emerged, Malkmus responded: "When is it not a demo? That's a good question. It's just when it's not gonna get any better."
"Viktor Borgia" and the ensuing buzz around Malkmus "going electronic" somewhat belies the fact that Groove Denied still features a fair amount of guitar-driven tracks. "I'm not expecting to transmogrify into a new being," Malkmus admits. "I wouldn't really try to carry a vibe like ['Viktor Borgia'] through 40 minutes—the net is a little bit wider, with more different disguises than just one style."
Groove Denied's back half is jammier and more traditionally Malkmusian. Its main distinguishing characteristic in Malkmus' discography is the lack of a backing band or additional studio musicians, which is a first for him.
"The fact that I played it all is solipsistic in a certain way, and maybe there's some problems with that, but it's also interesting," he says. "I would like to hear somebody that I really like do that. I guess there's a little bit of an assumption that people might know who I am."
Malkmus will embark on a solo tour this May, including an already sold-out stop at Doug Fir Lounge. His insular work on Groove Denied begs to ask how his new songs will translate live. Malkmus recognizes he can't simply press play on a laptop and perform the vocals. "I am going to play guitar," he says. "Because, like, I'm good at it."
"One thing that's good is people will have to pay a bit to go, so they're gonna want to like it, and they know who I am and they like me already," he adds. Malkmus expects his intimate, headlining sets to go over well, but if he was opening for a bigger name, "I could really go down like a lead zeppelin."
HEAR IT: Groove Denied comes out on Matador Records on Friday, March 15.