|Photography by Eleonora C. Collini
Not many alternative rock musicians have been more influential and prolific, without ever sounding formulaic, than Stephen Malkmus. Always revered by fans and critics alike, the now-forty-eight-year-old indie-rock royal was the main songwriter/frontman of ‘90s lo-fi gods Pavement, member of alt-country group Silver Jews, and since 2000 he has been leading The Jicks, with whom he has now released more albums than he ever did with Pavement.
After a few-month break from touring in support of their sixth full-length Wig out at Jagbags, which came out last January via long-time labels Matador (US) and Domino Records (UK), the Jicks are now back in Europe for some small festivals and club dates.
I hung out with Malkmus at a pub near The Old Market in Brighton, where the band played a few hours later. The weather was miserable, one of those rare summer days when it rains incessantly. He had just arrived from Paris, half an hour late and completely soaked, but he immediately treated me with laid-back familiarity, proving to be witty, personable, charming and as willing to answer questions in depth as curious to ask them.
During our conversation, we talked about Wig out at Jagbags’ reception and the new songs he has already been working on, as well as discussing the Jicks post-Pavement, how music needs to have a sense of humour to draw him in and what artists he would invite to a dinner.
Eleonora C. Collini: Wig out at Jagbags was released a few months ago so by now you are probably tired of answering questions about it, but I have to ask you a couple…. How do you think it has been received by both fans and critics?
Stephen Malkmus: I think pretty well. It has been a while now, but I think people liked it and also most of my friends told me that I did a good job. By this point it has already been eight months and things move on pretty fast in the music industry unless you are someone that is constantly in the public eye.
How would you describe Remko Schouten’s production style in comparison with Beck’s, who produced your previous record Mirror Traffic?
Very hands-off. He just let us do what we wanted to do. I have known him for a long time. He was initially working as a soundman at the first big concert Pavement did back in the days and then we kind of inherited him. Pavement was playing at the New Music Seminar in New York, which doesn’t exist anymore, at least not in the same way as it was originally conceived. It was My Bloody Valentine, who was just coming to release Loveless, and us, and we were very excited as we loved My Bloody Valentine, they are such a mysterious band. And then there was Remko, this Dutch guy with a mullet, who later became a friend and grew into owning a studio. Now he is the Jicks' tour manager and does our live sound. When we recorded Wig out at Jagbags he knew what we sounded like so he just imitated that. It is like when instead of taking a photo of yourself with your IPhone you get someone to do a bit of hairbrush for you to look better.
To me your last two albums seem much more vocals-oriented. Was it something intentional?
A little bit. Not that I am great singer, but I have come to appreciate how unique somebody’s voice can be and how difficult is to imitate it. You can pretty much copy any beat with the production tricks, but if you play rock music the timber and vocals are very important. I think that over time I just realised vocals are an essential part of our music, whereas before I just thought I could get away with it and kind of pretended that I was a singer. Now I am a singer too and my voice is a defining thing of our music and means something.
Most of the songs on Wig out at Jagbags were first played live a few times during Mirror Traffic's tour before being recorded for the new album. But a couple of songs, “Flower children” and “Blind Imagination”, which you were playing a lot on the past tour, were left out in the end. What happened to them?
We tried to record "Flower Children". We actually recorded everything but the vocals, as the lyrics got too organised and narrative and then I didn’t have time to totally erase them and redo them. I had done a pretty complicated doubling of my vocals and it sounded good but it was underwhelming when we played it. Sometimes when you listen to your own music you have like the beach-ball -deflating kind of feeling after one or two listens, though before that you have been hypnotizing yourself into believing it's great. As for "Blind Imagination", I did it as a demo, only me and electronic drums, but it was never finished. Then we tried to record that too, but it become a rock song that required more production and we simply didn’t have time for it, so we had to scrap that.
Have you been playing any new songs on this European tour?
Yeah, I have already cooked up new stuff and scrapped those "Flower Children" and "Blind Imagination", which we are not going to play. Over the last couple of months I have been recording stuff in my room and I also bought an electronic drum kit, one of those Roland fake drums, so now I am making demos with electronic drums faking real, instead of drum machines where you just tap your fingers. There are twelve or thirteen new songs that I presented to the band and we have been working on already. Now that we are playing small club gigs in Europe rather than festivals, we will have time to play those.
What is the relationship between music and lyrics in your songs?
There is a song much before there are lyrics in my mind, then I know that I have to do the lyrics. Writing lyrics is like getting married to a song, before that it’s just messing around which in fact is the fun part, funnier than being married. When you write lyrics you are making a statement and you say “this is serious”, it’s like marriage, it’s real and important too of course. And I like words and communicate with people with words, with clean sentences or messy ones intentionally, so I definitely appreciate lyrics too.
What is the most rewarding for you: writing, recording or performing live? And has that changed over the years?
The most rewarding part has always been the early stages of creativity when I have an idea and toy with it, the creation of the drumbeats, melodies and countermelodies. Then I show that initial idea to the band and it may sounds different, hopefully better, and we can get loose together, which is the most interesting and fun part because I like messing around, just like a child making a drawing that not anyone is going to see.
You usually play a lot of covers at your shows, sometimes even improvising them on the spot. Do you find that revisiting someone else’s songs can be in a way more fun and carefree than playing your own ones?
I don’t know, I don’t think about it. It’s just a way to make things less monotonous when you are in a band. You can't just play your own songs forever, it would almost be a little bit narcissistic. Covering someone else’s songs, especially in a live setting, is entertainment too and it has been done forever.
Do you think that the Jicks' popularity has grown since Pavement's reunion tour in 2010?
When I first started playing with the Jicks there was anticipation of a solo record as Pavement were just finished, and in many ways that was the most popular time for the band because of the situation, not so much for the music. That was also because of my age and what was happening to music, as they were still selling more CDs than now and there wasn't this downloading insanity yet. So that was probably when our popularity was at its highest. Then up till Pavement got back together, promoters almost just wanted to work with me because they were hoping there would be a Pavement reunion at some point. Then after that finally happened, I think there was a tiny bit of deflation in some people's mind as some just had what they wanted with Pavement.
But I believe that thanks to Pavement's reunion you actually got new fans especially from the younger generations who might not have known much about you before.
That's true. I think especially in the UK it has been very good, but that's almost always been like that. Probably because of the English language, and also because people seem to relate to the music we play, the same way as they really related to Pavement. In America of course it has always been good too, but that's where we have spent the most time. In Europe things are a bit different though, as in some places Pavement had their trendy moment back in the days, then people sort of forgot about me. I was probably more of a cult figure, almost a replaceable one among other musicians at the time, and it wasn't really a sophisticated appreciation. But it is always good to play in England, people understand us and I feel a lot of love here.
Speaking of England, I noticed that when you come to the UK for the second time on a tour in support of a new record you tend to skip London. Is it just a coincidence or is there a particular reason, maybe because you don’t like London crowds so much?
No, not at all. That must be the booking agent, maybe because all the venues are busy already or something. Last time we played there it wasn't a great show as I wasn't feeling too well, but I actually really love London and it is where I would live if I lived in England, unless I lived somewhere up the hills in Scotland which would be weird…. But yeah, London is an amazing place. So I think it's totally due to the promoters' plans. We should actually ask them to make us play in London every time. Maybe it's because this time we are playing End of the Road festival and there might be an exclusivity contract of some sort, it often could be just that. Also obviously there would be the most people coming to the show in London as that's where we have the most fans, so we are definitely not skipping it on purpose.
What does art in general, whether it’s music, fine arts or literature, need to have to draw you in?
I appreciate great ideas and sounds. Sometimes I like a bit of sense of humour or even a little bit of deflating in there. I noticed that I don't like bands who don't have a sense of humour, like Bruce Springsteen or Spoon, that people seem to love. I really appreciate Spoon but it's never funny to me, though I like their grooves. I am not talking about comedy rock, just a sort of witty sense of humour. For instance The Velvet Underground or The Beatles obviously have that. But other than that I don’t know. I just appreciate talent and good ideas.
You can invite five artists of any art from any century to a dinner. Who would you invite?
Since I am in Brighton, I would invite Patrick Hamilton, who wrote Hangover Square and other mid-century novels based here in Brighton or in London. He was a bit of an alcoholic but he is invited. He may end up inviting other alcoholics and the party could get sloppy....Then I would invite Virginia Woolf. She may not be that fun but we are in England and she is a genius. Then we could invite Phil May, the singer from The Pretty Things who is still alive, and maybe an artist, Peter Doig who is not from England but lives in Scotland. And since you are originally from Milan I am going to invite an Italian too! Maybe those people that started the Reggio Emilia style of school, which was in a way similar to the Montessori method. They were very poor so they were just using any tools they could find but it was a sort of avant-garde style of teaching. I think it was actually two of them so we have invited more than five!
Was there a record you really loved as a kid but your parents didn’t want you to listen to for whatever reason?
I remember one time I wanted to go see Dead Kennedys. I had just turned sixteen and I wanted to drive but the gig was in a bad part of town. A bad part of town in a bad town didn't sound nice .. So they said that I couldn't drive there, and I was like "no, please" but they really put their foot down. No Dead Kennedys.
In a few interviews you mentioned that your daughters are into pop music, something understandable given their young age. As your music taste has always been quite sophisticated, how much do you try to influence their taste?
Not too much. They are not that stubborn about what they like, as long as it is catchy they may like it. We are going see Katy Perry on September 14. I don't entirely like the message she gives as there is a lot of sex related stuff in there that may not be suitable for kids, but I don't think they will understand what it is about and I also believe her audience is a little ironic about what she is singing. There are many thirteen-year-old girls there that are kind of laughing about it. “Oh yes that's me giving a blowjob at the bar and forgetting about it”. So I think that should be ok but we will find out. Tickets were very expensive so we've got to do it!
You lived in Berlin for a couple of years but recently moved back to Portland, Oregon. Do you miss Berlin and would you consider moving back there in the future?
I love Berlin, if it was America I would live there but it's hard to commit to stay somewhere when you don't need to.
What advice would you give to young bands that start making music these days?
Start a band, have fun, don't get your hopes up. I think nowadays you need to decide pretty young whether you want to make it or you just want to do it for fun. If you are driven and you want to be the new Mick Jagger you could probably get it. But most of us don't have that desire to be super famous and just want to have fun. You can make many friends and it's a great way to waste a weekday evening or something. So my advice is just love your music.