Stephen Malkmus - interviewBetween the über-influential Pavement and his subsequent backing band The Jicks, indie rock hero Stephen Malkmus has now released 10 studio albums. The latest, Mirror Traffic, was produced by Beck in Los Angeles and crams 15 disparate tunes into 50 minutes. It’s the final record with drummer Janet Weiss, now in Wild Flag and succeeded by ex-Joggers stickman Jake Morris.
Pop-slanted (and enchanted) compared to some of his more sprawling work, Mirror Traffic nonetheless maintains Malkmus’s lanky guitar work, dry wit and jigsaw wordplay. There are country licks on the ballad ‘Long Hard Book’ and other welcome extras, but overall it reinforces the most likeable traits of the singular songwriter, fresh off a year-long Pavement reunion in 2010. Despite being recorded mostly before Pavement’s touring, it feels as much like a career retrospective as a new outing, hitting all the sweet spots of his (recent) past.
Ever an entertaining interviewee, below Malkmus weighs in on suffering through unreliable amps, writing shorter songs, embracing his guitar chops, bonding with Beck all over again and Pavement getting lost on the way to Golden Plains.
What was it like working with Beck as a producer?
It was totally cas. I called him and he said, “Sure, when?” He’s like, “I’ll scout out a studio for you. We’ll do five days.” I was like, “What about seven?” He was like, “Nah, you’ll just need five. You’ll just have a day off in the middle. Trust me.” I sent him a demo and he probably heard that we could play the songs, so it wasn’t going to be a writing-in-the-studio situation. So we went down there and he came with his engineer and a small entourage of his helper people. They were all busy and we were just sorting out our shit, putting our amps up. First day was kind of a waste, like it always is. Even though I knew him, he could be a little shy or a little withholding. Things gradually opened up a bit and he started to get into it. He did a couple dance moves once, on one song. Usually he was just standing in there, walking around listening. He wasn’t checking his fantasy sports stats or makin’ sure his babysitters were covered. He was in there really listening. He’s a big fan of production and what he’s doing now [as a producer]. He’s trying to get somewhere, I can tell.
What made you think of him for this?
We definitely wanted a producer. It’s been something [bassist] Joanna [Bolme] has been pushing for, after our last experience [2008’s Real Emotional Trash]. Y’know, he’d called me and told me he was doing [producing]. As soon as he did that, it was settled really. Someone reaches out to you like that … he hadn’t done other records yet. Maybe he was working on Charlotte Gainsbourg’s record [IRM], but we were like his second project. And he was working on these Music Club things. It was sort of … I take the path of least resistance, as long as it’s not horrible. He was saying he wanted to do it, and he’s pretty cool. I don’t say “pretty” in a negative way: I mean he’s a pretty cool dude. So of course we’re gonna be like “Why not?” Plus, I know him from the past. I spent some time with him in the ’90s.
Yeah, I was wondering how much your paths had crossed, at gigs or festivals.
Mainly festivals. [Pavement had] a couple [slots] opening for him during Odelay time, when he was kinda blowing up. Then I saw him a few times, maybe when Pavement was broken up. I lost track of him the last 12 years. He got married and had kids and was living down in L.A. I was doing the same thing, sort of, up here [in Portland], so I didn’t really see him. But now I feel like he’s a friend of mine. He’s somebody I’d call up. That’s one fun thing about being in a band: you can make friends with bands you tour with or produce albums with. I have a lot in common with him, it turns out, from being in a somewhat similar situation. I don’t have that many people like that in my life, that I can talk about these kind of things with.
Stephen Malkmus - live acoustic session
Was this record finished before you did all the Pavement touring?
The basics we did first. We knocked out the live tracking about a month before the Pavement rehearsals. We were hoping to pick it up and finish it actually, mid Pavement tour, but that proved to be too confusing. There wasn’t any sense of anything getting stagnant, because even though neither of us were really touching it or thinking about it much [in the interim], I didn’t feel like it was something hanging over me. It was like, “Oh, we got some good tracks. It’s gonna come out good. It doesn’t matter exactly when.”
You’ve had quite long songs on your records in the past, but this one’s songs average a bit over three minutes each. Did you notice that happening?
Yeah. I’m kind of into that lately. Maybe I was flexing more of my prog/psych/record-collector fantasies on some of the other records, and this time I was thinking a little more major-label influences or thinking about Pavement or Wire. You don’t need to draw everything out. Sometimes that’s nice to have a kind of stoner stretch-out West Coast bliss thing, but this was a more “downtown L.A. studio time” record.
It’s got that Wire thing, where songs jump into the next one and start immediately, almost like partway into the song.
That’s true. There’s 15 songs, which makes it shorter [per song], but there’s a lot of tunes on there. There’s enough tunes for you to not like a couple, and it’ll still be alright. (Laughs)
You said you finished the basic tracking before the Pavement reunion, but is it possible that any of that touring influenced how this album turned out?
I don’t know. That tour was pretty compartmentalised. I think it must have rubbed off on me, some of the live playing. But y’know, I did most of [these] songs already. Pavement was 13 years ago: it’s hard for me to remember what was going on in my mind. [Pavement’s final album] Terror Twilight was more like our last album [Real Emotional Trash]. It’s really weird. There’s a couple of pathetic attempts at normalcy, but for the most part it’s some really odd songs, like self-consciously strange arrangements and too much Echoplex [effect]. But I don’t know. I was just strippin’ it down a little bit. We put certain time constraints upon ourselves to keep us in a relatively stripped-down performance pocket, with a couple flourishes of pedal steel and horns, mainly using those just because of the frequencies they fit as much as what they signify.
I interviewed Lou Barlow recently and he talked about seeing the Pavement reunion in Australia…
Yeah, that was like one of our worst shows. (Laughs)
Golden Plains. I think people [in Pavement] were having problems with their amps. I had a good time but … some songs Lou said were the best versions he ever heard, but I think it was just in relation to the rest. We also managed to get lost somehow, driving out there. It was the most ridiculous thing. I can’t believe we got lost, but we did.
It’s pretty remote out there…
We had two Australians in our crew. We were letting this German/Australian fusion hipster girl lead the way. She didn’t know what she was doing, but she didn’t know to say it. She was like a runner [for bands], y’know. But we made it for the show.
Lou said he liked seeing you finally being a guitar hero, dropping to your knees for a solo. Do you think that’s something you had to come around to, being able to play guitar well and not being abashed about it?
Well, I’ve been doing that for a while. Unfortunately the Jicks songs are too difficult to play behind my head or fall to my knees so often. I end up looking down more often than I’d like. But those Pavement ones are in these totally remedial tunings, and I know ’em so well I can just play them with my eyes closed. That allowed me to have some fun playing the guitar, which I like. That was more showmanship, but I’ve been playing more, y’know, considered guitar for a pretty long time. Since [2003’s] Pig Lib people have been throwin’ that shit around.
But even that showmanship thing: Pavement got on stage in their regular clothes and just played. That’s what I liked about them. It wasn’t about putting on the show of a lifetime…
No, but we were drinking quite a lot, so there was some jumping around and throwing your guitar around. So we had some version of [showmanship] that was more than … if you go see the Arctic Monkeys or something, it’s like a “there’s a little X there and you just stay on it” mentality. It’s definitely “cool” or whatever, but the early American DIY post-punk thing of like The Jesus Lizard and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, they were bands that really gave it on stage. It was theatrical, and I wouldn’t call it showmanship. It was just sort of intense. So we didn’t quite have that. (Laughs)
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