An Interview with Stephen Malkmus

The two strains of influential hardcore bands:
Serious, puritan bands (Black Flag, Minor Threat)
Jokey, insolent bands (the Adolescents, Wasted Youth)

An Interview with Stephen Malkmus

The two strains of influential hardcore bands:
Serious, puritan bands (Black Flag, Minor Threat)
Jokey, insolent bands (the Adolescents, Wasted Youth)

An Interview with Stephen Malkmus

Matthew Derby
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It was with only a slight tremor of bitterness that, at the start of this millennium, I read and accepted the news that Pavement had played their final show in London at the end of November, and were no longer working together. Although they were one of the most entertaining and important bands of the nineties, having produced a string of ridiculously great records including Slanted & Enchanted, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and Wowee Zowee (my personal favorite, and an album that has become a sort of indie rock White Album for fans—a brilliant, expansive, uneven record that showcases Pavement’s best and worst ideas), I knew it was time for them to go. The nineties were theirs—let the new century belong to someone else.

Now it’s 2003, Stephen Malkmus is in a new band called the Jicks (the name derives from the intersection of “Jerk” and “Dick” or Mick Jagger in reverse, depending on who you ask, and when), and Pavement is just a milky shadow hovering at his back. With the Jicks, Malkmus has created two strong, quirky albums, the newer of which, Pig Lib, was released and warmly received earlier this year. Even for the most devoted Malkmus fan, however, these records will always be evaluated, ultimately, for how they do and do not match up to his former band’s output. This is unfortunate, because Stephen Malkmus is one of the truly great songwriters we have.

When I spoke to him on the phone, a day before he and the Jicks were to begin a high-profile, convention-center-style tour supporting Radiohead, Malkmus was relaxed and congenial, dryly humorous, despite the fact that I was somewhere in the middle of an extensive list of interviews he would have to endure that day. The disarmingly casual trajectory of the conversation reminded me of a line from the Pavement song Stereo, in which Malkmus ponders the private life of Rush frontman Geddy Lee: “What about the voice of Geddy Lee / How did it get so high? / I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy?” We learn, in the next line, that, yes, Geddy Lee does hang his falsetto on the dressing room mirror offstage. With Malkmus, though, I could only barely tell the difference between the man and his songs, and that lack of distinction has always been at the heart of his work.

—Matthew Derby


THE BELIEVER: I know that, living in Portland, you’re pretty close to the ocean, and there’s that song on your new record where you warn the listener not to feed the oysters. Does the ocean make you nervous? I mean, did you hear about that thing that washed up on the shore in Chile?

STEPHEN MALKMUS: Was it a giant, octopus-type thing?

BLVR: Yeah, it was a—well, it was basically just a big mound of translucent flesh, the size of a school bus. None of the scientists who saw it in person could figure out what it was.

SM: I heard about that secondhand.

BLVR: Do you go in the ocean?

SM: Oh yeah. I like the ocean. I try to go in whenever I can. It’s too cold, though. I just went to Maine and it was too cold to go in the water, really, unless you were trying to make a statement, or you’re trying to get your heart rate to go down or something.

BLVR: You don’t worry about what’s down there.

SM: Not too much. Just watch out for the rays and stuff, in certain bays. Don’t step on them. I’m actually more worried about the coral than the animals. Or, like, a bad rip tow.

BLVR: Have you gotten caught in one of those?

SM: No. I mean, I’ve been in them before, and the people I was with said they were happening, but I’ve never experienced the thing where I was really getting dragged out to sea. I’ve always thought, “Well, this is a rip tow, so I’ll just keep my feet on the ground,” you know? And it will push me a little bit, but I haven’t felt one of those ones they talk about where [lowers his voice] “It’s no use,” you know? “Don’t fight it, let it carry you out, and then swim to the right,” or something. Have you ever been in one?

BLVR: No. I’m terrified of the ocean. I think that if I ever got caught in a rip tow I’d be so terrified that I would just shut down—I’d become a human log.

SM: You’d probably be smart to do that.

BLVR: Really?

SM: Yeah, you should just let the rip tow carry you out. Don’t try to fight it. Because you’ll waste your strength. And also, sharks don’t like worried animals that move too much. They can smell your stress, so if you were fighting too much they would know. They’d find you.

BLVR: It’s good to know that paralysis sometimes can help.

SM: It works. Animals like to play dead.


BLVR: I was amazed and thrilled to hear former Oregon Senator Bob Packwood’s name mentioned in the song “Vanessa from Queens” on your new record. It’s been a few years since Bob Packwood has shown his face, though.

SM: I know. I haven’t thought about him in a long time. But I do remember that that was sort of the original sex scandal of the early nineties. In that song, I wanted to drop in a sort of a shout-out—that doesn’t sound right in my voice, I know—to the people in this town called Gresham out here where we live. It’s kind of a redneck suburb—well, not necessarily “redneck,” but kind of on the outskirts of Portland. A lot of great people come from there so I don’t want to say it’s Tonya Harding–land or anything. Anyway, I chose Packwood because of his sexual aggression.

BLVR: He became a big part of my life for a while—I was living in Washington, D.C., with a friend who worked as a spa salesman, and Bob Packwood always left long, indignant messages on the store’s answering machine about how upset he was with their service. He would always start by saying “This is Packwood.” This all happened during the scandal, or right after. It was amazing to me that he could be so arrogant and aggressive even in the midst of the controversy. Like there was no shame or humility involved at all.

SM: Yeah, I guess by that point he just didn’t care. The guy at the spa store didn’t vote for him. He didn’t want to become president, or he had no chance at that point. That’s too bad. But he just had that insatiable sex drive, you know? He just couldn’t get enough.

BLVR: It’s interesting because he was so sexually aggressive without exuding any sort of sensuality himself.

SM: Yeah, he just pursued it. He must have had no shame. I’ve been thinking about that a lot. If you have no shame, and it’s your goal to get people into bed, how much higher could your success rate possibly be? Because I’m sure his attitude was “whatever it takes,” and that seems to have worked. You just use power or coercion, and a shamelessness about what you want, right up front.

BLVR: He’s such a great character for one of your songs. He’s got an attitude but no appropriate outlet for it. His actual personality is too small to matter in the larger figure he projects over himself. You play around with that tension a lot in a really humorous way. You write about characters that are irate about the injustices of situations that they’ve usually created for themselves. I was trying to think of what sort of models you had for that strategy growing up, and aside from maybe Jonathan Richman or something, I really couldn’t come up with anything. I mean, who was writing funny songs, aside from Weird Al Yankovic or, like, John Valby?

SM: Who was that second person?

BLVR: John Valby? He was this sort of bawdy troubadour from the seventies. He toured with Gallagher, I think.

SM: Oh. Maybe the influence for me, well, the original music that I liked, the music that I used to define myself as a young adult, was the hardcore music from California from 1982.

BLVR: Really? Like Black Flag?

SM: Well, there were two different strains. There was the more serious, puritan style of bands like Black Flag or Minor Threat, but mainly there were these sort of jokey punk bands, like the Adolescents and Wasted Youth. There was a whole slew of these bands back then that didn’t have anything drastic or political to sing about. Their problems were really personal and suburban, and they mainly wanted to write songs for their friends—to make their friends laugh and have a good time. They didn’t feel like they had to explain their problems to outsiders.

BLVR: The Minutemen played with those bands, though. They seemed to involve humor in a more enduring or complex way—

SM: Yeah, they had that intellectual background, but I didn’t like them at all back then. I thought they sounded too weird. It just sounded like white funk to me. By the time I was seventeen or eighteen, I thought they were an unbelievable band, but I remember buying the Punchline album because it was on SST and thinking it was just horrible.

BLVR: I think I read in an article once that your writing style was influenced early on by Barry Hannah.

SM: Well, yeah, he has a certain comic style that I really remember being transfixed by. I haven’t read him in a really long time, but I’m still a total fan. I think David [Berman, cofounder, with Malkmus, of the band the Silver Jews] first met Barry down in Mississippi. Barry heard some of David’s work and said he liked it. I think he likes to think of himself as a rock guy: He wears a leather jacket and rides a motorcycle, and in his first novel the main character tries to have a marching band, and the marching band is an African-American marching band, and the book is all about the beauty or the weirdness of this music. I should stop—I guess I’m kind of making fun of him—but he definitely has a rock and roll thing, and I think we sent him the first Silver Jews CD in appreciation of his writing. We were both really drawn to his characters:You know, the drunken outlaws. You can always relate to them as a young man. Or at least I could.

BLVR: There’s also that tenderness, though, that undercuts, or maybe fills out, the bravado of the drunken outlaw.

SM: Yeah, he’s got a human side. Men are men and women are women, but the men are dumber than the women, usually. He came to Portland to read once and he said [adopts a convincing Southern accent] “I never understood why women were worried about these equal rights—in my family the women were always the strong ones—they controlled everything.” I don’t know, maybe his mom didn’t want him to get an attorney or something.

BLVR: [Laughs]

SM: I don’t blame her.


BLVR: Do you think there’s something wrong with the name Paul Rudd?

SM: Who is that, anyway? Is that an actor?

BLVR: He was in that Neil LaBute movie, The Shape of Things?

SM: Oh, I saw that for free out here. It was in the test market. I rated the woman really poorly. I gave her, like, a one.

BLVR: Really?

SM: Yeah, I gave her a one. I thought she was very unappealing. That guy was good, though. He was good enough.

BLVR: Good enough to have the name “Paul Rudd”?

SM: Yeah. Well, I see what you’re saying. “Rudd” relates to “ruddy” and “ruddy” is one of those words, like “husky,” that is just not very appealing in any way. Or “clammy.” There are just words like that.

BLVR: Where did that name even come from?

SM: There are other people named that, though. There’s a Rudd in Foreigner, isn’t there?

BLVR: Really?

SM: There is some music person named Rudd.

BLVR: It’s got to be Foreigner.

SM: It seems like there are others.

BLVR: I wonder if it’s some sort of an Ellis Island truncation, and whether there could now be a kind of—maybe the government could institute a sort of reverse Ellis Island program, where people could go and get their original names back, you know?

SM: Reclaim what it used to be before it got shortened to “Rudd.”

BLVR: Yeah.

SM: [Pause] There’s nowhere you could go with that, really. “Ru.” If you’re trying to shorten “Rudd,” you’re in trouble.

BLVR: Oh, no. I’m saying it would be longer.

SM: Yeah, I know you want to do that, but I was just thinking—I guess I would just change my name to Rutherford, maybe.

BLVR: That name commands respect.

SM: Exactly.

BLVR: I was at a film festival last night and I saw this film by a guy named John Putch, and I just thought that that was really wrong.

SM: You know, he probably likes it. His friends probably have a lot of jokes about it. I bet he gets a lot of attention.

BLVR: Yeah, in college he probably had a football jersey that just said “Putch” on the back. Or maybe “The Putch.”

SM: Yeah, double zero.


BLVR: Pig Lib sounds a lot different than your other work. Did you consciously decide to go off in a different direction? Are you worried about how that might mark you, in terms of your future?

SM: I’m not too worried about it because, well, I guess I’m old enough to not be too worried. I’m not really interested in those self-aware questions of “Where is it going?” or “What is it?” With this band I didn’t really know what I was going to do. The people just kind of showed up, in that way that bands just sort of happen.

BLVR: The effect Pavement had on kids in the nineties was a lot like the influence that the Replacements had in the eighties. Each band weathered a single decade before breaking up, and both were unpredictable and sloppy, but somehow managed to produce heaps of brief, perfect songs. But while Paul Westerberg has been using his solo career to establish himself as a serious singer-songwriter, you seem to be embedding yourself as a component of the Jicks.

SM: I’m just guessing, but Westerberg is probably just doing what he wants. He probably just couldn’t stand those guys in the Replacements anymore, but he still wanted to write songs. I don’t know if he’s bitter about any of it. He sounds bitter sometimes. He’s probably happy. I don’t think his career was calculated.

I mean, you can always say, you know, “What do I want to do next? Do I just want to do the next record without the band, or stay with the band?” There are questions you ask yourself but they’re generally not commercial questions. Unless you have a manager, or you’re a megalomaniac. I mean, if you really want to get into your career, you start thinking that way seriously—you get someone in L.A. and start fighting your way into people’s minds, but it’s a tough battle, you know? You need to have somebody on your side, talking you up and stuff.

BLVR: That phenomenon of people in the music industry becoming really careerist—does that come out of that nineties thing where the forty-year-old guys at all the record labels stopped trying to guess what kids liked and instead just hired the kids to make the decisions about what got produced?

SM: Well, in the music industry, I think they’ve always co-opted young people. The guy who signed the Stooges and the Doors—this guy named Danny Fields—he was this seventeen-year-old. They’ve always had a point man down there at the bottom of the chain.

BLVR: Do you think it’s gotten more intense, though, or more pervasive in any way? I’m thinking about that car, the Honda Element, which was designed by surfer kids to appeal more comprehensively to the youth market. A lot of music coming out now has that feel to me. There’s a sheen to it, like when you take off the shrinkwrap there’s another, impermeable layer of shrinkwrap.

SM: Yeah, you’re right, when you imagine all these guys around a table, all these seventeen-year-old kids looking at press packets or magazines or whatever, saying, “I like that,” “I don’t like that,” “That’s good,” and then the label guys kind of roll with it. And probably in Hollywood, too, they’ve got these younger agents that try to bond with the star and make him feel cool. You know, they need to find someone who’s willing to go to all these boring parties and watch people dance. Get the free drinks.

But if you’re starting to get out of touch—and it’s inevitable if you’re really in the music scene—even for an indie music person there’s a point at which you become too old. Like the Matador Records guys—they’re going to be pushing forty soon. And at that point you start asking yourself how in touch you want to be. Do you want to be the guy with the bald spot at the seventeen-year-old’s prom? You don’t really want to do that. Maybe it’s better to just go online and look at makeoutroom.com or something like that to find out what kids like. Just prowl the Internet like a child molester so you can find out what the new music is.

BLVR: That’s sad.

SM: I don’t know. It depends on what you want to do, whether you want to make music for a dwindling market or not. You know, like trying to sell music to the people that are having kids and going out less and buying fewer CDs, except the ones they already bought when they were twenty. People are really stubborn about sticking to what they know. “Stones Forever” or whatever. Or Nirvana. The people that liked Nirvana will get a box set when they’re fifty, or someone will get it for them for Christmas, and that will be it.


BLVR: Well, do you have an address where I can send the finished interview for your approval?

SM: I have faith.

BLVR: OK, you’re sure?

SM: Yeah. Actually, that’s the first time anyone’s asked me that. Thanks.

BLVR: Really?

SM: Usually they just print it. But I guess The Believer must be a bit more ephemeral. I’m guessing—is there glue on the spine?

BLVR: Yeah.

SM: I figured. I haven’t seen it yet but I’ve heard about it.

BLVR: Maybe when you’re on tour you can find a copy.

SM: Yeah, I bet those guys in Radiohead are into it. I bet Thom Yorke is lying prone in his solar-powered tour bus right now, reading The Believer.

BLVR: Do you have to pass some sort of voiceprint identification to get onto the tour bus?

SM: I don’t know about that. We’ll see. They’re British, you know?

BLVR: Yeah.

SM: Actually, they’re really great guys. They’re carrying all our gear for us. I have absolutely nothing bad to say about those guys. Except when I’m making fun of their solar-powered tour bus.

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