Friday, August 19, 2011
New York Times article on Stephen Malkmus & Beck
Kevin Scanlon for The New York Times
IF Stephen Malkmus and Beck Hansen ever gave up the rock-music thing — and after roughly 40 twisty-turny years in their combined careers, neither of them is contemplating it — there might be a future for them as a low-key comedy team.
Recently reunited here for the first time since Mr. Hansen (better known simply as Beck) produced “Mirror Traffic,” a new record by Mr. Malkmus and his band the Jicks, these two musicians, stalwarts of the 1990s alternative-indie-hey-whatever scene, were not immediately inclined to discuss this album or what it represents to listeners realizing that two whole decades have elapsed since the age of insincerity, flannel and insincerely worn flannel.
Instead they were cracking wise, mocking themselves and wondering how their fans could stand their speaking voices.
“How come these people like us?” asked Mr. Malkmus, who at 45 has some distinguished gray hairs mixing it up in his tousled brown locks.
“It’s just because they’re used to us,” said Mr. Hansen, a boyish 41, whose wide eyes were ringed by tan lines suggesting the perennial wearing of sunglasses. “Their resistance has been broken down.”
Far removed from the era when Mr. Hansen broke through with his best-selling, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink albums “Mellow Gold” and “Odelay,” and Mr. Malkmus and his band Pavement briefly flirted with the mainstream before they turned more idiosyncratic and then broke up, the two men had taken divergent routes to, as Mr. Hansen said, “ultimately end up in a pretty similar place.”
In the Hollywood office of Mr. Hansen’s managers, decorated with Sonic Youth posters, “Ghost World” action figures and framed portraits of Donna Summer and Valerie Bertinelli, they were longtime peers turned improbable elder statesmen. Once alt-rock upstarts, both are now married and fathers of young children, each with a kid named after a day of the week. (Mr. Malkmus has a daughter named Sunday, and Mr. Hansen’s daughter is named Tuesday.)
It seems fitting that their first collaboration should arrive at a moment when nostalgia for the pop culture of the 1990s — witness the 20th anniversary reissue of Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” the planned MTV revival of “Beavis and Butt-Head” and yes, the recentPavement reunion tour — is approaching peak capacity faster than you can say “Reality Bites.”
And it is in keeping with both artists’ unpredictable, against-the-grain styles that the sonically accessible, lyrically elliptical “Mirror Traffic,” which Matador Records will release on Tuesday, is not an attempt to mash up or cash in on their best known work but to keep moving beyond it. Having made their names in a music scene where nothing seemed more important than being on the right side of some clearly drawn battle lines, they now understand those distinctions matter less than the dignity that comes with simply sticking to their craft.
As Mr. Malkmus said: “Nirvana’s not a punk band when it’s popular. It’s a pop band. The songs are all three minutes long. They have choruses.”
The tall, lean Mr. Malkmus has a not-undeserved reputation for straight-faced sarcasm and the more diminutive Mr. Hansen for peculiarity. (His contributions to the conversation included the occasional, ruminative “hurm.”) But in each other’s presence they bantered about good singers whose speaking voices did not grate (Tom Waits and Bjork were mentioned) and whether British accents were more likely to reel in the ladies than American ones. Mr. Malkmus gently needled Mr. Hansen for his cultivated technophobia (“I bet you never sent an e-mail in your life,” he said; “I did once but I felt guilty about it,” came the reply), then praised him for his musical memory skills.
“That’s a testament,” Mr. Malkmus said, “to your not using the e-mail, and keeping your mind free.”
Mr. Malkmus recalled what was probably his first encounter with Mr. Hansen, in the early 1990s at the Trocadero Theater in Philadelphia. Pavement, which was about to have a rare radio hit with its exuberant single “Cut Your Hair,” was playing the theater’s main stage, while Mr. Hansen, who was still riding the momentum of his novelty anthem “Loser,” was booked somewhere smaller. (“I was probably playing at a deli,” he said.)
Mr. Hansen went on to become the eccentric experimentalist who dabbled in hip-hop, funk and even Tropicália on seven more major-label studio albums released over the next decade and a half. Pavement, which never seemed fully comfortable in the spotlight, released five full-length albums of cryptic, intellectual rock before parting ways in 1999.
Though they were not “close bros,” as Mr. Malkmus said, he and Mr. Hansen often crossed paths on tour and held each other’s work in high esteem. Mr. Malkmus praised Mr. Hansen for the care that went into his albums and “the attention to how it actually sounds — if it sounds bad, it was intentionally so.” (Mr. Hansen said, chuckling, “I don’t think it was intentional.”)
And Mr. Hansen said Pavement was “the band that 40 other bands were emulating.” He added, “From the outside it looked like fun.” (Mr. Malkmus replied: “Yeah, it looked fun. It was fun, for a while.”)
Most crucially they shared a creative solidarity as nu-metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit became commercially dominant, ushering in, Mr. Malkmus said, an era of “the rage rock and the testosterone” and “fishing lures in your face.”
The two men lost touch with each other in the 2000s, as Mr. Malkmus moved to Portland, Ore., and formed the Jicks, and Mr. Hansen expanded his horizons, producing music for Marianne Faithfull and Charlotte Gainsbourgand contributing songs to the soundtracks of “True Blood”and “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World.”
Then, just over a year ago, Mr. Hansen called Mr. Malkmus, wondering if he might be interested in his services. “You realize at one point, oh, we never did anything together,” Mr. Hansen explained. “It seems like an obvious idea but it takes 15 years.”
Mr. Malkmus and his band mates, who had not worked with an outside producer on their four previous albums (and whose 2008 release, “Real Emotional Trash,” peaked at No. 64 on the Billboard chart), the call came at a time when they were looking for a jolt of energy.
“It’s our fifth record,” said Mike Clark, a guitarist and keyboardist for the Jicks. “It’s either going to be the rebirth, redirection, of a band that’s hitting their stride and has got fresh wind in their sails, or it’ll be, this is the band that’s grinding things into the ground and becoming tedious.”
Though the band had spitballed the names of producers like Dave Fridmann, who has worked with the Flaming Lips, and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, it was irresistibly drawn to Mr. Hansen’s offer, even if that passion did not seem to register on its frontman.
“I don’t think Steve Malkmus gets wildly excited about much except fantasy sports,” said Janet Weiss, the former drummer for Sleater-Kinney who performs on “Real Emotional Trash” and “Mirror Traffic. “He did invent slacker.”
Mr. Hansen, who worked with Mr. Malkmus and the Jicks at the studio Sunset Sound in Hollywood, was oblique about his contributions to “Mirror Traffic.” “We tried to make it sound as cool as we can, without it being too overdone,” he said.
But the members of the Jicks said Mr. Hansen had a distinct impact on nearly every aspect of the album, including its clean, sunny spirit; the choice and sound of its instruments; and even the selection of songs the band might have otherwise abandoned.
“A lot of it was throwaway stuff that Beck just fell in love with,” Ms. Weiss said. “ ‘No, this is the real stuff. This is the stuff I want to get at.’ ”
During the rapid sessions, in which 15 tracks were recorded in a couple of days, Ms. Weiss said, “there were some uncomfortable moments of, wow, we have no control over anything that’s happening.” She added that this uncertainty yielded favorable results: “It’s like, what is my snare going to sound like when it’s covered with a T-shirt? And it sounded really awesome.”
Mr. Malkmus generally stuck to his songwriting strategy of creating riffs inspired by favorite or recently heard songs and improvising his lyrics on the spot. (This accounts for tracks like “No One Is (As I Are Be),” which combines the gentle acoustic guitar of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe”with the Malkmusian line “I cannot even do one sit-up, sit-ups are so bourgeoise.”) Mr. Hansen said he tried not to put his thumb on the scale too much, though he was sorry to see Mr. Malkmus lose a lyric that rhymed “Vietnam” with “lip balm.”
The decision to write and record “Mirror Traffic” before last year’s Pavement reunion tour, Mr. Malkmus acknowledged, was his, though he could not say for certain if that impending commitment had an effect on the album.
“I knew that it was coming,” he said, “so if people try to say it’s somehow Pavement-y, it could be in my mind, that I had to do that tour.” He corrected himself. “Or wanted to do that tour.”
Neither Mr. Malkmus nor Mr. Hansen was particularly committal about future plans. Mr. Malkmus is moving his family to Europe, a transition he explained as “change for the sake of change.” (Ms. Weiss, meanwhile, has left the Jicks for the band Wild Flag, saying she “could not sit around for a year and not play music” while Mr. Malkmus was performing with Pavement.)
Mr. Hansen, who has not released a full-length album since his somber “Modern Guilt” in 2008, gave no indication about whether he might resume making music, though he recently produced the Thurston Moore record “Demolished Thoughts,” and has been producing tracks for the country musician Dwight Yoakam.
Mr. Yoakam eagerly endorsed the idea that Mr. Hansen could become a great producer, saying he was a “great enabler” of music. “He can appear to some folks as, perhaps, in a moment, detached,” Mr. Yoakam said, “but I realized he’s actually taking all of it in on a variety of levels.” He added that his “introspective demeanor belies how enthusiastically he’s going to have an effect on what you’re doing.”
Mr. Hansen and Mr. Malkmus were not averse to a little 1990s nostalgia of their own, and said the lingering good feelings for the decade were understandable.
While the 1960s and ’70s were defined by cultural and political upheaval, Mr. Malkmus said: “The ’90s had the Internet, great. I don’t know what really traumatic thing happened in the ’90s. It’s probably going to seem like this ideal time to a lot of people, eventually.”
Mr. Hansen recalled that decade as a “weird dead zone” — he meant this affectionately — in which “we weren’t competing with a bunch of Britney Spears and superstar-type people. You could do some other things.”
But if their work, together or apart, made listeners even more wistful for the heyday of that self-aware demographic group called Generation X, “it’s not really our fault,” Mr. Malkmus said with a shrug. “All we can do is do what we do.”