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Four albums in, ex-Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus' solo career is best characterized by control. Through the last decade, his dexterous guitar playing's shed some of its ranginess, his punchy vocals have grown less insouciant, his word-drunk lyrics mostly hanging within the margins. For fans, it's been something of a constant adjustment, watching one of indie rock's loosest dudes tighten up tighter.
Recorded in L.A. with Beck just before Malkmus embarked on a year-long reunion with Pavement, new album Mirror Traffic is his most limber, off-the-cuff (and, yeah, most Pavement-like) LP since Pavement's last. Chopping runtimes, dialing back on the fretboard workouts, pushing hooks to the forefront, the lively Mirror Traffic's 15 tunes find the Jicks feeling revitalized, with Malkmus delivering his lines with a spur-of-the-moment vitality the likes of which he hasn't managed in years. (Listen to Mirror Traffic in full at NPR.)
Relaxed and chatty during our recent interview, Malkmus seems increasingly comfortable with his role in the musical landscape; pleased that the Pavement thing went over so well, but happy to have it behind him, to move onto something else.
Pitchfork: What are you up to?
Stephen Malkmus: We're moving from our house in Portland to Berlin. It's sort of annoying. Throwing lots of stuff away. I went through our VHS tapes last night with my wife. We found this one porno from 20 years ago and all these "CSI" episodes. I don't know who taped them; well, the porno was mine, but "CSI"-- I'm not that kind of guy.
As far as European cities, Berlin seemed like the easiest and most practical place for us to go. We were looking for something to put a change in our lives.
"I don't really talk to anybody about lyrics. I'm sort of self-conscious about it."
Pitchfork: I understand Beck approached you guys about producing Mirror Traffic.
SM: Yeah. He just called me and said he was [thinking of producing some records]. It was the second or third thing he said; it wasn't strategic or anything. He was just like, "I'm doing this now." I wasn't really aware that he was producing because he's been on a path of making albums and recording and touring for 20 years, too. I would've thought of doing something with him, but not as a producer. But when something comes out of the blue like that, you're like, "That makes sense."
We don't have a manager and we're not exactly reaching out to people. It's always last minute. Sometimes we've said, "Let's get somebody to produce." But it's always too late. But Beck picked the place to record, and the place to mix, and the general strategy of how to do it. He was the boss. I was happy to give that up.
Pitchfork: Did you talk about ceding that much control with him before you started recording?
SM: Not much. Everybody was tired of doing it the same way. I was just interested in how other people do stuff. Beck's a student of production. He takes pride in the fact that he basically co-produces all of his records, even if he didn't get credit for it. He was really involved in all of the decisions: the mic choice, the frequency. He's not a total gearhead; he doesn't speak in kilohertz and he's not a Pro Tools expert. But he's cognizant of that world. He knows his stuff. And I want to learn, you know?
Pitchfork: There's a certain perfectionism on some of those Jicks records I attribute to you having complete control of the sound.
SM: I'm not really worried about holding onto anything. I trusted him. I know his track record. I guess you'd be worried about whether it's over-produced or too bright or if it sounds shitty. But Beck and his engineer are obsessed with sonics. And he knows the studios in L.A. He said we could go to Sunset Sound, because that's a rock room and that'll work for us, or we could go to Ocean Way, which is twice as expensive. So we went to Sunset Sound.
"With this album, we were trying to be professional, in a weird way. It doesn't sound very cool. But, I mean, we can really play, or whatever."
Pitchfork: You guys knocked this out pretty quickly. That's a big difference fromReal Emotional Trash, which sounded like a long process.
SM: Yeah, that was wrong in the wrong way, like things are sometimes. With [Real Emotional Trash], we went for a studio, but it wasn't practical. I sometimes pick difficult situations just to get a different sound, or some question marks; maybe you hit the triple-20 with the dart, or maybe it won't even hit the board. I felt like we didn't hit the board there. The choice of studios was not correct. We were making all these mistakes trying to save money or go somewhere close to home, but not home. I didn't want to be bothered by that again, that's for sure.
If you go to L.A. and you get a producer it's like the practical thing to do. In L.A., I sort of feel like I'm just a piece of meat going through this Los Angeles processor of music because it's an industry place in my mind, and they do things a certain way. It felt a little more professional, but not cookie-cutter. It was like making an album in the 60s. You might be the Doors, or you might be some other band that didn't make it, but the Doors had the magic that day. And that was nice. But we were trying to be professional, in a weird way. It doesn't sound very cool. But, I mean, we can really play, or whatever.
Pitchfork: The record has a much looser feel than your last few records, or even from a lot of Beck's recent productions. Was that a concerted effort, or maybe a product of working so quickly?
SM: It was not concerted. You'd have to ask Beck. He might have some ideas about what he likes about me, or what he liked about Slanted and Enchanted. I'm sure he wasn't a close listener to my solo career. He was probably coming at it from the things he knows best from when he was younger and listened to as a fan. Wowee Zowee, stuff like that. I know for a fact that I was just doing my thing. We ended up keeping more stuff that was off-the-cuff; I think Beck wants to be looser, making albums. But no one is trying to make a radio song for KROQ anymore-- everyone knows there's no reason to do that.
He only took five days at the studio with a day off in the middle. I was like, "I think we need seven," and, "Why are we taking this day off when we're paying for it?" But it worked better. On that third day you get diminished returns. For these sessions, I would always be like, "I'm paying $800 [a day], I'm going to go in here and try something." That was a different thing.
Pitchfork: Both you and Beck have a reputation for inscrutability, did you talk lyrics?
SM: I don't really talk to anybody about lyrics. I'm sort of self-conscious about it. I'm not confident about it. Eventually, I'll definitely want feedback. For parts that I have two ways to go, I'll ask [bassist] Joanna [Bolme], "What do you like better?" A couple of times on this album, I was making up lyrics in the studio to try and get a vibe where you're singing something that makes the song how it's supposed to sound rather than what it means. We kept a few of those even though they weren't so tight or don't even mean anything; I had other lyrics, but they just sounded forced. It would be a group decision. I'm not precious about it. It's the disembodied voice, not my thoughts, so let's just make it good.
"Songs are what will really last. People talk about Paul McCartney's incredible bass-playing, but he's in stadiums because of his songs."
Pitchfork: I read an interview recently where you mentioned having an endless supply of melodies in you, but only so many lyrics.
SM: Yeah, it's a hard thing. The song structure leads you to make up shit that sounds correct, and maybe means something. With some songs, you can just make up lyrics and they come off your tongue, like Bob Dylan. For others, they just don't. It's a struggle. Combine that with the fact that a lot of words are unusable in music because of their phonetics and how they stick out in this wrong way. Half the dictionary is really hard to use for me. Even down to notes I can hit, or words I can sing in key. I obviously don't hit everything spot-on. And I'm not even getting into the psychodrama of what you want to write about and what's appropriate. That's an issue, too.
Pitchfork: You've also really dialed back on the composed guitar sections you've been doing since Pig Lib.
SM: Yeah, I was just not feeling the jams. I'd already done a moody folk-psych thing on Pig Lib. When I got [drummer] Janet [Weiss] in the band, she wanted to really rock out, and I felt a little compelled to push that. In the end, I was just getting tired of feeling like we had to try and live up to that [previous sound].
For this album, it was going to be about the songs and vocals a bit more. Everyone plays into that L.A. cookie-cutter thing, where the band is more like a quasi-wrecking crew, and you're just doing what the song needs. Maybe all of our personalities might not come out as much on our instruments, but the songs are going to live more. That's what will really last. Like, people talk about Paul McCartney's incredible bass-playing, but he's in stadiums because of his songs.
Pitchfork: You recorded most of this album before the Pavement reunion tour-- it seems like a long time to sit on something nowadays.
SM: Yeah, it is weird. Luckily, it's not the type of music that's completely technology-dependent. It's not getting old in that way. Like, if some chillwave band waited two years to release something, it could already be over [laughs].
"The Pavement reunion was a bit of an autopilot situation for me, creatively. We weren't trying to deconstruct the songs. It was more like exercise."
Pitchfork: Was that at all odd for you, going back and forth between Pavement and the Jicks?
SM: It was more like one or the other. During the Pavement reunion, everyone put their life on hold for that year. But I knew full well that we weren't going to [keep going]. People keep asking me in Europe: "So, when do we see Pavement record and tour again?" We're not doing that. We did it once. So I just compartmentalized that time, and tried to enjoy it as what it was.
For the Jicks, I think waiting was a drag. They were just patient. But I was clear, saying, "If this is going to happen, I should just do it now." Also, the Pavement reunion was a bit of an autopilot situation for me, creatively. We weren't trying to deconstruct the songs. It was more like exercise [laughs]. Actually being present and not just on autopilot was the thing for those shows. I wanted to be there and enjoy it. I had a great time.
Pitchfork: So the reunion went well, all told?
SM: Yeah, there was nothing that was done in an un-tasteful way, no hurt feelings or anything. Even toward the end of the year, it was waning because there was some new thing coming into the culture's mind. We got in and out at a good time. The people who wanted to see it could see it. Everyone was in a good mood the whole time. There were probably some cracks that were beginning to show near the end, but luckily we stopped at the right time.
"A certain strata of middle-class hipsters [laughs] share Pavement, and that's great."
Pitchfork: You don't seem especially concerned with legacy but, after getting out there again, did you get a sense of what Pavement means to people after all this time?
SM: It's hard for me to get an exact grip on it, even after all that; meeting people, seeing people, arguing with my wife about it when she says how important the band is. But, when you're the person in the band actually doing it, it's hard to separate the importance from the venue you're playing or where you are on the bill. When you've been doing it 20 years, you want the concrete thing sometimes-- not that I'm Jay-Z or something. You could talk toRobert Pollard about that and I'm sure he'd be, like, "It's a lot of hard work and I'm still doing this same venue, even though I'm working my ass off." But that concrete stuff is just half of it.
The other half is the emotional relationship to the people. They've sent you letters, or they're at the show. It doesn't matter that there are 50 people there or 5000. That's really what it's all about. It's why we do it. We would be doing it anyway, even if it wasn't successful. I would still be making songs. I might not be touring as much, but I'd be compelled to participate in music regardless of that dumb shit I'm talking about, [which is] sort of embarrassing to say that you even care about. I don't know what to say about the legacy overall, except that a certain strata of middle-class hipsters [laughs] share Pavement, and that's great. "Hipsters" doesn't have to be a pejorative or about trend-jumping, either. I wouldn't want to be called a hipster, but there's nothing really wrong with it. To me, it can be just about exploring, or an openness to finding the best things.