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Monday, April 2, 2018
Pitchfork Interview: Stephen Malkmus On How To Be A Useful Human
Original on Pitchfork.com by Alex Frank Across the last 30 years, Stephen Malkmus has established an indie-rock archetype, churning out wry hooks for his faithful fans, far away from the rabble of the mainstream charts. So it’s a little surprising when the 51-year-old tells me that he’s soon headed to Los Angeles to try his hand at writing songs with a team that works with major pop acts. Sitting in Manhattan’s Bowery Hotel, the nonchalant singer even seems a little excited when I ask him what he’ll think if someone like Katy Perry ends up singing his lyrics. “Katy Perry sparkles hard,” he deadpans. The half-joke is a nod to his latest LP, Sparkle Hard, which, for the record, does not sound like Katy Perry. It’s more in line with the winding poeticism for which he is known, and Pavement fans will be delighted that some of the songs, including first single “Middle America,” evoke his iconic ’90s band more than anything else he’s done with his current group, the Jicks, in the last 10 years. But the album isn’t a mere retread, either. Throughout, you can hear Malkmus playfully messing around with fresh techniques—embellishing his voice with Auto-Tune, working in Mellotron and swelling strings, and duetting with Kim Gordon—adding a bit of drama and even camp to his more typically stripped-down style.
Though his lyrics have always been skeptical and a little cutting, often commenting on the absurdity and irony of life and fame, he seems to be taking a particularly sharp surgical knife to the culture on parts of the new album. One track even finds him commenting pretty directly on the myopic lifestyle politics of gentrified cities like Portland, where he lives with his visual artist wife and two daughters.
Regardless of his lack of No. 1 hits (so far), Malkmus’ influence is entrenched within modern culture. He notes that contemporary acts like Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett “signify something real and homemade,” much like Pavement once did. Malkmus, a fairly avid tweeter, also agrees that the kind of terse zingers he is known for predicted the way we all communicate now, in pithy messages on social media. “They’re like bad tweets that only five people would love,” he says of his lyrics.
Maybe, too, the aura of the era calls for an incisive voice like Malkmus’—a little bit of wit can help us make sense of the often ludicrous climate of the times, in which not much seems to make sense or work logically. Wearing a jacket, T-shirt, and shoes in three shades of grey that all match his hair, Malkmus is energetic, self-aware, and discerning during our talk, commenting on everything from the state of capitalism to the careers of pop stars. A discussion with him about music inevitably becomes a conversation about everything.
Pitchfork: What is success to you? Has it changed over the years?
Stephen Malkmus: First of all, there’s really simple things: If you’re gonna do a tour, you want to have your own dressing room and your own hotel room. And one form of success that’s, like, physical is where you end up on the bill when you do festivals—it’s visceral, you can’t help it. Then, you also want your friends to like it, there’s a whole ego gratification thing about doing a good job.
From the outside, it seems like you’ve never really cared about other people’s opinions on your music though.
To a point of fault, maybe. [laughs] In the early days, and with some of the early Jicks records, there was no feedback from anybody. I would just hand out the records, and the labels were like, “That’s cool.” But now I’m a little more interested in getting feedback from people in my cohort. Which songs do you like? Is the message getting through? I might have an idea that I like, but do you like it? How can it be more than what it is, with just a few little twists? The last few years, I’ve been a little more open.
On the new album, it seems like you are more conscious of the world around you. On “Bike Lane,” you contrast a privileged person’s obsession with niche politics—of whether or not a bike lane is made—with the life-or-death politics that most people in the world face, as symbolized by a reference to Freddie Gray.
We spend a lot of energy on lifestyle, and that’s OK; you wanna perfect your lifestyle, I understand. My normal, middle-class audience would actually be very concerned about where they live—that’s not a judgment—and there’s a lot of energy spent on things like bike lanes. It’s very passionate. That’s fine. But I’ve been, as all of us have, concerned in watching the things happening far away from where I live. And upset about them.
The song starts really minimal, like Queens of the Stone Age on Xanax, and then changes into glam, like the Clash or something. In my mind, I was singing like the Ramones. It’s totally dark, like the cops and robbers stories of rock’n’roll: I fought the law and the law won, a lot of classic imagery of the outlaw. So you have two things that don’t cohere, like they’re just totally different worlds. In the real world, the outlaw’s just getting creamed.
When you see so much discord around the globe, can Portland feel like a conscious retreat from the real world?
I think we all sort of exist in a world on the internet where this is all happening. It almost doesn’t matter where you are. When you hear about what happened at Charlie Hebdo, it doesn’t matter that you’re not living in Paris. It’s just hard.
The news is unavoidable. Are you on Twitter all day?
No. But more than I should be. It’s replaced print media for me. It’s not really so much a chance for me to connect with like-minded people as to see what weirdness is going on. Weird dudes—who might be bots—with their strange names and neo-liberals and neo-reactionary things. It makes me afraid sometimes.
Does having two daughters growing up in this weird time change what you want to accomplish in the world?
In this achievement-based lifestyle, most of us have certain boxes we’re checking to make us useful humans. But a lot of things you do as a parent are kinda invisible. There’s a lot you achieve—just getting dinner on the table—that are more than making a song.
Do you feel like this album is political in a way that your past ones haven’t been?
Not really. I’ve always been dropping stuff like this. In an interview with Green Day, Billie Joe [Armstrong] will talk for three paragraphs about what is wrong with Trump, and you’re bored. We all know that already. I’ve just been skipping that narrative. I would be more interested in talking as an average person about, like, capitalism—the desperation of the times.
Do you think things are worse for young people now than they were when you were young?
I don’t know for sure, but I think it is worse now, if I’m looking at percentages. In terms of natural resources and stuff, maybe there was more opportunities to blender through and still succeed when I was young. And maybe things are a little tighter these days, in terms of finding nooks and crannies to manipulate.
When I grew up, it seemed like when things were going wrong—when there was Nixon or the gas crisis—there was some old man somewhere, in some room, doing things to make sure everything worked. Some, like, good, hard-working American pressing buttons. Now we see that it’s all kinda self-interest, which is really threatening and dark.
I wonder if the times mirror the ’90s for young people, in a way. You guys were called slackers, and now my generation, the millennials, are being accused of freeloading off of their parents.
I was reading Malcolm Harris’ book [Kids These Days] about how your generation has been well-trained, educated, and totally prepared for “the job”—and then it’s not there. It seemed like a grim employment outlook at my time too, but according to statistics, there’s just less opportunity and more anxiety. I do notice less hard-drinking now, and more Xanax, edibles, and marijuana. Just a low-level buzz. Everyone’s a little high.
Do you smoke weed?
No. Sometimes I’ll do a dropper of CBD, but I don’t have a vape or anything.
There’s a pretty strange and amazing moment on the song “Refute,” where Kim Gordon sings a campy verse that might make some people think of her recent divorce from Thurston Moore.
I wrote that song. It’s a country song, and I was playing with country tropes in my mind—imagining tight jeans and trucks—and filtering them through something more modern. Kim is a friend and she just said, “I think the lyrics are funny, I’ll do it.” She’s really inspirational—she’s always doing stuff.
Did you worry about what Thurston, who is a friend of yours too, might think?
No, because I just thought it was funny. I like him too. She did have a public divorce that was cared about in certain zones of music, but really they’re just two people. I have no judgment on either one. Who knows what goes on behind closed doors in people’s relationships? We all know it’s not easy. I suppose there are Cinderella stories, but from my experience, it’s, like, therapy and talk and growing. It’s work.
But I thought if Kim couldn’t do it, I was gonna ask Lorde to do it, ’cause I thought Lorde owed me a favor.
I did something for her. I don’t wanna say. I did her a favor.
But you can’t tell me what?
Not really. It wasn’t a big deal. It’s not very exciting. It obviously wasn’t big enough to get her to potentially sing on a tune. Maybe her parents are Pavement fans or something, so I’m still hoping.
You’ve been able to sustain a music career that pays the bills for a long time. Have you had to be conscious of being a smart businessman?
Barely. With Pavement, we had no managers and never had a lawyer. We got lucky with not signing any bad deals. But I’m not even sure if [Pavement’s kind of career] can exist for post-internet artists. We did get a little benefit of people actually buying records. You have to tour more now, and everything is so transparent with data, like exactly how popular you are.
I do think there’s money out there. Bands like the Arcade Fire and LCD Soundsystem signed to Columbia, and they wouldn’t do that unless someone’s giving them a lot of money. Or at least betting on them. There is money out there, I just don’t exactly know how you access it.
You’ve never really had to have a real 9-to-5 job. After 25 years of basically being a freelancer, what’s an average Tuesday like for you?
A lot of work—unattributed, with no dollars—goes into taking care of kids. They go to school at nine and I pick them up at 2:30. I get food on the table. Carbonara—they love that. We call it “breakfast pasta.” I am good at just looking in the kitchen and getting stuff on the table and keeping the mess minimal. There’s an art to the drudgery. Also, my wife [Jessica Jackson Hutchins] is an artist, and a few years ago we spent some time in Berlin primarily to focus on her career. When we were there, I was messin’ around, hanging out, going to clubs, making some music, but not focusing on work so much.
Since you lived in Berlin, do you like techno?
Yeah, unfortunately. [laughs] I do. I’m only a techno fan in the most party-animal sense. If you’re a little bit twisted, it can really make sense.
Would you go out to clubs?
I did, but I had to go to ones that were for 30-year-olds and over.
Do your kids like the new album?
They don’t like it that much. It’s all right.
What do they like?
We listened to a First Aid Kit song, and my daughter liked that. She likes SZA. She did like Taylor Swift, but she was disappointed with the new album. I can’t imagine that it could be as bad as she says. The problem is that [Swift] got so big, and people can’t invest themselves into the songs. She lost that slightly invisible thing. Lana Del Rey did a really good job of that, of kinda being blank, and people put so much into her. And it also worked for Cat Power and Kurt Vile. They don’t do it intentionally, but it’s a little mysterious. You can hear it and say, “Oh, I see that in it.”
The Fall’s Mark E. Smith recently passed away. Was he as big an influence on you as critics often said?
I wasn’t like the Fall fan compared to a lot of my friends, but I certainly thought Mark was cool, and one of our albums, Slanted and Enchanted, has three or four songs that totally mess with his way of doing stuff. I never denied it—I’ve never been one to deny ideas I’ve taken. They always come out through a prism of me.
What was it about bands like the Fall that you cribbed from?
Bands that are tough and don’t care about you—that really appeals to a younger, unconfident person. Coming from punk and looking for someone to boost your self-esteem, like the Velvet Underground. It’s just like: We’re gonna provoke you, take it or leave it. I guess it is a pose, but it’s a badass pose.
Do you have a pose?
I think everyone’s posing, so yeah, I pose.
What do you think your pose is?
Similar stuff: above the maddening crowd. And cool. Though of course I also get called a nerd all the time.
Actually, in the ’90s, I always felt there was a cult of elitism and cred around Pavement and its fans, like they were sitting at the cool kid’s table. Sometimes it was alienating, to be honest.
I think Pavement had that from being on Matador and being, like, a New York City band. We weren’t ever gonna be a total people’s band, like Oasis or something. For better or worse, we’re college educated and we weren’t gonna be that, but it’s not like I didn’t like pop music. I can like even an Alice in Chains song and say, “That’s good.”
At this point, do you feel conscious of trying to please a dedicated Stephen Malkmus audience?
I don’t really think of audience, but I’m grateful that there are the same people that are gonna buy your record.But sometimes you feel like you’re just shouting into a vacuum. Are the signals gonna get caught by somebody else? God forbid it’s on the radio—that’s not gonna happen to me. I think it’s good to show that you have skin in the game, like, “Oh, I wanna be seen and heard,” instead of, “I’m just putting it out.”
With everything in culture and politics as absurd as it is right now, a little bit of wit and satire from Stephen Malkmus feels appropriate.
That’s good. We came from a time with a slightly cynical edge. Back in the ’90s, cynicism was kinda new. I think today is mega-cynical. Cynicism is just taken for granted and it’s not a really dark thing, it’s internalized. It’s just the way the world is, and people are a little playful with it. Maybe that works with Pavement, because we always didn’t take it so seriously. We respected people’s intelligence, or something. I still wanna have fun with my life. I’m still happy to be alive now.