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A quarter century since Pavement's iconic record Slanted and Enchanted, Stephen Malkmus is still making music that matters—and his excellent (and very wry) new album Sparkle Hard proves that brutal honesty is the secret to a long songwriting career.
It’s 2018 and, like the rest of us, Stephen Malkmus is on the Internet.
Unlike most of us, however, the man behind Pavement, one of indie rock’s most beloved and influential bands, seems to be having fun: tweeting about Kanye, Wild Wild Country, and W. B. Yeats (“OG slacker,” noted SM). Appearing on YouTube with a “kind of nerdy” but rocking rendition of the Squidbillies intro. Penning a gleefully snippy quiz for Sparkle Hard, his seventh and newest post-Pavement album with the Jicks. (A sample: “You are going for a casual stroll on a beach in Malibu. You run into Bob Dylan. He’s all alone. You: Whistle the chorus of ‘One Headlight.’”) At 51, Malkmus, who famously took shots at bigger fish like Stone Temple Pilots and the Smashing Pumpkins, is no less flip—only more digitally accessible, and grayer.
“My daughter is playing cello now,” Malkmus says. “She’s on the Suzuki path. So, you know, we’re padding her resume for future intents, to get accepted to a nice school.”
Just don’t confuse Steve the Dad for Malkmus gone soft.
“Katy Perry is over. Taylor Swift is over,” he said at a small show last March. He discussed what music his daughters, ten and thirteen, listen to (spoiler: not his). He was equally unsparing when appraising himself: “I’m basically over. I’m on the downhill, years-wise.”
It may feel jarring—or delightful—to hear the writer of “Gold Soundz” (“Go back to those gold soundz / and keep my advent to yourself”) intone on the state of pop today, but celebrities and actual events have long-populated his Jicks-era lyric sheet, albeit idiosyncratically, with tossed-off references to the likes of original Westworld actor Yul Brenner and disgraced former Senator and serial groper Bob Packwood, years after most people had stopped talking let alone thinking about them. Sparkle Hard’s allusions feel timelier. Microaggressions, jackboots, “Facebook doom,” and Freddie Gray occupy front-page territories less common to Malkmus’s oeuvre. Still, their presence in the music itself—tucked between squalls of guitar, propulsive rock fills, and hummable shalalas—resists easy definition.
Other moments in the album feel more legible, hitting a particularly Malkmusian sweet spot: knowing, funny, unexpectedly poignant. A prime example is “Refute,” his twangy duet with Kim Gordon and one of the album’s highlights. Here, backed by fiddle and steel guitar, Malkmus presents a tale of love in the time of addled late capitalism: the man who falls for a woman with “similar interests, similar looks, similar taste in similar books” and the older woman who woos her au pair with “Ritalin and drugged Nehi, Egon Schiele prints and French fries.” “Marry on, children,” exhorts Gordon, “but be aware: the world / doesn’t want you / anymore.”
And yet, seventeen years after his solo debut and over a quarter century since the watershed that was Slanted and Enchanted, we still want more Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. GQ caught up with the seemingly ageless musician to discuss the new album, his role as a “middle elder,” and the thorny issue of representation in the comparatively white world of indie rock.
GQ: I saw that you were into the Wild Wild Country documentary. Stephen Malkmus: Yeah, any cult thing is gonna be candy. And this one is pretty good, too. You know, it has a soundtrack that sounds like indie rock that’s almost the music they would play. I’m sure it wasn’t as good, although I know they would play trance-y, hypnotic music to “cultify” you, brainwash you. It’s funny, this Rolls Royce thing with cult leaders. It’s interesting the power of the Rolls Royce as the car that God drives or something. I mean, I’ve been such a practical car guy.
What kind of car do you have?
I have a Volkswagen Jetta. A new one. Maybe you know about Dieselgate? When it was in neutral, this little governor would make it seem like there was less spewing out. So anyway, I just took my check to the dealer. I did not mind so much that I had been lied to by Volkswagen. I was from a generation that knows that all these companies are lying and stuff in different ways.
There’s a line on the new album: “Men are scum, I won’t deny,” which feels both timely, given the #MeToo movement, but also like something you might tell your actual daughters. How influential has fatherhood been for you on the new album?
Not too much, I don’t think. I’ve had songs before that talk about people’s self-interest and [laughs] biological imperatives driving to act like assholes. As far as my kids, I just kind of keep them out of this. It’s like “grown-up stuff.” It’s my chance to relate to my cohort more than that age. I mean, I’m into millennials and even Y’s, or whatever. I think that I can give them advice. But I would have to be playing a different kind of music for my daughters to even care, unfortunately. They like Hamilton. Although I think that I could write a couple of the songs from Hamilton. Like the one that the king sings is kind of like a Beatles song. Like, the old white man I could really write. I don’t think I could do the rap that well.
You’ve spoken about having faith in your chops when making Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, while also being afraid—is that debate of fear and self-confidence still present for you and how much did it factor, if at all, into Sparkle Hard?
Not as much. Back then, we came from a “just do your work quietly and don’t sparkle too hard” mentality, or whatever. But now everything is just not a big deal anymore. I feel a little more like a professor or a teacher instead of an actual player. I think that’s just something about getting older. I wouldn’t mind if I could possibly be a Cardi B or something. The music itself is always 1,000-percent joy. But doing interviews, talking about the band, what it means—that’s a whole other game. It’s fun now. In the end, I also want to sell records. I could use some money. That would be nice. I never really talk about that. It’s kind of boring, but we got like four mouths to feed in the band and stuff. [laughs]
You were saying you feel more like a professor or a teacher now.
If I watch a basketball game, I don’t really care if a guy hit a three-pointer with three seconds left. I mean, I can like that. But I’m more interested in who drafted him and what makes him special. So music can be the same way. You’re at the gig [and the band is playing], but you’re also like, “Oh, they got this manager.” “They got this much money to play at the festival.” I’m as interested in that as much as, like, what compressor they use or “That kick drum on that trap beat, like, how sick was that” or whatever. I don’t care about that that much.
You’re like a player-owner now at this point, maybe.
Could be. I would be happy to produce groups, like John Cale—he was in the Velvet Underground and then he went on to produce these bands. As he got grayer, he was still involved in current trends.
Sort of an elder statesman in that sense.
Middle… middle elder.
At one of your recent solo shows, I couldn’t help but notice how white the audience was. While researching, I also noticed how it was mostly white dudes who were the ones reviewing and interviewing you.
That sucks. Andrew was there! [Artist] Andrew Kuo. [laughs] But yeah, that sucks. I mean, certain signals are picked up by what we send out. Even if I don’t know that I’m sending out these signals—and I think I’m not—I probably am.
How much you feel as a musician in 2018 an obligation or pressure toward representation in your audience?
I don’t know if I feel pressure. That being said, I’m happy that we have a woman in my band. It’s not like it’s affirmative action or anything, just a lucky break. I do have certain biases. This is almost between you and me, but if we were hiring a new person, and a person of color, Asian, and it was a tie or it was close, I would pick that person, you know. But that’s just my personal thing. I’m not saying that I should do that, I don’t feel an urge to tell people that. I feel it personally, but I don’t want to, like, represent that somehow because I think it is kinda silly in a certain way. But as far as the music, it’s open. But, I mean, we’re liberals, you know, what the fuck. It’s obvious, I think. I mean, we’re soy boys. Libtard soy boys. And girls.