Four laid-back California guys who mixed cacophonic guitar rock with elegant melodies and brilliantly elliptical lyrics, Pavement helped define the sound of Nineties indie rock. By the time of their breakup in 2000, the group had worked with big-name producers and traded detuned guitars and sci-fi sound effects for low-key sophistication. Like the Velvet Underground before them, Pavement never attained huge commercial success but were adored by critics and left countless imitators in their wake.
Pavement formed in Stockton, CA, in 1989 when Stephen Malkmus and longtime friend Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg self-released the lo-fi EP Slay Tracks: (1933–1969). The record cost $800 to make and received favorable reviews in the alternative press. Augmented by 40-ish ex-hippie drummer Gary Young, who owned the studio where they recorded, they continued to churn out smartly barbed 7-inch and 10-inch EPs for the Drag City label, which compiled these efforts as Westing (By Musket and Sextant) in 1993.
In 1991 the trio completed one of rock's most impressive debuts ever, Slanted and Enchanted. Released on the emergent indie label Matador Records, the critically raved-over album set Malkmus's remarkably catchy tunes and snarky lyrics against a noisy but slack guitars; the sound was lackadaisical and shabbily recorded but still easily loveable. Mark Ibold, bassist for New York noisemongers the Dustdevils, and Bob Nastanovich, a college chum of Malkmus, joined the bicoastal crew in time for its initial tours, although they weren't integrated into the studio lineup until the sessions for the band's second LP, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Pavement's early, sloppy performances often found Young on top of the drum kit rather than behind it. In 1993 he was replaced by Steve West.
Riding a wave of ecstatic press, Pavement unveiled the more listener-friendly but still experimental Crooked Rain (Number 121, 1994), which yielded the catchy single "Cut Your Hair." But the quirks of the sprawling, wildly varied follow-up, Wowee Zowee! (Number 117, 1995), irked new fans who were expecting hook-filled consistency.
Produced by Mitch Easter, Brighten the Corners (Number 70, 1997) was the first largely subdued Pavement album. Layers of noise and fuzz were stripped away, and the focus rested more heavily on Malkmus's adroit melodies. Terror Twilight (Number 95, 1999), overseen by Nigel Godrich (Radiohead, Beck), showed even more refinement with hints of country and 1970s soft rock. Malkmus' cryptic lyrics and nasal, wavering voice remained the only links with the past.
Tensions began to develop within Pavement while recording Terror Twilight. Sessions dragged on much longer than anticipated, and by the time the band began to tour behind the record, their days were numbered. Malkmus's behavior became erratic, and he often refused to talk to his band mates. During their performance at Coachella that summer, Malkmus refused to sing. A spokesman announced in December 1999 that the Pavement were taking a hiatus before they officially disbanded in the summer of 2000.
Malkmus wasted little time kicking off his post-Pavement career, releasing his self-titled debut (Number 124) in early 2001, backed by his new band the Jicks. Kannberg formed Preston School of Industry and released All This Sounds Gas in 2001. Malkmus released three subsequent albums with the Jicks, and Kannberg made his solo debut under the name Spiral Stairs in 2009.
Matador began releasing deluxe editions of the Pavement catalog in 2002, starting with Slanted and Enchanted: Luxe and Reduxe (Number 152). Slow Century, a Lance Bangs-directed documentary also released in 2002, compiled a detailed history of the band's career along with live performances and a complete collection of their music videos. After three years of rumored reunions, Pavement officially announced in September 2009 that they would be reuniting to play a series of shows in Central Park in September 2010. Tickets for the first show sold out within two minutes. They later announced tours of Australia and Europe beginning in March 2010.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Joel Hoard contributed to this article.