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Stephen Malkmus on Why Everyone Wants to Be a Nineties Kid

Rob Sheffield talks to the indie-rock icon about new album 'Wig Out at Jagbags,' Debbie Downers and much more

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Leah Nash
January 3, 2014 10:25 AM ET

As the frontman of Pavement, Stephen Malkmus was always the Nineties indie rock god who loved mocking his era's pretensions – he was singing "Fight This Generation" at the height of Gen X. Yet he turned out to be the guy who lived up to those Nineties ideals over the long haul: persistence, independence, staying true to the muse. Since Pavement ended in 2000, he's made six albums, solo or with his band the Jicks, including the excellent new Wig Out at Jagbags (due out January 7th). He's the longest-running rock artist who's never made a weak record. (The closest he's come is probably 2005's Face the Truth, which isn't all that close.)

See where Pavement's 'Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain' ranks on our 100 Best Albums of the Nineties

Malkmus always gives off a certain bratty confidence, which understandably rubs some people the wrong way. Yet he's kept it real on the indie level. In the wake of Pavement's much-beloved 2010 reunion tour, he's hit a new creative peak with the Jicks. He made Jagbags during a spell in Berlin, though he's moved with his wife and kids back to his longtime turf of Portland. Garrulous as always, he took a break from cleaning the kitchen to discuss topics like Lorde, Rush, the Grateful Dead, Daft Punk, Louis C.K., 12 Years a Slave, Spotify, therapy, golf, cats and of course, the Butthole Surfers.

Welcome back to Portland.
Yeah, we're based here full-time now. It was too hard going back and forth from Berlin. The schools are good. Rehearsals are easy. We just got two new kittens – Lucky and Scooter, named by children. Lucky was named after the Daft Punk song. Today it's snowing, which is weird in Oregon. And I dropped off the kids, so it's just me in the house, which is awesome.

Congratulations on the new album. The Jicks have now been a band longer than Pavement.
It's a partnership, all this, and it's out of love for the game and the music. It's the people who've given their heart and love to it, like [bassist] Joanna [Bolme] and [guitarist] Mike [Clark] and Matador. Music is important to all of us. We bleed it. That's why it all keeps going. And the people who relate to it keep it going, with their bands or blogs. Indie or rock & roll in general – it's folk music-y in the best way, just in that it's a shared tradition.

Have you heard Parquet Courts?
Those guys are cool. I was in this hamburger place the other day in Portland – they were playing the Parquet Courts record and I thought it was Pavement.

Why do you think Nineties bands have so much mystique these days?
It's a time that seems romantic to people now, whereas at the time, it seemed like a cynical era. There were all these worries about selling out and the Man and corporate rock and irony and sincerity. But in retrospect, being cynical just meant that you cared. There was something at stake.

It's funny how back then, you were singing, "Good night to the rock & roll era."
Yeah that was. . . [laughs maniacally] I guess I was just being provocative there. You know, the Fillmore and the long jam and the fadeout of "Free Bird." Just last night I was watching this Muscle Shoals documentary. I'm here at the house with the kids, and my wife's out of town, so when they go to bed, I just search the net for shit to watch and drink beer. I totally understand the alcoholic housewife thing, when I'm by myself with the kids. Like "the bottle is my friend" or whatever.

But I was watching this documentary and Lynyrd Skynyrd were there at Muscle Shoals, talking about the "Free Bird" solo and how the label tried to make them cut it down to three minutes. And they say their big break was the Who tour. When did opening for a headliner propel you to stardom? I always thought that was a myth. Whoever the fuck is opening for Nine Inch Nails, no one gives a fuck, they're just there to see Nine Inch Nails. Also, how do you blow away the Who? I think that'd be pretty hard to do.

Did you see the Rush documentary, where they got their break opening for Kiss?
I know, that's crazy too. That's a great documentary. It's so touching. I can't believe the footage of the family – "Son, you gotta get a job." "No, dad!" I wish I had some of those moments from my life on film.

I just listened to Fly by Night the other day – you know Side One? It really holds up. It gives you this rush, no pun intended, where you air-drum to it and it just makes you feel invigorated. Then on Side Two there's a horrible slow one about going to California like Led Zeppelin, and it just falls dead, like the dead owl on the album cover.

You sing about the Grateful Dead in your new song "Lariat." In the liner notes you talk about "UVA in the late Eighties," and that song really captures that vibe.
Back then, the Grateful Dead was a fratboy stand-in for alternative. If you were into the Dead, for a frat boy, that was like being into Faust or something. So the St. Elmo's rich guys at UVA would play it on the lawn and throw some Frisbees.

That song is just like a party at [Pavement percussionist] Bob Nastanovich's house where everyone is wigging out. It's about loving music, loving WTJU, loving the Butthole Surfers – bonding over that shit. There's that pathetic rallying cry at the end, "We grew up listening to the music of the best decade ever!" Which could be anyone's era of music.

Late-Eighties indie rock always seems to slip through the cracks historically. "It was Mudhoney summer, Torch of Mystics, Double Bummer."
Absolutely. It was in between times. The Butthole Surfers and the Replacements were weakening, but there were great bands like My Bloody Valentine or Galaxie 500. The album I mentioned, [Sun City Girls'] Torch of the Mystics, didn't come out until 1990, but through the rose-colored glasses of history I remember Bob Nastanovich really loved that record. Other people liked Bongwater's Double Bummer – I wasn't a fan, but they were still like an ultimate WTJU band, perfect for college radio. Charlottesville was a great place to be for that time. And we did have sort of a Mudhoney summer. David Berman [of the Silver Jews] peroxided his hair and wore Mardi Gras beads all the time. That's a Mudhoney summer.

For a lot of people, there's something deeply West Coast about your music.
I've always played with those California references. But it's always amazed me how California just doesn't give a shit. Unless you're Kobe Bryant or Jack Nicholson, L.A. just doesn't care what you do. It's so hierarchical. In New York, there seemed to be more respect for the artist. It didn't matter if you were popular – if you were cool, that was enough. Even in the hipster parties of the Warhol era, you had down-and-out characters mingling with high society, whereas L.A. just seems locked up. L.A. has always seemed much more Republican. In that West Coast kind of Eagles "Peaceful Easy Feeling" music, there's an optimistic-hypnotism thing going on there that freaks me out.

But I like to be positive, too. Especially on this album. My wife was saying my lyrics have a depressive way of thinking. She'd ask, "Are you depressed?" I'd say, 'No, it's just that the song calls for that.' I'm not gonna make up some sunny shit – I'm not into that. I don't like that kind of music. I like Big Star's Third and the Velvet Underground. But I took that to heart a little bit on this album and tried to be positive. Even on this "Lariat" song – when it goes "A love like oxygen / So foxy then, so terrific now." I could have said "so horrific now," but I said "terrific." That was a real effort for me –  terrific instead of horrific.

And the line was originally "Tenors need oxygen," but then I thought, "No, make it 'love like oxygen.' Bring the love." That's another album title we could have used. Bring the Love.

It seems like this album and the last one are a little brighter. There's a sense of emotional confidence.
All the times when you make stuff, whether it's music or books or art, you can always say, "I could have done that differently" or "that wasn't really me." But I don't worry about that so much anymore. I have a couple of swing thoughts, like in golf, where you would say, "Keep your shoulder up." I have a couple of those now. But they're not really revamping my swing – well, I don't wanna keep that metaphor going.

That would make another great album title.
Yeah, Swing Thoughts. You know, like, "Don't be a Debbie Downer if it's not called for." Sometimes it is called for, but know when to take that dagger out. Those are my swing thoughts. Bring the love.

There's always been a mix of sad and sunny in your songs – a range of moods.
Yeah, there is. But there was a bit of a flatline underneath of something depressing. That's what my wife says, but she goes to more therapy than me. So I started making an effort to be positive. It's okay to be funny. Nothing classic is probably going on here, let's face it. So just have fun with your time.

Is comedy part of your late-night video diet?
Not really. If I watch something like Louis C.K., it's bad for me. I can turn into that guy really fast, but not as funny. I'm more of a sci-fi guy. I'm not proud to admit it, but I like sci-fi and fantasy things. I'll watch even a bad space movie. I don't have boys for children, so I'm not completely abused by Star Wars and Legos like parents of boys often are.

When was the last time you went to the movies?
We made this horrible date night to see Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. And my wife doesn't like anything violent. She's an artist and Steve McQueen had a piece right by hers in the Venice Biennial. We like his art, so we thought this was a good idea. But it was two hours of misery. Oh, man. That was an uncomfortable date.

Are your daughters into pop music?
Yeah, we went to see Lorde a couple nights ago. She's young, she's not really a performer yet – low on charisma. But I don't care. That just made it like an indie show. She's into Raymond Carver, did you know that?  She must have a cool dad or a good English teacher or something. The music itself is kind of a modulating minimal hip-hoppy thing. It sounded pretty good. And the show was at 5 p.m., which was nice. Vampire Weekend was playing the same venue later, which my kids would probably also like.

They like Taylor Swift, they like Ke$ha, they like Macklemore. Gaga and Katy Perry, they're old news – they're heritage artists, like Pink Floyd or something. Then there's music we don't really like. [Malkmus sings a few lines of Avicii's "Wake Me Up."] "I tried carrying the weight of the world, but I've only got two hands." That's really bad.

We love Daft Punk – that's like Radiohead for them, really sophisticated goodness. I don't get sick of that "Get Lucky" song, and I've heard it 40 million times. Mainstream radio can drive you crazy hearing the same songs over and over, for parents like me who always have that station on in the car with the kids. I guess if I were more industrious, I could make a playlist from one of those evil Spotify places.

You're anti-Spotify, then?
Definitely. I think it sucks. That doesn't mean my music isn't on there, though. I'm against a lot of things that I do in life, and I still do them, so there's a lot of self-deception in all our lives. At least in the life of an unprincipled musician.

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