Stephen Malkmus has been on quite a creative roll as of late. In 2018, he released Sparkle Hard, one of his best albums to date with his backing band, the Jicks, and last year, he took a detour into synth-pop with Groove Denied. Now, he’s putting out another solo set, this one a folk album called Traditional Techniques on which he plays a 12-string acoustic guitar. While the music is a different look for him, it often evokes pastoral Sixties influences that have been part of his sound for years, and it has a loose West Coast feel that’s been a Malkmus hallmark going back to his earliest releases fronting indie-rock icons Pavement more than three decades ago. “I suppose I was thinking I wanted to sing music in a quieter and lower range,” he says, speaking with RS from his home in Portland, “to see how my process would relate to that.”
Malkmus is also getting ready for the first Pavement shows in 10 years, which will take place in Barcelona later this year. We talked about his new album, his beloved former band, and why he’s all-in for Bernie and somewhat less all-in for boomer rock stars.
What were the circumstances that led you to make a folk record?
Well, there was Chris Funk, who’s produced the Decemberists, as you probably know. I got to know him when I was making Sparkle Hard, our legendary album from way back in 2017 or whenever it was. I was just getting to know Chris and his situation. He likes all kinds of music but he’s a Fahey-type guy, he curates a thing at Newport Folk Festival. Anyway, I’m talking to him, and he’s like, “I would like to do something like that with you.” Maybe he heard me absentmindedly playing a banjo or something. So that got it in my mind. Other than that, I have a 12-string acoustic guitar that I bought here in Portland for like $700 — I actually tried to sell it back to a store here and they said, “This thing is warped, I’ll give you $300 for it, or $200,” and I was like, “That’s no respect for this guitar! I’m gonna show you what this guitar can do.”
Was that something you’ve wanted to do for a while?
It was a little bit of a risk to play like that naturally. Also, to not make it “unplugged,” you know? Certainly, I like Nirvana Unplugged. But I had to get my head around actually doing acoustic music that’s not just unplugged. That took getting other people I didn’t know, like a stand-up bass player, some world-music jammers that you hear on there, and Chris with the interest in resonating guitars and slide and things that I don’t know how to do myself. I don’t know if I always wanted to do it, but once I did, I was like how can we make it like some of those records were done? There’s a little cosplay of 1960s and ’70s recording. A lot of those boomer signifiers, like live takes and two-inch tape. You know what I mean? I decided to embrace that and see where it would go.
Did you learn to play any new instruments?
I’m just on 12-string, which I don’t really know how to play. I don’t know if you’re a guitarist, but it’s an unwieldy instrument. I’m not flowing all the time. I’m a little bit like the guy they brought off the street who has the songs. The music is popular, but no one knows why or if it’s still going to be, they just know that Bob Dylan sold some records. And they found this guy. He’s kind of raw, and maybe he’s playing at a beach in Malibu or something, and Dennis Wilson saw him. (Now I’m sounding like Manson.) They’re all sitting around, and the sexy girls like it. So they throw all these really good musicians behind him and a producer, and they make a record in like four days. That’s the concept, at least. When you have a little concept to hang yourself on, it can lighten the load.
Sparkle Hard, your last LP with the Jicks, was in 2018, and last year you released a synth-y solo album, Groove Denied, which makes this is your third one in pretty quick succession. Do you feel like you are kind of in an especially productive time musically?
The facts, if we look at the data, which we are doing — the data proves that I am, because that is three records, for a Gen X’er, made fast that are not just live albums or reissues. They are relatively different and yet have some conceptual swagger to them. They aren’t all the same. The electronic one was always going to happen, because I got into recording myself when I was making the soundtrack music for this TV show called Flaked. And I wanted to do a Jicks record ’cause I felt like we hadn’t finished saying what we could say on the record before. So I guess the folk record is the wild card that makes it seem extra productive.
Do you have any other concept-type albums you might want to do in the future?
Some things I don’t want to say, because I don’t know if I can own ’em yet, ya know what I mean? I still haven’t made the demos, and I’m a little leery of privileged musicians saying they are going to do this or that — like, “I can do everything and it’s going to be great, it’s going to be better than the way other people who do that are always doing it.” I do think, for someone like me, it’s good to be open to new collaborations. I love everything I did, but sometimes I feel like I’ve said all I can say that way.
You’ve been a pretty consistent artist for a long time now. Have you ever had times when you’ve had writer’s block or struggled creatively?
Yeah, lyrics, that can happen. I don’t know about riffs. Certainly, in honest appraisal of my career, it’s not all good. [Laughs.] I just write through it and listen back, and it’s like, “That could have been better.” For better or worse, I just plow through it. If you’re asking specifically, I can remember albums like Terror Twilight by Pavement, I was really struggling with stuff to say. That was also a little bit of performance anxiety with Nigel [Godrich], the producer, because he likes things to be right and done correctly — no wobbles. Some words make you wobble when you get down to brass tacks. Now there’s more ProTools, so you can fix the wobbles. Back then we were still pre-wobble-fixing. You had to do it right.
You’ll be playing your first Pavement shows since 2010 at this year’s Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona. What made this the right time to get the band back together?
It’s been on people’s minds for a while from the Pavement camp, and it’s been 10 years since the last one, and some things were lining up. Then these guys from Prima, who I know well through touring and going to Barcelona and hanging with them and partying with them, whatever…They came up with this plan, and I just was like, “Yeah, OK.” I guess I would say it’s been a while, and also those guys are cool. Is that OK?
It’s perfectly fine. You mentioned performance anxiety. In the Nineties, there were always a lot of expectations surrounding Pavement. That seemed to be gone during the first reunion in 2010. You seemed to be having more fun. Were you?
Yeah, it was fun. If people who are fans of Pavement might like to know what it was like from the singer’s perspective…If it was fun for y’all, that’s great, but for me it was not only fun to embody those songs, it was also fun from the material perspective. We traveled really nicely. It was this smooth thing compared to what I remember Pavement being like, I guess. [Back then], we existed on a shoe-string budget, and it was wearying. It felt like there was seemingly no end in Pavement. It was just wearing me down, living in an infinite band thing. So this was like, “We are just going to play these fuckin’ songs together, we like each other, and so this will be familiar.”
Do you think there will be more shows? There’s tons of these music festivals in nice places, and they all pay good money.
We haven’t discussed that, to be honest. You make it sound good. You do. Are you working for the other guys in the band? [Laughs.]
Yes, the Mark Ibold Foundation is paying me to talk to you.
I don’t think we want to jinx anything that’s going on for the shows. Again, I haven’t spoken to anyone. You can look online, there’s no shows planned and there’s no whispers of it. You just have to see how it goes. I’m imagining some pull quote on the internet that says, “Pavement: Stephen Says It’s Possible” or something like that. [Laughs.]
The headline for this story is “Pavement Reunion Inevitable.”
That’s happened before. I did a thing in NME [that said], like, “No New Songs From Pavement,” and I saw it like 40 times. “This is not definitively the last Pavement show” — I’d hate to put that as a tagline. I mean, we haven’t talked and said “Only this.”
Last year, you got to play a couple songs with David Crosby at the Live From Here show. Then later, on Twitter, someone asked him, “What was it like playing with Malkmus?” — and he was like, “Who’s Malkmus?” Did that bother you?
What do you expect with him? Major narcissist! I thought he might’ve known who I was because we went to the same high school in Santa Barbara, which I think we both didn’t finish or got kicked out of. So, like, we have a history, man, even if you don’t know my music. My parents loved CSNY. There’s that. I haven’t seen that documentary [Remember My Name] yet…I think it’s funny him and Roger McGuinn are communicating together via Twitter, having a relationship on that media platform. That cracks me up.
His resilience is pretty amazing.
Yeah, his voice sounds good still. He is on his second liver. He sounded great when he played at that show. I think in the end he wouldn’t like my music, because it is floppy and out of tune a little bit. I think he is a bit boomerish that way. Obviously.
Do you have any people you’d like to collaborate with?
Warren Ellis from Nick Cave’s band. I love him. I think he is really talented. I thought about calling him for this record, to be honest. Someone like Richard Thompson — unbelievable musician, but I guess I don’t really want to collaborate with him, you know? I guess it would be people more in my generation. I’m open to the idea of asking people to play on stuff in the future, where not only will it give people stuff to talk about — that’s one reason people do collaborations — but also ’cause they’re good. If I have a song and I think within my virtual rolodex powers that they would actually say yes, [I might ask], for instance, the guitarist for Blur, Graham Coxon. But I’m not going to ask Aphex Twin or Squarepusher to collaborate. [Those are] people I like, but it’s just not going to happen. I guess I am sort of limited to reality.
Also, I’ve met no old rockstars ever. And they never say anything good about my music. I always see those things, whether it’s Greta Van Fleet or some new artist, that has a vouch from Elton John or Paul Simon. I don’t think it’s, like, the kiss of death, like a Hillary Clinton endorsement or something. I would’ve thought once, one of them, one time, would have said something about my music, but no. As far as I know.
You just sort of slip through the cracks for them. They just don’t know you exist.
I cross between Extremely Online and pre-Internet. So I’m fuckin’ aware of everything, pretty much. There’s like not many things that I haven’t heard of, even if it’s an obscure country artist, if they have a little heat or something, I’ll be like, “Ah, I’ve heard of that.” And I’m not even trying that hard. I guess I’m more of a fan.
How do you find out about things?
People always recommend stuff, or I’m on the internet and I hear something that is relatively hyped. Then I’ll either buy the record or listen to it on YouTube. Or I’ll recommend my daughter put it on her playlist.
Do you learn about music from your daughter?
I like to find out what she likes that I play. Generally not. Maybe an individual song, but it’ll be, like, Drake or something. Or she’ll hone in on a Kanye West song that I didn’t necessarily think was the best one, but I’ll hear it through her ears. But as far as generally new artists…the way she hears about stuff, if it’s not those big ones or things I recommend to her, is from algorithms pushing things towards her, or maybe on Instagram. She’s a music fan, and is dying to go to Sunday Coachella as a 14-year-old ’cause Frank Ocean is playing and Lana Del Rey. She’ll be like, “Do you like this, Dad?” And I’ll be like, “I kinda like it.” Or it’ll be a hip-hop thing, and I’ll say, “How about Young Thug instead?” because I like Young Thug.
You mentioned Hillary Clinton. I know you’re a Bernie supporter. What do you like about him?
I think Medicare for All is a sensible thing that we can all agree on. It’s humane, and that’s one of his main talking points. Even if it is going to get watered down in the legislature, it’s going to be something that he’s going to carry on. As far as his foreign policy, he’s not 100 percent perfect, but he actually wants to have our troops come back and less coup-backing CIA-type things. So I think he’s best on those issues.
You listen to Chapo Trap House, a podcast which has come in for some criticism of its harsh rhetoric. Do you think there’s a dark side to some of Bernie’s support?
I don’t think it’s dark. For someone like Bernie to win, it’s going to be a monumental effort. It’s going to take some reaching across the aisles, metaphorically. Not only to libertarians and independents and some on-the-fence Trumpers, but also more centrist people that are afraid to change and afraid of the S-word [“socialist”]. There’s also a basis, too, for righteous indignation and rage, from a principled place. I’m not going to be nice about the fact that Pete [Buttigieg] isn’t going to do anything about the-military industrial complex. I’m actually going to be really mad about that.
Have you always voted? Have you ever missed a presidential election?
I bet I have, yeah. I’m sure I missed one in the ’90s. To be honest, like many of us, I’m more energized about the presidential election this year, more than past years. I guess maybe from Twitter, you just kind of get hooked, and also you have quicker access to people who can voice things really well in, like, five sentences, and you’re hooked. Back in the ’90s, it was a little bit vague, and I would just kind of vote for whoever was the left-est reasonable candidate by the time the election happened.
“For someone like Bernie to win, it’s going to be a monumental effort….[But] I think Medicare for All is a sensible thing that we can all agree on.”
You are a big NBA fan, and you also once sang about Rush in a Pavement song, so I’m curious which death hit home for you the deepest: Kobe Bryant or Neil Peart?
Probably Neil Peart. I mean, Kobe… He was a villain to me in basketball terms. I rooted against him. So with Kobe, we have to mention that his daughter died and all these other people, and it was a random act of bad luck, which is terrible. I always thought that he was an amazing ambassador of the game, amazing golden-age player, but I thought he was a little over-rated in some people’s minds as a basketball player. But a fascinating dude. I’m talking about him more than Neil Peart. I have to backtrack on that. I don’t want Kobe fans killing me.
Neil was a super-sweet guy. When I think of Neil, I think of a high-school friend of mine who had all the extra drums and a really large kit. He was a total introverted drummer type, and I fondly remember that. I remember a few of these Rush [fans]. They were always nice, inclusive people. I’m not saying the Kobe fans aren’t inclusive. I don’t know, I just have fond memories. Rush didn’t really draw these Judas Priest, stoner-type guys. Judas Priest had serious hesher dudes, and also these kind of sociopath, American Psycho rich guys that liked them. Those people really scared me. Rush didn’t have people like that. They were sweet.
Will the next thing you do after Traditional Techniques be a Jicks rock album, or do you think it’ll be another one of these conceptual things?
I don’t know, man. I’m kind of just waiting for something to take shape. Just because we are doing this tour acoustically, and also these two Pavement shows…I don’t know how I’m going to feel after that. It feels good to have some structure to the next four months, just kind of playing music, and trying to be a good father and husband, I suppose, in the middle of that. There’s a lot of other shit to do too, that we all have to do, that really boring….
Yeah, bill paying and the kids. But Rolling Stone doesn’t want to hear about that.