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Stephen Malkmus: My Life in 15 Songs

The former Pavement frontman and current leader of the Jicks looks back on a quarter-century of indie-rock genius

stephen malkmus life in 15 songs

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A wise man once sang that you can never quarantine the past. His name was Stephen Malkmus, the year was 1994, and he had stumbled across something profound. Decades later, the zany, beautiful music he and Pavement were making in those days has transcended temporal limits, showing up as a Biblical influence on indie-rock bands from every subsequent generation. In 2010, when they put out a greatest-hits set to mark a brief reunion, they called it Quarantine the Past, like wizards trying to call back their most powerful spell.

On a recent morning at the New York office of his longtime record label, Malkmus is doing his best to make sense out of all that. He slumps back into an armchair, pulls a dingy orange-and-white baseball cap low over his eyes — he’s a teeny bit snoozy after attending a Brooklyn Nets game the previous evening — and thinks about his creative process in Pavement. “I was just trying to hit the notes and have it flow and maybe evoke something,” the 51-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist says finally, in a characteristic understatement.

This Friday, May 18, Malkmus obsessives can sink their teeth into Sparkle Hard, the seventh album he’s made with the Jicks since forming that band after Pavement’s 1999 breakup. It’s a superb showcase for his mature style of songwriting, heavy on the melancholy ballads (“Solid Silk,” “Middle America”) with a guitar anthem or two thrown in (“Shiggy”). There are, notably, fewer jokes on this album than the last couple. Malkmus demoed Sparkle Hard starting in 2015 at the “unglamorous basement studio” he keeps in his Portland, Oregon home, later recording the album with his bandmates — keyboardist Mike Clark, bassist Joanna Bolme, and drummer Jake Morris — and producer Chris Funk of the Decemberists. “I’m liking that people like it, and I’m trying to keep my positivity up, but who knows, you know?” Malkmus says of the album. “Every day’s different!”

With release day approaching, he chose 15 songs to sum up his life in music. Pavement are represented by the first and last songs on each of their five studio LPs (except for 1995’s Wowee Zowee, which ends with guitarist Scott Kannberg’s “Western Homes”; Malkmus picked “Half a Canyon,” the next-to-last song on that album, instead). The Jicks get a motley selection of five album cuts.

And what do these wake-and-baker’s dozen songs reveal about Stephen Malkmus, the man, and how he’s changed since the early 1990s? Your guess is as good as his. “I’m unfortunately the same person with more time and more life experience,” Malkmus says. “No big, fundamental shifts. I think it would have to be radical, like a religious conversion or sobriety, but that hasn’t happened. I say that kind of wistfully. But it’s too hard, isn’t it? Nobody wants to change.”

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“Shibboleth”

Wig Out at Jagbags, 2014

This song is a little dark. It’s driven by an intense bass sound, almost like if the Pixies were into scaring people again. Lyrically, it has some rather complicated ideas about Christianity and the need for limits — something about how there can’t be morality without sin.

It’s got some funny things that have nothing to do with that, too. Like “I’m a connoisseur of scrapple.” I thought that was apropos of our world now. People are trying to make the best hamburger or the best taco or the best bacon, so I put in scrapple, which is a people’s cheap meat.

As we juggle through all this bullshit that I’ve made that is quality at times — cheap meat — it’s still there. A line like that could easily have been in “Summer Babe,” except I wouldn’t have been worrying about life-hacking fast food. So, yeah, times have changed.

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