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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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“Spit on a Stranger”

Terror Twilight, 1999

This song has a Beatles feel to me. It’s a pretty song in the standard tuning, which, as Rolling Stone readers know, means tuning your guitar to EADGBE, in the way that the Lord told us to do it. And it has that Nigel Godrich production — he can make the average guitar sound so good. But in Pavement fashion, the singer has to say, “I could spit on a stranger,” which is a slightly bizarre hook. Kind of dark and fucked-up. It’s a sweet love song except for that. Maybe I was feeling the love for somebody. I can’t remember.

After Terror Twilight, it was nearing 10 years of the band, and I felt like it was going to be a struggle instead of a joy. I’m sure U2 has struggled through many albums and they’ve stayed together. But if it’s not fun, that’s going to come across in the recording. Maybe it’s good to stop when everyone’s got the love and the self-respect. In the end, it was more or less my decision [to end Pavement]. I tried to spin it as a positive: “It kicked ass. Let’s leave it as a relatively special thing in our minds.”

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“Carrot Rope”

Terror Twilight, 1999

Some people might say that “Carrot Rope” is a rather odd way for Pavement to leave the Earth. Terror Twilight had a lot of interesting arguments about sequencing. In the end, one of the members of the band won out, and “Spit on a Stranger” went first and it was front-loaded. And one of the guys that wasn’t in the band that worked on it a lot wasn’t into that order, and he was right probably, but he wasn’t in the band, so….Anyway, I have no idea what’s going on with that song. Just completely absurd. Almost like a show tune.

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“Deado”

Stephen Malkmus, 2001

I had just moved to Portland. It took me a year to find some people that I thought it would be fun to record with. I was oblivious. Through friends of a friend, I met Joanna and the drummer, Johnny Moen, and Mike on keyboard. It was fortuitous that they weren’t really working in any bands and they liked me.

That was the end of the music business, as I see it, around 2001. There was the Internet, and passing a torch maybe to younger artists like the Strokes and the White Stripes. It wasn’t my torch to pass. But all of a sudden it was a new century, and I was continuing on the struggle.

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“1% of One”

Pig Lib, 2003

I was into some meandering British folk things — Mellow Candle, Fairport Convention — so I wanted to write my version of that. The lyrics are kind of stupid. They’re about a soundman listening to this band playing, and he’s getting blown away. Maybe he’s stoned. He trips out, and the song goes off into a dream world. The band is us, of course — who else could it be? Our sound man, Remko Schouten, from Holland… He’s not the first person to ever have a spliff while he’s working, but that’s that.

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“Kindling for the Master”

Face the Truth, 2005

I did most of Face the Truth by myself, although the Jicks play on significant amounts of it. This is one song that nobody but me plays on — this indie dance thing that I recorded in my basement in Portland with a real tape machine. It’s based around a sample that I took out so I wouldn’t have to pay for it, or even bother to ask. I’m not going to say what it was. If “Kindling for the Master” was on a Pavement album and it was a tiny bit more together, people would’ve been into it, but as it is, it went by the wayside. I was in on a new genre without knowing it.

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“Elmo Delmo”

Real Emotional Trash, 2008

We had a new drummer, Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney, and she had in her mind that we were going to be a hard-rocking band and push each other to new heights of psychedelic expression. She’s a very ambitious person, and I was very lucky to get to make some albums with her and tour with her. “Elmo Delmo” reminds me of Janet and that era of the band. I loved it, but it was also like, how much more do we need of that, after we did it? It kind of exhausted me. But I like the lyrics in this one, for whatever reason. They’re trippy in the right way. It’s an acid-rock song, with “Led Zeppelin on badder drugs” lyrics. What kind of mystery will unfold?

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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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