Pavement’s inscrutable Stephen Malkmus is said to be the smartest guy in rock & roll. Courtney Love calls the lanky frontman “the Grace Kelly of rock.” Interviewers describe him as snide, arrogant, aloof, melancholy. Actually, as he sips his mint herbal tea in New York’s NoHo Starcafe, the accused nihilist is kind of cute. Critics, graduate students and rusting slackers alike swear that these high-church indie pastiche artists are the shit. With the release of their elegant, polished Brighten the Corners, Pavement seem poised to become the R.E.M. of the 1990s.
What will you do if you become rock stars?
I don’t know how much things would change, really. If worst came to worst, I could just move to New York. No one had a problem here except John Lennon.
What’s with this squirming in your seat?
I need a massage, is what I need.
Get one before the show.
I don’t know who to go to. Thurston [Moore] recommended this woman, but I couldn’t get in contact with her. Anyway, rock stardom for us – I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I think it’s more of a niche market than a big cultural moment for us. I don’t feel we’re really defining the moment or the time, ever. That’s what I associate with rock stardom.
Tapping the Zeitgeist?
Yeah. Then again, Dylan spoke in total non sequiturs, and people called him a sign-of-the-times person.
Your last album had a real fried ’70s-stoner feel to it. Brighten the Corners tilts its hat to classic rock.
I like the purity – it seems like bands were more dedicated back then. As bombastic as they were, groups like Led Zeppelin had more of a scary identity. Maybe it was just my fandom.
They’re immortal; you’re just human?
I like bands that have an aura to them. There’s a band I like, Royal Trux. They have more of an evil side to them; they’re meaner than us. Like, they don’t write “nice” songs. I mean, we are nice suburban boys in the end. We try to have a bit of swagger that comes off a little sexist in some lyrics. That’s part of our going for that classic-rock thing.
Do you make music for smart people?
We don’t try to be intentionally brainy. It’s wordy, some of our stuff.
You have to be well-read.
But you can still hum the tune. I like things in the car to sing along to. I like some more literate stuff, but rock & roll should still be about cigarettes and alcohol and fun and shagging and making out and stuff like that.
What’s it like touring smaller venues?
I don’t mind, if there’s a dressing room and a clear line from there to the stage.
Better rapport with your audience?
I’m a pretty icy performer. I’m nice at the bottom of my heart, but I like the tough-love, bitchy-performer thing.
People say you’re arrogant and mean.
It’s not true. It’s part of the act.
If you didn’t have Pavement, what would you be doing with your life?
You mean, to earn a living?
Or just to fulfill yourself, whatever.
That’s a tough question. That’s a real fear, a feeling of inadequacy. I don’t know what I’d do if I weren’t doing this. I know how people feel in their 20s when they get out of college and they’re sort of rootless. It’s the hardest time in your life, I think. Obviously, if you prepare, you find something.
You have the gift of gab. Law school?
Perhaps. That would be my parents’ wet dream. Or academia: I’d be some kind of graduate student, just finishing up now – “Oh, they want me at Weaver State for one year” – that type of thing, no good offers.
I read you worked as a security guard at the Whitney Museum. What fantastic jobs have you had?
I’ve painted curbs in suburbia. It was totally under the table – the guy didn’t have a real business license. That was fun – my high school summer job on the hot streets of Stockton [Calif.].
Those mean streets! Besides reading and pinball, what do you do for kicks?
Yeah, kicks! And I don’t mean intellectual crap.
Books, movies, records, food, drinking, biking, typical stuff. Record stores, thrift stores.
What do you look for in thrift stores?
You look to find some miracle, like an 8-track player, some old records.
What makes you happy? You’re always described as cynical, cranky, miserable.
I think they think that’s some kind of Generation X thing like, “That’s the way everyone is.” So they just put that in there. It could be somebody who suffered in an interview with us. Maybe we weren’t particularly giving or we didn’t work the audience. I forget that you have to a little bit.
Any words for people who say Pavement sold out on Brighten the Corners.
I think we sold out with Slanted and Enchanted.
That was your first album!
But we made a bunch of singles before that; we were part of a real noise-core art underground. That’s when I felt like an underground band – after the first album. It sounds so low-fi now, but then I felt it was such a pop album.
Stephen, do you have a girlfriend?
I don’t, actually, right now. I’m eminently eligible.
Oh! What kind of girls do you like?
I like all kind – the kinds that like me. Two gentlemen in the band are married. Everyone else has a girlfriend whom they’re serious with. I’m the one that’s free, I guess. Or lonely – one or the other. I’m all right [sighs].
Well all that can feed into…
The next album.
This story is from the March 20th, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.