Is Stephen Malkmus, indie rock’s long-reigning king, abdicating his throne? By Jonathan Valania
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, satire is a close second. After all, everyone knows you’re nowhere until your locale is brilliantly lampooned in Twitter-iffic, Hulu-able form. Case in point is Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s hipster burlesque Portlandia, a loving mockery of the bluest city on the angry red planet that is the USA circa now: All lattes and tattoos, skunk weed and microbrews, unlimited wireless for all, a free-range chicken in every pot, and everyone gets around on solar-powered tofu bicycles.
This is the place that Stephen Malkmus—the aging slacker princeling, the man Courtney Love called the Grace Kelly of Indie Rock—has called home for the last decade. He lives here with his wife, the noted artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins, and two daughters (6-year-old Lottie and 3-year-old Sunday) in a fairly palatial two-story spread that lists for in excess of a half a million dollars. Clearly excited to have a visitor, Lottie runs up to me and drops one of those priceless out-of-the-mouths-of-babes bon mots: “Have you ever been to California? I got a hot dog there!” Portland has served as home base for his post-Pavement solo career where, abetted by an ever-shifting line-up of Jicks, he has cranked out five albums of critically acclaimed but modest-selling albums. So, it comes as no small surprise when his wife lets it slip that the Malkmuses (Malkmae?) are moving to Berlin.
“We’re gonna try it for a year,” Malkmus says with a shrug. “After that, who knows? We could leave this all behind. I’ve been here a long time. We had our kids here and this is a good place for that. But Jessica never wanted to live here. She kind of got shanghaied; she moved into my house. She’s made a great effort to join this town, but at the end of the day it’s really just a big small town and it can be a little stifling intellectually compared to a big city like New York where she used to live.”
But what about the Jicks? They all live in Portland.
“Yeah, they weren’t too happy about it when I told them,” he admits. “But I was like, now we’ll have a home base when we tour Europe.”
The next day the band rehearses in the basement of longtime Jicks bassist Joan Bolme’s charming bungalow, where they’re breaking in new drummer Jake Morris, who has replaced the recently departed Janet Weiss, formerly of Sleater-Kinney and currently of Wild Flag. The practice space is rec room fresh, low-ceilinged and bedecked with Christmas lights, gig fliers and anvil cases marked PAVEMENT guarded by two big shaggy dogs named Earl and Gracie.
Malkmus is wearing earplugs and seated next to his amp and trusty Moog, as he puts the new guy through his paces. From a distance, he looks the same as he ever did peering out from the cover of any number of long-gone glossy alt-rock mags back in the ’90s—boyishly handsome, untucked and smirking like the veritable cat who swallowed the canary—with only the faint hint of crow’s feet around his eyes betraying his 45 years. He is trading jokey anecdotes with his fellow Jicks, which, in addition to Bolme and Morris, are rounded out by guitarist/keyboardist Mike Clark, who Malkmus likes to introduce as the only guy he knows who still buys R.E.M. albums.
For the amusement of his bandmates, Malkmus relays the details of a recent family outing with the sleep-deprived listlessness that is indicative of newly minted parenthood.
“We went to one of those places where people with kids go and put ’em on a trampoline and sit around complaining to each other about how tired they are,” says Malkmus. To amuse his young daughters during the car ride home, he says, he made up his first, and probably last, rap song: “Cream Cheese Rules.” To which Lottie, his 6-year-old, told him, in so many words, that he was talking out of his ass. “I told her I meant it from the bottom of my heart,” he says, something he has been insisting upon since the beginning of his career.
From here, the conversation transitions into a brief assessment of celebrity golf prowess.
“Justin Timberlake is good at golf—I read that today,” Malkmus offers, apropos of nothing.
“Justin Timberlake is good at everything,” counters Bolme.
This is followed by a brief discussion of the ravages of melanoma when Clark mentions a suspicious mole he’s discovered. Malkmus tells him that his cousin is a dermatologist and would likely give it a gratis look-see, and worst-case scenario there’s this new melanoma drug that’s so effective they’ve halted clinical trials and started giving it to the placebo group.
After rehearsal, Malkmus begs off a scheduled one-on-one interview for now, as domestic duty calls: dinner with the wife and then taking in the new Werner Herzog documentary. I sit down with Bolme on the stoop of her house. She tells me how she first met Malkmus through mutual friends when he moved here, and the two soon became Scrabble buddies. Bolme is the only member of the Jicks who has been around since the beginning of the end of Pavement. She is pretty, thin and blonde, with indie cred to burn. Though she is currently married to a member of the British band the Cribs, she will be forever known in certain circles as the late great Elliott Smith’s one true love, back in the grand productive days, before hard drugs sapped his talent and his will to live.
She tells me that she makes her living off Jicks touring revenues and that the year-long hiatus while Malkmus toured out the Pavement reunion almost drained her bank account.
“That Pavement tour almost killed me,” she says, ruefully. This inevitably invites the question of how she feels about the fact that, fair or unfair, the Jicks will be forever relegated to the shadow of Pavement, despite the fact that the Jicks have been around just as long and released just as many albums, and embarked on just as many tours—and for that matter have garnered just as many glowing reviews.
“I’ve been in a band with Stephen longer than anyone has been in a band with Stephen, including [charter Pavement member] Spiral Stairs,” she says, with mild indignation. “So, that’s annoying. I mean, nothing against those guys—they are my friends and I love them—but there are things he can do with this band that he could never do with Pavement.”
I ask her how Malkmus has changed since she first met him more than a decade ago.
“He’s less hyper, which is good,” she says. “He thinks harder about melody and he’s not as much of a screamer as he was. Still, while he might seem mellow on the surface, underneath he is still a spazz.”
Bolme points out that Malkmus basically writes two kinds of songs for the Jicks: long, complicated guitar-heavy “jams” and simpler, catchier “pop songs.” The first Jicks album emphasized the latter, while the three that came after—Pig Lib, Face the Truth and Real Emotional Trash—tilted towards the former. As such, the Jicks seem to draw two different and somewhat mutually exclusive audiences.
“The people who like the jams also like the poppy stuff,” she says. “But the pop song fans don’t like the jams.” Count me among the pop-loving camp. I think I speak for the silent majority when I say: Don’t bore us, get to the chorus.
Though this is likely said every time Malkmus releases an album, his new one, the Beck-produced Mirror Traffic, is arguably his strongest set of songs since Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain or at the very least his self-titled 2001 solo debut. And even if there is no “Cut Your Hair” or “Jenny & the Ess Dawg,” it hardly matters anymore. In the time of Ke$ha and Katy Perry, in the post-empire era of the music-industrial complex, when radio has become the horse-drawn carriage of the Information Age, songs no longer “mean a lot when songs are bought.”
It’s a few hours later and I am sipping beers with Mike Clark at the Record Room, a Portland record store specializing in vinyl with a license to sell choice craft beers. Clark is thinner than your average heterosexual 41-year-old (he and his wife are vegan), with close-cropped hair and an unerring soft-spoken politeness. We talk about how we both paid good money for the new R.E.M. album and have already stopped listening to it. Which we both agree is sad, but inevitable. I ask him about how he came to be a Jick.
“After the first album was recorded, they were looking for a second guitarist/keyboard player for touring the record,” he says. “So, I learned all the songs and practiced so hard, but at the audition we just wound up playing Creedence and Dylan songs.”
The results of the audition were inconclusive.
“I kept telling people that I think I’m in the Jicks,” he says. “But I didn’t know for sure until I read the press release on Pitchfork.”
Talk soon turns to Mirror Traffic. He says that Janet Weiss, drawing on her extensive experience with Sleater-Kinney, insisted that every band’s fifth album should be an occasion for “wacky reinvention.”
Because all the previous Jicks albums were self-produced, it was agreed that they should bring in a name producer for the new one. There was brief talk of hiring James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem, but he was tied up with LCD’s swan song album and tour. Also considered was longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, who helmed Pavement’s final album, Terror Twilight, but he was busy working on Radiohead’s The King of Limbs.
At some point, Malkmus mentioned to his bandmates that Beck had expressed an interest in producing him, and it was quickly agreed all around that this was the way to go. Knowing that the Pavement reunion tour would eat up the bulk of 2010, Malkmus wanted to get the new Jicks album in the can before hitting the road with his former band. Like Bolme, Clark privately had some reservations about the Pavement reunion—after all, it was a bit like sending your wife on a road trip with her old boyfriend.
“My one fear was that fewer people would come out to see the Jicks afterwards,” he says. “All those people who discovered Pavement after the fact and figured the only chance they were going to get to see Malkmus perform was a Jicks show, and now [after the reunion tour] they would feel like they’ve checked off that box.”
Clark took in four or five Pavement shows, and even crashed one of their rehearsals.
“Stephen told me that his one regret was not writing more complicated guitar parts for Pavement songs, because I think he was a little bored,” says Clark. “I was impressed with how gracefully he handled the reunion. I never got the feeling he was trying to be 22 again or what he was doing was somehow negating the Jicks. And it wasn’t even his idea. It was more his booking agent and the fact that [Bob] Nastanovich was broke and had loan sharks after him.”
In January of 2010, Malkmus and the Jicks started work on Mirror Traffic at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles with Beck behind the board. (Clark says he had met Beck back in the early ’90s when his old band, a surf instrumental outfit called, amusingly enough, Underpants Machine shared a bill in Olympia, WA, shortly before “Loser” broke big.)
“Occasionally you would see him dancing in the control room, and then we knew we were onto something,” says Clark.
A day later, I am sitting with Malkmus at a favorite beer-and-burger joint near his home, which he’d prefer I not name. Malkmus is sporting slept-in hair, beat-to-fuck tennis shoes and a threadbare V-neck sweater. He arrived in a lived-in Jetta with ancient plates. Talk soon turns to Beck.
“He called me a couple years ago and said, ‘I’m a producer now’—this was around the time he was working on that album with Serge Gainsbourg’s daughter—‘I’ll do your next record,’” says Malkmus. “I knew him from the alt-rock era—we did Lollapalooza together—and he and I always got along fine. He’s a real down-to-earth guy.”
Malkmus mentions as an aside that the reason Beck is focusing his attention on producing other artists is because he is no longer able to tour due to a repetitive stress back injury.
“Some people have the constitution for it and others don’t,” he says. “Guys like Dave Grohl can tour all the time, but a guy like Kurt Cobain could not.”
Asked about the poppier vibe of the new album, Malkmus acknowledges that the last three Jicks albums were “more rocking, angular and weird,” and that by contrast the new album is much more song-oriented.
“I wasn’t going to play a lot of gratuitous solos; I did that for a few records and I was tired of that,” he says. “I guess I just sort of figured out that what I could give the Earth is melodies that move in different directions than most. But writing songs is a lot harder than just plugging in, hitting record and playing guitar. Having said that, I can’t write songs like Taylor Swift; someone like me can’t write songs like that convincingly. I can’t just write four-chord songs anymore; I just know too much.”
Asked about the title of the new album, Malkmus says he wanted something that evoked a decadent L.A. party scene—the mirror in question would be used for cutting out lines of coke and the traffic would, presumably, be a line of Hollywood debutantes with one foot in the grave.
“I’m picturing a chick staring at her infinite mirror cocaine paranoia,” he says. “Originally I wanted to call it Madonna in Love—which is ironic because she strikes me as a person who is incapable of falling in love; I don’t think a narcissist can ever fall in love with someone other than themselves—but nobody else liked that one. Then I wanted to call it L.A. Guns because we recorded in L.A. and utilized some hired guns [Farmer Dave, formerly of the Beachwood Sparks, contributes some lovely pedal steel to the album; and a French horn player was brought in for “No One Is As I Be”]. But Matador was like, ‘People don’t name their albums after other bands,’ and I was asking for a lawsuit. Apparently there was a band called Pump that sued Aerosmith for calling their album Pump.”
Talk segues to Vampire Weekend getting sued by the blonde wearing the tapioca Lacoste shirt in the vintage ’80s Polaroid that comprises the cover of Contra.
“Before I even heard the music, I knew they were going to be successful,” says Malkmus. “They looked sort of like an uptown Strokes, like privileged guys who don’t need to be doing this—which is what people used to say about Pavement.”
Stephen Malkmus still does the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink (“but that’s just because I hate pencils”), but these days he’s more excited about the Scrabble app on his iPhone. I ask him if he uses the same muscles for songwriting as he does for Scrabble and crossword puzzles. “Songwriting is harder and more spiritual, and crossword puzzles are more intellectual,” he says. “As for what songs mean, they’re just words. Nobody knows what they mean.”
There are two prevailing schools of thought about Malkmus’ prowess as a songwriter. The first holds that Malkmus has a well-earned rep as indie-rock’s great wit, a wry observer of the exigencies of white upper middle class privilege, a Gen X icon for people who still read books and blow their disposable income on obscure vinyl pressings of second- and third-tier Krautrock bands.
The second holds he’s just making it up as he goes along, that his song lyrics are nothing more than stream-of-consciousness babble, inside jokes and stoner logic, and that his true thoughts and emotions remain forever walled off behind a smirking ironic remove. I ask him if he thinks his songs really “mean a lot,” or are they mostly just words with the right vowel sounds to carry the melody?
“To me, rock lyrics are projection, a revenge fantasy, a fantastical pose, an imagined victory,” he says. “For me, it’s what can I get over on the world, and sometimes it’s just joking around. Humor is important, really important. It’s the only inroad to the mainstream that someone like me could make.”
I ask him to confirm or deny the rumor that the reason Pavement reunited was because Bob Nastanovich was bankrupt and addicted to crack. False, he says. He does have some horse-betting debts, but he’s happily married and just bought a house in Iowa. As for the crack thing? Not so much.
“He hates cocaine; he’s never even tried it,” he says, adding cryptically, “There are two people in Pavement who have never even tried it. I’m not going to say who, but he could be in the room.”
As for the Pavement tour being a big cash cow, Malkmus claims to not even know how much his cut was, and either way he hasn’t spent a dime of it to date. Likewise, royalties from Pavement album sales are modest and split five ways.
“I’ve never seen any money from record sales in 13 years beyond the recording advance,” he says. “These days, bands make money touring, not selling records, unless your song gets used in a TV ad. And in the Jicks, on a good year, each guy makes about as much as a guy working in a coffee shop.”
Life on the road during the Pavement reunion, he says, was a lot cushier than the typical Jicks tour.
“It came at a good time for me, personally,” he says. “And it was a lot easier than touring the solo thing, which is a lot more Darwinian. You have to take an ego punch, but it was having people do things for you. I had a guitar tech. I didn’t have to do interviews.”
I wonder out loud why Pavement didn’t record any new music for the reunion tour.
“I just couldn’t put my heart into it, personally,” he says, wearily.
From there I ask him if he thought agreeing to the reunion tour was somehow an admission of the failure of his solo career, or would be perceived that way.
“I never thought about it that way,” he says. “But in the end, that’s Matador’s problem, not mine.”
I ask him why, some 10 years after, Pavement can sell out several-thousand capacity amphitheaters despite a hefty ticket price, while the Jicks play rooms a fraction of the size, for a fraction of the price. His response boils down to: What else did you expect? This is the standard downwardly mobile trajectory of a golden indie-rock career in its second decade. Eventually, your audience grows up, and out of you—or at least out of buying albums and going to shows. Now they go to restaurants. They have kids and mortgages and middle-aged crises to worry about. Plus, there’s more competition these days—music scene’s crazy, bands start up each and every day.
“Young people these days are finding their own bands to identify with,” he says. “I don’t think they are necessarily looking for someone our age.”
The somewhat shocking news that Malkmus and family are breaking up with Portland and moving to Germany has been weighing on my mind for the duration of my stay. What does that even mean, I keep asking myself. Why would anyone leave all this behind? The chill climes year-round, the good coffee on every corner, the record stores that sell microbrews, the lesbian bookstores, the indie-rock softball league, the abundance of skunky medical marijuana, the moody S.A.D.-ness of those moody, watercolor skies. He’s dug in here, with a wife and two kids and a fat crib on the right side of the tracks. He’s landed gentry. His frickin’ band lives here! I can’t think of a better place for a guy like Malkmus to grow old and run out the clock. This is the place, after all, where young people go to retire.
On my last night at the Jupiter, a kitschy old-school motor lodge turned rocker-friendly boutique hotel, I bolt upright at 3 a.m., shaken from sleep by this troubling thought: He’s cutting bait, dissolving the Jicks, and retiring from the music business. Mirror Traffic will be his swan song, he just hasn’t formally announced it yet. The next day at breakfast, I ask him as much. “No, no, we’re still going to work on new stuff,” he says. “I have such a backlog of new stuff that I’m excited about. I’m just not sure where we will go after Berlin.”
Well, we’ll always have Portlandia. Achtung, baby.