Stephen Malkmus On The Challenge Of Playing Acoustically And Pavement's Reunion

Mar 11, 2020
Originally published on March 11, 2020 5:18 pm

As rockers enter middle age, is there a graceful way for their music to reflect that same transition? It's a question that Stephen Malkmus has been trying to answer on a string of recent solo albums.

Malkmus is still best known as the lead singer of the hugely influential '90s underground rock band Pavement, whose slacker and anti-establishment vibe matched the Generation X zeitgeist. Now, nearly three decades later, Malkmus is 52 and making music at a faster pace than ever, although he's less interested in capturing the attitude of a generation. Over the past few years, he has experimented in a number of different genres; his latest album, Traditional Techniques, finds him exploring folk music.

"It was in the back of my mind, always, that I might want to have some rules about making a record," he says. "I was always curious about how my work would change if I was playing quieter and singing lower."

NPR's Ailsa Chang spoke to Stephen Malkmus about taking on the challenge of playing quiet acoustic music after decades in heavier rock, how his anxiety about the future has changed as he's aged and playing with Pavement again for the first time in 10 years. Listen in the player above and read on for highlights of the interview.

YouTube


Interview Highlights

On playing quiet folk after a career in heavier rock music

If you're used to high volume, when you're in a totally soundproof room and everybody's playing a standup bass — it's not a particularly loud instrument without amplification, so it brings you down to a different environment. It's almost scary, the naked quiet. We're used to piling on lots of instruments and sounds to overwhelm.

On remaining relevant as a musician (and what that even means)

I grew up in the '80s when all the '70s pop stars were chasing the technology and pop parameters of that era. I wasn't usually very into the end results. It's not [about being] relevant as a musician, it's [about staying] relevant to younger people. If you talk to musicians, I don't think it's pathetic that they would say they want everyone of all ages to be at their shows. I think that would be nicer than to only have people of your generation there; I think that's more healthy.

On returning to the music that he wrote in his 20s and reuniting with Pavement at this year's Primavera Sound festival

It feels really exciting to get back up on that stage. There's this signature chimey guitar thing on one of our songs, called "Grounded" and I'm hoping I'm going to play that and it's going to go "dinga-dinga-dinga-ding," and then everyone's ears are going to prick up, even people who have never heard us. It's going to be like this clarion call. Then the next 50 minutes will pass, or hour, and we won't screw up too badly.

I can't deny that I would like to keep the Pavement dialogue in people's minds because we put in a lot of labor into it and a lot of love. So if we don't play or don't talk about it, it will be there but maybe it can be brought in context better.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
YouTube

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A lot of rock music is made by young people about being young. But as rockers enter middle age, is there a graceful way for their music to age? Stephen Malkmus made his name as the frontman for the band Pavement, which he started in his 20s. Their slacker anti-establishment vibe was an influential part of the underground '90s rock scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOLD SOUNDZ")

PAVEMENT: (Singing) So drunk in the August sun. And you're the kind of girl I like because you're empty and I'm empty. And you can never quarantine the past.

CHANG: Now, nearly three decades later, Malkmus is 52, still making music as a middle-aged dad. And I spoke to him recently about his relationship with his earlier work just as he's releasing his newest album, "Traditional Techniques." It's essentially a folk record, and it explores a much softer sound than any of his albums with Pavement.

STEPHEN MALKMUS: I was always curious about how my work would change if I, you know, was playing quieter and singing lower.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CASH UP")

MALKMUS: (Singing) Cash up to what you know.

CHANG: What were the challenges of trying to adjust to acoustic as someone who's spent a lot of time on heavier rock music?

MALKMUS: Well, for one thing, it just sounds really quiet when you're playing. If you're used to...

CHANG: (Laughter) You're not used to it.

MALKMUS: Yeah, if you're used to high volume, I mean, when you're in a totally soundproof room and everybody's just playing stand-up bass, it's not a particularly loud instrument without amplification. So it kind of brings you down to a different environment, almost scary.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CASH UP")

MALKMUS: (Singing) Cash up to what you know to be self-evidently true in your heart and your soul.

CHANG: What's scary about quiet to you?

MALKMUS: Well, I mean, I have a daughter. She always talks, you know, when you're in a social situation, you know, what I mean, she's like - can't handle the silence.

CHANG: She feels the silence is - yeah.

MALKMUS: Yeah. I think, you know, right now I'm filling the space even though I have nothing to say.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: You have lots to say.

MALKMUS: So, you know, there's just - in a social situation, it can almost be like a gun fight or something, like, who's going to pull their trigger first.

CHANG: Oh, interesting.

MALKMUS: And in music, you know, you - there's space. And then you kind of - if you're in a self-conscious feedback loop, then, you know, you just start caving in.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHEN MALKMUS' "BRAINWASHED")

CHANG: Let me ask you, what is it like writing music as a dad now? Do your kids think your music is cool?

MALKMUS: Yeah, like, basically. They don't listen to it, but...

CHANG: Oh, they don't?

MALKMUS: No because especially now that they're older, I mean, I could...

CHANG: How old are they now?

MALKMUS: Fourteen and 12. I mean, they like their own music, you know what I mean?

CHANG: But do they ever try to tell you what kind of music they think is cool and therefore what you should write as a musician?

MALKMUS: Not really, but they wouldn't want me to write a R&B hip-hop song. I think that they know that that would be cringey (ph), I guess she would say (laughter).

CHANG: Right.

MALKMUS: So they - yeah, they - stay in your lane, Dad, that kind of stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF STEPHEN MALKMUS' "BRAINWASHED")

CHANG: Well, I bring this up because I want to talk about your years when you were in Pavement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CUT YOUR HAIR")

PAVEMENT: (Vocalizing).

CHANG: How much of yourself today still identifies with your 20-something-year-old self?

MALKMUS: It's probably in there always. And I certainly - like, when I have people from my generation or my age group, you know, like we do have a certain - one of my friends calls it Gen-X tranquility or a guy on the Internet - there's something that, like, in our sense of humor that I, like, recognize it when I haven't been around it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CUT YOUR HAIR")

PAVEMENT: (Singing) Music scene is crazy. Bands start up each and every day. I saw another one just the other day, a special new band.

CHANG: So Pavement's going to be playing together for the first time in like - what? - 10 years. How does it feel?

MALKMUS: Well, it feels really exciting to get back up on that stage. You know, we're playing at a festival in Spain. That's all that's planned for. But, you know, I'm hoping, you know, that - there is this kind of signature chiming (ph) guitar thing on one of our songs called "Grounded."

(SOUNDBITE OF PAVEMENT'S "GROUNDED")

MALKMUS: And I'm just - I'm hoping I'm just going to play that. And it's going to go ding-a-ding-a-ding-a-ding (ph), and then everyone's ears are going to prick up, even people who never heard us. It's going to be like this clarion call, you know.

CHANG: I love it.

MALKMUS: Then the next 50 minutes will pass or hour, and then we won't screw up too badly. You know what I mean?

CHANG: Are you nervous about screwing up possibly?

MALKMUS: Yeah. I mean, it won't really hit me until five minutes before we play, but - because I have a lot of other stuff to be worried about, as we all do.

CHANG: Good. You can compartmentalize.

MALKMUS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAVEMENT'S "GROUNDED")

CHANG: So why did you guys decide to reunite?

MALKMUS: I can't deny that, you know, I would like to keep the Pavement dialogue in people's minds because we put a lot of labor into it and a lot of love. And so if we don't play or, like, talk about it then...

CHANG: You're afraid it will go away.

MALKMUS: Well, it will be there, but maybe it can be brought in context better, you know.

CHANG: One of your most famous Pavement songs, range life, it has a chorus that goes, if I could settle down, then I would settle down.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RANGE LIFE")

PAVEMENT: (Singing) I want a range life. If I could settle down, if I could settle down, then I would settle down.

CHANG: Do you feel like that's what happened to you? I mean, have you settled down?

MALKMUS: I mean, I have a family. And I live in the same town for many years. So that's a version of settling down. There's other ways that I'm unsettled.

CHANG: In what ways?

MALKMUS: Settling down in a certain way to me means that you're done (laughter).

CHANG: And you don't feel that way.

MALKMUS: You know, or you're just like, OK, I'm going to live in this town. And I'm going to live to be 77.5 five years old. And the general anxiety, the environment, the economy, my children's future...

CHANG: Yeah.

MALKMUS: ...That stuff, you know, it doesn't feel settled.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RANGE LIFE")

PAVEMENT: (Singing) Over the turnstile turn out in the traffic. There's ways of living. It's the way I'm living. Right or wrong, it's all that I can do. And I wouldn't want to let you be.

CHANG: Stephen Malkmus has a new solo album out this month. It's called "Traditional Techniques." Thank you very much for joining us today. This was a lot of fun.

MALKMUS: Oh, my pleasure. Nice talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RANGE LIFE")

PAVEMENT: (Singing) If I could settle down, then I would settle down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.