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Musician Stephen Malkmus Quietly Produces Critically Acclaimed Albums

  • The former Pavement frontman records at the Portland studio Hafling. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Jason Quigley for The Washington Post.

  • Stephen Malkmus in his Portland, Ore., home with Magic, his family’s puppy. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Jason Quigley for The Washington Post.

  • Musician Stephen Malkmus at home with Magic the puppy. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Jason Quigley for The Washington Post.



The Washington Post
Friday, May 25, 2018

Portland, Oregon —– One night last November, an unexpected opening act popped up at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. Stephen Malkmus, best known for fronting the 1990s indie-rock giants Pavement, took the stage without even a guitar. Malkmus, wearing a trucker’s hat and T-shirt, brought a laptop, picked up a microphone and sang an album’s worth of the songs he planned to release as his next record.

“I was blown away,” said Steve Doughton, who helped organize the event meant to kick off PICA’s exhibition of his 1997 art film, DELTA. “The album is phenomenal.”

Malkmus had created the music in his basement with Pro Tools, Ableton software and keyboards. It felt good to experiment, to move away from the guitar-driven songs that dominated his catalogue. Then he dropped the files to Matador Records. It had been more than three years since the last Malkmus record. His longtime label wasn’t thrilled to get a keyboard-based set driven by drum pads.

“They didn’t want to put it out,” said Malkmus. “Or they thought it was dumb to put it out first because it was a head-scratcher. Maybe some of my more traditional fans that know Pavement would scratch their heads.”

For some artists, a rejected record would spark an ugly standoff. As Malkmus tells this story, he’s relaxed, sitting on a puffy chair in the TV area of the basement.

His youngest daughter, 10-year-old Sunday, and her friends tiptoe, crawl and crouch around furniture. They’re spying. The family’s puppy, Magic, steals sips from a can of LaCroix on the floor.

Malkmus keeps an eye on the Trail Blazers game. It has playoff ramifications. Joe Ingles, the versatile small forward on the Utah Jazz, hits a three.

“He’s a piece of work,” says Malkmus. “He’s Australian. They call him Jingles.”

This is the first time Matador rejected anything from Malkmus. But instead of rage, the label’s dis actually inspired a name for his then-untitled electronic album: Groove Denied.

“It was probably a big deal to them, and to me it was like five minutes of kind of being pissed and then the rest was kind of pissing and moaning about it and not being pissed,” he says. “I could have just put it out myself, but I also listened to what they had to say. I was like, ‘You may know more about this than me,’ and I also always had this record.”

“This record” is Sparkle Hard, his album out on Matador this month, the one Malkmus is touring behind this summer with the Jicks, a band assembled after Pavement’s demise and now pushing 18. Sparkle Hard is also why he won’t share his basement tapes. He wants to focus on his first album since 2014.

Matador didn’t hate Groove Denied. Chris Lombardi, the label’s founder, says he definitely plans to release it. He just believed Sparkle Hard should come first.

It is all part of his mission to put Malkmus back atop the indie pedestal.

Lombardi knows what he’s up against. To the aging indie-rock intelligentsia, Malkmus, 51, is a legend, his catalogue packed with enough cheeky puns to power a Pitchfork alumni cruise. To the general public, he barely registers. His most marketable currency is a band, Pavement, that had one minor hit, Cut Your Hair, during Bill Clinton’s first term and that expired in 1999. The most recent Malkmus album, 2014’s Wig Out at Jagbags, was almost universally praised. It has also sold as many copies over its lifetime (21,000) as Taylor Swift’s Reputation moved by lunchtime last Nov. 10.

The notion that Malkmus had Sparkle Hard on reserve is startling when you consider how good it is. There’s the groove of Bike Lane, a takedown of suburbia framed around the death of Baltimore’s Freddie Gray, the country-tinged Refute, a twist on the Nashville tear-jerker that features ex-Sonic Youth singer Kim Gordon, and Middle America, a song as beautifully melancholic as anything Malkmus has ever done.

Malkmus actually wanted to cut Middle America from Sparkle Hard. It bored him, and Jicks bassist Joanna Bolme agreed. “OK, the lyrics are great, but to me, he can write that s— in his sleep,” she says.

Naturally, that’s the song Lombardi pegged as “the one we want to go out with.”

And selling Malkmus, or reintroducing him, has become his latest mission.

“The music industry has changed, listening habits have changed, and we have to kind of direct people’s attention to something truly genius,” says Lombardi. “To kind of get everybody focused on what Steve Malkmus is again, we wanted to tell the story from a bit of a safer place.”

Malkmus grew up in Stockton, Calif., about an hour south of Sacramento. The son of a conservative-leaning insurance salesman and a former schoolteacher, he excelled at tennis, picked up Aerosmith’s Night in the Ruts and the first B-52’s album at Tower Records, and played bass in a punk band called the Straw Dogs.

At the University of Virginia, Malkmus studied history (senior thesis: Inventing Tradition in America: The Country Club of Virginia) and, after his 1988 graduation, formed Pavement with his Stockton friend Scott Kannberg. Matador signed them and put out 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted, an album so acclaimed that there’s a chart on its Wikipedia page devoted to listing the publications that have ranked it one of the greatest albums of all time.

Early on, Malkmus established an aesthetic driven by spontaneity. Vocals were done in a single take. Lyrics were packed with slacker slang and obscure references. (Was that about Ad Reinhardt? A tennis serve? War?) Guitar parts were punched out almost as an afterthought. “Unrepeatable energy,” Malkmus later called it when talking about Pavement at its best.

“I can remember doing that track, Rattled by the Rush, on (1995’s) Wowee Zowee, ” says engineer Bryce Goggin. “We were mixing it and there was no guitar solo on it, and he picked up a guitar and played that guitar solo in one pass.”

Then there was the image. Other ’90s frontmen — think Eddie Vedder or Billy Corgan — delivered deadly serious dispatches with steely gazes. Malkmus wore untucked, button-down shirts and performed with his eyes half-closed. Bob Nastanovich, a UVA buddy drafted to become Pavement’s “auxiliary noisemaker,” believes his detachment was often misinterpreted.

“He was actually nervous, and the way that was portrayed was looking like he didn’t care,” says Nastanovich. “If you recall the few appearances he made on national television in the 1990s, he came off as incredibly awkward and often put forth a disastrous performance.”

Take a 1994 booking on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Pavement was set to play one of its most radio-friendly singles, Cut Your Hair.

And yet Malkmus, ignoring the blueprint laid down at rehearsal, opened the performance with a series of improvised chirps. When the song finally kicked in, he sang with his eyes partially rolled back in his head.

“I know I did not look cool,” says Malkmus. “I was just trying to play the song, probably. It feels weird up there. Jay Leno’s up there. Everybody’s acting like everyone’s normal. I’m sure basically I really did not want to do it, and I was just making myself, ‘Come on, you can do this. Please be over.’ That happens often on those types of shows. Like when Pavement played Coachella. I was like, ‘I can’t wait until this is over.’ ”

It would be over, in 1999, after which Malkmus recruited the Jicks to back him. Each record — Sparkle Hard is the seventh — has brought more critical acclaim, fewer albums sold.

“It’s kind of how we used to feel about Arrested Development, ” says actor Will Arnett, who recruited Malkmus to score his Netflix series, Flaked. “And while in some ways I’m sure it is frustrating, imagine what his life would be like if he became the Stone Temple Pilots. His legacy artistically is immense but what he obviously wanted was to have a life, a real life experience, and he was kind of, in a lot of ways, unencumbered by superstardom on the surface. He’s probably the big winner in all of this.”

Last month, during a Malkmus appearance at New York City’s Town Hall for public radio’s Live From Here, host Chris Thile gushed about one of his favorite rhymes, of “Tennyson” with “venison” in the 2011 song Lariat.

“Where did it come from?” Thile pressed.

“Well, Tennyson just comes to my mind,” Malkmus said, without a pause. “I think I like tennis a lot. I like sons. I like daughters. And then Venice. I like the town of Venice a lot. It’s both in Los Angeles and Italy. And I also love the sun. Who doesn’t? Today was a beautiful, sunny day!”

Walking around Portland, Malkmus is asked about his working method.

“I just play it, I sing into the microphone,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll imagine I’m looking at a crowd and I’ll be thinking, ‘What will I be able to say in front of a bunch of people?’ Sometimes, I’ll just do it, I won’t think of anything. I’ll have two glasses of wine and try it. Then I’ll listen back and see what I like.”

This question, of how he creates, confounds even those closest to him.

“I mean, his wife told me that she never heard him ever writing songs, but then he just seemed to have all these songs,” says Kim Gordon.

Jessica Jackson Hutchins, an artist whose work is in the Whitney and Museum of Modern Art in New York, says her attempt to understand her husband’s creative process has even led her to make peace with his longtime fantasy sports commitment. The activity used to get on her nerves. Now, she wonders if fantasy sports and crossword puzzles help free his brain to write.

“I don’t really see him working on songs,” says Hutchins. “Sometimes he walks around with his acoustic guitar and messes around with it. And he works on it downstairs, and I can hear him playing stuff and sometimes cracking himself up.”

This time around, Malkmus says he is trying to be more open, to give the people — or in this case, the press — what they want. Does he wish he could sell more records? It’s such a straight question. What he wants from Sparkle Hard is something new, whatever it is.

“I just don’t want to just put it out and have it come out for one week and have some attention for one week and do the same shows in the venues that we go,” says Malkmus. “Because that’s not fun. It gets a little boring. And I would have wanted that on the other ones, too. I’m just talking about it more. Why not just say why you’re really doing it instead of saying it’s about the art. You want to do well, you want to succeed, you want people to like you and think it’s cool music.”

Last year, in the midst of the Groove Denied dilemma, Lombardi and Matador co-president Gerard Cosloy flew out to see Malkmus to explain why they thought the electronic album would be wrong right now. Lombardi remembers Malkmus answering the door.

“Am I dropped?” he asked.

Malkmus, sitting at his kitchen table recently, laughs about the exchange. Yes, he did offer that up. But he says he wasn’t worried or concerned. Nobody’s untouchable.

“And I might as well ask first,” he says. “Make it easier for them to break up with you. Who knows what’s going on with their finances. I don’t know what Queens of the Stone Age sells. What if they gave them so much money hoping that they would be like the next Foo Fighters?”

Then he lets out one of those nasally giggles.

He loves Matador and considers Cosloy and Lombardi his friends. But if he had to go, “there’s plenty of nice labels for, like, over 50 artists.”