A Pavement Interview: Terror Twilight, Radiohead, & Going Overground
, September 21st, 2009 11:19
As Pavement announce their reunion, Rock's Backpages and the Quietus revisit Barney Hoskyns' 1999 feature, written during the recording of final album Terror Twilight
NOBODY COULD accuse Pavement of being rock archetypes. Take the group's frontman Stephen Malkmus, who spends much of his spare time flyfishing virgin rivers and scaling 18,000-foot mountains in America's Pacific northwest. Or guitarist Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg, who, when he isn't tending his meticulously manicured garden in Berkeley, California, is usually to be found on one of the Bay Area's many golf courses.
How about drummer Steve West, a heavily-bearded man in Blundstone boots who breeds dachshunds (40 of them, at latest head-count) on his eight-acre property in rural Virginia. Or bassist Mark Ibold, who resides in Manhattan and - in indie-rock circles, at least - is a cook of legendary repute.
Not oddball enough for you? Then meet utility player Bob Nastanovich - the band's second drummer, Moog synthesist, and crowd-stirring MC. Bob, it transpires, is a bloke who devotes the major part of his non-Pavement life - a part threatening to overtake Pavement itself - to a pair of racehorses he owns in Louisville, Kentucky. "Actually, we co-own one of them," points out Steve Malkmus. "He's called Speedy Service. He won his first race last week in Ohio."
Could Slash and Axl have claimed as much? Could Duff McKagan have whipped up an omelette aux fine herbes, or Izzy Stradlin nurtured a nasturtium? Did Matt Sorum race thoroughbreds at Saratoga Springs?
What, you ask, does any of this have to do with Pavement's being The Last Great American Indie Band, heirs to the noble tradition of lo-fidelity art-rock established three decades ago by The Velvet Underground?
More, perhaps, than you'd think. At least a part of the point of Pavement is that its members - not counting original drummer Gary Young, a fortysomething Yes freak whose alcoholic antics led to his early departure - have never fallen afoul of rock's insidious mythologies. They've never worn leather trousers or been habitual drug abusers. They've tended to look outside the group, as well as inside it, for artistic inspiration. They've maintained their working relationship while living thousands of miles apart from each other. And they've made some remarkable rock'n'roll records that completely transcend - as well as critique - rock'n'roll. (Ask Blur, who cited Pavement as a key influence on their Britpop-jettisoning 1997 album Blur.)
For ten years, Pavement have trodden their own whimsical path, part of the indie world but also apart from it. From their scratchy turn-of-the-decade EPs on Treble Kicker and Drag City to 1997's playfully mellow Brighten The Corners, the quintet have made messy, ironic records shot through with something more biting and poignant. Clever-clogs popsters who mask the aching beauty of their songs with half-assed arrangements, they've been a beacon of ironic intelligence in a sea of self-deluded '90s exhibitionists.
The one thing that's held Pavement back all this time is a certain stubborn unwillingness to make their Lou Reed-meets-the Fall sound a mite friendlier to the world at large. And that's where a certain young producer du jour enters our story.
East 12th Street, New York City, November 1998. In the dim, reddish-brown light of the RPM recording studio, one can just make out the slender figure of Steve Malkmus, bent over a red Gibson guitar and drawling such extemporaneous lines as "I wear Spandex pants coz my girlfriend says they make me look a fox" and "Architecture students are the worst people to party with". Something about Malkmus suggests that the Spandex claim is a bare-faced lie, or at least an ironic reference to a rock demographic that has yet to embrace his music.
Peer a little harder into the room's womblike interior and other figures begin to emerge. Tucked away at the back is Steve West. To one side of his drum kit sit Mark Ibold and Scott Kannberg. None of these men betray much emotion at the laconic non sequiturs of Malkmus' guide vocals: this is how he has always worked in the studio, allowing unedited thoughts and images to flow from his consciousness:
"Do not fuck with Indians when you have killed their forefathers too..."
"Hey, gonzo journalism went out with the wheel, I know it did..."
The track Pavement are working on this afternoon is called 'The Hexx', and it's a big, slow-building epic, a song with which they opened many of the shows on their last tour. Set to be a centrepiece of Terror Twilight, the band's fifth album proper, it's unlike anything they've recorded before - a song full of a sense of dread that belies Malkmus' off-the-cuff lyrics.
This may or may not have anything to do with the young man presently resting his legs on the mixing desk and urging the band not to "get too Cars" on the song's bridge. In an earlier rock era, Nigel Godrich might have been a spotty engineer in faded denim, serving his apprencticeship under a Mutt Lange or a Roy Thomas Baker. In the late 1990s, however, he is thehot producer, a hip wunderBrit in trainers with a c.v. that already boasts Radiohead's OK Computer and Beck's Mutations among its stellar credits. A long-time Pavement admirer, Godrich expressed interest in producing the indie-rock icons after running into Lawrence Bell, majordomo of the band's British label Domino, at a Sonic Youth gig.
"I got a message from Lawrence saying Nigel was a big fan and did the Radiohead album," Malkmus will tell me later. "And then I found out that Beck, my one rock star friend besides Justine Frischmann, was doing a record with him. And it was just this weird thing where Beck said, You'd really like Nigel, he does a really good job, and he's fast and all this. And so it just sort of grew from that." Godrich is listening hard to 'The Hexx's' mournful circular riff, searching for ways to tighten the Pavement sound and coax out the band's strengths. When Malkmus goes off on an absurd tangent about beer and cheese and L.A.'s Belage Hotel, Godrich stops the track. Malkmus reminds Godrich that he'll finish the lyrics properly when they mix the album in London.
"Isn't it a bit too fucking much, though?" asks Godrich, who is worried that Malkmus' meandering ad-libs will affect what the others are playing.
With the maturity of the musician who has turned 30, Malkmus agrees that it probably is a bit too fucking much.
"We'd never had a producer really, you know, pushing us or anything," says Scott Kannberg, the quiet guitarist who formed Pavement a decade ago with Malkmus (and who has also managed the group since its inception). "Nigel will kind of say, ‘That's not very good'. Bryce Goggin did that a little bit on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and Wowee Zowee, where he'd say, ‘That doesn't sound in tune' or whatever, but Mitch Easter on Brighten The Corners just recorded us. With Nigel we were like, Yeah, okay, whatever. He's pretty cool. I think he's a little overworked these days. He was getting phone calls from, like, U2 and Red Hot Chili Peppers while he was in the studio with us." Kannberg says the group often ribs Godrich about Natalie Imbruglia, with whom the producer was romantically linked after he'd worked on her multi-platinum Left of the Middle album. There's also the little matter of the hideous 1979 Nigel Olsson album sleeve that's propped up on the mixing desk, defaced with Fall-esque graffiti like ‘GLAM RAQUET' and ‘POSH THE SECRET WEAPON'. Teasing aside, however, Pavement's decision to work with the Radiohead kid - and to record in the pricey RPM studio, where Godrich mixed seven tracks on R.E.M.'s Up - is a gauge of the seriousness with which they're taking this album. (Rumours have been circulating that Terror Twilight may be Pavement's last, of which more later.)
"It was kind of a last-moment thing," says Malkmus in a blank, affectless tone that sounds like MTV's Butthead crossed with a Whit Stillman preppie. "We didn't really know what we were going to do, as usual. We tried to make the record at Sonic Youth's home studio, but for us it was just too hard to get used to. And Nigel wanted to get into a proper studio, so we were like, OK, it's a little expensive for us, but if you want it, it's cool. There'll be some OK Computer tricks on the record, probably. No matter what, Nigel wants to make a good album and, like, he wants to keep a good track record. Obviously he's doing pretty good with the Beck record and Radiohead and Natalie Imbruglia. He listens back to, like, Wowee Zowee and he's really into that record, and he's like, fuck, what am I doing, are we doing as good as that? He's worried about that himself."
It's difficult to tell how Malkmus is feeling about the album at this stage. The man once described by Courtney Love as "the Grace Kelly of rock", and by others as "the American Jarvis Cocker", is a dry, circumspect chap at the best of times. A flannel-shirted intellectual whose Unlikely Sex Symbol™ status was confirmed once and for all by rumours of an affair with Elastica's Justine Frischmann, he looks mildly stressed by the tight deadline Pavement have set themselves to finish recording at RPM. "I mean, it's all gonna work," he says, slightly unconvincingly. "This week it'll all be done. I think it's normal that it takes a band this long to do its tracks."
"One of the biggest misconceptions about Pavement is that we resist popularity," Bob Nastanovich said when Brighten the Corners came out two years ago. "And that's just not true. Stephen's just a worrier, he spends too much time obsessing over the imperfections."
Given the shambling and amateurish quality of much Pavement music, some would say that perfection was the last thing on Stephen Malkmus' mind. Avatars of the American "lo-fi" sound that blossomed in the early '90s, Pavement - along with Sebadoh, Guided By Voices et al. - were a nerdy,too-smart- for-their-own-good riposte to the beefy bluster of Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and Stone Temple Pilots, at all of whom Malkmus has taken good-natured swipes in his time.
For Pavement, grunge - like too much rock music - was predicated on bad faith, a kind of bogus primalism, something Malkmus' ironic, unheroic songs actively sought to undermine. Listening to the group's first three albums (1992's Slanted And Enchanted, 1994's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, 1995's Wowee Zowee), it was clear they were simply too bright to buy into rock's posturing, a band who made no bones about being wimpy suburban intellectuals but whose droll intelligence transformed their songs into radical deconstructions of rock tropes.
"We came out of indie rock and we're always gonna be on that path," says Malkmus. "I mean, whatever soul you have being a suburban kid like us, what can you do that's right that way? Because we're not Black Sabbath, we're not working-class heroes and we can't get away with that. Luckily we're not hanging out at Met Bar, either - we're not New York City hipsters or anything - so that's our earthiness."
The surprising thing about Pavement's music is that, for all its knowing, sardonic archness, there's plenty of pain and sadness in it too. Indeed, the key to the beauty of songs like 'Here' (Slanted and Enchanted, 1992), 'Silence Kid' (Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, 1994), 'Father To A Sister Of Thought' (Wowee Zowee, 1995), and 'Type Slowly' (Brighten the Corners, 1997) lies precisely in their playful tussle between feeling and cleverness.
Pavement's blend of high IQ and fuzzy guitars shares a certain detached quality with Beck and even vintage De La Soul. Like Beck, Malkmus conveys emotion in the very way he cuts through rock's chest-beating bravado. Thin and unmusical as it is, his Barney Sumner-goes-slacker voice is one of the defining sounds of Amerindie pop.
"Just after Crooked Rain, there was kind of this irony thing that was getting thrown our way, and that was the way that we dealt with it, I guess," Malkmus says. "And, like, British people really appreciate irony in a certain way. Cheekiness is cool in England somehow. Robbie Williams is alright for a pop star - he's cheeky or just having a laugh or something. I think British people relate to that in our music: they like that we try to be honest about things and we're not full of shit."
To what extent does Malkmus think people pick up on his humour, or on the cultural references with which he peppers his lyrics?
"I don't mind if they don't," he says. "I've never been much of a lyric man, to tell you the truth. I listen to the music first, and if some lyrics are good, well, that's OK. It's first of all the cadences that are most important, and if you're not talking about pop culture in a dumb way or being too like The Verve or something that's too pretentious, then it's cool with me. And if people misunderstand the lyrics, that's good too, I guess. [Adopts hilariously fey English accent:] ‘We want people to make their own meanings...'"
Given that Pavement are so different from Radiohead, could Malkmus ever imagine himself singing like Thom Yorke?
"Well, it's not really in that sphere. I mean, that's the way he does it: he feels his emotions that way. Our thing is not really vocally driven until the last moment. I mean, I like singing, it's kinda fun, but I have to be in the right mood. We have a style of singing that's sort of unique. I hear hints of it in some Beck songs. I'm sure he's listened to us. It comes around, but you can't really copy it, and I'm glad about that."
Does he feel an affinity with Beck?
"Yeah, at least on the spectrum of, like, where we fit in. I would say that that would be someone who does cool stuff, and that I would root for in the pop sweepstakes. He's kind of on a roll now, and he's really great. As Justine says, he's got the muse right now, and it's all going really pretty excellently."
St. John's Wood, London, December 1998: the world-famous RAK Studios, its corridors haunted by the piteous ghosts of 80s pop (Johnny Hates Jazz, the Thompson Twins, Curiosity Killed The Cat). In the waiting room, an unassuming gent in a blue suit flips through The Sun and occasionally glances at Sky Sports News on the telly in the corner. It takes a little while before it registers that the man is in fact RAK owner Mickie Most.
Upstairs in Studio 2, Pavement are hunkered down in a cramped control room with Nigel Godrich and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, the latter having shown up on this damp grey afternoon to add some bluesy harp to two tracks (working titles: 'Billie' and 'Ground Beef Heart', the latter subsequently renamed 'Platform Blues'). Things aren't going as fast as planned: the band were supposed to have finished all recording by this point, and now Jonny and Nigel are taking off for Camden Town's Rock Shop to buy a better harmonica...
Turns out that Malkmus, his slim torso covered by a monstrous Holsten Export T-shirt ("I ran out of clothes"), hasn't even recorded his vocals yet. "We started taking some passes through things," he says of his tracks. "It looks like we'll still have to mix some tunes in January. We did twelve days in New York, and that went as it did, and now we're kind of here, and it's going a little bit slower than we imagined."
The previous day I'd met up with Malkmus, Kannberg, and Ibold in a cafe in Notting Hill Gate. "We were a little stressed, but now we're mellow," Malkmus said by way of greeting. He and Ibold had been buying food for a big Thanksgiving dinner at Justine Frischmann's nearby flat. (Malkmus has always maintained that his friendship with the Elastica beauty is strictly Platonic, and his story hasn't changed.) As he laid into a croque monsieur, I asked him what difference the whole Blur/Elastica endorsement of Pavement made to them three years ago.
"Maybe in England it made a little difference or something. Maybe some people that wouldn't normally listen to our band... maybe it made it slightly more fashionable. In America, people don't really care about that. I don't think it really got mentioned that often. It just kind of went by the wayside. Anyway, I'm sure Blur's on to new influences on their new record."
Brighten the Corners was a lot more open and accessible than the dense, obtuse Wowee Zowee. How different is the new album likely to sound?
Malkmus: "Hard to say. It's got some really weird moments that are like heavy rock. I had some pop tunes - like, our version of pop tunes, that probably are too weird to be really pop - that didn't really go right in New York. And so we're kind of doing that now, trying to fill in a gap. The idea was to sort of do four hard rock tunes: y'know, bring back hard rock, or things like The Groundhogs and Captain Beefheart, show that that's a valid thing that people should listen to. And then, like, four standard mellow tunes that we can do in our sleep that sound pretty. And then four pop tunes, which are not my best forte, or something that I have trouble with. It's like different versions of 'AT+T' [Wowee Zowee] or 'Box Elder' [Slay Tracks EP] or that kind of thing. They're just kind of nice."
Ibold: "There are some tunes where the tunefulness comes in hidden pockets, and then there's like a couple where the tunefulness is... sort of a messenger bag or something!"
Malkmus: "It's a different sonic imprint, though it's the same people writing the songs. I don't know, no matter how hard we try to be different, it comes out sounding like Pavement. It's just less grungey-sounding, somehow. There's a modern psychedelic sound to some of the things. One of the things we wanted to do was riff, or at least do our riff-style thing. But riffs are tough: they're all there or they're not. You can get judgmental about it - like, are we boogieing or are we too wimpy to boogie? There's this song 'Folk Jam' that sounds sorta like an electrified version of Pentangle's 'Sweet Child'. Then there's 'Billie', which originally was going to be just a straightahead pop tune but has become acoustic and weird. And 'Ground Beef Heart', which we consider a hybrid of, like, Split-era Groundhogs and Lick My Decals-era Beefheart. And that's pretty rocking." Kannberg: "I think the album is more Pink Floyd than Radiohead. That's what I call this record: a Pink Floyd record. Just because of Nigel. And every time I say that, he gets really happy."
Ibold: "It's Slanted and Enchanted, but after somebody played Black Sabbath. The thing is, Slanted always sounded weird next to anything else on the radio, whereas the songs on this record... well, they'll still sound different to songs on the radio, but they're not going to have the problem of sounding like they're coming out of a different stereo system."
Gimme Dat Harp Boy! Jonny Greenwood has finally returned from Camden and is blowing up a storm at RAK for 'Ground Beef Heart/Platform Blues'. Bent over, his flared jeans slung low around his snakey hips, he is completely wrapped up in the track, which starts out like Led Zeppelin's 'Baby, I'm Gonna Leave You' and then cranks up into a full 70s rock blowout.
"He's blowin' the Oxford blues, man!" shouts Mark Ibold, staring down at Greenwood from the elevated control room.
Another spectator is a son of the South by the name of Robert Bingham - or ‘Bingo', as the Pavement boys know him. This debauched-looking fellow has dropped by the studio out of the blue to say hello. A novelist and a southern aristocrat who reputedly owns half of Louisville, Kentucky - home to Pavement's Nastanovich, who returned there after the New York sessions - ‘Bingo' has struck up a sufficiently close friendship with the band for them to call his Tribeca loft their Manhattan pied-a-terre. Sipping from a hip-flask of Scotch, Bingham tells Malkmus about at the party from which he is recovering. "I saw Bernardo Bertolucci and I went over and forced him to listen to Wowee Zowee," he chuckles.
On 'Billie', Jonny Greenwood plays a repetitive, Three Blind Mice-style phrase that requires several retakes. "I hope he doesn't get bummed out about doing this," mutters Mark Ibold, aware that it's not every day you get a bona fide genius to make a guest appearance on your album. Pavement needn't worry, though. "I'd do anything for this band," the Radiohead prodigy tells me when he's done. "I kind of want to have that kind of OK Computer sound," Scott Kannberg tells me afterwards. "Not the same exact sound, but the idea of just a lot of weird sounds going on. This record will be better-sounding, because the studio was a lot better, the instruments were a lot better, the takes were a lot better."
"I think it's cool that Nigel worked on the Beck record, just because of all that stuff happening on it," adds Ibold. "We definitely had the the idea of going in and doing this and coming up with extra parts or overdubs."
How much is the band looking forward to playing the new songs live?
Malkmus: "One thing that I feel - and that I know bands like Sonic Youth have felt once they've been in a career state of mind - is that having to go play old songs like 'Summer Babe' or 'Grounded' right now seems so irrelevant and so fake. When it's old songs, it just seems really dated to me. Maybe in 20 years' time, with a dwindling bank account, I might reconsider that."
Why do we hear rumours that this will be Pavement's last album?
Ibold: "Because Steve did a show with [Geraldine Fibbers guitarist] Nels Cline and mentioned something in Rolling Stone about people in the band wanting to have babies. He said that if that was what they wanted to do then we could stop playing. And since the Internet is sort of like Chinese Whispers, it gets passed along. I've had people come up to me and say, I hear you guys are breaking up." Malkmus: "I admit to being pretty fried after the Brighten the Corners tour. That could easily have gone to hanging out after that. Touring that much makes you really depressed. We're old enough that we don't have to do that. We've put in our hard days, and if we're going to keep going it can't be like that."
Is it hard to stay in touch when the band is so scattered across America - Malkmus in Portland, Kannberg in Berkeley, Ibold in New York, West and Nastanovich in the south?
Kannberg: "We all have pagers."
Ibold: "I think I talk to pretty much everyone, maybe every two months."
Malkmus: "The good side of it is probably that we look forward to seeing each other. The bad side is that bands that live together are always working on stuff together and probably get good at creating songs, like, off the cuff. The separation just puts a delay on everything you do, but maybe that makes it fresher because you don't get tired of things."
Why does "rock music" appear to be dying?
Malkmus: "I think the players aren't as good. The stakes aren't as high. People aren't shooting for as much. Seems like no one has the time to raise the level on each new record. I guess maybe Trent Reznor thinks he's doing that right now. Maybe it's just because I'm old that I don't like the new stuff as much. There are so many records coming out that you can't really focus on one person for very long. U2 tried creating an event for Pop, and they're like a big band and it didn't really wash, did it?"*
Five months later, Terror Twilight is finished and mastered, ready to swim or sink in pop's unforgiving currents. It is, moreover, the album you always knew - or at least prayed - that Pavement had up their sleeves. Hiring Nigel Godrich to shepherd it may have been a calculated risk, but it has enabled Malkmus and his sidekicks to make a record that's genuinely accessible without for a moment sacrificing their many idiosyncrasies. For anyone who ever doubted they'd find themselves walking around with Pavement songs on the brain, Terror Twilight defies you to leave 'Carrot Rope' or 'Major Leagues' or 'Spit On A Stranger' unhummed. This is pop music at its most direct and adorable.
"We're pretty pleased with the record," Malkmus tells me in early April. "Because I had this little digital four-track mixing thing at my house, I had things a lot more planned out, and if you combine that with Nigel and his meticulous ways, that was a good thing to go together because we're pretty slack musically. But he couldn't get us too uptightly tight."
Are Pavement too wimpy to boogie? 'Not if Platform Blues' is anything to go by. Can they rock out and still retain their indie-cred? 'Cream Of Gold' says an emphatic yes. Can they do sad, sincere, pretty? 'Try Ann Don't Cry'. You want Radiohead-moody? 'The Hexx' is there in all its chiming magnificence. Terror Twilight is a late-flowering masterwork.
Flashback to November '98: Malkmus hunched over his red Gibson guitar, trying out lines for 'The Hexx'. "I just love being in a band/Can't wait to go out on the road/I love riders, love beer, love cheese..."
What can a smart boy do, 'cept to sing for a rock'n'roll band?
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