“Slacker At Heart, I Guess”: Stephen Malkmus Interviewed

Leah Pritchard talks to Stephen Malkmus about new LP Mirror Traffic, The Fall, golf, softball and hanging with the horse-hunting set

Stephen Malkmus is a difficult man to read, at least in a short space of time. It’s impossible to tell at any given point whether he’s being flippant or coy – he reclines on the sofa, hands behind his head, adopts the persona of a golf fanatic to converse with a hotel guest in a tweed suit (a facade, it would seem, that he had been maintaining all day), and explains that the reason he’s moving halfway around the world is because his psychic told him to.

It is mostly likely a mixture of the two. Whilst he insists his great hope for this next album is that "it’s not just a big doodie to everyone", you can sense tension when he talks about his post-Pavement reception, especially in Europe, where people still treat them like Malkmus with a backing band, as far as he sees it. You couldn’t blame him for being a little jaded, but if any of The Jicks’ records is likely to change things, it’s Mirror Traffic – endearing self-deprecation, slacker comedy and constant catchy pop hooks in place of some of the psychedelic freak-outs from 2008’s Real Emotional Trash – it’s the closest to Pavement his solo writing has ever been.

Stephen Malkmus: Don’t tase me. Your mic looks like a taser. Don’t tase me, don’t tase me, don’t tase me.

New song?

SM: I was just going with this lobby music.

So the new record…

SM: It started maybe a year and a half ago. Pretty long and as it turns out, it’s a little bit old. Not by rock & roll terms I guess, but it’s been a while coming.

I guess bringing Jake in as the drummer, teaching someone else to play the songs took a while. What was the process behind getting Jake on board?

SM: It’s mundane, but he plays on my softball team in Portland and he’s been kind of a bro of mine. I have these friends that are probably around 10 years younger than me but they are like a little posse of dudes that like to watch sports and drink beer and also like indie rock. They’re a little bit of an outlet for me from my family life. We share some similar interests and he’s part of that group.

He was in this band called The Joggers, they’re a really good kinda mathy, Polvo-y type, Archers of Loaf, Pavementy band that was around for a while. But they broke up and I’d seen him play and I knew he was great so that was pretty easy. He just needed to say yes and I knew it was gonna work.

How serious is your softball playing?

SM: What’s that?

Your softball.

SM: What’s that? Just kidding. Well, our team is serious. We’re always up there at the top of the tables. But the competition is casual, in a certain… well, it’s casual and harsh. It’s a bar league, pubs have teams. Maybe the weekly newspaper has a team, and we do. It’s co-educational and there’s no umpires. You swing when you’re ready, type thing. There’s a casual side but within that it’s very competitive.

Does it ever get a bit gnarly without umpires?

SM: Yeah. Oh, yeah, it does. Recently our pitcher got hit in the head with a line drive. She actually had to go to the hospital, she had a minor concussion. There’s this thing called the halo rule which protects the pitcher because he’s quite close. Don’t hit the pitcher, that’s the message, or you’re out – but it wasn’t an official rule yet. The other team was standing by that, saying, ‘It’s not a rule yet! It’s not a rule yet!’

Meanwhile, our person’s like, down, almost unconscious and they’re arguing! So that was in poor taste and I’m sure they all felt bad. So when we sorted out that she needed to go to the hospital, I was like, ‘Who fucking cares if he’s safe or out, we just care about her. Don’t fight with these people about this if they’re gonna be dicks. Let them have their person go to first base. We don’t care.’ And he’s like, ‘No! It’s principle!’ Anyway, it worked out that the person was out and the cooler heads prevailed in that 15 minutes but, you know…

And it’s only in the summer, so it works out OK with touring, but I missed a game last Sunday and we have a double header on the day we’re doing a video for ‘Senator’. I’m gonna miss some of it that day.

Did you not think about doing a softball video?

SM: That’s a good idea, but I don’t know, how many people’d want to see that? With the ‘Senator’ one, these people from a show called The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, you’ve probably heard of it, they’re involved in it. There’s real movie stars involved in it… so I had to say ok. If you wanna go for that, I’m not gonna make you play softball.

You’ve mentioned that you want to write lyrics that fit in rather than jump out. Is that still the case? It seems like there are some pretty jumpy lyrics on this record.

SM: If it jumps out, it has to jump out in the right way. There’s some things that just jar. You don’t want them to melt in so much that they just sound like background nothingness. You also don’t want them to be like a dialogue, just somebody talking about their shit on top of it all. Mark E Smith, he can survive doing that. He can talk about his shit and it sounds great. His thing is a backing track, a band plodding or menacing away and he’s on top, ‘YA YA YA YA YA!’ But for me, I’m a guitar player and it’s all got to have a bit of West Coast flow.

Different words are limited too, the way I can sing them. You’d be surprised to know that certain words, you can’t sing in tune, if you’re someone like me. It’s odd. Like ‘I wanna BE! I wanna GEE!’ Not that I’m like Mr American Idol or anything. I mean, still, you want to be around the note. If you’re me.

Are you ever surprised at which lines people pick out as being provocative?

SM: Sometimes I can see, sort of. I know some things are provocative. They’re usually obvious like if I’m going to mention The Smashing Pumpkins or ‘the Senator wants a blowjob’. Other ones that people eventually like, like Trigger Cut, ‘lies and betrayals, fruit covered nails’ or something like that, I don’t know if that’s going to be good. My friends love that, I’m surprised. Obvious stuff I understand better.

To what extent did working with Beck influence this record?

SM: We sent him our demo that we were going to do no matter what. That being said, a couple songs got thrown on there that I wasn’t sure I was going to do that he really reacted to. There’s this one that’s in the middle called ‘Stick Figures In Love’. We were jamming that and it was the one and only time he actually danced in the studio.

He started almost doing some little Beck moves. We saw him moving a little bit and oh, that made us really happy, like we were teenage kids or something. Like, ‘Oh, he’s moving! He’s moving! Did you see that?’ That was cute. It was nice of him to indulge us. The fact that he liked that made me like it more and try to figure out that song in the four days.

Also some of the lyrics I freestyled and rewrote, but stuck to the originals. I’ve noticed that happens with him and Nigel, back when I worked with Nigel Godrich, I guess the producers get used to it one way that you do it. There’s a 30% chance that it was just because he was used to it and I probably could have done something better.

I think that’s just the tendency of humankind to think you’re a better artist if you say something that’s, you know, ‘meaningful’. It’s just the natural way. It pulls a chair out of the dialogue a bit if it’s coming from your subconscious or you’re just mumbling a load of bollocks. That is supposed to be worse.

There is a unique way of enjoying that though.

SM: There is, and people often complain that my lyrics are too literal! Some fans. You know, my later ones. It’s like, ‘he lost the mysterious Pavement thing’, or something. Maybe that was part of it, that I was just…

…using full sentences?

SM: Yeah, and not just using rough ideas as lyrics that weren’t even done yet. Because I didn’t have time back then. I’m not really sure. It doesn’t matter to Bob Dylan if it’s just verbal diarrhoea. Then there’s real poets like Charles Olson or Ezra Pound. Blood has been sweated over every line. There’s two different appeals, I guess.

But one last thing to say is music that’s too tidy and over-thought, I just don’t like it. I’ve found when someone’s singing with their heart, even when it’s nothing, it’s more important. If it’s not exactly something, or it’s a little bit vague, what they mean, that’s more important than… if I know somebody sweated over these lines and it’s all tight and perfect. Slacker at heart, I guess.

You used David Berman as a filter for the album title – are you still in touch with him?

SM: Not as much as I should be for how much I like him. Love him. I usually only email him for a reason, like that. As a call for help or if I need to know something somebody’s doing. I don’t really know what he’s doing, he’s a mysterious up and down. He’s up and down, you know. Hahaha.

I was curious about the song ‘Forever 28’ – is that anything to do with Berman’s ‘Self Portrait at 28’?

SM: Oh yeah! That’s weird. Maybe he was 28. I didn’t think of that, to be honest. That title was a little bit about Forever 21, the jeans place.

At this point, a distinguished-looking gentleman walks through the lobby.

SM: What’s going on?

Distinguished Looking Gentleman: I’m back.

SM: Left your clubs in your room?

DLG: I just had a massage. Getting ready for the British Open tomorrow.

SM: Yeah, it’s on at the moment, isn’t it. Are you going there?

DLG: My sister and I are guests of the committee at Royal St George’s.

SM: Oh sweet!

DLG: So we have permanent seats in the stand.

SM: That’s not bad. I’m jealous a little bit. Have a great time, man!

DLG: I just wish Tiger was playing.

SM: Yeah, he’s out for a while.

DLG: I wanted him to introduce me to some of his girlfriends.

The lift door closes.

You’re a golf fan?

SM: Hahahahaha. No way.

The ‘Forever 28’ was more about like 27, Saturn return time. It’s like a ‘time’ in people’s lives, often. The narrator in the song is this unreliable narrator guy who thinks he’s above everything but it’s just a cloak for his cluelessness and fear. Hehehe. Which is maybe how I felt at 28. I don’t know if his poem’s about that.

I hear you’re moving to Berlin next month.

SM: Our psychic said we should move to Amsterdam. I was like, no way, I don’t want to live there. Amsterdam’s expensive and there’s not so many places you can escape. You can live in the East or there’s places you can feel like you’re away from the business but I was thinking, Berlin has tons of tourists too but it’s bigger and more spread out so no, I don’t care what the psychic says, we’re not going there.

I mean, we’re just mixing things up. There’s no real reason. It’s an artsy town, it’s good for my wife. Cheap studio space.

My friend organised an art show here for your wife last year, I think.

SM: Timothy Taylor? He works there? We were staying in Mayfair, near there, for a week. Oh man, that’s a cool venue. I mean, it’s… a posh gallery. But they don’t do as well for the young artists. You’ll be walking in there and whatever, a Warhol painting will come through the door and stuff. It’s pretty crazy. They sell secondary market, a lot of big people. Philip Guston, that sort of thing.

So is your wife a painter?

SM: She’s a sculptor more, she does drawings. Ceramics and multi-media. Mixed media, I guess it’s called. All kinds of different things, paintings and drawings and sculptures.

I heard you were doing some art too.

SM: I might have done some with the kids or something.

Oh yeah, I heard it wasn’t high art.

SM: Hahaha, no. That’s true! That’s nice. It’s a big operation in a certain weird way. We went to a party at Timothy Taylor’s house. They live like… a good life. The Good Life. His wife is royalty, Lady Helen or something. Do you know who she is? Me neither. They go fox hunting and stuff, unfortunately. Yeah, you know [puts his hands behind his head]. That’s the life I lead now.

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