Stephen Malkmus: Man in the Mirror

Music Features Stephen Malkmus
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In sweltering L.A.—Hollywood, to be exact, right on the Sunset Strip—Stephen Malkmus and his band, the Jicks, are hard at work inside the hallowed, wood-paneled walls of Sunset Sound. The legendary studio is aglow with the halo of countless Gold and Platinum Records past, strewn with historic framed photos of Neil Young lounging in the control room, and young upstarts Van Halen, empty beer cans piled high at their feet as they stand smug, foil-wrapped-cucumber-deep in hit-making, Sunset Sound pixie dust. This is ground zero for classic rock ’n’ roll—the very same building where, four decades ago, Janis Joplin’s Pearl and The Doors’ L.A. Woman were slapped to glimmer-black magnetic tape, the singular point in space at which Led Zeppelin IV was completed. Listening to Malkmus and the Jicks’ juiced new album, Mirror Traffic—which critics are now hailing as an anticipated return to form—he and the band must have been feeling the mojo.

“Nah, not really,” says Malkmus. “There are also Gold Records in there from bands like Yellowcard. So much time has passed. It’s hard to feel the spirit of those [other] groups. Especially when you’re on the Sunset Strip. It’s so depressing over there,” he adds, chuckling at the unpleasant recollection. “You walk by this Psychology Is An Instrument of Death Museum. I think it’s sponsored by the Scientologists or something—some weird museum right by the [studio]. So that part of it feels kind of weird, but the Sunset Sound building itself is cool because it’s a little place. It’s pretty much the same as it’s always been. Occasionally, it would cross my mind that this was a cool place, but the combination of the neighborhood and just working so hard, being focused on what you’re doing, you kind of forget where you are—that, and just the nervousness of working with new people.”

One of the new people Malkmus is referring to is Mirror Traffic producer Beck. Pairing these two iconoclastic artists is the kind of choice that—while it might not have crossed many minds previously—seems like a no-brainer in hindsight. Ever since Beck began spitting non-sequiturs about plastic eyeballs, spray-painted vegetables and beefcake pantyhose on his breakthrough 1993 single, “Loser,” he’s been on a parallel artistic journey of sorts with Malkmus. Sure, he’s achieved a level of commercial success that has eluded the former Pavement frontman and his myriad of side and solo projects, and—from album to album—Beck has always been more of a turn-on-a-dime genre jumper, while Malkmus has essentially held his ground in a slowly unfolding evolution. Still, their will to be weird, muse-is-king attitude and open-ended lyrical whimsy—often embracing nonsense as logic-shredding Zen koan, as a means of breaking beyond the narrow constructs of language and evoking far more abstract yet immediate feelings—laid a strong foundation for their collaboration.

Given all this, does Malkmus consider Beck a kindred spirit?

“After working with him, I do,” he says. “I wasn’t really sure what it was gonna be like to be in a recording environment with him. I had a good feeling—just knowing him from touring and people he’s worked with in the past—that he was gonna be pretty cool. He’d worked with Nigel [Godrich], and we’d worked with Nigel [on Pavement’s final album, 1999’s Terror Twilight]. ... So I was pretty positive it would work well, and that we’d be on the same page.”

As a producer, Beck blends in on Mirror Traffic—to the point where, halfway through the record, he more or less vanishes from the listener’s consciousness. It’s hard to say whether this is because his and Malkmus’ approach and style are so hand-in-glove simpatico or whether Beck and his go-to engineer Darrell Thorp thought they’d best serve the songs by getting a good sound, some strong takes and otherwise staying out of the way. Perhaps it’s both.

Having not worked with a producer in years, and following an album (2008’s Real Emotional Trash) whose sessions were plagued by technical issues, Malkmus says he was mostly looking for someone to keep the pressure off him and The Jicks by making sure all the gear was working properly and ready to go. “I just didn’t want it to be an uphill battle [this time], he says. “Like, if you’re going camping and everyone brought all the camping equipment for me, so I wouldn’t forget the sleeping pad and be uncomfortable. Regardless of who it was, whether it was Beck or somebody else recording it … I just wanted it to go smoothly. I wanted to not have to worry about the details, and just play. Like, ‘Let’s just go the easy route this time, instead of the deliberately hard route,’ as far places to record or lots of question marks that will hopefully be resolved in a unique recording. There are some question marks this time, too, but they’re a different kind—they’re more artistic.”

With all the technical details taken care of by Beck and company, Malkmus and the Jicks were able to plow through the songs at breakneck speed, tracking most of Mirror Traffic in one day. “When you work at this pace,” he says, “you don’t know if it’s gonna happen—it could all just be a wash, and you throw it back if it’s not good because it’s so quick. But I think we were pretty well-rehearsed compared to some bands, or some situations I’ve been in before. We’d played the songs live, so it was pretty much a matter of trusting the engineers to get a good sound, and playing it. If they get a good sound, even something so-so can sound good. The Stones, sometimes they would have so-so takes, but they’d be vibe-y, and they’d put some maracas on them and, all of a sudden, it would sound great.”

This spontaneity lends itself well to the Jicks’ new material, which—compared to recent albums—is slightly warmer and more approachable, with songs that are generally shorter and less jammed out. But Malkmus maintains this is no “Disney pop thing.” “It’s still got twists and turns, and some bummer things are said that are not really appropriate for culture,” he says, with a laugh. “It’s not like it’s gonna make it over the rainbow. But who knows? Some people seem to think it’s got a chance to be more popular. We’ll see.”

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

So what in the hell is a Jick, anyway? While Malkmus has had plenty of fun inventing wise-assed answers to this question over the last decade (he once told Fox News’ Greg Gutfeld it was “a mix between a jerk and a dick”), it’s really just a nonsense word he and the band made up one night. Like so many of Malkmus’ turns of phrase, it’s a blank slate. This is after all, a man known—since he arrived on the scene fronting influential indie rockers Pavement in the early ’90s—for spinning verses like, “They wear you down sometimes, kids like wine / Magic Christians chew the rind / ’Cause bad girls are always bad girls / Lets let ’em in.”

As an artist, he’s always been an impressionist, leaving the details fuzzy and disconnected enough to let listeners become co-creators, adding meaning and purpose through their own interpretation, or their decision to just let it be and enjoy the mystery. “What does it mean?” Malkmus ponders on the new album’s “No One Is (As I Are Be).” Perhaps it’s the question to an answer he gave 17 years ago on Pavement’s “Range Life”—“I don’t understand what they mean, and I could really give a fuck.” Truth is, when you look in the mirror of Malkmus’ music, what you see and hear depends largely on your own point of view.

Maybe it’s because he trusts his devoted fans, or maybe it’s just more interesting—more fun to see what people can dream up. It’s an artist/audience relationship that, on a micro-level, mirrors the idea of God as collective consciousness absorbing and learning from all the various experiences of its human feelers.

Now, perhaps, is a good time to talk about hot chicks in Porsches. But, first a word from Stephen: “When things get too serious,” he says, “it’s sometimes nice to drop a little—not that anything is too serious here, but I have sort of a light disposition about life, even if I’m sometimes depressed or skeptical about things. I tend to balance that with humor. Like, ‘That’s just the way it is—we can still have some fun here in life, even if things are not perfect.’ I’m conversational that way. I like people who sometimes say things that are funny and out-of-the-blue—you don’t really expect it at that point in a conversation. You’re like, ‘What? Did she just say that?’ I appreciate that kind of mindset, and it rubs off on the records.”

Indeed it does, in Mirror Traffic lines like “I caught you streaking in your Birkenstocks,” “sit-ups are so bourgeoise” and “what the senator wants is a blow job.” Malkmus sees the humor in his music as an “icebreaker—just like it is in real life.”

Now about that hot chick in the Porsche—it’s the 1970s, and she’s cruising down the PCH, top down in a bikini, Farrah Fawcett hair all gorgeous feather light in the SoCal breeze, and she glances seductively in her rearview—Mirror Traffic.

Backstage at an early 2000s Queens of the Stone Age concert—no, wait. In a swank hotel somewhere on E 6th Street in Austin, on a debauched Friday night at SXSW, shadowy figures—VIP laminates dangling from their sweaty, sunburned necks—are railing chalky lines of off-white blow through filthy per-diem $20 spots—Mirror Traffic.

These interpretations of the new album title come from Malkmus’ friends. His, however, is decidedly more domestic: “I think of the three women in my family, busy in front of the mirror.”

Since coming up with the name, Malkmus has done a little digging on the Interwebs, only to discover that his is not the only indie-rock record this year with a mirror-referencing title. “There’s Sons and Daughters’ Mirror Mirror, and [Crystal] Antlers’ Two Way Mirror, and then there’s Mirrored by this mathy rock band from New York with the drummer from Helmet [Battles, released in 2007]. There were so many mirror titles, I just had to take shot at one myself. ... It’s not the best.”

Malkmus first revealed the name of the new record in a June post on his website, along with a few other possibilities that had been kicked around (Madonna In Love and L.A. Guns). Most interesting, though, was his comment, “This is bad form to talk about what might have been, Negative Hypnosis, but in the age of tell-all I thought I’d join in.” It’s a sentiment that, when juxtaposed with his new tune “Asking Price” (“Too busy putzing ’round the Internet / Revel in the disconnect”), leads to an interesting discussion about the impact of technology on the mythology of rock ’n’ roll.

“I grew up at a time, of course, when bands were more mysterious,” Malkmus explains. “You would know them mainly from the album cover, and—I didn’t really read Creem, but—maybe a fanzine. Now, much of that effort to be cryptic and bigger than the sum of your parts—people really see through it as just a marketing plan or something, because of the transparency of the Internet and people being a little more savvy—or cynical—about people’s intentions. To make it hard to find out about so it’s more interesting? If the music backs it up, I guess that’s fine. If it’s big-sounding, Pink Floyd-sort-of, what-does-it-all-mean teenage-bedroom bong-hit music, it might work. But, usually, the music doesn’t back up the cryptic side. But, yeah … the Internet just gives you a different relationship to the music—a more ‘I know about that, I did that, and on to the next thing’ kind of relationship.”

But is this development a pro or a con?

“I don’t know,” Malkmus says. “As far as being able to hear whatever you want all the time, that can’t necessarily be a bad thing. It’s something we can’t go back from. I think it’s nice to be able to hear all these obscure albums people put on the web, and you can just find ’em right away. Sure, it cheapens the experience a bit. It’s a little more transient, but it’s hard for me to tell because I’m from both eras, and I kind of like ’em both. I can switch back into both modes—I can play something on vinyl that I haven’t heard in a while, or I can listen to a shitty mp3 and want to buy it and experience it the other way. I’m not sure if everyone does that, but I still have that appendix in my body.”

Reflections

After Pavement’s somewhat tense split in 1999, its members scattered, falling into several different notable projects. Malkmus began recording and touring with the Jicks, guitarist Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg started Preston School of Industry; multi-instrumentalist Bob Nastanovich continued his contributions to Silver Jews; drummer Steve West shifted his focus to Marble Valley, and eventually, bassist Mark Ibold joined Sonic Youth. “I’d see [everybody],” Malkmus says of his contact with the band in the years following the breakup, “but not like where you’re going to the same hotel room every day. I didn’t really go to anyone’s house—I’d see ’em more when I was touring. When I’d go down to where they lived, people would come see me, and I would go see Sonic Youth and Preston School of Industry. But we didn’t meet in Colorado for Pavement vacation or anything like that—never got a summer house together, unfortunately.”

A damn shame indeed. But in 2010, the members of Pavement did the next best thing, finally reuniting for a world tour. It had been over a decade since their last release and—just like the Pixies and Jesus and Mary Chain before them—since the band’s demise, its popularity and influence had increased exponentially, with countless new fans who’d missed the first go-round clamoring to witness a live performance. After all the years of speculation—when is it coming? Will they or won’t they?—it must seem now, in the wake of the reunion, as if a great weight has been lifted.

“I haven’t really felt that way,” Malkmus says, his voice slightly hushed. “I mean, it’s still there. People still ask me about it. People are still interested in the band, so the weight—for good or bad—is still there.”

That said, the tour was a decidedly positive experience for Malkmus. Having had the chance to get to know his former bandmates all over again, he says he’s “glad we spent all that time together back in the ’90s. [For me], the Pavement reunion was more about hanging with the band and the crew than the audience or the love of Pavement. I think I focused more on the personal relationships. That’s when I was enjoying it most, just watching other people in the band having a good time and traveling around together in a different decade.”

With all this reflection going on, what does Malkmus think of his own journey since Pavement’s heyday? Is he much different now than he was then?

“I’m less of a dick,” Malkmus says. He laughs. “But you can say that for almost any entitled 27-year-old versus a 45-year-old, unless it’s Donald Trump or something.

“My tastes change sometimes. ... I’ll think of people I wouldn’t normally try to keep in my mind, like Don Everly. Back in Pavement, I would’ve been like, ‘Who the fuck is he? That dude from the Everly Brothers? I don’t care about him. I care about punk rock and The Fall. But, yeah, I think I’ve grown up a bit in that time, hopefully. Musically, there hasn’t been a dramatic change. I’m on the same path as I was then—feeling a little bit blessed with talent and wanting to share that, and be part of something we all are really into, on the artistic side. I wasn’t necessarily destined to do this. [With my parents], I was more destined to be a lawyer or a pencil-pusher, really. But, through music, I was able to find something that meant more to me.”

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