Stephen Malkmus On Why You Shouldn't Trust Your Taste In Your Twenties
The former Pavement frontman reflects on how his taste in music has changed over the years, and how he made his excellent new album Wig Out At Jagbags.
Stephen Malkmus is best known as the leader and primary songwriter of Pavement, one of the most beloved indie rock bands of the '90s. But he's actually spent a longer portion of his career with The Jicks, the band he formed after he ostensibly went "solo" in 2000. Wig Out At Jagbags, out on Jan. 8, is one of his best records with that band: It's just as playful and melodic as ever, but full of musical ideas – brass arrangements, soulful falsetto – that have never turned up on a Malkmus record before. BuzzFeed talked to Malkmus just before the holidays to talk about the new record, becoming a better singer, and how he's changed – or has not changed – over the past two decades.
Is there anything that's important to you now that maybe wasn't so important to you in the early years of your career?
As things go there's some things that I leave more to others and I'm grateful to do it, and I think it's better for everything. Whereas before I might've thought either that by doing that I was making a compromise or I was lazy. But now my sense of collaborating with the people I do stuff with, I just enjoy it more and I need it more. I feel good about it or something, I don't know. That's one thing. I always like to share the wealth somewhat, but now I think it's just getting older you notice more what other people are doing, or notice their feelings, or why they're doing things.
What are some things on the new album that wouldn't have happened if you didn't delegate more to the other Jicks?
Overall, it's more like the vibe of the band, and the recording of it by Remko [Schouten], some of his sonic choices. I can't say specifically. A lot of stuff I did on my own too. Most of the strings – the fake strings, the horn ideas. Overdubs and stuff. I run it by people, but I did that mostly, me and Remko. But it still feels more like a group thing. The last record we did with Beck, and Beck was focused more on me, like producers tend to be. He just sees the rhythm section as a "get it done" type thing and blew them out of the way. Not that that's a bad thing, necessarily. It's an L.A. thing.
What inspired you to bring the horns in?
I just kinda heard it in my head. The one called "J. Smoov," the demo I did some fake saxophone and it was more loungey sounding, more like Long Beach lite jazz. It didn't have singing yet, it was just instrumental. When we played it as a group, it became a little more muscular, a Southern, or sort of countrypolitan Southern feel to it. There was a space there, and I got these horn samples from the internet that were better than the other ones. Before it was just Roland ones and they're real cheesy, but these are actual horn players. It's free, it's called the Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra and you can download it. Some guy in Iowa made it and everyone can use it. When we got the horns – the real horns – it just gave it a classy Nashville production feeling to it that I wanted. Some people would say it's more Memphis, more soul, but I was edging towards a slightly paler version of that.
Your voice goes a bit "soul" on that.
When I did the rough draft, I was actually singing through the microphone on my computer, but it has this sorta Al Green sound to it naturally, but digitally distorted and cheap-sounding. Then I thought, maybe I can do that if I actually got the right microphone, but in the end we didn't get the right microphone or EQ it, and I just sang it that way anyway. But that gave me the idea to play with a little bit more soul, but not into a minstrel show variety of that.
Do you feel more confident as a singer now?
In the studio I feel like I can do some stuff more, but it has to be my stuff. I do think I'm better. Over the years I've listened to some of my mistakes or things that were even more out of tune, and I'll sing that differently and bring that to a more reasonable place so the average person won't cringe. But the superior person who liked Pavement didn't mind [laughs], we all understood that was part of the charm and the secret language. But yeah, I think I'm getting better at it. I don't yell as much.
Is it a conscious thing, have you been pushing yourself toward it?
Not really, but I would say that I sort of like the idea of not playing the guitar and just singing now. It's an alpha move to just be the singer, instead of a beta, guitar and singing. I could be like Nick Cave and be like I don't need to dilly-dally with this coarse instrument, you know? And someone can just play my music for me. But there's the other side of just being instrumental and letting other people sing. The fact is when you get out on the road and you have to sing it's somewhat cathartic and it's good exercise and I don't think someone else could necessarily do it better for this music. But it is tiring and you have to remember words, you can lose your voice. You're expending a lot more of yourself than if you're just kicking back on the bass.
Was Wig Out at Jagbags the first album you wrote after the Pavement reunion tour? I think I remember reading that Mirror Traffic was done before that.
Yeah, that was done. I think this record can be seen as being informed by some of going through that…canon, as it were. I can see that some tunes, like "Lariat," have that circular "Cut Your Hair" chord structure, and there's some "ooh ooh oohs" on some of the songs. You could make a line between the song "J. Smoov" and the song on Wowee Zowee called "Motion Suggests Itself," to me they're in the same ballpark. They're downbeat Southern vibes. But also I've been getting a little bit away from the progressive rock psyche-boogie things. I got obsessed with that music and I had some trusted friends pushing me that way. But I was starting to think that maybe that's not where I really shine. The songs that are kinda rockers, like "Surreal Teenagers," are more melodic, like The Who's style, instead of The Groundhogs or Coloured Balls, these working class dirty blues bands. I can't be like The Rolling Stones and rob from them anymore.
Did you have a lot of songs for this record?
Yeah. One we finished but we left it off, but we chopped it down. I'm into having a short amount of studio time now, just five or six days. Beck helped me believe that also, it seemed like he spent too many days in the studio. When good things happen, they usually happen pretty fast. Terror Twilight, with Nigel [Godrich], there was a lot of fiddling around. I don't think he'd be like this now. There used to be all these rules for producers, there probably still is, but they don't apply to this music because there's no hope of it being successful anymore.
How has your taste changed over time?
They've calcified. I haven't changed too much. I think you get certain images in your head through adolescence and forms of that permute into everything else. It's the same shit, different day. I tried to like jazz for a while, but as you get older you realize, oh, I just don't like jazz that much. I tried to be into free jazz – this is free, they have awesome outfits, and the albums themselves are private pressings, it's politically relevant. But I never put it on, so the proof's in the pudding.
Do you think you would've liked your new record as a teenager, or your early twenties?
Hmm. Yeah, probably. I probably would've thought it was cool, but maybe a little mainstream for me. If I was really into [The Replacements'] Let It Be and Hootenanny then, this would be like Pleased to Meet Me. I don't know.
I think that if you go through your catalog in order, it makes perfect sense, but if you jump from the first Pavement EPs or Slanted and Enchanted to Wig Out, it's a huge difference.
Yeah, it's true. What you like in your twenties is not completely trustworthy. I trust the teens more. Especially before you develop an aesthetic, you like what you really like, and they just glow to you in this way and it's beyond capitalism. It's not necessarily because things were marketed towards you – Devo was marketed towards me, but I was just like "this is the shit." It just sticks out like a sore thumb. A band like Can was like that for me, but it was a more extreme version for me, because it wasn't really meant for me. I'm not bragging, I know they're a hip band.