Q&A: Stephen Malkmus on New LP, Beck + More
The Pavement frontman talks about his fifth solo record, Mirror Traffic, out August 23.
After reuniting his legendary ’90s indie rock band Pavement last year for a lengthy tour, Stephen Malkmus will return as a solo force on August 23 with his fifth LP, Mirror Traffic. Recorded with his longtime backing band the Jicks and produced by Beck, the album is the most stylistically varied, best release of Malkmus’ post-Pavement career.
SPIN called the 45-year-old father of two at his Portland, OR, home to chat about the record and working with Beck. The first sound that buzzed through the receiver was his two daughters, seven and four years old, laughing hysterically…
Got your hands full, huh?
Yeah. I had to set the kids up with some Dora The Explorer. My wife’s been out of town for eight days now.
Party time! So, Beck produced your new album. Are you guys old friends?
Well, I wouldn’t say friends. He’s a pretty private guy. But he’s definitely an ally. We were on a couple of tours together during Alternative Nation time, like Lollapalooza before he did Odelay. He went on this Australian tour we did with the Beastie Boys, too. I stayed at his house a couple times in the ’90s when he lived in Pasadena. There’s no blah, blah, blah ego stuff going on with him. In that context, we were certainly in the same boat.
How did he end up producing the record?
He got my number somehow. So about two years ago he called and said he was going to do some producing. This was before he started Charlotte Gainsbourg’s album [which Beck wrote and produced]. He was just like, ‘If you’d like to do something, that’d be cool.’ Six months later the band was finishing our songs. Everyone in the band loved the idea, especially [guitarist-keyboardist] Mike [Clark]. [Bassist] Joanna [Bolme] wanted an ally to do it, too, instead of doing it ourselves, which has been the case every time for me except once, when Nigel Godrich did an album with Pavement [1999’s swan song Terror Twilight]. Beck also said he was trying to start a private press of books and that I should get involved.
Yeah. He asked if I wanted to do something. But I don’t know what the status of that yet because, you know, I haven’t contributed to it yet. But he’s planning a ’60s-style private press. Limited editions books of writings, drawings, poetry.
How did working with Beck change your sound?
Beck and his engineer Darrell [Thorp], who he’s worked with for a long time, have a certain style of recording drums. That’s really their thing. Daryl works with Radiohead and a million other bands. They have this old-school controlled drum sound. They also use a lot of tape — everything is run onto tape. It brings out and takes away some frequencies that can be annoying to work with in Pro Tools. But that’s all subtle. The album was recorded real fast at Sunset Sound over four or five days. It’s where, like, ummmm, Sheryl Crow and Yellowcard recorded. They have an amazing collection of microphones. All of that is really gear head-y, though. Beck definitely has a gear head side.
Some might say Mirror Traffic is your most Pavement-y sounding solo album.
The directness and the quickness of it might have made it more like some of the Pavement stuff, which was all done on the fly. I was trying to focus more on getting shorter songs, melody, and not necessarily sounding psychedelic. I didn’t want to worry about being weird. I wanted songs with unique melodies. Songs are the most important thing. Not playing. Or heaviness. That’s what a lot of people don’t have. Whether they’re good or not, I have a million songs. Always. I don’t have a million lyrics. I have a million melodies and chords.
A million? Does that mean there’s a whole bunch of unreleased Malkmus material just waiting to be recorded?
Yeah. We already have another album of material. We’re ready to go.
Will you record it this year?
I don’t think that’s going to happen. Well, unless we record the second week of August. But unfortunately it’s probably not going to be until next summer. Matador would be happy to not pummel people with content. There’s already a gillion bands; there’s a lot of content. I hope that this album is a rebirth of sorts for us. I hope people are like, ‘Oh yeah, you dudes are still cool.’
Since you’re a prolific writer, I imagine waiting to record must create a perpetual backup of your own songs.
Musicians are always behind. For instance, Beck’s album “Odelay.” It’s really called “Oh Delay” because it was taking so long to come out. Seriously. That’s why he called it that. I could take initiative and release stuff online. But I still like the missive from my artists. I like to see that they really took the time. Like this is what they have to say for this year, instead of constantly releasing music, like on a blog or something. But it’s all changing. I have to take down this CD rack that I’ve had for 10 years. I had to decide whether I needed it or not. And I probably don’t need 300 CDs.
You’ve always been known for your witty and playful lyrics. How did you come up with the title Mirror Traffic?
I just pulled that out of my ass at the last second [laughs]. I was going through poetry books. I was writing down words, rearranging them. I’d send Top 5 lists of titles to friends of mine. I had a triple filter: the band, my friend David Berman from the Silver Jews, because he’s a very good word person, and then the label guys. They’re more manly, so some of the goofier ones were rejected. I’m not precious about it.
What were some of the goofier titles?
I used L.A. Guns for a while. But we thought we get sued for that one. There’d be MP3 confusion, too, which we kind of wanted. But we forget how many people buy albums on iTunes. That band would probably be ready for a quick pay day.
Do you have a regular process for writing lyrics?
No. I normally just fill in the blanks. Some songs just write themselves right away. It’s often more about what goes with the music. Just go with what flows phonetically. I usually don’t cram words in there that stick out. A couple of other tunes on the album I made up off the top of my head, like “Gorgeous Georgie” and “Stick Figures in Love.” I tried to do them again later. But the original just sounded more natural. Once you get pressured, you’ll think you’re a better artist if you have to say something that’s meaningful. But it doesn’t sound as good in the end because it sticks out as a big statement.
But what about “Senator,” in which you sing about politicians wanting blow jobs?
The chorus just came to me naturally. To me, it’s really just a metaphor. The senator could be me or any singer in a band, anyone that’s trying to hang in there. Anyone that’s trying to stay in office and do whatever they can do to get votes. They’ll say whatever they can. Democrat or republican, they want to stay in office more than anything.
Do you see any influences coming across in the album?
Yeah. Song to song. The first song (“Tigers”) is this ’70s British, Nick Lowe-y pop song. Second song (“No One Is (As I Be)”) is a Bert Jansch-y folk number. It’s working title was ‘Billie Joe’ from Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” It’s kind of Beck-y. ‘Senator’ is part ’70s classic rock, part punk-y. It sounds like a mid-period Guided by Voices song. “Brain Gallop” was inspired by “Eagle Rock,” a song by this band Daddy Cool from Australia that was a No. 1 hit there. It’s deconstructed and mixed with an early Thin Lizzy gallop. “Forever 28″ was pop-punk with a fun Hall and Oates melody.
“Forever 28″ – nostalgic are we?
[Malkmus’ daughter is overheard whimpering, telling her dad that she hurt her elbow]. Well… [snickers]. The lyrics are from a jaded hipster perspective of someone who is above it all and making fun of things. I remember that time of my life, when I was feeling like I was cool or adult or something. I wasn’t a twenty-something punk anymore. I was starting to have more luck with getting chicks than in my early 20s. I wasn’t striking out. But I wasn’t ruling either. I didn’t know that when I was 32 or 33 that I was going to be able to get even more chicks. There’s that Forever 21 store, too.
Mirror Traffic is your last album with drummer Janet Weiss, one of the founding members of Sleater-Kinney. She’s leaving to focus on her new group, Wild Flag, right? Can’t she pull double duty?
Yeah. She’s doing Wild Flag and they’re playing like 80 dates in 80 days. She would like to tour behind this record because she’s proud of it. But … [Malkmus turns attention to daughter: “Stay on the center of the trampoline!”] We had to be like, ‘Hey, let’s be honest, you’re not going to be able to tour on this and Wild Flag is a growing band.’ So we had to break up.
The words “break up” feel very final.
She could come back someday. But we got this dude Jake Morris, who is also in a Portland band called the Joggers. He’s really great for us. I imagine Janet will be busy with Wild Flag for the next two years.
All in all, how was the Pavement reunion for you? Was it fun? It seemed to get a little tense at the end…
Well, at the end of the tour we were tired and overworked and cranky. But it was nothing too tense. Yeah, it was fun. You know, it just came and went. It was a quick year. The first shows in Australia and New Zealand were really cushy. I didn’t miss my family much yet. Europe was a blur. And in America we did a lot of one-off shows, which I guess this is what successful bands do now. We’d fly to one festival, then fly to another. So we were all jet jagged, which contributed to me not remembering much. But it was good to be with those guys again. You know, to just hang out with the bros.
Any special plans for the summer, before you hit the road on tour in late September?
My whole family is moving to Berlin for one year. It’s kind of crazy. We got an apartment. A whole furnished place. We’re leaving in August. We’re renting out our house here in Portland. We’ll see what happens after that. We’re open-ended. We’ll probably come back to Portland, but we’re not especially tied to it here. I don’t think we’ll go back to New York City. We will apparently be living in the Park Slope of Berlin. But I don’t want to live in the Park Slope of Park Slope, really, though it’s where you end up living if you have kids. I’m not saying it’s bad there, but you just kind of feel like a mark.