Stephen Malkmus: The "Peel Sessions"

WRITTEN BY
SPIN Staff

Stephen Malkmus: No, I haven't. I got a CD in the mail this morning from Matador, a FedEx, you know, the track listing and stuff. I haven't listened to it yet.

How do you expect it's aged?

Well, probably better than some things from that era [laughs]. I always have to compare it to other things really, it's obviouslynot like some total masterpiece or anything. But I'm sure, I don't want to name names, but it probably holds up better than some things that were made by people our age and our social milieu from that time.

One of the things I was kinda curious about wasthat when Spin got the advance cassette, the legendary advance cassette,they reviewed it like about eight months before it actually came out. Wereyou like "what the fuck?"

I was pretty flattered and surprised, and all that,that was strange. I mean, it wasn't really what we expected.

At the time, when this hype started to mushroom, did you guys think "Shit, this is great"?

About as great as being happy that mainly we wouldn'thave to work anymore, y'know.

What was your job at the time?

I worked at the Whitney as a security guard, and itwas sorta a post-college job. It was sorta like working at a bar where youdidn't have to serve anybody, or something, or a restaurant, so the outfitswere a little more embarrassing.

But then you moved back to Stockton, right?

No, I never really lived there, we made it in Stockton justover a Christmas vacation. We just recorded in Stockton, it didn't haveanything to do with Stockton, except that I went to high school there, andya know, Gary lived there, and Scott. But it's more of a New York-y album, a New York indie record collector's record. I'd been wanting to sound like the Fall or the Swell Maps, these kind of bands and, well, the Pixies andthe Velvet Underground too, but it was trying to live up to these thingsthat were hip then [laughs], in those urban areas. Like Stockton wouldn'thave cared about that. Nobody liked the Fall in Stockton.

How did you meet [drummer] Gary Young? Was he kinda a legendary, a local guy that everyone knew, or...?

I never had met him, I saw him play once or twice. But they opened for my hardcore band. They had, y'know, thoseguitars with no necks, no tuning pegs, and they had long hair and theyjust made the punks mad. They were pretty tacky. It was like Zappa, humormetal. That was what he was into a bit. I don't think he ever really liked apunk rock record in his life. I didn't really know him whenScott had said there was a cheap studio in Stockton that we could go to. AndI just thought 'the worst the better,' y'know? The stranger place. Becauseit was sorta a self-conscious attempt to make a DIY single, along the linesof the Swell Maps or Desperate Bicycles or bands like that that were reallyself-consciously amateur. Maybe Beat Happening too, although I wasn't a fanof theirs. Just throw down whatever you can do, and have it sound woefullybad.

One of the things about all those bands you mentioned, especially Beat Happening, is that they just did not seem to give a shit. Butit seems like the sounds you wanted to get or got were reallywell-constructed and relatively precise.

We got pretty lucky, I mean there was basic dictum because Steve Albini had said "no reverb, reverb is bad," so we couldn'tuse that. And that was sort of a reaction to the heavy metal drums soundsfrom the 80's, and also hearing Replacements and Husker D albums get ruined by overproduction. So that was the one thing. Gary had beenrecording another band and before we got there they had done some equalizing of the drums already. It was a metal band, we just turned off the reverb. We used their drum equalization. I would have never known how to do that. And Gary might have, he might have done something cheesy.

Why did you use him as a drummer? There was just no one on hand?

No, it was done well. We did the first single, no one wason hand, and then he was really quick. Because he's agood player, in one take he sounds like a 22-year old drummer playing thesong 40 times.

It always seemed like his whole thing was, "Oh, I didn't understandwhat the hell these guys were all about." But his playing suggested he knewwhat was going on...

He did. He's good at... you could kinda tell him in theheadphones, to make a long drum fill, and he would do it. And he would alsomake up stuff. So he's really talented. But it also helps keep it simple,because we only had a week or two to record this before I would go back toNew York. There were no real choruses except on like a couple of songs, andwhere there were, if there was a chorus, I just had him play straightthrough on like "Zurich Is Stained."

Did you record any of it in New York? It says on the notes that someof it was recorded...

That it was recorded in Brooklyn.

Yeah, on Christmas '91.

That was a lie. I just stuck that in there because it'snot true [laughs]. We just thought Brooklyn was really cool back then. Wewere way ahead of the trend [laughs]. But it was a little different then.It was Dickens-style, crack, desperation, and Williamsburg, was just a gleamin some young trust fund artist's eyes. It was exciting. Anyway, it was alldone in Stockton. But it's fun to get in some digs on new Brooklyn.

I remember an interviewyou did a few years ago where you mentionedthat you didn't think that Pavement was a "cultural moment". But now youhave this record, this kind of 'reluctant classic,' being canonized. Do youlook back and see its influence and think that maybe Pavement was acultural moment?

I dunno. It's hard to say. Obviously people glommed on toit in a positive way. It was smaller than Nirvana. People liked it, and Iknow a lot of people who liked that record here in Portland, young people,well they're my age now [laughs], but they were young when they bought it.They were inspired by it a little bit. In the DIY style, y'know? 'Make yourown records and you too can get in Spin magazine' [laughs]. Just kidding. Some people took it to heart. I don't know about a "cultural moment".

It must be nice to get that sense though.

Yeah, it means a lot to Matador too. Well, I mean, it wasone of their first records, that... I mean they had Teenage Fan Club andSuperchunk. But it kinda sent them on a winning streak for a few years.So in that way, it's really important for the business, this record [laughs]. Now for those people and all of us it was a great start. Andit was a big surprise that people were interested in this little thing. Sothat was exciting. I mean we thought it would be maybe as big as, I don'tknow, the first Dinosaur Jr. album or something. That would be like ourdream.

Yeah, it was probably a lot bigger than that.

And it turned out to be... that was big for its time. Y'know,it sold pretty well.

They tacked on a live disc from a show inEngland in '92. What did you think of yourself as a live band back then?Were you more like Steely Dan like you should've been in the studio,crafting your art?

No, we were fine with that. I'm pretty comfortable withplaying in concerts and I kinda like to travel. All of us liked travel. Iwas pretty excited to do it the first time. It was like a free trip. Y'knowwhen you're like a teenage backpacker, you're like, "well I can go for free,and the beer is free, and maybe a much better chance of meeting a girl, orsomething, or hanging out with interesting people in a town of either sex."So, we were up for it. And I think if it's what I understand this liveconcert from Brixton Academy that's on there. I remember specifically thatGary was pretty angry that day. It might have been one of his last concerts,I don't remember, but I think we had told him to tone it down. Probably Ihad told him to quit showing off. And I was worried when we played the show, I was like "that was a shitty show, that was just really tame." But when you listen to it on the thing, it sounds like he's just playing his part and wejust sound really alive, it's just really fast.

There's a version of "Here" from a Peel Session in there with theextra shit, and it's different and it's pretty fucking good. Was that aversion you thought about for the record?

I don't remember what it's like. Probably like theColdplay version. That's probably where they saw us. They say they made that song "Yellow" after they saw us play.

It's like the first Sex Pistols show in 24 Hour Party People.

Yeah.

People in the audience all went out and formed dream-pop bands.

Yeah, they made big hit albums and didn't admit it.

And didn't compensate you at all.

No, they didn't. But our crew chief scared their drummer. He said 'We know, we're going to sue you,' which we'd never do. But as far as the show, it's nice to just hear the songs played one-two-three-four. You're a little scared when you play those big clubs, you don't dilly-dally too much. You kind of just get to the point, you want to hurry up just one two three four. It makes you more punk, ironically, because it's in a bigger place.

When's your next record coming out?

I don't know, we're working on it now. We're getting alittle fussy.

What is your favorite Pavement record?

I guess ["Take In a Hard Time"], that one's good [laughs]. I should saythat one, because you know that's one coming out, I mean that was quite asurprising one.But then also "Crooked Rain" was also surprisingly goodregarding the circumstances of how it was made. And then "Wowie Zowie," that's the lil' underdog.

Y'know, there's a whole school of Pavement theorists that will saythat's the great Pavement record, my girlfriend being one of them. It'skinda aged on me more and more.

English people like that one...

That's because they're perverse.

[laughs]. Maybe it's just, I don't know how it's perceivedthere, but all the pseudo-rock stars I met in England, they liked that one.If that's not proof it's the best.

One more thing. How did you write the lyrics? Did you just kinda writea song and add the lyrics later? Did you write lyrics for the song?

I don't even really remember. When you're young like thateverything is really easy and really comes out fast, and the first thing youcome out with is good but then you run out of words and you don't want torepeat yourself later. Just like a young Dylan [laughs], it flowed out ofme, don't even remember. An explosion.

What sort of reading, what sort of models were you using? Were you anEnglish major? You went to UVA right?

Yeah, I was a history major. I'm trying to remember. Probably y'know, in the late 90's we liked Raymond Carver. I don't know, I probably liked Tobias Wolf. Eighties guys. Maybe even there was just a little mocking of how magical realism was really in then? Even though I never read any of those books.

It always seemed like you were a big sorta imagery guy, a WallaceStevens fan.

I don't know. I didn't even know who Wallace Stevens wasat the time. Mark E. Smith was my Wallace Stevens. And you know, Lou Reed. It was probably more in a rock context. But who knows where you're getting things from. I didn't really read poetry then. But I did like the Fall! They were awesome [laughs] Someone had to Californize them.

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