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Stephen Malkmus and Tim Heidecker in Conversation: Fleetwood Mac, Internet Trolls, and Hating Frank Zappa

Tim Heidecker is a Pavement fan. He started listening to them as a teenager in the early ‘90s, at around the time of their classic second album. But he’s not going to sit there and fake enthusiasm for their debut, even if the person he’s talking to is Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus himself. “College, senior year of high school, Crooked Rain was really the record,” Heidecker said drolly to Malkmus earlier this month. “I know I should call it Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. I just call it Crooked Rain. I get right to it. And I don’t bother with your first record. Forget it!”

Malkmus is coming off the release of Sparkle Hard, his seventh album with his post-Pavement band the Jicks. He is also a fan of Heidecker, who is responsible for some of the strangest and most cutting-edge comedy of the last decade: the surreal sketch-show grotesquerie of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, the immersive film-crit parody of On Cinema, his own records, and so on. The comic was addressing his indie rock hero during a phone conversation that Spin arranged when we learned of their mutual appreciation. They are icons of their chosen fields, we figured, plus reciprocal fans—maybe we’d get Malkmus to dissect Heidecker’s work, or Heidecker to talk about how he found inspiration in Malkmus’s famously wry lyrical sensibility.

We should have known better. These guys being who they are, they were not interested in anything so boring and self-congratulatory. Instead, they had a loony freewheeling conversation filled with deadpan digressions about the Grateful Dead, Asher Roth and Post Malone, the Edge’s prodigious guitar pedal setup, Jonathan Franzen’s hatred of bird-eating housecats, and their mutual distaste for Frank Zappa. Read the whole thing below, edited lightly for length and clarity. 


Tim Heidecker: This is Tim Heidecker. This is his voice.

Stephen Malkmus: Of the Boston Herald? Tim Heidecker from the Boston Herald?


Heidecker: What is this, one of your guitar pedals?

Malkmus: That’s a coffee thing. I was just thinking, because you’re a comedian—there was some cat food right next to the coffee grinder, and I was like, what if I put it in there? In the coffee grinder? Wouldn’t that be gross? It would always be there, just a trace element of the cat food. Because it kind of resembles a coffee bean, our brand of cat food.

Our cat’s a bird eater. Jonathan Franzen would hate our cat. I hope you’re not upset about that. I just assumed that you knew that part of cat-owning is that they sometimes eat birds.

Heidecker: No, I’m cool with it. We have two dogs. I’m not a cat guy, I’m allergic to cats, so…

Malkmus: What do you want to talk about?

Heidecker: Let me just get something on the record. I’m a big fan, I’m 42 years old, and I’m a white heterosexual man, right in your key demo. College, senior year of high school, Crooked Rain was really the record. I know I should call it Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. I just call it Crooked Rain. I get right to it. And I don’t bother with your first record. Forget it! The record I came into was the second record, OK? That’s the reality.

Malkmus: There’s nothing wrong with that. Where’d you go to high school?

Heidecker: Allentown, Pennsylvania. So I was into Pink Floyd, I was into the Beatles, I was into classic rock. My friends were into hardcore and punk, and I hated all that stuff. And somebody put on that Pavement record and it was like an epiphany. It brought me into this whole Matador world. I was a huge fan, and still am. So it’s an honor to talk to you.

Malkmus: Well, that’s awesome, and it sounds like our signal got through to you. It’s inevitable, right? That record messes a little with classic rock tropes. I mean the opening riff of it, I was thinking of “All Right Now” by Free. No one really thinks it sounds like that. But to me it is. Free played really simple, and it’s not easy to play. They kept it minimal, and they just felt these chords so much. There’s this one video of them playing “All Right Now,” and they’re just feeling these really basic boogie chords like it’s religious, you know?

Heidecker: Or the James Gang.

Malkmus: The James Gang, too, was insane. Their producer is basically a genius, and that’s why those records sound so awesome. And I think David Bowie was even into him somehow, there was some kind of connection, and that’s why he’s on “Life’s Been Good to Me So Far,” when we move forward into Joe Walsh’s life.

Heidecker: Wait, David Bowie is on “Life’s Been Good to Me”?

Malkmus: Yeah, he sings on there, I’m almost positive, unless I’m totally tripping.

Heidecker: Wait a minute. Spin?

Spin: I don’t know. I wish I could be the authority here.

[David Bowie does not sing on “Life’s Been Good,” though producer Bill Szymczyk’s backing vocals do kind of sound like he’s doing a Bowie impression. — Ed.]

Heidecker: Fred Armisen and John C. Reilly and I are making a TV show together as we speak—we have a day off today—but we’re making a show about three guys training to live on the moon, in a NASA program. So we’re these three stooges, living in the desert in a geodesic dome for a year. But all we do on set is fuck around all day and make jokes and be idiots. The reason I bring it up is that yesterday we were seeing who could sing a line from “Life’s Been Good To Me”, who could sing it highest. The line of, [singing in a ridiculously high-pitched voice] “My Maserati goes 185.” [Even higher now] “My Maserati,” [Higher still] “My Maserati!” It was the funniest fucking thing. We were crying. “My Maserati!” I could do it all day.

Malkmus: Sounds like you’ve got some range. You probably won. I can’t imagine that John C. Reilly can sing high. I’m just putting him out of the competition right away. He’s more of a crooner.

Heidecker: Yeah, he can go low. He could make you fall in love with a line. He can sell the line. But Fred can go high, and hearing him sing that high is really fucking funny. I’ll send you the video that we made, privately.

You’re putting out a new record, another record. The records keep coming.

Malkmus: Yeah, sorry.

Heidecker: I got a chance to listen to it this morning, and it sounds great. I’m sure you’re gonna get this question all the time, but the Freddie Gray line is—you’re not explicitly political or into current events. Is this the first time you’ve jumped into that, or am I forgetting something?

Malkmus: Mentioning the name, maybe. I made a dumb song about senators getting blowjobs once, that turned out to be not as good as I thought it was. When you’re writing, making stuff up, you’re just riffing in the basement, and the chords come up, and you’re like, “I could make it an archetypical thing, or I could use a specific name.”

In this song, I came up with the fist line, about the bike lanes—it’s almost like a Portlandia kind of line, about first world problems, Weird Al-style. And then I just wanted to go off from that into bleakness. The music itself was chugging, I was gonna sing it like Joey Ramone, a little glam-punk. It reminded me of a Clash-type song, “I Fought the Law,” or “Blitzkrieg Bop” like, “the cops are gonna get us.” And then I was into the Freddie Gray story specifically, for whatever reason.

I have a thing for Baltimore: the word itself, the place, I don’t know where it comes from, it’s just a weird city. I have a song called “Baltimore,” but I’m not from there. I’ve driven through there a lot, we’ve played a couple of shows there, but it’s not a big market. Some good bands come from there, though. Animal Collective and Beach House. John Waters is a genius. They have a cool scene there, there’s noise artists and it’s affordable. It’s probably like, as Philadelphia is to New York, Baltimore is to Philadelphia, in terms of cheap rent and being able to do what you want. But it’s a bizarrely segregated place.

Heidecker: What was the deal with you living in Berlin?

Malkmus: My wife’s a visual artist, and she was pushing to get out of Portland pretty hard. She just wanted a change and, and I did too. We had children that were young, young enough that we weren’t damaging their social cohorts, they were first grade and second grade. They just thought it was a vacation, but they didn’t know it was gonna be a two-year vacation. It’s fun in Berlin. You’re close to all these cheap airlines, you can go to Portugal for $90 or whatever. I think you can have a civilized life relatively easier than in America, economically. [squeak] Ow! I’m sorry, I just stepped on the dog’s foot.

Heidecker: I know what you were doing. You were trying to entice Brian Eno to come down and produce a couple of records for you. That’s probably what this is all about.

Malkmus: That studio still exists. It’s very nice. I can’t imagine it was always as nice as it is now, it’s kind of smoothed out, and U2 records there and stuff. R.E.M. went there. I went there once to record guitar tracks for something.

Heidecker: You do all the guitar stuff for U2 now, right? ‘Cause the Edge won’t play on the records?

Malkmus: I think there’s a guy underneath the stage that presses all his buttons. He just goes, stroke, downstroke, just kind of moves his hands randomly, and these guys underneath—

Heidecker: It sets off a chain reaction of pedals and computers. You go into a recording session and there’s a bunch of guitar players there, and the Edge is just telling them what to do, showing them the chords. Like, “Oh, he’s got guys to play the guitar now. He doesn’t need to play the guitar. Anybody can play the guitar.”

Malkmus: That’s pretty much the feeling I get. I did hear that he does have people press his pedal buttons. Maybe it’s only because he has so many quirky reverbs and delays. He would need to be a spider to really imitate what he does on the record.

I was flying recently, and they were on the JetBlue TV, and I was like “What is U2 up to? I haven’t really thought about U2 since they invaded my iPad.” They were in a really fancy studio, live recording, playing with a choir. It sounded good, I have to say. The fidelity of it was unbelievable, and I always thought that song “Beautiful Day” was their best song of the last few years.

Heidecker: [singing] It’s a beautiful day!

Malkmus: They kicked off with that, and it just sounded so expensive, so tight, the whole thing. After that, I watched the Country Music Awards. And those people too, I wanted to ask someone if they’re cheating. How do they not make any mistakes, Tim? All these people are pitch-perfect, there’s no glitches, not one person even behind on one line, or even an inch out of tune.

Heidecker: That’s not what you get with the Jicks?

Malkmus I don’t think so. It would be luck if it happened. Maybe there was just a total randomness luck thing where everything played out perfectly, and Reba McEntire just cooled everyone down. And then Chris Stapleton got so lucky—

Heidecker: I don’t think I even know who that is.

Malkmus: He’s like the Cool Man of Nashville now, the songwriter cool bro. He probably likes you, for instance. He’s that cool. He’s got a beard, he’s fighting the good fight. It’s a little rock and roll, a little bit outlaw by Nashville standards. For whatever reason he had a hit record, but he didn’t have to go to the awards, because he had the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card for country music, which is that he’s expecting a child in two days. So he got to rake in all the awards, and be like “Chris can’t be here right now, he’s havin’ twins!” And everyone cheers.

Heidecker: Who was the guy that was out busking in front of the country music awards, that everybody likes? Fuck, I can’t remember his name.

Malkmus That’s Sturgill, Sturgill Simpson. He’s bros with Stapleton. I think he’s also in the same style, like kind of a tripper in his own way. I heard some stories about him.

Heidecker:  It reminds me of that Gene Clark record a little bit.

Malkmus: No Other? That record’s amazing.

Heidecker: That cross-genre, weird country-prog.

Malkmus: I know, on the cover he’s almost glam, isn’t he wearing makeup, a little bit Bowie? There’s a tiny bit of Fleetwood Mac in it too, or something, in that flowing outfit.

Heidecker: By the way, can we talk about Fleetwood Mac for a second? The firing of Lindsey Buckingham? Are you up to speed on this?

Malkmus: It’s really weird. They got the guy from The Heartbreakers, who’s going to be him now. Mike Campbell, he’s good at guitar.

Heidecker: Isn’t it weird? They’ve been on tour for at least six years that I can remember. I don’t know, it feels like you might just want to go call it a day or something.

Malkmus: I think the money’s just too good. And they’re all psychologically fucked up by that band. I read this funny tweet by Deerhoof, I don’t know if you’re familiar with them but they’re this amazing, noisy, bizarre avant-garde band. They wrote, “We’re listening to Fleetwood Mac in the van today. I can’t believe this generation was taught about love and relationships by these miscreants.” No one gives Fleetwood Mac shit for giving us our bizarre sense of love from these wastoid damaged interpersonal relationships. Fleetwood Mac has something to answer for, maybe. I’m not saying I just want Captain & Tennille to tell me how to run my relationships. But y’know, they’ve done some damage, perhaps.

Heidecker: If I put myself in the mind of a potential Fleetwood Mac concertgoer, let’s say I’m living in Cleveland or something. Let’s say I had already seen them three years ago, and it cost me like 500 dollars by the end of the night. Then I find out they’re coming back to Cleveland, but Lindsey Buckingham isn’t involved, and it’s some other guy that I’m not that interested in seeing. I mean, hey, I like Tom Petty but I don’t need to go see Mike Campbell ever again. Am I going to spend the money again on that night? Am I getting the babysitter? I don’t know. I’ll let them worry about that.

Malkmus: We’ll see. The numbers will be out there. As soon as there’s a hint that Fleetwood Mac’s not selling well, you’ll hear about it. The members of Smashing Pumpkins—Lindsey Buckingham is not in the Smashing Pumpkins, but there’s a female bass player named D’arcy, and she’s not going to be on the tour. And people are doing a similar complaint, because the band has already done like three fake reunions, almost-reunions, and this is supposed to be—I think they’re just playing like their old hits, they’re not going to bore us with the new album or whatever.

Heidecker: No Zwan?

Malkmus: I’m into Zwan. Zwan was good. But there’s been a little talk that it’s not selling well. I think people will go though. It’s a brand, and Fleetwood Mac is a brand by now. And it’s not like they have three different Fleetwood Macs going around.

Heidecker: Like the Eagles.

Malkmus: Do you have any records coming out?

Heidecker:  I just made a record that they don’t want to put out until next year for some reason. It’s all breakup songs, depressing “she left me” kind of songs. They’re pretty easy to write.

Malkmus: Have you ever tried to mess with white rap, like Asher Roth or Post Malone?

Heidecker: No.

Malkmus: That seems like it’s hard to do. Just think about how hard it is for them. They think it’s easy, but they don’t know how hard it is, really. I’ve tried to rap, and I cannot do it. I can’t do simulated, I can’t do funny. I like to think I can do all music, but…

Heidecker: You’re funny, though.

Malkmus: Not rapping.

Heidecker:  What’s your take on Frank Zappa?

Malkmus:  I’m not a fan, to be honest.

Heidecker: I have never met a fan! I’ve never met a fan!

Malkmus: Yeah, I don’t think it’s good music. I know a lot of people compare me to him, especially in Brazil. For some reason, the Frank Zappa underground there thinks of me as Zappa-esque. It’s parody in the end, but you can’t put all your chips on parody unless it’s full parody. Weird Al is one thing, he’s awesome. But that’s a different thing.

Heidecker: We were sitting around the other day and were like, let’s just randomly play some Frank Zappa songs, just go through his library. And one after another, we were like “No way! No way! This is awful! I hate this!” I always get that comparison too, like “Yeah, you guys remind me of Frank Zappa, man!” Fuck that! No! It’s a pain in the ass.

Malkmus: It’s not fair.

Heidecker: This is a tactic to make this little conversation go viral on the internet. They’re going to lead with our shit talking on Frank Zappa. That’ll be what grabs all the viewers.

Malkmus: Every time that happens to me, I get in trouble. One time I talked to Bret Easton Ellis about The Eagles and I said, “No, I don’t like the Eagles.” I like “Take It Easy,” there’s some songs I like, but the idea of The Eagles…

And then on this message board, or whatever, these people got really worked up. They were like “Who is this fucker saying this about The Eagles? Who is he?” That’s the biggest internet thing you can do to somebody these days is say, like, “I’ve never heard of this guy.”

Heidecker: You seem like a guy that avoided dealing with that online stuff. Your initial first chapter of your career was really before all that, and it didn’t seem like you had to jump into that mess. Do you continue to stay out of it or do you check?

Malkmus: I don’t have multiple handles, I’m not out there defending myself, shadowbanning and troll fighting, but I do see it. Sometimes I’m like “My god, you guys.” You look at the Yahoo comments, or something, and you see like a picture of Chloe Sevigny, a totally cool person, and then dickheads are like, “she’s ugly.” What is that? You are sick! I know that’s not some revelation, or anything.

But yeah, so… Frank’s got good songs!

Heidecker: Yeah, Frank’s great! I love his anti-censorship thing, it’s really important. No government censorship!

But I do go in and dabble online a little bit, I’m the opposite. I try to make it funny, but I’m also genuinely interested in what makes a person go to that place. Your words have consequences. I’m a person, and I do see them. We could exchange phone numbers and talk to each other if we wanted to. I don’t always do it in the most civilized way, but that’s the root of my interest in it.

Malkmus: I’m going to go on Reddit and see what they have to say about you after this. Right now, you’re doing just fine. Whatever you’re doing, keep doing it. Keep baiting those fuckers. Keep being funny.

Heidecker: Thanks, dad.

Malkmus: Yeah, I’m 50, so I know what it’s like. I’ve been through those low 40s.

Heidecker: Well I’m glad you’re still out there making records. The last record I listened to, maybe you made one before, the one that Beck produced, did you make that in L.A.?

Malkmus: Yeah, Sunset Sound. It’s a legendary old place. We were there for like four days, then we did the rest at Beck’s house. He lives in Point Dume, Malibu, the rock star laid-back place to be, Rick Rubin, et cetera. Matthew McConaughey is probably walking around there, don’t you imagine? He seems Malibu-y to me.

Heidecker: Bob Dylan.

Malkmus: I saw Bob Dylan’s grandson on the beach. I didn’t see Bob Dylan there, I wanted to. I know he’s the O.G. Malibu guy. That’s cool.

Heidecker: Are you a Dylan guy?

Malkmus: Yeah, man. How can you not be? In college, I didn’t listen to him in the coffeehouses, but I kind of came later. One time I went on this soccer trip to England with my school, ninth grade or something, and we were staying in this house and they had a record player and Blood on the Tracks. I was still a little young for it, in a way. But I can still see that record spinning, and my brain spinning from drinking at the same time, because you could get beer there in ninth grade. Desire, that album’s great. I don’t listen to the new ones as much, but I trust people that there’s good stuff on there. Am I right to trust that?

Heidecker: Love and Theft I would recommend, from 2001, one of my favorite records. If you’re looking for new music.

Malkmus: Yeah, I need to hear that. I get afraid, because I sometimes think that the live concerts, while they are great, they are kind of—his voice is a little phlegmy, it’s kind of dirgey. It’s punk rock, in a way.

Heidecker: But he also mixes the songs up so much that they don’t sound anything like the songs anymore. And I kind of want to hear the songs. I don’t want to hear a blues-shuffle version of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” or whatever.

Malkmus: It’s almost like the opposite of Fleetwood Mac. “I’m Lindsey Buckingham! I’m here at the show! But I’m not really, because my songs aren’t here.” I guess people would get more mad about that at Fleetwood Mac. They just want to hear how the record sounds, and have those memories wash over them.

Heidecker: You gotta be happy for Mike Campbell a little bit, I guess. He wasn’t expecting Tom Petty to die.

Malkmus: He wants to play.

Heidecker: He was like, “Get me out there! I can earn!”

Malkmus: I met him just the other day. I played at this benefit for Jerry Garcia’s charity in Los Angeles. They had Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell. Campbell was backstage. He came in the room, and he was dressed like a rock star: scarves, that Rolling Stones scarve-y look.

Heidecker: Floppy hat.

Malkmus: A bit of West Coast grizzle. He walked by, and he looked a little like that one Grateful Dead album with the skull wearing the top hat and shiny glasses.

Heidecker: He’s struttin’.

Malkmus: He strutted by and he went, “Yeah, Pavement, man.” That’s all he said. Kind of in a lizard voice, “Pavement, man. Yeah.” Then he was out.

Heidecker: That’s kind of cool. I’m not a fan of the Grateful Dead, but I do like Jerry Garcia. I like some of his solo stuff. I’m just being straight with you, OK? I can’t deal with Bob Weir, or Phil Lesh, or any of them. I can’t handle it.

Malkmus: Yeah, no offense to me. I like Jerry too, he’s got a great voice. He’s cool, he’s the guy, he’s the one. I like the drummer a bit too.

Malkmus’s publicist: Hey guys, I need to take Steve into another interview.

Heidecker: Hey listen, let’s connect or whatever, it’s fun talking to you.

Malkmus: Absolutely.