Pavement – Steve Malkmus Interview Transcript

(as I recall, this interview was done backstage at the Commodore in Vancouver, around January 1996)

SAB - Let’s take a look at “Easily Fooled” on the Rattled By The Rush EP, there’s a lyric that goes, “If you want a trademark for your sound, you better look around, treat it like a window not a door.”  It seems to me this is what Wowee Zowee is all about.

SM - Yeah, I just meant when people are always saying that bands are referential or something.  When you talk about a band, and people just say they sound like someone else.  I was just saying no one has a trademark to any sound, you should be able to take what you like and instead of treating it like a door, and shutting the doors to different sounds that are supposedly not correct for like an indie-rock band to use, there should be windows all around that you can look through.

SAB - I was thinking today while I was listening to the White Album that Wowee Zowee’s actually a bit like that.  Every song sounds like a different writer.

SM - Yeah, well that’s the attempt to make it sound different each sound, and have different voices, and keep it interesting in that way, but it’s not quite up to those standards.  The White Album — that’s a great one.  But you’re right, it is the same style.

SAB - OK, let’s take a song like “Half A Canyon” where it goes into a drone…

SM - That’s our Neu-Stereolab part.

SAB - Yeah, but it sounds so different.  Do you think geography bears an influence on the music?

SM - Not really, I think it is just our personalities, and the way we play.  I don’t know.  But that might come from our geography too.

SAB - So do you think any sound could be recorded by anyone?

SM - I don’t know.  I guess that would be too far, but every sound is going to be a little different that someone records, because you can never exactly imitate it.  So there’s nothing that’s going to be exactly the same, even if you’re both trying to rip off Neu.  We’re just going to be a little more aggressive and drunken.

SAB - And more Memphis sounding?

SM - Yeah, that would be potentially it, though we just happenned to be in Memphis.  It would have sounded the same in New York.

SAB - So putting Wowee Zowee up against Crooked Rain Crooked Rain which was kind of a concept album, do you think Wowee Zowee discards the unity of intention?

SM - Yeah, I would say so.  It is not really like one sound is omnipresent on every song.  Some of the songs were recorded in different studios, and they were all mixed at different times.  I was consciously wanting to do that to just make it seem different.

SAB - Yeah, I was thinking about that actually.  A song like #15 has a real white noise sound to it, whereas other songs sound more “Gold Soundz” style.

SM - It was just very mix and match.

SAB - So with the end of Crooked Rain Crooked Rain in “Fillmore Jive” you say, “Goodnight to the rock’n’roll era.”  Was that a nod towards where you were going with Wowee Zowee, meaning that the Crooked Rain Crooked Rain stage was finished?

SM - I mean, conceptually it works out good that way.  But in a lot of ways, it is just a high comedy thing.  Like if you were going to a play or the opera that would be a scene at the end of Act I, and Wowee Zowee would start the next scene.  They do kind of feed off each other.  It is partially planned, but it is not really dramatic, like I truly believe the rock’n’roll era is dead or anything.  For us, it is always changing.  Every time you play, you change your attitude a little bit.

SAB - Okay now, there is “the tricks are everything to me” line on the first album, then there is “Range Life” and Crooked Rain Crooked Rain which is supposed to have discarded that notion in part, but then I later read that you say that Range Life is a song you weren’t meant to write.  Do you think it is possible that when you go through all these tricks that that is when you are more real?

SM - Explain that again to me, please.

SAB - Like when you hear “Range Life,” you are supposed to be getting the real Malkmus, but that wasn’t necessarily the case was it?

SM - No, it wasn’t.  The tricks are all important.  Everything is real enough to me.  I’m not really secretive about myself in these songs.  If you see us play, it is not really theatrical, like a hidden image is carefully crafted, like a Hollywood movie star or something who is really an asshole behind the camera.  All anybody finds out about them is what they read in the papers or tabloids, like they’re married to some other movie star or secretly gay or something.  So, tricks are all part of it, but it is not all that complicated to me.

SAB - But you don’t present yourself black and white style.  Like the pieces are scattered.  Each lyric suggests that something greater has been microposed into it.  Each lyric could have an essay written about it.

SM - Yeah, the visual little things that you can envision happenning with the lyrics is the fun part.  That is one of the things I like about my lyrics, or lyrics that my friends write, or writers that I like of songs.  And in this time where just a rhyme is boring and there are so many things that are just cliched — some things are good cliched and it works, but you have to hear the song to know — but there’s a lot of people that claim to be great lyricists and when you see what they’ve written, like Lloyd Cole or something.  Maybe he is great, but I have a feeling I would just look at his lyrics and go ‘why are you wasting your time?  Good, you made a clever rhyme about how your relationship sucks, but Bob Dylan already did that way better than you, so try something different.’

SAB - Do you think there is a duality to Pavement in the music that is both nihilistic and life affirming?  At one point, you are saying art is pointless, and then it is broken.

SM - I like that kind of thinking about our music.  The dual sides of it being not even worth trying, and the face of that being fighting for the better things in life, like just to hopefully make it a better, more interesting world for people to listen to records in.

SAB - There’s a lyric in “Easily Fooled” that goes, “everybody needs a home, it takes centuries to build, seconds to fall.” Is that like the world around you is all screwed up, but Pavement’s not necessarily?

SM - I just thought that is the way it is.  Like Cologne, you could have gone to Cologne, Germany before WWII and it was such a beautiful place, wasn’t it Steve?  (Steve nods in agreement, looking dismayed about the reminder of Cologne’s fall.)

SAB - That reminds me of a lyric “Zurich is stained, and it’s not my fault,” does that have anything to do with the dada scene in Zurich of WWI.

SM - Mmm… yeah, not really I can’t even remember what that one was about.

SAB - Well, I might as well link it anyway.

SM - Yeah, you are the critic.  You know as much as me in these post-modern times.

SAB - (laughing) Are you a post-modernist, then?

SM - No, I mean I think it’s interesting what people can do with it sometimes.

SAB - So is it true that the highest art must be a contribution to art criticism?

SM - In the art that I would like, I guess I would believe that it should be somewhat therapeutic and somewhat… I mean I don’t believe it has to be political or benefitting society in a real concrete way, like some Marxist theorist would think.  As far as art critics go, I mean table talk is fun. People like to sit around and bullshit about what bands good and bad, in our case, in the music world.  And that’s a form of criticism too, beyond art form.  That’s a good thing about music — you can say why you like one band and not another, or why one band is more special than another.  And there are so many reasons why you should be able to say that.  I mean you can just like the groove.  That is all that matters to most people, but there are a lot of other things subconsciously that would make them like the groove more, like the imagery or the name of the band.

SAB - I talked to Yo La Tengo a couple of months ago, and he’s supposed to be associated as a rock critic, but he’s not really.  I think the best way to be a rock critic is to record the music.

SM - Is that what you’re going to do then?  Yeah, that’s a good move.  You definitely get more power.  But we do need more people that write intelligently about music too.  It would be really helpful to have something that is informative and not overly pretentious, but takes things seriously.  That’s good.

SAB - Okay now with Crooked Rain Crooked Rain, you got in a position where you could have got big.  Why not, I would have?

SM - Well, there just weren’t any songs like that in my mind at that time.  I can’t say why that was, but that was kind of the direction we were going playing live together as a group, and we wanted to get that stuff out of our heads, so we can do that this next record.

SAB - Oh that’s good.  I always say take the money.

SM - Well, we’re doing fine on that end too.  That’s maybe another reason why we made Wowee Zowee.  We don’t have dayjobs or anything now, and we basically can do art for art’s sake.  Obviously, we’re not going to be able to retire and buy houses or anything.  But art for art’s sake is all I ever really wanted to do anyway.  If it happenned to help change the world, then that would be good too.

SAB - Do you think there is a purity to Slanted & Enchanted that can never be regained?

SM - Of course, that’s very true.  We can never go back to that again.  You can get that feeling over and over again maybe if you’re a producer.  You know, you get new bands, young bands that are excited, but that couldn’t be done for us again.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t do something else that is still relatively unjaded musically.

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