“It’s too alone to be by yourself, and it’s not that fun. Everyone’s collaborating,
even when they’re solo.”
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks head to the Chevron Festival Gardens this Sunday, February 22. AUGUSTUS WELBY reports.
Pavement fans rarely have just a casual interest in the band. Rather, the fervour of the group’s fan base verges on religious devotion. But it’s interesting to note that Pavement’s music can just as easily incite shrugs of indifference from certain listeners.
The ’90s indie poster boys (a poster pulled from a limited edition zine, of course) made five LPs before calling it a day in 1999. It’s a damn fine catalogue, but their output can hardly be described as sensational.
What made Pavement so compelling was that, for a bunch of total oddballs, they sounded completely self-assured. The kernel of the band’s charm was frontman and chief songwriter Stephen Malkmus, who’s full of witticisms but shows no desire to put his intellect towards anything that mothers of the world would deem sensible. In the 15 years since Pavement split up, Malkmus has never stopped making music. Following the release of an eponymous LP in 2001, he teamed up with The Jicks, with whom he’s now put out five albums. These days, Malkmus is a father of two in his 40s, but his worldview remains as crooked as ever.
“The most ‘dad’ songs I made were like Major Leagues, with Pavement,” he says. “That was fine though, it was what it was. But my heart is in the weird and I can’t do those kind of lyrics with a straight face, so it always comes out this way.”
Malkmus and The Jicks’ latest release, Wig Out At Jagbags, celebrated its first birthday last month. The 12-song album finds Malkmus in fine form, chortling amusing refrains such as, ‘I’ve been tripping my face off since breakfast / Taking in this windswept afternoon/ Onward ye Christian sailors / You smooth-talking jack-off jailers’, atop beds of unhurried instrumentation. Wig Out At Jagbags and its predecessor, Mirror Traffic, feature the most contained compositions Malkmus has delivered in over a decade. However, there’s a bit more going on than meets the eye, as Malkmus explains.
“Those songs have untraditional song structures, but I try to make it so you don’t notice. It’s kind of secretly weird. I just try to make it flow smoothly, to make it seem sort of effortless, and the band is great at that. I’m worried – I like those two albums a lot, but sometimes they’re smooth or they just glide past you.”
Given that he’s a lifelong weirdo, it makes sense for Malkmus to be concerned about slipping into convention. Even if his recent output is relatively relaxed, however, he’s still seeking ways to fuck with the form.
“At this point, there’s certain kinds of rock songs or moves that are a little tired-feeling to me, even if they’re loud and they rock,” he says. “I mean, sometimes I’ll want to hit that feeling because some of those things, they’re not necessarily tired, they’re universal. I’m just trying to think, ‘How can I still hold a guitar and not feel like it’s kind of quaint?’ So I try to make my way around it and mix it up with the balance of the instruments and voices.”
Since the release of 2003’s Pig Lib, the Jicks line-up has undergone a couple of alterations. Despite this, it’s not a revolving door situation. Malkmus is certainly the creative leader, but he values his relationship with the band.
“I think that’s better for me, to work with people,” he says. “It’s too alone to be by yourself, and it’s not that fun. Everyone’s collaborating, even when they’re solo. Like Panda Bear released a cool new record, but he’s got Sonic Boom on it and whoever engineered it. It’s probably basically a band, in a certain way.”
Everything Malkmus has done since Pavement carries forward the distinct strain of artistry he gave birth to in the early ’90s. The first trio of Jicks records – Pig Lib, Face The Truth and Real Emotional Trash – feature some meandering and occasionally explosive instrumentation, but his curious perspective still conducts the action. This continuous thread suggests Malkmus dictates how The Jicks behave. However, that’s not quite true.
“My band, and most bands, they want to get loud and tear the roof off things,” he says. “Sometimes I’m a little more restrained. It’s good for me to play it to them and see if it’s too restrained or to see, ‘Am I like an old man or something? Is this dad music? Is it weird enough? It might be interesting if we switched our instruments around a couple of times.’ I could see that happening – ‘Why I don’t I drum on this one? You play bass’. But that can also be a bad idea. Some people can probably do it, like Jonny Greenwood, he can do everything. But there’s very few of those people that can actually do that. Stevie Wonder and Jonny Greenwood. I’d pay to see that.”