Stephen Malkmus Doesn’t Think He Was a Jerk

Stephen Malkmus

“I hate being tan,” Stephen Malkmus said almost immediately, standing in the lobby of a Midtown hotel. His olive complexion, the unwanted result of a vacation in Hawaii with his extended family, was startling — not unlike seeing Santa Claus, if he suddenly lost 80 pounds. Since the 1989 debut of Pavement, the curious indie-rock band Mr. Malkmus led, he’s been an antihero for the brainy, self-conscious and fearful — the indoor kids, in other words. His music, even since Pavement melted into entropy in 1999, has been jarring and opaque, defined by lyrics that circle around homonyms and puns, or break from generational observations into non sequiturs.

He was raised in central California, in a city he recalls as mundane and obsessed with real estate. At the University of Virginia, he met bohemians for the first time, and heard experimental, absurdist bands like the Butthole Surfers and Can, which led him to move to New York after graduation and start Pavement. The group was frequently crowned, by critics and other elitists, the most important indie rock band of the ’90s.

These days, Mr. Malkmus, who is 51, lives in Portland, Ore., where he and his wife, the sculptor Jessica Jackson Hutchins, are raising two children. He and the Jicks, the band he formed after Pavement, are about to release their seventh album, “Sparkle Hard,” which is both tenderly melodic and provocative, especially on “Bike Lane,” where Mr. Malkmus contrasts bourgeois concerns about transportation alternatives with the 2015 death of Freddie Gray in police custody. Over a brunch of avocado toast, he talked affably about his “terrible” singing voice, the Captain & Tennille and why he rarely discusses his family. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

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No one has the singing voice they wish they had. Who do you wish you sounded more like?

Back in the day, I was a bit boyish, a little yelpy. I can’t even believe I made it this far with the singing, to be honest. My first band, we played at a wedding and then we got a board tape and it had my voice really loud. Then the drummer’s like, “Why don’t you just not sing anymore? This sounds terrible.” And I was like, “O.K.” [Laughs] But then my voice got a tiny bit deeper. And I heard the Velvet Underground. I heard a lot of bands that couldn’t sing that well. I was like, I guess I can do it too.

I’d like to have a really pure voice, like the Radiohead guy [Thom Yorke]. Usually it’d be women: Cat Power in her prime, or Sandy Denny, or, obviously, Beyoncé. Who doesn’t wish you could be a badass like that?

What is it about ’70s soft rock that still appeals to you?

It was just implanted at the right time, like a virus in my code. It’s the music I remember growing up. Like, the easygoing melodies and the chest hair — all the hair everywhere — and the productions are good. Hard rock came later, with adolescence, when I wanted to individuate and find my cohorts. Before that, I’m still in the family. It’s music that sounded like family, that my parents liked too. For some reason, male-female duos were big: the Carpenters, and Captain & Tennille. I loved them. I saw a mother in Toni Tennille — like, a perfect mom. She was a mother that I wanted to [make love to], but I didn’t know how to yet.

You don’t talk very much about your family. What’s your dad like?

He is … [pauses] I want to be kind here, because he might read this. He was born in pre-Hollywood Los Angeles, when it was, like, “There Will Be Blood”-type industrialists fighting for water rights. He’s politically conservative. He married a woman who’s softer, so he interacted with some softer, California-in-the-’70s things, like EST and, probably, trying weed. But I’d say the main things he’s into are golf, watching sports, and himself, for better or worse. [Laughs]

Did you ever meet Mark E. Smith of the Fall, who died in January?

No. He played at a Pavement reunion show in England [in 2010]. I didn’t know if I should talk to him. I’d have to unpack all this stuff: “Hi, I’m the Pavement guy who, like, ripped off three of your songs, really intentionally, on one of my albums, and then didn’t do it ever again.” That was the only time I got close enough to say hi, and I was too shy.

You recorded a cover of Jimmy Buffett’s song “Margaritaville” for Will Arnett’s Netflix series “Flaked.” Any idea if Buffett likes your version?

No. I did that song as a personal favor to Will, for his “passion project.” That’s what you call it when it doesn’t sell. As soon as I saw it referred to as a “passion project,” I knew it was, like, over. [Laughs] Sad that passion means death in entertainment. I’ll cover just about anything, except for a Kid Rock song.

For a few years, you didn’t play Pavement songs with the Jicks, and then you started playing them. What changed?

It’s a little like when we were talking about childhood and individuating. When you first break up from a band, you don’t want to take your songs with you. It’s disrespectful to your old bandmates, and to your new ones. Also, I was trying to keep it special — the Pavement brand, as we say today — and keep it of the ’90s. If people wanted to feel that vibe, they’d have to consult the records or YouTube. Now I feel like that time is past too.

What’s a guitar solo you wish you’d played?

“Eruption” [by Van Halen]. Anything by Eddie, when he’s on his game. He makes it look effortless, makes it look fun, and he’s a little quirky in his guitar choices. I also like George Harrison. I often steal from him.

Can you describe yourself when you were 25?

Really skinny. Let’s see, 1991? Nerdy for sure. No game with the ladies — or men. Zero game. I have a belly now, and I’m not as nerdy, and I’ve got tons of game, now that I’m married. [Laughs] I didn’t expect the turns that life takes. I didn’t expect to be here, still talking about music. I moved to New York to get a job. I had a Jos. A. Bank gray suit that my parents gave me, so I could go to Wall Street, or something. I thought I could work in a publishing house. When all else fails, you can become a professor — no disrespect to professors.

Were you a jerk? In a Stereogum oral history, you said people may have thought you were aloof.

I don’t think I was so bad then. Still, no one liked me. There were some definite role models of jerkdom back then, like [the producer] Steve Albini. The whole fanzine culture, Gerard Cosloy [the editor of Conflict], was snarky and sarcastic, like Mad Magazine gone hipster, with music. And there were really bitchy bands, like Royal Trux. I was a product of my time. I’ve always been attracted to negative influences — I thought that meant you were smart. It was almost like being in a tribe. It was kind of brutal, because men have to develop their hierarchies. And that brought out negative behavior. But really, when I smoked weed, I was a nice boy. Anyone who smokes pot is usually a nice person.

For years, people have talked about your songs as though they’re puzzles, full of clues and allusions, but always avoiding a clear meaning. Implicit in that is a belief that you know what the songs are about, but you’re keeping it hidden. Is that the case?

Definitely not. A lot of things come out and I don’t know where they came from. It’s all built on your experiences, and poetry, and taste — what you keep. It’s all cumulative. It’s intentional in that way. Me, me, me, me — telling you how I feel, that’s not going to be the kind of thing I like to hear, and I don’t do that.

I wouldn’t say they’re puzzles. Sometimes they’ve been. Really, the music is the most important thing. That’s the underlining hum, the electricity. On top, you have your brain — just like the body, the brain’s on top. It’s neurotic, it’s weird, it’s malfunctioning. It’s like a broken computer. That’s what the lyrics are like. They’re more about the head. The heart is in the music itself. I don’t know when we made the heart this big thing, anyway. To me, everything’s in the brain, pretty much.

Who decides what a song is about, the writer or the listener?

Definitely the listener does. It’s Postmodern 101. It’s just fun to know from a trivial sense what the guy meant.

Who calls you Steve, and who calls you Stephen?

Everyone calls me Steve. I don’t like either name. It’s not a good name. Sounds boring. I guess it’s better than Brad, or something. I’m a junior — like Dinosaur Jr. [Laughs] In my mind, I see me, my dad, S-T-E-V-E, and I don’t like it. There’s not going to be a Stephen Malkmus III.

You’ve been to a urologist, to make sure of that?

I’m not into surgery. Although with the drugs they give you these days … I’m not going to talk about my colonoscopy, because I know The New York Times prints everything. But once the [voice recorder] is off, I’ll tell you.

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