STEPHEN Malkmus laughs dryly when his old band, Pavement, is mentioned. To music fans of a certain age, this gloriously rough-at-the-edges Californian quintet were second only to Nirvana in their influence on modern rock. Malkmus’s disconnection from the perception that Pavement were one of the most important groups of the past quarter century is strange. If he is in awe of the Pavement legacy, he’s concealing his feelings well.
Malkmus is faintly amused by the hero worship. Last year, Pavement embarked on a long-awaited reunion tour, playing everywhere from Tokyo to Dublin’s Tripod. Far from sparking a new lease in their life, Malkmus was happy to put the ‘brand’ back on ice after the lucrative run of live commitments. He had a heck of a time performing 15-year-old songs for months on end, but it’s nice to go back to the day job, fronting The Jicks.
“The Pavement thing was fun,” he says. “We liked playing the shows. Afterward, it was kind of weird. It was like, ‘okay we’ve done the concerts. And yet, it’s still there.’ If you are in a successful group, it will always be a go-to thing for you. It’s always going to be at the top of the Wikipedia page. As an artist, you might want to get away from that.”
Malkmus said in recent interviews that after spending 2010 with bandmates he’d parted from on unfriendly terms a decade previously, old tensions resurfaced. Malkmus doesn’t say that today. Nonetheless, he says that a year on a tour bus with Pavement is about as much as he could tolerate.
“It’s a long time to be out there,” he says. “You keep going and going. We ended at the perfect time. It was great to be able to go home and regroup. Sure, it was fantastic that lots of people go to see the band and hear those songs. I’m glad for them. It wasn’t such a novelty to me. I’d already played them an awful lot of times.”
Though it replenished his pension fund and raised his profile, the Pavement tour arrived at an awkward moment for Malkmus. He’d just finished writing and recording his latest Jicks album, Mirror Traffic. Hitting the reunion trail meant putting the LP on the back burner for 12 months.
While this brought its frustrations, on balance he says it led to a better record, as he was able to approach the project with fresh ears upon his return.
Listening to the end result, it’s clear the unusual circumstances in which Mirror Traffic was assembled have been to its benefit. The collection is catchier than anything the Jicks previously recorded, its languid ambiance and effortlessly seductive hooks reminiscent, above all else, of early Pavement.
“You hear about albums being described as a return to form,” says Malkmus. “We were able to have our own return to form during the making of a record. It’s not like someone was going to steal one of our beats or something like that. We had the luxury of putting it away for a while in the knowledge it would still be there when we got back. I don’t think there was a danger of us turning on the radio and thinking ‘hey they’ve stolen our groove or our Autotune part’.”
The new album was produced by 1990s alt.rock polymath Beck, who, after the relative under-performance of his last two LPs, seems content to work behind the scenes (he also oversaw the acclaimed 2009 solo record from Charlotte Gainsbourg, IRM). Contrary to the perception people have of musicians operating in similar genres being on first name terms, Malkmus didn’t really know Beck and it came as a tremendous shock when he called out of the blue one day.
“Somehow, he got my number. Maybe he was trying to get out of a rut or something. Or maybe he wanted to do new things. Also, he was probably buzzing from the success of the Charlotte Gainsbourg thing. “I think his approach was, ‘I’m going to ask people that I like to work with me’. My name came out of the hat. It was fortuitous timing for The Jicks. We were getting ready to go into the studio. All the songs had been written but we sensed we needed something new, some different ideas. It was perfect that he got in touch,” Malkmus says.
All of Malkmus’s previous solo records had been recorded in Portland, Oregon (where he lived until a recent move to Berlin).
Beck wanted him to go down to Los Angeles. They ended up in perhaps the least ‘indie rock’ studio in the city, Sunset Sounds off the Sunset Strip.
“It’s a famous little room,” Malkmus says. “Lots of people have been there — Buffalo Springfield, the Rolling Stones, Prince. Because of where it is located, you tend to get straight down to business.
“ It’s right in the middle of one of those skanky areas were all the tourists hang out. So when you’re there, you really only want to work. You don’t want to go have your picture taken by Jimmy Cagney’s star in the sidewalk.”
Malkmus has collaborated with producers previously, most notably Radiohead sideman Nigel Godrich. Generally, he’s leery about letting outsiders in. He could easily have made the new LP without any input from Beck, he says. Sometimes it’s wise to open yourself to outside influences, if only to see what can be added.
“I don’t need a producer,” he says. “Some people do. Not me. Of course, it’s nice to have one. It’s like the way that I don’t need glasses. I can drive at night without them. Sometimes my eyes hurt so I should probably wear them. It was a great luxury to have Beck. It means you have less work to do, that your music has a greater looseness and freedom. I’m glad we did it.”
* Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks play Button Factory, Dublin, tomorrow. The album Mirror Traffic is out now.