With a pair of reissues and a tour, Pavement is back. Stephen Malkmus promises he’s excited
Thirty years ago this week, Pavement released its debut album, “Slanted and Enchanted”; seven years after that, the band dropped its fifth and final LP, “Terror Twilight.” The two records bookended one of the greatest and most influential catalogs of the 1990s: a densely packed stretch of witty, tuneful, sarcastic, sentimental indie rock that produced a real-deal alternative radio hit in ’94’s “Cut Your Hair” and a comically passive-aggressive performance at the first Coachella festival in ’99 before the group broke up barely a decade after it started.
Now Pavement — singer-guitarist Stephen Malkmus, guitarist Scott Kannberg, bassist Mark Ibold, drummer Steve West and percussionist Bob Nastanovich — is looking back: This month it reissued “Terror Twilight,” for which the band hired producer Nigel Godrich, then hot from his work with Radiohead and Beck, in a deluxe package featuring dozens of outtakes and rarities; in August it will rerelease “Slanted and Enchanted” on limited-edition vinyl and cassette. And in June the band will hit the road for its second reunion tour (including three September dates at the Orpheum Theatre) following a celebrated comeback run in 2010. Malkmus, 55, called from his home in Portland, Ore., to talk about the band’s music, TikTok and what he has in common with Kanye West.
Which do you find more taxing to field questions about: “Slanted and Enchanted” or “Terror Twilight”?
I suppose “Slanted and Enchanted,” that’s been talked about more. With “Terror Twilight,” I don’t have to talk about Gary [Young], the first drummer. But really I just punch the clock and go: “What do you want? I’ll give you what you want.” I’m a veteran.
And what do people want?
Something about the ’90s, something about how it was and what it’s like now compared to then. “Nostalgia, are you OK with it?” “Did you hate someone in the band?” “Why’d the band break up?”
The lore about “Terror Twilight” is that it was sort of a Malkmus solo album by another name.
That’s kind of untrue. It wasn’t so different from the way we did the other ones before it in that it was a lot of one-on-one with the drummer initially — me and the drummer trying to get something together. And then teaching the songs really quickly and recording without rehearsals, and maybe me doing a lot of overdubs. I don’t wanna make it sound like that, but that’s usually how it was. The difference I guess is that Nigel was more involved in the sonic template. Sounds pretentious.
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What’s an example of his fingerprint on the album?
The guitar effect in “The Hexx.” But just the overall sound of it is him too. He has a really unique sound — this creamy, compressed sound — and at that time he was dialed into it.
Are the two of you still in touch?
I talk to him on the internet. He works with Roger Waters, the bass player of Pink Floyd, and I heard this podcast where Roger was going off on Israel, as he does. And there was some talk about Nigel on there, which I told him about.
Thank you for identifying Roger Waters for me.
He’s a pretty cool, woke dude. I still like his stuff when Syd Barrett was in the band the best. But there’s no denying that those other Pink Floyd albums are legendary. Anyway, yeah, I’m still down with the Nige. Love “In Rainbows.”
“Major Leagues,” from “Terror Twilight,” starts out, “Lip balm on watery clay / Relationships, hey hey hey.” That always struck me as an iconic Pavement line. Is it special to you?
It’s not necessarily particularly special. I just went with what the tune needed, and phonetically it worked. Sometimes I’m just letting the tap run; sometimes I have to go back and adjust the temperature. No one in the band ever asked me about lyrics, so I just did what I wanted to do. It was my own struggle to reach a balance of what I thought was good enough. And sometimes it is just good enough.
“Relationships, hey hey hey” feels like the best possible version of good-enough.
It’s hard to take credit for stuff that just comes out of you without sitting at a desk with a bunch of paper and all your best novels and thinking about other songs that you thought were great. There was none of that. I was watching that Wu-Tang documentary, and I can’t remember which member it was, but someone in the group was the hook writer. I was like, S—, I never even thought about that. When I’m listening to rap music, I’m thinking they’re just writing their rhymes, and then what was said at a certain point was the chorus. But they’re creating a hook. For me songwriting is more of a wandering monologue. That’s probably why Adele’s never asked me to come to L.A. and co-write.
Did putting together this reissue lead you to rediscover songs you’d forgotten about?
I was charged with trying to find demos of all the songs. At the time I was messing around a lot with this digital Roland 8-track that a friend gave me. It shows up in the Kanye documentary — you see him making songs for “The College Dropout” on the 16-track version of it. I was like, “Whoa!” You get one of those tech hard-ons: He’s using that thing that everyone told me was a piece of s—. I know you’re supposed to be watching for other stuff in the movie. But I’m trainspotting the gear.
Safe to say you’re an eager consumer of hip-hop documentaries?
The Kanye one was intentional because I’m interested in that era of him. I really like tons of the music he’s done. Wu-Tang, I’m less of a fan. I’m not saying I don’t like them — they’re geniuses. I think I just liked the West Coast stuff more. But watching that doc, I loved the guys. So cool.
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Do you watch TikTok?
No. My daughters do it; I hear that song: “Oh no / Oh no / Oh no-no-no-no-no.” But I can’t.
I don’t need it. I’ve got enough on my stupid YouTube channels. Fiftysomething TikTok, I’m imagining something like fiftysomething Tinder, which seems really depressing. I’m not sure if it is. But I don’t need to find out.
Do you hear any Pavement in the air right now?
I hear about it sometimes. My daughter’s friends like it; she’s 17. It’s not like they’re getting Pavement tattoos, but they know what it is and think it’s OK. They’re still barely holding onto Billie Eilish — getting too old for it.
I moved through things pretty fast when I was young. I was like, Devo’s the greatest band, then got into Black Flag or Echo and the Bunnymen very soon.
Pavement’s live return was supposed to happen in 2020. Had you guys started practicing when the pandemic canceled everything?
It happened before we were gonna practice. But I knew earlier than most people that this was gonna be f— up. I was going to these theater things with kids and these dads would be trying to shake my hands and stuff. I was like, “Eh, we shouldn’t.” I guess I was just more online. Unfortunately.
You’re prepping now for the shows?
I’ve been digging into the catalog, and — I’m not just saying this — I’m really looking forward to figuring out some of these songs and playing them. I don’t mind playing “Summer Babe,” but that’s not gonna get me off. We’re doing the old band-adds-an-extra-person thing with a keyboardist. And we have this money that we found on the street, which is the song “Harness Your Hopes,” which didn’t exist on the last tour really.
You mean because it became this fluky Spotify hit in the last few years.
Yeah, so you’ve got that in your back pocket — three minutes of ease in the set that people will like and it’s easy to play. I was just cranking “Grave Architecture” on the YouTube. There’s some fun stuff that I even forgot existed.
YouTube is where you go to hear Pavement?
Definitely. We have a family plan on Spotify, but I barely use it. YouTube is fast, and all the songs are there. I have an ad-blocker, and I also get .0000001 percent of a penny for playing my own song.
Although, wouldn’t an ad-blocker cut into your take in some way?
I guess you’re right. That sucks. I’ll have to sit through the ads now to get that fraction of a cent.
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