How to get Stephen Malkmus to open up about life and his new album? Take him to a Lakers game
As the Laker Girls twirled to a thumping dance remix of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” indie rocker Stephen Malkmus leaned back in his seat at Staples Center and explained a counterintuitive idea: Not enough classic-rock legends have died over the last few years.
“More of them need to go,” said Malkmus, best known for fronting Pavement. “Even the great ones. Otherwise there’s no room for people my age.” He sipped his beer. “I mean, look at Nick Cave,” he continued. “Would he be where he is now if Lou Reed was still around?”
Malkmus, 51, was half-joking — his default mode, more or less, since the early 1990s, when Pavement broke out with “Slanted and Enchanted,” its wry and tuneful debut album that went on to influence a generation of fuzz-guitar smart alecks.
But he makes a good point. Nearly two decades after Pavement called it quits (only to reunite, inevitably, for a comeback tour in 2010), Malkmus finds himself in the tricky position of smirking middle-aged hero: too old to inspire much excitement among Pitchfork-reading twentysomethings, too young to be thought of as an American treasure.
His new solo record, “Sparkle Hard,” is characteristically excellent, with more of the type of clever songwriting and off-kilter melodic hooks he showcased on six previous discs, most recorded with Malkmus’ durable backing band, the Jicks.
There’s a funny, weirdly moving country duet with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and a shimmering folk-soul ballad called “Solid Silk”; there are also songs that glance at police violence (“Bike Lane” invokes “sweet young Freddie Gray”) and the #MeToo movement (“Men are scum, I won’t deny,” he sings in “Middle America”).
Yet Malkmus knows that his in-between situation means he stands little chance of moving the needle the way he once did — or of selling many records.
[Warning: The below video contains profanity.]
“The music just kind of goes out into the air,” he said of an age in which digital streaming has made it only harder to grab listeners and hold onto them. “Somebody asked me, ‘Are you still gonna put out CDs?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’ll put them out for you.’
“But, you know, I’m trying,” he said with a laugh. “That’s why I’m here.”
Indeed, although he’s a self-described basketball nut capable of citing players’ statistics from memory, Malkmus was watching the Lakers battle the Dallas Mavericks on a recent evening as a pretense to talking with me about “Sparkle Hard” — just one of a plethora of interviews he’s done to promote the new record and a supporting tour due to kick off next month. (The singer was on the lineup for this summer’s FYF Fest before it was canceled; now he’ll stop at the Roxy on July 19.)
Malkmus, who lives in Portland, Ore., with his wife and two young daughters, happened to be in town to perform as part of a Jerry Garcia tribute concert, which might surprise casual fans, given that Pavement had far more of an art-punk vibe than a stoner vibe. On his own, Malkmus has inched closer to the Grateful Dead’s jammy-rootsy approach, but he still pumped the brakes when I asked him when exactly he became a Deadhead.
“I wouldn’t call myself that,” he said. “I’m a fan of the Grateful Dead.” He likes Garcia’s singing, particularly in the band’s old stuff, but has no interest in the group’s inheritors, such as Phish; he listens to the Dead’s satellite-radio channel in his car, which he said came with a lifetime subscription to SiriusXM.
Does he listen to other channels?
“Their channel is the best,” he replied. “No offense to Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen or Pearl Jam — they’re all great artists in their own right. But they’re not worthy of a channel.”
Somebody asked me, ‘Are you still gonna put out CDs?’ I said, ‘Yeah, we’ll put them out for you.’
Malkmus likes YouTube too. During halftime, he asked me about Anthony Fantano, a popular but polarizing figure who reviews albums on the video site.
“I watch his stuff to see what people like,” Malkmus said, which I told him I wouldn’t have expected from a guy whose relationship to mainstream taste has always seemed conflicted.
He said he just wants to understand things that are too easily written off, whether it’s a big hip-hop record clearly connecting with millions of people or the mind-set of millennials as described in Malcolm Harris’ book “Kids These Days.” Malkmus so admired Harris’ perspective — “He’s a smart kid, goes beyond the avocado-toast thing,” he said — that he asked the author to write up a one-sheet for “Sparkle Hard” to send to journalists along with the album.
He had a copy of it on his iPhone and wanted to show me, but as he scrolled through his pictures he landed on a photo of an extremely large man enjoying an extremely large pile of caviar. This was Malkmus’ original idea for the cover of “Sparkle Hard.”
“He’s sparkling hard,” Malkmus explained. (Alas, his record label nixed it.)
I asked him what he thinks now of the cover of his first solo album, from 2001, which featured a warmly lighted glamour shot of Malkmus posing on a beach — think “Sweet Baby James” or the back cover of “McCartney.”
“I look really good,” he said. “Maybe too much airbrushing. It was a little tongue-in-cheek, obviously. But I was like 35 years old, right at the outer edge of my desirability.”
One of his publicity photos for the new album has him astride a horse; there’s something vaguely Putin-esque about the image.
“That’s from our stable,” he said. “It’s our neighbor’s horse. I ride him. I wouldn’t get on any horse, though. I need to be a on a safe horse.”
By now the game was nearing its end, and Malkmus, who wore a sport jacket and fuzzy athletic wristbands, excused himself for a trip to the restroom. When he returned he seemed to want to clarify his comments about the photos from the beach.
“I’m not saying I look at those pictures all the time and think, ‘Wow, I was hot,’” he said. “Just, you know, I think everybody deserves to be objectified at least once in their life.”
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