When Pavement Cracks (Relix Revisited)
Earlier this year we posted Will Eno’s feature story on Pavement’s return to the stage.
Today, with Pavement in the midst of a four show run in New York City’s Central Park, we look back to June 2003 and our feature story on Steve Malkmus.
Photo by Laura Crosta
It’s a typical day in New York City, and just blocks away from Ground Zero the streets are alive with the sounds of the city. Inside the offices of Matador Records, Stephen Malkmus glances idly around the lobby and makes sarcastic comments about his records label’s staff before we head on out for an afternoon drink. I want beer. Malkmus wants tea. He wins. We venture outside onto the crowded sidewalk and head towards the Mercer Kitchen on Prince Street. On the way, we talk about Phish, of all things, and I find this to be infinitely ironic. The first time I heard of Pavement was when Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio named Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain one of his favorite albums of the year. The first Pavement article I read in a magazine began by mentioning Anastasio’s admiration. And here I am, more than half a decade later, fielding questions from Malkmus about what Phish is up to these days. I suggest that with Round Room Phish finally made the Pavement album they’ve always dreamed of. It’s got that “unfinished but charming” feel. Malkmus laughs and leads the way into the Mercer Kitchen. “I have a tiny connection with them,” he admits, “through their recording engineer Bryce Goggin.” It is generally assumed Phish hired Goggin after hearing his work on Pavement albums. Malkmus nods: “That’s what people have said.”
The Mercer Kitchen is known for celebrity sightings. Forgetting I’m with Stephen Malkmus (“of Pavement fame”), I wonder for a moment if we’ll see any celebrities. Malkmus meanwhile makes himself comfortable on one of the couches. His eyelids seem heavy, his mind light. As we wait for tea, he alternates between witty commentary and nearly falling asleep. He also laughs a lot, mostly at his own expense. When I tell him that nobody will ever sound quite like Pavement, he says, “Well that’s true—it’s be hard to sing that bad.” He doesn’t even try for a punch-line delivery; he cracks mid-sentence. But it is a tired laugh. It’s as though he’s trying lazily to amuse himself just enough to stay awake. Today is his fourth straight day of interviews and he doesn’t pretend to like doing them. In fact, earlier this morning someone at the label warned me that he wasn’t in the greatest mood. “But,” they said, “he promised to be nice to the Relix guy.”
As the leader of Pavement, Malkmus launched an accidental revolution and redefined indie rock during the same period that Phish redefined jam rock. Leaders of the so-called lo-fi movement, Pavement recorded homecooked albums with a backyard aesthetic and a shoebox ideal. Sure, many punk rock and garage bands recorded shitty sounding albums before, but Pavement’s not only sounded bad—they also sounded great.
“It was pretty necessary,” maintains Malkmus, who explains that budget restraints prevented the band from spending enough time in the studio to polish all the tracks. “Although, there was a time when there was this bombastic ‘80s guitar and drum sound that was pretty disgusting. You’ll see it popping up on most major label recordings from that time, the Dead included. There was reverb on the snare, and echo… all these weird things. So it was like ‘Lets try to get this stripped down and sounding completely raw.’ I think we were kind of going for that, but on the other hand we didn’t really have a choice. It was making a virtue out of necessity.
It worked. Pavement’s 1992 debut, Slanted and Enchanted, was one of the more important albums of the decade. Pavement made it cool to miss notes. They apparently didn’t care. Had Pavement tried, they might have become rock stars. Instead, they became rock legends. They made it hip to struggle to get through songs in front of a paying audience, who loved to watch the struggle.
Listen: Pavement was a slacker band. They didn’t rehearse. They were sloppy. They were lo-fi, low-tech, nil-maintenance, nix-glitz. The band members lived in different parts of the country and learned songs by mail. They didn’t pull punches; they lazily rolled with them. Professionalism was too much of a bother. “We didn’t get a manager or go on a major label and we made life a little hard for us that way,” says Malkmus. “But we were trying to live like an indie band.”
Watching a Pavement show was like sitting in on a band rehearsal. Malkmus would insist on restarting songs, after first pointing out who made what mistake. He would sneer, leer, shrug and ultimately laugh as the band nearly fell apart in front of all those people. And Pavement attained a decent level of success with this act; except that it wasn’t an act. Nor was it even what they themselves wanted, necessarily.
“We were getting a little dragged down by living in different places, and the sort of complacency of our roles and all the touring. There were some things that were causing it to not feel fresh, but there was a lot of fresh stuff about it too,” says Malkmus. “Of course I was feeling like…yeah, I thought I could do something new, with new people. I was really excited to do that. I was ready.”
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Australia’s Alpine recently made their NYC debut at the Relix office with this song from their new album A is for Alpine.
In honor of Umphrey’s McGee’s return to Summer Camp this weekend, we present the group’s Brendan Bayliss and Jake Cinninger performing this version of “The Pequod” from UM’s Anchor Drops.
Dame shares a song from her new EP Preventions of Heartbreak.
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