When Pavement Cracks (Relix Revisited)
When Malkmus disbanded Pavement in 2000, he made no fanfare of it. It was just time to move on, that’s all. I probe further into Pavement’s breakup. Surprisingly, Malkmus doesn’t mind. Did he feel like he was dragging the weight of others?
“Not so much,” he says sincerely. “It was pretty similar all the way through. In fact there was more contribution towards the end actually, but there was never the full classic R.E.M., U2, everyone sharing style. It was the pretty classic having a singer/songwriter guy with everyone adding their parts. Probably not too different from Phish in that way.”
When Pavement did officially breakup, there was no official press release, no notice, nothing. In the tradition of the band, it happened almost without comment. Malkmus claims responsibility: “You’ll have to ask the other guys, but I’m not sure they would’ve [disbanded]. That being said, obviously they wouldn’t have wanted to keep doing it if I didn’t want to do it anymore. Or, if one of them didn’t want to do it, we probably wouldn’t have done it under the name of Pavement either. Maybe I was just the first one to crack.”
For Malkmus, cracking mean doing what he always did, sans Pavement. He put some songs together, bought some studio time in his hometown of Portland, Oregon, and invited some local musician friends to join him. No pressure. No commitment. Just jamming and playing music. The musicians he recruited were bassist Joanna Bolme, drummer Jon Moen and keyboardist/guitarist Mike Clark. All three were in other bands “that they got less interested in once we did this,” says Malkmus. “And that’s good—for me.”
The first album with this line-up was released in 2001 as his eponymous solo debut. No Jicks. At the time, Malkmus says, “that was a fair assessment of what was going on, on that record. They were people I hired to play on the record, with no strings attached… and then it started sounding good, and then we had a band.”
Pig Lib, released this past March, belongs as much to The Jicks as it does to Stephen Malkmus. While the songs sound like earlier work with Pavement, The Jicks have adopted these tunes. They own them. The band slinks through the changes, the jams, and the structures with ease. They’re mobile. They’re free to roam, without constantly having to take a head count.
“It’s Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks. We’ve got our Neil Young and Crazy Horse line-up,” quips Malkmus, “and I think that’s also true and a good reflection of what you’ll hear on [ Pig Lib ]. Me and them.”
His new band, like his old band, is a jamband, although no one has ever dared called them that. His awareness of the scene is shaky at best, and he’s unclear as to whether “Bonnaroo” is a person or a band. He asks what Gov’t Mule sounds like, before concluding that Lynyrd Skynyrd is probably better anyway. But when I slip him a Disco Biscuits show, he seems enthused.
“When I was in college in the ‘80s, there was a jamband world and a bunch of bands who thrived—and I would almost say preyed—on college students that were Dead fans. New Potato Caboose. Many of them are named after Dead songs. There’s this band Calobo, and there are the lighter ones like String Cheese [Incident] and Leftover [Salmon]—the bands that are named after foods. I don’t really go to see many of those groups, but my appreciation of ‘jamband’ might be a little more on the wilder side, like the improv side of the Dead. The Dead I really liked are the first three albums, and up to ’72 of the live tapes that I heard. Those are my favorite Dead moments… I would go see them in the ‘80s and have a good time, but to me those don’t hold up as much musically… but I still like the space moments. I like the pretty songs. I also like some of the later albums like American Beauty, some of the more refined albums,” he says, then pauses, and adds, “We’re a little darker, a little harder than maybe what has carried jambands into the money. We’re on a little more of the dangerous level. But we definitely have that—there are moments when you can smoke a bowl or whatever, for want of a better term, and go ‘Yeah! It gets trippy.”
No doubt, The Jicks have all the best qualities of a true jamband. They jam out on “four or five songs” per set, and they feel free to take risks, to switch up things on a nightly basis. They even allow audience taping, although Malkmus cops that this is more a result of his slacker politic than company policy.
“They ask me and I’m always like ‘Go ahead and do what you will.’ We do have different concerts every night. Most band would say that, but maybe it would be the between song banter more than the actual shows.”
Playing live, The Jicks balance between the rehearsed professionalism that Malkmus has longed for and the spontaneous, laid-back attitude that made Pavement gigs work, despite their imprecision. Covers, both obscure and well-known, are thrown down last minute, just for fun. “Although, we never really rehearse [covers],” admits Malkmus “We’re probably a little more on the ragged edge in terms of our covers—on the ‘new Phish’ versus the ‘old Phish’ edge. Not so tight,” he laughs.
Before my meeting with Malkmus, I listened to Pig Lib nonstop for a week. I confess to him that I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I do—as it turns out, I love it. It’s everything a Pavement album was, and then some. Malkmus is grateful and concurs: “I think it’s up there too.”
But will hardcore Pavement fans hold a grudge? “Probably,” he says seriously, “but we can’t concern ourselves with that too much. I’m happy that people are still interested [in Pavement], and I want them to be. If they weren’t, I probably wouldn’t be getting as much attention for this other band. While the jams and the music itself might be just as strong, people wouldn’t be hearing about it.”
He muses some more about whether or not some Pavement fans will give The Jicks a fair shake, and then he shrugs it off with his ever-present sleepy grin. “What can you do, you know? Just be happy about what you did and if your interior life is good, all this will just wash off you anyway.”
And on this note, we finish our tea at the Mercer. As we get up to leave, our bill is paid for by someone from Matador Records, who has been sitting all this time in a far-off corner. Malkmus shoots him a knowing glance, but then indulges the photographer who insists on shooting a few more rolls. Malkmus hates it, I’m sure, but he smiles obligingly. After all, he promised to be nice to the Relix guy.
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