Let Them Eat Vowels: A Conversation with Stephen Malkmus

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For over a quarter of a century, Stephen Malkmus has inspired countless aspiring musicians to pick up a guitar, form a band and write loud, dissonant melodies and playful, witty lyrics. Pavement and the Silver Jews are amongst two of the most influential bands of the 90s and 2000s. For the last seventeen years, however, Malkmus has been performing with The Jicks. Earlier this year, Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks released Sparkle Hard, their tremendous seventh album.

Ahead of their gig in Dublin’s Vicar Street, Malkmus spoke to Zara Hedderman about artists making music in their fifties, the process of reaching a song’s final version and his favourite World Cup memories.

Hey Stephen, how’re you today?

I’m awake and ready to rock.

You’ve been touring Sparkle Hard with The Jicks for a few months. How has that been?

It’s been great, so far. We haven’t been playing for a couple of weeks because we recently finished the first leg of the tour in California. It’s actually been sort of nice to have an extended period of time to just chill at home.

We played with Courtney Barnett in Los Angeles last weekend which was fun. We performed at The Greek Theatre, it’s great but it’s not the most intimate and vibey place to see a show. It’s basically an old theatre in Griffith Park, which is a really cool park in Los Angeles where the Observatory is. My family and my sister came to see the show, the venue has a big backstage area which makes everyone feel important. It’s sort of a status gig, I guess.

Is that where you played a cover of ‘Barstool Blues’ from Neil Young’s album Zuma? I saw you confidently claiming that as his best album on Twitter.

Yeah, we played that song at the Greek Theatre! Well, I woke up that morning, when I sent that tweet out, and I was just really feeling [Zuma], you know. I thought, “This is real talk!” It’s the album I like the best and never get bored of. Even though I might like songs from different albums and, of course, there are specific songs that I think are “better” but based on pure data, Zuma is the Neil Young record I listen to most. Also, it’s the most useful to me, in a way. For that reasons alone, it’s the best!

What’s your favourite song from that album?

Oh, I like ‘Barstool Blues’ and ‘Cortez the Killer’, they’re both great. He’s got a song on there called ‘Stupid Girl’ which has a kind of seething misogyny to it. In a certain way, when I listen to that song, I can see all these bro-rockers having this unappealing attitude that’s portrayed on that song.

That song is sometimes a deal breaker for a lot of people. I choose to simply like the melody of the song anyway and imagine the character; a guy who’s really pissed off that this woman didn’t like him, or something. I’m choosing to believe that he’s hurt from being jealous of this awesome person, but I don’t know if that’s true!

Getting back to your music, I really enjoyed the sonic effects and textures you incorporated on Sparkle Hard. Namely, autotune on ‘Rattler’, and including fiddle arrangements to ‘Brethren’ and ‘Refute’. Were you apprehensive at all about how those flourishes would be received?

We certainly put some new wrinkles in there. As we wrinkle, new wrinkles appear in the music! I think [those effects and instrumentation] works well in the context of the album and the overall sound. Of course, somebody is going to be like, “There shouldn’t be autotuning on the Pavement guy’s voice; That should never happen”. And then someone else will question, “Why is there cowboy fiddle?”, or “Why is this Americana crap on the record?” Essentially, they’re like, “Why doesn’t it sound like ‘Summer Babe’?”, or something else to that effect.

As you can see, I’m saying that I think a lot of those things have to do with familiarity and biases, things like that. We all have that. You don’t want to have a hamburger with peanut butter on it, even though that could be good. I don’t know, I’ve never tried that!

Elvis probably would have loved that!

Yeah, exactly!

Even if things like that aren’t “successful”, I think it’s a really good thing to try new combinations and try to move outwards. Instead of building a tree straight up that’s so strong, have it expand sideways with the roots and branches out reinforcing this constant, different thing. I think that’s the way to go.

When you say that people comment, ‘The Pavement guy shouldn’t have autotune on his voice’ and that your songs have to follow a particular sound, does that make you want to explore new styles, even more?

Not necessarily. I’m blessed with some time this year, and now too, to experiment with some things. It’s just a little different how I work and how a lot of people work now. All the demos from the past used to go through a four-track and maybe a reverb and like a couple of effects on guitar and drum and that was what you got.

Now, I’ve got loads of silly effects that I can play with at my beckon call. So there’s a chance that I’m gonna fiddle with something. It’s just gonna happen. Also, with arrangements, and everything, it’s much easier to reimagine songs. The songs on Sparkle Hard, for whatever reason, they were imagined like four different ways before those final versions you hear on the record, today.

I have demos of playing fast or piano only, different chords and such. I don’t know whether that’s necessarily going to be a good thing during that process. Sometimes you imagine that there must be some direct thing and you lay it down at the moment. That moment’s passed for someone like me. That moment comes when you’re first making something up. I don’t know, it’s about revising and that feels good.

I don’t know if you write short stories occasionally, or articles; you might not feel too bad when someone edits the hell out of it. If they’re good, of course! You’re gonna be like, “Thanks for taking the time or even wanting to edit the shit out of my thing. That’s awesome!” Afterward, you might see that they only change a couple of sentences. That’s a great way to work, I think.

‘Kite’ had been floating around with The Jicks since Wig Out At Jagbags, released in 2014. Why did you decide to develop that song and give it a home on Sparkle Hard?

I liked the melody; it’s only three chords. Often, looking for a three-chord song that isn’t boring is a thing I like to do. When I get one of those, it’s amazing. There are so many songs that go from E to A, that kind of Velvet Underground interval.

This song doesn’t do that, it’s a different interval. We tried to do it on [Wig Out At Jagbags], we played it really slowly but I knew that the last thing we needed on that record was another slow song. I’m always looking to play songs a little bit faster at this age.

Are you conscious of your age?

Not when I’m making music, in the morning when I’m waking up I’m aware of it!
Often, when I think about age and talk about it, it’s the age of the music that I focus on. I have a distrust in people making music for a long time, I assume they’re gonna suck. There’s a fear involved, I guess.

That distrust is projected onto people making music in their fifties or sixties, I imagine that the songs are going to be risk-averse and not edgy. I don’t know what that says about me, though. People rise above it and prove me wrong.

I can see what you mean. I have that with Bob Dylan, to a certain extent. I rarely venture past Street Legal.

Yeah, me too! If you listen to his new albums, though, they’re amazing. I have a total bias against them, like Time out of Mind. Bob Dylan is so great, he just seems like a dude that Ireland would love because he’s very verbal.

But yeah, I have a total thing where I don’t want to listen to anything after 1975 and it’s not that I don’t even give it a chance, it’s just so lame.

I find it very difficult to commit to anything from the 80s, even Slow Train Coming which is on the cusp of that period. Dylan completely loses me with the religious albums.

Yeah, that’s fair. Desire is amazing, I love that record.

Are you able to listen to albums from earlier in your career objectivity?

I don’t think I would ever be able to listen to my music objectively. I probably wouldn’t even try to. I can run through songs clearly in my mind, the same way you can hear a Bob Dylan song you really like without having to listen to it. I feel like I’ve listened to my music enough. It would probably be a good idea to eat a marijuana gummy, weed is legal in Portland now, and listen to those records and see what I think of them. That would be a good idea, I haven’t done it lately!

I was wondering if there was a lyric that embodies the overall sentiment of Sparkle Hard?

Not really, I hate to say. There are a lot of words on the album that are, to a varying degree, successful, in my opinion. Not every word or lyric is going to be fire, so to speak, for me. There’s definitely going to be some hits and misses.

‘Middle America’ is a song a lot of people, especially in America, have honed in on. That was the first song we released off the album and the lines getting the most attention are, “Men are scum” and “May you be shit-faced the day you die”. And yeah, I agree, they’re pretty cool lyrics. That song has got a lot of quotes similar to a biting Dylan style. At the same time, it has lines where I’m singing, “Kiss yourself metaphorically.”

I don’t really need to say that line, I’ve said stuff like that before in my life. Even though it has a good flow, I don’t think it’s incredible. But, you have a good line, so what’re you going to do? Not everything in a song has to be airtight because that’s the freshness of it. Hopefully, there’s some of that brightness in it. If I can hear the blood coming from the brow of the writer, that’s great. That’s what I like to hear.

There’s sort of a middle ground. You’ll hear someone question why I’m singing certain sentences and they may not be into it. Whereas, others will be excited by the same line and think it’s perfect. Obviously, I would rather that; for every line to be just right. But, that could also be kind of wearying.

It’s like the analogy of the tree you were talking about earlier. The grooves and ridges running along the bark aren’t going to be uniform and the leaves on the branches grow differently but that’s what makes a tree beautiful.


You’re getting ready to embark on the European leg of the Sparkle Hard tour. You lived in Berlin briefly, a few years ago. Do you ever get nostalgic for that time?

Yeah, living in Germany was surprisingly fun. You wouldn’t think that if you haven’t been there. I mean, everyone has seen pictures of Berlin and there’s this stereotypical idea that it’s all parties, dance-clubs, and 24-hour beers. That can sound appealing, I’m sure. But there’s more to it.

I remember feeling like there wasn’t a huge amount of pressure on me to work, which was different from America. I don’t know if it’s their social system or it’s a European way of living, but they like to sit outside cafes and relax.

Everything in Berlin shuts down on Sundays which is nice because it allows everyone to slow down and spend time with family and friends.

Yeah! It’s so quiet and actually, it’s such an empty city for how big it is. Of course, you can go to the tourist areas and there’ll be big crowds of people gathered in one area. However, there are so many places you can go and feel the emptiness. It’s also a really fun city to bike around. Big cities where it’s safe to bike around, that’s about as entertaining as just about anything to me. To be on a bicycle and explore neighbourhoods I’ve never been through, I love that feeling. I would certainly like to go back there.

Did you take advantage of the flea markets to find some vintage gear to mess around with in the studio while you were there?

We did go to the one in Prenzlauer Berg. But I never really found anything. We lived in Charlottenburg and I liked it a lot there. Everything was sort of passed its prime and shabby in a way I like. There were some second-hand stores there that felt like they were from 1987 or something; pre-wall comedown, almost.

Did you write at all while you were living in Berlin?

Not really. I was mainly trying to soak everything in. I had a piano there and I went out to see rock bands in clubs. That was it in terms of music. Generally, I kept a pretty low profile while I was there, musically. It was a good time, though. My partner’s an artist, and so that time it was more about visual art. She was working like a million hours a week so I went to the Venice Biannale and Documenta. I saw a lot of art which was different for me.

I watched Slow Century, the Lance Bangs documentary about Pavement, a year ago since then I regularly think about the Lollapalooza set in ‘95 where the crowd threw mudpies thrown at you while you were performing. Did that have an effect on you and, perhaps, make you hesitant to perform?

I got hit all the time when I was in Pavement! In Montreal, on the reunion tour, a person got me with a perfect shot right in the chest with a beer while I was singing. With that, I have to say to myself, “Well, I’m getting paid to do this show so I have to carry on.”

It makes you realise that you’re doing a job and you have to keep entertaining through it. It sends you into a transactional mode, right away. Not everyone is going to like a show and they paid money to get in so I have to finish and get them out of the building.

I saw that you’ve been playing some Pavement songs on this tour. How has it been revisiting those songs?

Yeah, we’ve been doing that because it’s entertaining for the fans and people like hearing those songs. For some reason, we just randomly decided to feature tracks from the fourth album I made with Pavement, Brighten the Corners, for no real reason. It’s been really fun playing them.

Cool! It seems like, based on your live commentary via Twitter, that you enjoyed the World Cup, during the summer.

I love The World Cup, it’s pure enjoyment. I’m not into nationalism, necessarily, but it’s funny how people can be of two minds like England being so pissed off about Brexit and then the football comes on and they’re like, “Oh England!!” It’s funny how people can be divided like that.

Whenever I watch soccer games I can look at my phone. When I’m in my basement doing that, I have no one to watch the games with. My partner doesn’t like sports and my daughters couldn’t give a fuck. Also, the games were on at like eight in the morning. My kids are at school, so what else am I gonna do? Naturally, I’m going to reach over to my virtual friend, the cell phone. I’ll write things on Twitter and wait for people to write me back and it’s entertaining. Sports Twitter is funny.

Who were you cheering for? Ireland didn’t qualify so I was rooting for Croatia because I thought Luka Modrić was amazing throughout the campaign.

I liked Croatia, I was rooting for them, too. I liked France too, that might be sacrilege to say. Every dude on that team was totally handsome. I don’t know how those guys were created but the whole team was completely sexy. During the final, I was hoping that Croatia would win, though, because you want to see the underdog succeed.

What were your World Cup 2018 highlights?

There were a lot of nail-biters during all the extra time and the penalty kick-outs, like when England beat Colombia on penalties. I don’t know if I call that my highlight, necessarily. The one I enjoyed most was probably Belgium versus Japan.

Did you have a favourite kit?

Oh yeah, I liked the Croatian one, that was really cool. I think there was a kit from a South American team that people supposedly liked, although I can’t remember that one. I’m usually not one to comment on sports uniforms but, you know, just like how I noticed that all the French dudes were really good looking, you’re looking at this field for ninety minutes and you think, “Oh, all these dudes could like be models. Hey! These outfits are pretty good, too.”

You have to understand, I’m used to just seeing the standard, old-fashioned uniforms. Then during the World Cup, I’m exposed to all these outfits that are so cool. Suddenly I’m seeing loads of cool colour combinations and I started to feel like I could be an interior decorator, or whatever, because I can tell what looks good,now!

Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks play Dublin’s Vicar Street this Friday. Click here for tickets.