Stephen Malkmus, indie-rock's grand pooh-bah, has recently been fielding phone calls for a tech employee looking for work. "I just saw that you have a San Jose phone number," he tells PAPER. "I've been getting calls a lot for a guy looking for an entry-level job in Silicon Valley." Has Malkmus added tech recruiter to an already impressive CV? "Nah," he says. "I got a new phone and I inherited somebody's number, evidently. I get calls like, 'Is Dave there? We're ready to hire you for an unfair wage.'"
If only the tech geeks on the line knew they were talking to the guitar wizard and songwriting savant behind Pavement, they might be more interested in chatting about his cryptic lyrics and wicked licks than landing "Dave" a job. The occasion for our chat with Malkmus is the release of Wig Out at Jagbags, his new LP with the Jicks. It's his sixth post-Pavement album, and one of the strongest efforts of his solo career. On the eve of the LP's release, the main Jick is settling back into his Portland, Oregon, home; he spent the past couple of years living abroad in Berlin with his wife, artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins, and their two young daughters. PAPER caught up with Malkmus on the phone from Portland, and chatted about (amongst other topics) riding the bus in Berlin, his 2014 NBA predictions and Katy Perry.
So you're back in Portland after a couple years in Berlin?
Yeah, we're back in our house. We're way in Portland. Pure Portland.
In what ways did living in Berlin inform the songwriting on Wig Out at Jagbags?
It's hard to say. Wherever you are informs what you do. I had a lot of free time, which is cool, in a way. I didn't have a social life to start there. I spent a lot of time on public transportation, going back and forth, taking the kids to school, for better or worse. So my mind was pretty free, and that was influential, especially when you go somewhere, and you don't speak the language. It's very quiet there, very wide open. The sky's wide and you can see a long way. It's probably a good place to go to write a novel, I'd imagine. It's interesting to be in a big city and be totally anonymous. I spent more time contemplating that sort of thing than, say, going to techno clubs or going to Hansa Studios, where Bowie recorded, and hoping that rubbed off on me. That wasn't happening. [laughs]
Didn't U2 try to do that in the '90s?
Yeah, U2, R.E.M. People try. The guy from the Brian Jonestown Massacre, he has a studio there. I haven't been there. But a friend of mine had been and mentioned that he was doing stuff on the rock side of the street. That's a quiet and lonely street in Berlin: the rock side of the street.
But bands come through Berlin. I saw Kurt Vile play. I saw Thurston Moore. Those were rock things. But I'd say the pulse in Berlin is more on being a DJ and doing a dance night, or a drinking night with music in the background. Drinking and other things, I imagine.
So you didn't have a social life at first in Berlin. Did you develop one?
Well, there were some people from Domino, my label, who were there and took me out and showed me around. And we got to know other parents and expatriates -- I don't know if you can even call them expatriates in Berlin, because it's basically like Williamsburg. Our kids' school was an international school, we tended to band together with the other American parents. Someone would say, "Let's go for ice cream!" And we ended up hanging out with them more. I met a really diverse group of people that way -- not music people necessarily. That was cool. My wife is a visual artist and she did a better job socially than I did, so I hung out with her friends... a lot. There are a lot of cool artists there. There's this guy Tony Just, who's really awesome.
Seems like Berlin has a vibrant creative scene.
It's great for art. And for music. I had a friend named Keith Nealy, he runs this company that sells T-shirts overseas for American bands. I'd go out to a lot of gigs with him. He'd be like, "You wanna come see Cody Chestnutt?" And I'd be like, "Is that Vic Chestnutt's brother?" And he'd be like, "No, he's a soul guy, like the Roots." So... [sighs] yeah.
Wig Out's first single, "Lariat," celebrates late-'80s college rock. How much of that nostalgia is genuine, and how much is tongue-in-cheek?
The song has three verses. The first verse has poetic, cryptic, R.E.M., or even Pavement-ish lyrics, speaking in that secret language that we spoke, that we understood as, "Oh, that's poetry." That sort of mumbo-jumbo that we used to like.
The second verse recalls college, Lord Byron, we lived on meat and the arts. Which is sort of mythic, romantic posturing. You know, no one really lived on Tennyson and deer meat. [Editor's note: he's referencing a lyric from the song, "We lived on Tennyson and venison."] There was this music at the time, but now it's seen through rose-colored glasses.
Then the last verse is more of the reality of what it was like back then, which is you're just kind of fucked up, drinking beer, hanging out with your friends, and you don't know what the future is going to hold but you're just a young wastoid in college. And then as the last sort of pathetic anthem, the singer says, "We grew up listening to music from the best decade ever," which is like saying, "Well, I might not be doing anything with myself right now, but at least my generation's music was so great. We did have that."
It's not cynical, so that's real. But it's also crafted in a songwriter way, so it doesn't matter what my feelings are. That's how I'd explain the song.
"Lariat" lyric video directed by Scott Cudmore
When you were a young wastoid in college, what was the most memorable show you attended?
Probably the Butthole Surfers. I saw them numerous times, and they were at the peak of their powers. This is '85 to '87. There was a moment there when they were by far the most exciting band. They stuck out like a sore thumb, in a good way. There were other shows that I was super psyched to see. I remember seeing the Replacements tour for Let It Be, and being really excited about that. That was a good show.
One of your Jagbags songs, "Rumble at the Rainbo," talks, in a very funny way, about aging gracefully as a punk rocker. Is that a concern of yours?
The main image I have for that song, it could be a movie by Harmony Korine or Bad Grandpa, where you have all these old punks slam-dancing wearing black leather and studs. That would make a really funny video. The song sort of takes on the nostalgia and reunions in music. The tribal aspects of your scene and what you like. It's also like when you write in the back of a high school yearbook, "Don't change." Then you show up to the reunion hoping that holds true.
But yeah, the song's just being funny about punk rock reunions and change. Like, there was a time when a band like Social Distortion would come back, and they'd mix a little Willie Nelson with their punk.
At the end of the song, there's some literal stuff about me. In the late '70s there were some older punks around. I was into hardcore, and they were into Johnny Thunders and the Damned -- the junkie generation of bands. But we were into funny bands, like the Adolescents and Wasted Youth. We didn't like emo or straight-edge, we liked it funny. Junkie punk was not part of our scene. Then at the end of ["Rumble at the Rainbo"], there's a musical representation of how hardcore evolved. Some bands went ska, for instance, like the Rancids, some bands went metal. So there's a quick ska-metal coda, which is saying no one changed, but the music kinda tried to change. Punk went a little metal ... and a little reggae. [laughs]
Why did you gravitate toward the funny strain of punk?
When I was a teen, I liked funny bands. I'd consider KISS and Devo to be funny bands. Well, Devo, at least, had some slightly deeper things going on. Then I got into hardcore punk. As a teenager, I just liked it fast. The Dead Kennedys, they played fast and made social commentary, but they were funny. In the Bay Area, there wasn't much at stake when you're a teenager. You just wanna skateboard and listen to bands like the Angry Samoans. They were great for a juvenile. Loud, offensive, funny. Flipper... they were basically a comedy band, and I liked them a lot. Black Flag weren't funny, but I liked them a lot, too. Their album covers by Raymond Pettibon were funny in a dark way.
"Cinnamon and Lesbians" video, directed by Jay Winebrenner.
Your last few LPs have no screaming; I thought that being a dad may have softened you, but then I read that your daughters' favorite song of yours is "Unfair," which is arguably your screamiest song. Why do you think your kids get a kick out of hearing you throw a tantrum?
[laughs] She likes the lyrics, too, I guess. I liked the Beastie Boys, when they were just yammering and screaming through distorted microphones. It's just fun. It's kind of a monkey in a cage putting shit on the walls -- you relate to the scatological aspect of fucking shit up.
What music do you listen to with your kids?
We listen to a lot of pop radio. I just got in trouble, actually, with a teacher. I was a driver on a field trip for her class. I wasn't told not to listen to music by anyone, and then [Malkmus's daughter] Lottie and her two friends got in and they just wanted to listen to the pop radio station. And I guess they lorded it -- no pun intended -- over the other kids when they got back. And no one else got to listen to pop music.
Has your daughter turned you on to any new music?
She's only eight, but she likes Macklemore. But I wouldn't say she turned me on to Macklemore. I like some Katy Perry songs. I think "Teenage Dream" is a good song. I'm not into "Eye of the Tiger" [Editor's note: He means "Roar"]. I should go old school and play Survivor for my kids.
You recently covered "Beginning to See the Light" by Velvet Underground at a Jicks show in Portland. Lou Reed seems to have been a huge influence on you; did you ever meet him or work with him?
I didn't, but friends of mine have. He has a rep for being not friendly. But as far as I'm concerned, Lou has better things to do than be friendly. If you're a genius, you don't have to be wasting your time on pleasantries with the man on the street. He's a great artist. He created new worlds and paradigms. He played on "Sister Ray." If I had played on "Sister Ray," I'd die happy.
Pavement songs have recently been creeping into Jicks encores. Did the 2010 reunion make you want to play those songs more often?
We did some shows in Brazil, and we broke out a Pavement song, because Pavement played there only once on our reunion tour, but never before. As it gets farther away from the source, I'm comfortable with pulling out a chestnut. It's like playing a cover song. Lou Reed did it. If he did it, why not? For fun, we've played "Harness Your Hopes." I assume that 89% of people at a Jicks show would know Pavement, and it's fun to give the people what they want, as the Kinks would say.
Let's wind this down with some lightning-round questions. Where's the best place in Portland to get a cocktail?
A bar called Tiga. Definitely Portland's coolest bar.
What's your favorite solo album by a Beatle?
Beaucoups of Blues by Ringo Starr.
What's your prediction for the 2014 NBA Finals?
I'd like it to be Indiana and the Warriors. It'll be the Dubs in seven.
Do you agree with Warriors coach Mark Jackson that he has the "greatest shooting backcourt" of all-time?
Well, you've got Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, if they're healthy. And you've got Iggy [Andre Iguodala]. Iggy's not the best shooter, and he's not really in the backcourt. I'm trying to think who has a better shooting backcourt off the top of my head. I love all three of those guys, and it's a great fit. I can see them making a run.
Growing up in Northern California, were you a Warriors fan?
I went to Golden State games, but they weren't good. I was more of a Lakers fan. But I saw the Warriors play the New Orleans Jazz. I remember that game specifically. I went to three games. It was an hour and a half from where I lived. But I like the current ownership, and I like the Oaklandness of it all. And I love Steph Curry. How could you not?
What's the last great book you've read?
The Hobbit doesn't count really, but it's great. But for adults, I'd say Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin or The Drinker. Those are great books that anybody could appreciate, not just someone visiting Berlin.
And finally, "Jenny and the Ess-Dog" is now a 13-year-old song, meaning that today, Jenny is 31. What do you think Jenny is up to in 2014?
She'd be teaching yoga in Sausalito.