You’ve almost certainly got a picture of Stephen Malkmus in your head. The eminent alt-rocker’s legend follows him around. You’ll either know him as the erudite lead singer of Pavement: deadpan, wisecracking and horizontally nonchalant. Or you’ve listened to his solo work and leader of The Jicks – in fact, that ‘solo’ career has now lasted far longer than his time in Pavement. You may think you’d figured him out: that he plays a certain type of rock music. But as he gets older and more experimental it’s becoming increasingly difficult to pin him down to that King Slacker archetype.
There was last year’s electronic Berlin-influenced Groove Denied (a record that was such a departure that his record label initially refused to release it – hence the title) and now his latest long player, Traditional Techniques, is a record full of warm, intimate, gentle folk complete with flutes, sitars and gently plucked 12-strings. It’s the sound of an artist exploring new ground, pushing himself away from the sound he’d become known for. Or, should that be, redecorating.
“There is something about working with the same people that’s a comfort zone. I value things like loyalty and friendship and keeping things together but after a while you have to get out of the house and into a new place. In a certain way I feel like I’ve covered the ground with a rock fourpiece. I tried to repaint the walls again and put new wallpaper up and it was a new house for a second but maybe I was a little comfortable. But I’d always had these ideas – recording myself, the electronic record – and this was a good time to work on them.”
“I tried to repaint the walls again and put new wallpaper up”
Now the house has been completely torn up and renovated – in a very sedate and tasteful way. If this was Grand Designs, Kevin McCloud would be talking in hushed wonder at the new walls, the flowers blooming next to a babbling brook. Because Traditional Techniques is one of the best albums he has made. It’s also the sound of Malkmus opening the door to new ways of writing and performing. From 2001’s eponymous Stephen Malkmus up to the excellent Sparkle Hard in 2018, his records were full of well-crafted, witty and dextrous alt-rock but this is something different.
To trace its origins back you have to look at when he wrote the soundtrack for Will Arnett’s Netflix series Flaked, about a man (Arnett) who habitually lies and attempts to stay sober while maintaining his relationships. “That was a lot of labour but it also put me in the mode where I had to come up with stuff daily. So that picked up my work pace. It just got me into making music that was in different genres and not necessarily my first instinct which is sometimes how I make rock music – trying to capture the spirit of the first creation.”
Groove Denied, mostly written in Berlin, was a departure, an adventure in electronica – weird, dark and foreboding. But Traditional Techniques feels spare, open and natural, in many ways a leap forward and something that finds him in a new space. Less about that first creation but the art of cultivating and building songs up. He’s previously talked of this newer music as “an attempt to make different connections to other trees in the forest that I find myself in,” and that makes sense here. “I always had in my mind these ideas to do this and I learnt from Flaked that I can up the ante on them.”
The album is an almost entirely acoustic work – pastoral and folky and full of 12 string guitar. There are musicians like Matt Sweeney and multi-instrumentalist Qais Essar and recorded by The Decemberists’ Chris Funk. “I needed somebody to have my back and Chris did. He plays resonating guitars, and all these instruments that I have no idea how to play. He’s really into this music and I bonded with him.”
There was a more practical reason too. “I had some gear like a 12 string guitar and sometimes you buy an instrument or you have it lying around and you feel like you have to use it just not to be wasteful. It’s like I’ve got this instrument sitting in the closet – what can I do differently? That’s my Protestant guilt,” he laughs.
It took some rethinking for him to come to terms with the sound. “I like that kind of music and I listen to a lot of it at home and maybe I sometimes would have a bias against it as not something you wanna take out on tour – like, how you gonna blast that out live? It’s gonna be different. When we were recording it was so quiet in the room that it was bizarre when you’re used to doing loud music. it seems that most people that have been acoustic whether it’s Bob Dylan or suddenly eventually became electric but I’ve gone the other way.”
“It’s like I’ve got this instrument sitting in the closet – what can I do differently? That’s my Protestant guilt”
The lyrics, as you’d expect, remain on point, taking in social critiques of bourgeois parties and referencing Reddit and emojis. From its title on ‘Shadowbanned’, with its burbling Middle Eastern flow, talks in the language of online with lines like “Amazon wheat fields and rivers of Red Bull” and “May the word be spread via cracked emoji”. And ‘The Greatest Own in Legal History’ is a great title. He laughs “It’s about a self-confident lawyer like a white saviour – he’s like pretty full of himself but you know he’s also maybe a guy you’ve seen a movie or something. His intentions might be good but he also thinks highly of himself. That actual line just works so well – imagining someone like Robbie Robertson – The Weight. And yeah that’s a little bit of jargon from the people of today.”
Though he uses Twitter he is not a particularly online person. “I take pictures of memes and stuff – I’m not a meme sharer but I mostly use it for politics, sports and stuff. That’s what it’s good for I guess – slanted politics. I don’t do Instagram or Facebook – I definitely get too much just from Twitter. I’m more of a watcher. I mean, it’s like a newspaper of a certain sort now. Some people are really good at it but you obviously have to have a thick skin to thrive on it cos if you say anything vibey someone is going to shoot you down.”
Of course, the internet has obviously also changed the way music is consumed. He’s pragmatic about the impact it’s had. “From a consumer point it seems like a good time. You can instantly hear the free songs and the artists you like, and then it’s kind of up to you to decide to support them financially. I guess it was always like that in a different way. But… now it’s even easier to escape without paying for time,” he laughs. “Like most people, I noticed that there’s way less money from the record sales than there was in 2004 or something. But, you know, if you really don’t like it, a person like me could just pull a Wu Tang type move and just sell one record rather than having the miniscule streaming payments for eternity from Spotify.”
Seeing the world through the eyes of his daughters – thinking about how long they’re online and also just being in their world – has also given him a fresh perspective on how the music that used to be thought of as countercultural is consumed and discovered. The reality of all that can hit you in some unexpected places – like a burrito restaurant. “My daughter really wanted to go to this place she saw on YouTube, some kind of medium scale burrito joint and they were playing the Stooges and then Big Star – it was some kind of playlist I’m sure. Now that’s normal – this music that when we first liked it we thought that we were discovering something that ‘the normies’ would never appreciate. Now it’s just background music and we thought it was counter cultural.”
Of course Malkmus is now part of the culture himself – an alt rock elder statesman whose influence you can hear across so many acts. Pavement’s influence is undeniable. In fact he’s even being namechecked now – 19-year-old beabadoobee last year released a brilliant swirling, fuzzy song called ‘I wish I was Stephen Malkmus’ that told the story of her “sitting at home, crying to Pavement”. It was sincere too – she projected one of the band’s 1992 concerts on stage at one of her shows rather than booking an opening act. Malkmus said he ‘tripped out’ when he heard it and later met her at Bea’s show at Portland’s Crystal Ballroom venue.
“I wouldn’t call them bangers, but there’s songs that resonate. If the sound’s right and the hour’s right I can see them really click… even if you’re there to see Tyler the Creator.”
Bea will be delighted that Pavement are back to underline that influence when they play two exclusive shows at Primavera (if it takes place) in Barcelona and Porto (he confirms they’re the only shows they’re doing: “You can try to look online you won’t find anything else.”) He seems relaxed and upbeat about the whole thing. “I mean we’re developing a set list and there’s some talks with a stage projectionist guy – we’re gonna concentrate it in May and everyone’s coming here and shit like that. It’s really organised so that’s good. We have every chance not to fail.”
Their relationship with the founders of the festival made it easy to say yes. “The guys that started are from a similar generation of music fans and worked on some very early tours and stuff.” Adopting an impression of the Sopranos he says “They came from a place of respect, mafia style of whatever… ‘We’re family.’ And I get to stay in a hotel right by the entrance and wander around to my heart’s content and get a free breakfast.”
“Everyone’s pretty psyched to do it. I wouldn’t call them bangers, but there’s songs that resonate. If the sound’s right and the hour’s right I can see them really click… even if you’re there to see Tyler the Creator.”
Are you telling me there’s going to be a collaboration?
“That would be sick.”
Photo by Samuel Gehrke