[MUSIC: Interview] Stephen Malkmus
“I don’t think I’m one of the great lyricists or anything, but I try to develop my own sort of iconography, and just be myself – and that’s all I can really take credit for.”
Stephen Malkmus is discussing his reputation as one of the most feted lyricists in modern music. As Malkmus rightfully points out numerous times, it is easy to critically disassemble his lyrics and singular songwriting technique: fractured phrases crash into non-sequiturs; songs barely hold a common thread from one line to the next; throwaway thoughts are shoved unceremoniously against sweet succinct ones; and verses wander into the woods with the attention span of a Ritalin-kid. Like Dylan before him, Malkmus is clearly in love with language while willing to disregard almost every convention associated with it. Yet, befitting of a man who will forever have the term ‘slacker’ affixed to his name, he claims, almost proudly, that his lyrics are as thoughtlessly tossed into the mix as detractors would suspect. “I don’t over-think lyrics or anything that much, so I also understand that people like things a little tighter. I could see someone wishing there was a little more effort sometimes,” he laughs.
In Australia currently with his post-Pavement outfit The Jicks, Malkmus’ last recorded shot was the sublime and criminally under-rated 2010 release Mirror Traffic – his finest solo outing to date, and the first time he has teamed up with Beck, who sat in on production duties. Considering the pair’s parallel careers – scrappy lo-fi beginnings in the early ‘90s, MTV-flirtations, critical and commercial success, strings of wildly inventive records, plus boyish good looks – it’s surprising they had never worked together until Beck called Malkmus out of the blue one day, ostensibly to catch up. “What he was really doing was saying he was a producer now,” Malkmus explains. “He wanted to produce some bands because he had a recording set-up in his house, and he was in a time when he wasn’t working on new material, or he was having trouble with that… and so it just happened.
“Either someone told him to contact me or he did it of his own devices,” he continues, “so I thought, ‘Yeah, sure, why don’t we do it with him?’ He’s got all the cool stuff, he’s not gonna, like, try to over-charge us or do any of the things that you have to consider when you’re dealing with a producer. And I know him: we did Lollapalooza together in like ’96 or something, with Hole and Sonic Youth [actually ‘95] – he had the ‘Loser’ song, but it was before he did the album, Odelay, so he was not a big star yet but he was a novelty star. So I was like, ‘I like that dude’ on that tour, we got along, and then I hadn’t seen him for several years – and in that time he put out a lot of records.”
Given both artists’ experimental tendencies, it is more than a little surprising that the pair produced such a tightly-woven record, with little of the excess present on recent Jicks outings or Beck’s post-Seachange releases. As Malkmus explains, this was always the mission statement. “I just wanted it to be a get-in-and-out-quick type of album. I didn’t want to sit around with, like, seven pedals and plug them into each other backwards and forwards and sit there on a chair with the engineer for three days, which is normally what goes about on albums. I wanted to kinda just play it live and get the solos and everything live. We had some jammier songs but we just got on a roll recording in a room, just like, boom, boom, boom – like an early Beatles session, not that that’s what came out. That’s our version of it,” he says. “Maybe it was the studio we were recording in, too [Sunset Studio in LA]; it was like a ‘60s pop studio. It’s a place Buffalo Springfield had recorded, so it’s a place you go in and play your West Coast-style guitar-pop psych-rock, and every song is like three minutes. That’s how we were thinking. I think we sorta blew our wad – that’s not my favourite adjective, but we … spent our energy on guitar solos on the last record. Playing those songs live, it was exhausting by the end of the cycle to bring this energy to these longer jams. So we just pulled back a little bit.”
Malkmus has spent the two years since Mirror Traffic’s release writing the next Jicks record, which is yet to be recorded but will feature sparingly in setlists on this current tour – he jokes about our high concert ticket prices, and reassures BRAG that he wouldn’t waste people’s money performing unfamiliar songs. He also recently relocated to Berlin, a move that thankfully hasn’t impacted too heavily on his trademark style of laconic pop – yet. “We’ll have to see,” he says. “I haven’t really made any deep connection with the electronic scene here. I’ve been out a few times to discos, but my grasp of the technology isn’t there. I have some inkling of things I like when I hear that music, things that I’d like to perhaps incorporate, but then you get back to the people you’re playing with and their strengths, and what is really special about The Jicks. To self-consciously adopt new influences might break what is really special about what we do as a live band. Maybe that energy is more special.”
Who: Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
Where: The Factory Theatre
When: Friday October 5