a long talk

The Many Different Lives of Stephen Malkmus

The beloved frontman on his new solo album, defining folk, and what to expect from Pavement’s reunion. Photo: Samuel Gehrke

In a certain world, you could sum up the mid-’90s with Stephen Malkmus, crying while drinking a martini, singing Ooh-ooh, ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh. Malkmus’s group, Pavement, is still one of the great examples of what was thought possible with guitars and irony at the dawn of the internet. Decades later, we caught up with the joke, and these songs now feel like the classic rock that they were perhaps attempting to parody. Pavement, to this day, might seem like Malkmus’s peak, but it barely scratches the surface.

In 2001, two years after Pavement’s last LP, a newly free Malkmus released his self-titled solo debut, which featured musicians who would later make up his new band the Jicks. Across nearly 20 years, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks — whose lineup at one point boasted ex Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss — released several good-to-great records worthy of the indie canon, if only for priming an entire generation to embrace the Grateful Dead. With the exception of his 2019 solo record Groove Denied, a low-stakes synth pivot comparable to McCartney II, these albums have allowed Malkmus to expand (sometimes indulge) upon his Mojo-core jams and Garcia guitar solos, which he’d been experimenting with from the start.

This week’s Traditional Techniques pivots once again, deviating even further from what was thought to be the story. Malkmus’s third solo album is less Jerry Garcia and more Gordon Lightfoot … if he were studying Sanskrit. It also embraces ’70s Christian psychedelic and the music he discovered while traveling solo throughout North Africa and the Middle East during the early days of Pavement. It’s one of his most accessible records yet, with more straightforward acoustic songwriting that seems to (mostly) lack irony. Most importantly, Traditional Techniques, with songs referencing classic Indic languages and featuring instruments such as the rebab, kaval, and udu, broadens the idea of what a Stephen Malkmus song can be.

“I’m feeling pretty good [about it],” says Malkmus — tall, dressed down, disarmingly approachable for a 53-year-old dad — over $20 salad bowls in a Soho cafe, the ideal place to talk about how one’s new folk album compares to Missy Elliott.

I read in Rob Jovanovic’s Perfect Sound Forever that you spent several months traveling throughout North Africa and the Middle East right after Slay Tracks: 1933-1969 [Pavement’s 1989 debut EP]. Could you tell me more about that time?
I feel blessed for that. I had a certain amount of money, and I would just last as long as I could. I went to Morocco and Italy. I went to Turkey. That was kind of exotic, by relative standards, for someone like me. You could live a really long time there and probably spend ten dollars a day, have a pretty interesting time and see really old Greek and Roman ruins and civilization detritus. But then I was like, “I’m going to fly.” I told my friend I was with, “I’m going to go to Egypt now.” We’d had a great time, but it was time to part ways because we were just getting in each other’s shit. How long can you last? Two guys staying in shitty hotels, youth hostels, and stuff. So it’s like, “I’m going this way. I’ll see you back in America.”

Egypt was really mind-blowing to a young person [like me]. Totally different way of living. Then I went to Iraq and Syria. I developed an interest in Syria and a skepticism about regime change wars ever since. Also, I was partially sympathetic to the Kurds, and I had some ideas that we could help there, too. I was like many people; I saw a really repressive regime. But Syria’s a beautiful place to visit. I’m just talking as a total tourist.

I picture those places when I listen to the new record. Were you trying to go back to those countries with these songs?
It wouldn’t be me actually being there. There are cool record labels like Sublime Frequencies [and] the renaissance of West African guitar music that bleed into the record. Guys that we have playing on it are actually playing Afghan instruments. I’ve never been to Afghanistan. But there’s definitely some chord progressions on a few of the songs that are not based on blues music.

What are they based on?
There’s a hint of colonial … you have to get on the hump of being a raider of other people’s traditions. I don’t want to do that, but if it’s even Led Zeppelin III or something, if you’re influenced by that, are you less guilty or more? You’re already playing something that white dudes already copped. I don’t know. And obviously there’s nothing wrong with getting totally stoked by some different melodic combinations. Matt [Sweeney] plays on the second song, “Xian Man.” It was like a burned West African guitar pattern that I wouldn’t think to play. It sounded new to me, and it’s not just a “Johnny B. Goode” lead.

I learned recently that kirtan [from album opener “ACC Kirtan”] is Sanskrit for reciting an idea or story, and it’s also a religious call-and-response style of performance.
I’ve been to a couple of kirtans. Of course, they’re not real kirtans. They’re at a yoga studio. I’m not going to talk shit on the people that are doing it, but it’s spiritually tuned-in, pretty yogi women in Portland. Everyone dances for four or five hours sometimes. It’s kind of joyful. So I wouldn’t call it real deep kirtan [laughs]. When I heard the song, the end part sounded like it could be a transcendental zone that you’re getting in. But of course, I have the “ACC” in there.

That’s not for the ACC conference. I did go to the school at University of Virginia, and some might think that that’s about the incredible [college sports] conference that also Clemson is part of. That’s something I do care about. But it’s more like Accelerationism. I was making a reference to a concept of time becoming faster and a kirtan that could exist in this modern world. More of an internet, philosophical kirtan.

Were there any specific musicians you were listening to in order to get into a certain headspace for this album?
The tradition of folky, “important author guy” with a lower voice, like Gordon Lightfoot or Bob Dylan. Primarily dudes. Bert Jansch. I was singing lower, slower, and quieter. It’s basically a guy with a guitar, speaking his truth [laughs]. It’s a little Velvet Underground-y at times. The Stones. PJ Harvey.

You’re describing this record as “folk,” which can have different meanings: a sound, a way to write songs, or playing songs that have been handed down by generations. Do any of these apply here?
It’s just the tools that you use to make it. Very little electricity and everyone playing acoustic instruments in a room at low volume. You could play them electric, probably, and some of them I tried that way. Or it’s just one guy. Just around the campfire, the song can hold up. A lot of songs I write, you can play them by yourself on the guitar, but certainly some of them only work loud with a bass and the rhythm of the drums. So [folk] is less drums too. You should be able to just kind of play it on your legs and hands.

Is that how you recorded this one as opposed to past albums?
We’re all in a room and I’m singing. And it’s a little more performance work in all styles. It self-consciously limits you to record 15 tracks. You probably talk to artists and they have a lot of tracks or a lot of attempts — like, “Go ahead, take a pass at that solo.” And they’re just like, “Try again, we’ll go visit it later” — we didn’t do that. Not on this record. And it affects it. I’m not saying I like it better, but it makes a different feel, at least. You have to leave a couple more things on there that you would take off, probably, if you had the choice. Little flubs. But maybe that’s a good thing too. Or it’s a charming thing. Other people aren’t going to be so hung up on that.

Do you have a favorite song off of the new record?
No. That’s a short answer. I wouldn’t say that. It’s not fair to the other songs. It’s like I’m a teacher, and I can’t say. I probably do have a favorite one, but I’m not allowed to.

“Shadowbanned” sounded different than I thought it would. And “ACC Kirtan,” obviously, there’s all this extra stuff. I didn’t think of it at all. So that’s really nice. I think I need to do that even more in the future, even with the Jicks. If we make more stuff. Let them fuck around even more, I mean.

Is the Theodor Adorno reference with the album title intentional?
I read a quote of Theodor Adorno’s where he was talking shit on the Beatles. I was a little bit stoned when I read it. I was like, “Traditional Techniques.” And I also gave the Adorno justification of it, of course, because he’s really badass and it really ups my status. I’m smart. I’m into Adorno [laughs]. But besides that, it worked in an arch way with guys like me. I’m not an old-school folky. There is a genre of record, made through the ’70s and ’80s, of these albums that were folk records. They were like a scene in a lot of towns, and everyone kind of looks like a math teacher and they play these old-world instruments. And the album covers, if you look at them, everyone looks like a math teacher or a painter. That Bob guy that paints the PBS paintings? I don’t know.

Bob Ross?
Yeah, total nerdcore thing.

Do you agree with Adorno that the Beatles were terrible?
No. I’m a big Beatles fan. They’re amazing. There’s a lot of fucking information packed in. A whole bunch of fucking melodies, and countermelodies, and counterpoint, and blah blah blah. You can’t really talk shit on the Beatles. It’s hard to do. No way I would do it. They’re not my favorite. I like the Stones better. We can have a drunk bar conversation where we say “Beatles,” “Stones,” “Kinks,” and I’m ready for that. But I love those songs. And I can’t believe some of them. I mean, the White Album. So good.

I think my favorite off your album is “Cash Up.” That actually sounds a little bit like the Beatles.
That or “What Kind of Person.” That’s got a George Harrison vibe. [Malkmus starts singing the song’s melody like George.] “Cash Up” is more Paul or John. No Ringo on there, though. I guess “Shadowbanned” could be a little … no, there’s no Ringo around.

On your past records, did you ever try to channel this new record’s more overseas-inspired feel?
I have had some songs that have Indian-style solos. “No More Shoes” specifically, and “Pencil Riot,” a sound that’s not so far from this album. It even has a fake sitar on it.

What makes it fake?
It’s from the Indian presets on the Roland XV-2020. It has sort of “Get Ur Freak On” Missy Elliott sounds. It’s all digital. It’s used by Indian pop songs from the ’90s and ’80s.

Are you going to cover Missy Elliott then?
I wouldn’t mind.

Is there an underrated Stephen Malkmus solo or Jicks album?
Underrated? No. I mean, not really. I mean, all of them. I think every artist should say that, right? Unless you’re the Strokes and you have Is This It. That can’t really be underrated. There’s only like Radiohead, the Strokes, White Stripes, Frank Ocean, and Kanye West. And Beyoncé. They don’t really get to say things are underrated. The rest of us, we’re just fighting for the scraps. So we got to say that. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. They can’t call that underrated, right? Everyone agrees.

What can you tell me about Pavement’s reunion shows at Primavera Sound in Barcelona and Porto this summer?
I’m pretty psyched. We’re going to be there on the big stage, get really good treatment. I could be Erykah Badu or something. We’re just going to play these couple of chime-y things from “Grounded.” It’s one of Pavement’s classics. Even the people that don’t know who we are, they’re just going to hear it and it’s going to sound like butter. Ten percent of the people are going to be on X and molly. They’re going to really be waiting for Tyler, the Creator. But they’re just going to be like, “Oh, I like this. I want to check out their whole back catalog.” And they’re going to look on Spotify. It’s all going to be there. That’s what’s going to happen.

People are going to be like [Stephen does a French accent] “I want to check out this guy.” And they’re going to hear Traditional Techniques. “This is just as good, if not better.” The French people there are going to say that. “It’s perhaps even better.”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Many Different Lives of Stephen Malkmus