Stephen Maulkus' many roles
The once poster child of alternative rock talks about fatherhood and his new album ''Real Emotional Trash''
As grand entrances go, it isn’t very rock & roll. The station wagon in the driveway should have been the first tip-off. And the rainbow-colored Fisher-Price toys scattered on the front steps should have clinched it. But it really only sinks in when Stephen Malkmus answers the door of his Portland, Ore., home with his 3-month-old daughter dangling in a papoose around his neck.
The former Pavement frontman — the sarcastic, razor-witted matinee idol who Courtney Love once called ”the Grace Kelly of indie rock” — has bags the size of steamer trunks under his eyes. Very large steamer trunks. His once-artfully disheveled hair is now just disheveled. This is what rock gods look like at 41: sleepless, haunted, and trussed in a Baby Björn.
”Don’t mind her,” Malkmus says, bouncing on the balls of his feet in a desperate attempt to quiet the screaming child. ”You’ve caught us at kind of a hectic time. We just parked our 3-year-old in front of the TV because she’s sick. She’s got an earache…” He cuts himself off and starts to laugh. ”I can see the look on your face. You’re probably thinking, This is why our magazine loves George Clooney. He’s a bachelor!”
Just then, Malkmus’ equally harried wife, artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins, walks into the room. She tells her husband that they should probably consider canceling their under-the-weather daughter’s birthday party the following day. Malkmus moans like the put-upon dad in a sitcom. ”We can’t do that. Let’s wait until tonight and see how she’s faring.” His wife looks my way, asking, ”Do you have kids? My advice is put it off as long as you can.”
This is not the way we expect our rock stars to age. It might not be fair, but there it is. Certainly no one ever imagined a day when Eddie Vedder or the guy from Guided by Voices would be stopping off at Starbucks on the way home from yoga. Or the members of Rage Against the Machine would be worrying about their mortgages. But we all grow older. Our lives get…complicated. They get shaken up in ways we’d never have expected when we were 25.
Back then, Stephen Malkmus was the brainy slacker poster child of alternative rock — the face and creative force of one of the most seminal bands of the ’90s. Pavement’s debut album, 1992’s chaotically melodic Slanted and Enchanted, may have sold only 100,000 or so copies at the time, but its impact rippled way beyond sales figures. Along with Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten, the album seemed to prove, for a brief window of time at least, that underdog bands from places like Seattle (or, in the case of Pavement, Stockton, Calif.) could knock off bloated, heavy-rotation dinosaurs like Guns N’ Roses and Tom Petty. In time, Nirvana and Pearl Jam would become as big as the bands they were overthrowing, selling millions of records. But Pavement always remained Gen-X Davids, armed with guitars instead of slingshots.
Today Malkmus is 41, a father of two, and, more than anything, a guy struggling to continue doing what he loves — playing beautifully ferocious music — in an increasingly uncertain and freaked-out industry. But while he’s got a few strands of gray in his hair and a living-room floor littered with stuffed animals, his latest album, Real Emotional Trash, is a primer on how not to suck at 40.
Real Emotional Trash is the fourth record from Malkmus’ post-Pavement band, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks. And with the recent addition of pile-driving Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, it’s easily the band’s fiercest yet. With its cosmic, fuzz-drenched guitar jams and surreal lyrics (”Who was it that said the world is my oyster/I feel like a nympho stuck in a cloister”), it may even be the best record Malkmus has been involved with since Pavement’s sprawlingly gonzo Wowee Zowee in 1995. It’s as if he channeled all of those earaches, playdates, and neuroses about turning into his parents into a defiant, psychedelic testament to aging gracefully.
”I’m not going to have some soft-rock epiphany just because my personal life has changed,” he says, swaying his wailing daughter back and forth. ”We’re definitely not ‘dad rock’ like Coldplay.”
When Pavement broke up in 1999, no one in the band was sure whether or not it would be permanent. ”It didn’t end badly,” says Malkmus, searching for the right word. ”It was just one of those things where there wasn’t much talking. We didn’t even really discuss it and end it with a group hug. I don’t know that anyone wanted to quit for sure, but we definitely needed to take a break. It just kind of became a break that turned into a breakup.” He shrugs. ”There could have been more closure, I suppose.”
Malkmus doesn’t particularly like talking about his previous band. Nor does he particularly dislike it. It just seems like a long time ago. ”I’m happy to reminisce to a point,” he says. ”Now that I’m not in the band anymore, it’s kind of like talking about something that has a life of its own. It’s like, ‘Yeah, good for Pavement! They’re still going!’ But it seems quite distant to me. I’m a thousand percent into what we’re doing now. It’s smaller in certain ways, but it’s more real.”
After Pavement split up, or took a hiatus, or whatever you call it when there’s no group hug attached, Malkmus moved to Portland with a handful of songs that never made their way onto one of the band’s five records. Free of what he calls Pavement’s ”lack of spirit on the recording side,” Malkmus wasted no time, cranking out Stephen Malkmus in 2001, followed by 2003’s Pig Lib (credited with the Jicks) and 2005’s Face the Truth, a largely self-produced solo project cooked up in the moth-infested recording studio in his basement.
While Jicks bassist Joanna Bolme and guitarist-keyboardist Mike Clark have been playing with Malkmus since his first solo record, they say that they didn’t feel like a real ”band” until after Pig Lib. And now, with Weiss beating the crap out of the drums, Real Emotional Trash sounds like a band hitting its stride. Tightly. Some of this has to do with Malkmus’ easing of the reins. After all, it’s no secret that Pavement was largely Malkmus’ control-freak fiefdom.
When he’s asked how the Jicks work, whether it’s a democracy or a benevolent dictatorship or maybe even a not-so-benevolent dictatorship, Malkmus laughs. ”It’s a pretty classic arrangement, where the singer can only sing his own songs,” he says. ”So I write the songs and then it goes through the band grinder to figure out the sound. It’s more like the Stones and I’m Jagger/Richards. But it wouldn’t be the Stones without Charlie Watts.”
His bandmates may not be thrilled about being reduced to the Charlie Watts role, but then again, being ego-free may be a prerequisite of the gig. Says Weiss: ”We really wanted the band to just be called the Jicks on the new record, but the record label” — the independent Matador, Malkmus’ career-long home — ”felt that it would confuse people. Like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Look what happened when they just called it Blues Explosion, they didn’t sell any more records. For me, that’s the hardest thing to get used to, because I don’t feel like a backup band. I’m not a Pip.”
On top of that is the ever-looming and at times oppressive shadow of Malkmus’ previous band. ”The P-word,” says Bolme with a noticeable wince. ”People shout out Pavement requests at concerts. I think it’s natural for people to long for that. That band was so pivotal for a lot of people. It was a magical time.” Adds Clark: ”It’s not a bad thing to be associated with. I think Stephen has a healthy attitude toward it. I remember practicing for the very first tour and Stephen was like, ‘Well, we probably should learn one Pavement song to play.’ I thought he’d say a big song like ‘Cut Your Hair’ or ‘Summer Babe,’ but he came up with the most obscure song they ever recorded.”
It happens fast. So fast that it would have been easy to miss. Malkmus is standing at the corner of a busy intersection on the way to a local coffee shop. His baby is still crying and still bundled snugly against his chest. Then, just as he steps off the curb, a Toyota speeds up to beat the red light. Malkmus jumps back to the curb and mutters under his breath, ”This is a residential area!”
Here’s the strange thing, though: Malkmus wears the cranky-rock-dad thing well. Sure, he did at one point coo praise to his baby daughter for letting out a little squeaky wheeze of a fart. And no, he doesn’t have the slightest clue that he’s had a small puddle of drool on his sweater all morning. But for a guy who’s spent the past decade and a half drinking warm beer in tour vans, he’s a good father. ”I’m okay,” he admits. ”If you talked to me four years ago, obviously I would have never thought I’d be doing this.”
Which isn’t to say that he isn’t itching to go out on tour in a few weeks, the first leg of which kicks off in Minneapolis on March 19. ”Certainly, I’m looking forward to it, yeah! Of course, I’ll miss them terribly, but I’m looking forward to looking out for Number One for a few days,” he says, cracking up. ”Some things are more precious the less you have them. Sometimes I think it’s really therapeutic to sing and sweat and play…just pick up the guitar and try to get lost in it. We still shred on stage and play hard. We’ll go up against anybody.”
When he finishes this thought, Malkmus looks down. After two hours, his baby girl is finally asleep. And that certainly seems as good a place to end as any. As he says goodbye, Malkmus finally discovers the wet puddle on his sweater. He touches it and raises his finger like a shiny trophy. ”Hey, look — drool!”