It’s a very understated sort of thrill to talk to indie-rock godhead Stephen Malkmus — former Pavement frontman-turned-leader of the Jicks, erstwhile solo artist, cool dad. Even if his voice never rises above the soothing, slightly distracted tempo of a very mellow golf announcer, it’s hard not to fall under the spell of the singer’s famously laconic speaking style and circular, vaguely guru-like musings.
Recently, Malkmus phoned in from his home in Portland to discuss his excellent new album Groove Denied, why his longtime label initially rejected it, and what he learned from his recent sojourn in Berlin.
You had no albums for four years, and now two in 10 months. Did you have some kind of creative burst of energy?
Well, I think time passes in an accelerated fashion, and four years can feel like one year when it’s said and done. So I mean, I don’t really know. I did another album before this one called Wig Out at Jagbags, and before that I was living in Germany, [plus] parenthood and my partner’s career and also 18 years of just barreling ahead.
So that whole time since about 2012 I’ve been making songs, but I was just not pushing it out to do interviews and tours and stuff. There’s no real reason. I think probably most musicians you talk to, if we’re in some sort of writers block or crisis of health or really deep insecurity, then we stop. But otherwise we’re always writing songs.
I did this other album, Sparkle Hard, and then I had this other thing always gestating and I just decided to — ’cause I did a lot of f-ckin’ interviews, pardon my…[laughs] a lot of interviews for that record, at least in my mind, and now I’m doing it again — but I was like “Well, I can just slide in on that attention.” Because you know, it goes fast, people’s attention. They’ll be like, “That guy that released that one song that was in that band, I haven’t even thought about them in a while, who was he? Oh, yeah.”
Sparkle felt like a pretty classic Jicks record, it was reviewed well and ended up on a lot of year-end best lists. But with Groove Denied there’s already this narrative that’s sprung up about the heads of Matador Records flying out to Portland to reject it in person. Though it sounds like the rejection wasn’t actually that harsh. They basically were just saying “Let’s put Sparkle Hard out first.”
Yeah, I haven’t talked about it, although they’re my friends. Maybe they were trying to be more proactive in the artists and repertoire side of the business — like trying to keep up with a sort of millennial “We’re all in this together, let’s collaborate and be open and have channels” instead of being sort of Gen X quiet-quiet boy and not talking about our feelings.
My other label, Domino, was like, “That’s cool, we’ll work with whatever you put out,” you know? But they’re also super busy with other things, and to me it’s kind of nice to get editorial feedback — it’s like having a friend read a story you wrote and telling you what they like and don’t like. I mean, I don’t think it was destined to just sit in the slush pile forever.
And so I guess I was confident enough that I have a voice and I can put it out anywhere if I wanted to anyway, since I’m not contractually bound. I think they also wanted to show that they were committed and interested in some new contextualizing of my music instead of just dropping it out there and letting it ride on the coattails of people that already knew me. So I appreciate that, I guess. If you’re gonna put stuff out on a record label and they’re gonna take like half your earnings, you want them to do something, right? Otherwise just put it out on Bandcamp and tour. So, yeah. I’m just gonna take all the positive from it. [Laughs]
When the press release for the album said, “Stephen Malkmus is working with ProTools and Ableton and drum pads!” you almost think that’s blasphemy. And the song “Belziger Faceplant” starts out very minimal and scratchy and electronic, but pretty quickly it just starts to sound like you.
Yeah. Yeah! You know, there was potential for it to go in that direction, and some of the stuff I’ve been toying with — even the quasi-electronic style songs on there, that was sort of the greatest-hits version of those songs. In my mind, there’s like 50 more minutes of it, and when I listened to it I liked it because I made it, but I also realized it’s not that good. [Laughs]
When you finally get down to what kind of thing you want to put out, what you want to get behind, I just pick the best stuff. And I sort of subjectively rationalized it as electronic in that, you know, all the drums are fake and it’s all digital — well, not fake, but pads and a lot of electronic drums.
And you could be like, “Well why didn’t you just take those songs to a studio and make them with a full band?” But I thought, “This is how it goes together. This is one person in a hall of mirrors, with some modern tools that are all post-’90s, post-internet tools. What can I do with that? What do I have to add to that dialogue?” So that’s how it came out.
You moved to Berlin with your family a few years ago, which is known as sort of a hotbed for a certain kind of electronic music. You’ve been back in Portland for a while, but did you spend a lot of time going to shows or absorbing that while you were there?
Yeah, I did. It’s kind of a mix. It’s fun to live in a big city where you’re the only person that someone who’s coming in from America knows. Other bands would come and be like “We’ll put you on the guest list!” so I would go to all the rock shows of people I knew. But as far as new things or people I met, like dads at my kids’ school and stuff, it was mostly “Oh I remember, you were the Pavement guy.”
The German dads know you?
Yeah, they do. I did a fair amount of press there, especially in the ’90s. I hosted the 120 Minutes of Germany and stuff like that — I think it was called Wah Wah? There was a time in Germany when English and American music, they really tried to push that, but now there are more German bands — nicely so — that sing in German and do not perhaps care as much for landfill indie like they used to. [Laughs]
Groove Denied is out now on Matador Records.