Beating the Pavement with Stephen Malkmus

Music Features Stephen Malkmus
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The former frontman for the ’90s’ most important indie rock band has a new solo record, not to mention incurably itchy feet...

Stephen Malkmus can’t disguise his restlessness, but that doesn’t keep him from trying. After climbing the stairway to The Parish—the second-story Austin rock club where Matador’s 2005 SXSW showcase will be getting underway in a few short hours—I run into his publicist who informs me that “Stephen’s literally just woken up.”

Malkmus shuffles over, looking fetchingly priggish in specs and khakis, his lanky frame draped in a collared shirt, sweater and a navy-blue sport coat. The mixture of pedantic threads and groggy nonchalance gives him the air of a lit professor who received nary a student visitor during office hours and has just been roused from a stolen catnap.

But the once-upon-a-time Pavement frontman, who turned 39 in May, has always been a lay professor of sorts, demonstrating a penchant for outrageously literate—though seldom literal—verse. Early in his career Malkmus spun the following lyrics for Pavement’s debut, Slanted & Enchanted: “Imagine if you will Herr Proctor, alias a nobleman, son of son of scion scion / Part of his rich inheritance, parcel in generous divorced sense forklift beam.” Yes, I know. His tunes: head-rocking head-scratchers, all of ’em.

Despite Malkmus’ grown-up exterior, his music has always cultivated the inner adolescent (“I really came out of a songwriting style of jokey punk songs,” he admits). His cheeky wit has been documented to death by the music press, to the point that he appears to play to such expectations. Perhaps this is how indie rockers age gracefully: by continually refusing to take themselves—or the world, for that matter—too seriously. His newest project, Face The Truth, is no exception. On the opening track, “Pencil Rot,” he sings about an imaginary villain called Leather McWhip.

Music should sound good, but it doesn’t have to make sense. Life doesn’t.

While I chill on a bench near the stage, Malkmus joins his band for a brief soundcheck, explaining wryly into the microphone, “We just met on the airplane, so we need to practice.”

After running down a few tunes, Malkmus wants to conduct the interview on foot. He’s meeting some friends for dinner at a nearby restaurant and appears to be in a hurry. So I oblige, following him out of the club and down the sidewalk. “Walking around here I just feel like such a weirdo,” he tells me.

It could be the Ivy League get-up, but it’s clear Malkmus takes smug pride in being deliberately out of touch with the same indie-rock kids who worship him so fervently. You’ll often hear him brag in interviews about how he’s not up-to-date on the music being made in his own genre.

The night air carries faint guitar squall from the doorways of innumerable clubs lining both sides of East Sixth Street. SXSW is the great leveler. The 18-year-old festival attracts bands from all over the world, from countless divergent genres, united in a like-minded quest for what else: notice, attention; more, better.

“I’d play festivals in England and stuff like that,” Malkmus notes, “and I always felt really low on the totem pole. Here I don’t even know where the totem pole is. If we did the Tibetan Freedom Festival, it’s like, ‘Oh, there’s Björk walking around, or the Beastie Boys. They’re up there high.’ And I always felt like we were the ones no one cared about. But here it’s like we’re all young bands who don’t know if we’re big or small.”

I can’t tell if he’s being falsely modest—lumping himself with a legion of untried rock bands, many half his age and too busy snatching ’80s keyboard riffs like candy from nostalgia’s busted piñata to create music with any personality.

Malkmus’ third album since Pavement’s dissolution proves that—regardless of how big or small his solo career may be at this point—his capacity for writing idiosyncratic riff-rock is nothing short of goliath, and shockingly consistent. Maybe even too consistent.

“People give me recommendations that I should try and change things up more, work with other people, give different angles to people. … But it still connects with people, whatever I’m doing. I’m not gonna go totally disco or start doing duets with Loretta Lynn.”

Malkmus is the picture of unflappability. And why shouldn’t he be? A few years down the road when most of the buzz-bin groups at this year’s festival peter out, he’ll still be in the mix. But despite his hugely influential role in the ’90s rock underground and continued relevance, Malkmus seems healthily unconcerned.

“Anyone who’s too much into their career, I just find it a little depressing. You need balance. But that’s just me. Other people, all they want is a career and it works for them. But I was trying to find other things in my life—make sure I have deep relationships going. And a home, since I didn’t really have one for a long time. But I get itchy feet like anyone else and I’m ready to go on tour again.”