Generational icon, quirky wordsmith, and esoteric record hound, Stephen Malkmus, the former lead singer of Pavement, indie rock’s most important band, has released his fifth solo album with the Jicks, cryptically titled Mirror Traffic, produced by Beck.
Now that he’s sped through narcissism he consented to being grilled by The Morton Report's resident traffic cop, Jaan Uhelszki. He confesses to a gelato addiction, that he rarely listens to the words in a song, and what he really thinks about when he sings.
You graduated from the University of Virginia with a 3.2 GPA, but you write songs like a MENSA member. Do you bone up before you write your songs? I read in one of your interviews that you were reading Seneca and Ovid prior before making one of your early albums.
Well, Seneca and Ovid’s just like pop songs from the Middle Ages, you know.
What’s with the 3.2 GPA?
That was hard to get. I had to work hard for that. That was probably the best grades of any of my friends. My first year there I just got like C-pluses and then you gotta fight back from that, you know? You’re in the hole. I was 18; I was just excited to be away from my parents, I wasn’t thinking about grades.Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks
So then you don’t prepare by reading weighty texts before you write?
No. I just hope it all seeps in.
Where do the songs come from? Is there something that triggers it, or you’re always having thoughts and carrying a notebook?
I don't know, just probably inactivity, eventually things build up. I just really get an itch to do it. But there’s no real trigger. Other songs, sometimes, if I’m at the house and listening to something, I’m like, 'Oh, I’d like to do something like that.' Makes me think about something again. But the lyrics just sort of come randomly. I don't know when. I don't really like to think about it too much.
What were you groomed to be?
I don't know, just middle class, working in some job, and to be happy. I don't know where though, you know. Somewhere.
Did you want to be a writer?
Not really. I don't know what. I thought I’d just, I don't know what, I really didn't, I wasn't so aware of what I wanted to do. It just happened. The band happened at a time where I didn't even have to decide. I definitely didn't sit in my room looking at pictures of Ziggy Stardust and say, 'I want to be a star' or something, you know? That seemed really out of the realm of possibility because our main impetus for doing it was these bands like the Butthole Surfers, Dinosaur Jr., the Dead Kennedys, and Black Flag who came to our town. That was pretty small scale, but that’s the scale we used to measure ourselves. I thought ‘I’d like to be as big as the Dead Kennedys.’ We thought they were massive.
What do you think about when you sing?
I don't know, it depends on how early in the tour it is. To start I think about trying to be good, and by the end I can, you know, think about crossword puzzles, and ice cream and chocolate.
What’s your favorite ice cream flavor?
I like 'em al. but I prefer gelato.
Are famous people different than the rest of us?
I don't know. Yeah, they’re different. You know, millionaires are different from half-millionaires. It’s a different world if you’ve got a lot of money. Probably you walk around on these jet pack shoes. It’s like not touching the earth. But it depends on how famous you are, you know? I don't know about music. I never think of music people as really being famous, you know. For some reason I always think movie stars are way more famous than any—I know Madonna’s famous. But because I’m in the business, I just think that the producers are helping you, and you’re just a face. You’re talented, but Or like David Bowie or Elton John, they have to always be in the public eye. But I don't think ‘God, they’re famous.’ I think they’re desperate. Whereas like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt, that’s famous.
What are you like when you’re drunk?
When I’m drunk? What do I like? Loud music, cigarettes, even though I can't have 'em. I quit. But I want 'em still. That’s about it.
I meant what ARE you like.
Do you have a personal motto?
Yeah, “It’s just a paper wall.”
What’s that from?
I don't know. Probably a quit-smoking manual.
Is there life after death?
No, I don't think so.
Has being attractive ever been a down side for you?
Being so attractive.
No. Not at all. It doesn't help either, though, so. I mean maybe if I took Valium all the time and had no self-doubt. But you still have self-doubt no matter what you look like, unless you’re just super confident.
And it’s not always the most attractive people who are the most confident, anyway.
I always think it’s how someone has been parented that makes them confident.
Yeah, I think so too. Yeah, so it doesn't really matter how you look, it’s just how you use it. Probably it can be a benefit. If you want to be a model or something.
You said that all your goals were met in 1994, at the time of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Have you made new goals?
I suppose, just like to keep in the game, and be happy doing it. It’s not that I really have big aspirations, but you know. I just want people to hear our shit, and it’s fun to share it with a band, do stuff, be productive besides in your personal life and stuff.
An early premonition?
An early premonition that I had? No. I don't know. It’s hard to say. I just have premonitions that like someday it’s all gonna go wrong. That something is bad is gonna happen, but that’s probably normal. Yeah.
I think everybody has catastrophic thinking.
Yeah. Maybe Christian Scientologists don't.
Greatest misconception about you?
I don't really know, exactly. Nothing, really. I don't know. Maybe if they think I’m like a brat or something; I’m not that bratty.
Or that people say that you’re smug.
Not particularly. I have been, in some interviews at times when I was afraid or something, but it wasn't like because I thought I was cool.Pavement
The food group you most identify with?
I guess fruits and vegetables. But I do like just about everything although I’m not a big fan of foie gras, liver, and innards of any sort. I’ll eat it. I just don't order it. I’m not a huge fan of lox but I like 'em. People give 'em to me; I never order 'em myself. But I like salmon. I don't know why. But I just didn't, never had it when I was a kid.
What’s a major flaw in your character?
I’m just probably selfish. Self, like in a greater sense, sometimes I don't think I help people enough or when it’s like a hassle or something.
What do you do to stay thin?
Just good genes. Yeah, I don't really have to do anything. I do yoga and exercise, a little, I don't like to eat really unhealthy food two days in a row. I love junk food, hamburgers and burritos, and I eat 'em. But if I have a day where I just eat junk food, the next day I just want to have like a stir-fry and oatmeal and shit like that.
The secret for your success?
Just a will to win, you know? Competitive edge, probably. Talent, whatever that is, I don't know. But also we like to try hard.
Something you’ve lost but never found.
Well, I’ve lost my essence. No. My wallet. I’ve lost—and I’ve never found it, my passport. No, that got stolen. These are things that just got stolen. I haven't really lost anything. You know, socks. Just generic shit like that.
Favorite household chore, and why?
I just like to pick stuff up and put it away. I used to never do anything, I was a slob, but now I just walk around and put things back, like where they’re supposed to be, and I kinda like doing that.
What inspired you to pick up a guitar?
Just listening to legendary guitar bands like Creedence [Clearwater Revival] and Ten Years After when I was in the seventh grade, and KISS.
I would never have figured you as a KISS guy.
But I was a fan. Ace was my favorite. He was great, and he was the coolest looking one. too. I wasn’t really listening so closely to his playing, I just thought he was the coolest one, that’s who I wanted to be.
I also find it strange that you were listening to stuff like Ten Years After at such a young age.
I just had the greatest hits. “I love to change the world” [he sings] and songs like that. I had a Yardbirds Greatest Hits, and the Rolling Stones' Metamorphosis was the only Stones album I had. But it was good, those are great songs, it’s like the lost Stones' album.
What are some of your all-time favorite guitar hooks?
That’s a good question. “One Simple Task” by SRC is pretty good. It’s heavy, with a real trebly guitar sound [provides the sound effect], a real screamer. I would say “Daughter of the Hillside” by Chicken Shack. Heavy, great riff [sings the riff].
There’s definitely a classic rock bend in what you like.
It happens. If you want riff-based songs instead of chords that’s where you go. On the new record we have kind of a mix between songs you can play on the acoustic guitar and ones that are more about the riffs.
What song do you wish you had written?
“Ballad of Mott” by Mott the Hoople. I loved their version of Dylan’s “If Not For You,” that’s great. They had some patchy albums, I tried to like those albums like Brain Capers and Wild Life, but they’re kinda like these albums that I can’t even remember after I’ve just played them. But sometimes that can be good with some music, but probably not with rock. It just means the riffs are bland.
Over the past 40 years, is there any period you think was especially fruitful in terms of songwriting and why?
1969-70 were good times. Flaming Groovies were rocking, there was a whole bunch of stuff, alt-folk and rock, even jazz was good then. There was more of an album-oriented thing going on then. But in terms of production, things got good in the later '70s, but that’s more just about listening to the way it sounds. You know, “Ah, nice compression.”
I find that I’ll just listen to the tracks and sometimes never even consider the words.
I generally don’t listen to the words until the third of anything, except maybe the chorus. I don’t try to take it in.
Does environment affect your songwriting?
Yeah, I think so. Always. It’s true, where you are is going to affect you.
Do you have a special place where you go to write songs?
Just where I am. I don’t have to go someplace, like down to the room where the candles and the red wine are.
What's the key to writing a great song?
A little luck and inspiration.
What brand and model instruments do you use?
Just Fender and Gibson and Orange and Marshall cabinet. Just nerd stuff.
Bob Dylan or Brian Wilson?