Stephen Malkmus by Tim Nye

“People tend to think that our band is defeatist. Or above it all. It’s not true. We’re definitely a populist, garage band. As far as what critics should be writing about, I’ll leave that up to them.”

BOMB 49 Fall 1994
049 Fall 1994
Malkmus 01 Body

Steve Malkmus. Photo by Gail Butensky. Courtesy of Matador Records.

If Pavement’s single claim to fame was the invention of the “slacker sound,” the embracing of sloppy musicianship as art form, they would simply appear as a footnote in the book chronicling the music of our time. Their music, in fact, becomes significant because it is achieved through meticulous precision and genuine emotion (there have been many inferior imitations). The end result are songs that sting with intelligence and caress with truth. As I greet Steve Malkmus, the enigmatic frontman for Pavement and begin our interview, he nimbly removes the tiny microphone from my grip and responds to my first question, fondling the mike with both hands much the way he would grip a mike on stage. There is not a hint of intended humor in this comic posture. Pavement is irony. The acidic sarcasm contained in a line like, “‘range rovin’ with the cinema stars,” is devoured by Pavement fans for its deadpan delivery and perfectly articulated disgust for the empty symbols of glamorous living.

Tim Nye Everybody knows that you were a guard at the Whitney. What was your relationship to the artwork there?

Stephen Malkmus First and foremost, it was a job, and it allowed me a lot of time to think. Although it’s a weird environment for thinking, it can really trip your brain out, because it’s an odd building to begin with. And going up to 75th and Madison is a strange thing if you’ve never really dealt with the Upper East Side. It’s actually a nice change from the downtown aesthetic. I plan to be living on Park Avenue one day myself, so it was a little test for me.

TN Obviously you wandered through the collections and saw various exhibitions go up and down. Were there any highlights, any exhibitions that you found particularly interesting?

SM I began when the Thomas Hart Benton exhibit was there, and although I never saw it, the night guard said that if you walked around the exhibit after closing you could find his ghost there.

The Post Minimalism show was really good, I thought.

TN That was a great show.

SM Eva Hesse, she’s cool, and Barry Le Va. I never thought I would be into that, but when you’re there for five hours a day, you separate the crap from the cool stuff, the stuff that keeps on growing over time. Just like with music—only objects can be touched.

TN Do you see artwork on record covers as a real form of expression or just something that is meant to pop out when you’re leafing through the racks?

SM I always thought that all it took for the band to be taken more seriously was a little bit of cockiness with our imagery. And that’s all it really was to us. We wanted something that makes the record stand out like a fetish object. Something you should own, not just because of the music, but because of the time the guy spent on it, so the object is valuable in more ways than just the work that was made to record the songs. That doesn’t mean that I don’t consider the aesthetics of the cover and it’s purely artistic side to be valuable, or interesting. But when I am judging our covers, I don’t want them to be boring, independent rock covers. That has been co-opted into a style that everyone uses now.

TN How does art compare with music in terms of an activist medium?

SM Well, music is more open to the general public as far as accessibility goes. High art, obviously, is reserved pretty much for museums and art collections with the odd public project or the odd Keith Haring that manages to become part of pop culture.

TN How do you see the impact that your music has had on the general public?

SM Individuality, and not having to bend down to the man. If you want to be successful in music you can do things your own way. You can have your cake and eat it too. Sort of. The actual music is about different styles and we just try to take the best styles and bring them into our realm, claim them as our own.

TN Your music has captured a certain moment in time and a certain attitude and voice. You have the ability to take your music seriously, but there is a pointed looseness to the band’s style. You poke fun at yourselves and that disarms your audience: sarcasm with an edge of sincerity, and dead on song writing. The ability of people to understand that would seem very pertinent. But is your music striving to go beyond just making people feel good?

SM It isn’t really anything more revolutionary than other musical moments. Some music is more political than ours, obviously, and some music ends up being co-opted into things like Woodstock. Woodstock wasn’t necessarily political, but it’s come to symbolize certain values: anti-war, human rights, stuff like that.

TN Does that potential for music interest you? Do you feel that it’s an important way of getting the message out there?

SM I normally take it for granted that our audience is aware of these things. We haven’t reached a place where I feel I’m obliged or in a position to talk to my audience, to preach to them and say, “You should know this.” Most of them are educated and liberal, and they can make their own decisions. But that time may come.

TN What do you think about music writers these days?

SM I’ve found that many writers are very jaded and think they have it all figured out. When they discuss you, you think they’ve missed the point. There’s more to it than they think. We are not that self-indulgent or cynical. Our actual music, while bitter, is open-ended and more positive than that. We’re bringing the best parts and saying, these are good parts, sonically. There are some good riffs and good shalalas. People tend to think that our band is defeatist. Or above it all. It’s not true. We’re definitely a populist, garage band. As far as what critics should be writing about, I’ll leave that up to them.

TN When you’re live on stage, are you trying to belt out the songs and do them in the most emotional way possible, or do you feel like you’re in some ways sculpting a stage persona, moving more towards performance?

SM I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Normally, I put in earplugs and close my eyes. This year, there were so many concerts. I got really tired of singing songs. It depends, how much you have to drink, little physical things, your state of mind … Sometimes you feel like yelling and having the cathartic thing, and sometimes you don’t even feel like being there, so you play by the rules and do your job, unfortunately. But that’s because we play 50 shows in 55 days. It’s really not fair to the fans, actually, who are going for a rock moment. But it’s different every night, and that’s a good thing. We want something different every night, to feel and to play in a somehow slightly different way. [Walking through the Crash exhibition at Thread Waxing Space]

TN You seem to have more of a response to more tactile, plastic arts, rather than conceptually oriented things.

SM I like some of it, but the more conceptual work can be very dry. When it gets down to it, I am into the ownership side, things that I would actually want in my house. That’s one way that I judge art. I know that’s not fair … a lot of this stuff is supposed to be seen in museums.

TN Everybody has their own relationship to art, and some people are looking for something with potentially earth-shattering messages and others are looking for something that pleases them, and moves them, emotionally.

SM I’ve noticed that I’m kind of political right now, I like art thats message is to better the world, not just aesthetic. I like a good idea, like Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

TN You know, the only thing I really care about is that people are taking risks and trying to push their work forward. The art market has been pretty depressed in recent years. Galleries tend to show “safer” work, refusing to show work that takes more time to understand. This puts artists in the dilemma of whether to continue making work that they have sold successfully in the past, or to really propel their work forward, and risk slower sales and their panicked gallerist dropping them from the gallery.

SM The same in music, there’s not that many really incredible groups …

TN That’s really what you feel right now?

SM I like the Royal Trux and Guided By Voices, I think they’re particularly gifted. There are other bands, I’m sure. Come is cool live. Julian Schnabel has a band, did you know?

TN I heard. In fact I heard that he was recording a record.

SM Yeah. He’s recording a record, somebody was telling me about—it was Bill Laswell. He’s like, “I mastered his record. Yeah. He’s going to give me a painting.”

TN (laughter) That and $7.50 will get you to the movies.

SM He said it wasn’t bad and there’s some funny people playing on it too. It’s like a session musician thing with all the stars—Michael Stipe’s thing with them, Syd Straw was there …

TN There seems to be so much potential for the overlap between art and music creating some kind of hybrid that nobody seems to be exploring. Today’s music videos are so generic and unimaginative.

SM Music videos are about selling things, it’s not really about art. Nine Inch Nails have a cool video. Did you see the one that they made with this medical vibe to it? I thought that was an artistic success.

TN Just like selling records is important, you always try and strike some kind of balance without selling out.

SM I mean the object is to be able not to work a day job.

TN That’s how I met Steve West [the drummer for Pavement]. He was mending holes in the wall. You took him away from all that. How has he changed the band musically?

SM Not much yet really. Steve has a very good spirit and he’s got a good work ethic. These are kind of dull things to say, but musically, I can’t tell if he plays behind the beat or leans into things, but I know that he’s always going to be anxious to learn things, and he always wants to improve. Even if I don’t know, he always knows exactly what he’s supposed to be going for and that’s good. I think our fans even have that problem. I don’t really always know what …

TN … what a good Pavement show is?

SM Yeah. I mean our fans shouldn’t be expected to because they didn’t write the songs. They’ve got other things on their minds besides Pavement.

TN What do you think about when people make an incredibly elaborate effort to read into the deep and inner meaning of Pavement songs?

SM I like that. We put in little trap doors and stuff for people to fall into if they feel like doing that. As consumers of things we like that mystery, I like listening to records that way—searching for the meaning of the lyrics. If people want to do that, I’m flattered in the end. But I’m not really accountable for the way they interpret our songs because a lot of it’s random, or luck.


Tim Nye is the founder of Thread Waxing Space and Sonic Net.

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This excerpt is from BOMB’s Spring 2021 issue.

Originally published in

BOMB 49, Fall 1994

Featuring interviews with Kiki Smith, Arthur Miller, Steve Malkmus, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tom Noonan, Fiona Rae, John Edgar Wideman, Frank Pugliese, Diamanda Galas & John Paul Jones, and David Bowes.

Read the issue
049 Fall 1994