IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Stephen Malkmus: Indie rock god

Former Pavement frontman plays by his own rules
/ Source: The Associated Press

When discussing his beloved fantasy sports teams, Stephen Malkmus might as well be talking about his music persona: “If I have a winning team, I act really cocky, and if I have a losing team, I act sort of indignant.”

The former Pavement frontman has just released his third solo disc, “Face the Truth.” It’s now been six years since his seminal, California-based lo-fi indie group disbanded — but they’ve remained relevant.

Two of their five albums, “Slanted and Enchanted” and “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain,” have been reissued in deluxe packages. Other retrospection has included a book (“Perfect Sound Forever: The Story of Pavement,” by Rob Jovanovic) and a documentary (“Slow Century”).

But even without these small tomes, Pavement and Malkmus can be found seemingly ever week in music reviews, mentioned as an overt influence on a new band in the ever-burgeoning indie scene.

“I’m glad to be a part of it,” the wry 39-year-old recently told The Associated Press at the New York offices of Matador, the esteemed label that Pavement went a long way toward establishing.

Matador, like much of indie rock, has grown up over the years. Today, bands that might have previously lived in the underground, turn up on “The O.C.” every week.

“I started when it was still college rock, which it is still somewhat,” he says. “It seems to have become more institutionalized in big cities.”

Now, Malkmus is far from out of touch, but his music tends to be listened to mostly by old fans (whose numbers run high enough for him to sell out most concerts). The shaggy-haired indie hero lives in Portland, Ore., with his girlfriend and their newborn child, which has led him to cut down on touring.

“But I’ve still got commitments and I think the record’s good,” he says. “I want to play it live and give it a little bit of life, which is hard if you don’t tour at all.”

Hail to the thief“Face the Truth” is Malkmus’ first solo disc not backed by his new band, the Jicks — they appear only as guests. The album has been met with the typical critical acclaim for anything SM, as he was once known.

“We hail this thief because his structural influences fold into a signature sound as wholly individual as folk-rock guitar gods Richard Thompson and (the Smiths’) Johnny Marr,” wrote Spin magazine. “For good and ill, this jumble couldn’t come from anyone but Malkmus.”

Pigeonholing exactly what that jumble sounds like isn’t easy — even for Malkmus, who humbly accepts his contribution.

“I can do this sort of sludgy, weird, indie rock thing and it’s original in its way.”

He describes the opening track, “Pencil Rot,” as “British” and “ready to kick ass and take names or whatever.” He adds, “It’s sort of like as hip-hop as I would be.”

Known for a kind of accidental genius guitar playing in his Pavement days, Malkmus has increasingly been noticed for his riffs and solos.

Whether his playing really has matured, it’s certainly less common. More in vogue nowadays is a churning rhythm of chords (see Interpol, Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene). Here, he lets loose dizzying, key-shifting licks on the eight-minute “No More Shoes.”

On the other hand, “Mama” is glowing, falsetto-rich Americana. Though one expects a David Lynch moment of devastation, the cheery romanticism isn’t cracked. “Kindling for the Master” adds digital effects to the mix and “Baby C’mon” is a rock anthem that would put the Rolling Stones back on top.

But the standout is “Post-Paint Boy,” a relaxed indictment of modern artists (before Pavement, Malkmus was a security guard at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York). He sings, “You’re the maker of minor masterpieces for the untrained eye.”

“That song is about artists, but it’s as much about me or any person that’s struggling in the scene to get a little success and it goes to their head, potentially,” he says.

A unique niche in musicMalkmus long ago became comfortable with his place in the music world. In its individual creation, “Face the Truth” may represent his unique niche more than anything before.

“This record, more than any, is just my sound, whatever it is. It’s just what you like and can do. ... It’s not going to be that different unless you get a co-conspirator — somebody else pushing harder against you.”

David Berman has been that opposite aesthetic force for Malkmus in their band, the Silver Jews. Though it’s essentially Berman’s outfit, Malkmus is a frequent collaborator with Berman, a published poet who sings bewildering country in a deep drawl.

The two (along with Will Oldham and others) recently finished cutting a new disc in Nashville to be released this October. Malkmus says the new album is more rocking, and doesn’t expect it to be the group’s last.

Their 1998 release, “American Water,” remains one of the best and most underrated discs of the last decade. Malkmus still remembers having a “special feeling” about it.

“All of us who played on it, in the studio, we were like, ‘Yeah!”’ he says. “Maybe we don’t do that anymore because we’re too old or something.”

Pavement reunion?As the years go by, the expectation for a Pavement reunion grows. At their final performance in London in 1999, Malkmus took the stage, gestured to a pair of handcuffs attached to his microphone stand and said, “Kinda like being in a band.”

“That was stupid,” he remembers now, regretfully. Though there was obviously some tension in the breakup, it appears to have been largely amicable — many of the Pavement guys are in Malkmus’ fantasy baseball league, after all.

But Malkmus says he still hasn’t “really unpacked it that much.” Even though the Pixies and Sebadoh (two other ’90s indie stalwarts) have recently reunited to tour, don’t expect a Pavement reunion anytime soon — but don’t give up hope, either.

“We’re still a few years off from that, I think. I think it’s better to wait until you look old. When the clapping makes you shudder because it’s too much, that’s when you should do it.”

For now, Malkmus plans to keep making albums, and will get back together with the Jicks for the next one. In the end, going solo isn’t his thing.

“This is what’s fun to me, to build more like a band, like a fake band or a real band, with an attitude, sort of. That’s what I like to do.”