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Pavement's Stephen Malkmus: Viva la anti-diva

Web posted on: Monday, June 21, 1999 1:42:59 PM EDT

By Donna Freydkin
Reporting for CNN Interactive

(CNN) - If pride truly goes before the fall, than Pavement's Stephen Malkmus should have nothing to worry about.

For a guy whose band is credited with leading the lo-fi indie-rock movement of the early '90s -- a band still hailed by music critics as one of the decade's most powerful groups -- Malkmus seems decidedly indifferent.

"I'm not worried about having hits," he says. "We've made our mark and I'm happy with what we've done. The rest is just icing on the cake."

That icing includes accolades from writers at the New Yorker, the Village Voice, Rolling Stone and Spin, all of whom fawn over the California band. But Malkmus insists he's not a rock star and never wanted to be. He says he plays the game to keep certain people happy. His label executives and family, in particular, he says, like seeing his face in print.

"I'm not against making a living," Malkmus says. "I get to do art and people say I'm great, occasionally."

Speaking from his home in Sun Valley, Idaho, Malkmus sounds mellow, somewhat aloof and self-effacing, the quintessential slacker. But then again, Pavement is a band that, ostensibly at least, made its mark by never trying to make a mark at all.

That shrug of the shoulders hasn't stop critics from heaping piles of praise on Pavement's fifth release, "Terror Twilight," out this month.

"'Terror Twilight' is [Malkmus'] most direct statement of purpose ever (in short: 'Things hurt, and growing up is hard, but kissing helps'), and still the songs and lyrics slide around with a decorous unpredictability, like ice on a hot stove," writes Rolling Stone's Joe Levy.

Entertainment Weekly's David Browne gives "Terror Twilight" a B+ and describes the album as "just emotions in motion."

Malkmus, ever taciturn, reacts on a basic so-what level. Since its 1992 full-length debut, "Slanted and Enchanted," Pavement has gone its own way, he says. Any success was incidental.

"Spit on a Stranger"
[230k MPEG-3] or [315k WAV]

"Folk Jam"
[165k MPEG-3] or [225k WAV]

"You Are a Light"
[160k MPEG-3] or [215k WAV]

(Courtesy Matador Records)

Different Strokes

Nigel Godrich, who worked with experimental pop gods Radiohead and Beck, produced "Terror Twilight." The album blends blues jams ("Platform Blues"), pretty pop ("You Are a Light"), folksy country ("Folk Jam"), metal ("The Hexx") and early 1970s classic-rock staples ("Cream of Gold"). The first single, "Spit on a Stranger," was released in late May.

Initially, Malkmus says, the band planned on recording four hard-rock songs, four pop numbers and four weird stoner-type tunes. Except for coming up short on the heavy material, Pavement reached that goal. The album was recorded last summer.

"We just wanted to make something that we thought was beautiful-sounding and special," Malkmus says, "but how do you go about doing that? I don't know. But as far as sound goes, I don't worry about that. It takes care of itself."

And while critics tend to scrutinize Pavement's cryptic lyrics for deeper meaning, Malkmus says they're just words, not a musical take on Kafka. Alex Ross of the New Yorker calls Pavement's lyrics "sublime nonsense." Malkmus tends to agree.

The band just completed a small-scale showcase in Europe, playing in Paris, London, Brussels and Cologne, and now hits the road for its first United States tour in more than a year.

Merry pranksters

Pavement was conceived by guitarists/vocalists Malkmus and Scott Kannberg in the 1980s as a studio project in Stockton, California -- also home to crooner Chris Isaak. The project gradually evolved into a band and in the summer of 1989, Pavement released its first EP, "Slay Tracks: (1933-1969)." It became a quick underground favorite.

But it was with the release of the 1990 EP "Demolition Plot J-77" that Pavement secured a devoted following.

With its 1992 debut "Slanted and Enchanted," Pavement stole the hearts of critics, fans and even modern rock-radio devotees. The band made a name for itself fast on the strength of its kinky arrangements, convoluted lyrics, sinuous melodies and almost haphazard thrusts of pure noise. The acclaim was heady, says Malkmus.

"The response to the first album was shocking," he says. "That was exciting back then. It was fun to see something you did in a little Stockton studio be in Spin magazine. That was great. And I knew then I wouldn't have to do anything else through the '90s because my career was mapped out for me.

And there was fun. At one point, band member Kannberg circulated the rumor that Pavement had tried out for an episode of "Beverly Hills, 90210," but got into a fight with Jason Priestly and was kicked off the set.

Pavement who?

By 1994's "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain," Pavement was trying to purify its sound. Part of the housecleaning involved getting rid of drummer Gary Young. He exited a year before the album was released, and was replaced by Steve West.

Pavement's cleaner sound even yielded the unwieldy band a near modern-rock and MTV hit with the single "Cut Your Hair." But mainstream success continued to elude Pavement and "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain" only cemented its cult following.

"We're realistic about knowing that we're not out to hit the mainstream," Malkmus says. "We're trying to make great music for the time, but not to make timeless music. You just try to make something special."

"Wowee Zowee" (1995) was even stranger than previous Pavement offerings, and was hammered by bad reviews. But the band did manage to get a prime spot at Lollapalooza. Its members spent the remainder of the year recording 1997's "Brighten the Corners," which won back some critical hearts.

Now, with "Terror Twilight," the band's leader says he has no delusions about his audience. And after a taste of mainstream success, Malkmus remains realistic about making a dent with mall shoppers.

"If I was a betting man," says Stephen Malkmus, "I'd say the malls of America wouldn't embrace our type of music anyhow. Let's just say we're a discriminating-palate kind of band."

Music talent scouts are surfing the Net
June 17, 1999

Pavement's official site
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