At this point, slackened genius Stephen Malkmus's solo career has lasted far longer than his time fronting indie rock legends Pavement. Over the past two decades, he's dipped his toes into various subgenres of rock, folk, and even electronic music, and the now-53-year-old is only getting more eclectic with age. His latest album, Traditional Techniques — out today via Matador — follows last year's electro-leaning left-turn Groove Denied and branches into variants of pastoral folk, embracing a surprisingly pretty sound that nonetheless carries Malkmus's singular and unique charm.
Before Traditional Techniques' release, we sat down with Malkmus to dig into his deep catalog, as he chose some personal favorites from his solo career and shared some thoughts on their creation and legacy.
"Jo Jo's Jacket"
The FADER: The first time I heard this song on your debut solo album, I was 13 and I was like, "What the fuck is Westworld?"
Stephen Malkmus: I know you're younger, but maybe there were a few things you saw on the telly or on the internet that freaked you out. That movie was on TV in the '70s, and there was a part where Yul Brenner's face comes off and there's no face — just computer circuitry — but he's still killing people. It really freaked me out. It was before The Six Million Dollar Man, so it was presaging this obsession about the birth of computers and what robots could do. I found this 10" record that was an interview with him about his life, and I wrote the song around it. We added the voiceover from Yul at the top of the song and didn't credit anybody. I hope that's not an issue.
Did you watch the Westworld TV show, and what did you think?
I think Evan Rachel Wood's really pretty, so I liked her. Duh, she's a Hollywood actor, that shouldn't be surprising. It lost the plot after a while and got out of control. It felt like Lost to me, in a way — up its own ass, but kinda cool, too. She lip-sync'd to "Jo Jo's Jacket" on the internet at one point, I liked that.
This is the closing song on your first solo album. Do you care about album sequencing?
Yeah, everyone does. I'm not gonna say I'm the best sequencer — I listen to other people on that — but Joanna [Bolme] from the Jicks always thought it was a cool song. I'm not sure why we never played it live. For that album, I had this Roland Groovebox thing with kitschy sounds on it that I wanted on the album, because I thought it was ironic. I didn't fully think it through. When I hear 'em now, I'm like, "That's not as funny as I thought it was." But "Deado" and "Jo Jo's Jacket" don't have them on there very much. As a whole, that album has very good high points and a lot of things I wish I did differently.
"Water and a Seat"
The album this is on, Pig Lib, was the first album accredited to the Jicks as well as you.
There was a lot of hype around my solo career. God bless Matador, and what Pavement opened a door to. Things like The Strokes and The White Stripes were just starting, as well as millennials putting their footprint onto indie rock, but I was still there and I was doing good. [Laughs] I've always done alright. So we were playing a lot of shows, and we had more time to rehearse than we usually do now, so we developed a sense of time and rhythm that was our own and generated a specific sound for that album, which I liked.
Not all of it was successful, but "Water and a Seat" has a rhythm that isn't a real time signature. If you tried to put it on a grid, it wouldn't be possible. But the drummer broke through the grid. I think it's a really interesting song that we came up with. Sonic Youth curated All Tomorrow's Parties at UCLA, and we presented Pig Lib alongside Television, Boredoms, and Sonic Youth. We played a really good show, in our minds — not that history will even care — and this song reminds me of that show.
How do you quantify success for yourself?
Having a good time, but also making a living. I'm a child of the neoliberal capitalist era, so I like to make a decent living and not have a day job. Basic success. [Laughs]
"1% of One"
I was getting into progressive music like Mellow Candle and Thin Lizzy's early albums. The first half of that song is British folk — like Jethro Tull, stuff that I don't really like — but then it becomes epic prog-rock. I guess everyone has to do a 12-minute song eventually, if you stick around long enough and are a guitar band. The end of it is almost like Jane's Addiction's "Ocean Size." Anything you can jam on, whether it's Jane's or the Velvet Underground or Phish, is gonna just be three chords. So I was able to jam and do some guitar solos.
When Pig Lib came out, there was a bit of pearl-clutching about the jam elements. Now, so much indie rock is jammy.
Seems like that. Even Vampire Weekend is trying to signal that in a more happy, peppy, Paul Simon-y way. It's still pretty niche, though. I want to believe in the power of the jam, and I always have.
"Kindling for the Master"
It's funny to listen to this song after you recently released Groove Denied, which also had dance-y elements.
I wish I could remember if I'd even heard of LCD Soundsystem or dance punk at that point. I'd bought a drum trigger machine, which was how that song started. I think everyone who doesn't play bass eventually wants to do these type of things in their songs, and I couldn't wait to do wannabe Prince funk things. Maybe it references Beck's Midnite Vultures — I can't even remember if I liked that album back then. Maybe I was trying to parody the Rapture's "House of Jealous Lovers." We did some cool remixes with Hot Chip and some British people that Lawrence from Domino recommended, too.
"Freeze the Saints"
I chose this one because people really dig it. It's based on this private folk release I'd heard. I wanted to do it like some type of dude that was crooning, so I took some inspiration from that and the song grew into a really sweet song. It kind of wrote itself. There's a little bit of R.E.M.'s early stuff in there, too — something like "Shaking Through." I was playing piano on it, too, which was the key instrument. It's got good lyrics, too. They're clever and emotive, not jaded, just naked and sweet. Some people get feels from it. When I played it live with just a piano player, I found new meaning in the song.
This album was billed as a solo album after Pig Lib.
It was recorded by myself, more fly-by-night. I had some tape machines in my house, and I wanted it to sound like it was made by a one-man-band outsider dork, warts and all. Turns out the Jicks played on a lot of the songs, though — but that's how it started. I just called it a solo album because they weren't playing on every track. But they're on most of the better tracks.
That was right when we met Janet Weiss — can't not talk about her. John Moen from the Decemberists joined us too. Sleater-Kinney had just broken up, so when Janet came up for auction, we were able to grab her. [Laughs] She wanted to push things in a louder, more challenging direction, and that was good and enabled songs like "Elmo Delmo." It starts with a British, almost Zeppelin-y quiet psychedelic thing and builds to orgasmic heights before coming back down again for a cigarette. Janet's so good at that kind of song — she's good at all songs, really. You're getting your money's worth from her on a song like that, if you look at it that way.
This song sounds like it's taunting someone off-camera.
It's a proto-#MeToo song about a predator-type guy that the narrator's calling out. I had an idea to have a female sing the song, actually — but we never got around to it. The vocals were a placeholder for another person to sing, to be honest, but the first take we did with me ended up sounding good and we couldn't find the right person to sing it. It's written from the perspective of someone who's getting sleazed upon too much. Joanna and Janet really shred on that song, I really like the interplay of the rhythm section — it's The Who-level.
How have you seen cultural shifts regarding misogyny in music over the last 20 years?
That's a hard question. I'd really have to think about songs and what they were singing. A group like the Rolling Stones — I really like them, and they're totally lecherous and un-PC. They're very big dick energy. But I love 'em! What are you supposed to do? Everyone does! My wife does, and she doesn't care, and she also realizes we live in a patriarchy. The rules are different for her as an artist, but she still loves the Stones. So what do we do?
"Share the Red"
The album that this is on, Mirror Traffic, was produced with Beck.
Beck had gotten in his mind that he wanted to produce bands that he liked for a little while. He did a really cool album with Thurston Moore [2011's Demolished Thoughts], and he reached out to me. Obviously, Matador would've loved to have any new thing to talk about at that point with what I was doing [Laughs]. Also, he's super talented — I know he's an audiophile, and I knew it was gonna get done in a cool way. It was really fun and interesting. We went to the famous Sunset Sound, and maybe it's a shell of its former self but shit still happened there, so you got some of that boomer energy that Mojo magazine likes. Van Morrison, Jim Morrisson getting his dick sucked — shit like that. The reason I put this song in there is because everyone in the Jicks is really playing on it.
"Stick Figures in Love"
This one was very Beck-helped. It was just a riff that goes on and on. While we were playing the riff in the studio, we saw Beck doing some dance moves like he couldn't help himself — as if he were just enjoying the music. We played it a few more times, and in the end we built the song around a loop of one of our takes. There's a little bit of a "Hey Ya!" feel to it, a simple progression that has a little extra turnaround in it to keep things interesting. The guitars are all direct into the console so it doesn't sound like classic rock — it sounds robotic, like a toy.
This song seems very religiously pointed in terms of its lyrics.
I was reading some philosophy stuff about deconstructing Christianity. I can't remember what I was reading though. [Laughs] There's some good lines about being a connoisseur of scrapple — classic Steve stuff, fetishizing junk food. The production is cool, Joanna's got some really sick bass on this. It's kinda angular in a way that I felt like I was losing as I got more slack and Dead-y. I'm the angular guy, y'know? That's what I do. [Laughs] People used to say Pavement sounded like the Pixies and shit. Don't forget that! You can still do that and sound a bit threatening — it doesn't have to be all rounded corners like "Share the Red." You're a punk, you can be a little offensive.
"Cinnamon and Lesbians"
It's a song for Jake [Morris], the drummer, who's a complete Deadhead. He's from Rochester, so Phish was like his Black Flag — they didn't have hardcore there. Whitesnake was like punk to him, that's just the way his world was. Phish can be a little dangerous and countercultural in terms of the amount of casualties they cause due to substances. But Jake loved them sober, he didn't even drink or smoke weed. A couple of children of my parents' friends got fucked up from being Phish fans, which is kind of intense and dark. So there's an unintended darkness to Phish. They're not all love and sunshine. This song was about making a little fun of Portland, too — it's easy living there. It's just a fun song that kind of wrote itself.
It's a good jam, in the style of "1% of One" or "Elmo Delmo." Getting into a groove was one of the things I did well. It's a good live song that people have related to — they say it's one of their favorite ones. It's got wah pedals, which is potentially dangerous because it hearkens back to a mustaches-and-gonorrhea era, which I don't necessarily want to do.
I just thought that was a successful transformation of a song from demo to actual release, where I got some input from my producer and he wanted to put strings on there — I wouldn't have thought of that, but it took it to a place I haven't been. It was a Fleetwood Mac-type song, or a Kurt Vile-y downtempo vibes song, but with the strings and some of my guitars it almost becomes an ambitious late-period Led Zeppelin song. In terms of arrangements, it goes for more and is something that I am proud of.
"Forget Your Place"
This was me fucking with Ableton and a short loop and thinking I did more than what I actually did. It's a style of recording that I haven't done — get a loop, how much do you wanna add on there, how much do you wanna take away? It's how hip-hop records are made, probably — I don't know, I've never made one. It's about how to be minimal. I don't have too many songs where it's one altered loop, a detuned voice, and a couple of keyboards. It stands out in a certain way.
It's a pretty song that people like, generally. Just like how people compliment a new haircut or a shirt that you're wearing, so you wear it more. It's almost a Burt Bacharach-style piano riff in my mind — I could hear Dianne Warwick singing over it. I thought that was cool. It was also one of the first ones on Groove Denied that was a proper tune. I didn't want to do it as a band song, I wanted to keep it as a Casio drumbeat and one guy. There's plenty of versions of this in our world, from Radiohead to early electronic music, so I figured I'd keep it in demo mode because that'd be its best version.
"The Greatest Own in Legal History"
The narrator is a lawyer who's trying to sell his client who's a poorer kid in the juvie pen to work together. He's a good guy. In the movie, you'd be rooting for this Mark Ruffalo type. It has some cool arrangements. I don't know what to say other than that. I'm getting tired.
We're talking medieval sea-shanty vibes with a Moog, maybe a little bit of Goblin, with some Euro echo vocals. The music is Gregorian, almost — but the dude on top is throwing some internet mumbo-jumbo, the most internet-signaling bullshit. It's got a story about a potential revolution that will be started with a prison baby, the grimmest birth. This child is born, smuggled out, and becomes a savior — or something. I don't know, it's a fuckin' weird song.