Stephen Malkmus on returning to Scotland and the new Jicks album
The Skinny catches up with Stephen Malkmus of Pavement and 'Jicks' fame ahead of his welcome return to Scotland in October and finds him 'laying low' in Indiana
This month sees Stephen Malkmus and his band The Jicks make a welcome return to Scotland – a territory seemingly close to the former Pavement frontman’s heart – with a show at Glasgow's favourite party warehouse, SWG3. "I have a long musical history with Scotland,” Malkmus recalls with fondness. “People were always really sweet and were really into Pavement."
When pushed to remember the band’s earliest trip over, he gets foggy, chuckling with moderate despair – "Oh fuck…" – but soon geeks out over some of the country’s finest exports: "We played one of Mogwai’s first shows," he remembers. "They came down to London to play and they opened for Pavement. They just had these hilarious smiles on their faces, playing this big, giant room. They were just 'havin' it’ or whatever. There was just this youthful glee at making this big pile of noise. I’ll never forget that.
"I remember I gave them a leg up in the NME or something too," he smirks. "Yeah, 'Mogwai’s gonna be the future' or whatever. It helped them, I think, although it’s not exactly why they were popular or anything. But when you’re a young group, it’s always nice to get a tip from somebody bigger; a commendation. Sonic Youth did that for Pavement."
When Malkmus chats to The Skinny from a hotel room in Indiana, "laying low" before a flight back to Portland, Oregon that afternoon, the now 52-year-old father of two sounds pretty much the same as he always has: laid-back to a fault and funny with a sort of youthful, carefree tone to his conversation. Kind of like he’s just out of bed, but he’s happy you woke him. Or at least, he’s cool with it.
From waxing about his fun time playing Middle Waves Music Festival the night before and kicking it with the "really sweet dudes" in IDLES, to schooling us on Indiana and its storied rock history – from garage punk upstarts CCTV ("you gotta check them out on YouTube, they’re great") and late-70s art punks MX-80 to state sons John Cougar Mellencamp and Axl Rose – The Skinny finds him in fine fettle. Or as he puts it: "just chillin'."
Malkmus' seemingly effortless cool and permanent state of chill was, and perhaps still is, often clumsily interpreted as 'slacker' – although it’s a weird label to apply now to a legit adult with a family. Still, it was a label gratuitously applied to Pavement and others like them as a way of lending context to a combination of music and style that didn’t seem to care much about anything at all, least of all meeting expectations of fitting other people’s idea of what the band was.
But that sort of tossed-off stream of consciousness sound and almost gleeful indifference often belied the effort that went into crafting some of the finest contemporary rock records ever made – headed up by easily one of the greatest and most criminally overlooked guitar players of his generation.
Now 30 years deep into his career, Malkmus' evolution from weirdo noise rock into the well-oiled melody machine, responsible for songs such as Cut Your Hair, Gold Soundz and Range Life, continues on with his totally-not-new band The Jicks, close to celebrating 20 years together in their own right and now on their seventh album together, Sparkle Hard. Arguably the best Jicks album to date and riddled with some of the smartest songs he’s ever churned out, Sparkle Hard sees Malkmus' past musical meanderings and sonic diversions converge into his fullest and most consistent piece of work for years.
From tongue-in-cheek country (Refute – featuring guest vocals from Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon) to heavy duty guitar workouts (Shiggy) and the delightful, very Pavement-y Middle America, the album taps into what Malkmus and crew have always done best, but ventures far enough into the wild to still feel new and exciting; peppering this collection along the way with a surprisingly tolerable use of autotune, mellotron, strings and piano among other unlikely flourishes.
The stomping and indignant Bike Lane is also notable for making an unusually direct lyrical reference to Freddie Gray, a young man killed by police in Baltimore in 2015 – a catalyst in the eruption of the Black Lives Matter movement. As part of a wider indictment of petty, privileged concerns in one part of the country – like fussing over the titular new beautiful 'bike lane' in one’s city – while horrible things are happening in others, the song is particularly moving in a way it might not have been if the name was changed or the reference was buried under clever word play.
While Malkmus has often maintained in interviews that the onus when interpreting a song and its meaning lies firmly on the listener, more than unpicking or unpacking it or pinning his colours to the mast, he pretty much just wants you to like it. "It’s a whole package thing, [the music and the lyrics]," he says. "It all holds each other together. There’s not one without the other. I mean, sometimes I find myself just sort of reciting lyrics at shows every night to the point they’re devoid of meaning because they just become sounds, like the guitar. But early when you’re writing them and deciding what they mean on paper you try to get emotional resonance."
When asked if he would care if the lyrics were lost on someone, despite his best efforts to communicate something – especially something poignant or serious – it seems to not be much of a concern, as long as you can take something from it. Or, as he puts it better himself: "I want people to like it for whatever reason... I want to be liked!" he laughs.
As he continues, it becomes clear he’s got a stake in this and that however free-flowing his music may sound, historically right up to the day, there’s always been an intention, a push and heart to it. And while many artists would be quick to assume their own importance, it’s heartening to have a relative veteran like Malkmus be honest about wanting people to like what he does, even at this stage in the game. "I want people to hear it," he says simply. "I want people to want to listen to it and to be part of people’s lives, so that’s the kind of participation I try to get with the music."
It’s probably safe to say it’s a job well done on that front, too. Sparkle Hard’s unanimous critical thumbs up makes it Malkmus' best received effort since debuting as a solo artist in 2001. And while we’re a good couple of decades on from the rabid fervour once recklessly levied at four guys and their guitars or whatever, it would appear that armed with a new sack of tunes about as good as anything else he’s hammered out and the anticipation for his upcoming tour already palpable – in millenials and younger too, not just grunge nostalgists and Generation X-ers – Malkmus is still as relevant as you want him to be.
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks play SWG3, Glasgow, 18 Oct
Sparkle Hard is out now via Domino