Stephen Malkmus: Man in the Mirror

Erstwhile Pavement frontman and de facto Jicks leader <b>Stephen Malkmus</b> ponders the imagery behind <i>Mirror Traffic</i>

Feature by Music Team | 04 Aug 2011

Stephen Malkmus is wide awake for our morning meet; lighting a cigarette on the porch of a busy Soho cafe, he's ready to talk Mirror Traffic – the latest album from his Jicks. Having barely wrapped up the draining reunion shows marking Pavement’s twentieth anniversary and with new material and surprise covers readied for an upcoming tour, the prolific frontman seems to be brimming with emerging ideas. “You sort of get inspired by the failures of the past thing, and maybe the successes also.”

Conceding with regret that I’d missed the reunion shows, he chuckles. “It doesn’t matter… It was alright, but just listen to the records. I mean it was exciting from the perspective of people being psyched to see it. I wasn’t that apprehensive about the reunion, except for the amount of time it took out of my life. It was a big commitment.” During a rare homecoming show in Stockton, California, estranged former drummer Gary Young performed several tracks with the band from their 1992 debut Slanted & Enchanted. “It was just real quick and surreal,” Malkmus remarks of the occasion. “He was, well, weird and not on form unfortunately.”

With Pavement’s ‘greatest hits’ package – Quarantine of the Past – now rubber-stamped, Malkmus is looking positively ahead towards Mirror Traffic, his fifth solo LP. “There are three different kinds of songs on it,” he starts. “These upbeat songs, some angular songs and there’s kind of slower mellow soul inflections. It’s diverse though there’s some tangent throughout that somehow all sounds of a piece.” An early taster, the overtly crass Senator offers biting critiques in stark contrast to the rest of a “relatively accessible” record. Another jarringly discordant moment, Tune Grief, is “more of a lark, it’s almost a B-side in a way, a kind of energy burst to break things up. I avoid pruning records down to their essence, just leave shit on, it’s not like millions of people are listening to the perfect album anymore anyhow!”

Certainly a man of multiple facets, Malkmus attempts to explain the eclecticism of his songwriting: “I looked in the mirror and thought: ‘Who is the real me? Am I just like a laundry-folding father or am I like a songwriter, or a guitar shredder?’ And so I decided to be all three.” Recruiting Beck on production duties appears to have been a shrewd decision, particularly given the inherent eclecticism of his own discography. “It just sounds a little different,” says Malkmus of the results. “I guess he ironed out some of our tendencies to get a little hairy.

Numerous tracks from Mirror Traffic explore the motif of separation, perhaps surprisingly considering Malkmus seems to be enjoying marital life. “[Wife] Jessica was worried about that too. ‘What are you talking about here, you’re not happy?’ she’d say. I’m like, ‘yeah I’m happy, but it’s just the place I go to when writing.’ It’s a John Updike suburban malaise place, that’s my work bench.”


Elsewhere the tone is abated on No One (Is as I are Be) as Malkmus tenderly confides, ‘I feel right at home inside my wood shed,’ stringing together highly personal moments with a real consciousness of one’s place in time. But, engaging musically with intimate personal concerns remains a challenge for Malkmus. “There was an effort to have a fragile bluesy vibe,” he says. “Just trying to make the music go this Bert Janschey direction, or ‘Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge.’ And the way I do that? I go towards my dark unconscious and try to channel this place in my mind, under the fear and paranoia.” A waitress arrives with croissants, jam and marmalade.

The title is itself was derived from a conversation with long-term collaborator David Berman. “I asked him for titles and he sent me a bunch. ‘You can have these for free,’ he said charitably. I’m trying to remember some specifically now; they were all clever but they were really David titles, like Allied Guns or Molten Mamas. So instead I suggested thirty odd titles and he was like, ‘These three will work, they have multi-level meanings.’ It was settled on Mirror Traffic. It ‘s whatever is conjured up in your mind. An exec from Matador said to me: ‘I imagine a Vice Magazine cocaine party, a hot chick in a turbo Carrera Porsche on a Pacific coast highway, looking in her rear view mirror, and like, infinite paranoia vision.’ Then my wife asks: “Is this about living with three girls in your house all the time [Malkmus is also a father of two daughters] causing constant traffic in front of the mirror?’ Yeah, there’s two ways to go with that.”

The collaborative partnership of Malkmus and Berman has forever been close yet fragmented. Ectoslavia were formed alongside Bob Nastanovich in 1989 whilst studying at the University of Virginia, later to become Silver Jews. “Nah, I’m only a session guy for the Silver Jews as it turned out,” Malkmus insists. “It started as my band, or I was an equal member of it, but Dave then took it over… it became his baby and I was just an enabler of sorts, rather than a co-philosophical leader.” With Berman assuming the lion’s share, Silver Jews served as a window outside of Pavement for Malkmus, with writing duties shared on 1998’s American Water, arguably their finest album. Taking a back seat lyrically, Malkmus channelled his energies into its instrumentation. “I was more of a director of the séance and that was fun,” he recalls. “It was more like being a producer and playing at the same time. Even on Mirror Traffic I felt like that sometimes, ‘cause I wasn’t trying to be the architect of the whole building, I was just doing my thing.”

After several turbulent years apart the pair collaborated again during sessions in 2005. It is said that Tanglewood Numbers was nearly destroyed by the electrical fire that engulfed Memphis' historic Easley-McCain studio. “At that time I’m pretty sure he was sober and over killing himself. I don’t think he was yet so obsessed with the Kabbalah.” Berman would soon undergo a profound spiritual overhaul and become deeply involved in Judaism. “It was more about the music and trying to wrestle a good time out of…” Malkmus hesitates.” Maybe it was a little hard to have a good time. It definitely wasn’t like American Water anymore.” Silver Jews have since ceased in 2009, with Berman’s attentions shifting to poetry, yet palpable influences, stylistic alignment and a mutual respect remain between the two friends. “Anybody who has an appreciation for words and smart stuff is gonna love the Silver Jews and there’s a lot of heart in it too. I love his kind of writing. But he has his own style.”


At roughly the same time as American Water, work commenced on what was to be Pavement’s final album, Terror Twilight (1999). I ask whether the “rewarding” atmosphere of the Silver Jews sessions hastened his resolve to call time on Pavement. “Not really. Maybe I’ve said stuff like that before, but regardless, we were getting a little frustrated, and it just gets a little old. That shouldn’t really matter to tell you the truth. What you really should do is just keep writing different songs until a bunch fit the band, but at that point in Pavement I wasn’t willing to do that. I guess I was tired of it, after ten years of living in different cities and just the repetition, it’s exhausting.”

Aside from contributions to Silver Jews and a flourishing solo project with The Jicks, Malkmus has been dabbling since Pavement’s dissolution in 1999. That same year he participated in Kim’s Bedroom, a Sonic Youth side-project including Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, along with Chicago veteran Jim O’Rourke and Japanese drummer Ikue Mori. “That was more about the visual arts, it was Kim’s thing. I really like Jim O’Rourke, so that was just fun! Mark Gonzales was involved too, the skateboarder freak guy… I used to skate as a kid, not very well.” Malkmus seems to have kept curious interests, both imbued musically and as a respite from work. “I play golf, that’s since I had kids. But I was never into racehorses; let me get the record straight. I’m kinda into sports unfortunately, for better or worse, like fantasy basketball…” His latest hobby is Scrabble on the iPhone, as he proudly boasts his high score.

Dipping his toes into the film industry in 2007, Malkmus contributed to the soundtrack for Tod Haynes’ Dylan biopic I’m Not There. “Even just thinking about Bob Dylan, I was open to letting him into my heart. He was a musical dinosaur to me, just massive and one of a kind.” And the Korean Hyundai advert? “Stereo was used in a TV ad [mimes dramatic Taekwondo and imitates Korean infomercial] and then it was over, just ten seconds.” On the subject of Lance Bangs’ 2002 documentary Slow Century, Malkmus shrugs off the Pavement chronicle: “I didn’t feel that much, I felt like the story wasn’t really being told, you know, maybe one day I can tell it. I was a watcher, like you.”

Mirror Traffic is released via Domino on 22 Aug

Stephen Malkmus and The Jicks play The Arches, Glasgow on 11 Nov