"Mikael?" the voice on the phone asks.
"Uh, yeah," I answer hesitantly, suddenly thinking hard, trying to remember if I've forgotten to pay my phone bill or call my dad on his birthday.
"It's Steve." A beat. "How's it going?"
That's how Stephen Malkmus introduces himself on the phone when you have an interview with him because he's just made a new record that bears his name and a funny picture of him in an Underdog T-shirt on the cover. It's possible that that's how he always introduces himself, but I wouldn't know, as this is the only time I've ever talked to him, and he happens to have released the just-described record about a month ago. It's a good one, quite a lot like the ones he used to make when he fronted Pavement, the sort-of-California-based indie-rock band he started in 1989 with friend Scott Kannberg that led to critical fortunes and artistic ones, too.
"I like the picture of you on the cover of the album," I tell him instead of introducing myself.
"Yeah, it's pretty funny." A beat. "Don't let your girlfriend see it."
Dallas Observer: So I thought this record was supposed to come out under the name of the Jicks.
Stephen Malkmus: Yeah, well, you were just supposing too much there. The band is called the Jicks, the three of us who made the album. I'm a Jick, and they're Jicks, but we just figured, "Well, they're gonna use my name anyway."
DO: Did you have to convince the other Jicks that they're important?
SM: Well, a little bit. I was like, "My face is on the cover, and it's all about me a bit," and they were like, "That's cool; we understand. Just get us out of Portland." And they've got their own things going on, too. They've worked with this guy Elliott Smith and stuff, and he's even more of a stage hog than me, so I didn't feel that bad. At least I let them play on the record.
DO: Why Portland?
SM: Hey, man, good town.
DO: I've only been there once. It was raining.
SM: Yeah, it's not that great. But it's solidly good.
DO: When did you move there?
SM: Like four years ago. [Laughs.]
SM: Yeah, I've been there awhile, but I didn't really admit to myself that I lived there for like three years, 'cause I was touring a lot, and I was like, "Fuck this small-town shit. New York rules." Or something. But now I'm kind of into it, sort of.
DO: Did you know these Jicks before you moved there?
SM: No, I met 'em through the grapevine. Whatever. They're like ticks: They get on your legs and you can't get 'em off. No, they're just around--friends of friends that I met eventually. John Moen, the drummer, he's probably the nicest person I've ever met.
SM: Almost. I'm trying to think. I think he is. And he's funny. And the bassist Joanna Bolme is not as nice, but she's good at Scrabble, and she's cool, for sure. They're both like Portland veterans, like born and raised there and stuff. I took the real Oregonians, 'cause I'm a fake, you know? Californians are all fakes.
DO: Which reminds me: Is Pavement over?
SM: Why did you have to ask that? Fuck you.
DO: Come on. I need a quote.
SM: Yeah, it's over. It's gotta end sometime. It's not really that bad a thing, in some ways. It was great and a great time, but enough's enough.
DO: You know it was over when you made the last record?
SM: Fairly certain. It's all of our faults, probably mostly my fault. It's just like, "That's cool; we did a great job, but no thanks to another record--like, ever." We'll go on tour again maybe like in 10 years.
SM: Yeah. If they wanna do it, I'll go. I mean, I haven't talked to the other guys about it, but 10 years, you know?
DO: It wouldn't be depressing?
SM: Depressing? Well, you don't know how depressing it is not to. I mean, you wonder why all these old guys keep going out on the road; it's 'cause they don't know what else to do with themselves. I don't know. I mean, if we're not gonna be pushing it in everyone's faces every year or something, if it's just like one tour once.
DO: Did knowing the band was pretty much over affect the making of Terror Twilight?
SM: I don't think so. I mean, I was just trying to make the best record I could with [producer] Nigel [Godrich], you know, and I don't think anyone was really worried about that. Hopefully people were clear. Some people might be like, "I didn't even know for sure until I saw it written," you know? It's just hard to say it to someone's face: "It's definitely over."
DO: After that happened, was the idea for this record pretty much just, "I want to make a record, so I'll just make one"?
SM: Pretty much. [Laughs.] I like your simple, Simpsons-style logic. Yeah, I was ready to go. I had the tunes and the people and the time, so it was all systems go. Everyone [at Matador] is feeling like, "Yeah, it's a really good record. If it were a Pavement record, it'd definitely sell more," so I'm out here giving it the college try. But I was making the record kind of just...I paid for it myself; I was maybe gonna just put it out myself initially, but it kind of grew into something a little bit more.
DO: Writing the songs pretty much the same process?
SM: It was pretty similar, yeah. I mean, that's kind of why it sounds like a Pavement record. That's what people tell me, I mean, 'cause I did a similar amount of piano overdubs and most of the guitar stuff on Pavement records throughout the whole history of the band, so it was pretty similar. I tried to zing it up a little bit or something, compared to the last albums, or just not have it sound kind of slightly disaffected like I did sometimes on Brighten the Corners and stuff.
DO: Was the studio experience different compared to Pavement? I often got the impression that Pavement was sort of like five guys coming together with somewhat different ideas about what the record was going to be. Whereas with this time, it was pretty much your show.
SM: It was pretty much the same, I'm afraid to say. There wasn't really that much communication in Pavement about sound or direction; it was kind of like we just did it. And since I was writing the songs, we were just doing the songs, you know? There wasn't any real, "We should go this way or that way." It was pretty much the same--just like, "These are tunes, it's going in this direction, let's do it again until it's right."
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DO: It seems a little looser than Pavement's stuff.
SM: Perhaps. You could say that.
DO: Or you couldn't.
SM: Yeah. I mean, the only thing I can say is maybe we got on a roll a little bit more in that we were able to do it fast. We had to do some songs over again, but there was no real complete bogging down, which normally happened [with Pavement], where it's just like, "We're not getting it, we're not getting it," in the studio. I think 'cause Pavement was living in different places, and then would come to rehearse and have to cram like two years' worth of band into a couple weeks. And then record, trying to make it sound like a band. Maybe this time, just living in Portland and using my own instruments and being able to zip in and out of the studio whenever we wanted just for a couple days, maybe there was something that we caught that's like you're saying--a more performance-based feel or something. I don't know.