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Pig Chattin'

The Tao of Steve: "It's gotta be a good groove."

When Stephen Malkmus walks into the conference room at Matador Records' New York offices, he's wearing these enormous eyeglasses, like something someone working in an airplane hangar would wear to protect his or her eyes from flying debris. And he's got this piece of napkin-sized fabric that he keeps rubbing over his face. It's a little off-putting, but I don't know if he's got some sort of condition that necessitates either prop, so I don't mention it. Besides, he was in Pavement, and his second solo album, the recent Pig Lib, contains more than a few moments that I can remember after it's done playing.

So the last time we spoke you were living in Portland. You still there?

Yeah. I think about moving, but I bought a house, so I can't really leave until I sell that house, even if I wanted to. I can see myself living here in New York--at least maybe upstate, the East Coast again. Portland feels homey; it's very nice in the summer.

Before I came here I took a glance at some of the press from your first record. Well, I tried to, anyway--the sheaf of Xeroxes weighed about 15 pounds. Anyway, I was amazed by how badly people dissed your fellow Pavementers' contribution to that band. It was as if they were just waiting for you to ditch the extra baggage and get on with the solo thing.

Well, we had a certain chemistry that was very special, and everyone contributed to it sounding like Pavement, or [my stuff] would sound exactly like Pavement. I think it does sound similar, because it's the same songwriter and the same voice and the same cover art style, so I guess a lot of that would cause people to not see it that way. Maybe they were tired of Pavement and just looking for something else to say. Or be positive about it.

But those guys are still your friends, right? I mean, it must have been awkward to have these total strangers bagging on your friends.

Yeah, they're still my friends. The drummer used to be the tour manager for the Jicks, but he got a real job now. And I see Mark, the bassist, around New York sometimes.

Me, too. I think I saw him renting a movie once. He actually got dissed the most. Someone wrote something like, "Thank God Mark Ibold isn't the one with the solo career." I bet it was Entertainment Weekly.

Well, you know, if Mark put out a record and it wasn't hyped or something, no one would care. But if it was on Matador and they said, "We're gonna do this photo shoot and we've reinvented the wheel here with you," it would be different. Like Norman from Fatboy Slim--he was just the bass player in the Housemartins, you know? And now he's like 40 times more popular than the Housemartins were.

At least 40 times. Did you expect Stephen Malkmus to get as much attention as it did?

We were surprised by the press, and obviously we never expected to get that much interest coming out of the gate, but we felt like it was a catchy record and people could like it. You always want it to do better than any Pavement record. You always feel like things could be better, unless you're like Nirvana or, like, Crosby, Stills and Nash back in the '70s, when it was just like automatic 7-million-seller if you were Hollywood rock royalty.

Another Pavement thing: A couple of weeks ago I watched the DVD that Matador just released, and it made me think about what an ill-fitting reputation you guys got for being total jokesters. Hearing some of those songs again--"Gold Soundz," "Here," "Major Leagues"--almost brought a tear to my eye.

Yeah, there's always been two or three songs like that on Pavement albums, that were not just ironic. They're not literal, they don't spell everything out and they're obviously not heart-on-your-sleeve emo, but there's emo--cold emo--in there. But we still have that going on in the Jicks; there's songs on the last album and this one that have that sort of open feeling to them, I think. We're trying to be a little tougher on this one, a little darker, in a different way.

Pig Lib does feel a lot darker, a lot stranger.

The first song is sort of strange, and it maybe turns people off who aren't psyched to hear it, who aren't psyched to hear psych. There's some pop stuff on there, but there's definitely some things that are weirder. But that doesn't mean it's less accessible, necessarily. I really don't know what people like these days, and I'm a little out of touch. But anyone who thinks they are in touch is out of touch. It's impossible to be in touch with everything that's going on.

Did it feel good to make another Jicks record?

It felt great. We were really ready to do it. Everybody was itching to do it, because it had been awhile not touring, and the first record that we did was...Everybody was not as settled into their roles in their band, and so I think we all wanted to show we can do something new and different and sound not like the first album.

Was it a sort of natural process to get back into the studio?

Yeah, more than a lot of records I've done--just waiting for good takes instead of taking an OK take, and doing some overdubs to make it better. Just listening to the three of us, and that would have the feeling. We kept it very similar to how it sounded in the original rough takes; we want it to be rough. We want it to sound good, too, but we're not gonna gussy this up too much; it's gonna be kind of pure and not too amped up.

Are you guys starting to jell as a band?

Definitely, just from touring the last year. And I'm happy to give up some control. I don't think I need to control as much. Whatever I really think will make it best I wanna give up. There's some things I'll control--the lyrics and the songs, and just generally it's gonna be this way. But there's a huge amount of us just rehearsing in the studio, and it's everybody's time, so everyone deserves credit for that. I do that a bit more than the last band I was in, called Pavement. We didn't have time to do that, and we lived in different places. I was looking for something like that, where we could play together and have not only a backing band, but a backbone to throw some clothes on to see if they fit.

There's a lot of soloing.

Going for that more. The last one was more compact; I think it had really tight arrangements, and so we're trying to do something different.

I mean, there's a lot of soloing.

There's a place for it, not in every song. And you don't wanna make that the only focus and be a jam band. But when Neil Young does that right--there's numerous people who can improvise and play--it's certainly an amazing thing, and it keeps it natural, not on computers and stuff like that. So you're kind of breathing and going from one second to the next; things are happening, they didn't get combed over with a ProTools machine, these people actually took the time to learn how to play together. That's pretty fun; I like records like that, in general, throughout history.

I think it's kind of an acquired taste.

Well, it's gotta be a good groove. If you like the basic undertow of the rhythm, what goes on top should be clever--like, "That's fucked up." Like, "What the fuck are they doing?"


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