All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Stephen Malkmus
By Scott TimbergMay 10, 2019
IF THERE WAS really such thing as a Generation X, indie, or 1990s sensibility, Stephen Malkmus embodied it better than any musician besides Liz Phair. Also known as “The Sultan of Slack,” the Santa Monica–born, Stockton-reared Malkmus led Pavement, which combined British post-punk, California skateboard punk, Fairport Convention, and a strange kind of knowing, literary surrealism. In part because of the records Slanted and Enchanted (1992) and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994), the band is sometimes called the finest indie group of the decade.
Malkmus has been releasing solo albums, many made with his band The Jicks, since 2001. Most of these have exhibited the fractured mix of indie-folk Pavement was known for, but the latest LP, Groove Denied, is a bold departure from 2018’s tuneful Sparkle Hard and the records that preceded it. Malkmus is currently touring behind the album — a blend of Krautrock, off-kilter dance grooves, and synthesizer-driven electronica — though it’s anybody’s guess what he will play on any given night. Malkmus comes to the Lodge Room in Highland Park on Wednesday and Thursday, May 15 and 16, with Los Angeles–based harp player Mary Lattimore.
Malkmus spoke from his home in Portland.
SCOTT TIMBERG: I think everybody has this general sense that, as a solo artist, as Pavement’s singer, as a sort of literary, kind of bookish dude, you quote writers in an obscure way … But I don’t really know how it all came together. At what point did you become a serious reader? Was it something from childhood, was it in college, or was it later than that?
STEPHEN MALKMUS: I don’t know how serious I am. [Laughs.] I’m just a fan. I’m just a fan of media, and writing falls into that category. Of course, I am a student or whatever, as you say in England. Pavement was a student band, you know? But it was more of like what you think is going to make you cool or sexy in a certain way; I guess I just thought some of these writers would do that. And some of my friends were like, “What do you want to do when you’re that age? What do you think is going to represent that you’re into cool shit?” [Laughs.] Yeah, I guess I don’t know; I was just following whatever when I started getting into books. I didn’t major in English, but it was certainly an option.
Weren’t you a history major?
Yeah, I was a history major, but a lot of the people that I admired were the English people. And some of my friends were trying to write short stories. It was kind of an era of writers like Raymond Carver, and Tobias Wolff, and American minimalism at that time. And I was into that. Raymond Carver, I mean, I think he holds up. I just thought he was so cool. He was like a drinker, existential, bleak type. I related to that coming into my 20s.
It’s very romantic for a young person, right? Sort of like the cult of Bukowski in a way?
Yeah, I mean a lot of people run into Bukowski, John Fante, and the Beat Generation. I like writers like Robert Stone, Richard Yates, this kind of American stuff, and Updike, of course, the suburban malaise, Denis Johnson — that world. I was primarily, for better or worse, into these male writers. They were sort of the people I identified more with, at least at my age at that time. And I still just like novels, you know? Novels are entertaining. In a world of television, and compared to poetry, they are something you can get lost in, like a miniseries or something. [Laughs.]
I think you were a history major at UVA, right? Did you get really into Southern history, US history, or European history? As you went into the band, did that turn you on and stick with you at all?
Yeah, I don’t know. I just followed it because I got good marks in it. I always succeeded. [Laughs.] It’s similar to sports, or, well, women, or anything; you like the things that like you. So I kept just going with that. And I didn’t have a real focus, you know? I liked intellectual history. There was a guy there, Joseph Kett, who had a bow tie, and he was like a Massachusetts, Harvard-style Yankee, you know? He seemed really brilliant, and I followed him. And I still like that stuff: the history of ideas. And that touches on philosophy, and it touches on literature — everything. I think that appealed to me.
I took a Chinese history course, and the teacher was just very old-school. It was all about the style of their royalty, and their leadership, and filial piety. That was pretty boring. That’s when you’re reminded of the history in high school that you didn’t like. [Laughs.]
Yeah, I almost majored in intellectual history, but we had to learn too many languages for it, so I fled back to the safety of English where I didn’t have to learn anything. [Laughs.]
I think that was the right move. [Laughs.] Also, if you were afraid that your parents wanted you to be a lawyer or something, continuing on into academia is a relatively safe place if you weren’t going to major in economics, or engineering, or something practical. My parents paid for school, so I wanted to do something to pay them back, which was give some effort.
Right, instead you moved to New York, worked as a museum guard, and formed a really strange rock band. You clearly paid back their investment.
[Laughs.] That’s right, but it worked out. Because parents, at least those of my generation who are justifiably worried about your economic prospects (they’re baby boomers and relatively well off), once they retired and ended up just looking at the internet and stuff, you know, it’s more fun for them to have a kid that pops up on a Google search. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? It gives them something they can talk about.
[Laughs.] Right, you’re not some lawyer in suburban Stockton or something like that, which is probably what you were raised to do. I’m trying to remember, were Nastanovich and Berman at UVA with you?
David Berman? Yeah, he was. He was an English major. He was a really cool contradiction of a guy, one that looked like a scary Goth, but he was just this total sweetheart — maybe all Goths are. [Laughs.] I have my biases when people just have a look that kind of scares you a little bit. He actually had tattoos already and shit like that, you know? I’m really painting myself as a normie here. But once I met him, he was just incredibly enthusiastic. And he was not a hater, which is something in your youth that can really become damaging. Just look at politics, or anything else, and the way people talk about things. It’s not like I’m Obama-positive or anything, but you want people engaged, looking for new things, and excited; he was like that.
I wonder if Berman, or any of the other guys who ended up in Pavement or Silver Jews, were turning you on to writers back then or in your early 20s, since I guess there was like a New York, Brooklyn period. Berman became, obviously, one of the greatest poets of our generation.
He gave me strange books all the time. He was into the Periodic Table by Primo Levi. He sent me a Nicholas Taleb book, who, even today, is like this controversial Libertarian mathematician or something. [Berman] was a smart thinker and a no-bullshit type. His tastes are wide. He always used to say that he only liked American literature and English literature. It wasn’t about the translation; it was more about relating to it in a more direct way. I don’t know if he still feels that way. He went to UMass for poetry, and James Tate was his professor. He’s into Wallace Stevens and all the greats — Ashbery and so on.
It’s amazing how many people were in that James Tate program. There’s going to be someone that I’m forgetting, but I know Berman went there, Will Oldham went there, and Joe Pernice from The Pernice Brothers as well. And there’s somebody else that I’m forgetting …
Yeah, I met Joe Pernice through David. I know that Sadie, from Speedy Ortiz, went to poetry school at UMass; I don’t know if he was still there.
I’m thinking back to the lyrics in Pavement, and they could’ve come from a million different places, but it makes me wonder when you first got turned on to Ashbery and people like that. You know, Frank O’Hara, Ashbery, and Koch are the big three if we’re going to go back to school on this.
Yeah, I mean that was in college and continuing on in the early ’90s. When we worked at The Whitney, it’s like the first time you see a Cy Twombly painting and get it — that sort of era; they’re before the Beat Generation, and it’s just kind of deconstructed. They’re not following the forms of their elders exactly, yet they’re respectful to stuff that is historical. But it’s not linear. It’s sort of like how your mind really works, at least it’s how mine does. It’s like making connections between different times, and it’s a sense that the form is not the feeling or whatever. I don’t know. So I love him. Later on, my wife got me into George Oppen, Louis Zukofsky, and people like that. She’s smarter than me. [Laughs.]
When did you really start getting into poetry? Was there a period where you were really set on it and kept finding new people?
I was always more into music lyrics, and I was just looking for ammunition or something to distinguish myself. Of course, you know, I like Mark E. Smith from The Fall; he has a similar style; he has chewy things that he likes to say, that get into his mouth, but they’re awesome. I guess I’m just looking for connections between some of the words I wanted to hear. I didn’t want to write really tight country songs. I mean, I appreciate that, but my mind doesn’t work that way. It’s not that it couldn’t work that way, you know? I like songs like that, and I would write songs like that for somebody else as like a paying job, but it’s not my aesthetic.
But, no, not in college, I didn’t read poetry much then. There was a lot of art at that time, in the early ’90s. There were a lot of people like Christopher Wool and other artists that were text-based that I was finding out about — Lawrence Weiner, and then more political versions like Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger. Yeah, they’re really awesome too.
So it was just like, at least in my mind, what could you do with words that was different than that of the music at that time? So one way is reading somebody like John Ashbery. It’s all a little stoner-y with the way those things work. It goes with music, because music should get you a little high feeling, even if you’re not high. [Laughs.] It should make sense in a more subconscious way.
Yeah, it does feel like Ashbery is coming out of the unconscious or something.
Yeah, he is a fan of 19th-century French Symbolism and stuff like that, so it’s not surprising that he would go that way. He was a badass dude.
Yeah, RIP. I met him once in New York. So it sounds like by the time you got to New York, you were working at the Whitney, you’d started the band in some form, I think one of you, maybe Scott [Kannberg], was back in Stockton or something, and you were a musician and a songwriter, you know, that was your thing, but art and literature, and maybe film, punk rock, and jazz records had some influence, and you were just feeding on all of this stuff to kind of give yourself ideas and nutrition. You were just reaching in as many directions as you could, right?
Yeah, I think so. My real specialties are the ground where the music meets the words, and the voice, and everything, you know? I’m glad that people like my lyrics, but I feel often that I’m struggling. I’m not saying that I’m an imposter or anything like that, but I’m struggling to find something to say in this day and age. It doesn’t come with joy necessarily. It’s not that it’s an obligation.
But it’s like coming up with a song where, at the start of it, you’re getting a hook or a counter-melody in a relation, and when the words fit the whole vibe of the thing, that’s kind of when I want to say that what we do is valid, you know? You can have great words that just don’t even need music or something, you know? So it all just holds together like a papier-mâché. It’s fragile. But I do value, just in my taste, instrumental music. Obviously there’s an incredible history of it, from classical music to techno and some surf bands. I mean, I’m not saying that’s less valid, but I do have a compulsion to say something and to think the human voice, and what it says, is a bit more intense. It’s a bit more intense to hear somebody say something.
But what are you going to say? It’s fucking hard. It’s hard to say something. I’m just amazed when I hear rappers these days coming up with all this shit to say, you know? And I mean beyond saying xans and percs — some of that is tired. But it’s just this amazing will to naturally say something that is really hard for someone like me.
You get that in some of the original punk rock too. Like those early Clash songs were really political, that early Billy Bragg, or The Jam, where there’s this really direct notion that “we’re a new generation, we’ve arrived, and this is what we have to say.” It’s something that the musicians of our generation didn’t really have, right? It sort of felt like it had all been said already.
Well, that’s a classic Gen X trope. But I think, if you’re a new person that comes up, you are going to feel like you have something to say from your own perspective. And in your in-group and your social scene, all of that can make you feel like things are new again.
Of course, we have the big heroes from the past, The Velvet Underground and groups like that, and you’re never going to be as good as them, so it all seems kind of pointless. But you still exist in the present, and you still want to do shit. I would just look around and think I’m not hearing what I want to hear right now, and, you know, I don’t hear anything that is like what we’re doing exactly, so it must be valid; we can be a part of the conversation — that kind of stuff.
You mentioned The Velvet Underground. A lot of people, including Lou Reed, Dylan … I spoke to Stuart Murdoch a little while ago, and he talked about songs that were directly inspired by Salinger, or C. S. Lewis, or whatever. I don’t think of you as operating that way, but I wonder if there are songs of yours where you feel like there is either an indirect or direct influence of a writer or a style of writing.
Well, as far as actual non-musicians, not really. It’s more in a music world, unfortunately. I mean, there’s not that many words in a song. There can be like a Graham Greene, you know, this like “Embassy Row” or something … I think of him and people like Paul Bowles. I can see the covers of his work and remember reading it when I was working on something.
It might be little fragments or something.
Yeah. There’s this one, it’s kind of a Clark Coolidge reference, because he likes to fuck with grammar and tenses and stuff, and that title is related to him, but I can’t go beyond that.
So there’s kind of vague references and influences, but nothing direct it seems like.
Yeah, I can’t say that I would be able to take a specific book or something. There are just times when you get into certain authors, you know? When we were living in Berlin, we powered through Hans Fallada novels … They’re so entertaining.
Did he write Little Man, What Now?
That one’s good. Yeah, I think he did.
Right, that’s the only one of his that I know. I know him through the film.
Yeah, they made a movie about that one. That one is pretty much a page-turner.
Yeah, that’s right, you were in Berlin for a while. How long were you over there? I forgot about that.
Just two years. But we still go back.
Good art city. Did you pick up an interest in Rilke or any other German writers?
No. I’ve heard he’s good at a wedding. [Laughs.] I’ve never read him much. I don’t know why, you know? It’s one of those things where I don’t know about certain writers, and some people that I should like, I don’t like, you know?
Yeah, I don’t know if there is anybody that you should like. I mean, an artist needs to follow his or her nose, look for the stuff that will feed them, and it might be different for you, you know?
I always forget his name, but there’s this guy that, like 15 years ago, everyone … He’s really …
Sebald? W. G. Sebald?
Yeah, totally. [Laughs.] I’m supposed to like him, and I can’t get into it. I feel bad.
I feel the same. I mean, he’s a super important writer that I didn’t quite get either. I think it’s great what he is doing, but I think it’s too dry or too flat for me. I hear you on that.
It’s like you don’t want to go against your party’s line or something, like in politics, you know? [Laughs.] Wait, I don’t know if I agree with it. But I feel like that’s also kind of liberating at times, to feel like I actually have my own opinion on something.
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. Timberg is writing a book called Beeswing: Britain, Folk Rock, and the End of the 60s with the guitarist Richard Thompson.
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