1.The Crystal Ballroom
Stephen Malkmus stands in the back. The dark club is packed packed, and he peers beneath bangs, shoulders slouched, a hint of atheleticism to them. He is a tall, slender figure with high cheekbones, checking out the crowd like a secret service agent, or a local hero about to make a cameo. Jackpot, a local record store, is having a free party at the Crystal Ballroom, and Malkmus is supposed to play the first show with his new band, Jicks. The club is packed with Portland's tight-knit alternative scene: director Gus Van Sant; fellow auteur Tod Haynes, who just moved into town; various musicians; and a couple hundred rock and roll style queens.
A guy stops in front of Malkmus, hesitates, and then blurts out, "Your first album changed my life!"
To which the musician replies, in his slightly nasal deadpan: "What about the second album?"
Another person comes up to him: "When's the next Pavement record?"
"Pavement broke up," he says.
"They did?" says the fan, looking genuinely alarmed.
"Yeah. I'm playing a show with my new band tonight," Malkmus offers. His voice, when speaking, is amazingly laconic and dry, the voice of an accountant who regrets to inform you of your tax bill, one who would, in fact, abolish taxes if it were up to him. But it's not up to him, so here’s the bill.
Whether or not he is playing a show tonight is still up in the air, because his new band isn't entirely sure they want to go onstage. Joanna Bolme, the bassist, a dark eyed minx who gets around Portland in a monstrous 1973 Chevy, and who Malkmus describes as "one of the best Scrabble players in town," is biting her nails ferociously. "I haven't done my homework!" she moans. John Moen, the drummer, an affable, blond haired former tree surgeon who played drums for The Dharma Bums and The Fastbacks, seems relatively game. And then there is Heather Larimer, Malkmus’s girlfriend and kind-of-sort-of bandmate. She's sitting in a chair because her new high heeled shoes - her "New York shoes," as Malkmus put it -- are hurting her feet. She's got copper hair and wide blue eyes, and she seems a little apprehensive.
"Come on," says Steve to his new band. "It'll be fun. It's no big deal. We'll just get up there and play a few songs."
Eventually they do---they get up on stage, borrow the equipment from the previous band (the Minders, in which Bolme also plays) and off they go into a rendition of Oasis' "Don't Look Back in Anger." It is very sloppy, and Malkmus hasn't even bothered to take off his coat, as though at any moment he might make a mad dash for the exit.
The next song, "Jenny and the S-Dog," is from *Swedish Reggae*, his first-ever solo record. Like a lot of his new stuff, this one is more overtly a story, a narrative, than the elliptical tone of most Pavement songs. The story charts the romance between a guy who plays in a sixties cover band and a fresh young thing out of high school, and contains the memorable lyrics "she's 18, he's
31/she's a rich girl, he's the son/of a Coca-Cola middle man." It climaxes in a strange, out of synch call-and-response between Heather and Stephen: "Let me OUT of here!," "Let ME out of HERE!," back and forth. Heather's blue eyes shine, she bobs her head, and her copper hair bounces around.
Gus Van Sant calls out: "Yoko Ono!"
The set finishes with an incredibly excellent version of "Champagne Supernova," an impromptu version of "Iron Man" during which Heather screams "War Pigs!" and, in conclusion, "Crimson and Clover." Like most great singers, Malkmus undergoes a weird transformation on stage, his introversion turning into its opposite, and on the last song his voice is plaintive, indignant, beautiful, careless. He improvises: "I wanna fuck Ev-er-y-thing."
To which Heather responds, "Na na, na na, na na."
2. I swung my fiery sword
Few musicians have made better use of the hard-to-read than Stephen Malkmus.
Pavement has been brilliant and obscure since their first singles began appearing in 1990. They were a rumor as a much as a band, it seemed, and their first album, *Slanted and Enchanted*, was a revelation. A perfect combination of art rock and party rock, topped with the incredibly captivating sound of Stephen Malkmus' voice, which manages to be droll, distant and passionate all at once. And his lyrics: A thousand obscure references, a jumble of nonsense, [“I swung my fiery sword/ I vent my spleen at the lord/ he is abstract and bored/ too much milk and honey”] and yet it somehow makes enormous sense. Malkmus, now 34, became a sort of slacker prophet, a careless, generous Wizard behind Pavement's Oz.
But Pavement is done. It's gone.
There had been signs and tremors and various clues to the band’s imminent demise for some time, mostly in the forms of grumblings of dissatisfaction from Malkmus himself. “No one actually told me that the band was over,” lamented a Pavement band member a few months ago. When I repeat this to Malkmus he replies, “I said it in so many ways.” Which could be part of the problem.
Then again, it seemed as if the only person who wanted the band to end was Malkmus. “I tried to get Kannenberg to announce the break up on the web site, but he wouldn’t do it. Finally he just took it down. He wants
“We were never really good at communicating,” Malkmus say now of Pavement.” Anything we tried to collaborate on, a video, a tour schedule, it just never really worked. You try to make some changes, you can say things are going to be different, but then they’re just the same. You hope that it’s just that you’re on tour, that feeling that you don’t ever want to so it again, but it’s not. I was just tired of doing the same thing over and over, different song progressions that were starting to sound the same. If you stick around for ten years you should be ten years better than young bands, try extra hard to be interesting. It didn’t feel like that was happening. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Or a thirty year old male.”
The Wizard has gone solo, and I've come out to Portland to see what he looks like out in the light.
Yield Curve Blues
Stephen Malkmus has an ego that weighs an ounce. He is effortlessly polite. He opens doors for you. He'll spend a long time on the phone giving you directions to make sure you don't get lost.
I’ve known him for several years, having first met him through a mutual friend, the novelist Rob Bingham, who had managed to convince Malkmus to publish some poetry in our journal, Open City. Malkmus played a show to a barnfull of people at Robert Bingham's wedding, along with Silver Jew David Berman and some members of Pavement, in May, 1999. The following fall he was an usher at his funeral.
Malkmus and Bingham both traveled within the strange atmosphere of someone who knows there’s a huge conspiracy running the world, and the only way to resist it was to develop one’s own code, a secret system of resistance, to be random, dry, unpredictable, inscrutable, always sending out code, always receiving.
They both had an appetite for paranoia and the found poetry of the world of business, and used it as a creative force in their work.
“I was going to name a song for Rob called Yield Curve Blues,” he says. Instead he wrote “Church on White.” I couldn’t help but wonder if Bingham’s death had contributed to a feeling in Malkmus that it was time to turn a page.
I came through Portland last summer on a book tour, and Malkmus showed up at the reading (he was, in fact, the only person in attendance), after which he gave me a tour of Portland’s drinking establishments.
At the end of the night he drove me back to his place. He lives on a huge hill that rises up behind Portland. It's the rich part of town, and Malkmus lives there like a hermit or some kind of fugitive in a tiny two room flat crammed with books and records and a plastic record player he got in Japan and dishes in the sink. He went a few blocks out of his way and stopped in front of a gigantic house. "Art Alexaksis, the guy from Everclear, lives here," he said.
It was one of those classic Stephen Malkmus moments in which the simple banal fact he had stated was transformed, by the context of his voice and his droll matter of fact delivery, into something fascinating and ironic.
When we got to his place we just sat in the car and he played me a rough mix of the new record. One song stood out— it was the most unabashedly emotive song I’d heard from him, and as it went on it became clear it was about Rob. “All you ever wanted/was everything/ and everything/ plus the truth/ I only poured you/ half a life.”
It’s called Church on White, a pun on Bingham’s address, Church and White Street. It ends with a brooding lead that spirals upward into a pretty wild emotional pitch before trailing to a shrugging end. He chuckled at little at the end of it. “Such an emotional lead,” he said, as though he didn’t know what came over him.
3. Graphic design: it's a bitch.
We're in a huge cavernous warehouse space which, by day, serves as the offices of Johnson and Wolverton, a big Portland ad agency. It looks more like a terrorist hideout, a place to build bombs, one huge two story space outfitted with fluorescent lights, tons of scattered wires connecting the computers, and a massive sound system which is presently blasting The Saints.
Malkmus is here working on the cover art for the record that, to his record label’s alarm, he initially titled “Swedish Reggae.”
The designer, Neil Gust, over whose shoulder Malkmus is leaning, used to play guitar in Heatmiser with Elliott Smith and Quasi's Sam Coomb's, and now plays for his own band, #2 (which rocks). Between the day job and his rock band he's somehow found time to squeeze in two weeks of listening to Malkmus's rather complex instructions about the CD package.
"Do you think you could take that cube apart, and sort of create an S and M?" says Malkmus. "I see an SM in there."
On the cover of the new record, Malkmus is front and center, with the warm orange hues of a Hawaiian sunset falling softly on his face. It's beefcake quality is softened only a little by the furrowed brow of Underdog on his T-shirt. In person Malkmus certainly looks different than he used to, his hair longer, his body language a bit looser. He looks like he’s finally getting laid, now that I think of it.»
The record itself is familiar sounding: It's a Pavement record! But it's not. It is, if possible, weirder than a Pavement record; the songs have a kind of Paxilated chirpiness to them within the familiar sinister vibe of a pavement record lurks; many of the lyrics are narratives, stories with a faint "once upon a time" feel, such “Yul Brenner,” in which Malkmus sings, “I’m not what you think I am/ I’m the king of Siam / I got a bald head/ my name is Yul Brenner / and I am a famous movie star.”
It's loose like a Pavement record. And ominous, but also sunny. Maybe it's the Hawaiian sunshine creeping in. Or maybe it's the girlfriend.
On the inside of the cover, along with a picture of Heather, and an obscure reference to the corporate giant Shlumberge (“they make this evil looking drill I like,”) is the scrawled phrase, "Da Jicks." I ask about the band name.
"I just made it up," Malkmus says "I thought it sounded like a nervous disorder, like the bends. It turns out some writer used it as the term for aliens or replicants in some story. The label insisted we use my name to sell more records, and I was like, Ok, fine. But we're really the Jicks.
“We're a band. I think people like bands more than they like control freaks like Billy Corgan. I'd rather jam with friends than session guys."
“I always had in mind that it could work, but when we started playing it was just for fun,” he says of his new band. “I don’t think they even knew we might make a record at first.”
In this way, perhaps, he was trying to recreate some of the atmosphere of Pavement’s early days, when he was young and anything was possible and the songs all had that feeling of possibility. When I asked him why he started the band with his childhood friend Scott Kannenberg, who lived in California, instead of David Berman and Bob Nostanovitch, who he had become close to at the University of Virginia, he replied, “It was just so easy to take these ideas I’d had in Virginia and throw it at these guys in California. I didn’t have to feel any lack of confidence around Scott. Dave and Bob were kind of big personalities, you could be initially a little afraid they wouldn’t like what you did.”
The relationship with Kannenberg seems to be the thing Malkmus wanted most to break free of; whatever positive chemistry had once existed was working no more. On Terror Twilight, Pavement’s last record, Kannenberg allegedly played not a single note on the record but got paid the same as the other band members. Kannenberg, (perhaps given the nature of such arrangements as those outlined above? But then perhaps best not to assume too much about things you don't really know about...) was not so eager to end the band.
“He was happy being seen as the electronic wizard, the mystery man. He wouldn’t put the announcement that the band had broken up on the official website, which he controls, even though I kept asking him to. Finally he just closed the site.”
So now it’s a new start with his new band.
What about Heather, I ask. Is she in the Jicks?
"No,” he says. “Heather's not low enough, dirty enough to be a Jick."
Heather Larimer just had her hair cut.
"You look like P.J. Harvey," Stephen says when she joins us over dinner at Portland's Blue Hour restaurant, a haughty hive that reminds me of London in its stylishness, it’s wine list, it’s grilled quail appetizer, the way everyone seems to know one another.
"I knew you were going to say that!" she replies. "I was sitting there going, he's going to say I look like P.J.Harvey."
It's a nice, living in each others pants moment. Larimer is a fiction writer I first encountered via a short story about an emotionally repressed housewife who goes through a minor freak out after running over someone's dog. In person she is, all in all, a lighter personality than I expected from the story. `She has bright, intelligent eyes and seems to be having a good time with the new arrangement. She and Stephen have been together a few years, but only recently, now that she’s finished graduate school in Seattle, has she moved down to Portland. Now they’re looking for a house together.
Her voice appears on the record mostly in the forms of whoops and handclaps. The one intelligible word she pronounces is "carcass."
On some level I hate to admit, I can commiserate with Gus van Sant and his "Yoko Ono" remark. I mean, who is this woman? Not only had Pavement broken up, but now she and Stephen are spending their days looking for a house to move into together. I was experiencing that weirdly irrational feeling of possessiveness for a buddy becoming involved with a girl, a feeling that every guy has woven into their system starting in eighth grade, when the notion that girls might be more important than friends first dawns on them. Except I don't even know Malkmus that well! And yet, in a way I do. Every Pavement fan considers Malkmus their best friend, in some way.
And now he is, literally and figuratively, moving out.
The day after the show Malkmus takes me on a drive through unusually sunny Portland, showing me the different neighborhoods where they've been looking for a house.
“We looked at this huge place here,” he says in the TK neighborhood, “but it would have been too much like, ‘King Indie and his Minions.”
"How does Heather get along with the guys in Pavement?" I ask.
"Better than Yoko Ono did with the Beatles," he deadpans. "She's a good singer. I threw her out there to the wolves a bit last night," he says. "I think she'd rather be a vocalist than a fiction writer. She wants to be popular, you know. So do I, in some ways, but she would have a lot more tolerance for all the photos and outfits and make up that it would take."
On Pavements last American tour, in 1999, Rob Bingham and I flew down to St. Louis to see a show and hang out. We arrived at the venue, saw the tour bus idling outside---a rock and roll special, chrome wheels, the works---but were informed that the band was huddled in a rare band meeting to discuss their future. Apparently things had been going seriously wrong on the last few dates, with Stephen sulking off the side of the stage, refusing to sing.
Our feeling was, they can't break up. We've flown all the way to see the show! And they didn't. They came out and ripped through an incredible set, raw and aggravated, the sleek surface of the Terror Twilight songs ripped away revealing jagged edges, monster riffs, and a beautiful and somewhat tortured delivery by Malkmus about which Bingham remarked, “he was so excellent and at the same time managed to suck all the pleasure out of the songs.” This was a compliment.
"Do the guys in the band know for a fact that Pavement was over?" I ask now.
"It depends on what stage of denial they were in," he says. "I said it in St. Louis, and in so many ways" his voice trails off. "That feeling of not wanting to do it anymore, you hope it's just being on tour."
I mention that they were great in St. Louis, and mention "The Hex," from Terror Twilight, in particular,
"At that point in the tour we should have been playing new songs," he says. "If you're going to stick around for ten years you should be ten years better than young bands and try extra hard to be interesting. I didn’t feel that was happening."
Malkmus buys a hot chocolate at Crowsenberg's, a tiny coffee shop sandwiched between a zine stand and a used pornography store. From there we go to Powell's Bookstore and wander the fiction section---Malkmus encourages me to buy something by a relatively obscure fiction writer, Ken Kalfus, and we check on the Bingham section, which is well stocked.
“I got an autographed copy of Pure Slaughter Value here,” he says, referring to Bingham’s story collection. Standing there amidst the quiet, slightly haunted stacks of Powell’s, I think: Don’t ever be too cool to ask a friend to sign a book for you.
Back at Steve’s place there is an episode of searching for a basketball; he picks through the piles with a tiny flashlight. We head up to the local court and sneak in a few quick games of HORSE. SM, it turns out, has a very structurally sound jump shot. He keeps apologizing, moving further and further away to make himself more likely to miss. But he wins all three games. "Sorry," he says. Swish.
Back at his place, he plays a Roy Harper ID record on his little plastic turntable. Then a Frog's record, and points out the "That was a good drum break" line that Beck used on "Two Turntables and a Microphone." There must be a thousand little references in his songs that have escaped me. He'd mentioned this band Kruetzbeg Locomotive earlier. In "Black Book,” the new record’s first song, there is a line "I took a locomotive to Kruetzbeg." Malkmus is a puzzle-maker.
But you know, puzzles are a private world and at some point you want to let some air in, air and people.
Heather sits crumpled on a chair. Steven is on the floor. I occupy a couch.
He hands me a stack of photographs from the shoot in Hawaii. He's mugging like crazy, striking strange arabesque yoga style poses while wearing chiffon ruffled disco shirts and then a purple sweatshirt with a hood.
We get in the car and drive down to Johnson and Wolverton to finish off all the design. It’s just Neil and Heather and Stephen and I in the cavernous space - the tension of a place meant for commerce seeking out that illicit vibe of the unreconstructed and raw, and then on top of that, our after hours apropriation of it, the parents/bosses aren't home. We blast music, one record after another. Stephen plays his record and at one point, singing along, Heather sings, “I’m not sweet and I’m not over ripe!” and winks at me. Then it’s Oasis: What’s the Story Morning Glory and then Roll With it. Stephen stomps around doing a vicious Liam Gallagher impersonation. He’s really good at it. “Wide eyed populism,” he mutters when the song is over.
Then it’s all done and we drive back up the hill, past the small apartment where he once gave me a hard cover version of Yates' The Easter Parade, which I later lost, all the way up to a the freezing tip where there’s a view of all of Portland. The air is thin and dark. We run in circles laughing.
Originally published in a shorter form in Spin Magazine