Pavement ’97

By Ira Robbins

When Jackson Griffith, whose roots in Stockton (he even wrote a song about the town!) made Pavement something of a hometown band for him, asked me to do a story for Pulse!, I had to caution him that I wasn’t much of a fan, having found the band’s appeal something of an indie rock snob mystery. I couldn’t hear what it was that got people so worked up.

It felt like a generational divide, but I was curious enough to consider this assignment a good way to find out what I was missing. I went in with an open mind and came away with a deep appreciation for the band and its music. I found their intelligence and openness refreshing and stimulating, amplifying without explaining their records for me.

The band members all lived in different states (only one in New York: bassist Mark Ibold, who tended bar at the beloved Great Jones Café in NYC), so the logistics were tricky. Matador publicist Spencer Gates — a great, tough-talking lady who died a few years later — made all the arrangements. I could only speak with Malkmus by phone, but Spencer was able to fly me out to Berkeley to meet Spiral Stairs (Scott Kannberg) in person. It was a whirlwind trip (my first time there; I recall the late-night taxi from the airport driving over the breathtaking Golden Gate Bridge), but he was very cool, offering a great conversation and generously giving me a numbered copy of Slay Tracks, already a valuable Pavement rarity, which I have proudly kept. In addition to talking music, I was intrigued about the civil engineering graduate thesis he was incubating on the role of fences in urban development. Rockers come in all sorts; the smart ones are always worth meeting.

This article, along with many more of a similar vintage, is included in Music in a Word, Volume 1, available from Trouser Press Books here.

Alternarock is dead, right?
So how come nobody told Pavement?

Pulse!, March 1997

It’s deconstruction time again. Right now, there’s a sophomore somewhere hunkered down on the floor of his dorm room, a cigarette in one hand and a pen in the other. Every so often, a look of recognition followed by a crooked smile crosses his face, and he stabs at a notebook, scrawling out his observations and analyses of what’s on the stereo.

For our kid, Brighten the Corners — Pavement’s abundantly tuneful follow-up to 1995’s sorely undervalued Wowee Zowee — isn’t just a carefully arranged collection of Daliesque pop contraptions. As a Pavement record, it’s another enigmatic challenge of shaggy dog riddles and obscure signifiers, arcane allusions and wry ironies. The Beatlesque ‟We Are Underused” mentions wedding invitations, which makes sense to student boy since he’s read that guitarist-singer Scott Kannberg and drummer Steve West both got married last year. He recognizes the sweeping 12-string Byrds guitar sound of Kannberg’s ‟Date With IKEA” and the Roxy Music sounds coming from ‟Embassy Row.” He knows from checking an Internet phone directory that someone with the same surname as singer/guitarist Stephen Malkmus lives on a ‟Shady Lane” Court in Kansas; that might explain the title of the airy album’s most Kinks-like delicacy. The serious philosophical issues touched on in ‟Transport Is Arranged” and ‟Old to Begin” slow his progress, though he guesses the whimsical geography in ‟Starlings of the Slipstream,” a sweet harmony breeze, is just a joke. Still, it’s a couplet in the sing-songy ‟Stereo” that really pulls his beard.

‟What about the voice of Geddy Lee — how did it get so high?
I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy.”

Whoah nellie, eh? Is this Pavement’s doubly dry way of ripping the Canadian trio? Maybe it’s a pop culture quiz, a snarky e.p.t. for collegiate cool, dividing the true-blue disciples of all things alternative from those harboring revisionist tendencies towards the evil behemoth of corporate classic rock.

Try door number three. Reached by phone at his home in Portland, Oregon, Malkmus willingly professes his admi­ration for Rush. ‟2112 was the album we were into when I was a kid. I still listen to Caress of Steel.” There’s a brief pause. ‟Maybe we can tour with them or something.” But then he shrugs off the notion: it wasn’t meant in earnest.

Or was it? Besides defying most conventions of rock careerism (like having its five members live in one geographical area), Pavement has spent eight curious years thriving on the uncertainty principle, arranging common and disparate elements into distinctive, influential and occasionally popular art that never quite gives itself away. Solidly rooted in the individualist self-expression of indie-rock but willing to meet commercial acceptance on their own terms, Pavement have progressed from amateur flailings to enticingly poised accomplishment without sacrificing their dignity or integrity. Those who found the band’s early records too lo-fi and in-jokey will be surprised by Brighten the Corners‘ easy allure.

Having laid a solid foundation of critical acclaim from its first 7-inch sputters, Pavement established a beachhead of commercial viability in 1994 with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, an album that has sold nearly 200,000 copies in the U.S. (Wowee Zowee did maybe half as well). The accessible pop of Brighten the Corners — the band’s bow via the newly united forces of super-groovy independent label Matador and the thunderously establishment Capitol — puts Pavement on the threshold of a major breakthrough.

Still, the group — which duly gives its fans credit for more intelligence than the average KISS Army foot soldier — playfully continues to keep listeners in the dark, flashing eclectically borrowed riffs and far-flung cultural reference points to provide blurred and illusory illumination. So whether it’s the recognition of Wowee Zowee‘s graphic tribute to German ’70s prog-rock trio Guru Guru or the discovery of a Coleridge poem which rhymes the words ‟slanted” and ‟enchanted” (as in the title of Pavement’s 1992 full-length debut, which Malkmus attributes to a book of drawings by college pal David Berman, leader of the Silver Jews), the band’s work is rife with fodder for examination, imagination and auto-didacticism — honey to rocking academic bears.

‟Our fans understand that we’re into history,” says West, 30, by phone from the vast old fixer-upper he recently purchased in Lexington, Virginia. ‟Stephen was a history major. I’m huge into history and the history of music.” If the recycled clues scattered throughout the band’s records encourage fans to seek out Pavement’s own musical sources, that’s fine by him.

Nursing a cup of joe in a coffee bar near his house in Berkeley, California, Scott Kannberg connects the tactic to his own experiences growing up. ‟The way I discovered a lot of music was by reading R.E.M. interviews and seeing them say ‛We’re really into the Velvet Underground’ or ‛We’re really into Wire.’ So I’d go out and buy those records. We try and do the same thing.”

For all the depth of meaning people are able to extract from Pavement’s increasingly sheer fabric, the designs or accidents that put it there generally remain clouded. Even with inside information, songs are subject to multiple interpretations, less likely to enlighten curiosity-seekers than lead them down an intellectual cul-de-sac.

‟Ninety percent of the songs are just words put together in that kind of way, so they’re really not about anything,” admits Kannberg. ‟They’re phrases and stuff that sound good together.” At its best, Malkmus’s free-association imagery invokes the imprecision and acid-fueled imagination of vintage Bob Dylan, a notion reinforced by the Blonde on Blonde coloring of the new album’s “Type Slowly.” For a generation of channel-surfers, magazine-flippers and web-browsers, his scampering poetry has the tempo of the times.

But he won’t make too much of it. ‟Lyrics are mostly automatic things. I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s not a big heart-on-my-sleeve, here’s the sadcore truth-of-the-world-type thing. I use stuff that came out of nowhere and steal things that come out of somewhere. I don’t try to overwork it. It’s playful; it’s done pretty quickly.” Malkmus declines to be the singer he plays on television. ‟People should know it’s an act. Some of it is really you, but a lot of it’s just assuming a voice and fucking around. It’s not a situationist prank or anything — there’s emotion and soul and stuff in there, too — but I feel like it’s distant from me. Like the rap guys, I just gotta say it’s entertainment.”

Discussing motives and tactics with Pavement — who, individually, are as forthright as their elusive records usually aren’t — is an exercise in unresolvable contradictions. Through some organic combination of design and naïveté, the leaderless group functions like a motivated amoeba, resolutely moving along an eccentric path it appears to be con­cocting on a need-to-proceed basis. As a business, Pavement is a fascinating model of laissez-faire socialism, valuing individualism and the collective good, letting each determine his own ideal role in the enterprise. As a band, Pave­ment shuns gang-like insularity for a looser but no less cohesive association. Living in different states and convening only to record and tour, the five remain bound by their friendship, their work ethic and their admiration for the songs Malkmus (and, once or twice per album, Kannberg) writes and sings. ‟If we all lived in the same town, our records might be better,” allows bassist Mark Ibold, ‟but nobody wants to.” And there’s nobody to make them do it.

The frugal and self-reliant band is managerless. Kannberg, aided by an outside accountant, handles business affairs in consultation with Malkmus; major decisions are put to a band vote. They drive themselves to gigs and hump their own gear; they had never worked with a real producer before engaging Mitch Easter and his North Carolina studio for Brighten the Corners. And his contribution was more encouragement than guidance.

‟We’ve made some mistakes,” says Ibold during a vegetarian lunch on Manhattan’s Lower East Side right before Christmas. ‟We make ’em all the time, actually. Fortunately, they haven’t been really huge.” At 34, the onetime skatepunk is Pavement’s pragmatic elder, the one most likely to consider career and life in conventional terms. (He is also the only Pavement member still living in New York City. Though none are natives, West, Malkmus and percussionist/Moog player Bob Nastanovich — who now makes his home across the street from Churchill Downs racetrack in Louisville, Kentucky — all resided in New York for a time.)

Despite the near-unanimous sense that their live shows could be better, Pavement keeps rehearsals to a minimum; the first few weeks of each tour, they say, are spent shaking off the cobwebs. The group doesn’t demo songs before recording final versions and attributes sonic shortcomings of their records to self-imposed time and money con­straints. ‟We don’t have much of a game plan when we enter the studio as far as what anything is going to sound like,” Malkmus allows. And while he notes that ‟Our songs never reach their peak on record — they get so much better once we’ve played ’em forty times on the road,” he is mildly nonplused by the suggestion they try reversing the process.

The band’s benign mystique of casual informality and seeming indifference is free of rock’s typical measures of greed and ego; there are no arrogant bozos on this bus. West, recalling Malkmus’s invitation to join Pavement (both were then employed as security guards at New York’s Whitney Museum), says, ‟If I was in his place, I don’t know if I would have picked someone who isn’t a complete drummer. My actual playing has improved a whole lot, but I am in no way now, and was not then, a super drummer. I’m no Neil Peart.”

Malkmus thinks his voice sounds ‟stupid.” The new album? ‟I don’t like it much. There are some good songs, but the vocals are too loud and the kick drum’s too loud.” Defying decades of frontman arrogance, Malkmus brings resig­na­tion to the role. ‟I wouldn’t sing in Pavement if there wasn’t a need for it. In the end there was no one else to do it.”

By all accounts, Malkmus takes a less passive view of his studio responsibilities. The boast in a Matador press release that, in a first for Pavement, the new album was ‟record[ed] with the entire five-person band in the same room at the same time (playing, not just watching).” Ibold concurs. ‟Most of the songs are all of us actually in the same room playing everything at the same time. About four are first takes.”

The band’s early records were made by Malkmus and Kannberg with drummer Gary Young; rumor has it that, in Pavement’s name, the pair — who contractually are Pavement — have continued to record solo or together on occasion. Ibold praises Malkmus for sometimes doing bass parts he then copies to play live; Nastanovich describes his studio job as ‟a cheerleader” and says the sessions for 1992’s Watery, Domestic EP were the first he attended.

‟Stephen is pretty much the songwriter and song-structurer,” says West. ‟We back him up with our stuff and he edits accordingly. When it comes down to the mixing, he’ll put in and take out what he thinks is going to work.” Malkmus’s self-effacement notwithstanding, ‟He’s got a good idea of what he wants.”

And can’t have. ‟There’s lots of music I would like to play that we can’t,” says Malkmus after praising Canned Heat and Creedence, declaring his thwarted desire to sing like John Fogerty on ‟Harness Your Hopes,” an outtake from Brighten the Corners which Ibold insists will be the next album’s hit. ‟It’s just too technical. We make the best of what we have.”

Recording the new album together, says Kannberg, made some difference. ‟But it still felt like [Stephen and I] were calling the shots, telling people what to play. I think it’ll always be that way.”

Contrary to common belief, Pavement did not spring into existence on January 17, 1989, the day childhood chums Scott Kannberg and Stephen Joseph Malkmus strolled into Gary Young’s Stockton, California, studio, Louder Than You Think, where they spent the day cutting a few scraggly, intermittently sharp songs as their prismatic fan response to the Fall, Can, Clean and Swell Maps.

Malkmus was born in Los Angeles and moved to Stockton when he was eight or nine. He and Kannberg lived in the same neighborhood and met in the third grade. ‟We were jocks,” says Scott. ‟We were on the same soccer team. We played tennis together.”

Malkmus was the bassist in a hardcore band called the Straw Dogs until he left town to attend a private school in Santa Barbara for two years. When he returned and rejoined Kannberg at Tokay High School, Malkmus brought with him important fun from the new world — cool early-’80s records by happening bands like X and Devo.

After graduation, Malkmus enrolled in the University of Virginia (‟the only school people said was good that I got into”); Kannberg spent a year at Arizona State. Before dropping out, he says, ‟I thought up the name Pavement and had a band that played one show at a party in 1987.” Pavement’s first singer, he notes, is now in an Arizona band called Beats the Hell Out of Me. Back home, Kannberg spent a year working in a used record store and then resumed college in Sacramento, where he studied urban planning. When Malkmus visited, they tried to form a band, Bag o’ Bones, that never got off the ground.

Malkmus had met Nastanovich at school, where they were members of a band called Ectoslavia and DJs on WTJU. ‟Stephen and I got along famously right off the bat,” says Bob, a garrulous straight-shooter with a hearty laugh. ‟We had similar tastes in just about everything. We were both into pinball, sports and drinking beer.”

One thing they didn’t share was the need to perform music. Unlike Malkmus, who even had a second group, Lake Speed, Nastanovich was content to be a fan. Still, he wound up banging on stuff in Ectoslavia. ‟Nobody could really play except for Malkmus and Rob Chamberlain a little bit, it was just noise.”

Broadcasting was another story. While Nastanovich devoted himself to WTJU enough to become its station manager in his last year, Malkmus was no Casey Kasem. ‟The station had an amazing library,” recalls Bob. ‟Stephen was less interested in putting together a radio show than he was in listening to albums he’d never heard.” Typically, Bob would do the late-night shift while his future bandmate devoted himself to getting a musical education.

Between semesters, Malkmus continued to jam with devout California boy Kannberg in Stockton. Finally, they de­cided to commit themselves to posterity. ‟He thought we should just make a record,” says Kannberg. ‟He had these songs and I had a couple of songs; we wanted to put the single out just to have something in the history of rock.”

‟We weren’t trying to get big or anything,” says Malkmus. ‟We were listening to a lot of obscure music — Chrome, Swell Maps, the Television Personalities — and celebrating obscurity was fine with us.” With such humble aspirations, the two found their way to Young’s studio. Taking advantage of his musical abilities, they got the much older Young to drum on ‟Box Elder” and ‟Price Yeah!,” doing the rest themselves. Kannberg pressed up a thousand 7-inches and released the little bugger as Slay Tracks (1933 – 1969), an artifact that now fetches $100 or more from collectors. In the tradition of heroes like Epic Soundtracks and Nikki Sudden, they identified themselves on the record as SM and Spiral Stairs, the latter a meaningless pseudonym Kannberg clung to through Wowee Zowee.

‟There was a lot of mystery to the bands we liked,” explains Kannberg of the nomenclatural conceit. ‟They didn’t want their picture plastered all over. We wanted to keep our band mysterious. I wish we still could be. We had these visions of trying to do things a little differently, try to fuck things up a little bit.”

Slay Tracks led Pavement to Chicago indie label Drag City, which released the duo’s next EP, Demolition Plot J-7, in 1990. By this point, Malkmus had finished school and returned to Stockton after an extended personal tour through Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Following his 1989 graduation, the vehicular-minded Nastanovich had fulfilled his dream of driving a bus ‟in the big leagues” — New York City — and moved north with Berman, who got a job guarding paintings at the Whitney. Together, they persuaded Malkmus to join them in Jersey City.

Despite the fact that its two principals were now living on opposite coasts, Pavement-the-intermittent-recording-project moved closer to making its public debut. Several months after aborting a 1990 itinerary and making a solitary performance in a Davis, California radio studio, Pavement — Kannberg, Malkmus, Young, Nastanovich and Ectoslavia guitarist Rob Chamberlain — emerged from its cocoon and hit the road. The road, not too surprisingly, hit back.

‟We practiced for three or four days at Gary’s parents’ house in Mamaroneck, then went on tour in [Bob’s] station wagon,” recalls Kannberg. ‟At the first show, a club in New Brunswick, New Jersey, we saw how much of a drunk Gary was. Then we played the Middle East in Boston, and he was out of control. Gary was out there doing this weird hippie dance to the opening band and fell down and sliced his leg open on a bottle. We had to play five or six shows without him. Bob switched to drums and I played drums, too. Gary finally made it to the New York show we did at the Pyramid.” Fatefully, that 1991 gig was witnessed by Mark Ibold — then of New York’s Dust Devils — who had bought Slay Tracks ‟just because of the way it looked.”

Kannberg recalls the band’s calamitous first adventure as ‟so much fun. We were so innocent. If 50 people came to see us, we thought, this is great.” Nastanovich has a different memory of the episode. Before the tour, ‟Stephen had told me that I was going to be the drummer. Then he decided he needed somebody that could play a kit, and so he got Gary. He said, we’ll just figure out something for you to do.” (The fact that Bob owned wheels and volunteered to drive the band didn’t hurt, but he has never been a secondary member in the band’s odd hierarchy. As Malkmus notes, ‟There was no plan that the sound of the band needed two drummers to really beef it up like the Dead or the Allman Brothers. We created a role for him because he’s such a great friend and I wanted him to be in the band.”)

When Nastanovich first joined the band, ‟I couldn’t think of anything to do other than play a floor tom and a snare. But when I realized Gary was going to be inconsistent; it became necessary for me to keep the beat. After Gary cut himself, we went down south, to live situations where I could name over half the people in the room. I told Stephen I could play decent drums on only six or seven of the songs, and he’d better adjust the set list or else it’s going to be a complete disaster. He wouldn’t do that. On several songs I had no idea what to do — I only had two drums, anyway. It was harsh, but because I went through that, anything immensely humiliating that’s happened subsequently has been not [so bad].”

Malkmus, Kannberg and Young had recorded Slanted and Enchanted at the beginning of that year. ‟We wanted to make a rock record, a record that should be easy to play, that we could tour to,” is Kannberg’s offhand explanation for the craggy, seductive album — recorded in a week — which sold something near 100,000 copies and topped many critics’ year-end lists in 1992.

With Chamberlain out of the picture, Pavement decided a bassist would lively up the party mix. They considered Michael Duane, the Dust Devils’ main man, but — fearing the English expatriate would compound the Young situation — instead selected his protégé, Mark Ibold. Without quitting the Dust Devils, Ibold joined Pavement a few months prior to the release of Slanted and Enchanted in ’92. The following summer, to the relief of all concerned, Young bowed out of the band and was replaced by Steve West. (Young still runs his studio and leads a band called Hospital, which released an album on Big Cat in 1995.)

Displaying the nonchalance that belies his bandmates’ confidence in his creative vision, Malkmus invited West into Pavement drumming unheard. ‟I didn’t even try him out. I figured it would work out fine ’cause he’s such a great person. Bob [Nastanovich] went to high school with him and said he was pretty good on the drums. I knew him. I figured I could mold his drumming style.” West seconds the emotion. ‟I feel like my audition with Stephen was working with him for nine months and getting to know him, realizing what our similarities are.” Here’s a third perspective: When a lead singer hates his audibly imperfect voice, how much expert technique should he want or expect from colleagues?

West’s unveiling came at the Drag City Invitational in Chicago in 1993. ‟That was a really hard time for me,” says Nastanovich. ‟I told Gary on several occasions that I would not go on in this band if he wasn’t in it. I felt a certain amount of personal immorality that I had to overcome.” Fans also had their reservations. ‟In the beginning,” says West, ‟there were shouts of `Where’s Gary?’,” but no longer. ‟Most listeners don’t even know what record I started to play on.”

The revised lineup proved entirely salutary. ‟Steve West is a solid and stable individual that I knew would provide an element of consistency that had never been there,” says Bob. ‟I really didn’t know if it was necessary or worthwhile for me to be in the band anymore. I had to change my role. So I got a Moog [synthesizer] and figured I’d make some noise on it and add some spice.”

Thus bolstered, Pavement promptly took a great leap forward, making 1994’s monumental Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. The accessible and chewy consideration of the rock life contains the most coherent songs of Malkmus’ canon, as well as Kannberg’s urgent Fall clone, ‟Hit the Plane Down,” and ‟5 – 4 = Unity,” a witty interpretation of Stockton homeboy Dave Brubeck’s ‟Take 5.” The album became Pavement’s biggest seller, lost out to Hole’s Live Through This as top album on the Village Voice‘s prestigious Pazz & Jop critics’ poll and brought the band to the following summer’s Lollapalooza tour, where they again took a back seat to Courtney’s crew. With Wowee Zowee not wowing much of anybody, Pavement found its poorly attended afternoon slot a trying ordeal, but the band did enjoy the generous pay and comfortable traveling conditions.

Other than recording Brighten the Corners, doing a short tour that began on the West Coast in January and the Tibetan Freedom Concert in June, Pavement laid low in ’96. Malkmus cut a version of X’s ‟Unheard Music” with Elastica for the soundtrack of the upcoming SubUrbia; otherwise, the band mostly attended to such post-rock affairs as matrimony, moving, mortgages and, in one case, an ‟off-season” career. Nastanovich, who publishes a thoroughbred tipsheet called Lucky Lavender, owns shares in two race horses: Steinlen’s Promise and Fast Irish Lass. ‟I never intend to be in any other band,” he says. ‟I consider myself to be a member of Pavement more than a musician. At the end of a tour, I go home and forget that I’m in Pavement.”

But for the first half of ’97, Bob and the others are most definitely neck-deep in Pavement. The well-rested band is armed with its best musical shot yet at joining Oasis and Bush in the MTV-sponsored alternarock winners’ circle. (The band’s apathy toward making videos, however, remains its Achilles heel in that campaign.) A bit older and more settled, the five are perhaps less tolerant of some rigors they once welcomed. Though confident enough to accept that putting a roadie or two on the payroll isn’t a complete sellout, Pavement still operates beneath the hard-headed career radar of those other bands. ‟I never have any idea what’s going to happen with this band more than six months in advance,” says Ibold. ‟We never have plans.” ◆

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