I WAKE UP EARLY the morning I speak to Stephen Malkmus—stupid early. I stumble to the bus stop and find myself, miraculously, sitting at my desk at 7am with a supine and blank stare. It's alarmingly quiet in here, I think. Like water slides in a winterized ghost town, the air vent capillaries run over my cubicle and hum softly, keeping me company. The first jolting ring of my phone reminds me where I am. I grab my tape recorder. Before the second ring, I shove a tape into the thing; before the third, my fingers work the jack of the adapter into the phone's input. I grab the receiver in what feels like time nicking at the outlines of my life.
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Graceland, Friday, March 9
Malkmus speaks like a Pavement song; his voice is low, tired, and rambling. When I ask him about forgoing his tenure as SM and putting himself—shiny, fresh-faced, and post-heroin-chic thin—on the cover of his premiere solo release, he hems and haws for a few minutes. For some reason, we discuss yoga (he partakes in the icky, sweaty kind—but not this morning, it's way too early for that) before he says, "I was off gallivanting around Hawaii, and I called this guy to take my photos well before the record came out. So we had that option. When I did the Pavement covers, I was trying to come up with something that had an edge or something. To me, that has the most edge."
I am only one stop on Stephen Malkmus' media blitzkrieg. Later in the day, he will meet a television crew in the food court of a nearby mall; he is not particularly enthusiastic about that. Periodically, brief and unexpected animation interrupts his nasally drone. He makes keen sense from time to time, but often he's comparable to Kevin Spacey's character in the movie Usual Suspects, picking words off a bulletin board, coming up with brilliant lies on the fly—just like Pavement songs.
"When a band starts, when you're early on in your career, you want to make it more than the sum of its parts somehow, I suppose. At this point, no matter what, I'm just trying to do something different. Although musically, perhaps I don't. Well, sometimes I do. I don't know," he says.
And it's true; now that he's on his own, sometimes he does and sometimes he doesn't. Create deviant, bright departures from his work in Pavement, that is. Most of what made Pavement Pavement bleeds through. Tracks like "Jo Jo's Jacket" and "Phantasies" jangle like nonsense on parade. But the angles are softer. The album is a discourse on mellowing out. All the songs float around some serious melodies, and a few of them tell the kinds of stories that were previously off limits to a guy like Stephen Malkmus. He's getting older (and hey, so am I). But apparently some indie rockers burnt casts of themselves back in 1991 and they aren't breaking out of them any time soon—because not everyone in used T-shirts and corduroys is showering praise on Malkmus' solo turn.
"When I was doing the album, I was really just trying to entertain the six people in the room. Whatever my cool bar is, it's there, but I'm not really worried about the outside world," says the ever-aloof king of indie.
"The songs that are the most narrative are the ones with the most simple music," he continues. "The songs that I put on there last are sort of my version of filler. And it turns out people like those songs more, but to me, 'Jennifer and the Ess Dog' and 'The Hook,' they're like sorta generic chord progressions and stuff. I don't mind doing that, and I think it's a nice exercise for someone like me to play songs like that to see where it leads me, to put more focus on the lyrics. The only worry is that they're gonna be funny in the wrong way—in a more disposable, Presidents-of-the-United-States way, in that big Camper-Van giant world that I don't really want to be associated with. When you do that, it's a thin line. It has to be sorta surreal and specifically warped or perverted for it to be my style."
Warped and perverted is his style. When I ask him where he'll be in 30 years, I imagine him flipping through random television stations, channeling this response: "I'll probably be a water-ski instructor in Big Bear Lake down in L.A. with a washed-out wife, a watery gin and tonic in the cup holder of the boat. I'll just be listening to AC/DC really loud on headphones while I teach these losers to ski. I'll be getting really into quilting—quilting and making my own ice cream."