In the entertainment world, there are natural stars and there are reluctant stars. Stephen Malkmus, leader of Pavement, is that rare person who falls squarely in the middle. He is polite, charming, well-read, articulate and adept at making people feel comfortable while speaking his mind. It comes easily to him. He was even called the "Grace Kelly of rock" by no less an authority than Courtney Love.
In the current world of underground American rock (as in punk years before), stars are to be loathed, so much so that on Pavement's debut, 1990's Slanted and Enchanted, Malkmus was credited merely as "S.M." The anonymity was lifted as the band's status in indie rock circles rose, finding them favorites of the press, and underground writers and fellow musicians called the band the kings of indie rock. By pointing a finger at art rockers, and by association, at himself, Malkmus made what had been serious music fun. (He took specific jabs at the Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins on "Range Life" from 1994's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.)
Those plaudits have now put the group in a tenuous situation. Pavement is one of the last great indie rock bands still standing, but what to do with all that honor and power? Malkmus looks back on the accolades from the band's first two albums, Slanted and Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and suggests that past glory only added to the pressure of creating the group's latest, Terror Twilight.
"You could say, 'You have your fans, and they'll take just about anything you hand out because they love you. You're Pavement,' " he says. "You don't want to let them down, though. To me, it puts more pressure on you because you feel like you've said everything or people probably think, 'Oh, we have enough Pavement records in this world,' and they could well be right. 'Ho hum, why didn't they hang it up after Crooked Rain?' You've got to have that little negative energy to be like, 'We're still here and we're still good.' "
The band, which includes Bob Nastanovich, Steve West, Mark Ibold and Scott Kannberg, began its career as unknown upstarts and used the element of surprise to its advantage. Now, there are expectations. Each record is supposed to explain why Pavement is relevant. Malkmus admits that ten years ago he had no idea that fame would follow the release of Pavement's singles. Neither he nor Kannberg (then cryptically credited "Spiral Stairs"), Malkmus's childhood friend from Stockton, California, had any inkling that they would have to ponder the health of the band, that they would share a Lollapalooza stage with Hole and Sonic Youth, that their first single, "Slay Tracks," would fetch collector's prices, or that their records would be at the top of year-end lists. What Malkmus understood then was that he was doing something different and good, something apart from what his peers were doing.
Lately they've been pondering the health of the band.
"I knew after Slanted and Enchanted that I had a talent for this and that the competition was not all that incredibly advanced," he says. "So I knew that I had a few years. In Portland, I have a lot of friends that are struggling musicians who would kill to be in my shoes, so I know how hard it is to get here. I guess I'm sort of surprised, but I'm not, like, totally psyched. There is a sense of false modesty in all musicians in which most all of us think we're pretty hot shit and deserve more attention and more record sales. But on the other hand, you have to know that the marketplace is not a true indicator of worth or talent -- it doesn't mean that much.
"For us, [being able to sell] a hundred thousand records in America is a nice success; if we keep our expenses low, that's totally reasonable, that's a lot of records to sell, in any man's English. The goal is just to get it to people who you think should like it. [We're] not trying to pull the wool over people's eyes, make them like something they shouldn't like, or don't like, through, like, a flashy video or showing a bit of leg or cheekbones."
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Still, Malkmus takes sales and artistry seriously enough that he insisted the band hire an outside producer to make things fresh again. Perhaps he had been listening to the critics. "The dynamic of working with these four fellows, we've outgrown each other in many ways, I think," says Malkmus. "Like, our musical tastes and senses of humor. Because we live in other places, we've changed a lot. It was good to have someone like [producer Nigel Godrich] there to hold it together, to be able to just bounce ideas off someone new, instead of off the same walls. You kind of know the response you are always going to get every time you hit off that wall."
Pavement has always had fun lying to journalists (making up stories, planting false album titles), but the rumor that the band was breaking up surfaced enough times to give it some weight. Malkmus has always written most of the songs, while Kannberg has contributed a few caustic tunes. Malkmus's artistic dominance could be one reason for the chatter.
"When we rehearsed in Oregon, we were fleshing songs out, and I just had my shit together and [Kannberg] didn't," Malkmus says. He admits Pavement's future was questionable. "We've always had an attitude that if you're doing things creatively, that it's there or it's not. It's gotta be there, and I wasn't sure in that interim if it was or not. For me to want to keep doing it and working with the guys, people I love as people, some things had to change."
Pavement performs Thursday, September 30, at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak. Dirty Three and U.S. Maple open. Tickets are $14. Call (713)862-7625 for more information.