Loose Gravel

"Do you have any wrap-it-up questions? Because we're at a short stop here."
From a roadside pay phone in Oregon, Pavement drummer Steve West is offering his rendition of "Sorry, the interview is over," backed by the faint chatter of goading bandmates telling him it's time to get his ass on the tour bus. West's brushoff -- polite and direct -- rings truer than the frail excuses most frequently employed to cut short a fun but fruitless conversation with the press. Blessed with a keen sense of the absurd (a Pavement prerequisite), affable ways and a deep, calm voice, West is one of the more interviewable subjects in his enigmatic camp. So it's a little unfortunate that he's also one of the least involved in Pavement's creative process, which has managed, over the last six years, to turn pop music in on itself, while exposing and disposing of indie rock's more paltry and predictable ingredients.

West is more than happy to wax semi-philosophical about the last year or so on the road supporting Pavement's 1995 CD, Wowee Zowee, and to justify the group's lukewarm attitude toward a West Coast stint last year with Lollapalooza ("Sometimes, we were playing to just seats"). He'll enthuse over a well-received set of shows in California and giddily report on the group's new camouflage stage gear. "We decided to do the '80s' wear-cool-army-stuff-when-you're-in-a-band thing," West quips.

But when it comes to answering questions about Pavement's songs, West is somewhat tightlipped and out of sorts. Most of the music, it seems, is beyond his area of concern -- and he'd prefer to keep it that way. The responsibility of explaining Pavement's overt weirdness usually falls on band founders Steve "S.M." Malkmus and Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg. Malkmus, Pavement's singer and guitar-strumming frontman, has been more than slightly overtaxed by the band's increased visibility during the last few years. His blond, somewhat angular good looks and what-the-hey attitude have made him the most sought-after Pavementeer for profound sit-down discussions. The shier Kannberg, on the other hand, has made plain his distaste for the media -- so it's not unusual for the guitarist to vanish from the scene when the band's tour manager spins the barrel for yet another round of meet-the-press roulette. That leaves West, the group's newest member; bassist Mark Ibold; and percussionist/all-around handyman Bob Nastanovich -- all swell guys for a little heart-to-heart about recording and touring, but hardly mountains of insight when it comes to analyzing the ideas behind Pavement's approach to its songcraft.

Hit anyone in Pavement with the lazy slacker tag, though, and you'll likely get an earful of defensive banter.

"When we started out, [the slacker tag] was pretty much there. Since then, the music has diversed [sic] so much that it's hard to say we're a slacker's band when it comes to the important stuff," says West. "And if you look at the fact that we do our own management and set up all of our tours with a friend of ours, we're one of the hardest working bands, when you get right down to it."

In short, Pavement dispenses lo-fi fun in an increasingly unfun, corporatized musical environment. Depending on your state of mind, the group's loose gripped mentality and messy-clean tactics come off as either excruciatingly annoying or cagily brilliant -- and Pavement wouldn't have it any other way. With simultaneous expressions of love and distaste for rock's history and conventions, the band has been aiming to answer one tough question all along: junk E or genius?

Until Pavement's skewed 1994 masterpiece, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, many arguments were made in support of both conclusions. But as it happened, a combination of better songs, MTV exposure (through a video for the catchy, sublimely sinister single, "Cut My Hair") and dumb luck served to catapult Pavement to a place very close to the spotlight. Just about everyone rallied around the band, and in the summer of '94, an appearance on The Tonight Show and a feature in Rolling Stone (which, typically, Kannberg refused to be a part of) boosted the hype.

Now, a month into 1996, the uproar surrounding Pavement has calmed to a persistent whisper, as the group finishes up its tour of duty behind Wowee Zowee, Crooked Rain's follow-up. Though slightly more refined than it predecessor, Wowee Zowee still sticks to the standard Pavement contradictions: pretty vs. ugly, sincere vs. sarcastic, noisy vs. quiet. And the CD is out-and-out boorish in its nods to Beach Boy Brian Wilson, David Bowie and the Pixies -- not a bad chronology of influences for a such a noncommittal bunch. Keeping with tradition, the band's live shows continue to veer wildly between ill-prepared sloppiness and well-executed inspiration. Which Pavement you get on any given evening is hard to predict -- even for the band.

"Sometimes we're organized on-stage, and sometimes we're not; things just sort of seem to fall apart and come together," says West, whose arrival in 1994 helped stabilize Pavement's rhythm section. "Like the other night, there was a weird vibe on-stage in Eugene [Oregon]. I ended up singing for the first time ever."

Pavement leadership has always insisted that, in the context of underground music, the group is relatively tame, and perhaps they're right. Compared to some of the harsher late '80s experiments of Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., Pavement's early trial runs at noise with brains had all the ominous presence of an overeager geek fumbling with a botched science experiment. Childhood buddies from Stockton, California, Malkmus and Kannberg began writing together in 1989 to soothe their hyperactive imaginations and escape the boredom of the suburbs. Malkmus had just returned from school at the University of Virginia, and with no plans to form a band, the pair threw some cash together to self-release the 1989 EP Slay Tracks. A few hundred copies later, they decided to make a stronger commitment to recording.

After a couple of EPs on the obscure Chicago-based Drag City label -- often recorded with the help of aging hippie Steve Young, who owned a studio near Malkmus and Kannberg and could pound the skins when needed -- and a well received full-length debut, 1992's Slanted and Enchanted, on indie big-boy Matador, it appeared that a full band was in order. Enter Nastanovich and Ibold, and exit the forties-ish Young, who, by 1993, had outlived his usefulness behind a drum set when his heavy drinking became a liability on tour. Nastanovich snatched up high school pal West -- who had met Malkmus when the two were museum security guards -- to fill the drummer's seat just before the group recorded Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.

Pavement's frequent cluelessness on-stage could have something to do with the fact that interaction between its members is, at best, intermittent and, at worst, rare. Kannberg lives in northern California, Nastanovich in Kentucky, and Ibold and West in New York City. Malkmus is technically homeless, but you're likely to find him shuttling between friends' apartments in New York.

"We're not going to take this rock thing so seriously that we lose all sense of a normal life," says West of the group's fiercely independent personalities.

As far as a typical recording process, there really isn't one for Pavement. Work on Wowee Zowee began with basic tracks from Malkmus and Kannberg (though West did play drums on many of Wowee Zowee's initial sessions), and the rest was pieced together down the line with various contributions from others at studios in New York and Tennessee. "It's always different. Sometimes it's two of us; sometimes it's three of us -- whoever's available to do stuff at the time," West says.

So it's evident that even when trying its best to be an actual band, Pavement strives for disunity. Maybe it's just more fun that way: five friends scattered around the continent doing their own thing -- that is, until the next Pavement screw-up brings them together again.

As West says, "We just try to keep ourselves entertained."
Pavement performs Friday, February 9, at the Abyss, 5913 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $10. Spoon and Celindine open. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. For info, call 863-7173.

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Hobart Rowland