Stephen Malkmus Sounds Off – American Songwriter

Stephen Malkmus

Stephen Malkmus

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks returned this year with Wig Out at Jagbags, the band’s follow up to 2011’s Beck produced Mirror Traffic. American Songwriter caught up with the former Pavement frontman in New York City via cellphone the day of the record’s release to discuss everything from his fear of digital technology to his true feelings on the Grateful Dead.

I like the new record. I really like the drum sound you guys got. Sorry if that’s a weird way to start the interview.

No, it’s cool. All of the interviews so far have been about me, and I understand that. It’s like personality deconstruction or something, and it’s not about what we actually care about, which is more the drum sounds (laughs).

It must be strange to have a public persona. I was reading Chuck Klosterman’s article about you and he made all sorts of sharp observations about your personality and mannerisms. I remember thinking that must be a little bit nerve wracking.

It’s really nerve wracking. And often when it’s wrong or makes me depressed I just try to think, that’s just inevitable with anyone who’s interesting (laughs). I look at really famous people like Bob Dylan and I’m like, they probably did that, eh whatever. And then I’m just a Portland dad, a normal guy, but I’m starting to think like a L.A. movie star or something; that’s a bad sign.

Your new record Wig Out at Jagbags comes out today, and the reviews are already in. How does that feel?

I don’t know, I wish the people would hear it first. But I imagine anyone who bought it had already read a review, and are gung-ho enough to be totally psyched and want to know what it’s about and stuff. Nils sent me something from the New York Times. That still makes my bourgeois heart flutter, because, y’know, my parents read that and (in high mother Malkmus voice) “you’re in the New York Times.” And y’know it’s like kinda cool, I guess. But I wouldn’t lose sleep if we didn’t have a review in there or something. It’s hard to say what it all means. We just want to play some shows, and have them be fun and full. That’s what bands want.

Let’s talk more about production. Even the most polished records you’ve made have had a raw sensibility to them. What keeps you coming back to that sound?

I think it’s, again, fear of the ’80s. Fear of technology, or digital technology. Levers and stuff like that, the things that ruined music and MTV and ruined like Replacements records or something. Combined with somebody like maybe Steve Albini. Y’know he’s a wise guy, and opinionated and clever, and you kinda trust him sometimes. He says reverbs is bad, and be natural (laughs). It’s like “yeah, I kinda agree with you.” And combined with also some 70s records I like, like Led Zeppelin, or things that are kind of corny and sound like that, and hold up. And even the dry sounds of Steely Dan, and wanting to apply that to our stuff.

On the record you joke about being stuck in the 80s, but you seem really knowledgeable about young bands, especially ones influenced by Pavement. Speedy Ortiz is one of your tour supports, and you’ve given shout-outs to Mazes, Yuck and Parquet Courts in interviews.

Well people tell me about it too, I’m not like scouring. Unfortunately I’m not at the record store buying every new record. People say “check it out Stephen,” and of course I like, I mean all of us like, people who like us. I don’t know if you’ve got a girlfriend or a boyfriend or something but, at least with me, I always just liked the girls that liked me. I didn’t really pick. I don’t know. Life picks you or something. So when I hear bands and they say, “We’re into Pavement and we thought they were awesome,” of course we’re going to have a predilection to like them, and want to be part of their scene and support them.

Last year Wilco and Built To Spill both covered Pavement in concert. How did you feel about their takes on your songs?

Those are bands and people that I feel copacetic with. I’ve had moments of clarity listening to their songs; they’re special, really musical bands. And they’re growing old gracefully type dudes. And positive. So I like them both, a lot.

The new record sounds like a wig out at jagbags at some points. In the Pavement song “Unfair,” you refer to yourselves as “the last psychedelic band.” Where does that come in to what you do now?

Some things you hear them and they’re just kind of fried, without taking acid. Like the 13th Floor Elevators, they don’t have to make a ten minute song to be psychedelic. Anything they do just immediately when you put the needle on the record, there’s this aura of danger and a little bit of insanity. So I guess when I’m thinking psychedelic, truly psychedelic, I’m thinking of the insanity to the sound. I don’t really feel that I am psychedelic. Unfortunately. Not me. I’m just too urban or urbane or . . . Of course I can reference that and stuff, and I love psychedelic music. The fact that I’m not psychedelic kind of hurts my feelings sometimes (laughs).

I’ve heard stories about you and David Berman jamming on Dead tunes at parties, but you told Esquire that you weren’t much of a Deadhead. Can you explain your complicated relationship with the Dead? You put that riff from the Grateful Dead’s “St. Stephen” in the song “Cinnamon and Lesbians.”

(Laughs) Yeah. It’s interesting, but it’s pretty simple. I like the early stuff, recorded and live, like Pigpen and the acid-y stuff. And I like Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty, and I don’t really like it after that. And I didn’t go to shows, and I don’t listen to bootlegs much. I’m approaching things from albums and what they recorded. That’s what I know. I’m the suburban guy who just got the albums. I just created my own vision of things; I didn’t really get into the scene.

“Planetary Motions” is a strange album opener, kind of a slow burn and maybe less accessible than some of the other tracks. You have a tendency to start some of your records off like that (Pig Lib, Wowee Zowee).

I know what you’re saying. A long time ago it was going to be the starter, before we even recorded the album. I have a demo of it and it actually has electronic drums on it, I played the drum parts (hums the part) with my fingers. That’s kind of derived from classic rock mixed with a hambone kind of rhythm. This is a long story. It wasn’t turning out like we wanted the song; we kept remixing it. We finally figured out how to make it sound good and it went it back to the front of the album. It was one of those things where you struggled all night. Double vocals is kind of boring and it’s basically one long guitar solo in a certain way (laughs). Or a riff. It’s either a riff or a solo at all times. Or a wah-wah. It’s just like a love poem to the guitar.

Did you try any new songwriting approaches on this record?

Eh, I don’t know. That “J Smoov” song is kind of like soul or R&B style on that one. I mean, I don’t know if you can say if there’s anything that “new” that I do anymore, for better or worse. I don’t go in and say “I’m gonna do something different this time.” I kind of wait for things to come to me, a little bit. I don’t try to force them to be different. I think that’s how my life is now: having kids. You’re watching them for what they are, and trying to see them, and not them through your eyes. See them through themselves. So that’s how I do the song thing (laughs).

Arlo Guthrie: Alice’s Restaurant – Video


Chances are that Arlo Guthrie’s royalty checks for the month of November are always significantly higher that than they are for the other months each year. For while there is a seemingly infinite number of Christmas songs in the pop music idiom, Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant” is one of the few songs set during Thanksgiving.

Not that the holiday has all that much to do with the song. “Alice’s Restaurant” is living proof that truth is stranger than fiction. The first part of the story, a tale of small-town law enforcement run amok against the 60’s counterculture, actually happened to Guthrie, even though he added some exaggerated comic touches for effect. He was indeed arrested in Massachusetts for illegally dumping garbage for friends who lived in a former church, was brought before a blind judge, and had to pay a small fine.

Guthrie pretty much made up the second half of the song, a surreal visit to a U.S. Draft inspection station in New York, but the spirit of the story, that he was ineligible to serve in Vietnam because of his littering offense, was true. That bit of topicality meant that this shaggy-dog story hit home for a lot of folks even as Guthrie’s dry humor had them in hysterics.

In a 2005 interview with NPR to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the incident behind the song (which wasn’t released until 1967), Guthrie was asked why he thought “Alice’s Restaurant” was so resonant. “Well, you know, I wasn’t sure at first, but I thought it’s probably just a story of a little guy against a big world,” he said. “It’s just a funny tale, and I had–I still have–and I cherish the letters and the postcards and the pictures I got from the guys over in Vietnam, you know, who had little Alice’s Restaurant signs outside these tents in the mud and who would be quoting the song, you know, to their superiors or to each other when their superiors had no idea what they were talking about.”

Guthrie also benefited from the fact that the late ’60s were a time when the rules for pop music had loosened to the point that “Alice’s Restaurant”, essentially an 18-minute monologue bookended by refrains that turn out to be non sequiturs, could gain great popularity. “I was adding to it, and if it was funny and it was true, I kept it,” Guthrie said of the song’s evolution. “And if it wasn’t funny and people didn’t respond to it, I dropped it. And so it was really–you know, it was performance art that I just memorized the best parts of.”

Here we are nearly 50 years after Arlo Guthrie found himself an unlikely prisoner, and “Alice’s Restaurant” is still enthralling. Sing along to that deceptively inviting chorus this Thanksgiving and you’ll get to enjoy a little vicarious defiance with your turkey.

Live a healthier life, become a vegetarian!

View the lyrics below.

Various Artists: Released! — The Human Rights Concerts 1986-1998 [American Songwriter]


American Songwriter

Various Artists Released! — The Human Rights Concerts 1986-1998
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Plowing through over 16 hours of music, documentary footage, interviews, home movies, videos and background information in this mammoth 6 DVD set (also available as a slimmed down double CD) of Amnesty International concerts from the titular years, it becomes difficult to separate the box’s substantial historical importance from its artistic qualities. Anything that brings more attention to this long standing human rights organization, that serves in part to release political prisoners, is a worthwhile endeavor. This lavish, sprawling long awaited release with its 14 hours of previously unreleased material will certainly accomplish that.

But on a purely visceral level, how often you’ll actually play the thing, even to cherry pick some of its best moments, is another question. The six discs adequately cover highlights of the 1986, 1988 and 1990 concerts held in various parts of the world, with some later clips to carry us through to 1998 and beyond. Many of the usual suspects such as Jackson Browne, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Tracy Chapman and Bruce Springsteen are here multiple times and their sets range from pretty good to pretty great.

The opening 1986 show from Giant’s Stadium in New Jersey—which accounts for 5 ½ hours of playing time– is symptomatic of some of the problematic issues. The show was originally recorded on videotape and even with current technological enhancements, both video and audio still sound like you’re watching VHS quality reproduction. The performances and some of the bands are not surprisingly dated (the Hooters, anyone?) which will tax even the most patient viewer.

Thankfully the recording quality improves as the years wear on, as do the hairstyles, clothing and camera work. Also, when playing to crowds this large, the performers tend to reach for the back row which, unless you are U2 or Springsteen, often doesn’t do justice to music that loses nuance in this setting. Some tunes are extended way past their breaking point, which might have made for an intense show, but can get tiresome in your living room. The producers obviously strove for diversity when choosing who made the cut, which means New Kids on the Block get sandwiched between Wynton Marsalis and Sinead O’Connor in the 1990 recap. The ’98 show programs world/hip-hoppers Asian Dub Foundation next to the country pop of Shania Twain and Alanis Morissette often heated musings. And while the hours of documentary footage are never less than enlightening, how often are you going to watch them?

Still, there are many inspired moments dotted across the discs such as Radiohead’s riveting 1998 set, Springsteen and Sting paring up for “The River” and almost everything by the always dependable Gabriel. If you are a fan of these acts, are looking to grab a previously missing piece of musical history, or simply want to support the worthy Amnesty International cause, this is something worth exploring more thoroughly. But for the casual listener, these artists have often done better live work elsewhere and sifting through hours of video to find the gems within, just may not be worth the effort.