Stephen Malkmus – Talks Real Emotional Trash

Snarky indie kids had been dancing around it for years, but Space Ghost had the balls to say it.  When Pavement appeared on the cartoon show Space Ghost Coast to Coast  in 1997, the band was introduced as – and only referred to as – The Beatles.

Calling a moderately successful underground band on a minor label The Beatles was, of course, a joke.   But every joke has a grain of truth, and for much of the 1990s, Pavement seemed like they might actually save rock n’ roll.  Rolling Stone even called frontman Stephen Malkmus “rock & roll’s greatest expressionist.”

With their viscerally lo-fi sound, penchant for two-word album titles and tongue-in-cheek aura, Pavement became one of the first bands to achieve international success without major label money.  If they didn’t start the indie movement, they certainly made it seem more possible than ever.  When Pavement split in 1999, Malkmus carried his cult icon mantle into a new band:  the Jicks.

Although the Jicks, consisting of Joanna Bolme, Mike Clark and John Moen, played on the first three of Malkmus’ post-Pavement releases, only 2003’s Pig Lib was credited to “Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks.”

Now, with the addition of Janet Weiss (the ex Sleater-Kinney drummer joined when John Moen left to drum for the Decemberists), Malkmus is back with his fourth solo album, and second credited to the Jicks, Real Emotional Trash.

Real Emotional Trash is Malkmus’ most complete nod to classic rock and the long-form jams of the Woodstock era.  It is a completion of musical ideas he has toyed with before, both in Pavement (see “We Are Underused,” from Brighten the Corners, or “Speak, See, Remember,” from Terror Twilight), and in his solo career (see “No More Shoes” from Face the Truth).

Glide caught up with Malkmus in a phone interview to discuss the new album, recording in Wilco’s studio, Pavement’s legacy and why he loves The Beatles.

I get the feeling listening to the new album that the words “jam” and “classic rock” will be used a lot in the reviews.  What is your feeling about that?

Well, yeah, there are definitely some songs where no one knows when we’re going to end, and afterwards I made an attempt to rein it in a bit.  It’s definitely just jamming in the studio, but then, you know because it’s a studio record, I doubled some of the guitar parts or created harmonies to them so that there’s really parts.  And I tried to rein it in in that way, just the ending of a couple of songs like “Baltimore” or something where everybody’s just wanking off and the song could end.  But usually, there’s a purpose for all of it.

The press release for the album says that it is a departure for you, but you’ve done long-form jams like this before.  Do you feel RET is a departure?

Not really, I don’t see it that way.  It’s all a direction we’ve been going, which is progressing on more musical passages.  Things aren’t as compact, I guess.  It’s a product of probably becoming more of a live band, and also the reality of being a band that’s not going to be a singles band, anyway.  We’re kind of a live entity now; that’s where we thrive.  We don’t want to be as bad as The Grateful Dead on an album – although they have made good albums. But the records now are just kind of let-it-all-hang-out, kind of shaggier affairs.  I think also, just how we play and where we are as musicians, we’re not a real high-tempo group.  We play the aggressive edge of the mid tempo, but where are you going to rock within that? 

Because we want to rock, basically.  We’re into rock n’ roll.  We want to be offensive, a little bit.  That’s how we do it.  We’re not here just to please you; this is rock n’ roll.  It should be a barrage, a little bit.

I read a quote where you said after making Face the Truth, “I don’t know if I can record at home again.  I need some variables — a different studio, different instruments — to get me inspired. I have to get new toys, new effects pedals, to make it sound different.”  What new toys did you use on this?

I used some different tape delays – Fulltone I guess makes it.  It’s kind of a slightly more rockabilly sounding Echoplex.  You know, in the end, it wasn’t that much.  I ended up using my Wah-wah.  There weren’t so many outboard effects at the studio. 

Come to think of it, though, when we recorded at Wilco’s, their studio is a shrine to excess with pedals and guitars.  I think, every year with Jeff Tweedy, for Christmas everyone knows don’t try to get him a shirt or something, just get him a weird pedal and he’ll be happy.  I played a ton of theirs and I can’t even remember what they are.  There was this purple one, Foxx.  I used their space echo.  A lot of their pedals, it was just kind of like plug it in, see how it works.  And their guitars – Jeff’s got an amazing collection of guitars, lines of guitars.  I’ve always wanted to play a Telecaster that sounded good, and I used his and some of his amps on the song “Real Emotional Trash.”  It’s with this kind of dark old Supro amp that’s not really my sound, but we were just like, “Let’s try that.”

The last three albums have been a bit dark, especially compared to your first solo album Stephen Malkmus, and Real Emotional Trash only really has one pop song – “Gardenia.”  Is there a reason for that?

I like tougher or darker sounds – that feeling is more what I get from music.  I like beautiful things too, but it’s basically against the system, or something.  It’s about the underside of feelings, sort of a release, a chance to just go and rip.  You’re allowed to do that there.  You’re not really allowed to do that so often.  But you can control it, obviously, into a form.  It’s not all release; it shows man’s urge to make something that has craft, but just on the darker end of the street.

It’s interesting you say that you like beautiful things too, because I think this album has some of your prettiest melodies – “Cold Son,” “Out of Reaches,” “We Can’t Help You,” – and also some really interesting melodies like on “Baltimore” and “Elmo Delmo.”  Is that something you were trying for on this album?

I like melody and harmonies.  We all do, and the Beatles are the best band ever for a reason.  For all this saying you like dark things, they’re the best band.  They cover so much ground, but they are grounded in the singing.  And rock n’ roll, no matter all this talk about jamming and pushing the edge, it does kind of live or die by the singer.  That’s like the thing that’s going to ruin it.  I mean, you need a great drummer or it’s going to suck, and you need a good singer, basically.  A good guitarist – not that I’m a great one – but a good guitarist helps.  But if you have a great singer and a great drummer, you can pretty much do anything.  So I put a lot of effort into that part too.  You can have any kind of song, and if you have those two things, I think I’m going to like it.  I mean, maybe I won’t like it if it’s modern country, or something (laughs).

I read an interview you gave in 1999 where you said, “One day I’m going to write a straight-ahead story.  I really want to, but I can’t at the moment.  I’m not very good at that now.”  Have you written that straight-ahead story yet?

Maybe not a finished one, but you know, narrative things.  Not really like the straight-ahead feeling song yet.  But it’s just what I do.  It’s like, this is all I can do.  You have to come to grips with who you are and what you’re comfortable writing about.

It seems like “Hopscotch Willie” is a pretty good story song.

Yeah, that’s like a fun story.  I can do that kind.

That one sounds like Santana at Woodstock.

Totally (laughs).  I know, I know, it is Santana.  Even sometimes, I play some of that Santana solo, the guys get mad at me.  But I won’t do it, like, only in practice.

Did adding drummer Janet Weiss to the group help the album develop? 

Yeah, she’s part of it.  And Joanna playing with her in Quasi [Bolme and Weiss are both in the group Quasi], I just think that informed the direction we were going.  And she definitely gravitated towards certain songs, Janet.  Like, “Hopscotch Willie,” it was an acoustic song.  I had an acoustic version and it was a little more like, I don’t know, “A Horse With No Name,” or something.  It could have just only had like hand drums or something.  But then when she played it, it was completely different, it had a different swing. And we chopped up some of the chorus, and it totally grew into something else.  Her hands are all over it, as are Joanna’s.

I wanted to ask about the past a bit.  It seems like since Pavement broke up, the band is getting bigger.  Like, every year since you split, more people catch on.  Do you see that as being the case?

Well, yeah.  The 90s – we’re all looking for something out of that era, which initially seemed a lot better than the 80s, and it probably was.  But, what are we going to take from that time, like the meat of the 90s?  Pavement is hopefully going to be one of those things.  There are at least four solid albums, four and a half, and extra stuff.  And it was exactly in that era, and it ended right before the next century, so it’s compact that way.

There seems to be an absurdist element to a lot of your work in Pavement.  Where did that come from?

Probably just surprise of actually being in a band that people are listening to (laughs).  Because I played in some punk bands and stuff in the 80s, and nobody listened to us.  And I was a fan of Butthole Surfers and Mudhoney.  They seemed like the most massive bands ever.  So I think when Pavement got to be more accepted than those kind of bands, judging by our sound and who we were, I think we were really just like, “Oh my God, this is really insane.”

So you weren’t expecting it?

No, not at all.  So I think we were kind of like, “Whoa, what are we going to do now?  This is pretty crazy and we’re going to have to be a little self-conscious and a little absurd about things.”  And beyond that, I’m sure there’s other reasons, just artistically, what bands we liked or what kind of lyrics I liked.

That’s interesting you mention lyrics, because the lyrics are really the most absurd parts.  So many of the lines are really funny, like “Watch out for the gypsy children in electric dresses, they’re insane / I hear they live in crematoriums and smoke your remains” (from the song “You are a Light” on Pavement’s final album, Terror Twilight).

That was from when I was a backpacker, and I was a kid and they were like, “Watch out for the gypsies.  If you go to Rome, they’re going to come get you, they’re going to be nice, and then you’re going to be up a fountain.”  It was just thinking, well, you know, they don’t only do that. They live out in the cemetery because they don’t have houses, and they’re really depraved, they smoke people’s remains to get high (laughs).  Like, they’re really bad – “watch out for those gypsy children” – they’re really really bad.  They’re not only just going to pickpocket you, they’re beasts.

You were a college DJ at Virginia.  What were your favorite albums to play?

At that time, I was not the main DJ.  I would hang out with friends more.  But one of the things I really got excited about then was that band Can that was from Germany.  That was something where I was like, “Wow, there’s a whole other world that I don’t know anything about,” because I knew about 13th floor Elevators, and the Velvet Underground and Wire, and these bands I really liked.  But this was this band that was kind of mysterious, more than the sum of its parts.  The name was weird, and the whole idea of the band seemed extremely perverse to me.  I was a big fan of theirs, and I also liked this band Chrome from San Francisco.  That was, again a band that was completely baffling.  

I think when I got into the Fall and Chrome, it was sort of after Joy Division and New Order.  And New Order, although they were a pop band, they also had this image that was very cryptic and indecipherable what they really meant.  That’s the kind of things I was into then – sort of like being into Jean Paul Sartre if you were a philosophy student, kind of geeky.  Besides that, I liked the mainstream, like Dinosaur, I loved Dinosaur, and Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth was also an amazing band, I thought.

Do you think songwriting is like any other job, where you get better at it the more you do it, or can ideas run out?

I think people can just get sort of burned out.  You can also get misguided, especially if you’re a big pop star and people are talking in your ear about what you should be doing, and mixing things a certain way, or trying to make songs for radio.  You can get really screwed.  In the end, you’re going to have to make some value judgments about what was a better song or worse album that was done.  There’s a lot of variables, for me, in the end.  Maybe the songs weren’t as good, there might have been less time, or bad performances, or just there was no vibe.  In the end, sometimes there’s a vibe that’s going on through the whole event that makes it a little more special or something.  You wouldn’t really know while you’re doing it, because you think it’s good always.

Do you feel like you’ve gotten better at the craft?

Not necessarily, because you lose other things on the wayside and you don’t want to do stuff that’s already been done, certain chord changes and the way it sounds, just deliberately shy way from that.  So the first things you do are some of the most natural, best things. 

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