"Everything sounds good backwards." Throw in a yowl and the sound of a de-tuned guitar sliding along two or three indistinct notes, and it could be a line from a Pavement song -- one of those deadpan, esoteric thunderbolts from the head of Steve Malkmus.
And as a matter of fact, "Everything sounds good backwards" is what Steve Malkmus has just uttered, in esoteric deadpan, not really answering the question he's been asked. Speaking from his home in Portland, Oregon, where he's preparing to resume a lengthy tour in support of Pig Lib, his second post-Pavement record with his new band the Jicks, Malkmus isn't trying to be evasive -- he doesn't have to try. He just is: evasive, oblique, Malkmus.
Talk to Stephen Malkmus for even a few minutes and all those Pavement lyrics of his immediately come into clearer focus. Oh, you realize: That's actually how he talks, how he thinks.
"The more time you spend around Steve, the less mysterious the songs are," notes Joanna Bolme, Jicks bassist and -- at the moment, after taking over interview duties -- unofficial Malkmus biographer/apologist. "Like, he's a voracious reader, so you'll see him with all these books, and it kind of makes sense, later, when 19th-century French Symbolist poetics shows up in a song." (In fact, 19th-century French Symbolist poetics show up in the opening Pig Lib track, "Water and a Seat.")
But even Bolme -- who is in a privileged position for Malkmus-watching, insofar as she's not only in his band, she's also his girlfriend -- can't account for the whys and hows of Malkmus's mind.
"He's not the best communicator," she says with a laugh. "It's gotten easier; initially -- God, it was like okay, I'm hanging on for dear life here. There's more of a comfort level now. This record, I think we finally started to get the mind-meld thing going, where I can anticipate a little what he's going for when he tells us what he wants from a song."
Which is to say, the Jicks are more of a real band than they were when Stephen Malkmus, his solo debut, arrived on store shelves in early 2001. The world wasn't quite ready for the Jicks back then, or at least not the world according to Pavement fans, who griped about everything. The songs' pop and sheen, compared to early Pavement's vaunted ragtag angularity. The album artwork (Malkmus himself, looking very indie-rock JFK Jr.). And -- most hilarious of all -- the fact that, as musicians, the Jicks (Bolme, John Moen on drums, and Mike Clark on keyboards and guitar) were so much better than the old Pavement crew. Damn them! went the subtext of so many post-show cigarette klatches. Damn their irresponsibly effective tightness as a rhythm section. Damn their unfailing ability to play on key and in time. Fuckers.
"Well, I think that's why Pavement split up," Bolme asserts. "Steve takes the music very seriously, and not living in the same city, not being able to rehearse consistently -- he just wasn't able, with them, to execute on a lot of his ideas. Don't get me wrong," she goes on, sounding very much like someone who's had to spend too much time walking on eggshells where this topic is concerned, "I was a big Pavement fan. I know it's hard when a band you really love breaks up. But . . ." She sighs audibly. "Never in my life did I think not being Mark Ibold would be an issue for me."
Bolme acknowledges that life for a member of the Jicks -- possibly the most scrutinized band since Wings took flight -- has been rocky.
"I remember the first tour -- the album had come out in Europe, and the Germans hated it. Hated it! But then we played there. And we turned Germany around." Bolme's locutions, by the way, are occasionally Malkmusesque. "I look back on that as a formative moment in our becoming a 'real band,'" she continues. "It started out as Steve's project, but after a certain point, it became about conquering something together."
You can hear the unity on Pig Lib. Though all the songs are inarguably shrapnel from the mind of Malkmus, he is quick to credit the band in nurturing the album's more organic sound and helping him to go unexpected places.
"Like on 'Ramp of Death,' I came up with this line, 'going up a ramp of death,'" he recalls, "which reminded me of Nikki Sudden or Leonard Cohen, so I was kind of working off that vibe, with these few chords. I never really expected to put it on the album, but then in the studio, the whole thing changed; it turned into this nice Notorious Bird Brothers loud bass-and-drum thing.
"There's more improv-y, psych-rock stuff going on," he continues, "and it's definitely denser, which comes completely from us just spending all this time together, playing music, jamming. We have more of a relationship now, me, John, and Joanna. That's the biggest change from the first record."
As for the other differences between Stephen Malkmus and Pig Lib? Malkmus is either unwilling to account for the changes, subtle though they are, or -- as he asserts -- he's no more able to unravel the mysteries of Malkmus, the man, the myth, the musician, than anyone else.
"I mean, I listen to records I haven't listened to in a while, I read stuff that flips some switch in my brain . . . I don't know. I'm really not all that self-conscious, I don't spend a lot of time trying to figure myself out. That's probably a bad thing. I probably should seek therapy or something. Maybe that would straighten it all out."
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