Steeped in Classics: Stephen Malkmus

photo by Leah Nash

Though he played a reunion tour with Pavement, indie-rock icon Stephen Malkmus has never stopped moving forward. His second band, The Jicks, have put out six albums in the past 13 years; as reviews of their latest, Wig Out at Jagbags, were eager to point out, that’s one more than Pavement made. The players have changed, and tastes have too, but there’s a centered quality to Malkmus that’s given his body of work a rare continuity from beginning to middle (with no end yet in sight).

This week, the Jicks play two New York shows, one at The Bowery Ballroom (Feb 26) and one at the Music Hall of Williamsburg (Feb 27). We talked to Malkmus about the custom “Cinnamon & Lesbians” ice-cream flavor Momofuku made for him, the difficulty of doing anything deemed “classic” after the culture has decided your place, why horns sound better now than they did in the 90s, and what exactly he’s got against David Bowie.

Let’s start with a Brooklyn question. How did you like your Momofuku Milk Bar ice cream flavor? 
It was interesting. Much like music, with ice cream practically everything’s been done before. You gotta come up with something that’s mixing elements. I think they managed to make a flavor that I didn’t expect. It got better the more you ate it. The first taste was a little perfume-y, and it was like, hmm, I’m not sure. But I downed my whole thing, so I was into it. I just like the people that work there, and it’s cool to be associated with a really culturally influential food yanker like David Chang.

Spin gave it a mixed review. I don’t know if you saw that…
No, I didn’t see that. That’s why they’re not a food magazine.

Are there a lot of artists that you, as a fan, were onboard with everything, from their first band through later solo albums? 
Well, you know, that’s tough. I don’t know for sure. There’s always going to be high points and low points in someone’s thing. I was quoted in this interview as saying that our new album is “probably not going to be classic, let’s admit that,” or something. That doesn’t mean that I think the record is bad. It’s just a realistic thing about media, where your place is already decided, no matter what you do. You’re kind of yelling into a vacuum, you know? Radiohead, their fans are always going to like OK Computer and Kid A. Those are going to be the classics, no matter what. Even if In Rainbows is genius, which it is, it’s not going to have that import in the culture. There’s only so much time that you can hog everyone’s attention. Your signifiers are worn by 10 years in.

photo by Leah Nash

Well, if there’s some novel narrative that can be applied to a later record—like, if you made a techno record, or a record that everyone considered uncharacteristically sincere or confessional—it sometimes comes back around.
Yeah, I suppose that’s true. Or what seems sincere, but you know, sincerity is a touchy subject. I mean, I’m sincerely 47 and in a band. There’s a certain perspective that gives to things. Anyone that comes to see us will see that we give 100 percent to what we’re doing. Time is precious, and the effort to make records is a sacred thing. We’re not going to waste our time fucking around. But I know what you mean. There’s a way. [My wife and] I could break up or something. Then there’ll be something else to talk about. [Laughs]

Is “J. Smoov” on the new album the first time you’ve ever used a horn arrangement?  
Probably, unless it was a fake one.

It surprising that, as a real record connoisseur, you hadn’t had that impulse before. 
Well, I usually would keep guitar rock and roll in a kind of working man’s paradigm of four people in a room. There’s a lot of overdubs, so that’s kind of not true to that, but when you get into horns it’s going to a more produced thing. You know, we haven’t really heard horns done well in like 40 years. There’s some bad horns, there’s fear in using horns.

But then maybe somehow you can think a sleazy saxophone solo can be all right in something, as a testament to how our culture changes. These 80s things that we were so afraid of in the 90s… we just wanted to obliterate Clarence Clemons, because it was on MTV so much. Or the kind of yacht-rock horns that a band like Destroyer would use now. We would have been like, “Uck, no way.” But now it’s fair game.

In the last decade, it’s been much easier to mark the specific points of reentry for stuff that once seemed unhip. 
Yeah, I think it’s true. For me, I wanted to destroy that music. It gives me hives. But for younger people it’s like, “Yeah, whatever.” It’s affected me, though. I’ll think, oh, the Human League maybe were actually kind of cool, and I didn’t realize it because I was listening to the Minutemen or Echo and the Bunnymen.

In a lot of interviews, you’ve taken great pains to make it clear that you’re, like, philosophically opposed to David Bowie. Why? 
[Laughs] I know, we have to, like, get a room and get it over with. I was just protesting too much. I mean, I just get a little tired of things all revolving around him. I feel like the people he got to play, the producers, he arranged it all. He conceptualized it. His bands, the soldiers, were totally awesome. I’m just saying that he was the coach. He’s still Belichick, but there was Tom Brady in Mick Ronson, killing it.

I love both him and Pavement, so I’ve always been curious. 
Yeah, me too. I definitely like the sort of pastoral, T-Rex-y, dandy-ish folk side of him, the early stuff. My kids love “Ground Control to Major Tom.” That one works for everyone.

This article first appeared in The L Magazine.

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