Malkmus Embraces Pavement Past For Solo Debut

Singer retains penchant for brainy lyrics and fragile, ambling rock songs on self-titled album.

NEW YORK — Former Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus loves John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, the 1970 solo debut that found Lennon singing, "I don't believe in Beatles."

But when Malkmus' band "fizzled out" in 1999 and it came time to record his own solo debut, he wasn't interested in making a flamboyant break from his past as the leader of one of the most influential bands of the '90s.

"I don't believe in indie," he sang softly, trying out the line as he waited on a breakfast order at a Soho diner. "It's not like anyone would care, anyway."

Instead, Stephen Malkmus, released February 13, is damn near a Pavement album: a collection of fragile, ambling rock songs with Malkmus speak-singing brainy lyrics that double as wise-ass poetry.

"I embraced my past. ... I was all for at least making one record that was, like, a pretty straight Pavement play," Malkmus said. "I wasn't particularly self-conscious while I was doing it, so I wasn't really worried if it was too much this or that."

Pavement's quiet end was originally deemed a hiatus when the band announced it in November 1999, but the band's split turned out to be permanent, in part because the musicians tired of "the effort it took to get five people to agree."

"'Fizzled out' is a good term — it's over," he said, adding that he wouldn't rule out a reunion in five or 10 years.

Pavement formed in Stockton, California, in 1989 and became central to the indie-rock boom of the early '90s. The band's breakthrough second album, 1994's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, featured the single "Cut Your Hair," which became omnipresent at college and alternative radio.

With his former bandmates gone, Malkmus ended up recording his new album with drummer John Moen and bassist Joanna Bolme, musicians from his current hometown of Portland, Oregon. He dubbed them the Jicks and claims to have originally intended to release the album under that name, until his record company insisted otherwise.

Ultimately, for all the new album's similarity to the Pavement catalog, some differences did emerge.

Malkmus found himself playing emotive, straightforward guitar solos on the delicate elegy "Church on White" and other tracks. He didn't feel the need, he said, to diffuse the impact of his playing with atonal squawks or deliberate clumsiness — a frequent tactic of his Pavement past.

While maintaining his famous penchant for non sequiturs — most notably on "Jo Jo's Jacket," on which he sings about late actor Yul Brynner and house music — Malkmus also wrote several more-or-less straightforward story songs.

Over a "Honky Tonk Women" groove, "The Hook" tells the tale of a young pirate's rise through the ranks of his profession: "At age 19 I was kidnapped by Turkish pirates. ... By 25 I was respected as an equal/ My art was the knife. ... By 31 I was the captain of the galleon/ I was Poseidon's new son."

The song could pass for a metaphorical run-through of Malkmus' own career, but that's not intentional, he claims. "It was this really standard riff I'd had, so it had to have funny lyrics. ... It could've been about a young dentist."

Another narrative track, "Jennifer and the Ess-Dog," somehow ekes genuine pathos from the tale of 18-year-old Jennifer, who dates Ess-Dog, a 31-year-old man who plays in a '60s cover band.

The couple bonds over the Dire Straits album Brothers in Arms and a bandanna-wearing dog named Trey, and all seems well. But the relationship falls apart: "Jennifer left for school up in Boulder/ And ... Ess-Dog came to visit when he could/ But the strain was too much/ They could not make up the distance/ And the distance between their years."

The track, which Malkmus noted as a favorite, is slated to be the album's second single, following the rocker "Discretion Grove."

Malkmus is scheduled to play the new songs on a tour with the Jicks, starting March 8 in Vancouver, British Columbia. In the meantime, he hopes to get in some practice time.

"It's hard to rock out efficiently," he said.

North American tour dates, as provided by a Matador Records:

  • 3/8 - Vancouver, BC @ Richards on Richards

  • 3/9 - Seattle, WA @ Graceland

  • 3/10 - Portland, OR @ Berbati's Pan

  • 3/12 - San Francisco, CA @ Fillmore

  • 3/13 - Los Angeles, CA @ El Rey

  • 3/14 - San Diego, CA @ 'Canes Bar & Grill

  • 3/15 - Tempe, AZ @ Nita's Hideaway

  • 3/17 - Austin, TX @ Music Hall (South by Southwest)

  • 3/21 - Dallas, TX @ Trees

  • 3/22 - Austin, TX @ Mercury

  • 3/24 - New Orleans, LA @ House of Blues

  • 3/26 - Atlanta, GA @ Echo Lounge

  • 3/27 - Chapel Hill, NC @ Cat's Cradle

  • 3/29 - Philadelphia, PA @ TLA

  • 3/30 - New York, NY @ Irving Plaza

  • 3/31 - Cambridge, MA @ Middle East

  • 4/5 - Detroit, MI @ St. Andy's

  • 4/6 - Chicago, IL @ Metro

  • 4/7 - Minneapolis, MN @ 1st Ave