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The Real Stephen Malkmus

The ex-Pavement frontman has settled into a life of fatherhood, NBA games, and an endless search for “the song.” Oh, and he’s on Twitter, too.

Stephen Malkmus Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One of the reasons Stephen Malkmus joined Twitter was that he’d kept hearing that Stephen Malkmus had already joined Twitter. A fake Stephen Malkmus.

“It was really successful and beloved,” the ex-Pavement and current Jicks frontman says of his digital doppelganger one mild Monday evening in March. He reflects for a moment on how that statement lands, and then adds a caveat: “It sounds like I’m bragging or something, that I’m saying I had a really successful imposter. My imposter is so great, how great does that make me? I’m not saying that.”

We are drinking pints of Pilsner in the back room of a Brooklyn dive bar a few blocks from the Barclays Center, where Malkmus will soon attend a Nets game. Dusty board games line the walls; the pings of tabletop shuffleboard games punctuate our conversation. Malkmus looks remarkably similar to how he did in the ’90s: same angular jaw, lanky limbs, and shaggy hair—though not quite as insouciantly unkempt as the bowl cut he peered through in Pavement’s early days. “But anyway, there was a guy who did that for years—like a parody version of me,” Malkmus continues. “I wonder who did it. I’m assuming it was a man. He certainly had fun with it. I never actually read it but I know it was slack, arch …”

I had become aware of a rumor that Stephen Malkmus was, in the words of someone who works at his label, “a Board Game Guy.” And that’s why our interview was taking place at a bar known for its board game selection, where, should the conversation be slow-going, I would have the option of playing Scrabble—or worst-case scenario, Jenga—with one of indie rock’s most renowned wordsmiths. When I attempt some small talk about board games, though, Malkmus looks confused. He is not a Board Game Guy, it turns out, and though he’s not offended by the misunderstanding, he’s just not exactly sure how the rumor got started. “I do like puzzles,” he offers, as a possible explanation. “I don’t want to like to do puzzles, but once it’s out there I’ll contribute.” And yet it feels more quintessentially Stephen Malkmus to be mistaken for a Board Game Guy than to actually be one. A cloud of irony and faintly bemused absurdity seems to follow him wherever he goes.

The same could be said of the account @StephenMalkmus1. In retrospect, some of its surviving missives might feel a little too on the nose in their parody of indie rock’s archetypal Gen X slacker (“i forgot my password for several weeks…apparently pizzaking420 was too hard to remember”), but @StephenMalkmus1 did have fleeting moments of absurdist brilliance (“who am i supposed to call to fix my dunk tank”) and rock-underground inside jokes (“my world of warcraft username is The_Real_Dave_Berman”). Perhaps its greatest triumph is how many people it fooled. Not only was the account eventually “verified” with a coveted blue check, but Malkmus’s friend, the musician and artist Kim Gordon, made a painting inspired by one of its tweets. “But it was the other guy!” marvels Malkmus, sipping his beer. (The handle was eventually unverified and labeled a “parody account,” after which its prolificacy tapered off.)

The whole tale has the off-beat, uncanny humor of, well, a Pavement song—if one updated in the terms of the digital dystopia that is the 21st century. “Freeze, don’t move,” Malkmus once sang on “Shady Lane,” a single from the band’s 1997 album Brighten the Corners. “You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life.”

On May 18, Malkmus will release Sparkle Hard, his seventh album with the Jicks—a collection of Portland, Oregon–based musicians he’s been playing with since shortly after Pavement’s 1999 breakup. (Malkmus and his family lived in Berlin, Germany, between 2011 and 2014, mostly because his wife’s work as a sculptor took them there, but the family is now settled once again in Portland.) Sparkle Hard is undoubtedly one of their best records, effusing a relaxed confidence and, most importantly, a wealth of catchy, memorable songs. Malkmus speaks with an almost Zen-like reverence about “the song.” As in: “Most musicians are just looking for the song. Give us a song, we’ll play it. There are a lot of people to play the song, but everybody’s lookin’ for the song.”

Malkmus was on tour with the Jicks’ last album in 2014 when he first decided to assert his 21st-century identity—to tweet, and therefore be. “I decided, I want to exist in the world,” he tells me, with the faintest smirk. “You might as well be invisible if you’re not doing this shit. So I was like, ‘I’m real, I exist, I’m getting Twitter. I’m gonna look at shit online and write people back.’” He lets out a mischievous giggle. “You hope you exist without doing that. But you don’t, really. It took me a while to realize this.”

Black-and-white photo of Stephen Malkmus performing in 1992 Getty Images

In his earliest iteration as a songwriter, Malkmus—like many kids in the Stockton, California, punk scene—was all about the shtick. While in high school, he joined a band called the Young Pioneers: “We had a Communist edge,” he recalls, “because you had gimmicks and stuff. We eventually stopped being called the Young Pioneers, because some junkie guy quit, so I joined, and we inherited some of their songs about Communism.” They had to round out their set list with new material, though, so Malkmus tried his hand at what he calls some “sarcastic, low-stakes, joke horror-punk, or something.” Sample titles of his earliest compositions include “Suicide,” “Go to War,” and “Murder at the Matinee” (he regales me with a bit of it: “There’s a killer on the loose / And he’s killing people!”).

“Then, when my other band, Pavement, started, I had gotten more into literature and higher art,” he says, with a self-deprecating snort. “So I had different goals that I was trying to show I could master, at that point.”

The real Stephen Malkmus—as opposed not only to his fictional Twitter twin, but also to his reputation, the larger-than-life persona as the poster boy of the disaffected ’90s, the King of All Things Slack and Arch—is surprisingly easy to talk to. He has an inviting sense of humor and an affable curiosity about other people; he not only asks me more questions about me than almost any other person I’ve ever interviewed, but he also muses for a solid minute at the beginning of our conversation about a muscular, important-seeming guy who was on his plane to New York, wondering aloud what that guy’s deal was. “I just wanted to ask him what he did,” Malkmus says, a little ruefully, as if he’d missed an opportunity to sketch out a new character in one of his songs.

Another point of his reputation that Stephen Malkmus disputes is that he is “very into sports”—he says the only one he has time to actively follow is pro basketball. Which still only partially explains why he is spending his evening going to a Brooklyn Nets game. “The Nets are … not very good at basketball yet,” he admits. “But that doesn’t mean they won’t be, because they have a pretty cool plan for being intentionally mediocre for a couple of years and then getting better.” We discuss how well this has worked out for my team, the Philadelphia 76ers.

“Yeah, you know the Process,” Malkmus nods approvingly. “I wish music was like that. It’s like, ‘We’re intentionally bad, but you’re willing to pay us millions of dollars for two years to see us be terrible? And then we can rise once we have all the songs?’”

The funny thing is, when Pavement was coming up—when major labels were throwing exorbitant sums of money at questionably marketable “alt-rock” bands, hoping to cash in on the next Nirvana—was one of the closest things the music industry has come to “the Process.” These were heady times. Sonic Youth signed to a major label. The Breeders went platinum. And—for a fleeting moment, around the time of its miraculous 1994 album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain—it seemed like Pavement just might become the biggest rock band of its generation.

“When you’re young, that’s when everybody’s like, ‘You’re beautiful, and awesome, you’re the Cinderella,’” Malkmus says with a knowing laugh. “‘Out of all the bands, you’re the one that’s really special.’ That’s what I liked. It’s like, ‘Yes, please, I like that, keep saying that! Did I do good?’ Once you’re older, it’s part of being an adult that people don’t heap praise on you like that.”

The songs on Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, like all the best Pavement songs, have the shambolic, serendipitous feel of being written by accident—as if Steve West had just set up his drum kit and Bob Nastanovich stumbled in and knocked the whole thing over, and Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg sat on Neil Young’s guitar and in doing so discovered the sweetest, sourest chord in the world, and some guy named Mark Ibold was playing bass in a different room, and then Malkmus ambled in with the perfect breezy melody to tie it all ever-so-loosely together. Somehow, it was all a song—the Song. It’s hard to imagine a tune like “Cut Your Hair” being born any other way. “Cut Your Hair” was a quintessentially ’90s paradox: A single making fun of buzz bands that, on some level, was also the single that was trying to turn Pavement into a buzz band. Said Malkmus a decade ago in a Spin interview: “It was about Pavement being bemused by—or afraid of—committing to wanting that.”

A crucial part of Pavement lore is that the band could have been more successful if they’d tried a little harder, but in not trying they became cool, which is perhaps a nobler and more rarefied goal. Or at least it was in the ’90s. Perhaps one of the greatest fissures between Gen X and the generations that have followed is that “selling out” is no longer the mortal sin it used to be. In the streaming age, when it’s hard enough (if not borderline impossible) to make ends meet as a working musician, even so-called “indie” artists often have a different ethos about, say, commercial placement or pop aspirations. Very few young bands are now offered the sorts of multi-album major-label deals they could choose to righteously turn down back then.

As the story went, the final nail in the coffin of Pavement’s “Cinderella band” possibilities was its sprawling, psychedelic 1995 record Wowee Zowee, which confounded and even disappointed a lot of fans upon its release. It’s since found a cult audience (“When Did Pavement’s Wowee Zowee Become a Masterpiece?” wondered, in 2014, Rolling Stone, the very publication that had given it two and a half stars out of five when it was first released.) Divorced from its status as “the record that could have made Pavement huge,” though, Wowee Zowee has aged well. A friend of mine, a fellow admirer of the record, sometimes approvingly quotes something Malkmus once said in the Pavement documentary Pavement: Slow Century: “I think I was smoking a lot of grass back then. But to me, they sounded like hits!”

In 2010, when nostalgia and mythmaking for that time was really beginning to take hold, Pitchfork crowned Crooked Rain’s seventh track, “Gold Soundz,” the no. 1 song of the 1990s. It was a loaded choice: “Gold Soundz” wasn’t the more widely known, MTV-approved single (“Cut Your Hair” was the one the band played on their infamous appearance on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno) but the Crooked Rain song you’d say you liked best if you heard the whole album. And yet almost 25 years later, it sounds more immediately palatable (and perhaps even more timeless) than “Cut Your Hair.” “Go back to those gold soundz,” Malkmus sang in a just-like-honey voice, nostalgic for something that hadn’t yet even ended—which is to say it’s Pavement at their most emotionally relatable. The critic Rob Sheffield, in his 1994 review of Crooked Rain in the Village Voice, called it “a concept album about turning 28.”

When I ask Malkmus about his favorite Pavement record, he says, “It would be one of the first three ones, but for different reasons.”

“It was fun,” he says. “But if the last album was so fun and [we] liked it so much, why not do another one? There’s a reason we didn’t. So it must have been the earlier ones.”

Stephen Malkmus performs in 2018 Getty Images

One of the best songs on Sparkle Hard is “Bike Lane,” a propulsive rocker with a vibe that seems carefree until Malkmus starts singing about Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who in April 2015 died after sustaining a spinal injury while in police custody. “I have a soft spot in my heart for Baltimore, I don’t know why,” Malkmus says. “But I was really into that story, I read a lot about it. It was a tragedy.” There’s something oddly poignant about the song: Malkmus imagines Gray within the pastoral backdrop of a benignly Portlandia-esque (which is to say, white) neighborhood, a place where he can escape from the cops chasing him to his doom. “Go, Freddie, go!” he shouts. Malkmus says he considers it a kind of 2018 update of the old rock ’n’ roll outlaw songs. “There’s no ‘I fought the law and the law won’ anymore,” he says. “The law is winning out there.”

Another highlight is “Refute,” a twangy, “Range Life”–reminiscent duet with Kim Gordon. Malkmus sings the first verse, in character as a deluded man who’s fallen in love with a woman he believes to be his soul mate. “But he’s this fucking boring dude,” Malkmus explains. “She got married to this guy and she’s sick of it. So in the second verse she falls in love with the nanny.” In the original version of “Refute,” Malkmus sang both parts, but it is perhaps even more fitting to let Gordon voice this tale of delicious revenge in the face of domestic betrayal. “Usually the man is the one doing this seducing, but no, she’s done with it, the Kim Gordon character,” he says. “She’s done being the one that gets cheated on, so she hooks up with the pretty girl and leaves. That’s the lark of the song.”

Malkmus’s newfound exploration of the female perspective probably has something to do with his daughters, who are now 10 and 14. He’s fascinated by the way they and their generational cohort consume music, and how different it is from the way he did when he was younger. “They have no interest in buying a CD or a record. Zero,” he says. “They’re always going to have [music] … maybe it’s a little cheapened or debased by Spotify. But a song will come up and they’re like, ‘That’s a good song.’ They like everything.”

Neither has shown any interest in music as a career, but, says Malkmus, “we’re training them to have lots of nice extracurricular activities, like playing the cello.” This has at least inspired one bit of fatherly advice: “Of course, as a worried parent, if I have a cello-playing daughter I always try to emphasize, like, you don’t wanna be the cello player … you wanna be the one that’s writing the music and in control. Even if it’s nice to just play along to an old white man’s music … why don’t you learn this Ableton? Learn how to produce yourself. But they’re not interested in that yet, luckily.”

The sun sets on Atlantic Avenue; the Nets beckon. A bartender who has seemed, all evening, a little too attentive to our needs cleans up our table and finally confesses to recognizing Malkmus. He tries to play it cool as he gushes about what a fan he is—a tightrope that a Gen X–er in a millennial world still must walk. He turns out to be the owner of this bar, and he has a favor to ask: Would Malkmus sign the wall behind the bar on his way out? I can’t tell whether Malkmus is flattered or embarrassed, or whether either of those states can ever exist fully independent of one another, but he says sure. Anyway, it’s better than a selfie. And so Stephen Malkmus uncaps a marker and the owner of the board game bar watches him scrawl his name on the wall. He cannot believe it’s really him.

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