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Stephen Malkmus on his prolific career and making new music in a pandemic
Hari Sreenivasan: For more than 30 years, musician Stephen Malkmus has been celebrated and respected. His output in bands and as a solo artist has left a sizeable footprint in the independent music world. But, as NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker learned, the new world that we now find ourselves in is presenting an entirely new set of challenges for an artist known for his lyrical abilities.
Christopher Booker: At this point, it's foolish to try to play the superlative game with the music and career of Stephen Malkmus. His over 30-year output starting with Pavement in 1989, moving later to Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks and throughout the occasional solo offering has long been celebrated. Praised for his effortless approach to his guitar and revered for his lyrical wordplay, there's little evidence that all of the heady descriptions and steady stream of reverence, has at any time, mattered to Malkmus.
Stephen Malkmus: Well, I like music, dude and it's fun to go on those journeys and see what's going to happen.
Christopher Booker: We sat down with him just before the release of his most recent solo album, Traditional Techniques, his third in as many years and also before the world changed.
Stephen Malkmus: I'm always making songs if I don't know how many music, interviews and people you interview in music, but most of us are like always got something that we're working on if we're not releasing it.
Christopher Booker: And there have been a lot of songs from the California native. Starting with Pavement, the band's off-kilter, do-it-yourself, "art-punk" was front and center during the musical revolution of the early 1990s.
Stephen Malkmus: Sometimes culture can seem like it is set in stone and the moment it's at and so if you were watching MTV or, you know, you were seeing hair metal bands and you thought it was always going to be this kind of music, and then as we know, there was like Nirvana and all these other things and our group Pavement fit in that.
Christopher Booker: Nirvana may have blown open the door, but Pavement showed the world that there were many other rooms. The band's first three albums are listed among Rolling Stone magazine's top 500 of all time, something Malkmus will acknowledge, but not embellish.
Stephen Malkmus: I wouldn't like try to overplay our hand, but there's is a place for our style of music in the guitar pantheon that was validated by other things that became popular later.
Christopher Booker: There was a New York Times interview from 2011 with you and Beck when he produced the Jicks record and he said Pavement was the band that 40 other bands were trying to-- to sound like. Do you still hear "Pavementisms" in music that comes now?
Stephen Malkmus: I read about them, and it's not like I have it on my Google alerts or anything, but like I know exists.
Christopher Booker: Young band says 'Pavement major influence'
Christopher Booker: There was also this narrative that surrounded Pavement that you were a band that didn't take it that seriously. Was that a fair description?
Stephen Malkmus: I mean, yeah, I think we took it seriously. It's just how we, how we played our cards was, was different. I mean, I don't know how you signal ambition. I mean, we did we didn't sign to a big label, I guess, when there were some opportunities.
Christopher Booker: While still outwardly projecting that irreverence, as the years have passed and his output has continued, his music and lyrics have sharpened - whether writing about political motivations or gentrification and police violence.
Christopher Booker: But what about now? After a pandemic and a reckoning over racial injustice? Malkmus, like the rest of us, is largely on hold. The Spring 2021 tour announced last summer has been canceled. The show's booked for the summer, are still a big maybe. We caught up with him just last week from his home and it turns out the frontman known for his ability to turn of phrase is still looking for a way to write about what's happened in the past year.
Stephen Malkmus: It feels a little like forced retirement or something just because of my specific age group.
Christopher Booker: Have you been finding yourself wanting to write more?
Stephen Malkmus: I've got a lot of stuff in the tank. Lyrics has been it's been really hard. Music's just flowing as a kind of pure thing, but what to sing about, really? A lot of people are going to be really self-aware about their position in all of this and it's a good thing that we're you know, we're all like taking stock and like where we-- where we stand in society, not the pandemic, maybe more economically or something. So, you know, I'm relatively well off, and that kind of just 'I'm OK' voice is -- how, how do you sing about that in a way that others, everyone is going to care about?