Stephen Malkmus – What Rock’n’Roll Has Taught Me

The Pavement frontman shares his 20 years of lo-fi knowledge. For a feature on why Pavement still matter, pick up the new issue of NME, on sale from 12 May

The music that made me want to play rock’n’roll was eighties hardcore
Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, DOA and the Circle Jerks… When I was a teenager it was these bands that actually came to our town who made me want to play rock’n’roll. I saw them and it made me think, “This is what it’s going to be like.” It’s not all about the big arenas. When I saw those hardcore bands I immediately thought, “This is for me, this is speaking to me.” It’s always been that way from then on. I’ve always preferred seeing a band in a club to some big show.

It’s a myth that you have to be troubled to make great music.
Pavement toured a lot with Sonic Youth and they’re just really friendly, middle class, bourgeois people who manage to make really super-weird music. It just goes to show that you don’t have to be some kind of heroin-shooting freak to be an intense musician. Sonic Youth have lots of interests beyond the small world of rock music; they’re into art, books, experimental music and they’re just pretty cool people.

Some of the best rock music is self-recorded DIY records from the ’70s and ’80s.
People like Kenneth Higney, Television Personalities, Swell Maps… even weirder stuff, where one crazy guy thinks he can make a record. The whole point of these records is that the vocals are distinctive, a bit weird, not exactly right, everything’s a little bit off. That’s part of the charm, that it’s not Pink Floyd-perfect. I’ve always been a fan of that DIY punk style. When Pavement started out it was basically as a tribute to Swell Maps, Desperate Bicycles, Television Personalities, really.

The coolest rock star in the world ever is Keith Richards.
He’s kind of lost it lately, but if you look at him through the ’60s and ’70s he looks so cool. He just had that wasted, elegant look, he had the hot rock star girlfriend and he put out these junkie masterpiece albums one after another. I guess I’d say him, although I’m not happy to endorse these outdated drug things. Someone like Pete Townshend – he’s not cooler, but his life seems like more of an authentic life. It’s not like Keith Richards ever went through a spiritual change; he didn’t get sober, he just kept going. He’s got the wrinkles to prove it, too.

My advice for new bands would be, Don’t rebel against what’s natural.
It’s not that I necessarily like long music with instrumental parts, but it’s what The Jicks do well and it’s how we speak to each other in the rehearsal room. You can’t really change what you are, unless you’re some David Bowie magpie person. Bands play what they play, and that’s what we do.

The biggest cliché that exists in rock’n’roll is that being a rock star is glamorous.
The pop life isn’t really that exciting. Maybe for a couple of stars it is, but for most people who get into this it’s hard work and you find out pretty fast, after one or two albums, whether you’re a lifer. Even at a level like Sonic Youth – a self-supporting level where they have guitar techs and all that – there’s a lot of flying, a lot of being away from home and a lot of work.

The best gig I’ve ever played is when the whole Pavement rhythm section was on acid.
It was a really good gig in Holland in 1999, because there was some kind of energy back there – some new perspective. If you find the rhythm section’s got some unexpected energy you’re going to be happy. Actually, it might have been ecstasy, maybe it was ’shrooms and ecstasy… anyway, it was some kind of Super Furry Animals moment for us.

The chord sequence that every band should use is E, A, E, A.
Everyone should have a song that goes like that. Those two chords together should be something you should pick up, that’s enough for me. Then it’s just a matter of picking the chords you like – it could be G and C rather than E and A. I really like D, G, E – those are my favourite chords.

You shouldn’t be screaming when you’re 40.
When you start out you can scream, but if you’re pushing 40 and you’re still screaming you’re gonna get an aneurysm or something.

Likewise, drugs are OK but in moderation.
I was never really into drugs. Maybe back in the day we got stoned a bit. I’m still not totally straight, I drink and occasionally a wild party night will occur, but rarely. If you’re pushing 40 and you’re running into people who are doing that, you’re in trouble. If I was 24, going to parties, I might be like, “Yeah, I’ll have a beer, smoke a spliff with you,” but I’ve got responsibilities now.

To play rock’n’roll you don’t have to dress up like a peacock.
Sometimes I like bands to look like the roadies. I’m a guy, 50 per cent of The Jicks are guys… I don’t need someone to dress up for me, I don’t want to have sex with the guy onstage. I don’t understand these musicians who dress up – especially in England – they’re like peacocks or something. There’s a real push in England that you must look like a star. They’re like, “We want stars onstage.” If I was a woman, maybe I’d be like, “Yeah, dress up for me, make me hot.” I do appreciate some image in cover art. That’s the art to me…

Being in a band automatically makes you twenty per cent more attractive.
If you’re 100 per cent good looking you can’t look 20 per cent better, but if you’re at the 50 per cent mark you can always get that extra 20 per cent. In Pavement we had our moments. It wasn’t particularly glamorous, though, especially in England. Girls liked us here, but everyone would disappear after the show. It’s not like in America, where you’d go to some house party and drink more, or in Germany, where people are just, like, genuinely debauched. England’s still a very sexually conservative country, at least compared to Europe or America. Although it’s not like I’ve been to any swingers’ clubs or anything.

The best way to waste time on the tourbus is Scrabble.
In Pavement it was a real tourbus thing when we had time to do it. That was more when I was younger and had time to waste. It’s a very competitive, one-on-one game. People were throwing some new words at me the last time I played Scrabble. There was never a two-letter Z word, but now there’s ‘zza’ for pizza, so that was big news in the Scrabble community when that came out.

Onstage, make sure you make the effort to give people a show.
Pavement’s [notoriously barmy] first drummer Gary Young was just so hammy – whatever he could find, he’d play with it. He handed out celery to the crowd and did handstands. He found some lobsters once in Boston… he bought some and he was playing with them – poor lobsters. It was cute; it was coming from a good place, from the punk rock days – that kind of goofy Dead Kennedys, Frank Zappa place. He was making a real effort to give people a show and there was no barrier between him and the crowds.

At the time we might have been uptight about being cool or something because we were 24 – you don’t want to be a geek, and obviously that worry comes off you. That’s why guys who are 24 don’t get laid as much as guys who are 34, because they’re worried about all that stuff. Not that Gary was getting laid.

My favourite singers are Lou Reed and Jim Morrison.
I prefer singers like Lou Reed or Jim Morrison instead of a high voice or a sincere, soft voice. I like more of a ‘dude’, I guess, but not the heavy metal dude or Henry Rollins – not that far to the cock side. I love a lot of female singers. Kim Deal is amazing – I’ll always be a fan of her singing and Sandy Denny. I don’t care for that modern Mary J Blige thing, but people do like that. I’ve been blown away by some of R Kelly’s songs. When I think about singers or impresarios in music I think about him.

Sports don’t go well with rock’n’roll, but Pavement were really into sports.
Compared to most people who make our kind of music, Pavement were really into sports. It’s something you’re supposed to be embarrassed about. Bloc Party aren’t gonna be into sports, are they? I support Hull City, actually – it’s Hull City or die! Music is more tender, a chance for these boys that are having to be men in this world to be like, “Oh, I’ve got feelings too, I’ve got feelings too,” whereas with sports I don’t think it’s really about feelings. It’s about, “I’m gonna kick this guy’s ass and we’re gonna win.” Of course, there’s manly music – like Motörhead is the equivalent of Zidane in that one moment when he lost it.

I would never, ever sell out.
A lot of [Pavement’s second album] ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ is about that. I still don’t believe in these major labels. I never want to be on one – I don’t see why bands do it. I can see that if you’ve never ever met an indie who wants you and some major comes up to you and wants to release your music, you want to get it released and heard and maybe make a living – there’s nothing wrong with that. I wouldn’t judge anyone for doing that but, coming from my perspective and the kind of music that we make, I didn’t personally want to be involved with these giant corporations and lend my music to that world. It was a private, personal, special place that wasn’t about advertisements. That was also a thing we were able to do because we were making some money from touring – y’know, so we could be pure.

Interview by Tom Pinnock