“We’re back like we never left!” jokes Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus halfway through the band’s first night playing live music in London in over a decade. He’s not wrong. This show comes midway through an anticipated reunion tour after 10 years (plus an extra two of Covid-enforced delays) away; but despite the lengthy absence, Pavement’s return to the capital saw “jubilant scenes”. Given the five-star treatment here at NME, the gig saw “the wide-eyed crowd lap it up as Pavement tear through what amounts to a greatest hits set”.
Sitting down with us in their West London hotel a few days later, Malkmus and guitarist Scott Kannberg both agree that the band’s full reunion tour, initially touted as only two special shows at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound Festival in 2020, was “probably always gonna happen”. “It was kind of up to me, to be honest”, Malkmus reveals. “Everybody was totally down for it; but I was being the quality control guy, seeing if this feels real and right.”
And clearly, it does feel right. The legendary lo-fi rockers have been entertaining crowds again since June, when two years after originally planned, they kicked off their tour in Barcelona. Catching up with NME in the middle of their four-date residency at London’s Roundhouse, the band discuss the process of cherry-picking setlists from an extensive back catalogue, ‘Harness Your Hopes” recent viral success and rehearsing again after a decade – or, as they describe it, perhaps rehearsing properly for the first time ever.
What were those initial rehearsals like for the reunion shows? Do you rehearse in a different way than you used to?
Scott Kannberg: “Sort of; the studio we rehearsed in was a little nicer than the old days.”
Stephen Malkmus: “Yeah, it had some monitors. It was an actual studio instead of a rehearsal room, so I could really hear everybody what they were playing – or trying to play. There was a lot of opportunity to actually say something like, ‘This could be better, this could be worse’, whereas in the past, I just focused on the records and making sure they were good. Everyone did whatever they wanted [when performing], the sound was what it was. I never even listened to a single live performance of Pavement in my whole life.
“This time I listened to everything really pretty closely. It’s probably things that real bands do all the time, but we were in a more shambolic state back then. Things are a little more together, but you can’t completely make it so tight and clean with a group like this. There’s that innate Pavement sound that can’t be changed.”
Your reunion tour initially was billed as two shows at Primavera Sound 2020, which had to be rescheduled. Were you always gonna do a full tour?
Malkmus: “It was probably going to happen, unless it really felt wrong. It was kind of up to me, to be honest. Everybody was totally down for it, but I was being the quality control guy, seeing if this feels real and right. And of course, I was feeling it would be because there was a lot of interest, and I was also up for playing these songs with the guys. They’re ‘classic songs’, as Scott would say, so I was psyched for that. We had to just say, ‘Come on, let’s do it’, and let’s go around the world and have some Pavement nostalgia.”
How do you go about picking setlists for these shows?
Kannberg: “There was a very long thread on our phones about that. I think it started with me saying, ‘Can we concentrate on about 25, 30 songs?’ And then ended up being about 65 or 70 songs by the end, which is really cool because it gave me a chance to get back in the mind of those songs. Some of them, I don’t even remember what we ever did on them, and so it was really fun to get back and hear them and play them.”
Malkmus: “There was a conscious effort knowing that we were going to play four shows in each town. That’s the way we decided to do it, instead of playing one big show. You want to have a balance of some things where you feel safe and you know the song, you can get your muscle memory and things that work to an audience mixed with something to keep a little spark in your love life, as it were. You know, like, experimentation, trying new things, threesomes…”
And the show has had some surprises, like when Kurt Vile joined you on-stage to perform ‘Zurich Is Stained’. How did that come about?
Malkmus: “Kurt and I have the same manager, and I’m a fan of Kurt’s, and he’s a fan of Pavement. So I just said, ‘Dude, ‘Zurich Is Stained’?’ I could see him singing [sings in an impression of Kurt], ‘I can’t sing it strong enough’. I could totally hear him singing it, and he said yes, which is cool. And he’s the mayor of Philadelphia in a way, he has a lot of Philly in [him].”
Kannberg: “I wish we could have brought him on tour with us. That would have been great; we could have done that every night.”
‘Harness Your Hopes’ went viral on TikTok in 2020. When something like that happens, does it feel like this is a different world?
Malkmus: “It was a weird event of where your music goes; this can happen.”
Kannberg: Yeah, it took it in another direction which is amazing.”
Malkmus: “It was a weird cultural thing, but by putting yourself out there, you have the opportunity for that to happen, even if you’re insecure or think your music is crap. You go ahead and do it, and then the world sees you. That’s a pretty fun part of doing any art, but specifically ours.”
Kannberg: “It breathed new life into Pavement, really.”
Malkmus: “It made me feel bad that I didn’t put it on the album. Like, nobody said, ‘That’s a great song’ or something.”
Kannberg: “I’m sure I did!”
In 2019, NME asked you if there was any new music or new songs in the works, and you said no because you wanted the reunion tour to be like the 1990s. Is that a statement you stand by completely?
Malkmus: “It’d be total cringe if we did that. No way. These songs are good, they exist in this present. That’s just me, anyone can do what they want. It’s your life, choose your adventure. If any band wants to make a new album, they like to do that, that’s totally rad. But, yeah, not happening.”
Kannberg: “We like what we’ve done.”
Malkmus: “I understand the impetus to put out a new record; it makes it seem like the band’s more legit or something and not just like a cash-in deal. But it doesn’t have to be that way if you just own your songs. And people can see if you’re geezers on a cash-in reunion tour or if they’re doing it because they’re having a blast. What do you think?”
I think Pavement fans would always want a new song…
Malkmus: “That’s true. But I mean to me, that feels like you just put it out there, and then people get to say if it’s cringe or if it’s pretty good. We don’t need to do that. We like what we did. It’s not like we couldn’t play a new song live either; I’m not completely averse to doing that. We just don’t need it recorded.”