Stephen Malkmus Talks Trash
"It's like if you look at eBay rare acid folk psych albums and the guy will describe it, 'I don't see how there's any way this could possibly have sold a single copy when it came out,' and that's a good thing."

A month ago, a post on the website of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks mentioned "how to make a great record the VERY hard way." That great record? Real Emotional Trash, due March 4 on Matador. The VERY hard way? Well, under normal rock'n'roll circumstances, we'd assume that would involve inter-band rifts, overdoses, and other Behind the Music-type stuff. But the way Malkmus-- 41 years old and recently a father for the second time-- tells it, the hangups were appropriately adult. The biggest hurdle, it seems, was finding just the right place to mix the thing.

We recently rang up Malkmus at his Portland, Oregon home, where he was putting the finishing touches on Real Emotional Trash. He told us the tale of the record's birth, which took the band from Montana to Jeff Tweedy's place to Brooklyn, and gave us a preview of its sound. He also explained the meaning of each and every lyric on the album. (Kidding.)

In the process, we discussed Pavement's legacy, Malkmus' work on the I'm Not There soundtrack, and the Portland scene. Also, how too many beer ads at a show suck.

Pitchfork: So what's going on?

Stephen Malkmus
: Not much. Let's see, I did another interview before. But what's going on? Oh, you know, just down in the basement, fucking around.

Pitchfork: With anything in particular?

SM: Trying to secure the cover art for this new album. Like, all the inside stuff. But yeah, just another day here. [laughs] I'm renting some movies. That's about it.

Pitchfork: Sounds pretty good. If you're already dealing in artwork, this record must be pretty close to done at this point.

SM: It's all done except for the artwork. It's coming out in March. And yeah, song order, mastering, that's all done.

Pitchfork: Does it feel good to have it all behind you?

SM: Yeah, that does. At this point, it's taken us quite a while to make up our minds about everything, so it got a little bit fussy at the end but, you know, even if it doesn't matter, you can't help but go there sometimes. About song order or some cymbal being too bright or something. But yeah, it feels good, I guess. At this point, more like a relief.

Pitchfork: You guys made a comment a few weeks back about "making a great record the very hard way." Care to get into that?

SM: Yeah. It's just how we chose to record it. We just went to this wild card place (Snow Ghost Studios) in Montana that we could drive to-- we live in Oregon-- and we didn't know the guy that well, but he had pictures online. It turned out to be a nice place, but it was slightly deceiving how big the room was, so we moved out into this other big room. And then, for the tape machine, the tape was this Dutch tape-- they're not making tape anymore, you know? So we hooked up with this Dutch company and we decided to go with them because it was a little cheaper, and then it was like a bad batch of tape and it started shredding off. But it lasted through the drums, so we did the drums on there and some of the bass and then we had to put it in the computer for the rest, which we didn't plan on doing. But, you know, that's what people do these days.

It was just kind of weird there. The place was brand new so it didn't have any bugs in it, but it was just this clean, clean place that the recording engineer [T.J. Doherty] wasn't really familiar with, so it was a challenge for him. T.J. recorded Wilco's last album and the one before that, and he said we could go to Wilco's place and do the singing, which is a really generous offer; it was mainly Jeff Tweedy's place, but he's a really gracious, nice guy. He's like, "you guys can go in there, you're mature, you won't trash things." So we went there. So that was traveling to another place to sing because it was a free studio.

Then we tried to mix it in Portland, but then this place that was a nice place was sort of too far away to drive every day. And things just kind of went south there. Which had never really happened to me, you know, where the sound's not right, wasn't how I remembered it, it's going weird. So we decided not to do it with T.J. anymore, because he recorded it all, and he was like "this sounds pretty good to me," but he was just getting crazy, I think, from trying to figure out all these weird places that he was. So then we said, "okay, we're going to mix it somewhere else."

So then we had to hunt down someone to mix it with. I asked Nigel Godrich-- sorry, I'm kind of name dropping a bit here-- but I asked Nigel to do it and he was busy. He had finished that In Rainbows album and he was burnt out. And I just went to what I knew, people I knew, and then I was like, "Hey, what about Nick [Vernhes] at [Brooklyn's] Rare Book Room?" He's been in a lot of stuff that Pitchfork would like, like Fiery Furnaces and Animal Collective -- I didn't know he'd done that-- and he has a new label, and he's nice, and he's like "Yeah, I'm free." He had done the Silver Jews' American Water with me and I'm, like, "oh yeah," you know? That was great, finally the point where we could say "okay, we've got something."

We did it in his computer, which I wasn't planning on doing, but at that point it's like you don't care about being all vintage or running things through a machine. You just want to do it great, you know, do it fast and a way that someone else knows. So we did it at his place in New York about a couple of months ago, and that went really well. In the end, everything was great, but it was just this long way around the question. It would've been nice just to go to one place.

Pitchfork: I see what you mean by the "very hard way."

SM: As the world goes on and on, people are planning things more and more in advance, like album releases. You know, "we need the parts in August for a March release." And touring. Our tour's already set for April and March. I don't remember doing it that way back in the '90s. Either that or it was Pavement and people were like "Okay, go where you want, you're Pavement." [laughs] But I just find that things are very micro-managed and, you know, how capitalism makes everything more efficient or something. It's all efficient, but it's just there's longer preparation. So everything's in place now. [laughs] Just the cover art, which is great.

Pitchfork: Since you're presumably looking down at the Real Emotional Trash cover right now, tell me... this one says it's a Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks album, like Pig Lib but unlike Face the Truth and the first one, right?

SM: Yeah. It would even be just the Jicks. As far as I'm concerned, that would be more realistic. Just due to the way we rehearsed a lot more before. [Face the Truth] I kind of did in my basement and brought in members of the band to fill in parts, so that one was definitely not like a band album. Sometimes the drums were played afterwards, it was just done really kind of weird and un-imitable and like the vocal effects and weird stuff is all the stuff I came up with over a couple of months in the basement. This is more traditional. I mean, there's stuff going on, but it's a band in a room with a nice microphone and the guy's singing, somebody else pressing record, and there's even some arranging by the band this time. And plus we toured for a couple weeks before we did these songs so it's pretty live energy, even if it is mitigated by our age. Middle-aged, or middle-phased or something, most of it. But it's still sort of pushing the edge, it's more of a live thing.

Pavement: So these Jicks of yours are a real band now?

SM: Yeah, yeah it is. I mean, I think so. It sounds that way. There's some guitar detours and stuff, but it maybe says that the guitar player is more important or something [laughs]. But other than that... that's because we like guitar music still, you know. But, yeah, it really does sound like a band, it really does sound like these other people. I mean there's some strong personalities, there always was, but [former Sleater Kinney drummer] Janet Weiss is in the group now and she's not going to take any lip from anybody. She likes her thing the way she likes it, and she likes her drums loud. And [bassist] Joanna [Bolme]... man, everyone's really opinionated except Mike [Clark], but he's the keyboardist, and the keyboardist should be kind of in the background really. Even on albums. [laughs] And he plays guitar too, so...

Pitchfork: With Janet off working on other projects from time to time, is it hard to feel like a band when you're not always being in the same place?

SM: Not really; she's here almost all the time. She just did that Bright Eyes tour for two months. She gets depressed if she's not playing drums. She has a real direct relationship with her drums and drumming, and, like, it's a meter to her happiness. So I totally understand that. I'm a little more landlocked; I've got kids, so there's this band, and my family. Like, that's what I've got: the family is first, but the band is a close second. Janet's freer to go: she just has a couple dogs, which is a responsibility, but, you know... But they're all part of the band. I feel like we're all really committed, and this is our number one thing. And hopefully next spring when the record comes out, we'll be out there like a real competitor. You know, in the scene.

Pitchfork: What's the significance of the album title?

SM: That's one of the songs on the album, and I'd never done that before, but the girls said that they liked it as an album title [laughs]. I had some other ones, but that was the one they liked the best. It's trashy, and it's real, but emotional it is and it isn't. That's about as significant as it is. A lot of letters, maybe too many, but you know, that's the problem for the guy that's laying out stuff on the cover. But at least it's not two words. Doesn't rhyme either.

Pitchfork: A few of the titles stand out quite a bit, too. I'm wondering if "Hopscotch Willie" and "Wicked Wanda" are real people.

SM: No, they're just kind of characters. "Hopscotch Willie" is this kind of "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" type of character, and for some reason he's sort of like [country singer] Boxcar Willie. He's just a down on his luck dude that gets framed in this type of scenario. And "Wicked Wanda" is not a person, those were just the words that came out first when I was doing the demos, you know, and so I just tried to find things that rhymed with Wanda that were funny, like Rwanda and spawned-ya and stuff, so it was just kind of, with Wicked Wanda, it was like "I'd rather date Rwanda," it says, "She's not good to go out with/ I'd rather go out with Rwanda" the country, which would be really torturous.

Pitchfork: Sure, what with the genocide and all.

SM: So it just became this kind of like Black Widow type person that you don't want to mess with. Songs about people's names, I mean, that's so archetypal of music, but it works, creates a picture and stuff. You run out of names to do; Velvet Underground were basically the ones that, as far as I'm concerned, started it, with all these women saying things, or Warhol people saying things. And if they did it, it was cool type of thing. You have to have some sort of foundation, just like the Bible says, "God said this" because he said it, you know. You just have to trust that he said it.

Pitchfork: And the same goes for Velvet Underground?

SM: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.

Pitchfork: I suppose in your line of work that makes sense.

SM: Yeah, it does. The greatest band-- and even Blender put them in the top 10 [laughs]. [He's referring to Blender magazine's list of "The 100 Greatest Indie-Rock Albums Ever."] Kind of stupid. They should be number one, really, if they're going to be considered that.

Pitchfork: Ha, well, the band that was named number one...

SM: The Pavement did, actually. Of course. But I'd say we'd at least be number two.

Pitchfork: Do you tire of all the after-the-fact accolades like that?

SM: No, that's good. It's a living entity, it's living like it is. We don't get that much stuff, I mean, for how amazing we were... just kidding. You know, it's not like you open whatever media outlet and it's about Pavement. You know, it's like, "Pavement guys are living in different places," and then below that, it's like, U2 or something. "In a smaller important story, Radiohead just released In Rainbows." The small things we get, it's nice to be a participant or to be recognized as something, and it's funny to see where it goes when you were in it. And I'm sure that's how it is for most people that get involved in something that becomes in the media. It was what it was, but it's not ever really through. It's just a small thing you did or something, and this life, obviously if you're a movie star or something, it's much weirder.

Pitchfork: I can only imagine.

SM: Yeah, it's cool. [pause] "It's cool." [laughs]

Pitchfork: To switch gears a bit, is there anything in particular you're exploring lyrically on this album? We music journalists like to hang these themes on these albums, so if you've got one for us, that would help.

SM: Not really. It's kind of line to line. It's still a mixup of imagery and lines that are varying degrees of connected with what they're supposed to, so it's not really anything overarching. I don't really know the spirit of it exactly, it's just the same spirit that I've always had: cool lines and just going with the flow of the music. So it's kind of meaningful and not sometimes, and sometimes funny and sometimes just weird. Going through it, it's hard to say-- it's just how it flows, too, like a rapper, sort of. For this kind of music, that's kind of the key. You just do what comes out and what goes with that music. That just goes with me. It's kind of hard to explain, I guess.

Pitchfork: Okay, pretty much the same way you've worked with lyrics before?

SM: Yeah, I would say. There's no big coming out party or something, like, finally setting the record straight or something. [laughs] This is what we do, and we do it best, or something. But you know, that's maybe not saying much. [laughs] 'Cause it's what we do, only. So you might say, I don't like what you do... best.

Pitchfork: Can you tell me a little, in the same vein I suppose, about the music on Real Emotional Trash? I gather it's a little harder this time out?

SM: Yeah, there's a few triple part saga acid mind blowers, there's a token weird time signature, in your face one, there's a couple of short ones far more direct and straight ahead. There's not really anything that's pop on there, I would say. Maybe "Hopscotch Willie" is catchy. There's some catchy things. It's like if you look at eBay rare acid folk psych albums and the guy will describe it in a positive way saying "I don't see how there's any way this could possibly have sold a single copy when it came out," and that's a good thing, you know? [laughs] But there's also catchy stuff. I don't know.

Pitchfork: I've spent quite a bit of time with the I'm Not There soundtrack, which you're all over.

SM: Yeah, I'm handy. The guy lives here in Portland, [the film's director] Todd Haynes. I know him a little bit; you know, it's not like we're going out for coffee every day, but I see him around. He's very approachable for how busy he is. More than famous, he's just always busy. And I really admire his spirit and his enthusiasm, so if he would ask me to do anything, I would. And I thought I was just going to do the Cate Blanchett part, and then I don't know, maybe someone dropped out of the other, and then I just took a stab at that one other song, sort of while I was doing that, and they put that on the soundtrack.

"I Can't Leave Her Behind", that was more improved by me, like how I wanted to do it. But you know, "Ballad of a Thin Man", I did that and they had done the music already; the guys sent the files over here and I sang it. Sometimes people say, "It's real straight," or "I don't like what he did." I'm not saying I wouldn't do what I did, but there were parameters that I could only fill. I was like, I'll try to do the best I can with this thing I heard like a week ago, and I'm not going to make it mine at that point so much.

But in a way it works well that it's more straight because of the part of the movie, that's the straightest Bob Dylan almost, that's almost entirely lifted from [the late-60s/early-70s Dylan films] Don't Look Back and Eat the Document and stuff, you know, the parts that she [Blanchett] does. So in a way it works that it's straighter, or something, than some of the other covers. But when I saw the movie, I was kind of confused a little bit by, like, I didn't know what to expect and it took me like a half hour to get into it. And I'm a pretty cool moviegoer and I was still like, "What is going on here?" I didn't understand that the cinema guy was Bob Dylan, because he had a different name, but once I was in, the highs in it are so great, and all the female actors, he's so good with them, and it's so personally a Todd Haynes movie, I really love it. Some of my friends are mad and they don't like it, or they think it's pretentious or something, but I'm all for it, I think it's great.

Pitchfork: You've got all this stuff going on-- particularly recently-- how are you balancing family time?

SM: We just had a kid a month ago, so it's really... um... down time. We practice a couple times a week, but yeah, it's a lot of inside world. But it's good, you know? It seems like there's a lot of shows going on here, if I could go to them. [laughs] There's a lot of weird shows people are going to. Like, this guy from Trans Am just moved here, and I became minor friends with him. And they're opening for Tool. So Tool was here the other night, and I didn't get to go to that. But then Iron and Wine played here, I didn't get to go to that. These guys went. They said it was more like vests and... everyone had vests on in the band, and what are those.. not tablas, but what are those big drums?

Pitchfork: Djembes?

SM: Yeah, djembes. Anyway, somebody, Janet I think, said they should change their name from Iron & Wine to Beards & Vests.

Pitchfork: [laughs] Why do you think Portland goes for these kinds of bands, even from elsewhere?

SM: There's kind of an unpretentious whiteness to it, a flannel-y whiteness. And jeans. And that's how you do it in Portland. We don't quite-- we connect, but we don't-- it's not like, it seems we don't completely connect. [laughs] I don't know.

Pitchfork: The Portland scene you're describing isn't quite as idyllic as some have depicted it.

SM: There's a million other things going on: there's glitchy IDM, there's Panther, Glass Candy... but that's younger. I don't see that as much. There's a lot of bands. Grails... those are just people I know, you know... The Joggers...

Pitchfork: You're playing a couple shows with Blitzen Trapper pretty soon. They're from up there somewhere.

: Yeah, they're kind of not. I've never met them around, but I heard their song on the public radio, the kind of "Wild Mountain Honey" song ["Wild Mountain Nation" - ed.], that's an amazing song. I was blown away by that. But then Janet's like, "That song is absolutely amazing, but don't worry, not every song on the album is that good. They're not going to completely shred us."

Pitchfork: That's just a couple dates, but you mentioned a full tour in March and April. Is that a U.S. tour?

SM: Yeah. We're playing in Chicago somewhere, maybe at the Ballroom place or something. [The Aragon? - ed] And we managed to not have Miller ads all over the thing. It was hard to pass up the free cash, but it's too gross to see all those ads. I don't know, it's just not right.

Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks:

12-19 San Francisco, CA - Great American Music Hall *
12-21 Portland, OR - Doug Fir *

* with Blitzen Trapper

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