Pavement Back In Slack
Published Mar 01, 2000Stephen Malkmus, who for ten years was the primary focal point of Pavement, has seemingly never been aggressive in any regard except for self-effacement. So when, shortly before the release of his excellent self-titled, debut solo album, he summarised Pavement as a "medium-big college-rock band," it wasn't only typical, but emblematic. Pavement's best music succeeded precisely because of its lack of calculation, because its creators didn't pause to analyse why it was special. Arguably, once they did, it ceased to be so. "It was a burden to be a part of the Pavement thing after awhile," Malkmus concedes. "The time of Pavement's demise on the last couple albums, they were just really hard to do. We got some good results but it just took forever." Yet at their peak, Pavement embodied everything great about the notion of Alternative Rock. Their tangible spirit of joyous, spontaneous creativity could never have come from mainstream quarters. For this reason, the commercial payoff many predicted for them was a pipe dream (the band themselves knew it wouldn't happen), but their assured long-term relevance will eclipse any fantasies of a sudden windfall. "I had a great time with those guys," says Malkmus. "Wonderful friends of mine."
22-year-olds Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg, long-time friends in their native Stockton, California, enter their hometown's Louder Than You Think recording studio to make a record. Kannberg is attending Sacramento State University, and Malkmus has been living in New York, so their songs aren't prepared. Gary Young, the studio's 37-year-old owner/engineer, recalled in a 1993 interview: "These two kids come and they want to make this trash guitar noise record, just two guitars and vocals. There was something missing. I said to them, 'Well, my drums are in there if you want me to bang on them.' They said, 'Yeah,' and I did, and there's the first record. I mean, that took four hours."
One thousand copies of the five-song seven-inch, Slay Tracks (1933-1969), are pressed in the summer. Kannberg had suggested the group's name, which Gerald Cosloy, boss of the group's future label, Matador, will later say is perfect, because the group's sound is "full of rock." This also marks the debut of the duo's pseudonyms, S.M. and Spiral Stairs. The EP creates a buzz among the fanzine editors and college radio personnel lucky enough to acquire a copy. Minimalist and scattershot, it suggests the influence of Swell Maps, the Fall and the Velvet Underground, although tracks "Box Elder" and "She Believes" are more traditionally pop than any of these. Before the year is out, Pavement will record the material for their next two vinyl releases, whenever Malkmus visits Stockton. Young becomes their drummer.
Pavement's second EP, Demolition Plot J-7, is released on the new Chicago indie label Drag City. Adding bassist Mark Ibold and second drummer Bob Nastanovich, Pavement play a handful of gigs on the East Coast. The group's schedules (Malkmus is working as a guard at New York's Whitney Museum) and scattered geography make rehearsals near-impossible. These formative gigs are generally described as spirited but sloppy, a summation that will describe Pavement shows for most of their career.
Returning to Louder Than You Think, Malkmus, Kannberg and Young record what will become Pavement's debut album in seven days in January. Drag City releases the ten-inch EP, Perfect Sound Forever, and the "Summer Babe" single in quick succession. The former gains Pavement its first high-profile recognition. It's voted the #1 EP of the year in the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll, while Spin opines, "This little ten-inch record might just change your little ten-inch life." The group signs to Matador Records, who begin circulating unlabelled cassettes of Pavement's debut album to various media. The cassette actually receives votes for Album of the Year in the Pazz & Jop poll, and Spin uncharacteristically reviews it almost six months ahead of its release date.
Matador reportedly escapes bankruptcy and eviction when it finally releases Slanted And Enchanted in April, 16 months after it was recorded. The album becomes a fast seller, owing somewhat to the most rapturous critical reception to an album since Nirvana's Nevermind. The prevailing optimism for Alternative Rock's overdue commercial breakthrough causes many to predict that Pavement will follow Cobain & co. to super-stardom. The band begins to tour properly as a five-piece, and Young becomes a spectacle that nearly attracts more attention than the band itself performing countless handstands on stage, and handing out foodstuffs such as mashed potatoes and cabbage to bemused fans as they enter the gigs.
Drag City releases Westing (By Musket And Sextant), a compilation of the group's early EPs, which have been changing hands for triple-digit sums. Young either jumps or is pushed from Pavement, and is replaced by Steve West, a former co-worker of Malkmus's at the Whitney. The band says it became tired of Young's antics and lack of reliability, while Young counters that he was fed up with the band's pointless credibility issues, turning down lucrative major label deals because they didn't want to be perceived as selling out.
Pavement reveal themselves to be expert media manipulators. Following an earlier story that a legion of A&R men, eager to sign the band, had pooled together to rent a bus and follow them on tour, it's reported that Nastanovich punched out Beverly Hills 90210's Jason Priestly when the band auditioned for a cameo on the hit show. Neither story is true. Says Nastanovich of the 90210 rumour, "I've been congratulated more for that than anything else in my life!" The story helps to bolster anticipation for the group's second album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, which becomes an even greater critical and commercial success than Slanted. The band is invited to perform the single, "Cut Your Hair," on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; the song also becomes a sizeable hit on MTV.
Pavement fails to win a spot on the main stage of the Lollapalooza tour, despite being tipped as sure-fire contenders. In May, a rumour circulates that their dismissal was due to headliners Smashing Pumpkins not taking kindly to the Crooked Rain track "Range Life," which includes the lyric, "Out on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins/Nature kids/I, they don't have no function/I don't really know what they mean/And I could really give a fuck." The Pumpkins' management denies there's a connection.
Pavement's third album, Wowee Zowee, meets a varied response from critics and fans alike, and its sales reflect this. Whereas its predecessors had been increasingly accessible, this album is wildly experimental, seemingly a retreat from the commercial expectations so many had for them. "It's really more of a guitar record or a sound record than a song record," Malkmus explains to Rolling Stone. The same magazine's review echoes Gary Young's earlier criticisms: "Maybe this album is a radical message to the corporate-rock ogre, or maybe Pavement are simply afraid to succeed."
The band finally gets to join Lollapalooza, alongside Beck and Sonic Youth. Rather than tour in a bus like the rest of the bands, Pavement opt to travel in a pair of rented Windstar mini vans. Gary Young releases a solo album, Hospital.
An atypically quiet year. The band tour in the first quarter of the calendar, as well as release the Pacific Trim EP. In July, they go to North Carolina to record their next album with producer Mitch Easter, best known for producing R.E.M.'s Murmur and Reckoning. It takes just over two weeks.
The Brighten the Corners album is seen to redress the commercial retreat of Wowee Zowee. The band is now portrayed in the press as rare survivors of the imploding Alternative Rock scene. The current hype for electronica is casting guitar bands as antiquated. "I guess groups like us are dinosaurs by comparison," says Malkmus in Melody Maker. The single, "Stereo," draws amusement from many an outgrown Canadian suburban bedroom boy for the lyric, "What about the voice of Geddy Lee?/How did it get so high?/I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy."
Pavement's relative inactivity sparks the first of many rumours of an impending break-up. The official line is that some of the band are indeed eager to start families, and that while parting ways isn't being considered, Pavement may become a more casual activity. Meanwhile, a proposed live album never materialises because the master tapes are destroyed in a car accident en route to the mastering facility.
Terror Twilight, Pavement's fifth album, is released in June. Contrary to their usual working methods, the album is recorded over an extended period under the meticulous guidance of producer Nigel Godrich (Radiohead's OK Computer), who had personally offered his services to the band. In a 2000 interview, Kannberg would say that it was the only one of Pavement's five albums he didn't enjoy making. Smooth and consistently slow-paced, it receives a cool critical and commercial reception. Spin, at one time one of the band's biggest champions, is particularly scathing, calling it "a morose, vague, question mark of an album . Pavement in 1999 [is] a bunch of onanistic, schizophrenic yuksters who had it all once, and then when all the people came flocking, they couldn't decide whether to dazzle 'em or poke fun and throw stuff."
On the final date of the Terror Twilight tour, at London's Brixton Academy, Malkmus performs with a set of handcuffs hanging from his mic, which he gestures toward and says, "These symbolise what it's like being in a band." He also thanks Pavement's fans "for coming all these years." Despite this, official sources maintain that the band is merely on hiatus.
Malkmus confirms in a November interview with NME that Pavement has broken up. Although the split had been acknowledged between Kannberg and himself for some time, Malkmus offers that Kannberg might not have confirmed the split in an earlier interview because, "Maybe he hadn't figured out how to say it the right way." Malkmus's debut solo album is recorded with fellow Portland musicians John Moen and Joanna Bolme, whom he dubs the Jicks.
Although the other members' immediate plans are sketchier, it's known that Kannberg has been working on a project called the Preston School of Industry (which includes Gary Young), as well as running his new Amazing Grease label, which has released records by Oranger, Carlos and Sunless Day. West has been recording and touring with the group Marble Valley. Ibold has reportedly also started a label, but hasn't picked up a bass since the end of the last Pavement tour. Nostanovich has returned to his home in Louisville, Kentucky, to continue his long-time involvement in horse racing, although he may serve as road manager for Malkmus's upcoming tour. Meanwhile, Pavement's official web site simply reads, "Pavementtherockband.com will be offline until further notice."
A full-page ad for Stephen Malkmus in the January issue of Spin causes nervous amusement among long-time Pavement fans as to what sort of musical direction he might be taking. In place of the scrappy collages and hand-scrawl that decorated every Pavement artefact, here is a glamour portrait of a tanned, pensive Malkmus staring into the late-day sun like a 70s teen idol. The self-titled album (originally to be called Swedish Reggae) is released in February with a similar cover photo, but all that's different is a sharper band dynamic and, arguably, the best batch of songs Malkmus has written since Crooked Rain. "In some ways, it's still claiming the Pavement legacy, but moving on in some ways," demures Malkmus. "It's me, y'know?"