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In the 10 years since Pavement was founded in California, the band has produced six albums, including the recent release,
Terror Twilight (Matador). Often touted as one of the leaders of the '90s indie-rock scene, Pavement has managed to grow musically over the years without becoming mainstream. Founding member, singer/songwriter Stephen Malkmus – often rumored to be somewhat difficult during interviews – was charming, witty, and more than willing to share his thoughts with Gabriella on everything from Madonna to Marilyn Manson, and even a little about Pavement in between. The band will perform at New York’s Irving Plaza on June 16, 17, and 20, 1999.


NYROCK:

Why did you name the album Terror Twilight? It's got a gentle, dreamy twilight feeling, but I found no terror...

STEPHEN:

Oh well, we just didn't want to call it only "Twilight" and it has some darker elements in it. That's where the terror part came from, TT, it sounded good. Just "Twilight" would have sounded too cheesy; we didn't want that.

NYROCK:

Much of Pavement is your voice and lyrics...

STEPHEN:

(Laughs) I don't even think my voice is really good.

NYROCK:

That's an odd statement coming from a singer...

STEPHEN:

A good voice isn't so important. It's more important to sound really unique. We need more singers like P.J. Harvey or Shirley Manson, Dylan or Lou Reed. They really got their own cool style. I believe everybody can sing. You just need to find a way to make your voice correspond with the song. Basically, that's it.

Lou Reed is something like a personal favorite of mine, but you could always put me into that drawer of singers who can't really sing, who speak their songs.


NYROCK:

They're usually the voices that really grip you...

STEPHEN:

That's right. If a voice is just too nice, without an edge, it kinda all flows by. You forget it. You don't listen to the lyrics. But yeah, it took me a while to see it like that...

NYROCK:

So why did you decide to sing?

STEPHEN:

I never decided to start singing, to be a singer. Well, yeah, I sang to some songs on the radio or in the shower. When I started to play in bands they needed a singer, so I sang and became a singer. I really do think everybody can sing.

NYROCK:

Not me! I couldn't carry a tune if it was in a bucket.

STEPHEN:

Well, you know, maybe you would need to speak them then. There are some tough rap ladies around...

NYROCK:

What kind of music did you like growing up? Apart from the music your parents played?

STEPHEN:

I'm still a Buddy Holly fan, but Lou Reed, a lot of singer/songwriters. I think I mentioned the guys who'd rather speak than sing. They seem to suit me.

But you know that we started out as some sort of sub-punk band. Well, we all used to listen to the California surf punk a lot, Minor Threat, Black Flag, Butthole Surfers, Bad Religion.... In Europe, punk was already dead when it came to the States, but in the early '80s, those bands were a major influence for us.


NYROCK:

Funny, those influences are not really too clear in your songs. Folk seems to be a big influence...

STEPHEN:

Oh, yes. My father played Buddy Holly, Fleetwood Mac, Jim Croce, all those guys and I liked it. I don't think I do it consciously, but yeah, I always draw from those sources in a way.

NYROCK:

How do you feel about Pavement being labeled the "most British American band"? That sounds a bit weird.

STEPHEN:

Oh well, I'm not sure. Sometimes it does bug me a bit, but in general I just take it as a compliment. We travel a lot. I see and hear a lot of new things and I try to integrate them in our music, do our own thing. In a way, we're the third generation of American rock music. It all came from the black rhythm and blues and then developed from there.

NYROCK:

You usually change producers a lot. With nearly every album you find a new producer. This time it was Nigel Godrich (Beck's Mutations, Radiohead's OK Computer)...

STEPHEN:

We were absolutely fascinated [with Nigel Godrich]. Nigel was a great help. We wanted to avoid Terror Twilight sounding like Brighten the Corners. I don't care for that, none of us really does, you know. There's no point that an album should sound like a watered down version of another album. What can I say? We were delighted to have Nigel as a producer. The only problem is that Nigel is so famous that he seems to dominate most interviews without being there. But hell, we never really had so much of a producer. We always did our own mixing. What producers did was mostly recording in the studio, so it never changed our sound just that much. Mind you, I wouldn't really mind having a producer or having each album sound different, if they'd all sound good.

NYROCK:

But you're still the creative force behind Pavement?

STEPHEN:

That's a bit exaggerated. Almost every band has somebody who's the main songwriter and who has a vision, a very clear idea of how a song should be. We're all important. Otherwise, we wouldn't sound like Pavement and I'm always looking for help, that one of the others tells me, "Yeah, that's OK."

NYROCK:

You're a Nick Cave fan, but you never fell into the trap of copying him. The way you tell a song is completely different from his style...

STEPHEN:

The lyrics are different from Nick Cave songs and lyrics. His songs are very narrative. I'm more into describing a scenario and I move around in that scenario. One day I'm going to write a straight-ahead story. I really want to, but I can't at the moment. I'm not very good at it right now.

NYROCK:

It's almost a trademark, that Pavement does its own thing...

STEPHEN:

That's because we don't care what happens in the charts. We're not on a desperate mission to write chart compatible stuff. We're probably a couple of freaks who've created their own little universe, are living in our own little world and that's the only place where we can survive.

NYROCK:

But you could also end up like Madonna – an image change with every album.

STEPHEN:

Oh yeah, damned, she does that a lot. Gone to religion and back, or somewhere else. God only knows where. She doesn't seem to run out of ideas, does she. I used to love her when I was 14 or so. I had a regular crush on her. I couldn't swear if it was her music that fascinated me, or the generous cleavage. But yeah, she was hot.

NYROCK:

There are a lot of speculations about the relationship between Pavement and the Smashing Pumkins...

STEPHEN:

A lot of people claim we dissed them. We never did. I only laughed about the band name, because it does sound kinda silly... Smashing Pumpkins.... And well, their status, that they were the indie darlings, the heroes of the indie scene. I never really dissed their music. I like their songs – well, most of their songs anyway. Especially "1979," that's a cool song. As I said, I never dissed their music. I just dissed their status. I never really cared for the rock'n'roll lifestyle or being "indie."

NYROCK:

So you don't take the so called "crisis" in the indie scene all that seriously?

STEPHEN:

I don't think there's some sort of crisis. It's more that the interests change. Indie used to be a name that labeled the guitar, drum and bass line up of a band. That's pretty superficial, that's indie-rock. There are a lot of other set-ups and different movements. People start to listen to them. I really wouldn't call that a crisis. But, then again, I wouldn't call myself an indie-rock supporter even if there are some really good bands out there and there will always be some real good new bands. The indie/alternative scene, well I don't know...

NYROCK:

Is there still an alternative scene? I think alternative has become mainstream.

STEPHEN:

Of course it has. Alternative rock is just another label now. It's not very alternative anymore, but that never really bothered us much. Somehow, we're just doing our thing, trying to make a good album and that's it then. We kinda control our own destiny.

NYROCK:

Do you think it's harder for bands now than it used to be?

STEPHEN:

I think the focus of the media changes. At the moment the more electronic stuff like trip-hop was the flavor of the month, just a little while ago. It all depends on the angle, from which point of view you see it. If you want to be negative about the whole thing you can say all guitar bands after the Beatles were just a waste of time because the Beatles were the best. I think it's far better to give new records a try.

NYROCK:

Pavement has been labeled as indie. You guys have been called slackers. Do you get annoyed or is it all water off a duck's back?

STEPHEN:

We really don't care all that much about it. It's all very relative. Compared to the mainstream stuff we might be slackers but compared to the Red Hot Chili Peppers we seem rather tame. They've got tattoos, hang around the Viper-room, play funk... They are far more spectacular than we are.

NYROCK:

Oh well, maybe you should start throwing TVs out of windows or such...

STEPHEN:

Hell, yes, you should be with our record company and organize our promotion. Sounds like you're having the right marketing ideas.

NYROCK:

But somehow I can't believe that you'd go for that strategy...

STEPHEN:

Not really, I can't really see myself doing the Marilyn Manson thing and showing off my butt. Even if, I have to say that I work out and it's definitely less flabby and in a better shape. But I don't want to bitch about him. I quite like him, but I think that a lot more kids buy his albums because they think he's wild than because of the music, which is actually a shame. But from what I hear about him, and the interviews he gave, he seems to be really intelligent and down to earth. That's more than I can say about a lot of other bands. We're playing a festival in Munich and he's also on the bill, I quite look forward to seeing his show.

NYROCK:

So what do you think about the accusations he has to face? Especially the Littleton, Colorado incident?

STEPHEN:

It's simply dumb. Those guys were out to get the other guys, the soccer guys and all the guys at school who never liked them. I think the media and the general public are looking for a scapegoat. Now all the musicians those guys liked are getting the blame. Nobody asks what was really wrong with them. Nobody asks how they could be so out of control. But it's something you see through the whole history of music. There were always musicians who were so called "bad influences." I don't really follow it. Music is music. A good rock'n'roll show is just entertainment. And if people are too stupid to realize that, then I don't know. It's not as if the CDs of those artists come with weapons or bombs.

NYROCK:

Where do you think that attitude comes from? Is it more American or European?

STEPHEN:

I imagine it's a great deal harder to get guns in Europe, and that's just one thing. On the other hand, look at our history, [America] was founded by Puritans, religious hardliners who had to leave Europe. Actually one of my ancestors was one of them, I believe, but it never influenced me in any way.

I'm not sure if you can blame everything on the American way of life, but the United States are big. So, if you have a lot of people there, the percentage of stupid people is bound to be higher. They fear what they don't know or what seems to be strange. Marilyn Manson is visibly strange, that's part of his act, so they go for him. He seems to be an easy target. But I guess he can outsmart the whole lot of them.


NYROCK:

And what do you think about the censorship and people demanding to ban his albums and concerts?

STEPHEN:

Again, I think it's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. That's simply too dumb to even waste a thought on it. I guess the majority of people who want to ban certain musicians are the ones who are so proud of everything America stands for. The ones who're so proud of the Constitution, but they conveniently forget about the "freedom of speech." My take is pretty simple: If you don't like an artist, don't buy his albums, don't go to his shows, live and let live.

June 1999

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