They were one of the more influential indie-rock bands back when the scenesters still called it "alternative," and two of their albums consistently rank in critical tallies on the best of the '90s.
One thing Pavement never quite gained a reputation for, however, was being a solid live act. The quintet from Stockton, Calif., often left fans underwhelmed, or even scratching their heads. Since the smart-alecky, slacker-ish rockers openly complained about touring and generally eschewed all things nostalgic and predictable, Pavement's 70-date reunion tour coming Sunday to Roy Wilkins Auditorium stands out as quite an interesting and perhaps even questionable venture.
"We were never a well-oiled machine," agreed Bob Nastanovich, the band's percussionist, occasional vocalist and resident Midwesterner. "But I think the wheels are greased as well as they've ever been."
Reached at home last week in Des Moines, Nastanovich was frank about the disorder that could mar the band's shows in its initial decade-long run, which wrapped up in 1999 as frontman Stephen Malkmus moved to Portland, Ore., and started a solo career.
"The first several go-rounds the band made around the country were very inconsistent due to the extreme alcoholism of our drummer at the time," Nastanovich said, referring to ex-member Gary Young (this wasn't the funny part of the interview). "This was a guy who would consume only four kernels of popcorn per day to go with 25 grapefruits and vodka. I'd have to tell [club promoters], 'We need to go on by 10:30, or else our drummer will be too sauced.'"
Pavement's first-ever Twin Cities performance at the Uptown Bar was nearly derailed by Young's erratic behavior, which led to a patron throwing a glass at his head: "It missed him by about 2 inches, and Gary's big blue eyes bugged out like a fish," Nastanovich remembered.
After Young's dismissal in 1993 -- between the release of Pavement's best-remembered albums, "Slanted and Enchanted" and "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain" -- the band "steadily became more consistent," Nastanovich said, but it continued to "rehearse as irregularly as possible" while messing with its music. "There were always several songs we played radically different from how they sound on record," he said. "Also, Stephen had a knack for trying to tool with the rhythm section for his own personal enjoyment."
As ironic as its 1994 hit "Cut Your Hair," the group finally became consistent on tour behind its 1999 album, "Terror Twilight," when the members realized they would be packing it in at the end of the trek. Said Nastanovich, "We were all extremely burned out on touring, and there was ample frustration with other things.
"It was the end of the '90s, and the music biz was pretty clearly changing. There were a lot more electronic elements and things we didn't really want to be a part of. And Stephen was pretty frustrated working with a band that didn't live anywhere near him."
Quarantine the past
The idea of a reunion tour had been floated for years. All of the members were open to doing it except Malkmus, Nastanovich said, but he came around about a year ago when it was clear there would be ample time to fit it in this year -- and do it right.
"It was important that Stephen have the time to get ready for it," Nastanovich said. "He has the hardest part, which is relearning all those lyrics."
Since its first reunion show in March in Auckland, New Zealand, the band has been earning mostly favorable reviews and quite fanatical receptions from crowds.
"We've been seeing a lot of people under the age of 30 who never got to see the band, and their excitement really has made it seem like there's a good reason we're doing this," he said.
Set lists have pulled equally from the songs assembled for the quintet's new double-CD anthology, "Quarantine the Past," with some exceptions. "We aren't doing much from 'Terror Twilight' because a lot of those songs are really hard to do," Nastanovich said.
He believes the band has been solid enough on tour to possibly reshape its image as a live act. Whether that happens or not, the group is content with the reputation it already earned in the '90s, he said.
"We made five albums, and I really don't think there's a bad one among them. Fans like to debate which ones are their favorites, but they still seem to like them all.
"I think we called it quits at the right time, before we made a bad record and embarrassed ourselves -- which we very easily could have done."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658