He used to say it would never happen. But lo and behold, there was our veteran fighter of the indie-rock nerd wars, Stephen Malkmus, performing with his old band Pavement last fall. The oft-celebrated yet always over-ignored purveyors of witty, idiosyncratic '90s rock finally launched a reunion tour that was warmly received and musically more proficient than many of their heyday outings.
Now, however, the band's leader insists it won't happen again.
"It's like when there's a special on the menu at a restaurant one night, and then you go back next week and there's the same special," Malkmus said in his usual droll demeanor. "That's not cool. We want that tour to live as a one-time thing that you can say you saw. And if you didn't see it, these days it's all up on YouTube anyway."
Even before the Pavement tour, Malkmus started working with one of his fellow '90s alterna-rock stars making a record on par with his best-known material. The new album "Mirror Traffic" -- which Malkmus will promote with his consistent backers the Jicks at the Pantages Theatre on Saturday -- was produced by Beck, who made a heavy, forward-thinking imprint on recent albums by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Thurston Moore but seemed to steer Malkmus back to a more classic approach.
Talking by phone last week from a tour stop in Baltimore -- where the Orioles ousted the Red Sox from the playoffs the previous night, he excitedly noted -- Malkmus talked about the momentous past year and a half, which also included his family's surprising relocation to Berlin from Portland, Ore.
Q: Last we saw you, you were playing in a cavern in St. Paul [Roy Wilkins Auditorium] with Pavement. Was it good for you, too?
A: Yeah, that was really a fun one. It was kind of like playing in an old-fashioned '70s hockey rink, minus a few thousand people [laughs]. But I saw a lot of old friends there I haven't seen in a while.
Pavement had a lot of really good times in Minneapolis, honestly. We did those co-headlining shows with Wilco there, and then all those kind of drunken, guitar-fried shows at First Avenue stand out. They never had that place grounded very well, so there was always a lot of guitar zzztttt! That was cool. We would've played there this time, but it was already booked that night [by the Naked & the Famous; yeah, who?].
Q: A lot of people say "Mirror Traffic" is your most Pavement-esque Jicks record, but you actually did most of the work before Pavement's tour, right?
A: The basics were done before, and then we did the mixing and a few touch-ups after. You know how a lot of people say, "Oh, this album is a return to form?" Well, we were able to return to form within the recording of this one record. [laughs].
Maybe it's a little more stylistically similar to an album like [Pavement's] "Wowee Zowee" and the genres of music that were covered on that record. It's more all-over-the-place than the last record, "Real Emotional Trash." The last one had a lot of intricate guitar inner workings and was a lot more involved. This one, it was more, "Let's just jump in there and write some tunes."
Q: How did Beck wind up being the producer?
A: He called to throw his name in the hat. He picked the perfect time, because we were saying, "What are we going to do? Where are we going to record?" That part of making a record can be kind of daunting. So when someone like Beck comes in and says, "Hey, I'm here," that's just too perfect.
I was up for the idea for someone else taking some of the blame, in a good way. It was nice just going in and playing my songs, not worrying as much about the rest. Obviously, we didn’t want to go out and make some kind of hip-hop or pop record. We still wanted to sort of just do what we do, and Beck was on the same page with us all the way. He just made some tasteful choices of echoes and delays and sound things like that. He wanted just a classic drum recording instead some huge Andy Wallace-sounding thing.
Of all the things that people can say is Pavement-like about this record, the biggest is probably just the smallness of it. It’s clear but still small, like the sounds on "Wowee Zowee" or even "Slanted & Enchanted." Not trying to be one of those big-sounding, super-compressed ’90s albums. Sometimes a little-sounding guitar can go a long way
Q: Did he bring in a leaf blower to the sessions or anything weird like that?
A: No, he's developed a lot since his leaf-blower era [laughs]. He has more techniques related to modern recording. Working with Pro Tools, it's getting harder to make a record that doesn't sound like everything else, and he knows how to do that. So his main contribution was sort of on that tech/geeky side, where he knew he could bring something without messing with our flow.
Q: Just one back-in-the-day question: I remember seeing you and Beck on the 1995 Lollapalooza tour, and didn't seem like either of you were having a great time. How do you guys look back on that?
A: That was such different time for him and me. For me, I felt like that Lollapalooza was sort of a squandered opportunity just in terms of the kind of shows we put on there and what kind of attitude we had. We just weren’t really ready for that kind of festival situation, and I don’t think he was either. At that point he had a hired band. He had this cool backdrop, though, a little deer that looked neat. But any of those festivals, playing during the day can be a pretty drab experience unless you have some radio hits that everyone knows.
Q: How much has your songwriting approach changed or evolved since those early Pavement albums?
A: It’s still essentially the same. I still mostly listen to old records or obscure records and kind of look for that feeling to develop a song with a certain kind of spirit to it. I try to duplicate that. It doesn’t have to be a popular thing. If something is too uptown, or too singer/songwriter, I don’t go for it. There are different kinds of songs, some for having friends over, some that are more personal and quiet for doing your homework or cleaning or whatever. That part of it hasn’t really changed. In fact, I’m probably more of a student [of older records] now than when I was a self-conscious young person just trying to rock.
Q: How did you and your family wind up moving to Berlin?
A: We liked the idea of a radical move like that. It's kind of a hyped-up city. People who go there tend to love it. So we thought it'd be a good change. We got pretty bored with Portland. We're both artists, so we can kind of live that dream, go wherever we want. The only thing that has been bad about it is the school our two kids are in is kind of a drag. Other than that, we love it so far.
Q: Former Jicks drummer Janet Weiss is playing here with Wild Flag a few nights before your show. Do you wish her well?
A: It worked out great for both of us. Wild Flag is totally shredding now, and we got our man in the trade [Jake Morris]. In baseball terms, it'd be like us picking up ... um ... I'm trying to think of a Twin to compare him to as a compliment, but you guys don't have much these days. Michael Cuddyer, I guess. We got Cuddyer.
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