For almost 30 years, Stephen Malkmus has carved his own singular path as the patron saint of indie-rock. So it came as a surprise to hear that the singer and guitarist best known as the creative force behind 90s icons Pavement was not only going solo, but he was also switching to electronica for his latest album, Groove Denied.
The word was that this album was initially rejected by his longtime label, Matador, in favour of releasing the (as it turned out, critically acclaimed) album Sparkle Hard with his band, The Jicks. Long-time fans may be relieved to hear that Malkmus hasn’t fully ditched his guitar for a laptop. But Groove Denied is undeniably a new sound – one that blends post-punk rhythms with his usual wry lyrics.
Malkmus is taking the album out on tour in North America, and will be touring in Europe later this year. BBC Music sat down with him to find out more about what made him experiment with this new sound.
What made you want to create, not just a solo record, but a solo record of a different type of music that you’ve done before?
I wanted to make a different kind of record than my history which is around twenty-nine years of recorded music. I was really bouncing my ideas off other musicians. I had bought some production gear and microphones and stuff, so I could do that myself in the house. As I started to fiddle with that, I got a sound that I thought was like, different and inspired me in different ways and it grew into this album, Groove Denied.
What was that sound? Was there anything or anyone inspiring that sound?
A lot of music that I’ve made is in the rock idiom: guitar-based, drums, really focused on songwriting but also guitars. On this record, I didn’t start with the guitars I started with the pianos and some keyboards for most of the tunes. And drum machines. I don’t know why I really started it. A couple of years ago, I did work on a soundtrack for a TV show that was on Netflix. It was called Flaked. It was still guitar tunes, because that fitted the character, but I was making more atmospheric pieces. And that co-mingled with just wanting to focus on some other influences and types of music, other things that inspire me, and use that as a leaping-off point for making tunes.
I enjoy things that are a little bit sloppy and haven’t been burnished for marketing. I will make a virtue of what I do. I’ll make a virtue of what I’ll release
You’ve mentioned Pete Shelley and Human League specifically as influences. How did they influence you?
One of the songs called Viktor Borgia has got a very primitive, arpeggio loop made on a Moog synthesiser. I think I was more going on a YouTube dive through this kind of DIY German synth pop. There was a way that these artists kind of owned the awkwardness of primitive keyboard music, and really put all their chips in believing that this is the future. A lot of instruments and ways of making music are very accepted, or we know exactly what they do to a certain extent. A guitar through a fuzzbox has so many references to Jimi Hendrix, or other music that we like. But at a certain time, I feel like nobody really knew some of this [synth] music, or what the keyboard did, and that’s kind of cool.
How was the creative and songwriting process different between the solo album and the more collaborative work with the Jicks?
The songwriting is really not that different. You start to see what comes to you and maybe record it in a demo way, or just lay down some ideas and see what sticks. The difference is that I had a better digital audio workstation, and I just decided to keep these primitive DIY beginnings, and not refine them by bringing them to a band. I probably could’ve met a bunch of digital programmers that were hot stuff and made it sound more marketable, but I didn’t want to do that. I enjoy things that are a little bit sloppy and haven’t been burnished for marketing. I will make a virtue of what I do. I’ll make a virtue of what I’ll release.
The album starts off very minimal. But, halfway through the album it drifts more towards stuff people might associate with you more. Was that conscious? Or was that part of the process of pushing yourself with a new set of tools?
Yeah, the record starts with more British-leaning kind of cold synthy stuff. Towards the end there's some guitar tunes that are maybe more recognisable to people who have been paying attention to me. It wasn’t conceived like that when I was making it, and I have lots of other really fantastic experiments that didn’t make it onto the record that were like the first half. I’m not making things to just make a point. I don’t know why I did that, I just wanted to make it good, I was kind of calling BS on some of those other songs, or just, you know, they were half-baked.
What were some of the wilder experiments that didn’t make it?
Loopy stuff, similar to the first song on the record called Belziger Faceplant, but my vocals were just not sitting right. If I had maybe another year to work on it, they might have been better. This was a time where I was experimenting with my drum machines and my keyboards. Some of my experiments were guitar-based, but they’re also digital like everything's plugged in straight to the computer with artificial air on them and stuff. I felt like they were somewhat cohesive with the sound of the other ones, if not referencing the 80s via 2000s plugins. I thought it fitted together alright.
I’m a little old school. I like a few missives that are considered if I’m going to actually pay to hear it. I like a little bit of effort.
There has been a bit of talk about how negatively your record label received this album in the beginning. Did it teach you anything new about the tension between creativity and marketability?
When I first played a bunch of the random mix of tunes, I played them for some of my colleagues and they were like “This is weird”. What it made me think is that, first of all, when you’re working by yourself, you might not have a good perspective on it. It’s very easy to like something you did yourself, just because it’s different or you surprise yourself, but it doesn’t mean that it’s good or that the signal’s getting through. Long story short, I wanted feedback about what’s cool about this, what’s not. Mind you, my other label Domino, which is from the land of OG BBC, they were cool with it. They were like “Yeah, this is your record, you’re our artist, we’ll put this out”.
It’s never struck us that you’ve cared that much about the signal going through in all the bands that you have been with. It always felt like you were doing things for yourself more than anything else.
It’s true. There’s maybe something telling you that that’s a cool song, at least one. It only takes a couple of people to say something positive about what you’re doing for you to immediately believe it. But this stuff not so much, I’m just kind of surprising myself thinking like, “I like this, I think”. But then again, there’s a lot of stuff that you like that you don't necessarily have to put it out there either, right? I’m a little old school. I like a few missives that are considered if I’m going to actually pay to hear it. I like a little bit of effort.
Some of your lyrics are becoming more politically direct. Is that part of the experimentation? Or is this just an evolution of your style?
I’ve had a couple of lyrics that mention some politics or even causes. I don’t think there’s any evolution. I hate to say it, but I’ve felt like politics is kind of a mindsuck. Obviously vote, don’t get me wrong. Have conversations. But to get obsessed with it, to get into it, it drags you into this world that is painful, and a lot of times this mental energy is used for what? I’m talking more specifically about political races, and not causes like feminism or social justice in all its forms. I’m talking specifically Democrats and Republicans. Because of Trump, a lot more people are thinking about the specific race, like get rid of this guy, instead of the issues. Some of my songs have mentioned that, I don’t really have much to say about that. I do think of music primarily as – I don’t want to say – beyond encompassing politics, but more of an unconscious, you know, human and generally life-affirming thing which I sometimes don’t find in politics.
Does this album want to push you into different directions, or was this just a one-off experiment?
Well, I don’t know. As far as what pushed me in this specific record, I’ve been wanting to engage with different starting points for writing songs for a while. Whether it’s guitar or keyboards, it doesn’t really matter. It's how you start it or not. I like a band in a room and making rock albums. I would like to do that again. There’s always baby steps in every record that I’ve done that I try to make it different: working with different engineers, different places and some different instruments and different tempos. That being said, it all blends into the same thing. What are you going to do?
What are you going to do?
I don’t know. When I think of really epic artists, like Radiohead, they do all this different stuff but when you look at the mass it just sounds like Radiohead. Maybe their first album sounds a bit grunge that doesn’t really sound like them, but the rest I just hear it. Variation on a theme, kind of, in a good way.
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