Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks' sixth release, "Wig Out at Jagbags," was worked out "on a computer on someone else's table in someone else's apartment" in Berlin and a studio in rural Belgium, but it sounds as casual, lived in, and American as a vintage Polo sweater. Grab the album (iTunes/Amazon) on January 7, and get tickets (Live Nation, StubHub, eSeats) for their upcoming U.S. tour, which kicks off February 12 in Denver.
Download.com caught up with the indie rockfather, following his return to the U.S., while he was out on holiday with his family, skiing and ice skating in Sun Valley, Idaho, among the "oatmeal jet set." He talked about recording the new album on Ableton and Pro Tools, his thoughts on '90s rock bands, his onetime feud with Kim Deal, why former band Pavement never rose above the indie level, his daughters' favorite gaming app, his own, and much more.
Since Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks has your name in it, when you're writing an album, do you ever seek the other members' input?
Yeah, that's one of those misunderstandings of what this band's like. My name is on the top purely for marketing reasons, because people have heard of me before, and when we first started the band [our label] Matador was like, "It's easier to sell when someone's heard of you. If you start brand new with this name, you're only the Jicks, and that's going to be harder for us to sell, and we need every leg up possible." So we just did that.
With my old band, that was actually more of a patriarchy and just dominated by me, and as I've grown older I've actually learned to be into finding a gestalt with the sum of everybody contributing. Of course, I do lyrics, and I don't really ask anybody for songs -- initial inspiration is alone in a room -- but the rest of it is just as collaborative as any other collaborative band like U2 or REM.
Living in Germany for the past two years, did you use tech to collaborate with your bandmates during the making of the new album?
Not really. It was more when I was meeting the group on tour, in Europe -- that was pretty much where we made it up, and of course I would send a couple of MP3s now and then, but not really adding parts. When I was doing the overdubs, there's a program called Ableton Live, and you can record on it. But I did a lot of my overdubs with that instead of Pro Tools. It's quicker and easier, so I was messing around with that, and it's a pretty cool program that anyone can run. I would give it to my teenage son if I had one, and maybe he'd like to do that rather than kill zombies in video games. Yeah, it's rad.
You have two young daughters; do they play video game apps?
No, not really. They would if they could. They do play this really generic game called Poptropica (Check out Poptropica Cheats!), but it's kind of wandering around a field looking for jewels or jumping around. It's not particularly violent. But we kind of keep them in the Luddite stage with the technology. They are in the black about that, but it's inevitable that in high school, they'll be jiggling around with their Cupertino crap.
"Cut Your Hair" had that amazing play on the word "career," where it morphs into "Korea," and I noticed that on "Lauriat," the word "'80s" becomes "ADDs." You clearly love wordplay.
I've always thought of music as a digression, or starting at one place and closing your eyes with a pencil and drawing down where it comes from, and it's sort of an abstraction of what you start with. Everything starts with an idea in your head, and you react to that and make rational decisions or relations to what you hear. And that's sort of how I do the lyrics. I'm bored with love story and he meets she; it's a worn-out story just like many music moves are worn out, like 4x4, so I tend to take a lyric form in a direction that's not worn out for me. So that's where the lyrics go, to psychedelic abstraction, game-playing. They're modernist things, not necessarily postmodern; Ezra Pound could have done the same thing, so I'm not that radical, really.
So everyone's been buzzing about the women in your "Lariat" video.
They're really cute French girls. I don't know who picked them out. But I'm not immune to cuteness or beauty. I'm all for it, whether it's male or female. Some might say it's objectifying, but this is entertainment, and you might as well have some cute, charismatic people in your video. I just signed off on that one. [laughs]
The "Cinnamon and Lesbians" video, in contrast, is most memorable for how literal it is.
My friend Jay Winebrener did that, and he took a literal, neo-Pavement approach to the video. I think because the lyrics are so unliteral, he wanted a literal translation. Certainly the literal video doesn't have a great history on MTV. I think people have preferred to have a striking tableau of Anton Corbijn-type, subconscious world or special effects-laden, Spike Jonze thing. But I think it's sort of down to earth and it's not like an auteur-style video, so in a way it's more respecting the artist than the video maker trying to wow us and trying to get a job in Hollywood. Now with videos, it's kind of cool that they're on YouTube, a public space where everyone can watch them, rather than picked by MTV. The people sort of decide. Back in the '90s, people would spend millions of dollars just to get on MTV...it was funny.
Check out "Cinnamon and Lesbians":
Speaking of the '90s, the feud that you had with Kim Deal [Pixies, the Breeders] a few years back, what was that about?
Oh, yeah, that was a very minor feud built on pure love and respect. I think she got mad because one time I was talking about how when we were on this tour in Australia, she was kind of out of it, I thought -- not completely out of it, just kind of tripping somehow. And I think she spoke of it, but I guess I was not supposed to mention it, and then she was like, "He's talking shit," but no, I was not talking shit. I'm blown away by the Breeders and was an early fan of "Pod" and of the second album and was conscious of all their moves all the time, so I wouldn't want to feud with her.
You also said that "Cut Your Hair" should have made the band bigger but you guessed that "Cannonball" caught on more with the public.
Yeah, "Cannonball" was catchier and a better song, so it got bigger and had a better video, so I was like, the proof's in the pudding. She said, before that, she's kind of mad that she's never had kids, so in her mind the man just makes records and has kids and tours around while the wife takes care of the kid. I've heard her say that before but I don't think that's really true. It could be true, but every relationship is different and if she had found Mr. Right she could have had kids like that. [laughs]
In your nuclear family, do you feel that you and your wife play an equal role in the child rearing?
I don't think so, because in defense of Kim Deal, in the early years, the child is attached to the mother through nursing and that kind of thing. And certainly through our experience that was that way, but once those two or three years are done, you can swing it to the more equal, like we've done. But if you're of the ruling classes, you can also have childcare and a nanny to alleviate that. My partner happens to be an artist, and she works really hard. She works hard and tries to be a mom, and she's fried half the time from it.
You've had several jobs prior to becoming a musician, so if you had to give up your career and return to one of them, which job would you go back to?
Well, I just had shitty jobs. I was a bartender. I worked as a security guard. But your brain becomes cottage cheese after a certain point. There's just too much time standing and doing nothing. I don't know. I just saw "The Wolf of Wall Street," and that looks pretty fun -- just to be a really crass, Quaalude-popping gangster of Wall Street. He makes it look pretty fun, and it seems like, if you could translate that movie from corporate people to Matador Records, it's basically a rock 'n' roll story, because it was drugs, chicks, partying, and lots of money -- and a fall. It was pretty much Matador records in the '90s, but there were no do-gooder FBI guys on our tail, so that's good.
Pavement's breakthrough song, "Cut Your Hair," mocked the success of mainstream rockers of the mid-'90s. Has your view of Pavement vs. those bands changed?
I think that with groups like us and Superchunk, there was definitely something about defining ourselves on our own terms rather than a K-Rock Weenie Roast world of Rage Against the Machine and the Offspring. We came more from a college rock style. It was pretty clear that we weren't like those other bands. They were a little more L.A. rock dudes. Hole was perhaps always a little bit Hollywood seeming and a little bit metal or major-label seeming, and I didn't really relate to them, but I thought they were a good band. But Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin weren't in our signifier pack.
I think Nirvana thought they were like the Beatles, writing pop songs with big guitars, and I think they were quite successful at it, but they also had big producers. They had Andy Wallace mix their albums. We were more in a D.I.Y. world. We mixed our own records and didn't know what we were doing but did it anyway. We didn't have outside help from professional stylists like those bands.
You've mentioned in previous interviews that you didn't have as much marketing behind Pavement as the other bands had.
No, I think it was to a certain extent, but it was a little ad hoc. They probably thought we didn't want that, or we didn't elucidate our desires very clearly; we just put stuff out and didn't talk about it. There wasn't a unified plan for what was going to happen with that band. It was just sort of slack in that way.
These days are you a fan of any mobile apps?
Not really. Wait, I play Scrabble with random people.