It’s very strange to hear Stephen Malkmus talk about trying to feed his daughter. At the start of a telephone press conference (and, yes, it’s very strange to participate in a telephone press conference, but that’s another story for another day) Malkmus could be heard telling someone, presumably his wife, about a feeding that—by the sounds of things—seemed to have gone slightly awry.
“But maybe she’ll eat it anyways,” he said, his voice brimming with the shrugging tiredness and accepting befuddlement that one expects from the father of young children. Not, however, the stuff one expects of rock stars. And despite claiming that he’s not really a rock star, at least not in the sense of stadium-rock gods like the booze-swilling, camera-flipping-off members of Kiss, Malkmus is nonetheless rock royalty. A demi-god of indie rock, if you will.
His previous band, Pavement, helped define the sound of the ’90s indie-rock explosion, creating an album that Blender Magazine ranked as the best indie-rock album of all time. And he now fronts the Jicks, whose name he described to me as “a random word that came up at 5 a.m., when we were thinking of when your mind kind of turns into semi-permeable glue.”
“It sounded a little like a tough, 1950s-style backing band. You could have anybody in front of the Jicks, and they’d just kick it out,” he said.
In past interviews, Malkmus and company have alternately told reporters that “Jicks” is a cross between “jerks” and “dicks,” or that the name derives from reversing Mick Jagger’s name. These contradictory accounts typify the wry insouciance that characterizes Malkmus’s public persona. They also reflect a stubborn refusal to give a straight or consistent answer—not the oversized antics of rock stars, but the sneering wit of an indie-rocker.
In one breath, Malkmus went from claiming that it was unlikely that Pavement would reunite to saying that a reunion might be fun. He also dodged a question about the chances that he and the Jicks might repeat the Milwaukee performance in which they played a full set of Pavement songs when they perform in Chicago on March 21.
“Maybe if Chicago were Argentina, we’d do it. You know, there is a part of Buenos Aires called Nuevo Chicago,” he said, giving no indication why Argentina would be a more ideal place for reliving Pavement songs but offering a lengthy description of a souvenir flag that he purchased in Nuevo Chicago.
According to Malkmus, the Milwaukee show was the band’s attempt to give themselves a challenge and do something a little crazy. He said that they also flirted with the idea of lighting bombs onstage or declaring a fatwa on George Bush. Although Malkmus professes to have no love for Republicans, particularly George Bush, I was pretty sure he was joking this time.
I also didn’t fully believe his claim that fatherhood hasn’t much changed his approach to his music. He compared being a father and a musician to being a father and a football star. “It’s not like you have a child and you soften up. If you’re a cornerback, you don’t stop wanting to take someone’s head off because you have a new sense of calm,” he said.
“But I suppose you’re supposed to have your personal life leaking into your music,” he added, acknowledging that the football analogy may not have been particularly apt.
In his personal life and his point of view, Malkmus seems to embody a sense of calm, but one that he only half-embraces.
Throughout the interview, he spoke of inevitabilities. Illegal music downloading is unavoidable, and therefore not worth getting worked up over. Likewise for the leaking of his band’s latest album: “To get up in arms over it would be sort of uncivilized, really.” Comparisons of the Jicks to Pavement are also deemed inevitable by Malkmus. Even his continued residence in Portland, Oregon, Malkmus considers somewhat inevitable.
“Portland is very, very white and very liberal—kind of all Volvos, Whole Foods wannabes, recycling. All good things but when they add together it’s lacking in counterpoint. It’s kind of claustrophobic, compared to somewhere like Chicago.”
“And it rains a lot,” he added.
“I wouldn’t mind leaving, to be perfectly honest,” he said, “but the band, my family, one of my kids is in school here…. It’d be kind of like a gypsy caravan. It’d be hard.”
“As you get older, life becomes a little more regimented. That’s for the good generally, I guess. You slow down a little bit. When you’re pushing 40 you don’t want to be out ’til 3 a.m. taking drugs or whatever. It’s kind of desperate.”
Fortunately for his fans, even if he doesn’t lead the rock-star life, Malkmus can still continue to rock since his lyrics aren’t fueled by the craziness of youth or the angst of desperation.
“It’s all a little absurd. Everything’s not too dramatic or super serious.” Though he was talking about his music, Malkmus could just as easily have been referring to his take on life.