Nine Songs: Stephen Malkmus
Stephen Malkmus is out to impress. “I know that since this is The Line Of Best Fit, I don’t need to put The Velvet Underground or another Stooges song on this list, you know what I mean?”
Talking to the former Pavement frontman is an intriguing proposition. His tone sounds perpetually on the brink of laughter, but you can never quite tell if you’re supposed to be in on the joke or not. “I just assumed you wanted to talk about things that are awesome, but maybe aren’t completely part of our shared culture,” he tells me.
Two of his selections are so outside of our shared culture that they are impossible to find online, so readers will simply have to use their imaginations. Fortunately, Malkmus is willing to talk around what we can’t hear. “A lot of music is about an individual song but it’s also about the band itself, what they represent and the freedom outside of the songs that you learn to play along with, you know what I mean?”
The usually-elliptical Malkmus is in a gregarious mood and rightly so; his forthcoming seventh album with The Jicks might just be their best yet. If the decade-old jamfest Real Emotional Trash was the band’s heaviest album, Sparkle Hard might be their densest, awash with their trademark gnarly riffery as well as autotuned vocals and lush country jams.
Fittingly, in one promo photo Malkmus is even riding a horse named Rula. “It was totally not planned”, Malkmus says of the photo, “Rula’s owner Kathleen is so into that photo, she’s always asking about it. There’s going to be a poster of it for the tour, so she’s basically going to cross me out when she gets one.”
His song choices seem nostalgic - from the 60s' easy listening he grew up hearing on the radio to how French techno takes him back to touring Europe in the 90s' - but Malkmus claims there’s no real theme behind his nine songs. “I have fifty records upstairs that are just randomly pulled for no other reason than I wanted to hear them. There was Sly And The Family Stone, John Fahey and stuff like that in there too, but these are ones that we just recently played.”
“I came across this through YouTube searching when I lived in Berlin, I had no family home and I had a free night. Do you know the website Resident Advisor? I was on that checking gigs, seeing what was on and thinking of going out by myself, which is bold, because it would probably mean that I wouldn’t be partying, I’d also have to start off at two in the morning and I’d probably have to wait in line and stuff like that.
“In the end I just looked at the people’s YouTube channels and that’s how I heard Polar Inertia, this DJ group. I started running through all their tracks, specifically all the ones on The Last Vehicle EP and was blown away with it, imagining what it would sound like on big speakers when you’re a little bit off your head.
“I like the minimal style of this kind of techno, I don’t know what it’s called. It’s not completely ‘tear-your-head-off’, it’s almost like Neu! or krautrock, just the way that it’s mixed with a really tiny hi-hat, they’re implied and you feel them still, the classic kick-drum right in the middle with the Neu! feeling. I also like how it doesn’t build into a complete orgasm-type explosion, it’s like a slow burn and I relate to that. This is the kind of techno that I would actually listen to in my house and be influenced by.
“I like a huge tune too. I’ve heard some modern trance songs that hit the 90s’ really hard and I didn’t like it when it first came out, but now it reminds me of being on tour in Europe and England when dance music was taking off and ecstasy and stuff. It seems almost kind of sweet to me; it doesn’t make me think of dying from being dehydrated. It wasn’t my life, I didn’t think there was a dance revolution happening at the time, but there was obviously, if we’re looking at the economics of DJ culture.
“With a band like Polar Inertia its art music, it’s pretty intense and it’s a little bit dark. I think a band like Can was like that; it’s the kind of groove I could even hear on Tago Mago, like the world is a scary place, but not necessarily in a Nine Inch Nails way!”
“In the early zeroes I went on a tour of Korea with a couple friends of mine from my label Matador and Mary Timony from Helium. We were buying psychedelic records and looking at expensive ones, it was a thrill to buy records, which I was maybe a little burned out by 2000 - you’d find something that you didn’t know what it was.
“So these dudes were like ‘This is our traditional music’ and it’s an instrument called a kayagum. It’s a little like a sitar, you sit down and play it with two hands on each side and you’ve got a little piece of wood that you can create bendy notes with, it’s very staccato and very intense. I suppose in a classical setting you could also hear this music or as a cultural artefact from going to Korea, but when you see it and hear it, it just sounds like blues music to me, it’s very sad, though I don’t know what the lyrics are.
“I was going to put another record in here, but there’s no English on it so I wouldn’t know what to say. It’s by this woman, this badass mother-figure. She’s in a kimono and she looks older, a very authoritative, tough lady, which I think of mothers as, taking care of business. And she’s just like staccato hits, she’s whooping like PJ Harvey times ten and also playing this instrument that echoes that intensity.
“The one I picked was partly because it’s in English. Byung-ki Hwang is probably one of many masters of the instrument. It shows him in a more formal setting on the cover and he’s playing a little slow and more bluesy, staying on one tone and moving in blues intervals. It kind of blew my mind when I first heard it, I’ve gone down YouTube holes of looking at other early Korean instruments and they’re all pretty badass.
“Seoul is a really fun place to visit, it’s been twenty years but there’s these old areas. I’m sure Tokyo has old areas too but often you’re stuck in hyper-modern worlds when you’re travelling there, but Seoul’s got a 50s’ vibe and they have these record stores. For some reason I like the food in Korea; it’s a little spicier and a little more in your face and ugly, like throwing a bunch of stuff in a pot and putting some serious spice in, like octopus legs hanging out of the bowl like a cauldron. I haven’t been back since but I want to!
“There was a Belle and Sebastian bar and my friend Jesper, who’s in Endless Boogie, got into an incredible chess match with these tough indie boys. It felt like Kasparov vs. Bobby Fischer, like this cultural battle almost. This guy was killing my friend and then Jesper got some magic drunken moment of wisdom and did this one insane chess move and beat the kid and he was so mad. He stormed out of the Belle and Sebastian bar. It was a fun trip. I wonder if that Belle and Sebastian bar still exists.”
“This kind of band is probably not going work too hard on a song like this, it’s probably more like a walk-on song, almost like ‘We’ve got a nice riff, but we don’t want to bother writing a song too much.’ This album is super awesome, it was released on the Highwater label in Memphis. The Fieldstones are interesting because they’re not really playing Robert Johnson, they’re a rock and roll bar band.
“Highwater is associated with Memphis State University, probably in the Ethnomusicology department. I took some Ethnomusicology classes in college and where I went they had released some Tidewater Blues records, so it’s something like that. It’s not necessarily commercial, they’re not trying to completely take the world by storm. It seems like it’s a little bit of a risk album, because they’re not Stax-Volt sounding, they’re not blues sounding. They’re just a rock band.
“The cover is just amazing, the group looks so cool, I’m looking at them right now. They’re just a local Memphis band and I assume Highwater saw them playing around town. I love the colours of the album cover and how the border matches the rug in the studio, it’s really unique. The studio looks awesome, they’ve got badass Fender amps. I should have used that for the photo inspiration for my band.”
“I don’t play any 10cc records except this one in my house, maybe this was their last record with Godley & Creme. ‘I’m Not In Love’ was pretty popular but ‘The Things We Do For Love’ was bigger. This album has a Pink Floyd-y Hipgnosis-style cover with a very dated-looking situation, very English.
“It came up in my mind because I was doing something online. I put it on and it was a group interaction thing, and I thought “Man, this record is really strong.” Then I played it for my kids and they liked it too. It’s got clever arrangements and relatively sophisticated notes, with diminished chords on the keyboard. I don’t know who the average 10cc fan is though or if they have a Steely Dan kind of following.
“Millennials seem to like that sound too for some reason. Its good music, it’s very well-recorded but I don’t know; we, or me, have a perspective of being born in 1966 and hearing it. How music affects different people and different generations is very interesting, like what someone else might hear in it. I feel the 70’s and I feel a coolness to it all, it’s a little icy and a little bit bleak. Brutalist architecture - when I think of England at that time and the actual environment, that’s what comes to mind. Punk rock is soon to come and glam is going on at the time, but it’s got a kind of serious melancholy to it and I like that signal.”
“So Lotti Golden is a singer in town in New York, singing around at venues in the 60s’ and she put together this album with full strings, horns, drums, an Atlantic Records-sounding record. It’d be hard to pull that off - you’d have needed a lot of money to get a band together to do those songs - so I can see one reason why it flopped. It was this whole Elvis-style production and she’s not Elvis. The album is on Atlantic Records, so it’s a bit of an Aretha Franklin rock, R&B party album. It’s got this producer who’s got a turtleneck on, I don’t know who he is, some kind of alpha-beatnik guy who’s putting this together.
“But this one song, ‘Gonna Fay’s’ is really off the hook. She starts telling a story about a beatnik party that she goes to, people are doing drugs and getting crazy, this weird fantasy of a New York pill-popping hipster party. Then what happens is, after they take like tuinal and skag, someone dies, OD’s, and the music imitates it like a show tune. But then they go to someone else’s house and keep going. The song keeps building and she’s screaming about drugs.
“So to me it’s an epically ballsy song and just fucked up, you know?! I’m surprised this hasn’t been reissued yet, you can get the record for twenty bucks on Ebay; I have two of them. She made another record but it’s not as good. She sort of looks like Laura Nyro on the cover and it’s on some other minor major label, but I don’t recommend that one.
“I heard about this from a friend of mine, probably Paul Majors, who’s Endless Boogie’s singer and a finder of bizarre songs and good at defining taste. One of my daughters is named Lottie too.”
“This is one of the ones that’s maybe not about the music so much. October Faction is a supergroup from SST Records which, to people of my generation, is important. Obviously you’ve got Hüsker Dü, Meat Puppets, the Minutemen, Black Flag, Dinosaur Jr, Saccharine Trust, I think Sonic Youth - there’s probably someone I’m forgetting - but you have all those bands that are super-important to all of us and made incredible works of art. I could have put any song by any of those bands in this list too, maybe Hüsker Dü I’m a little bit less of a fan of than the other ones I mentioned but just barely less, and I would be in the minority.
“But whatever money the bands weren’t getting turned out to be a problem with the label. Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski started putting out records with members of Saccharine Trust and some of the minor players and doing whatever the fuck they wanted. We could go on and on talking about the strange records they produced, there’s Always August and Alter Native, these two Richmond bands that are very cool I think, but one is very Grateful Dead-sounding and one is instrumental, which could sell five copies.
“In the indie community, let’s imagine that they were like 4AD is now. I just read that 4AD just dropped this artist named Torres, who’s a good artist and pretty damn commercial as far as I’m concerned, but in this day and age that’s not enough. I don’t know why they did it, maybe they thought she was unviable, maybe they had a fight, maybe because of the structure of her deal they had to pay her $150,000 and they didn’t want to do that for whatever reason.
“Grimes is probably the opposite, she’s probably got an unfair royalty rate or something because she actually sells records. But I’m in the same boat! I feel like I’m still trying to get a grip on getting the record out in the right way, I don’t feel like an elder statesman when I’m thinking about my own stuff. Some people look in the mirror and think “Well, I’m still the same guy I always was, why doesn’t everybody wanna like this? I like it!” But times change, you’re a little bit older and you’re playing guitar music, that’s gonna be an issue!”
“But obviously that wasn’t part of SST’s logic in putting this out, they just released it because they could - “We made it, fuck you.” To me October Faction is just them hitting play and fucking around for twenty minutes. It’s totally free, there’s saxophone and it just speaks to me. It reminds me of the time when there was people putting out stuff on a national record that had no chance to make its money back. They took the effort to do it because they wanted to do it.
“It almost reminds me of this band I was in in college called Ectoslavia and nobody knew how to play. It’s not fair to October Faction, because they do know how to play, but our attitude was ‘let’s just get up there and play, make some noise and hopefully open for a band that people actually like’ and maybe get to drink some beer or whatever.
“I couldn’t afford to get everything on the label, but I got to hear almost all of the SST records in the college radio world and I would buy them when they immediately became cut-outs. You’d find stuff like Universal Congress Of, Joe Baiza’s jazz band or Blind Idiot God, I remember buying that for $2.99. And I’d also see all the bands, regardless of if I bought them, this was like 1985 and those bands were touring. I saw Angst and Blind Idiot God and the Tar Babies - I saw them twice. They were all very active on what I’d call the college rock circuit, they’d play in the big towns but they’d come to our place and play for 100 people.
“So the charm and absurdity of SST is reflected in October Faction. You don’t need to listen to it - that’s not the point. It’s more about the label than the band. I know they tried hard on that record, I’m not saying they’re taking the piss or anything, but it’s instrumental guitar music. No one likes it that much.”
“A friend of mine hipped me to this YouTube clip relatively late in the game. I think it’s been fifteen or twelve years or something that a mini-cult has surrounded Siege. There’s a YouTube hardcore k-hole you can go into, where you’re finding not only singles of the Killed By Death variety, but performances and really heartfelt, unironic stuff to watch.
“’84, when Siege was playing was kind of late in my hardcore journey, like, I’m just about out then. But these kids are not out, they’re in! They do these totally bizarre moves while they’re playing and the singer is like Harry Pussy’s singer Adris Hoyos times ten. Then there’s the second song they do, the skanking one, we had a skanking song when I was in a punk band and it would start slow like that, but we would go double-time. And in the video the drummer is watching later on, you get some intense looks from him that freak you out a little bit.
“I know people do these YouTube top-tens or something, but I threw one in. Supposedly these guys have become influential just from that video. I read in the comments that Napalm Death called them an influence, or if not influential, then they credited them with direction towards this really intense screamo hardcore, they were early on the scene.
“They might have one single, which I haven’t heard. But one single, one video, it’s comforting to know that. If it’s true, culture can be influenced in this really bizarre way that just builds up over something so small and in the end a lot of things are probably that way. Even when you talk about hip hop and if you eventually talk to makers of a lot of this music, the things that they’re influenced by can really be randomly one thing.
“I was reading this Wire book when I was in Berlin last week and one of the guys in Wire - maybe Colin Newman - said “I’m not going to listen to music anymore, because I don’t want to be influenced by it.” I don’t really understand that, I don’t think that’s healthy, but it worked! They made good albums!
“But before he stopped, they went to see This Heat and they were blown away by this gig and who talks about This Heat’s influence on Wire? But who knows, that show might have been the thing that made a big difference and made them think harder. Everyone likes This Heat, but you don’t really talk about their influence. You just say ‘this is an amazing, weird band.’ I know the Stereolab guy Tim Gane was really into This Heat, but you can’t hear This Heat in Stereolab. So maybe it’s the same with that as going from Siege to Napalm Death.”
“First of all, this is a great song! I believe it’s written by Burt Bacharach and there’s a great YouTube video of it with a free love preamble. Herb Alpert’s a little older - not old like me old - but he’s relatively old for the pop charts then, which would have been if not The Mamas And Papas and The 5th Dimension, which my parents were into, then soft rock like Carole King and The Carpenters. He owned A&M Records, which was a pretty big deal, so he signed The Carpenters, Fairport Convention, Peter Frampton and Magma was on there, which I fuckin’ love. I should have put them on this list.
“But this tune is just a step above; beautiful changes in the music, the arrangement, it’s all pretty perfect as far as I’m concerned, it’s like ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head’. How it relates to me today is that I like that kind of sunshine orchestrated popular music of that time, that’s what I heard on the radio when I was a kid, so that probably seeped in. I would have been more interested in this than Led Zeppelin back then, I wouldn’t have been wanting to hear that hard rock. This is more like a show tune almost, which I would have liked back then.
“My parents wouldn’t have been into Jefferson Airplane or The Grateful Dead; they would have Sgt. Pepper’s maybe, or they bought the Blue and the Red albums eventually. Then they translated into Carole King, Carly Simon, Fleetwood Mac, stuff like that, unfortunately. No, I like Fleetwood Mac, you know that band Deerhoof? I saw this tweet by them that said they were listening to Fleetwood Mac in their van and they were upset that Fleetwood Mac told people of that generation what love is like, or what relationships are like. How these toxic fuck-ups are the ones that kind of defined that, which is kind of a tragedy.
“Would that it could have been Herb Alpert! This song’s pretty sweet as far as I know, I don’t think he’s leching much, he’s just into this person and wants to let them now. Hopefully he’s not creepy! I saw one of the guys from Sun City Girls, Alan Bishop, cover it at a small show and he kinda did it really creepy, but that’s just his way. He can make anything creepy if he wants to.”
“So, for the last song, you get a little cherry - a cherry that everyone recognises! ‘Round and Round’ is really good, I think it’s his best song and the public agrees, because it’s probably got the most downloads by far. It really defines a certain late 00s’ aesthetic - his plundering of this 80s’ pop sound and the almost Thompson Twins-y darkness is really creepy.
“You remember MGMT? They had some good songs, really well done songs and then they kind of disappeared, they didn’t disappear to their fans, but they went off the charts. They just reappeared with this song, I saw the video and I think Ariel Pink even plays on it. It’s basically a tribute to Ariel Pink and old music done really well, and it makes you think of Bangkok from a westerner’s eyes.
“But Ariel’s doesn’t. His sounds like an artsy American, clever LA dude, a little sarcastic but also making a really catchy song. There’s some out of tune singing and some of the signifiers of his old work in it, but it’s put together better somehow. I’ve seen him play live and it sounds just as good, so they were able to do it live, which is kind of cool. He jumps around into things, it almost sounds like Frank Zappa with all his mucking around, like “don’t bore us, get to the chorus please” or whatever. I can see that being a hurdle.
“But remember when being PC was actually something that liberal people could joke about but also not do, which you can’t really do anymore? He kind of rides the edge of that and I think it plays well, because people sort of like that someone’s willing to say things that are controversial and act a bit naughty. He seems like he’s a little bit druggy and girl-obsessed, I don’t know if he is, but I get that feeling. And then he says sassy things in interviews, so he’s entertaining in that way too.
“I think he’s always one to watch in a certain way, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he hits all the right notes.”