Rank Your Records: Spiral Stairs Happily Rates Pavement’s Five LPs
Scott Kannberg a.k.a. Spiral Stairs looks back at the indie rock band's revered but hit-free catalog.
In Rank Your Records , we talk to artists who have amassed substantial discographies over the years and ask them to rate their releases in order of personal preference.
Pavement broke up in 1999. Or maybe it was 2000. It really depends on which member you ask. But perhaps more than any band of their generation, the dissolution of Pavement was the hardest to accept. Maybe it's because there was no real finality. If they ever really announced it, the official statement was fuzzy and ambiguous. And then, of course, they reunited in 2010 to play a number of shows throughout the year. For the time being, though, Pavement is not a band, though that never really stops us from remembering the good old days from when they still were together. Ahh, the 1990s, you were so good!
But I digress. Not being in Pavement anymore, however, hasn't stopped the band's two main songwriters from continuing to release music. Stephen Malkmus has his band the Jicks, while Scott Kannberg, a.k.a. Spiral Stairs, had Preston School of Industry before deciding to become a solo artist under his nickname. Neither is a particularly prolific songwriter, but it's been eight years since the last Spiral Stairs album, The Real Feel, which is a ridiculous gap.
"Basically, the Pavement reunion happened and overshadowed my last record," Kannberg explains. "I didn't really get to tour much at all for it because the Pavement thing took almost a year out of everybody's life. And then after that my wife and I moved from Seattle to Australia, got pregnant, and just lived on an acre of land in the country. We just raised the kid and all of a sudden it had been three years. I had all of my stuff there and I was just busy doing other stuff. It wasn't until we moved back to the States and LA that I started getting the itch again. It may have been because I was around more musicians in LA, maybe they were egging me on. So really, life got in the way."
His second album as Spiral Stairs, Doris and the Daggers, may have suffered from raising his family in different countries, but Kannberg also experienced a great loss when his long-time drummer Darius Minwalla passed away. "The album would have been finished a lot earlier had it not been for my drummer dying, which added another six months on to everything. It took its time, but I'm happy I went through all of that and it turned out the way it did."
Given the time he had to spend on writing Doris and the Daggers, Kannberg found himself absorbing new influences and trying out some new sounds. One band, in particular, played a big role. "Roxy Music have definitely become a big influence on me over the last ten years, to the point where I've become obsessed with them," he says. "I even named my daughter Roxy. So I've always wanted to write a Roxy Music kind of song and I think so because I was working with Kelley Stoltz and he got out his saxophone and started playing it. So I went from there."
Spiral Stairs is still building his own discography, so we thought: why not get one of the members of one of the greatest indie rock bands of all time to rank one of the greatest discographies ever released. He obliged.
5. Wowee Zowee (1995)
Scott Kannberg: It's not that I don't like it. Every record I sequenced, but this was the one record where Steve [Malkmus] had all of these other songs he wanted to put on there, which I considered B-sides. So I said we would do it his way, and that's why the record is the record and all of its B-sides. We recorded it at Easley Studios in Memphis, and kind of had ten songs that were basically the record, but we also had these other songs that were recorded all over the place. I know it's the favorite of a lot of ours fans, because it's so all over the place, but for me it's not as cohesive as the others.
I read that you had a shorter, "classic rock" version. Is that the ten-song version you're referring to?
Yes. Because we did Slanted & Enchanted, and then Crooked Rain, so for Wowee Zowee I wanted to have another cohesive set of songs that would flow together, like side one and side two. But Wowee Zowee has a side three. [Laughs]
In the book, Perfect Sound Forever, the author Rob Jovanovic called Wowee Zowee the "right album at the wrong time." Do you agree with that?
Yeah, that's so true. If you look at us as a band, it's the perfect Pavement album. That's kind of how we were if you ever saw us live. We were all over the place. And it came at a time when indie rock was at its peak. You've got your Weezers and your Smashing Pumpkins that had hits. But Pavement? Well… We didn't have a hit from that record.
Beavis and Butt-head critiqued the first single "Rattled By The Rush" on their show. They said that the song was "just horrible" and that you are so lazy you probably take dumps in the tub. Did you guys ever see that episode?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's true! It's a weird song to come after the Crooked Rain songs. I think it threw some people for a loop.
4. Brighten the Corners (1997)
I think the songs on it are great, but it just has this feeling like it's our R.E.M. record. With an R.E.M. record the songs flow a certain way, there are ups and downs, they're all in the same key. I still listen to it, but it just had that feeling. I don't know which R.E.M. record I'd compare it to. Probably the first four or five records.
I always considered this the most accessible Pavement record. A lot of it has to do with the wordplay on songs like "Stereo," "Shady Lane" and "Blue Hawaiian." I like how Alex Ross in the New Yorker described it: "uncharacteristically crisp." Do you think it was a reaction to Wowee Zowee at all?
No. We made it with Mitch Easter in North Carolina, and it was kinda the first record that we made as a full band. The songs on the earlier records were more put together. I don't know. It is crisp, but it just has that feeling to me where it's a really good record, but the first two records are really better.
Your two songs, "Date w/ IKEA" and "Passat Dream," are standouts on this album for me. Were you writing more in this period?
Not necessarily. In Pavement I always wrote a few songs and that was it. I was happy with that and with Steve being the main songwriter. I kinda just considered myself as more of an editor and I'd put in melodies here and there. I wasn't there to compete with Steve at all. The couple of songs I wrote were usually good enough to put on a record. I was probably intimated and lazy as well.
Is it true most of the songs are first takes?
On that record, yeah, probably. We were really comfortable as a band at that time. It was a fun record to make. Definitely more enjoyable than Terror Twilight for me.
I remember Blur released their self-titled album at the same time as Brighten the Corners, and they were citing Pavement as an influence. Was there an affinity there between the two bands?
No… I'm sure the guitar player [Graham Coxon] was a fan. And we had met Damon [Albarn] a few times and he seemed pretty cool. I don't know. They were in a completely different world from us. We came from the independent music scene and they were in the Britpop world. I remember seeing them in England after their first album came out. It was also a very different scene than what we were used to.
Have you ever met Geddy Lee?
Oh, I wish. That would be cool.
3. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
This is another favorite of everybody's. Definitely, for us, it was the big one. I guess it was a breakthrough because it took Pavement to a lot of places. Besides Slanted I'd say this is the Pavement sound. It's got the hooks and the freak-out guitars and "Range Life." They're all pretty classic songs. We worked really hard that year and played a lot of shows, which was a fun time. Making the record was a little crazy. We originally tried to do it at Gary Young's place, but he kind of had a meltdown and his studio wasn't ready. We ended up firing him and then going to record in New York. So we spent a month there and recorded at some guy's apartment that he turned into not even really a studio. It's not the classic way of making a record, that's for sure.
Was anything you did with Gary on the record?
No. On the reissue there are a bunch of songs that Gary tried to play on that we released.
So was this the first album to feature Mark Ibold, Steve West and Bob Nastanovich?
Yes. They all were around when we did Watery Domestic, and even played on some of it. But Pavement the band was first on Crooked Rain.
You called this " less of an English post-punk kind of sound, more of a classic-rock California sound." Do you remember what caused that? You guys made it in New York.
I think I was referencing the difference between Slanted and Crooked Rain. Slanted felt more like an English post-punk record to me, whereas Crooked Rain has the elements of the Eagles, Doobie Brothers, Gram Parsons, those kinds of bands. It's weird that it had such a California sound but was recorded in New York. You're right.
"Cut Your Hair" was your biggest hit. Did you ever expect it to catch on the way it did?
No, we never expected anything to happen. But it was happening at a time when things like that were slipping through. It didn't last very long though, because major labels were squashing that pretty quick. But yeah, it slipped through there for a year or so, thanks to Nirvana, I guess, opening the doors. We didn't have any idea it would do that. We did get a lot more people out to come see us, so I'm definitely happy that it happened.
Warner was the distributor. Did the song's success have anything to do with that? Like putting it through the radio promotion machine?
I guess that's how it happened. I guess one of those guys with the ponytails started paying attention. It was a time when people like that were wondering what was going on. They were still fighting for the easy days, like it was with classic rock and hair metal because all of a sudden Nirvana changed that, and then all of these quirky indie bands were being shoved down their throats. They must have had a midlife crisis earlier than they expected.
"Range Life" famously has a poke at STP and Smashing Pumpkins. Billy Corgan seems to hold a grudge against you guys because of that song. Is it true that he threatened to quit Lollapalooza in 1994 if you guys weren't kicked off the tour?
That's what we heard from our agent, that we were asked to play and then we were dis-asked, because Billy wasn't going to play if we were. It's good, because the next year was awesome with Sonic Youth and everybody. I don't know about Malkmus, because he had a few issues at times, but I think it was more because we played to nobody. There would be a bunch of people for Beck and Sinead O'Connor, before she left the tour, and then everybody would go off and have lunch or dinner, and then they would come back for Cypress Hill. So we kind of had the freedom to just be Pavement. But it was great because we had two vans and we only had to play three shows a week, so it was like a vacation for us. All of the other bands had big buses and were more pro, but us and the Jesus Lizard were the only bands with vans on that tour. Everybody else had buses. But it was a good vibe. All of the bands were cool… except for Courtney [Love]. At least she was entertaining. It made us a lot of money though, so at least one good thing came out of Wowee Zowee.
This album was released in 1994, which is when Weezer released their debut. I couldn't help but notice you throw shade at the band on Twitter . What was that about?
Back then, you'd see them on MTV or whatever and people would always say they were trying to be an indie band or like Pavement, but it didn't really bother me at the time. I think it bothered me more as time has gone on. I don't know. There's just something about them that I can see through. That tweet was more of a joke because a lot of people were making memes that day with Obamacare versus Trumpcare. It was more in reference to that than anything else. We're not jealous of Weezer or anything.
2. Terror Twilight (1999)
There will probably be a lot of people surprised that I have this at number two and not number five. [Laughs] But I love it. It's a great record. It was a very hard record to make for us. We tried to make it two previous times in different studios with different people. Then we got Nigel [Godrich] in to help out and it took on something different. We had basically produced all of our records before that, and getting him to come in and take charge was good for the band. His sound tried to fit in with our sound and I think it worked out really well. The songs are our greatest songs in the Pavement catalog, but it's definitely a different Pavement record. It's a Pavement record that is definitely looking more forward than anything else. I think it was the right record to make at the time. There is still a lot about that record I enjoy hearing. Like, I think "Spit On A Stranger" and "Carrot Rope" are some of Steve's greatest pop songs. I wish we could've written more songs like that. It was hard to get him to put those songs on the record in the first place. I think he likes writing pop songs but I don't think he likes putting them out. [Laughs]
He's been quite harsh with this record. He once called it "the accidental child of the Pavement catalog."
Well, I used to always joke that it was our All Shook Down, because it was kinda like he wrote all of the songs before we got together to record. With the previous records we'd get together and practice the songs and I'd add my songs. With this one, I think Steve wanted it to be all of his songs, which was fine with me. But it was kinda weird. So I would always joke that it was like All Shook Down, almost like a Malkmus solo record. Even though we all played on it and made great contributions, I sometimes like to think of it that way.
He recently made comments about Nigel Godrich's production, and that he made it sound like "a real classic rock, overproduced, $100,000 record." What do you make of those comments?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. It did cost a lot of money to make, but that was our own fault, not Nigel's fault. I think in the end it's a great Pavement record. I think Steve is probably still proud of it. It was just a really hard record to make and in the end we broke up because of it.
Did it ever feel like this might be the final Pavement album while you were making it?
Not necessarily. Every Pavement record felt like the last Pavement record. We would make a record, go on tour, and then never see each other for nine months. That's how Pavement worked. And that's how Terror Twilight worked. Steve said he didn't want to do it anymore, and then everyone thought after nine months we'd get a call saying, "Here we go again!"
1. Slanted and Enchanted (1992)
To me, this is how Pavement started. It was me, Steve, and Gary making these simple songs that reflected our love of the music we were listening to—the Fall, My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur—non-stop for three or four years. It's also this very beautiful first stab at recording and album. We did it in a few days and everything just seemed to work out. Of course we didn't know what the reaction would be. We just had fun doing it. We did it all on tape and when we mixed we all had to be in the room pushing buttons at the same time.
I think I read that Gary's tape recorder was in his laundry room. And he'd press record and then run to his drum kit and start playing?
Yeah, that's what happened. It was done in his old house in Stockton, and the tracking room was in his garage. We could only record during the day because there was a woman across the street who had cancer and she didn't want any noise after three o'clock. So we'd have to record in the morning 'til the early afternoon. But it's a great record because of that. It's a Stockton record, that's where we were from. I know Steve was living in New York on and off at the time, but we made it in Stockton. So yeah, it's my favorite. The first singles were all about the aesthetic and the sound, and Slanted & Enchanted was the last bit of that. After Gary left we went on to be a bit more R.E.M. and the Replacements.
I read that Stephen wanted to drop "Summer Babe" but you made the executive decision to keep it?
Really? Well, maybe. [Laughs] How could we drop that? Like I said, he couldn't deal with releasing a good pop song!
You mentioned that the Fall was an influence. Mark E. Smith said Slanted was "just The Fall in 1985, isn't it? They haven't got an original idea in their heads." How did you feel about that shade?
Yeah… it's true! We didn't have any original ideas. They were all coming from our record collection. That's all we were doing. We were just a little more obvious about it.
Speaking of your record collections, was there ever any legal action threatened by Ferrante & Teicher over the album cover?
No, I don't think so. But that would've been funny.
It's such a weird album to lift a cover from!
That was Steve! He would spend all day as a security guard at the Whitney and probably saw something similar and thought it would be cool.
Did you ever hear about the episode of Dawson's Creek where someone used this album title as parting words: " It's been thoroughly, uh... slanted and enchanted."
Oh boy. [Laughs] I never heard that, but some friends of mine in Austin during South By Southwest said they started a company that is for adopting plants that's called Planted & Enchanted. I can't get away from it!
Cam Lindsay is on Twitter.