Stephen Malkmus Isn't Horsing Around Anymore

On 'Sparkle Hard,' the Jicks frontman takes modern life in stride. We talk to indie's Founding Father about the new album, short attention spans, and his budding romance with Auto-Tune.

May 18 2018, 1:00pm

Stephen Malkmus talks the way his music sounds—arch and affable, with an elliptical, stream-of-consciousness candor cut with bits of wisdom and incisive observations. When reached by phone at his Portland home, for example, a simple “How are you? What’ve you been up to lately?” elicits a response that takes us from an inconvenient asbestos contamination, to ziplining with his family in Hawaii, to a different story about asbestos, to a Russian parable about absurdity, to short attention spans in the age of the internet. Like the idiosyncratic meanderings of his songs, together it all somehow makes sense—a takeaway greater than the sum of its parts.

“Everyone's writing stories, or very short stories, like three sentences. I guess songs are kind of that way too,” says the Jicks frontman, with the boyish chuckle that often punctuates his observations. “Maybe it is sort of more ubiquitous, the idea of shorter narratives in everyone's life.”

For someone with as long a narrative in the music world as Malkmus, who rose to become indie rock’s lackadaisical boy genius with Pavement three decades ago, the flux and distraction of modern life seems to suit him just fine. At 51, he’s a keen Twitter user and budding disciple of Auto-Tune; he’s less anxious and disgruntled about life in 2018 than, as he puts it, “confused and curious.”

“I've seen people from my generation, or especially older than me, closed down to new ideas, or just the way the world is today, like really set in their belief system, and I don't feel that way,” Malkmus says. “I would love it if there was an inroad into something that wasn't about generations or genres, if that appeal wasn't about that, but it's hard to say. You just want people to hear it, really. Everybody, anybody.”

That unphased MO is arguably what’s kept him from becoming an indie rock anachronism, or an aging elder statesman. Quite the opposite, he’s remained one of the most consistent musicians working today, delivering muscular melodies and loose precocity to the acclaim of every project he touches—from Pavement to the Silver Jews to the Jicks—with nary a break between outputs. It’s also kept him, in the most platonic sense of the word, one of the coolest.

That’s why his latest record with the Jicks, Sparkle Hard—out today via Matador—feels like more of Malkmus at his best. The album is built on the kind of melodic cacophony that gave Pavement its sense of urgency and independence out the gate, but also ventures into new sonic territory for both the Jicks and Malkmus, ranging from country twangs and gauzy orchestral ballads (“Solid Silk,” “Refute,”) to Autotune, Mellotron (“Rattler,” “Shiggy”), and a guest spot from Kim Gordon.

As a songwriter, Malkmus has made a speciality of snapshotting the ephemeral in both feel and storytelling. On Sparkle Hard, he casts off much of the obtuseness and cultural in-jokes in which that’s usually couched for more overt social critique and observation. Tracks like the motorik, thumping “Bike Lane” hone in on political dysphoria and ideological bubbles, contrasting gentrified laments of “another beautiful bike line” with the death of Freddie Gray: “The cops, the cops that killed Freddie / Sweet young Freddie Gray / They got behind him with their truncheons / And choked the life right out of him / His life expectancy was max. 25.”

“There's no goal other than like what I hear, from me and from other people. Like what can we, The Jicks, bring to the game now? What's it like to be, what is the music for, you know?” he says. “There's one full narrative, that’s just like, catchy songs, and then there’s the things that get in your head, hopefully not in a nemetic way, but just to make you think and that have value to you, the listener.”

Noisey: You've been in this game for almost 30 years now. Personally and professionally, who are you making music for now? Is reaching new audiences, or younger audiences, a factor for you? Or is that not really something you consciously think of?
Stephen Malkmus: It'd be great, obviously, if it could happen. But also you have to be realistic. I think it would be great if Millennials and a little bit before could like it. But I know that it's not realistic sometimes. It's things that I'm interested in too, so I don't really try to do something just to show that. You will see through it pretty fast when people are writing stuff that's trying to appeal to people that aren't like you, or things that you wouldn't like or don't understand. If you're trying to do that, it's going to come through as false.

You take on some social commentary on the album. It even gets political at times. Are there are certain audiences that its stories are directed at?
You just want people to hear it, really. Everybody, anybody. And that's not a problem anymore because it's on the internet right away. Everyone can hear it without even paying. But the context is...I don't know, you know, what's the context? It's hard for me. I don't know exactly who I want to reach, except enough people, a lot of people that like this kind of music, I want them to hear it. And if we can also have a decent tour and stuff and be cool in our own way, not just like, “we're hip,” or something, but just somewhat relevant. I think most people want that, right?

Right. The album pulls from a lot of different styles, some of which are newer for you, like Auto-tune. It sounds like even more of a Malkmus record for it. Can you talk a little about some of those choices and the evolution that happened with this record?
I think there's an urge sometimes to really want to like, fuck shit up and like throw everything in a blender and have all these genres just jumping out. And to me, that could be good. There's no prescription that says a bunch of different flavors might come up with something good, you know? Maybe if you're really on your cooking game or whatever. But for me, I try to not completely overdo, like put a disco song on there, or an electronic song. I wanted to keep it in a certain cohesive vibe. But within that framework, just find stuff that works, or feels like it's not forced. So I did a lot of different demos and I reached all around within these songs in different ways at different tempos and keys. I took some time to find the best versions I thought within reason without going on forever.

I’ve also been buying plugins, there's this plugin mania. You can download crazy sounds for like $99, and go totally apeshit on it, and I have no knowledge about these things. I don't listen to a song and say like, “I want it to be just like that song.” I have a little bit of a left-field approach when it comes to sampling or Auto-Tune that's kind of just fucking with it, you know? Fucking around, experimenting. I don't have an expert I could hire to get things right away. So hopefully that makes it come out organic and a certain way.

That's how a lot of music is being made these days, people just figuring it out as they go along, self-taught, messing around with sounds without context.
Yeah, like Youtube videos and stuff. Yeah, me too. It's exciting. It's fun. Basically you get to hear the fun—I mean, fun is a silly concept, and it's probably not what you want to hear in a review or something like that, "It really sounded like they were having fun!" But I don't know, enjoy!

“Rattler” feels like a good example. The way you use Auto-Tune on it adds a lot to the efficacy and grit of that song. Which is interesting because most people's exposure to Auto-Tune is a certain kind of pop, so you don't understand platonically really what can be done with it.
It's true. It totally works on that song. I made that song up on as a piano song. It was a little like a Radiohead Kid A—style song, like keyboards only and electronic drums, but it didn't have singing. Then I built a guitar version of it that’s what it is now. We wanted a rock song, like a bigger, slightly more in-your-face song, on the record. I was singing it at my house, and was like, yeah, why don't I fuck with my brand new Nectar Auto-Tune and see how it works.

I was really psyched because not only did it have a kind of mechanical or digital effect, which—the song is about wanting to be seen in the internet age, or the frustration, or the fool's gambit of that, which a lot of people talk about, but in more basic human terms. So it was kind of a disembodied voice, and then also some of the notes [Auto-Tune] picked were different than I sang, which I liked, too. Like, oh, I wouldn't have thought of that, but it's just like one note up. It's cool. There's more to be done with it in my mind.

This album feels a little less droll and a little more worldly, in sound and scope, than what we’ve heard from you before. How did it come together when you started writing it—what factored into how it took shape?
I had all those demos that I was putting aside for a record. I was doing some other music things, like the incidental music for this TV show called Flake, and then I also was doing this electronic thing that might come out. So I got new ProTools gear and a bunch of new toys and I set it up in my basement until I—sorry, I'm brushing my teeth—I was focusing more on using that stuff, on microphones and shit.

What was influencing me besides that, more like the meta lyric stuff and the tone, was I just wanted to not be as silly as I have. I was cutting out some of my silly lines and references to pop culture and stuff, except for like, Egon Shiele, I mentioned him. But I tried to not use as many a temporal references. Keep it more about feelings and emotions and that kind of thing.

Why did you opt to do that instead?
I thought it would a be more powerful and less noisy, and more, I don't want to say relatable—I hate that word now—but more of a connection, more things that people would see themselves in a little bit. I don't know if it comes across, but I wasn't going to also just say, like, "I'm sad. My boyfriend or girlfriend left me,” or something. Everyone relates to that. So more what’s underneath. That was my goal in the songs that I pick.

What made you feel like you wanted to do that now?
Nothing, except that I wanted it to be good, and I want people to like it and it to be interesting, you know? There's no goal other than like what I hear, from me and from other people. Like what can we, The Jicks, bring to the game now? What's it like to be, what is the music for, you know? The compulsion to create and make stuff, that's probably there beyond just wanting to be liked and to be cool or make something good. I don't really know where it comes from. I think half of it is to have a purpose and be doing something that other people like, and like you because of it. But then there's also another half of it.

Like connecting to some kind of community? About feeling seen?
Yeah, but I think sometimes it's more selfish than that. I mean rap doesn't necessarily aspire to community, does it? You're saying like, yeah, look at me, I'm a fucking bad-ass. You know, respect me. That’s a lot of music. Music is that, often. And some of it is, like you say, a community where we're there’s this baseline hum that we all want to be part of. And to be able to deliver that, that feels great. If you can hone in on that and make that happen and it feels good, it's not an ego thing. It's just a rewarding thing. So that’s more like community, but also a lot of it is for you, like, "I did this! Look, it's good!" You know, we did this, the band.

What was your experience taking on some of the headier subjects on this album? There's an appetite for it in 2018, but on the other hand, in music it seems like anything that's too overtly political or on the nose makes people kind of shrink.
I guess it's just liking art that leaves space for you to insert yourself into it and make your own picture out of it. You're being directed a certain direction and a vibe, but then there's hopefully some mystery there. It's not overbearingly telling you what to do. No one wants that. It’s welcoming but not judging. The whole thing is, it’s my judgements in there, but it's nice when people can argue or talk about things and not get hurt feelings when someone disagrees with them. When things are shrill, or people get in discussions and they get salty, you should be able to talk about it. Someone should be able to say, "I don't like your record because of this," and I should be OK with that. Or I should be like, "Well I like it because of this." Or “That's OK. We can talk about that.” I guess that's a side track. I was listening to my friends, these guys do their basketball podcast, and they were disagreeing with each other on virtually everything. And yet nobody was getting pissed off. It was low stakes, I guess, because it was about basketball, but still I thought, Oh, we could use more of that, where discussions are civilized, or are not taking it personally.

Were there any songs in particular that made you reckon with that while working on this? “Middle America” feels like a good example.
Yeah, that song has a lot of tangent one liners, Bob Dylan-style zingers, and then I thought, it's definitely more lyric—the melodies are good and stuff, but it's a song that needs good lyrics. Some songs can get away with not good lyrics cause of what they are, you know? So there’s a lot of good one liners in it, it jumps around in my classic style of lyric. It's funny, hurt-funny, a little bit.

But it feels personal to me. Like the singer is singing about his own experience, which not all the songs do. A lot of them are less observational. More first person. For me.

Andrea Domanick is also confused and curious. Follow her on Twitter.