Besides, rock music is centered around playing concerts and selling beer anyway. Fugazi might disagree, but that’s how it’s been for me.
story by Jacob S. Knabb
photo by Roger Kisby
On his first solo effort, Stephen Malkmus seemed re-invigorated, having shed the stifling melancholy of the last two Pavement albums for a throwback sound drenched in keyboard and odd juxtaposition (penny whistle and marimbas, for example). It was hailed as a departure and met with lukewarm praise from the indie world. His next effort, Pig Lib, was divisive to the point of polarizing his audience entirely. Some hailed its stoner rock largesse as a success, while others cringed so violently the record skipped. Far removed from the Lollapalooza days when Pavement’s sound fit in so well at all those outdoor amphitheatres, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks were slogging along, playing for half filled dives.
Yet, Malkmus didn’t quit. Instead, he went downstairs to his computer to record his new album Face The Truth, with only a small minority of the tracks even featuring the Jicks. For Malkmus, the title has the feel of “a flat declaration that demand[s] something. It’s a tough, Royal Trux-style move.” Before trying out much of his new material on an audience, there would always come the time before the show when he had to figure out what to play. “I had written the set-lists when we were playing new songs, and for all the untitled songs, I wrote, ‘Face the Truth.’ And it stuck. When I titled the record, I knew it had to be called Face The Truth.”
But he wasn’t sure what that phrase meant exactly, or how it would translate to an album. Part of what facing the truth entailed was facing up to the past, both literally and sonically. “The past is there in terms of the common tools of the music and the triggers that make me go back to old stuff. It’s not Beck – some kind of cultural stew. But some of the weird elements I find on old records that click with me I throw into the mix. I always will reference other stuff, but it has to flow.”
Over the years Malkmus had accumulated a lot of recording equipment, and he felt it was high time to put it to use. And so, with all those dated vinyl moments clicking in his mind, as well as the years spent satisfying the needs of a full band and producer in a studio environment, Stephen Malkmus went downstairs to his computer, set up a mic and tried to “catch something private, something weird.”
But recording by himself with only his guitar wasn’t as easy as it might seem. Malkmus found he was “fighting against the singer songwriter style, the sort of masturbatory solo thing. I’ve never felt comfortable with that.” He’d often found his earlier mixes to be quite compelling, even dating all the way back to some of the Pavement stuff. And so, rather than going insular and stripping things down to his concerns and his strumming, he built up each song layer by layer, until the end result was like a rough cut in widescreen. “Some of the vocals are more attitude based. But the louder stuff is more energy based: set up a mic and double it. I wanted something that was kind of ropier on the third verse.”
Malkmus is good at making shit up on the spot, “but only for the songs that aren’t very meaningful. I can be kind of good at that. I get some cheesy rhymes.” For the most part it was simply a matter of focusing on what truly interested him and forgetting all the rest of it. “I always liked what Edward Said had to say about novelists during their later periods. He enjoys how they hone in on what they’re really interested in and they don’t worry if they’re doing all the rest of it perfectly. I feel like this is my later work, so I wanted to focus on the things that interested me most, and forget all the rest.” And essentially what that came down to was even if he “didn’t have much to say, [he was] still fascinated by playing guitar in a rock band. It’s natural to do it.” He wouldn’t know what else to do with himself.
While Stephen Malkmus has always been viewed as literate and hyperaware of his own milieu and the theoretical underpinnings of experience, for him, the act of creating music is “not so much about postmodern thought. More often I’m just physically rocking out, finding things that are fun to play. It isn’t so theoretical to want to rock.” This is not to say that his new album owes a great debt to White Snake. The mind of the artist is still present. “I don’t just do stuff because it just comes out of me. I’m looking for records from a particular era or style that affect me. It seems to me to be more based on personal taste. What’s within my grasp, what’s in good taste. I like rock bands more than really theoretical music.”
More than anything else, Face The Truth is precisely this: a rock record. It sounds good when you turn it up really loud. And it’s tempered just enough by the sad songs and ballads to make it okay when a calypso beat finds its way into the mix. But, given the postmodern genre snatching inevitable in such an approach, Malkmus doesn’t view it all as some kind of ironic put-on, geared towards fucking people over and maximizing his profits.
A longstanding knock on his music is that he’s never eschewed the ironic stance and faced up to any kind of honest emotional expression. Or that even when he seems to be opening himself up to a vulnerable and risky expression, it’s all couched in found sounds and recycled melodies. But for Malkmus, this is far from the truth. “You won’t get far with that attitude. For the people who curate the art, for an artist, the act of creation isn’t just taking a piss. We’re trying to express something honestly. Even the Pet Shop Boys must have liked what they were doing. I’m sure they listen to the music on their headphones and feel good about it.”
And so, rather than drawing emotion from his sources, he’s layering meaning upon meaning until the emotive trigger is so tied up in the catharsis conveyed by each song that the two are inextricable. Still, he’s aware that his approach can leave some critics questioning his authenticity. After all, if the foundation for a song was dredged up from an out of print 10-inch circa 1974, then how real can it be?
“In art there’s an empirical thought that it has to be true, from real experience, and that makes the art better somehow. I never really worried so much about whether the singer actually experienced any of it. I just want to be transported somewhere. Besides, rock music is centered around playing concerts and selling beer anyway. Fugazi might disagree. But that’s how it’s been for me.”
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks :: with Paik and The Changes :: Metro :: June 11.