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Stephen Malkmus Is In Control

Despite his status as an indie-rock paragon, based on more than a decade fronting Pavement, Stephen Malkmus has often dodged interviews. For years known for his reticence about speaking to the press, Malkmus has an aloof persona. He's pedantic — rumored to be one of rock's brightest — and said to be occasionally off-putting.

But speaking from his home in Portland, Ore. last week, Malkmus could not have been more affable, down-to-earth, and even, at times, somewhat nonplussed. He talked about his band the Jicks, their second album, the angular Pig Lib, and his excitement about the group's gig opening for Radiohead during a leg of the British band's summer tour.

It takes a moment to adjust to Malkmus' manner of speaking. He has a deliberate, almost lethargic way of colliding his words, creating enjambment in casual conversation, his thoughts strung together by unconscious "you knows" or frequent "likes." It is difficult to tell if Malkmus is being glib, or maybe ironic — or if he's really serious.

When asked if he enjoys his role as bandleader, Malkmus simply responded, "Yeah, it's fine." After pausing briefly, he continued, "It's probably better, really. It depends on what you want," he added, laughing slightly.

"You're in more control... but you have more responsibility for other people asking you 'What are we going to do?' 'When are we going on tour?' Most of the information comes to you first, beyond just writing songs and stuff. That can be a little bit annoying, or something. But then again, do you want to be the person that is waiting on somebody else always to tell you what might be happening? I mean, that can be annoying too, right?" Malkmus ended his rhetorical question with another snicker.

For Pig Lib, Malkmus put an emphasis on his guitar playing. Songs such as "1% of One" and "Water and a Seat" focus more on Malkmus' guitar and allow the band to flesh out its sound with spirals of squiggly art-rock inspired noise. He called the band's experiments with jamming and its more guitar-based sounds a deliberate choice. ""That was conscious on that record, I think," he said.

"Lately on the record and playing live I've been doing more solos," he continued. "I know people like my voice and how I sing, and in the end that's the thing that is probably the most important in music in general and probably in our music. Although there's some people like Hendrix, or something, where the guitar's more important maybe. I think I can express myself better with the guitar. I feel happier with it, so I think I tend to — it's just more emotional for me. Singing's good too, but I feel more limited with singing to certain areas."

Aside from growing musically, Malkmus said, the band he formed in 2000 after ending Pavement — drummer John Moen and bassist Joanna Bolme — has also become a cohesive unit. At a recent Chicago show, Malkmus allowed drummer Moen to handle lead vocals on one song. In addition to the musical synergy, the band maintained a loose dynamic, joking with each other onstage.

"With John, I think he's learning to be more loose," Malkmus said about the changes and increased interactions with his bandmates. "When you go to play with people you've got all these preconceptions of what they were like before they were with you. What songs they played before. What other people told them to do. What they naturally do. He's probably just finding out what I like, or what my groove is, and how he wants to make it his groove.

"The rest is just the bass player, Joanna. She's more opinionated and is willing to just say something... critical or enthusiastically. At the start she probably would have been unconfident, understandably."

Now on a break after nearly two months of touring North America in April and May, Malkmus said he's enjoying being home in Portland, a city with a rich and vibrant music scene. He said that sometimes he checks out local bands or hangs with other Portland-based musicians, including the members of Sleater-Kinney.

"I know [Sleater-Kinney's] drummer... Janet Weiss, and she's just really social and friendly," Malkmus said. "She's like at this trivia night thing that's every Tuesday night and I see her. Actually the whole band goes. It's kind of geeky. They go to trivia and then they eat gelato in the break. That's like a Sleater-Kinney night out together."

As for local bands, he's got his favorites. "There's like a million [young] bands here... I saw this band with our guitar tech, Gail, called Wet Confetti, and I thought they were kind of good. They're young. Their name's kinda bad," he said laughing.

"There are these guys from Chicago called the Planet The that I like too. They lived here for like eight years, but they're from Chicago originally. I like them, and there's, you know, this band called Glass Candy and the Shattered Theater... They're a little bigger. Maybe they're going to be a phenomenon. They're kind of No Wavey, dress-up, and the girl's pretty in the band. They're kind of theatrical. But I like them."

Malkmus and the Jicks will hit the road again this summer with Radiohead, a band he really respects. Thom Yorke and crew will mount what is probably the summer's most anticipated tour; Malkmus and his band will open on the first leg, which begins August 13 in Boston and runs through a Seattle show on August 31 (a second leg with opening act Supergrass will commence in San Francisco on Sept. 23).

"We're psyched because I really like [Radiohead]," he said. "There's very few new records that I actually like to play in my house. There's a lot of bands I like, but I don't really even like to play them more than once. I like to play some of [Radiohead's] records like 20 times and stuff [laughs], which is pretty awesome, so I'm excited.

"They've got a lot of hype," he said. "It's amazing for how weird their music is and how, like, un-photogenic they are, God bless them. People love them. It's so cool. They really want something that means something. It all comes down to his voice in the end. People just completely melt and empathize with his singing. And it is great singing. Yeah, I think I'm excited because I really think they're a good band, too."

After thinking for a second, Malkmus laughed, deciding "Maybe that's why people go see them — because they're good." — Brian Orloff [Wednesday, June 18, 2003]

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