Back in the halcyon days of the CD walkman, Stephen Malkmus was saddled with a reputation crystallized in that moment when Beavis & Butthead yelled at his former band Pavement to "try harder" during the video for "Rattled By The Rush." The beloved band never quite broke through into the mainstream after that, which seemed to suit them fine: Malkmus was the ironic, seemingly-detached ringleader, the crown prince of the slackers. He and his music were deemed impenetrable, which only made both more appealing to a subset of music lovers.

But Malkmus never quite saw it that way. In his mind, he was always trying hard, whether he was painfully stitching together the tracklist for Wowee Zowee or butting heads with superstar producer Nigel Godrich on Terror Twilight. It's all right there in the frenetic chorus of early classic "Conduit For Sale!", in which Malkmus literally screamed "I'm tryin" 25 times. No wonder he felt so misunderstood.

Since those early, The Fall-inspired days, his music has evolved from mysterious lo-fi sketches to sunshine-drenched West Coast vibes to blue incandescent guitar heroics and back around to focused pop craftsmanship. Somewhere along the line, that aloof guy who could kick your ass at Scrabble started letting his guard down. Now, for the first time in his career, Malkmus seems approachable. And he has a good sense of humor about his reputation.

"I definitely am not guarded," he told Gothamist during an early morning cross-country chat on the eve of the release of his latest album with The Jicks, Sparkle Hard. "I've been reading some of my interviews, and I don't sound very guarded, that's for sure. You can call me a unique personality, but hopefully that's refreshing."

Malkmus is also someone who is plugged into the here and now—he's an avid Twitter user, a fantasy basketball fiend, and a father of two daughters with very strong opinions on modern pop music. Before our interview started, we chatted about the accusations against R Kelly, how to play multiple YouTube videos at once, and the sexism in the music industry.

"Mutt Lange married Shania Twain," he brought up as we discussed the power imbalances that occur in recording studio environments. "Was it true love or was he the great producer who abused her? I don't know...When we subconsciously are looking for a mate, we see certain attributes. Maybe brilliant engineer who can really make my voice sound good is more important than good provider, good DNA."

Malkmus and The Jicks come to NYC for two sold-out shows at Music Hall Of Williamsburg on June 14th and 15th (they're also playing Philly on Saturday June 16th, and tickets are still available).

During our conversation, we maneuvered through a dozen or so topics. He revealed some glimpses into his songwriting process, making references to the likes of Richard Prince, Public Enemy, Coco Chanel, and Nicholas Taleb along the way. We discussed the mysterious allure of the Rolling Stones, shaving cream, a lost Jicks classic, the mysterious solo album he's completed, bitter PhD poetry students, and the possibility of a new Silver Jews record. It was a little rambly, a little funny, and filled with the casual witticisms and accidental bon mots that are his trademark.

My impression is that since the Real Emotional Trash-era, you've made a conscious effort to streamline your songwriting a little bit. Now that it's out in the universe, I was wondering how you think Sparkle Hard differs from Wig Out At Jagbags and your other solo albums. I'm noticing a narrative in some of the recent reviews that's like, "doesn't change much!" And it's like, "if you like it, if you liked what they did before, it's like that, but just a little different," or something. And that's frustrating. But I want to argue that it's different somehow, of course, because that reads better to me. It's like, "Oh, he's reached some fundamental new understandings of what the songs should be like, and it's reflected here with great brilliance."

When you're in a ballpark of guitar-based songs by the same people—almost the same people—how do you make that happen? I just want it to feel a little different. The overall vibe of it is supposed to be a little...I don't want to say better or less higher stakes or something. [Laughs] But that would be the goal, that this is more "no bullshit," or maybe "less bullshit."

Sometimes, I think some of the signals that we play, or that I play, are obscure or idiosyncratic to a point that they are lost. Some people are just like, "I'm out." Cause it's just like, [sings funny guitar line]. It's not like I'm trying to crush the uniqueness of what we've done before, but I also wanted to—sonically and lyric-wise and with the chord progressions—to get the signal through clearer to more people.

So I guess I tried to make it a little more...popular, I guess, [which] is a relative term. And when you have something that's unique, you think, how can you just get that through and have people be like, "Oh, I understand this, why it's a little weird but good." [Laughs] So those are the songs I picked, and those were some of my efforts in simplifying a tiny bit. Like you were saying, it's less busy drums or the melody is in the middle. I'm kind of rambling, it's early in the morning.

One of the things that stands out to me is that the texture of the album has a lot of different colors. There's a little splash of autotune in "Rattler" and "Brethren," there are those gorgeous strings on "Solid Silk," the fiddle on "Refute" along with Kim Gordon's guest vocal. You're opening up to a lot of different genres or styles that maybe weren't there in your earlier records. That's true, yeah.

I feel like that's the big story of music in the 21st century, that we're post-genre and everyone takes from everything now. Do you feel like you're post-genre now as well?[Laughs] Of course we always like to make it seem like it's something new that we're feeling now. But as you remember, in the '90s, or if you were born yet, we were all enthralled with Public Enemy and NWA when it came out, which was supposedly a new genre, or a genre that was yet to be co-opted by white people. [Laughs] I personally have always had interests in every kind of music, except maybe modern country. But I haven't tried to make a rap song, because they don't sound good when I do it. I would try to magpie things if I could.

But back specifically to your question on this record, about the different colors, that is true. How far can you go with just a four-piece guitar band? I feel like I've done that a lot. [But I also] recoil at the thought of throwing a pasted-on strings section onto a song, and therefore it's different. It's been done in the '60s a lot, too. There's certain things that I might have just automatically said no to at a certain time, just saying, "The Velvet Underground did it like this, nothing needs to be altered with this look." Just like a black dress, ever since the French designers, Coco Chanel, made that decision, we agreed that's going to just always look good.

Like Madame X or whatever.[Laughs] Yeah, Madame X. So I think I still try to not overstuff things. That's also a worry—when you say multiple genres, an album can be overstuffed. I see it like, "Oh, you're just trying so hard." I feel like you're trying too hard when I hear some indie records. I don't know if it's my age, or if I can say that I'm more of a minimalist.

My aim is to go straight between two points, to get just the right amount of color. Because I think sometimes I've looked back at some of my own work and seen it as a little overstuffed, with either lyrics that are trying too hard, or just things that I see like, oh, he's trying to be funny or smart or something. And I don't believe this guy right now. He's bullshitting me. [Laughs]

Do you think you're a tough critic of yourself? Well, yeah. I have to be. But I also am going to give myself a break where a lot of people wouldn't too. Or at least I'll probably use what I can to justify things that might be mediocre. I'm sure all musicians are doing that. We do get to a point where it's just, "time's up," or, "that's enough." That will happen, where you're like, "I'm out, that's good." Or your band says, "I like that." I'm certainly open to asking people what they think of certain lines that I'm not confident in.

Same with album titles, I'm extremely data-driven. [When it comes to] things like tone with only three words for an album title, I like to get it passed through some sort of filters that I trust before I just put something out that's going to make people cringe or it's going to sound complain-y or something, because it's very easy to make a complain-y title. [Malkmus has a history of near-misses when it comes to album titles: his self-titled first solo album was originally supposed to be called Swedish Reggae; 2011's Beck-produced Mirror Traffic was almost titled L.A. Gunz]

And cover art, too. There's all these things that are part of the battle, and there's definitely blind spots that I have or I [think] it's just going to look like I need help, like I need help with dressing for this Oscar party or whatever.

So along these lines of streamlining and minimizing, it feels to me like you've backed away a little bit from the more jammy, long guitar compositions that became your signature sound in the late '00s. Has your relationship with the guitar changed? Do you look forward to playing those songs live still? I look forward to the touring and to expanding or at least figuring out what I played on a couple of the older songs and have it change. We are learning this one song called "Witch Mountain Bridge," which was on Pig Lib. It was fun to listen to these songs and they sounded good. There was a certain time when we were doing these songs, like "1% of One" and "Elmo Delmo" and "Baltimore," where we were playing these long jams where I couldn't really branch out anymore. Meaning, branch out of just going our version of balls to the walls, rocking out.

I went through a phase where I was really into working man blues groups like The Groundhogs and Thin Lizzy, and I wanted to modernize [that sound]. Maybe not modernize it, but recalibrate that working man's blues rock and make it sort of sexy...not in a sexual way, you know what I mean? [Laughs]

Kind of like the Rolling Stones. If you look at the Rolling Stones from the outside, it would seem that they're just playing blues rock or something. But whatever the filter is, through Mick Jagger and Keith and Brian Jones originally, they make that music sound like pop, sexy pop blues. I don't know how they exactly do it, but they don't sound like Eric Clapton doing it. They sound like a new thing, even though I think they're trying to just imitate it. Maybe it's Mick Jagger, actually, he's the key. [Mick Jagger is a pivotal figure in Jicks lore—his name was one of the inspirations behind the band's name, depending on who you ask]

I just opened my palette in the years following [Real Emotional Trash] to other '70s influences because they're in there, because of my age. There's almost a yacht rock paradigm at times, which I don't really want to admit, but it's kind of in there. Smooth sounds of the '70s production. Although I'm not really listening to [modern] rock records to see if they sound like ours. I don't really know for sure. But we definitely don't sound digital. It's classic, in a way.

Certainly the imagery of the cover of Sparkle Hard gives off a big yacht rock whiff.[Laughs] We had this other, super awesome cover of this Russian dude eating caviar. I definitely wanted to make a cover that was funny and pneumatic in some way, or at least referencing something that you would see on the internet that you would pass around. So we had a lot of ideas, but to me, it was not the time for a busy, decorative, arty cover. I'm at a point now where I don't have time for that kind of music cover. And we've had covers like that, like Crooked Rain.

So that was going to happen. We had this Russian guy. It was awesome. But then this band...I want to say Arcade Fire, they're basically just as big as them. Ezra from Columbia—

Vampire Weekend. Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa rock. [Laughs] That's so funny. They own that preppy thing so much. I can't believe that they did that. So they got sued for this woman being on the cover of their album [Contra]. Maybe you remember that. It was a preppy woman they put on their album, and it was a terrible tragedy for the record label, legal snafus. So Matador was not keen on using this, because we couldn't find the origin of the Russian. And for all I know, it could be a sophisticated phishing operation...maybe not sophisticated. But if somebody found out that it happened, somebody might come out of the woodworks of suburban Chechnya and come and get us. Couldn't use that.

It's interesting, on Twitter you can just put whatever you want out there. But I guess when there's a whiff of commercialism to it, that some money could be made of it, then you're in trouble. Which is so weird because there is a lot of [cultural] capital created just by putting an image on the internet and getting some attention. It might lead to more work or something. It's a question for Richard Prince, I guess.

Do you enjoy fussing over individual songs? Do you feel like you take a lot of time to work on a song, or do you like to knock it out Dylan-style in a few takes, then move on? I took some times on these ones, these songs. I think at a certain point, how many bullets do you have in your gun, in terms of people's attention spans? So I have some time. I wasn't touring, and I have a decent Pro Tools setup in my basement. And so I was just creating a lot of tunes in the last two and a half years, since we got back from Berlin. And so I had a lot of choices.

But when you get down to the specific songs, the lyrics and stuff, it depends. Usually you'll get about 70% of it, as you can probably tell. Some songs, like the one with Kim [Gordon] on it, that was just like, "I'm going to do this kind of song." That one was led by the form, the music itself leads to a more formal story. But others, it's just finding the right tone or just a couple lines will be a problem, or something that will bother me, or I'll think, I don't want to seem negative here.

This last song on Sparkle Hard called "Let Them Eat Vowels," that's kind of a rap song almost. Talking about, "High openness/ Vanilla bliss/ Real recognizes real/ Urbanity for the indoor skunk/ In the eye of the beholder." There was some part where it was going to be negative. It was kind of cynical—I read it back to myself and I was like, "No, I don't want to be cynical just for this line." That kind of thing happens, so I have to readjust.

I found this shaving cream, called "Vanilla Bliss." That's the only thing in this world you want to be vanilla bliss, that you want to be vanilla as your shaving cream. You don't want it to sparkle hard, you just want it to be soft. In any other context, vanilla bliss would be something that we take the piss out of in this world, in this particular moment in time. Don Draper might have dreamed of vanilla bliss or something, but we rooted for him when he was not. The fact of the matter is, we didn't want that. We wanted him to have sex with all these different women and take drugs. That is living, or whatever, that's worth watching. The show is worth watching now.

"Vanilla Bliss" is not a bad title for a song, too. I know! Well, you can get that shaving cream. I can picture them in their marketing meeting, [starts talking spacey] and they're just like, "bliss is really..." You can see that in any facial cream, where it's just like, chilling out with my wonderful creams makes me feel younger and just mildly ecstatic.

That title reminds me of an old song of yours that disappeared at some point, one of my favorites, called "Astral Facial."[Cackles into the phone] How did that one go? Is that a Pavement song? Is Bob [Nastanovich] on it?

It's almost like a waltz, it's a Jicks song. Janet Weiss was singing backup vocals, so probably around the post-Real Emotional Trash period. Oh man. Is it on the internet? I gotta look it up. I'll bring it back. [Laughs]

[I play him a clip of the song over the phone.] It sounds like "Cut Your Hair" to me! [Laughs] All I hear is the [sings the staccato melody]. I'm going to look it up. I totally remember that title. It sounds like something that I would have said to Bob Nastanovich.

I'll bring it back. The good thing about being in a band that is only minorly popular, or medium popular, is you can bring back these things. Also, when your basic genre is timeless, I can bring that back, whereas there are some kinds of music that sounds dated. Ours sounds dated, but it's so dated that it doesn't sound like a specific year, it just sounds like the past. [Laughs] Whereas with some hip-hop songs, you hear the beat, and you're just like, "oh, yeah, 2011."

During this period off when you were working on all these songs, you also worked on a solo album, an electronic album. [Groove Denied] True that.

What's the status of that? And what's the difference between that and this record sonically. Thanks for asking. I don't want to build up the mythology—the guy in the Washington Post was really into it, he kept asking about it. It's too late now because people know about it, but it was supposed to work as just a surprise, you put it out and in your mind's eye, in your happiest mind's eye, it's like, "What the fuck? This is so different! How? Why?"

But unfortunately, I have a feeling that I think that, because it's relatively different for me, and others might think, oh, this is sounding a little like, what's it called...chillwave with a little bit of something else. You think you're reinventing the wheel but you're not completely up on all the other albums that are coming out.

That being said, it approaches some more '80s textures. And also, there's a couple that are almost like Warp Records done by an indie rock dad. A lot of the Warp Record guys are dads now, too. I'm sure Squarepusher's probably got a couple of kids and mortgage now, whatever.

He's got an SUV, yeah. Yeah. Aphex Twin, he's worried about his 401K, English version.

I heard that there's a new Silver Jews record that's in the works, and that you may have made an appearance on it up in Canada. That is not verified, but we did some demos up there. And there are songs that are good songs, but they have not been laid to tape as I know it. Unless it's happening right now.

Would you go back up to play on it? It's not going to be in Canada if it happens, and I don't know. It depends on what the situation is. If it's really going to happen or not. There's potential. The songs exist. They're awesome. They've been vetted through multiple rewrites, and I think that almost all the lines have been put through Google to make sure no one's said them before in any way, shape, or form. [Laughs]

Oh, Google Purity! I remember that. Yeah, it's happening. It's happening in Silver Jews world. We're filthy that way, it's not going to happen with our record. So I think...I'm hoping. All I can say is I'm hoping. I'm not talking much about it. I've been told to just keep it on the down low, whatever's happening. I know there are songs, and they are good. I've heard them.

Thank you so much for talking to us. I can't wait for the shows in June. I'll make sure to yell for "Astral Facial." I'm going to look that up actually. I'm not joking. My fly brain totally forgot it already, but now I remember again. I'm going to check it out.

It's a really good song, great harmonies on it, too. Janet [Weiss, Jicks drummer approximately from 2006-2010] is gone though. Jake [Morris, Jicks drummer since 2011] can sing though. He lied his way into voice school at Cornell University for one semester. Bluffed his way in. Can you believe that? I don't think you can bluff your way into any school anymore. It's just numbers.

There's a lot of rich white people who might disagree.[Laughs] That's true. Well, there's too many schools, too. And it's so expensive that it's just ridiculous. But that's a story for another day.

So President Malkmus would cut back on the number of schools? Yes. Yes, I would. I already got in trouble for throwing shade on professors in my New York Times thing, which I kinda don't mind doing, but in the article I was like, "I can always have a fallback job and become a professor." Professors are like, "What? Do you know how hard it is? There's no jobs!" They totally projected their own thing on it.

Actually, what I was saying was that when you're young, you don't know what the fuck you're going to do. And you don't even think whether anything's possible or not. You just cast a wide net to make yourself feel less afraid of your prospects. You're just like, "I could do that." Because really, you're just working at a bar or something, hoping. But yeah, they don't like that.

They're touchy. Thin skin. Plus, guys like Nicholas Taleb are really taking the piss on how professors are dilettantes or out of touch with the way the real world is, and no skin in the game, yadda yadda. Which does not apply at all to the guys that were mad at me. They were like, poetry PhD students or teaching something that doesn't really matter if you have skin in the game, because it's poetry. You automatically have it if you bothered to do it.


[The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity]