Real Emotional Trash, the fourth post-Pavement solo album by Stephen Malkmus, is arguably his best, and at the very least rivals the acclaimed Pig Lib for inventiveness. A well-crafted balance of catchy pop, multi-part prog rock compositions, heady guitar shredding and his signature lyrical whimsy, the album is sure to stymie Pavement fans on a nostalgia trip and the skinny jean set appalled by any song that dares last longer than five minutes. Joined by former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss, bassist Joanna Bolme and keyboardist/guitarist Mike Clark, Malkmus's Jicks will give New Yorkers their first chance to hear how all this new trash translates live, starting tonight at Bowery Ballroom. They play there again Tuesday night before heading over the river for a Wednesday night gig at The Music Hall of Williamsburg. All three shows are sold out.
So where are you now? Nashville. We have a show here tonight.
You’ve been on tour since last Wednesday in Minneapolis. Yeah, we’ve been on the road for a week. Not very long.
This is your first time out on the road for a long stretch in a while, right? We did a tour of the west coast a year and a half ago, or maybe January of last year. I can’t remember now. [Chuckles.]
Aside from the Plug Awards you haven’t played in New York City in a while. Yeah, it’s been a while. I don’t know. We’re ready.
I love the album and it seems like it would be a lot of fun to play these songs live, that they’d lend themselves to epic shows. Yeah, we’re still trying to figure out what to do with them, because some of the songs are already pretty long. We’re trying to figure out how free to be and how much to follow the plan. It takes a while, you know. It’s a work in progress.
Rolling Stone called the album “downright glorious” but one thing that comes up in reading some reviews is people commenting that the songs are long. Are you aware when you’re writing these songs that they’re going to be perceived as “long” by the indie-rock critics? I don’t know. They don’t seem that long to me. I guess if a song is over five minutes, it’s perceived as long these days. But they don’t seem that long to me. There are two songs that are longish but they have very deliberate parts where you’re supposed to kind of let it play. And it’s not so important if you’re listening super-closely, though you can. That’s fine for an hour or 45 minutes of music; you’re going to get a little worn out if it’s action-packed every second.
Is that vibraphone on Dragonfly? Yeah, there’s some on the chorus.
How did having Janet Weiss with you recording this album influence the process? I had my ideas on what to do before we even got her but once those few ideas were transformed by her then I’m sure other things we did in the rehearsal room were led in certain directions by her. And certain songs got chosen that probably wouldn’t have gotten chosen. Same thing with Joanna Bolme, the bass player. And everyone leads in certain ways. With Janet, there are quiet songs where she either had to play quieter or we turned her down in the mix, you know? [Laughs.]
I love her work on Hopscotch Willy. Yeah, her drumming is so important there, the way she kind of swings it out. I might not have wanted to put that song on the album if she wasn’t there. It might have been a little bit boring or something but I like the rhythm of it.
It’s been around for a while, right? I remember you doing it at the Plug Awards. Yeah, we did. That was probably one of the first ones we did in the rehearsal room.
What inspired the lyrics to that? I don’t know, really. Because the chords were relatively generic. I think I thought it had to be kind of a sing-a-long or maybe a song like America would do, something with real narrative lyrics. I think Hopscotch Willy was the first thing that came off the top of my head when I had to come up for lyrics for that part, and I just kind of built the song around that.
There are a number of New York references in this album: Sheepshead Bay, and the torture of the Van Wyck Expressway at 5pm. Do you miss New York? Yeah, always. We love it there, me and my wife. Especially when you live where we live on the west coast, which is so different. I just really like New York a lot and the people, mostly. My friends there are what I miss about it, more than the skyline or the food. I just think it has a special kind of spirit.
And you’re playing a three-night stand here. Yeah, three shows in small venues. You know, underplaying our potential. It’s going to be fun.
Are you going to vary the set list from night to night? Oh yeah. We never play the same set twice. Janet is very involved with the set list; she basically does it. So she’ll mix it up.
The second night of your tour this time was in Milwaukee, where five years ago you unexpectedly played an entire set of Pavement. Yes. We did. But not this time!
Did you feel any inclination to tease some Pavement at least? I played a little bit of the guitar run from Summer Babe but no one really noticed.
When you did that Pavement set with the Jicks, was there any particular reason why you did it that night? It was pretty random. We were touring a lot back then and were kind of burned out, sort of. And we were just looking for something to do to keep our lives engaged on the tour. So I think we were just like, “Milwaukee. Why not?”
On the second leg of the tour the Joggers will be joining you. Yeah, the Joggers are great.
I’m an obsessed Joggers fan. Yeah, they’re a great band. I’m glad to know there are some fans on the east coast.
They sold out last time they played in New York City in 2006 and they haven’t been back since, which has been frustrating. That was such a great show. I know, I think they’re great, too. They’re one of the best bands in Portland; they’re a really original group and I’m excited to play with them. I was really happy when it worked out. There’s something sort of fun about touring with a band from Portland, from your hometown. And I know those guys pretty well; I play softball with them. They’re cool. That’s going to be a great double bill. Sorry you’re going to miss that one.
Believe me, I am too. But I’ve gradually come to accept that. I get the sense they’re like the bastard children of the Portland indie rock scene. It’s hard to say. It’s probably something to do with their age; they’re in their thirties and they’re not going out to all the dumb bars and making the scene and they have lives. I don’t know what the reason really is
To me their compositions are so much more fascinating than a lot of bands who are selling out big venues. I agree. And they have charisma and great songs. It’s happened before; it reminds me a bit of Polvo, when Polvo was playing. Polvo was quite a good band who had weird song structures and they were original and they were popular but they never kind of broke through to as many people as they could have. Maybe you have to be a fan of music to go beyond and listen carefully and maybe there’s a limited audience for that. I don’t know.
But what happens to the softball team while you’re on tour? You guys won the championship, didn’t you? Yeah, I don’t know. I’m going to be out of commission for most of the year. I’m going to miss a lot of the early summer, unfortunately, which is a drag because Portland is great in the summer. It’s a beautiful place to be that time of year.
Back on the New York tip, was Vanessa from Queens based on a real person? No, that was just kind of like Lou Reed making a name for somebody. You’ve got to have Queens in there at some point. It’s about old Queens, not like the Queens of today. Mark Ibold lives in Queens now. It’s not anything to write a song about.
You’re playing the Music Hall of Williamsburg; when was the last time you were in that neighborhood. We mixed the album in Williamsburg with Nicholas Vernhes at Rare Book Room. It's a real nice studio and he's a great guy. And another time I went to see Wilco there at Warsaw. It’s quite a different place from 1991 when I lived there. But it must be nice to have pretty girls walking around in revealing clothes all the time. It definitely wasn’t that way when I was there.
I have to say, for the record, I’ve never noticed anything like that. Well, if you walk along McCarren Park it feels like Manhattan now. There’s nightlife and beautiful hipsters.
Can you share a story about life in New York back when you lived here? I don’t know. There’s so much in the early ‘90s I could talk about. One time I got caught evading a fare on the subway in 1991 because they had these really old turnstiles and I just slid through one of them and there was a sting. I got caught and had to spend four hours in the underground Union Square precinct with a bunch of other homeless derelicts. That came and went and I had a court date and my friend David Berman got caught and he had this idea to say that we were signing up to go fight in Iraq. And we had out-of-state licenses so we just said we were tourists from out of town and had come to New York to enlist to go to Kuwait. And the judge just told us to get out of there. So it’s nice to know the judges of New York care about our boys over there.