Since relinquishing his post as the crown prince of indie rock, Stephen Malkmus has been busy creating a catalogue of music that continues to showcase his formidable gift for a hyper-literate lyric and a catchy, off-kilter tune. With the recent release of Face the Truth, his third solo album, Malkmus has found a happy middle ground between the more straightforward songs of his first solo album, 2001’s Stephen Malkmus and 2003’s darker, trippier Pig Lib.
While his solo music will never have the lasting impact of his genre- and generation-defining work with Pavement, Malkmus has continued down a path that those who like a little smarts with their solos and a little sass with their sadness will be rewarded for following.
PopMatters caught up with Malkmus in the midst of his tour to promote the new album.
PopMatters: Face the Truth seems a little bit like a mix of the first two albums; where the first one was more song-driven and Pig Lib was perhaps more instrumentally driven. Could you talk a little bit about how you’ve developed over the course of your three albums?
Stephen Malkmus: Well, that’s really hard to consider—things like development. I mean it’s whenever I go in there and start messing around on the tape machines I just feel like I’m back at square one again. Especially this time I was just down in my basement recording and I had my tools: synthesizers, guitars. I just used everything that was down there.
It’s hard to say what would change except the process. Maybe I’m into a little bit different music this time or something, know what I mean? That’s really all. If I’m just a fan of something I try to approximate it, you know, with my voice.
PM: So how was the process different this time?
SM: Well, I did it at home. I was the engineer—that was different. I did it all on tape. I really just was winging it a bit. Like any young person that’s just starting. It wasn’t particularly self-conscious for that reason. I think that’s a good thing.
PM: So there’s no conscious thinking that “Well, I’ve done this before and it was successful so maybe I’ll try this, or I didn’t like how that turned out before so I’ll try something else”?
SM: Yeah, I guess relating to the last record I really like seven-tenths of that record or something but I just wanted to sound different. I like how that sounded, but I just was like, “This should sound a little bit louder out of the speaker.” It’s just more compressed, more overdriven on the vocals and stuff like that.
PM: That’s something that’s really noticeable—the difference in the vocal sound.
SM: That’s kind of accidental sometimes, because I’m just not a very good engineer and I would just get some hot signals. Just because I was by myself quite a lot I tried to goof around with more vocal sounds that were more disembodied a little bit through doubling and distortion and effects. So it really didn’t sound particularly confessional on most of the songs. Because I was probably trying to get away from that, y’know?
PM: I know you’re talking about aesthetically the sonic quality of the voice, but do you think there is a confessional aspect to your music?
SM: Well, yeah. There’s a definite “I”. There’s an “I” in there. It gets to be pretty sissy if you’re always doing characters. It works for a couple songs. You have to have the “I” in there for the people. Someone’s a storyteller the whole time…
PM: Do you think it’s fair to say that you put the “I” in there as much for you as for other people?
SM: I don’t know. I’m just trying to make a good product normally. Not to call it a product, but something that sounds convincing. I mean it’s entertainment for me. I’m just trying to write good songs within my realm. I just know that if I was singing about minstrels or harlequins—like Bob Dylan, he manages to do a good job because he’s so acerbic. I mean if you create a new paradigm or something like he did, it’s all good, you can do whatever you want. Not many people get to do that.
PM: I noticed in reading some of the reviews I saw for Face the Truth, I’m thinking of, not to shed light on my normal reading habits, but Blender and Rolling Stone; Blender had a line like “You’ve gone to late Brian Wilson territory” and Rolling Stone said Face The Truth was your “weirdest album yet”. I don’t think it sounds that radically different than what would be expected from you.
SM: Yeah, me neither.
PM: Do you have any ideas why they would say that?
SM: I guess those are some stabs at drum machines. I guess that was weird to them. Couple spastic songs. It’s not really a singer-songwriter record but it’s definitely in the same ballpark. I mean Matador [Malkmus’s record label] probably started that a bit.
There’s some extra stuff I took off there, just some interlude stuff that was kinda unhinged. Make it a little more pure. That might have been at that time they were saying it was weird. It’s probably because they didn’t expect that. I don’t know what they expect. I think they were expecting me to do, cuz I did a little more by myself, something that was more folky, in the trend for psych-folk, Joanna Newsom, Six Organs trend. I think that’s what they were thinking they were gonna get and they didn’t get that, so they were like “this is weird.”
PM: I think your solo career is more conventional sounding than the way you were sounding in Pavement.
SM: I don’t know.
PM: I don’t mean it to sound disparaging.
SM: Don’t worry about it. You can say bad things too if you want.
PM: Oh, we’ll get there. We’ll get there.
SM: Okay [laughs]. Live in concert it’s less shambolic than Pavement was. But you know it’s better to be that way than the British bands, all polished and stuff.
PM: Like the Beatles.
SM: Not the Beatles, but the new acts. I’ve toured with a lot of them. I like British bands. But there’s something classic about their presentation always, even Huggy Bear or something.
PM: I always thought British bands have a kind of ironic distance from rock ‘n’ roll that American bands don’t have. The British bands are more aware of the fact they’re up there doing a show.
SM: I think you’re right. The island thing. Everyone’s in everyone’s business, you can’t really get out of your head.
PM: I’m not the best at segueing back to a question.
SM: That’s okay.
PM: But back to my earlier point, I think your solo albums feature more story songs and character sketches than your previous work. Did you get tired of the obtuse thing?
SM: Um. I don’t know. It’s just a couple like that as far as I know. It feels like the same to me. I don’t even remember what the old stuff was about. But it seems to be the same, trying to make some interesting rhymes and some ideas and some visual imagery that clicks. Maybe I lost something but I can’t even remember what it was. I’m sure something’s changed. I wish I knew. It feels the same to me. It’s still a battle. It’s always trying to find something to say, because I don’t really have that much to say. But I still like to make music. I like stuff with singing in it. I respect it more. It’s harder.
PM: You think?
SM: It’s harder for me. That being said, I’m so happy when the instrumental part comes in a song in concert. I’m like “Alright, there we go, this is great.”
PM: I’ve only seen you in concert once, and I didn’t know you played so much guitar, and then I get there and you’re ripping it up.
SM: That’s my best attribute. If someone was gonna ask me to be on a record they would ask me to play guitar. They certainly wouldn’t ask me to sing.
PM: What about the songwriting process?
SM: I just play the guitar and write down some catchy ideas that speak to me, and like I said before, have that visual imagery, and that I can sing without being embarrassed. Not trying to be cool or something, but something between Mr. Sincere and something bearable for existence. If you’re sincere all the time you’re gonna get completely burned in this world unfortunately. You need a little bit of a stiff upper lip, too—to quote AC/DC.
PM: In preparation for this, I’ve been reading some other interviews that you’ve done, and one guy prefaced the interview with a line that said, “Malkmus’s lyrics were the perfect expression of post-modern ennui. Free floating signifiers and non-sequiturs that could be bent by the listener into whatever they wished.”
SM: If anyone has the time to do that, more power to them. It should pretty much align directly with the sound of the music and go along with it. It’s really not that strategic. But he could be right.