STEVEN MALKMUS & THE JICKS
Real Emotional Trash
On Pavement's "Gold Soundz," Stephen Malkmus claimed that you can never quarantine the past. Now, he and his new drummer are living proof. The ex-Pavement singer and Janet Weiss, ex-Sleater-Kinney, make up one half of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, who released their fourth studio album, Real Emotional Trash, this past week. As the frontman for Pavement, Malkmus spearheaded the indie-rock movement of the early '90s, marrying lo-fi production and sloppily melodic pop songs. Weiss, meanwhile, as the drummer for the all-female trio Sleater-Kinney, managed to broaden indie's appeal beyond its male-dominated base. It's hard to imagine the modern-day indie landscape without them, so crucial were each of their bands' contributions.
With such renowned past projects, it's no wonder that the two were drawn to one another and eventually wound up in the same band. "Usually, your second band is the one full of people you don't know," she says. "But I've been friends with [Stephen Malkmus] for nearly a decade." While she had been a fan of Pavement during their heyday, she actually met Malkmus after Pavement's 2000 dissolution, when he moved to Portland.
It wasn't long before Weiss was asked to be a part of Malkmus's fledgling post-Pavement project. "After John [Moen] quit, there was a European tour they had booked and we talked about doing that together. I was still in Sleater-Kinney...it ended up that I couldn't do it, but that's where it started."
Then in 2006, Sleater-Kinney disbanded and Weiss was a free agent, only too happy to be able to help out her friends. (The current Jicks lineup is rounded out by guitarist/keyboardist Mike Clark and Weiss's childhood friend and Quasi bandmate, bassist Joanna Bolme.) But Weiss's role is decidedly more circumscribed than it has been in the past. Malkmus is the undisputed creative force in this group, which has been an adjustment for Weiss.
"Coming from a band where everything was equally split and we worked on all the songs together, it was hard to become a part of a backup band," she admits.
In spite of his creative dominance, Malkmus has allowed the Jicks various levels of input throughout their four records together. (The Jicks, in various forms, have contributed to all four post-Pavement records, but have only been credited in the album titles twice.) On one end of the spectrum is 2005's Face the Truth, which Weiss claims was essentially a solo record; on the other is 2003's Pig Lib, which relied more heavily on improvisation in the studio to flesh out the songs. Either way, Weiss now seems fine with her somewhat diminished role in the songwriting process. "I don't feel the need to push as much as I did in Sleater-Kinney," she says. "You know, Steve's songs don't need to be reworked too much."
While Malkmus has never seemed to be at a loss for material, one had to wonder how marriage, fatherhood, and domestic bliss would affect his output. (He and wife Jessica Jackson Hutchins have two young children.) However, eight years into the post-Pavement era, he is only one album shy of the five he released with his former band. And the quality of those four albums, if not quite at the level of the first two Pavement albums (really, what is?), at least hold their own against the group's later releases. Still, no would mistake a Malkmus-titled album for anything recorded by Pavement. With Pavement, Malkmus made high art out of witty, nonsensical lyrics—famously rhyming "lies and betrayals" with "fruit-covered nails" on the band's landmark debut, Slanted & Enchanted. Malkmus has noticeably toned down the puns and turned to somewhat more conventional vignettes for his Jicks venture.
Malkmus has made his guitar the focal point, indulging a heretofore undetected affection for the classic-rock canon. Solos abound, especially on the somewhat less structured Pig Lib and the just-released Real Emotional Trash. The Neil Young and Doors-y passages can be a bit jarring and no doubt irk some Pavement fans. After all, the dour British post-punk that Pavement used as its foundation was in many ways antithetical to '60s rock. But Pavement always leavened their songs with a certain Californian, hippie sensibility, and the loose, wandering guitar solos are probably more accurately viewed as an extension or exaggeration of an element that was already present in Malkmus's songwriting, as opposed to a genuinely new direction.
When asked whether the inclusion of longer solos and more prominent guitar playing is due to a change in musical taste or just increased confidence in his abilities, Weiss says she suspects the latter. "Steve's guitar playing is through the roof," she says, "especially on this record."
As far as Malkmus has come in the past eight years, and despite the new friendships he has forged, he often can't help looking back—such is the case when the subject of your former band comes up in nearly every interview. Interestingly, Malkmus has never ruled out a possible reformation, even if, with his Pavement bandmates spread out from coast to coast, getting them all together in one place would be a bit of a logistical nightmare. In a recent interview with NME.com, he dismissed the idea of a reunion in the immediate future, saying: "I'm 1,000 percent committed to the people I'm playing with now. I would never cheat on them and go and do Pavement. It's not in the cards." But he then later mused: "But who knows? Maybe it'll feel right one day.... It piques my interest to think that people might be into it or might really care."
Quarantining the past may not be an option, but when your legacy burns as bright as either Malkmus's or Weiss's, why would you really want to?
STEVEN MALKMUS & THE JICKS perform with John Vanderslice on WEDNESDAY, MARCH 19, at FIRST AVENUE; 612.332.1775