Alt-Rock Icon Stephen Malkmus on His New Album, Frat Life, and Bernie Bashers

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 26: Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks perform onstage during day two of the Boston Calling Music Festival at Boston City Hall Plaza on September 26, 2015 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
 Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

Stephen Malkmus has finally put down the guitar. After kicking around the idea of recording an electronic album for the better part of five years, the 52-year-old songwriter and former front man of Pavement—the critical alt-rock darlings of the 1990s—is set to release a new, Moog-forward album, Groove Denied, on March 15.

The record no doubt marks a significant moment for a guy who’s spent his career aping on guitar-god clichés while also being something of a guitar god himself. When Malkmus and I talked one day this winter, he was in high spirits, pacing around his home in Portland, Oregon, as he debated whether Groove Denied was a welcome exploration of new sounds or a midlife crisis disguised in Pro Tools plug-ins.

 

 

Did you feel like recording an electronic album helped you connect with youth culture?

No, not really. [Laughs.] Tools like Ableton [a recording software] define a certain young sound, like bedroom-wave, or whatever you want to call it. But I can’t jump into a Star Trek time-travel machine and take on a young, millennial mindset. That’d be a bad look anyway. My music is also a little more avant-garde or experimental than that stuff, I think, or at least it is relatively. Maybe the album is more about trying to make two worlds meet: today’s sounds and, like, a Gen-X style.

Other important ’90s acts—Radiohead, Wilco, Damon Albarn of Blur—began incorporating electronic elements into their music a decade ago or more. Do you feel late to the game in putting out Groove Denied?

Not really, because I never had time to think about it; I just kept doing what I was doing without thinking about it. I’m not trying to keep up with other people. I like the artists you mentioned; they’ve done incredible stuff. But when I’m making my own music, I’m not thinking about how it relates to other genres.

You went to the University of Virginia. “Rushing the Acid Frat” from Groove Denied is about fraternity life, right?

Yeah, it is. In Charlottesville, Virginia [home of U.V.A], there were a couple of Greek fraternities that went rogue. They were more like the Grateful Dead fraternities—the burnouts. They weren’t about getting sorority girls drunk or having clandestine hazing rituals, though I’m sure that happened, too. They were in these decrepit, beat-up buildings, and they were always a fun place to party. On a Saturday night, they’d have cooler band playing than the other fraternities would, and there’d be bongs and tie-dye. You might go upstairs, and one of the older guys would be like, “Dude, you gotta do this!” You’d be listening to bands like the Happening and thinking to yourself, I only did half a hit, but things are getting really weird! As to the song itself, I was imagining it as a “Louie Louie”-type tune that would transport you to a quasi-Animal House scene but as if you were tripping.

In college, your thesis was titled “Inventing Tradition in America: The Country Club of America.” How do you feel about country clubs and WASPs now?

Well, I’ve been to country clubs but only ones in California. My dad belongs to a country club, and I went with him once. I played golf. It was a sea of old guys with golf carts. It was meh. It didn’t feel WASPy, though; it had more of a Palm Springs feel. I didn’t get the sense they cared about tradition or historical things that legitimize your family name. We didn’t chat much. It was also pre-Trump. If he had been elected, we would’ve had some interesting things to talk about.

You’re a Bernie Sanders fan, right?

I like Bernie. I think he has more integrity than just about anybody. I’m letting it play out. When I say that I like him, my friends get really mad. They must be listening to different podcasts than me. 

In the video for “Viktor Borgia” from Groove Denied, there’s a reference to Ariana Grande. Are you a fan?

I really like that song “Thank U Next.” It reminds me of other songs that were instant classics, like the one that goes, “It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes.” [“Hot in Herre” by Nelly] “Thank U Next” is similar in the way the chords work under the melody. It’s a kind of pop songwriting I like. I’m also interested in Ariana as a phenomenon. Recently, she tweeted something like, “This is weird,” or maybe, “That’s weird.” That was the entire thing, and it got, like, two million retweets. I looked at the comments, and people were fucking psyched. They love her. They fucking love her. I was like, This is that modern, bizarre Internet—an accessible weird world that I don’t even know what it is. But I like her.

You seem like a relatively well-adjusted dude. How’d you pull that off?

I don’t know. I’m just a different kind of narcissist and sociopath than the other musicians, or maybe I’m better at covering my tracks. I’m fucked up like everybody else, but I deal with my shit in different ways. One thing that’s healthy is being interested in other people. You know, asking somebody else questions about themselves. Having kids and being aware that the world doesn’t revolve around you helps, too.

How do you reconcile having such a large influence on young musicians while still being a working musician yourself?

I take advantage of [my influence] when I can to get promotion. People know who I am, and they like me already. But I don’t want to piss that away. It was earned through a lot of songs, tours, interviews, and photo sessions. I mean, making music, that’s the fun part for musicians. But you need a narrative to get press—that’s just how it goes—but that stuff should come after the fact. You should be making music because you’re “inspired” or something.