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POP MUSIC

Taking the High Road

Pavement aims for wider appeal--but with just a few pop concessions on its own indie terms.

July 11, 1999|MARC WEINGARTEN | Marc Weingarten is a regular contributor to Calendar

In a world where successful pop stars are image-savvy, media-friendly objects of desire, the members of Pavement stick out like janitors crashing a supermodels convention.

"It's just not our personalities to say, 'Well, we're gonna do this fashion shoot' " to sell a record, says Pavement guitarist Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg. "Maybe that's from being schooled in post-punk or something. I see bands trying hard to get signed that have the right look, but they're totally dumb on the inside."

For the past decade, the members of Pavement--Kannberg, guitarist Stephen Malkmus, bassist Mark Ibold, percussionist Bob Nastanovich and drummer Stephen West--have been rock's reigning slacker savants, cultivating an image as low-key as their coolly dispassionate guitar-rock.

Not only have they not succumbed to the whole image-make-over thing, but they also manage themselves and make records whose modest budgets wouldn't even pay for most bands' studio catering bills.

Pavement has never sold in huge numbers, but in the indie-rock universe they are regarded as important standard-bearers. On its landmark 1992 album "Slanted and Enchanted," the band borrowed some of Sonic Youth's dissonant guitar skronk, added disjunctive yet playful lyrics and gave the whole thing an appealing pop topspin. The album is now thought of as an indie-rock touchstone and was recently named one of the most important albums of the decade by Rolling Stone magazine.

" 'Slanted and Enchanted' was our first full-out stab at the rock thing," Kannberg says. "We never thought it would be that big of a deal. For people to refer to it now along the lines of some classic rock record . . . I'll never think of it as that."

*

Pavement began as a kind of one-off art project in 1989 when Malkmus and Kannberg, then living in Stockton, Calif., recorded a single called "Slay Tracks (1933-1969)" for $800. When it received a few positive reviews, they proceeded to issue a steady stream of singles on Chicago-based indie label Drag City, and became a formal band with the addition of Ibold, Nastanovich and West after they signed with Matador in 1991.

Pavement has recorded four albums since "Slanted and Enchanted," and all of them have produced virtually the same predictable results: heaps of praise from rock critics and domestic sales of about 100,000 copies each. Now, Pavement is faced with the classic indie-rock conundrum: trying to expand its fan base without pulling any boldly adventurous moves.

So rather than take the low road and jeopardize its credibility, Pavement has merely scrawled a few extra happy faces on its craggy wall of sound, and even taken a few steps toward traditional pop-song sentiment. Less obscurantist than previous efforts and shamelessly tuneful at times, its new album "Terror Twilight" contains songs even a Third Eye Blind fan could love.

"We had to kick things up a bit for 'Terror Twilight' more than we have in the past," says Malkmus, who lives in Portland, Ore. "Our last two albums ["Wowee Zowee" and "Brighten the Corners"] were more 'let's see what happens' kind of records. There was a lot left to chance and weird things. This time, we made an effort to try and do things differently and put more focus on fewer songs, rather than recording 20 and throwing half of them away."

To that end, the band hired Nigel Godrich, who, with a resume that includes work with Beck, Radiohead and R.E.M., has become one of rock's most in-demand young producers.

"Steve Malkmus called me in my hotel room while I was doing the R.E.M. album [1998's "Up"], and we talked and pretty much agreed to do it right then and there," Godrich says. "We had no money to work with, but I think it's a great album."

Working with Godrich, who has a reputation for making records that split the difference between formal experimentation and radio-ready polish, Pavement has made its most accessible effort to date, and its strongest legitimate bid for mainstream acceptance. Yet, like a roughneck rapper who records duets with Mariah Carey but still wants to "keep it real," Pavement remains ambivalent about courting big-time success.

"Obviously, it wouldn't be bad if 200,000 people bought the record," Malkmus says. "But if I really wanted to sell a lot of records, I'd have to write a Sugar Ray-type radio single and hope Matador would spend the kind of money it takes to break a song on the radio. That's a real risky game, and we're happy to grow naturally, by just touring and doing a lot of press."

Now that Matador has severed ties with its longtime distributor, Capitol Records, the band will most likely not get the kind of promo push needed to send its most user-friendly album over the top. In its five weeks, it has sold around 30,000 copies.

"All the things the label wants us to do are stupid," Kannberg says. "Someone had the idea that we should tour with the Dave Matthews Band. Now that's just ridiculous! Even if we did get played on the radio, it probably wouldn't work, 'cause we don't sound like anything else on the radio."

Still, the band has made a few concessions to record-biz realpolitik this time around. They've made two videos, for the songs "And Carrot Rope" and "Spit on a Stranger," though they're homemade affairs directed by a friend of the band and will be broadcast mostly in Europe, where Pavement has a small but enthusiastic following.

"Coming from a humble alternative background, we're just sort of mellow about that stuff," Malkmus says. "But we're also ambitious and we feel we're just as good as any other band. We're sort of in between. I just don't get bitter about commerce." *

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