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Don't Be Fooled--He Really Cares

Indie rocker Stephen Malkmus may appear offhanded about the project, but he put his heart into his first outing since Pavement.

February 11, 2001|ISAAC GUZMAN | Isaac Guzman, a staff writer for the New York Daily News, writes occasionally about pop music for Calendar

NEW YORK — Stephen Malkmus is wedged into the bar of a trendy Manhattan restaurant, sampling soup from the appetizer menu and mulling the potential pitfalls of his first album after the breakup of Pavement, the critically adored band that made him an indie-rock icon in the '90s.

His words come out in much the same way that they did in classic Pavement songs such as "Cut Your Hair," "Range Life" and "Shady Lane." As always, the sentiments are serious, but the delivery is offhand, as if everything could just be one tremendous joke. That is, if the reflections on his artistic future weren't so penetrating.

It's kind of like the way Malkmus sent in the tapes of his self-titled solo debut (due in stores Tuesday) to his record company, Matador, which also released Pavement's albums. He told label execs it was just something he was working on with friends. No big deal. If they didn't like it, he might just put it out himself. Or maybe not.

"Of course, there's tons of little psychological excuses you make for what you're doing," he says in his acutely nasal voice. "Making an album is a huge undertaking of neurotic behavior. And no matter how brilliant you are, it's hard to have all the right things fall into place."

Dressed in a disheveled manner, with a string of beads hanging down the front of his blue oxford shirt, Malkmus, 34, stands out from the chic after-work crowd filling up the room. His shaggy, dirty-blond hair falls across his forehead, creating an unkempt border for the aquiline features that made him something of a college rock heartthrob.

"I mean I was in a position where I didn't have to make a record, so yeah, I think that there was definitely always that trapdoor where I could escape," he continues. "But of course I want it to be good. I put my heart into it when we started it. I would be wounded if it was a total dive bomb and people didn't get what was going on."

Pavement released five intermittently brilliant albums in the '90s, but it was the first two, "Slanted and Enchanted" and "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain," that quickly elevated the Stockton group from cult status to one of the most promising bands riding the nation's alternative rock wave. All along, Malkmus' famously ironic detachment, which fit right in with the prevailing spirit of the slacker generation, led him to question the band's growing fame.

'Songs mean a lot when songs are bought," he sang on "Cut Your Hair," a track from 1994's "Crooked Rain." "And so are you face right down to the practice room. Tension and fame. A career, career, career, career."

The career part was something that Pavement never seemed to take too seriously. Although the band was moderately successful until Malkmus called it quits in 1999, Pavement never had a Nirvana-like commercial breakthrough. But the band's influence on a generation of alternative rock bands would never be represented in a tally of the records it sold.

Midway through Pavement's run, Malkmus moved to Portland, Ore., where he still lives with his girlfriend, Heather Larimer, a fiction writer who contributed backing vocals and percussion to the album. He began dabbling in side projects such as the Silver Jews and the Crust Brothers. It was in Portland that he began playing with bassist Joanna Bolme and drummer John Moen. The three dubbed themselves the Jicks, and Malkmus took them into the studio to record the tracks that would become his solo debut.

Malkmus, who plays the El Rey Theatre on March 13, says going solo didn't feel all that different from Pavement. It just allowed him to get rid of some of the emotional baggage that comes from working with the same group of players for a decade.

"It was kind of a clean slate that was free of any particular direction or anything that could have built up over the years," he says. "You know, like we hadn't had our teeth cleaned or something. It's easier media-wise for it all to be on me anyway. It's one person to talk to, one person in the photos. It works better, but a lot of things are definitely shared. We want it to sound like a band, not me with some stooges."

*

The songs on "Stephen Malkmus" are certain to appeal to Pavement fans, as they demonstrate the dominant role Malkmus played in his first band. But while many of his early songs seemed to address a generation, this collection seems more personal, with Malkmus reflecting on his own life. In "The Hook," Malkmus imagines himself a lad abducted by pirates who becomes caught up in his new life.

Malkmus dismisses the song as the result of "thinking about 'Cabin Boy,' that movie with Chris Elliott," but a close listening reveals that the song is about the sacrifices and doubts of an artist dealing with early fame. "I had the taste of death and many other things," he sings. "I had to pay the piper with my wedding ring, and I would never see my family again."

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