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So Much Style: Pavement's Stephen Malkmus performs at the Central Park SummerStage on September 21, 2010 in New York City.
Pavement released its first EP in 1989, spent the 1990s as one of indie-rock's most beloved and influential bands, and split after the 1999 album, Terror Twilight. Last year the musicians announced they would reunite for a tour, and this week they arrived in New York City for five shows: one at the Williamsburg waterfront followed by four consecutive nights at SummerStage in Central Park. Matthew Perpetua, who writes the mp3 blog Fluxblog, and has tracked the band's reunion on another blog, had tickets to all five shows. (I only went to one of the shows, the one where it rained the entire time and Park officials had to put the concert on hold for 15 minutes to let a lightning storm pass.) After the fourth night, Matthew spoke with me about what it's like to spend a week with your favorite band of all time.
Jacob Ganz: Hi, Matthew. How was the show tonight?
Matthew Perpetua: This was the weird night.
MP: The night in Williamsburg was good, but kind of an off night. The first Central Park show was just wonderful, they were as on as they possibly could be: great moods, playing as well as you could hope for. Dream Pavement show. The second show was the rainy night, and was kinda dramatic and I think there was a real intensity to the audience because of the weather conditions. Tonight was the one where they were kinda tired, odd moods, a bit sloppier, definitely just kinda weird and goofy.
MP: I've liked that all the shows have been different types of Pavement shows, and I'm glad one of them was like this.
JG: How many times have you seen them play now?
MP: I saw six shows in the original run, and I'll see six in the reunion tour.
MP: So as of tonight, it's 11. And I've seen Malkmus solo or with the Jicks many times over, and I've heard dozens of live bootlegs.
JG: Didn't they seem like a band that would never get back together?
MP: Actually, I remember thinking in 2000, "Oh, I guess they'll do a reunion tour in 2010."
JG: What made you think that?
MP: They never formally broke up, when they got around to making an announcement it was a "hiatus." They always left the door open. And on top of that, with very very rare exception, Malkmus never played Pavement songs with the Jicks. He would play them on special occasions solo, but I think he always just wanted those songs to be for those guys. It was a way of respecting the people in his current and former band, but I think it also just left things open to revisiting them in this way.
Like, the only bands I couldn't see getting back together are the ones where there is serious hatred between the members. And that wasn't ever the case in Pavement — they'd bicker, Malkmus could be difficult, but they were all friends. And friends grow apart and have to move on, and that's what the band did.
The Smiths — that's a band that's never getting back together. Morrissey hates those guys, he'd rather die. And he plays Smiths songs in all his shows, so who really needs to see a Smiths reunion tour? Just go see Morrissey, he tours all the time.
The way Pavement did it is the way Sleater-Kinney did it. I have zero doubt that I'll eventually see another Sleater-Kinney show.
JG: But Pavement sold, or at least people bought, the idea that they were this anti-professional band. I mean, last night, I didn't hear people sing along louder than the Smashing Pumpkins line in "Range Life." And doesn't a reunion tour stink just a little bit of professionalism? You have to imagine them practicing a lot in order to get back into touring shape.
JG: Besides which, with Sleater-Kinney there was always a "we're totally going to kick your ass" feeling, both in terms of ability and intensity, neither of which ever seemed particularly high on the list of Pavement attributes.
MP: See, I think that's a popular conception of the band, but it's not necessarily who they are. Malkmus is bratty, but the whole band has a sense of taste. They're not about to go out and wreck their legacy. I was thinking about how the two bands mentioned in "Range Life" also broke up and got back together again, but those two bands are making new music that not many people care about. And you know, in some ways that is more respectable — the Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots are living bands, Pavement is — to extend the metaphor — undead. Pavement isn't about to wreck what they've got, which is part of why they've had a good run beyond the time they were together. They picked the right time to bow out. Legacy matters to rock fans!
MP: Malkmus will go on tour, it's a pragmatic thing and he's a pragmatic guy. It helps their lives out, they have families, it's a fun thing to do. But he's not going to start writing new "Pavement" songs. We like to romanticize things, but being a musician is a job. But not all of us have the luxury of returning to our glory years and making way more money than ever before while we do it.
JG: If only.
MP: So when you think about it like that, all these reunion tours we see now, it's kind of a lucky position these people are in. It's this option you always have there for you. Some people handle it more gracefully than others, and I think Pavement have handled it as gracefully as anyone could.
They're not doing anything embarrassing. They're giving fans — especially younger fans — what they want for a year, then it's back to what they'd be doing normally.
JG: Let's talk about those fans for a minute. Zach Baron wrote that thing for Slate earlier in the year about how the nostalgic fervor for the band's return was a signal (one of many) of the end of the "cultural hegemony" of Baby Boomers, sort of implying that we should prepare for Gen X and "Indie" culture to take the place of the Boomers.
JG: And the Awl wrote yesterday, after the show I saw, that there didn't seem to be many hipsters at last night's show. So, having been to 4 shows in 6 nights, has this week seemed like a moment in the sun for that just-pre-internet generation?
MP: I suppose. The core base of Pavement's audience are people who are all around 28 - 40 now. There's a lot of younger fans too, but those are the people who were around the first time. I'm 31, I got into them when I was 14.
JG: I'm the same age, and got into them just a little later, in my first year of college, but they were almost done by then.
MP: But yeah, Pavement are the ultimate '90s indie band, and the fashions and tastes of '90s indie are very different from '00s indie and "hipsters."
MP: I think specifically, what Zach was writing about, what they're getting at on the Awl, what Nitsuh Abebe wrote for Vulture earlier this week, what was in the themes of the Pitchfork '90s song list that ran recently, is that it's time for the '90s version of indie rock to be fully canonized. It's not like Pavement wasn't already in the canon in a major way — Slanted & Enchanted and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain have been revered since the day they were released — but it's probably the time where it's far enough in the past to be iconic and idealized in the same way as every other legendary rock band. In twenty years, it will be Animal Collective's turn.
MP: Also, with Pavement, I think maybe people are looking to them as an example of something we need more of, in some way or another. I think the easiest thing is people pointing to a resurgence of guitar-centric stuff in the indie world, but I think that's mostly lazy thinking. I don't think bands like Surfer Blood or Wavves really have much in common with Pavement at all. They don't have the grace or style or raw charisma. The most crucial thing about Pavement is the strange personality and raw appeal of Stephen Malkmus, and that he surrounded himself with these equally interesting and distinct guys. A lot of indie music is sorta faceless now, and Pavement is from an era where all the biggest bands in that cultural sphere were the people with big, weird personalities.
MP: Guided By Voices, Stereolab, Jon Spencer, Ian Svenonius, Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth, Fugazi, on and on and on, lots of very specific people doing very distinct things.
JG: You mean big personalities in terms of no one being able to imitate them, right? Because Malkmus, onstage, seems retiring, almost delicate.
MP: Yeah, he's not a world-beater. It's more in his sense of humor, the way he writes, the way he plays. Everything he does flows out of this very peculiar personality, and this strange grace. He said it best — he's got style, miles and miles, so much style that it's wasted.
My friend Daniella told me tonight that she had forgotten what a "balletic" guitar player he was. That his body is so totally fluid with his playing, but he's also poised.
JG: Speaking of style, there was that amazing moment last night when they paused the concert after "Stereo," so they could wait for the lightning storm to pass by and the lady from the parks came on and said they had to protect the band, we should just sit tight, it would take 15 minutes, she knows that we want them to be safe, and he got on and said, "It's something about us being plugged into electronic equipment. They care about you guys too." Which won him plenty of love from the fans, not that he was wanting before. He's also beautiful to look at, which I had never quite realized. Courtney Love had it right.
MP: Yeah, Malkmus is handsome! I know to a lot of women, that's the dream guy. This one girl I know wrote on Twitter that he was her equivalent to Justin Bieber.
JG: There really are a lot of different sides to him, huh? Last night he barely said anything, all business.
MP: Yeah, he's a complex guy. Very mercurial.
JG: In a live show, that seems like that might actually make the rest of the band shine: depending on what mood he's in, someone else gets to step forward and play the role that complements his mood at that particular moment.
MP: Right. Bob Nastanovich was working hard tonight, he was being very entertaining. A lot of Bob's job is to connect with the audience when Malkmus isn't in the mood.
Bob Nastanovich's role in Pavement is kinda unique in the history of rock and roll. I was thinking tonight about how it's sad that after this month, there's not going to be any opportunity to see Bob perform. He's just going to go back to being a civilian, as it were.
JG: What about you? After tomorrow night, when you go back to being a fan of a band that doesn't exist any more, what happens?
MP: Oh, I've been waiting a few years for new Malkmus songs. I want them to put out the Jicks album that's been in the can for a while! The one they recorded with Beck. I just want more new songs from Malkmus. This is the longest wait for a new record from him ever.
JG: But it's not the same thing, is it?
MP: It is to me. I mean, Pavement is very much Pavement, but more than anything, I am invested in Malkmus, and in my mind his body of work is a fluid thing. The first Jicks album is just the album after Terror Twilight.
JG: I wanted to ask you if you remember where you were when the announcement was made about the reunion, because I don't remember you blogging about it at the time. Which in retrospect was kind of surprising.
MP: Oh, I was thrilled. I was pretty broke at the time, I had to beg friends to hook me up with tickets. Bad timing in that respect.
JG: So there was never a moment when you were like, "Nah, I don't need to get a ticket to the THIRD Central Park show."
MP: Oh, since I have always seen this reunion as a totally inevitable thing, I had long resolved to see as many shows on the reunion tour as I possibly could. As it turns out, I could swing six shows. I always assumed it'd be more like 10 or 12.
JG: Have you seen some of the same people at different shows this week?
MP: Oh, yeah. A lot of my friends are going to multiple nights, for one thing. But also, I see a lot of the same strangers. There's this one guy I've seen a few times now and he looks vaguely familiar and I'll make eye contact and it's awkward. Who is that guy? What is his game?
JG: I kept thinking during the show about the people who were selling beer or pizza, and were probably going to see all four Pavement shows at Central Park because of their job, but maybe aren't Pavement fans.
MP: Right. They just work all the SummerStage gigs.
JG: And that's what I think about when I think about this moment of canonization, as you put it, for this ultimate rock band of the 90s. Some of those people don't know because they're too young and some don't know of Pavement because Pavement just wasn't ever big enough. And that's something particular about the canon-worthy rock bands of our youth, right?
JG: That there's more life in their afterlife than in the time they were making new music.
(*Not an entirely fair statement, I realize.)
MP: I think people really overstate the "big" thing. Especially when we're dealing with music for music nerds — legacy and reputation are what keep you around, what makes you a big legend, a catalog act. The Pixies got bigger after they broke up, that's the most clear precedent. But also, the Velvet Underground. No one listened to Velvet Underground in the 60s, but they are canonized classic rock now, bigger in people's minds than a great many artists who sold a lot of records.
The music sticks around. That's how you get the last laugh. If you get in with the critics, your music doesn't go away.
Or more specifically, if you're always considered cool, cool people will always be there for you. Sonic Youth, it's the same thing without breaking up. You go see Sonic Youth, it's this rainbow coalition of different types of cool people from various generations.
JG: But that's what I'm saying. The dinosaurs from the '60s and '70s that make money now were actually huge then.
MP: Yeah, but I think the difference is that the critical culture of the '60s just happened to be on the side of music that was popular. That's where the energy was. But when you're looking at what the hardcore music fans — or at least the ones who write and have a way of controlling narratives — valued in the '80s, the '90s, it was music that didn't sell in huge numbers in most cases.
MP: My Bloody Valentine, there's another example. Loveless was never a huge hit, but is massively influential, and they never wrecked their legacy, never put out another record! So they're frozen in time and they finally come back on tour, and people are thrilled for the experience but the needle doesn't move, they're still the perfect band that disappeared after their classic.
MP: A lot of people can sell a lot of records, but not maintain a cult. People just move on. Grow out of it. For some reason, Pavement has this evergreen quality, and the people who loved Pavement a long time ago still do, and people are finding out about them now and digging them because the music has aged pretty well. It's sometimes really hard to predict what will still sound fresh ten, twenty, thirty years on.
JG: I think it has something to do with personality, really.
MP: Yeah, I think the bigger, bolder personalities have a way of always being intriguing. I've been listening to a lot of Bowie recently, and that music has aged incredibly well for a lot of the same reasons as Pavement — Bowie has so much personality, he kinda hold things back a bit so there's some mystery, and he had great taste and elegance.
And both Malkmus and Bowie are really good with tunes. They don't write cheap melodies.
JG: Also, even on the kind of bad songs, at least with Bowie, you can hear him in the song, trying to figure something out. It never sounds perfunctory, at least in his earlier records
MP: Yup. I agree.
JG: With Malkmus, maybe the protection against mediocrity is just his awareness of his own personality, and maybe a little bit of that defensive quality you mentioned earlier.
MP: Yeah. I think a lot of what makes Pavement what it was is them having good taste: knowing what would suck, and knowing what they could and couldn't pull off, and embracing spontaneity.
JG: Like, if I can't figure out how to end this song, at least I'll make a guitar noise I like.
MP: There was one thing Malkmus said near the end of the show, that there was only three shows left after tonight. I guess it's actually four. But he framed it as "in the history of this band." Which is very likely to be true. So I'm going into tomorrow's show like it's the last time I'll ever see them together. I expect it to be bittersweet. They might do another reunion down the line, but I wouldn't expect it to happen for a long time.