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Fables and Reconstructions

Apr 02, 2010 Issue #31 - Spring 2010 - Joanna Newsom Bookmark and Share

Tell someone under the age of 30 who loves indie rock that you saw Pavement live, and they’ll likely react hysterically, as if you saw The Velvet Underground in ‘67, or The Smiths, or Nirvana, or a myriad of other mythologized acts. The band is deified by a large cross-section of the present indie generation, with acolytes ranging from Deerhunter to Surfer Blood to Cymbals Eat Guitars.

“That’s very cool from our standpoint. All we can do is be appreciative of such a thing. But I just find that amusing. Because they’re so young, maybe they’ve found a mystique that wasn’t readily apparent to me at the time,” laughs Pavement keyboardist/percussionist Bob Nastanovich.

Singer/guitarist Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg snarkily adds, “Yeah, it’s weird. But we influenced Weezer, so that’s a knock against us.”

While a Pavement reunion seemed as unlikely at times as a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as frontman Stephen Malkmus was steadfast in his refusal to even admit that it was within the realm of possibility, it’s actually happening now, having kicked off in March in Auckland, New Zealand. But what to make of it? Catching up with Nastanovich, Kannberg, bassist Mark Ibold, drummer Steve West, and a few folks who worked alongside Pavement during their ascent provides fascinating illumination on one of the most influential bands of the ‘90s. (Missing is Malkmus, who declined an interview request, as, after a handful of early interviews, he’s decided not to do any more press for the reunion tour.)

Anyone who did see Pavement multiple times can tell you they were a bewilderingly erratic act—at times brilliantly transcendent, other times downright abysmal, like a particularly fatigued bar band mailing it in; quarrels breaking out onstage, band members mangling chords just to passive-aggressively communicate dissatisfaction towards one another. “53 shows in 52 days, and it was really ragged, like Jam Econo with the Minutemen,” recalls Nastanovich of the first leg of 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain tour. “And I think we had a staff of one, our soundman Remko. We were a rambling wreck at that time.”

“We were comfortable, but we weren’t comfortable with it,” says Kannberg, regarding the constant upheaval. “That’s where some of the angst and the weirdness comes from. We weren’t that big of a band. We played to a few people, and more and more as we went on, but it was nothing like it is now.”

Although they’d become fanzine darlings with their early 7"s and critics’ favorites with 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted, the band went on to flirt with mainstream success for the first time during the aforementioned Crooked Rain tour. “Cut Your Hair” was an MTV buzz clip, and they performed the song on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a feat unheard of for an indie band in that era. Yet Nastanovich establishes that they didn’t feel entirely ready for such lofty exposure.

“We basically were able over the course of our existence in the ‘90s to exercise a lot of control over what we were doing and how we were doing it. And a few times we ventured sort of outside our realm. A clear-cut example would be playing the Jay Leno show, or being interviewed on 120 Minutes by Lewis Largent. They were experiences that were unnatural for Pavement. It didn’t work. We didn’t completely make asses of ourselves, but we realized it wasn’t our cup of tea, so we said, ‘Let’s back off.’ And Spencer Gates at Matador [label publicist who passed away in 2008], God rest her soul, she would work really hard to get us in positions like that, and she realized later that she wasn’t dealing with Liz Phair. She was dealing with a whole different bowl of cherries.”

“Around Crooked we kind of developed our own sound as Pavement and relied on that more than the early stuff which was sort of pure,” says Kannberg. “We didn’t know what we were doing then. We’d play a song and say, ‘Oh, that sounds like Dinosaur [Jr.], let’s record it,’” he laughs.

So the band retreated to their initial, more frazzled aesthetic, releasing the maddeningly haphazard and polarizing Wowee Zowee in 1995, less than a year after Crooked Rain.

“I don’t really remember why it was rushed,” says Ibold. “There wasn’t a whole lot of sitting around and planning what we were going to do. It was off the cuff, and I’d say that the other records aren’t wildly different, but we ended up with vinyl with three sides, and we could’ve shortened it or lengthened it, but for a lot of long-term Pavement fans, it was sort of a representation of what Pavement was doing during the ‘90s.”

To support Wowee Zowee, the band played the Lollapalooza festival in 1995 with like-minded peers such as Sonic Youth and The Jesus Lizard. Yet it was nonetheless nightmarish for the band—daytime slots at amphitheatres to slovenly, anemic crowds. “A lot of it had to do with, well, a lot of bands are what I’d call a well-oiled machine, you can just drop them into any circumstance and they’ll perform well. Whether they like it or not, some bands are sensitive to the conditions they’re dropped in, and you can’t thrust us into an afternoon slot at an amphitheatre and expect it to be all that good,” says Nastanovich.

But the band didn’t compromise their sound a bit; in fact, they roughed it up by operating without a setlist for the tour, often playing elongated noise jams that thinned the audience even further. “There’s anthems in our music, but we’re not gonna go, ‘Okay, everyone on that side of the room, sing that part.’ And maybe that’s how you get famous, by doing those stupid things. I don’t know,” says Kannberg. “I do know that Black Flag or The Replacements wouldn’t have played it safe there, and
those were the bands I grew up admiring.”

The band rather surprisingly followed up the esoteric Wowee Zowee by working with producer Mitch Easter (R.E.M.) to record Brighten the Corners, a record that was the closest the band came to a “classic rock” sound, according to Kannberg. “We went to Mitch Easter’s place,” Kannberg recalls. “R.E.M.‘s a good example for us. We were, or at least I was, trying to follow them for the way you do records. Changing it around every time. I think if we’d kept doing records we would’ve had to kind of think of more different ideas.”

But Brighten the Corners, despite its more accessible, radio-friendly sound, didn’t widely expand Pavement’s fanbase, which led to the band delving even more deeply into uncharted territory for their swan song LP, 1999s Terror Twilight, disparagingly dismissed by West as “Terrible Twilight.” After preliminary sessions at Jackpot! studios in Portland went nowhere, the band sought out Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich and worked at a professional New York studio that once again took them out of their comfort zone. Only this time, the recording process was different, more divisive and acrimonious. It was the first record since West joined the band in 1993 (as original drummer Gary Young’s replacement) where he didn’t contribute to every track on a Pavement recording, and also the first that didn’t feature a single Kannberg-penned song. Nastanovich has said in numerous interviews that Godrich could never even remember his name. It was the denouement to Pavement’s remarkable run, and one that remains controversial, as the band broke up in 2000 with absolutely no fanfare, to paraphrase Neil Young, fading away instead of burning out like a supernova. Malkmus casually emailed Kannberg to tell him to update their website to reflect that they were no longer a band. In response, Kannberg refused, telling Malkmus, his childhood friend he’d met at a soccer camp when they were teenagers, that he should notify the band members individually, which never happened.

West didn’t take the nature of the band’s demise personally in the least, largely downplaying its significance. “It was kind of relief for me, the way Stephen dealt with it,” he sighs. “I don’t think bands should go on forever and ever, and I think we had some good records that should hold up. And you work with people for a certain period and you just move on. The press likes to pick up on any kind of gossip they can, and they’ll blow it up as much as they can.”

Even Kannberg seems ambivalent about the band’s demise, lamenting, “When we were making those early 7"s [Perfect Sound Forever, Demolition Plot J-7, Slay Tracks (1933-1969)] I really wanted to have a sense of mystery about the band, just with the artwork, the whole presentation, and in a sense a lot of that mystery got stripped away every time we made a record. But then again, the first era with Gary through Slanted feels like a completely different band.”

But the elephant in the room is Malkmus’ dissatisfaction with the band in their later years, which culminated with the infamous incident at the then final Pavement show in London in November ‘99 when he attached handcuffs to his mic stand, and introduced the set by saying, “These symbolize what it’s like being in a band.”

He’s also the most cryptic and fabled member of the group, once famously anointed by Courtney Love “the Grace Kelly of indie rock,” so his perspective is sorely missed. But perhaps in the vein of Kannberg’s comments about maintaining a level of mystique, he chose to spend most of Pavement’s existence outside of the spotlight at shows, inconspicuously flanking the left side of the stage, which is highly unorthodox for a celebrated frontman, while also earning a reputation amongst fans as being somewhat aloof, rarely interacting with them before or after gigs. His bandmates, however, disagree with this assessment.

“He gets tired, and he runs out of things to say [to fans]. He’s always been the one in the band who heads home the earliest,” says Nastanovich, defending his friend. “But he’s pretty gracious really.”

“I think he took it seriously, but it came across that he didn’t care,” says Kannberg, recalling how Malkmus’ demeanor bothered him at the time. “Looking at it now, it was his way of dealing with it. And maybe he didn’t know how to deal with some of the stuff that was going on, so that was his way of dealing with people coming up to him and saying, ‘You’re great.’ He was never really built to be that kind of person, and he wasn’t always comfortable with it.” Kannberg pauses briefly to gather his thoughts and admits, “Fronting my own band [Preston School of Industry] made me understand the pressure he was under. So maybe now I’ll yell at him less, you know?,” he laughs.

Speaking to Kannberg, it becomes evident that he’s the one member who’s most attached to the band and their, in his estimation, unrealized potential. When asked if it’s a relief to have a tour with no plans to do anything thereafter, he replies, “Well, we’re doing these shows and then we’ll just go from there. Who knows?” And when it’s mentioned that Lou Barlow recently wrote on his website of how great it is to be in a popular band again with Dinosaur Jr., he laughs before admitting, “Yeah, I guess I can relate.”

However, the other members seem resigned to the fact that this is a one-off tour with no subsequent plans and are happy with their day jobs. Ibold enthuses about playing bass in Sonic Youth, calling it “a total dream come true.” He even reveals his hope of keeping his bartending job at NYC’s Great Jones Café, despite the prospect of spending seven consecutive months on tour. “A lot of people want my shifts,” he laughs. West, who records sporadically as Marble Valley, takes pride in his steadfast refusal to commit to a real career, saying, “I’ve been learning stonemasonry. I’m always trying something new. A lot of walls to be torn down,” he laughs. And the recently married Nastanovich still works as a horse racing chart caller, a job he loves.

As the band heads back on the road for one of 2010’s most anticipated tours, and certainly the most anticipated jaunt of their career, they seem eager to redeem themselves for past mistakes, including an infamously awful Coachella performance in 1999. “Coachella was a complete disaster,” Nastanovich remembers. “Stephen couldn’t sing. It was just humiliating, a really poor performance. People looked at you like you were a leper after the show. The LA hipster rock society just stares at you like you just committed a heinous crime on their stage. That wasn’t our intention. It was just what happened. So they’ve given us a wonderful opportunity to make up for it 11 years later.”

“During the last three years at the Sonic Youth shows, I’d meet Pavement fans, and normally when they’d ask me if we were going to get together again, I’d say, ‘probably not,’” says Ibold. “So it’s going the other way, and what’s most exciting to me is that so many of them were too young to see us the first time around.”

One such fan is JP Pitts, frontman of Surfer Blood, whose band was handpicked to play the Pavement-curated ATP Festival in England in May. “Pavement rules,” he says. “When I was growing up I always wanted to write a song like ‘Stereo.’ I never thought I would ever get to see them live, so being able to see them multiple times this year is unreal! My sister and I always talked about how awesome a reunion would be, but we never thought it would actually happen. It’s like an alternate universe,” he gushes with obvious reverence.

Twenty-one-year-old Joseph D’Agostino of Cymbals Eat Guitars, who wasn’t even born when the band initially formed, says, “I already have tickets to two of their Central Park shows in September, and I hope to go to more. I listen to their records all the time on tour, just on my iPod all the way through, and Wowee Zowee was life changing, my favorite of all their records. Their reunion is an absolute dream come true for me.”

Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg of recent Sub Pop signees Avi Buffalo, also chosen for the ATP bill, says, “They’re such a terrific band. It’s like a beautiful, inspiring guitar party. There are few bands with that kind of magic sound.”

This is only a small sampling of bands that have cited how monumental Pavement’s records were for them. The band dramatically altered the landscape of indie rock in the 2000s—a remarkable testament to the longevity of their albums—yet remain completely devoid of self-aggrandizement. “Well, when we were making the records, we knew we weren’t making radio-friendly pop hits, and if we’d done that we probably would’ve broken up a lot sooner and burnt out a lot sooner,” says West. “We didn’t care so much about the business side, and I thought while we were making those records that they would hold up over time, and they have. In that sense, it wasn’t a surprise to me. It kind of felt like we were going to grow over time and not be forgotten, and that’s happened. I’m very pleased.”

Artist Steve Keene, who designed the cover for Wowee Zowee, has a longstanding relationship with the band, since he worked with Malkmus and Nastanovich at the University of Virginia’s radio station WTJU along with future Silver Jews frontman David Berman. “We just played these Fall and Swell Maps records all the time,” Keene recalls, “and it felt like this whole magical world, and there were maybe nine other people listening. But to me, Pavement was like the manifestation of those radio shows taken out into the rest of the world.”

“Pavement are a great example to young bands as to how you can conduct a career without doing anything crassly commercial or against your own will,” says filmmaker Lance Bangs, director of the 2002 Pavement documentary The Slow Century. “Just look at all their reissues. They dealt with the same label [Matador] for years and didn’t have to fight to get the rights to all their songs. They operated on their own terms. I’ve worked with a lot of bands, and Pavement are my favorite. And they were just magnanimous people in general. Even though they’re a bit older than me, I really feel like I grew up with that band, going through it all the way with them. And I hope to be up front with a handheld camera at some of their reunion shows, just shooting them for fun as a fan.”

Jack White echoes Bangs’ description of the band’s generosity. The White Stripes opened for Pavement in 1999 as a then fledgling act that had just released its first full-length, and White beamed in a recent Under the Radar interview, “They’re just great guys, all of them. And they even gave us an extra couple hundred bucks for gas money to help get us home when we were flat broke at the end of the tour.”

As the band’s most garrulous and affable member, Nastanovich provides a rather poignant yet self-deprecating summation of his feelings about his role in the band, which is analogous to the conflict at the heart of this seminal act, one of dismissing their cultural significance and emotional resonance via humor and obfuscation. “After Steve West joined, I got to make up all of my parts. They’re all easy to play. I could teach them to a 14-year-old kid like my nephew Tom and he could take my place. I don’t know if he could scream as loud, but that’s probably about the only difference,” Nastanovich laughs. “But it’s supposed to be fun. Unlike the other guys in this band who have continued to play music over the past 10 years, I haven’t. I miss entertaining people. That’s what you miss, the ability to entertain a lot of people all at once. It’s pretty exhilarating, and I hope that we don’t hit some sort of wall, because right now it seems lighthearted and fun, so we’re looking forward to seeing people enjoy our songs as much as we do.”


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The Higher Octave
April 5th 2011

I remember when this article came out. It was right after Pavement was announced to play Toronto and Osheaga, and right before I bought tickets for both shows. I live in Michigan and had to go to Canada for both shows, but it was well worth it.

I initially didn’t know what made Pavement so sweet to my ears, but after a while I stopped trying to figure out why they were so good, and just let the music play. Whether it’s their ability to grab you with their unexpected build-ups, unique and adventurous guitar breakdowns, or the fact that Malkmus may be one of the more underrated lyricists of all time, I think it’s pretty safe to say that Pavement was one of very few bands who defined the 90s.

Thanks for the article Under the Radar. I enjoyed reading it when it came out, and I enjoyed reading it now.

October 19th 2012

Pff, some of us are still under 30 and saw them back in the day. Twice in ‘99, Reading Festival and their final show at Brixton Academy. After he made the handcuffs joke, someone did a loud mock-laugh, throwing Malkmus off, and they had to start the song over. Plus Royal Trux got a lot of heckling. London audiences can be the worst….

October 20th 2012

You saw them “back in the day” eh? You want some kind of an award? Or do you think you’re better than someone who saw them in 2010?