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Stephen Malmus & the Jicks on “Sparkle Hard”

Golden Boy Grows Up

Oct 24, 2018 Photography by Giovanni Duca Issue #64 -  Kamasi Washington
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Stephen Malkmus begins his sixth album with The Jicks with a surprise. Having spent much of his post-Pavement career re-establishing the guitar solo at the center of his craft, the one-time golden boy of indie rock kicks off Sparkle Hard with a plaintive piano ballad. Opening with a simple run of notes and a few echoing chords, “Cast Off” is soon overrun with roaring guitars. But it’s a new look for himone that might take some getting used to for longtime listeners. “There was a review someone showed me at practice, where it said [the song] was ‘ironic Chop Sticks,’” Malkmus says with disgust. “There’s no irony in that! I was hoping for more of a Neil Young gravitas. Simple but direct. Not ‘Chop Sticks,’ which is simple and direct but not the way I wanted it to be.”

Long gone are the days when Malkmus could be accused of irony. Today, the now 52-year-old former Pavement frontman seems to be in a good place, working on some leftover recorded material in the Portland studio where he and The Jicks recorded Sparkle Hard. While he appears to be comfortablewith his legacy, the evolution of his craft, and his status as an indie rock elder statesmanhe is not complacent. Aside from a handful of tracks composed on piano-a first for Malkmusthere’s also what he acknowledges is the most topical song he has ever written. With “Bike Lane,” a Stones-y rocker where Malkmus contrasts the symbolism of urban hipster amenities with the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man killed by police officers in Baltimore, he created a biting political anthem that is distinctly his own. Doing so involved no small amount of risk.

“I kind of thought I was self-owning that risk by having the bike lane,” he explains. “The contrast was saying, ‘When you have privileged people that don’t live in Baltimore and don’t deal with police brutality, but you do feel empathy and outrage nonetheless, that’s valid to feel that.’ But to sing about it, I can spin a narrative in which it’s a slacker guy just trying to tell people about what they should be worrying about. It’s not a good look and irritating to me, potentially, if I didn’t like me. But I just played it and people didn’t warn me off it,” he says with a laugh. “I blame the rest of band, not me.”

Nearly 30 years since Pavement defined the sound of indie rock for a new generation, Malkmus says it’s not difficult for him to find new ways to challenge himself so much as it’s daunting to make his experiments work. For better or worse, most artists really only do one or two things well, he says, and influential artists, in particular, have to wrestle with having their best ideas absorbed into the culture and made commonplace by others.

“And by the time you get back to what you did, the idea of what’s good has already changed,” he says. “It’s just like I was listening to ‘Eruption’ by Eddie Van Halen. When it came out in 1978, it was incredible. But now people are like, ‘What’s that?’ It’s just another guitar solo. It’s like ‘I can play that.’ So if Eddie made that solo now, it wouldn’t matter. What can you do to keep up?” he says with a sigh that fades into a laugh. “It’s exhausting.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s Issue 64 (August/September/October 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

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