Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Pavement "Quarantine the Past"

Music scene's crazy, bands reform. This May there's another one, a special old band.

It surely can't have escaped you that Pavement are on the reformation trail, playing a sold out tour of Brixton Academy and showing off their good taste in music curating the ever excellent All Tomorrow's Parties festival. They've also compiled a damn fine collection of some of their best songs. It hangs together really well and was obviously sequenced by someone who knows the songs very well, as the way some songs compliment each others' endings and beginnings makes it seem like an album proper rather than a compilation. The day my CDR promo arrived in the post was the same day drummer Steve West's other band Marble Valley played at Dulcimer in Chorlton, and he told me Stephen Malkmus was mostly responsible for quarantining the past, which explains the way it all seems so seamless. He also told me the 23 featured songs give a pretty good idea of the set they'll be playing in May. This old interview dates back to the time of their fourth album and I thought I’d resurrect it here as Scott and Stephen discussed A Date w/IKEA and Embassy Row, both of which appear on the compilation.
I first spoke to Pavement back in the Slanted And Enchanted days. Squatting outside the Boardwalk on a warm summer evening, Scott Kannberg aka Spiral Stairs told me how he preferred the Replacements to the Fall.
Next time they were supporting Sonic Youth on the Dirty tour and just before the Leeds show I recorded some of the wit and wisdom of Stephen Malkmus and errant ex-drummer Gary Young. With hindsight it’s now clear that Steve was beginning to tire of Gary’s incessant wackiness. When Gary ranted about how he’d survive a nuclear war by finding a way to cook dead animals that would eliminate the radioactivity from their bodies, Steve joked exasperatedly, “You’ve got to shoot them right between the eyes with a silver bullet.”
Apparently Gary was kicked out of the band after pulling a gun on Steve. There’s only so much alcoholic unhingedness you can take and that was the last straw. These days he’s making dog kennels and selling them to passersby on his lawn in California.
With the release of their second album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain Pavement became the band that everyone wanted to talk to. At another show in Leeds interviewers shuffled backstage in a conveyer belt of continual questioning. I waited while a man from the radio pontificated at length to an increasingly bored looking Steve Malkmus, accompanied by ever affable drummer and latter day keyboard player Bob Nastanovitch, who later told me how happy he was to be living a range life in Kentucky.
With Pavement’s members increasingly spread out over a continent it must be a nightmare organising rehearsals. Any doubts about the viability of such a situation were allayed by the excellently divergent three sided Wowee Zowee album which had some of their best songs yet. However on the tour that followed they seemed relatively lacklustre and almost burnt out. So it was an especially joyous occasion when they packed out Liverpool’s tiny Lomax club sardine like and trotted out a bunch of new songs with the playful zest of their earliest shows. They even chucked in a cover of the Fall classic The Classical which was ironically almost unrecognisable in it’s sprightly mutation. “He hates us, he hates us,” moaned Steve after they finished it, but if anything this stunning reinvention was proof as if it were ever needed that Pavement are no mere plagiarists. However this was not the intention behind covering the song.
“It was fun to play and it’s an easy song. It’s four notes,” Scott told me backstage before their show at Manchester University, “The first time we played that was in front of fifty thousand people at the Tibet festival in San Francisco. We wanted to play a bunch of covers that day. In Liverpool we played it because we heard that Ian McCulloch was going to be in the audience. We knew he was a Fall roadie back in his day.”
Despite Mark E. Smith’s assertion that Pavement have never given the Fall credit as an influence it is well documented that they are fans. Scott’s enthusiastic enough to have not only a favourite Fall album but a top three: Grotesque, Bend Sinister and Extricate. He lost interest in them more recently but did buy and enjoy The Light User Syndrome.
“They’re the Guided By Voices of England!” proclaimed Scott, obviously referring to both bands’ longevity and lo-fi origins rather than any great musical similarities. MES would probably have a rant or two about that quote! Another thing he said was that Pavement would all bugger off to be accountants in a couple of years.
“I don’t understand that because there’s all these other bands,” complained Scott, “We just got offered to do this V97 festival and there are all these bands like Reef and Ash and Kula Shaker who sell way more records than us and I’ve never heard them before [lucky man]. We’d be way down the bill. They’ll be accountants, not us!”
Of course these days Pavement are a well established band with their own pack of imitators, the so-called “Pavement bands” such as the blatantly plagiaristic Sammy and the more tongue in cheek Urusei Yatsura. The one’s who really get Scott’s goat are Weezer.
“If it’s done in good humour it’s fine. I think Weezer on the other hand don’t do it that way. I think they’ve been created by some A&R person to be big. They’re terrible. It’s watered down and it’s got no soul. I could go off on them...”
Pavement have got soul. And style (miles and miles). They strive to make a bigger impression on the world than just entertaining their fans.
“We’ve always been more than entertainment. We’ve always wanted to make records that did something. I don’t know what we want them to do but we want to be part of rock history. That’s what we strive for: to make records that in twenty five years time someone will pick up or will know about them and say, “This is classic” like you can now with a Fall record.”
However Scott feels too much importance is placed on singers and the songs they sing. Like throwing things, kicking balls and dancing, singing and playing musical instruments can be viewed as an essentially childish activity, but one that human beings take very seriously.
“I think starting out it is (childish). But I think as time goes on it becomes, not more of a statement but kind of what you are. So you take things a little more seriously and you don’t treat everything as just a good old time because it gets to you. I would rather personally be at home hanging out with my wife and my friends. Nothing against you doing this interview, but going through Europe and touring was really fun the first few times but the eighth time you’ve seen it all before. The songs are fun to play live.”
And the songs are obviously what it’s all about. Scott sang two of the songs on Brighten The Corners, Passat Dream and A Date With IKEA, which has the enigmatic opening line “The actress is always breaking things.”
“That song is really about the West Coast of California where I live and people’s perception of the West Coast. That line was taken from this Everclear video I saw. They had this really slick video with this really beautiful model and in the video she’s breaking things. She’s supposed to be the girlfriend of the guy in the band. It’s really bad. That was my perception of what people probably think of California: models, actresses and LA. That’s totally LA. “The fitness coast” is what I call California. It’s about coming back to California from this other perception. It’s kind of based on this weird book called The Magic Lands, about all these things that brought people to the West Coast like Disneyland and Sun City. The title doesn’t have anything to do with the actual song, it’s just a good title I made up.”
Passat Dream is all about a car: “Passat is a type of Volkswagen. They have these agencies that make up names for brands of car. All the time they make up new names. That song’s about people’s perception of cars. Where I live I don’t want the type of car these people have. I want this other car that people think is ugly, Passat.”
We’d commandeered the Pastels dressing room for the interview because it was the quietest spot backstage, and when Steve Malkmus rushed through on his way to an important date with a scrabble board Scott grabbed him so he could explain some of his intriguing lyrics.
So I asked Steve what Embassy Row was all about, with its “men in dashikis with their leftist weeklies” A dashiki is a brightly coloured African shirt, by the way.
“It’s written from the perspective of a guy from America who’s been given an embassy post in an obscure country he’s never heard of because he gave a lot of money during an election. That’s how you get a post like that. He doesn’t really care about these people. He’s looking at them and he’s like, “Who are these common or weird little foreign people in their dashikis with their leftist weeklies?” It’s written from the point of view of someone who thinks of being an ambassador as a holiday. So he’s like, “Come visit me at my converted castle of Moorish design. Come stay the weekend and we’ll have some Martinis and relax.””
There’s a character called Conrad Hilton mentioned in the album’s closing track Infinite Spark who is in fact a Mormon who owns a lot of hotels. That song seemed to me to be about claustrophobia and overpopulation.
“Well, initially it is, yeah. It’s also about the expansion of the Mormon church. There are these people and they’re trying to proselytise and they also build these really strange churches, with strange architecture all over the city building out from the church, and they try to take over everything. But they’re a very hardworking group of people and they’re very successful. The Mormons are very successful but they have to give ten per cent of their wage to the church or even more.”
In fact there’s a good deal of religious imagery on Brighten The Corners, especially on that song and Transport Is Arranged.
“There is more than you would think for someone so apparently atheist as me. I had this interview with this Jewish paper and evidently they thought I was Jewish because I was in the band the Silver Jews. We went through the whole thing and then he said, “So tell me about your faith and what you believe.” So I lied and said my mother was half Jewish but she renounced (her faith). I made up this serpentine lie and felt really bad after it.”
That night Pavement surprised everyone by playing a cover of the Velvet Underground song What Goes On. The Velvet Underground are another band they’ve had a lot of comparisons with, and this time around Type Slowly is the song that has definitely been influenced by that band. What Goes On strikes a balance, being on the album that came between Scott’s favourite, White Light/White Heat, and Steve’s favourite, Loaded.
They’ve also covered The Killing Moon, perhaps the most famous song written by another band that’s been a big influence on Pavement, Echo And The Bunnymen. They recorded it for “The Evening Session” and it’ll eventually see the light of day on a Matador compilation. They were planning to release a compilation of Peel sessions, but these have now emerged as extra tracks in the expanded reissues double CDs of their albums. The first session included a full band version of Here and three other songs that have never been officially released, whilst the second was entirely improvised after Gary Young failed to turn up at the BBC studios.
Scott’s also a big REM fan and thinks it would be great to quit touring for a while like they did because, “Playing live takes its toll.” He’d like to be in their position but wouldn’t be happy with the kind of marketing ploy that had no less than six singles released to promote Automatic For The People.
“That’s fucked up because that band seem like a band that cares about what they put out. There’s no reason for that. They’re just trying to sell the record. I think if we ever got in that position I don’t think we’d lose that kind of control.”
They recorded Brighten The Corners with old REM producer Mitch Easter partly because they love Murmur and Reckoning but mostly because he’s got a great studio and is a nice guy. We spoke a while about the relative merits of REM records: Scott rates the first three and Automatic For The People as their best and Monster as their worst records. New Adventures In Hi-Fi was currently his favourite record to clean the house to.
Finishing with a cryptic question, I asked Scott just what you should keep under your best friend’s arm.
“Your hand. Your own arm is your best friend. If you didn’t have fingers or anything... to be even more cryptic!”

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