Stephen Malkmus, Portland 6/8/11 by JONATHAN VALANIA
COWBELL: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, satire is a close second. After all, everyone knows you’re nowhere until your locale is brilliantly lampooned in Twitter-iffic, Hulu-able form. Case in point is Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s hipster burlesque Portlandia, a loving mockery of the bluest city on the angry red planet that is the USA circa now: All lattes and tattoos, skunk weed and microbrews, unlimited wireless for all, a free-range chicken in every pot, and everyone gets around on solar-powered tofu bicycles.
This is the place that Stephen Malkmus—the aging slacker princeling, the man Courtney Love called the Grace Kelly of Indie Rock—has called home for the last decade. He lives here with his wife, the noted artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins, and two daughters (6-year-old Lottie and 3-year-old Sunday) in a fairly palatial two-story spread that lists for in excess of a half a million dollars. Clearly excited to have a visitor, Lottie runs up to me and drops one of those priceless out-of-the-mouths-of-babes bon mots: “Have you ever been to California? I got a hot dog there!” Portland has served as home base for his post-Pavement solo career where, abetted by an ever-shifting line-up of Jicks, he has cranked out five albums of critically acclaimed but modest-selling albums. So, it comes as no small surprise when his wife lets it slip that the Malkmuses (Malkmae?) are moving to Berlin.
“We’re gonna try it for a year,” Malkmus says with a shrug. “After that, who knows? We could leave this all behind. I’ve been here a long time. We had our kids here and this is a good place for that. But Jessica never wanted to live here. She kind of got shanghaied; she moved into my house. She’s made a great effort to join this town, but at the end of the day it’s really just a big small town and it can be a little stifling intellectually compared to a big city like New York where she used to live.”
But what about the Jicks? They all live in Portland. “Yeah, they weren’t too happy about it when I told them,” he admits. “But I was like, now we’ll have a home base when we tour Europe.”
The next day the band rehearses in the basement of longtime Jicks bassist Joan Bolme’s charming bungalow, where they’re breaking in new drummer Jake Morris, who has replaced the recently departed Janet Weiss, formerly of Sleater-Kinney and currently of Wild Flag. The practice space is rec room fresh, low-ceilinged and bedecked with Christmas lights, gig fliers and anvil cases marked PAVEMENT guarded by two big shaggy dogs named Earl and Gracie.
Malkmus is wearing earplugs and seated next to his amp and trusty Moog, as he puts the new guy through his paces. From a distance, he looks the same as he ever did peering out from the cover of any number of long-gone glossy alt-rock mags back in the ’90s—boyishly handsome, untucked and smirking like the veritable cat who swallowed the canary—with only the faint hint of crow’s feet around his eyes betraying his 45 years. He is trading jokey anecdotes with his fellow Jicks, which, in addition to Bolme and Morris, are rounded out by guitarist/keyboardist Mike Clark, who Malkmus likes to introduce as the only guy he knows who still buys R.E.M. albums. MORE
EXCLUSIVE VIDEO: “No One Is As I Be”
PREVIOUSLY: I’m driving Stephen Malkmus’ car. In America, that’s tantamount to possessing someone’s soul. But wait, it gets better: I’m listening to Slanted And Enchanted—make that Malkmus’ copy of Slanted And Enchanted—and it sounds great as I tool down the sun-kissed streets of Portland, Ore., with the windows down and the stereo up. There’s a parking ticket flapping beneath the windshield wiper—and it bores me. I look around at all the people, and I just don’t care. Not a care, really, in the world. I am, for a moment, Stephen Malkmus, fortunate son. Listen to me, I’m on the stereo.
Actually, I’m driving Malkmus’ girlfriend’s car. Which you would know is even better if you’ve ever seen his girlfriend. Her name is Heather Larimer, and she’s beautiful and bright and 28. She was a cheerleader and she has a master’s degree in creative writing—a major-league summer babe (AOL Keyword: Babia Majora). By the time you read this, you may have already seen her singing in Malkmus’ new band, the Jicks. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up.
I’m driving Malkmus’ girlfriend’s car because I’ve come to Portland to find out what it means to be Stephen Malkmus (AOL Keyword: Laconic), and the first thing he wants to do is get a friggin’ battery for his car. It’s a 1989 Acura Legend, and it’s been stranded for months in front of his former apartment up in the rich, old-money part of town. Up here, on this faintly Olympian perch where even modest homes list for $300,000, we sit waiting for the AAA guy. Malkmus, the man Courtney Love called “the Grace Kelly of indie rock,” doesn’t want to be interviewed yet, and it isn’t like I know him from Adam; for that matter, after spending three days with him, I will still not really know him from Adam. Aside from a bit of strained small talk, my first half hour or so in the company of one of indie rock’s most acclaimed wordsmiths is spent in silence, watching him clean out his trunk. A soggy copy of an old income-tax form. A Thin Lizzy album. A rumpled suit bag and battered dress shoes, probably last worn to the funeral of his friend Robert Bingham (author of a collection of short stories called Pure Slaughter Value and heir to a publishing fortune). Bingham died from a heroin overdose in the fall of 1999. “I don’t think he was really that into it,” Malkmus will tell me later. “I think he just tried it with this girl … ” The rest of the thought trails off in deference to the privacy of the dead. MORE