Illustration by OLAF HAJEK
Being Stephen Malkmus is … easy. You’re born upper-middle class in Los Angeles, the son of a general property/casualty insurance agent. You live on Citrus Avenue in the City Of Angels, where the sun shines all the time. When you’re eight, you move upstate to the tony suburban subdivisions of Stockton, where you’ll live out your formative years. You meet this kid named Scott Kannberg on your soccer team. You play wing. You learn to play guitar by aping Jimi Hendrix on “Purple Haze,” which features this tricky E chord. When you finally pull it off, you realize you can now play the guitar. You spend your puberty at all-ages punk shows. You even start a punk-rock band called the Straw Dogs, which sounds like a cross between the Adolescents, Wasted Youth and Dead Kennedys, as was the style at the time.
At age 18, you depart cross-country for the University of Virginia, because it’s the best school that accepted you and, besides, your old man went there. You have the distinct feeling you were one of the last students accepted because you’re assigned a room in the basement of the freshman dormitory, which you call a “ghetto for all the dumb kids.” You don’t complain, because even though you fill out the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink, you don’t test well and you only scored 1180 on your SATs. After a couple of years, you declare a major in history because you get the best grades in those classes._You meet David Berman, who will one day be regarded as one of the finest poets of your generation. You will one day make albums with him under the name Silver Jews. (You aren’t Jewish.) You will also meet a super-nice guy named Bob Nastanovich, who will one day talk you into co-owning a racehorse named Speedy Service with him. Who knows, you might even ask him to join your next band if you ever get around to starting one. The three of you become DJs at the college station and sit around drinking beer while raiding the deepest depths of the record stacks: Can, Chrome, Swell Maps, the Fall. These records will serve you well in due time. So well, in fact, that the Fall’s Mark E. Smith will one day curse you in the pages of Q magazine for riding his style to the bank. If someone told you this back in college, you would’ve never believed it.
You record an album under the band name Lakespeed, which even you have to admit sounds a little too derivative of Sonic Youth and the other college-radio superstars of the time. You send it around, but no label is interested. After graduating with a respectable 3.2 grade-point average and not even a vague clue as to what you want to do with your life, you go back to Stockton. You team up with Kannberg, because he’s the only one of your acquaintances who still lives there. He’s learned to play guitar. You make up aliases for each other: You call him Spiral Stairs, he calls you S.M. You record some songs for a seven-inch single you purposely try to make sound really bad, like Television Personalities or Chrome or Pere Ubu. Later, people will call this “lo-fi.” On the day you record, you’ll learn later, a grisly mass murder happens downstate, which is odd because you’ve already decided to call the seven-inch Slay Tracks.
You leave all the pedestrian details of pressing the singles and mailing them out to zines and record labels to Kannberg—who decides to call the project Pavement—and head out on a year-long backpacking trip across Europe. You’ll also visit Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, where you’ll hike out to the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which, in the Bible, is called Eden. When you get back, you’re amused to learn Slay Tracks has been well-received. You record another single called Demolition Plot J-7 and follow it up with a 10-inch called, rather archly, Perfect Sound Forever. The buzz builds. You move to New York to live with good ol’ Nastanovich. You and Berman get jobs as security guards at the Whitney Museum Of American Art, and to fill the endless ennui of standing for hours babysitting some of the greatest artistic achievements of Western culture, you make up an album’s worth of songs in your head.
Spending Christmas back in Stockton with your family, you record these songs. You call it Slanted And Enchanted. It will change music. It will change people’s lives. It will change your life. You’ll become the slacker prince of indie rock and, as befits the title, you’ll never have to work another day in your life. As leader of Pavement, you will, over the course of five well-received albums, spend the better part of the 90s zigging whenever your fanbase zagged, and the better part of the past decade cranking out the kind of wanky, Asberger-ian solo records that scare off women and try men’s souls. The latest is Sparkle Hard, his seventh, in support of which he is currently on a tour that brings him to the TLA on June 16th.
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