Hunkered Down in the Witty Bunker: Stephen Malkmus Matches Smarts With Silliness

Stephen Malkmus isn't very impressed with the current state of film. He's not reading or hearing anything that moves him too much, either, and he's baffled by the Internet's ubiquitous impact on modern life. It's safe to say that Malkmus, whose work with Pavement essentially created the template for the next two decades of brainy, irreverent indie rock, isn't religiously checking social media for the latest updates on popular culture trends.

"When you're looking at music, movies, and literature, it's kind of a garbage time right now," says Malkmus, who comes to S.F. this week with his current band, the Jicks. "Other than television, which is kind of on a roll of brilliance, everything out there is pretty underwhelming."

Sentiments like those should make it no surprise that, despite his much-discussed move to Berlin and his self-professed interest in the electronic music scene there, Malkmus' latest album — the unfortunately titled Wig Out at Jag Bags — hews closely to the squalling sound he's perfected over his career. Anyone curious to see if Malkmus could somehow pull off a Kraftwerk-infused Jicks album — or even something in the contemporary vein of popular electronic indie acts like M83 or Chvrches — will still be wondering after this effort.

"I was feeling that with this band, we didn't need some dramatic reshuffling of the deck," says Malkmus, who is now living back in his adopted hometown of Portland after two years in Germany. "I thought this was the right sound that someone would want to hear from us. I think about our audience, and what they would expect from us. Things are happening a billion seconds an hour in music right now, and I just wanted to coach it this way and have a sound that is this sound."

At 47, Malkmus is not some curmudgeonly rock star bitterly grousing about how "they don't make 'em like they used to." He has never shown even the remotest interest in remaining lock-step with contemporary music, so his decision to remain resolutely "Malkmus" doesn't make his latest album with the Jicks a disappointment. It's actually far from one. He reins in the guitar-noodling that diluted some of the songs on his previous album, Mirror Traffic, while retaining a range of rock sounds. The album is witty and nonsensical, engaging and insouciant, smart and stupid — contrarian characteristics that have graced Malkmus' many high-water marks, from Pavement's fan-adored Wowee Zowee to his 2005 solo album, Face the Truth.

The jittery, swooshing album opener "Planetary Motion" and the slow-burning triumphant power pop of "Surreal Teenagers" feel like unreleased tracks from the Pavement classic Brighten the Corners. There are plenty of spontaneous, left-field recordings like "Shibboleth" to keep his more devout fans happy, and Malkmus dedicates nearly an entire song, "Chartjunk," to basketball trash talk. Only Malkmus — an avowed sports geek — could make the connection between young ball-hogs and the damning riddles of mortality.

"I used that relationship of the coach and the headstrong young player to create a dialogue about youthful confidence versus the wisdom of age," he says, adding that the song was inspired by Lou Reed's "Coney Island Baby." "It's about how you feel indestructible when you're young and how we like that in our young heroes, but meanwhile there is this sort of super ego of control that's also needed in this world."

It's beyond the point of cliché to describe the slackerisms associated with Malkmus, and his droll and monotone vocal delivery can seem to convey a perpetual state of uninterest. But it would be pure folly to consider his work with the Jicks — a group that has now been together longer than Pavement (!) — as a second act that doesn't draw his full focus.

He may have no intention of reinventing the wheel at this point, or becoming the latest rocker to drop the guitar, but his latest effort is proof that's he capable of writing wholly unique, intriguing music that still contains traces of his trademark weariness and skepticism. Malkmus in 2014 is neither the arrogant young rookie nor the grizzly old veteran he sings of in "Chartjunk." He's now a steady musician with just enough mercurial dash to keep people guessing.

A perfect example of that is his take on new music: While he expresses disdain at its current state, he concedes that he resides outside of its epicenter. "I'm not in the prime position to really know what's going on. I don't know what's what," he says. "It's an entertainment situation for the Jicks right now. We're not just trying to sell a record, and we don't have that much to prove."

Never the sentimental type, Malkmus hasn't paid much attention to the hype this year surrounding the 20th anniversary of Pavement's second, beloved album, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. But he is finally loosening the strictures on what constitutes a Jicks show, even allowing for some Pavement songs to seep their way into the setlist (alongside covers from strange bedfellows like the Steve Miller Band and Black Sabbath.) "Yeah, we're just a band that people pay $20 to see, but we have a real close connection to our fans," he says. "We know people like us. They're willing to make time in their day and their world, and that's pretty fucking cool."

 
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