Ahead of the album's release, and with plenty of coffee in his system, Malkmus hopped on the phone with Billboard for a casual, candid conversation about his creative process, "cringe-y" lyrics from his past, and why he got Kim Gordon to sing on a country song.
How does the album making process start for you? Do you think "time to make an album" and start from scratch, or do you just accumulate songs and then realize you have an album waiting to happen?
I don't know how much forecasting happens. It just kind of makes sense at a certain time. There might be a concept of well, it's been a while -- it's always playing at your mind. I tend to group songs in a certain style, for better or worse. Songs that are rock songs and ensemble songs, meant to be played loud, I think of in the Jicks style. I wait until I have some that go together, and sometimes I don't even know if that's a good idea, but that's what I did this time. You feel inspired sometimes – I don't know when it is -- but it builds up. I had some new recordings I did for a TV show called Flaked on Netflix and that got me down in the basement writing stuff more, but that was me by myself, I made that soundtrack music all by myself. But it kept me down there bashing out demos. I was trying out new drum programs, doing experiments – this one grew up down there. I had more material than some times to choose from.
Musically, this album is very diverse, more than usual for you I'd say.
Yeah. The only conscious thing was to try to be not too cringe-y on some of my lyrics. And I wanted to write songs that weren't relying on tricks. I wouldn't call it bullshit, but sometimes I'll listen back and think "why do I have that extra lead in there?" or a turnaround that's bizarre. So four to five songs I kept it really straight -- like "Shaky" or "Middle America," it's just real simple. Within that, yeah, I tried to paint some other corners. Some rock n' roll, some zig-zaggy things that I've done before. We brought in some extra players, got some strings in there, Chris Funk [of the Decemberists to produce]. I gave him some freedom. He was like "I think we should have strings on this" -- and I wouldn't have done it, I wouldn't have made the effort, I would have stuck to my demo. He had a bunch of pedals, guitar pedals, which is kind of mundane, but I'm like okay, let's throw those in, you like them, I'm not wedded to my guitar sound. Some of that was different. And then opportunity to fuck around in my home studio in the mixing, like Auto-Tune and different effects I wouldn't have got to if it was recorded in a week and you live with the results – that cinéma vérité style, like the last record. Also there was more conceptualizing going on.
On paper, Auto-Tune on a Stephen Malkmus song doesn't seem like it would work, but it actually is pretty organic. Were you nervous at all about using it?
Yeah, no, it's slightly risky – this is relative. The tune it's best on is called "Rattler" and it works on the song because it's spooky, there's some Internet subject to it and the music is scary sci-fi metal, by our standards. I was just "let's see how it goes." With Auto-Tune, you kind of like it right away if you're just listening to it yourself and not thinking what anybody else thinks. It's something different, and you thought of it, so you're immediately biased to like it. "Aren't I clever, isn't this edgy, what will people think?" It's good to have a band, to get thumbs up from peanut gallery. It's not something I would force through without vetting. That's human, you ask around and develop consensus, politics of the band. It's a smaller sample size of the world. It's like when I ask album titles – "I have 20, I really don't know which one's good." I haven't since Brighten the Corners, I knew that one was good so I didn't ask anyone, I was like "that's the title," but almost every other time I send it to my friends and ask "what do you think? What vibe does that give you?" Conceivably you could do through every song but that's risky and negative because you could end up with a conservative present day bias because of your label vs. what's artistically good or good for you -- or they might be wrong, too. But the album title is different. End of the day, I get to pick. Someone can say something and I can say, "no you're wrong." You don't know for sure how your words float out there, and I'd just as soon, if it's relatively easy and there's people I can trust, get some feedback. Sometimes for the better. It's hard to say. But like [Captain Beefheart's] Trout Mask Replica -- if he had been asking people what to do all the time, it wouldn't have been this amazing thing. I think over the years, there's a consensus that it's never going to be a bad album.