Stephen Malkmus
Stephen Malkmus
Giovanni Duca

Stephen Malkmus Talks Using Auto-Tune, Avoiding 'Cringe-y' Lyrics on New Jicks Album 'Sparkle Hard'

With the recent release of Sparkle Hard, we're now entering a period where Stephen Malkmus' output with the Jicks is far outpacing what he did with Pavement – Sparkle Hard is their seventh, whereas Pavement broke up after five LPs. Usually, when the frontman of a groundbreaking band is nearly two decades into his second act, you've reached the point in a career trajectory where all but the most diehard devotees tune out (and understandably so; more often than not, the creativity well has been sapped dry).

But Malkmus seems to have the musical equivalent of a Dorian Gray portrait in his attic, some mysterious trick that keeps his music vibrant and surprising. Of course, not every song on every Jicks album is a stunner, but the lion's share of their rewarding discography is stuffed with off-kilter, inventive indie rock buoyed by Malkmus' deft wordplay, which always stands in a charming contrast to his listless delivery.

In a lot of ways, Sparkle Hard is best of what you would hope from a Stephen Malkmus release in 2018: A musically and lyrically tight affair rooted in his 'classic' sound that still boasts more than a few surprises, including the generous use of Auto-Tune (which somehow sounds entirely organic in his world) and an unusually direct socio-political reference (the death of Freddie Gray in police custody).

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.

You mentioned "cringe-y" lyrics. Do you ever look back on albums or lyrics and think, "Ugh, wish I would've cut or changed that?"

Yeah. I had a song, "Senator" by the Jicks [with the lyric] "I know what the senator wants, a blow job." It was the first thing I sang, I didn't really think about it anymore. And no one bothered to say, "is that cool or does that wear off pretty fast?" [laughs]. Some stuff, you want to keep that spontaneity. There's lots of singing I wish I did again from back in the day, it's not even the vocals as much, "I could have taken another take" or "That's not as up as I wanted" or "it's a little bit boring." I think everyone has those. There's a certain… there's an excuse, almost, "well, this is what we came up with in two weeks, and that's what this album is about – this moment and what actually happened at this time, and that's what we were then." There's something to be said for that too, when it's wavering, out of tune vocals or lethargic performances. [Laughs] But people like them too sometimes.

"Bike Lane" stand out for me. You've always had pointed lyrics, but typically not referencing specific events with political significance. On this one you mention Freddie Gray – did you have a moment of pause before doing that?

That's true. Well, I just kept it as I made it up. There's certain lines I had to change, but as far as Freddie… Phonetically, the "beautiful bike lane" rolls off the tongue and it's something comic about being pissed off about your cohorts whining on bike lane forums. A small, not important problem, but there's a lot of mental energy spent on it and other things like that and other things in your town. I thought of maybe making the song all about absurd quasi-Instagram perfect cappuccino stuff, but cleverer than that, not low-hanging fruit. But then when I started singing it, it's like "what does your voice sound like on the rough mix," and the music was chugging, I thought it had to have something with police and leather boots and batons, something trudging. There's a song by Youth Brigade called "Men In Blue," That reminded me of punk rock, us against the cops, and Black Flag had a song called "Police Story" [sings] "they hate us, we hate them." I thought I could keep it more generally, but I wanted a name in the end. I wanted a protagonist. Freddie Gray was a story I followed closer than others for whatever reason, in this larger narrative of police brutality. These evolving stories in Missouri and New Orleans, they seem to be exploding onto the world. So I'm following that and thinking how fucked up it is, so I don't know. It's one of those questions where you're using something to tell a story, but I don't consider it using to… I don't know… it's not potentially un-kosher to talk about in a song. Hopefully the pissed-off-ness comes through and the absurdity of the different sides, the conflict of interest in what is meaningful to you comes through. Hopefully it's a powerful song in the end.

Yeah I got the sense of contrasting the absurdity of being upset about one thing when other much worse things are going on.

I think it'll be good live. It'll be a point of genuine intensity.

And you have Kim Gordon on "Refute," an old-timey country song. Which came first – the song, or the idea to record with her?

I had the song already, I had sang the second verse myself. We listened back and were like, "Eh it's good, but wouldn't it be fun if we had a female or just somebody else to sing the second verse?" The lyrics are coming from a woman's perspective anyway, so yeah, we were fantasy Rolodex-ing the type of people who would be fun. Why not dream? We got our group of people together, and everyone when I mentioned Kim, the overarching reaction – from the engineer to Chris – was like "yeah man you know her?" I was "yeah I know Kim, I'll ask, send it to her." She responds to my texts or whatever. And she was like "yeah sure." The lyrics were in the bag. I was more, initially, thinking to get more of a country singer, old Nashville or someone with some twang like Angel Olsen – I never asked her though – but then thought "why not do something unexpected?" It's not unexpected to have Kim play with me, but have her on this song (is). She was up for it. Flew up, hung out for a couple days, she was professional or whatever. She's super active, always has something going on.