Following a move to Berlin with his family, Stephen Malkmus is back to his home base of Portland, Oregon, with a new record — “Wig Out at Jagbags,” with the Jicks — and a tour launching in North America in Denver, CO on Feb. 14. While promoting the new disc, the former Pavement frontman spoke with Billboard about the Jicks, his love for humor in songwriting, and his hatred of social media.?
Billboard: What was different with this album, coming after a Pavement reunion tour?
Malkmus: It’s been good times in Jicks land. We’re riding a wave of shark glory. It started during the Pavement reunion time. It’s just a matter of laying down stuff out on the 4-track and ProTools. I guess just imagining what a live band would sound like. So I do that, and then send it to the band.
You wrote much of this album after a move to Berlin for two years. How do you think your surroundings shaped the storytelling on this record, if at all?
Maybe a certain American narrative is apparent, just from being on my own there a bit. It was definitely an isolated time for me, not in a bad way, but it was just me and my family. We had a little posse. You know you get entangled in your life and your friends’ circle, it’s a good thing. You wouldn’t want it to stop in your own town. But when you go somewhere else, it’s like, what do you do?
I messed around creatively. Being in Europe, it’s similar to America in a lot of ways. It’s nice to be away from the media saturation and our country is kind of fucked up, not that the rest of the world isn’t. I think you can feel better about your politics if you live in Germany than in America, but I’m not writing those kinds of songs.
You’re back in Portland now. What has been the biggest adjustment since getting back?
It takes a while just to get right back into the loudness. In America in general, whether it’s an imagined narrative, there’s sort of a self-invention. You can write your own story a little more than you can somewhere like Germany. People seem to be more conscious of their place and what it should be, and they respect it too!
In the song “Lariat” I love the lyric “we grew up listening to the music of the best decade ever.” What to you was so special about the tunes you grew up with?
I was trying to write something that Taylor Swift would write, or maybe even more Katy Perry. I was thinking in wide ways. For me I’m a seventies guy, and sometimes when you’re in your early adolescence or when the chicks are just a little older, and kind of out of your reach, they’re the ones you sort of like at that young age. Seventies chicks and seventies rock.
Of the crop of up and coming bands now, who are you a fan of? Who excites you?
Have you heard the Magic Markers? They’re a noise wave band on Drag City. I really like them. Kurt Vile on Matador is amazing. Cass McCombs, another singer-songwriter dude. And then a lot of people mention some Pavement-y bands like Parquet Courts and Joanna Gruesome. I like that.
There’s a lot of humor on the record with song titles “Scattegories” and “Cinnamon and Lesbians.” Is humor a big part of your creative process?
Sometimes it’s going to be biting humor. Some of my favorite bands have a funny element, like the Velvet Underground and ‘Sister Ray,’ it sounds dark but it’s a song about a bunch of transvestites shooting drugs and having an orgy. He’s just fucking with the crowd a bit, so that’s kind of what I’m doing. If it’s goofier than that it leads to kind of a temporal feeling potentially to the music, which is sort of a rock’n’roll no-no. You’re supposed to be writing in these wide swaths of angst, oppression or rebellion, but I can’t. I’m hoping that that mode is sort of outdated. In the end it’s an attempt to be original or true to our own thing. That’s better even if it might suffer historically (laughs).
How do you feel about the state of the industry right now with streaming services sort of dominating and fans listening to your music in that realm? Are you optimistic?
I don’t know about the industry. It seems to keep going! Matador is still here with Beggars. I haven’t seen a royalty check in a long time — that’s probably a bad sign. They’re promoting the record. I’m more of a YouTube guy myself. That’s what I use to listen and how I hear things. It’s way better than Twitter or Facebook. Twitter’s just words and the most generic programming. I can’t believe it’s worth anything. That’s Silicon Valley trying to advance us with a basic thing like white bread.
You’re heading out on tour soon. Are you excited?
Yeah. We’re traveling ostensibly. Going to Leeds is always on my checklist as vacation destination. We’re going there and there’s a lot of things to see there, a lot of monuments to English folly. We’re going to Manchester. London’s got the Tower of London, Tate Museum, Covent Gardens is nice, a lot of vegetarian restaurants. Maybe we’ll see a play. Theatre is quite successful there too! It’s amazing for me to see that the Broadway shows are still a valid business model. It’s impressive to me.