Scattegories: Stephen Malkmus Interviewed

"I mean, I just come up with tunes..."

Stephen Malkmus is nothing if not contradictory. The middle-class kid who was thrown out of high school after (not) taking drugs, the songwriter whose acclaimed work comes with absolutely no plan whatsoever, all the while indulging in the kind of musical self-sabotage which results in the finest, most unexpected of art.

Oh, and he’s called his latest album ‘Wig Out At Jagbags’. Somehow, all of this is designed to make sense…

“I mean, I just come up with tunes,” he sighs. “I don’t really know why, I just like to do it. There’s no real reason, I guess. By this point it’s just natural. I ask myself that sometimes. I feel like I’m still trying to have something to say or some way to say it that’s relevant to society.”

Skewed, angular and frequently surreal, Malkmus has been gradually refining that songwriting voice for two decades. ‘Wig Out At Jagbags’ is another instalment in that discography, one that finds him grappling with new sights, sounds – all of which are viewed through that unique lens, of course.

“If you like this kind of music or this idea, you can come to us for it,” he insists, before adding: “No one else is really doing it. I guess I’m not tired of it yet.”

Not that Malkmus is entirely self-deprecating – even the former Pavement member recognises flashes in his work. “There are always some lyrics I think are really good. I definitely sometimes pat myself on the back. But a lot of it just comes out and I sorta hope it’s good. I don’t really try to think twice.”

‘Wig Out At Jagbags’ is, for better or worse, a Stephen Malkmus record. Yet this is far from solo fare, with The Jicks once again fleshing out the songwriter’s work, allowing his statements to reach fruition. Recorded in rural Belgium, it’s a rock ‘n’ roll record produced in the most un-rock‘n’roll of environments.

“It could have been anywhere. I mean, I’ve done records in New York City and you can still focus, it’s just how you go out afterwards in New York – you go out to some shitty bar, but in Belgium you just go back to a farmhouse and drink wine or something. There’s nowhere to go! I think with most bands, live shows are fun, but making a record is a special thing. It’s like a Christmas present or something.”

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'Cinnamon And Lesbians', from 'Wig Out At Jagbags' 

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Slowly introducing The Jicks to his new material, Malkmus admits that the band would often simply roll their eyes at his reference points. “One would call them slightly dubious in a certain way, if you’re being a hip Internet kid these days,” he admits. “There’s like some Billy Joel and The J. Geils Band, Chicago. They are not things I would normally touch, but I would kind of like to see if I can reappropriate some of these things. At this point, what’s even cool anymore? And who cares? If we’re cool then it’s cool, but how far can you take almost kitschy elements and make them work?”

The answer? Very far, perhaps too far for some members of the group. “They just fly in and laugh,” he grins. “They just roll their eyes. I’m not really good at imitating, luckily, at this point. It always ends up sounding like me somehow. I mean, the first song, ‘Planetary Motion’: in my mind I’m singing like Ozzy Osbourne, but I can’t sound like him and never will. So maybe I’m picking the right people to imitate. I’m so far away from Ozzy Osbourne that it kinda doesn’t matter, really.”

Lead track ‘Cinnamon And Lesbians’ was seemingly inspired by “this West Coast, '60s jam band-style thing”, but lyrically it owes a wry debt to the Pacific Northwest. A knowing look at Portland, Oregon, the song pokes at “the kind of funny absurdities of liberal thought,” Malkmus muses. “Alongside the acid and tripping and wanting to believe that the world should be free, there’s also a lot of poverty... life should be free for those people too! It’s not funny necessarily, but there’s this liberal guilt-thing, like, 'We’ll try to get rid of your head-lice for free!’ It’s basically Portland – this psychedelic idea of Portland.”

At home in one of the United States' liberal hubs, Malkmus also sticks out. Probing the insecurities of liberal America, the songwriter sparks an odd comparison to the Grateful Dead – and in a certain light, he could almost be describing himself.

“Over in America, I mean, it’s sort of an institution, a way of life, even,” he says. "I think everyone who’s a music fan in America has a take on the Dead. It’s a pretty big story, and they’re also kind of out there on their own – I mean, they’re really kind of in their own narrative, rather than just the '60s or something, because it went on for so long. For many young people in the '80s they were like a gateway band to outsider culture, in their minds at least. They’re an interesting band.”

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Words: Robin Murray
Photos: Leah Nash

'Wig Out At Jagbags' is out now on Domino. Find Stephen Malkmus online here.

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Listen to 'Wig Out At Jagbags' in full via Deezer, below...

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