Diamond Sharp: Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich In Conversation

The indie rock legend reflects...

Pavement are one of the best-loved bands of the 90s. Formed in California in 1989, the group – made up of Stephen Malkmus, Spiral Stairs, Mark Ibold, Steve West and Bob Nastanovich – released five full-lengths to critical acclaim. They disbanded at the turn of the millennium, before touring in 2010 and returning in 2022. They have a few more shows scheduled this year.

Clash talked to Bob Nastanovich, ever warm and genial, about this year, upcoming and recent dates, and his “unique” role in the group, among other things.

This year, Pavement have played in Japan, Australia and New Zealand. It was a “really enjoyable tour” until Melbourne, where Nastanovich fell off stage, leaving him with “pretty severe injuries to both legs”. He had to miss the Geelong date and was briefly in a wheelchair, à la Nirvana 1992. He considers himself lucky it wasn’t worse and admits that doing the New Zealand shows and then taking a 14-hour flight home was “ill-advised”. 

 For the past few weeks, he has been in England, recovering, “enjoying the horses and horse-racing” – two of his broodmares had babies this year – and spending time with friends. He says he has “turned a corner” and is looking forward to the upcoming Pavement shows, which came as “unexpected” and “delightful” news. Unexpected, because it is Malkmus who, rightly, “makes the call”, and last year they did about 50 shows, almost all of them between September and November.

The next run commences in Salt Lake City, before Bilbao, then Macclesfield, where they headline Bluedot festival, their only UK show of the year. Playing next to a massive telescope is “pretty exciting”, “a thrilling opportunity,” he exclaims. “It seems to me conceptually like an unusually cool festival with perhaps slightly more emphasis on brain power than sheer partying”. He laughs as he likens certain British festivals a few decades ago to “teenage drug experiences”.

At the end of July, after a stop in Galway, Pavement will play three shows in Reykjavik, their first time there, where they will be tasked with drawing up three unique setlists. This task falls to Nastanovich, the most “organised” and “willing to do them”. He says they’ll have to learn 12 to 15 new songs, one of which, he reveals, may well be a cover of an obscure 70s Australian hard rock song. “Not the strength of my game,” he acknowledges. Like ‘Witchi Tai-To’, which the group have covered recently, it was Malkmus’s idea: he has “some real obscure gems in his Australian file”. 

Nastanovich says he needs to put together the setlists imminently. It’s about making band and audience members alike happy, although he knows he can count on the fans “cheering us on, hoping that we play well”, “the same way they would a football side or any other team” (members of the band are known to follow Hull City). He admits:

“Lord knows, back in the 90s we would miss the target with frequency, and in the end, that’s part of the entertainment. Some people really don’t mind it when you’re awful, but as somebody that has played many times and watched things sort of disintegrate, it’s a sick feeling that at this point in my adulthood is best avoided.” 

He suggests that as Pavement have considerably fewer concerts scheduled in 2023, it would be “inexcusable” to be “flat” and lacking spirit. Ultimately, it’s a “real thrill to be in Pavement, playing Pavement.”

This “thrill” is likely to have been felt by those who have seen Pavement live over the last year, at the four sold-out Roundhouse shows last October, for example. There is a “very good feeling amongst the members”, and their playing is masterfully tight and playful as old songs are reactivated and extended. “We’re always supremely happy to have the opportunity to play our music, especially in this era in which we really feel that, as live performers, we’re as good as we’ve ever been,” he says. He credits keyboardist and backing vocalist Rebecca Clay Cole, who joined the group on tour last year, for “bolstering our musicianship and our confidence”. 

The group had a say in selecting most of the support acts. At the Roundhouse, there were, BEAK> and Richard Dawson (“we’re all huge fans”), for example, and elsewhere they tried to select younger groups, to make it a bit “more interesting” and in a move to mirror the make-up of the audience. The audiences at recent shows are, indeed, a mix of young people, who may well have discovered them, bizarrely, through ‘Harness Your Hopes’, and those who caught them the first time round. We discuss how a Pavement gig is often a “family affair” – his nephews are all fans – but “not in cringey way at all”. Before this interview, the writer’s father reminded him how he once saw Pavement alongside Broadcast (“a brilliant band”, Nastanovich adds), Mogwai and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci.

In Pavement, Nastanovich was originally tasked with keeping time, as Gary Young, the group’s first drummer, struggled to be reliable. Nastanovich praises the new documentary about Young, Louder Than You Think. It offers, more than just a portrait, “a very clear-cut and definitive history of the early days of Pavement”. After Steve West joined the band, Nastanovich moved to backing vocals and screaming, percussion, keyboards and general “toying around”. “I have a unique set of freedoms,” he remarks. “I’m not really tied down to a stringed instrument or a drum kit or anything like that, so I can sort of make my own way.” On record, his contributions are sometimes “mixed high enough just based on sheer luck”, but live, he really embraces his role as a kind of hype man, especially in the post-Covid era, with fans tending to exhibit “unbridled enthusiasm” after two concert-less years.

Surprisingly, he admits that what he does live is “anxiety based”: “when you’re playing live shows, no matter how long you’ve done it, or no matter how many people you’re playing for, if there isn’t a substantial amount of nervous excitement, then maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.” He doesn’t understand how other musicians can be so “blasé” about it.

Of “fairly ancient” artists touring again now, Nastanovich says, “I guess there’s a lot of money to be made…” and, of course, “some people retain their singing voices and other things longer than others – it’s just the same way in sport that some people continue to be effective in their 40s”.

He notes that in his youth, people his age were making such interesting music that “didn’t have to do this nostalgia fest thing and listen to bands that were 20, 30, 40 years old, like the kids do today”. He preferred to see bands you could see live and admits he wouldn’t have been bothered by The Velvet Underground had they not been name-checked by R.E.M, for example. These days, he notices how a lot of “substantially younger” bands cite Pavement as an influence. 

While at college, he spun tracks on its radio station, worked in a “great” record shop and often went to concerts. Buying records involved a lot of “guess work”, based on “album sleeves”, “fonts”, “aesthetic” and “word of mouth”. “I bought a lot of shitty records, but you could sell them back for about half what you paid for them!” We discuss the remarkable Terror Twilight sleeve (the album was reissued last year) and its surprising source, Jean Lurçat’s monumental ‘Le Chant du monde’ tapestry.

How we discover new music is so different now, he develops. He mentions a podcast he has been doing for a few years, in which he and Mike Hogan discuss and critique three songs by three bands. It’s taken a backseat since he left on tour, as he has realised it can be hard to be honest. He seems well aware of the good treatment Pavement have had from critics but believes it can get under the skin of others sometimes, making them “kind of an easy target”. Anyway, “it’s probably not a good idea to be in a band and diss other bands in general, unless you do it in a really effective manner,” he opines. 

Currently, he’s big on all kinds of music, but is especially full of praise for French music from the last five years: “I think there’s been some absolutely brilliant bands – I’d love to be able to see them live!” Unfortunately, he resides in the wrong Paris, in Tennessee. 

Throughout our conversation, the words “era” and “generation” crop up regularly, as you’d expect of a band who were keenly sensitive to their position in music and time. Malkmus sung so archly “fight this generation”; ‘Fillmore Jive’ is a long “good night to the rock ‘n’ roll era”. But with Pavement, it’s not a case of a simple opposition between past and present, nor is it a simple “nostalgia fest”, as Nastanovich puts it. “When the real is no longer what it was, nostalgia assumes its full meaning,” Baudrillard famously wrote, and yet it seems as though we are not there yet, with the live shows allowing the group and fans young and old to (re)discover a sound that has always remained strikingly authentic and original. 

The group remain grounded: towards the end of our conversation, Nastanovich says “it’s lovely to be in this era” with everyone “trying their best”, but cautions “it wasn’t always that way, or else the band would have carried on past 1999”. No one can really say what they’ll do next, and that makes each Pavement show this summer an unmissable event.

Pavement play bluedot Festival this summer. bluedot runs between July 20th – 23rd.

Words: Wilf Skinner
Main Photo: Tarina Westlund
Inset Live Photo: Eleonora Collini

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