Reflected Glory – Stephen Malkmus

On the Beck produced 'Mirror Traffic'

After last year’s triumphant – and temporary – Pavement reunion, Stephen Malkmus returns to his day-job with the release of The Jicks’ fourth album, ‘Mirror Traffic’. Opting to use a producer for the first time on a Jicks’ record, fate decreed that Malkmus chose Beck to oversee ‘Mirror Traffic’ in a collaboration made in 90s-slacker-icon heaven.

When Clash speaks to Malkmus, he is relaxing at a Soho boutique hotel, having jetted crossed the Atlantic the previous day. He seems relaxed – if understandably jaded – and happily chats about the reunion of his iconic band, his admiration for the current wave of new artists trying to imitate the Pavement sound and – more tangentially – his grudging respect for Basildon’s finest – Depeche Mode. “I talked a lot about Depeche Mode yesterday for some reason,” he tells Clash after we inadvertently direct him onto the subject. “I’m not saying they were ever a hip band, but their electronic dance music has definitely been validated by the chillwave scene.”

Thankfully, we quickly get Stephen back on agenda. ‘Mirror Traffic’ is a 15-track opus which he describes as “a sprawling album but with lots of tight little songs and twists and turns, a little like [Pavement’s classic album] ‘Wowee Zowee’.” The record will be the last Jicks’ release to feature Janet Weiss on drums – she has since handed over the sticks to ex-Joggers skin-thumper Jakes Morris. And, in Clash’s humble opinion, while a little pruning wouldn’t have gone amiss ‘Mirror Traffic’ contains some of Malkmus’ most accessible songs in over a decade.

‘Mirror Traffic’ was produced by Beck. How did the collaboration come about?

Joanna [Bolme] from the band had been pushing me to have someone in more of an official producer role for more than like a million albums. Beck rang me up out of the blue a couple of years ago, saying he was throwing his hat into being a producer. It was fortuitous for us because at that moment we were looking for some direction for a new record. We hadn’t really sorted it, so after he phoned it felt there had to be a reason for his call.

To what extent did Beck influence how the album ended up sounding?

[The sound] is as much his fault as it is ours. You can have someone who is whipping the band into shape, asking to rewrite tunes or whatever, and that will work for that band. I’ll just say that for him, he did the right thing for us which was to get out of the way when it was time to get out of the way. A couple of times he would say ‘slow it down’ or ‘let’s change the situation here’ and things like that. But, if you listen to it and you are a fan of mine, you can tell there is nothing insanely different going on.

I agree it is not insanely different, but it does seem more accessible than previous Jicks’ albums. Was that your vision for ‘Mirror Traffic’?

I don’t really ever have a vision. But, for the songwriting itself, I had some ideas that I didn’t want to do a record like the last one. That was a little problematic in the recording – the engineer we were working with was more into guitar meltdown. He was working with Wilco, who are kinda a straight band in a way, so I think he wanted to be weird [with us]. I kinda react to people’s vibes and with Beck, although he didn’t want us to be some straight pop band, when we got in there and started sounding a certain way I was going with that – and it ended up sounding a little tighter.

Regarding a couple of specific songs on the album, the track ‘Senator’ seems to be a highly politicized lyric?

It’s not, actually. The line “I know what the Senator wants [is a blow-job]” is a shout out line and I don’t really know why I came up with it. I was entertaining myself. The bridge in that song is about smoking weed in a car.

More fool me for trying to over-interpret your lyrics. I also really like ‘Long Hard Book’, which has a delicious country twang. Sonically, it is quite different than the rest of the album.

That is one of my favourite tracks too. My idea was that it was a Neil Young or Gram Parson-type chorus and [now ex-drummer] Janet [Weiss] could be Emmy Lou Harris. Beck made that sound totally different; it was a little shaggier and he made everything direct and really cool.

As the first producer of a Jicks’ album, it seems like things worked well with Beck. Will you be working with other producers in the future?

If people are willing to cut a fair deal with the economics of it, then I would, yeah. When they start asking for $20,000 and three points, I’m not going to do it. It’s unfortunate that it sometimes comes down to that. But if it were anyone like Beck, then yeah, I would totally do it.

You had an amazingly successful reunion tour with Pavement last year. Looking back, how was it for you?

It is really hard for me to remember in some ways, because it was such a blur. It didn’t feel entirely real somehow because it was a recreation of past events in a certain way for a nostalgia trip. Knowing it was so temporary meant it was like winning the lottery or winning some kind of free trip around the world, where you go on it and then it is over – but in a good way. It was sort of like a fantasy camp. There was a lot of work involved too but no one wants to hear about that.

Did you have any reservations about the reunion beforehand?

Not really, I was comfortable with it because I like reunions shows too. For the reunions I have seen, like the Sex Pistols, I loved them. There were parts I didn’t love about it, but there were probably parts that people didn’t love about seeing Pavement again – maybe some moments of wincing. But, the overall experience [of seeing the sex Pistols reunion] was awesome. So, I hope it was like that for people.

Having relived the Pavement back-catalogue, have you since written songs that were too Pavement-like and not ‘Jicks appropriate’?

Nah. I’m sure there was a time on some of the early records where I was thinking that a song was too Pavement-like and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to have signifiers that I would rather avoid. Now I don’t think I do that anymore. It doesn’t mean it now sounds more like Pavement – I just do what I do.

Finally, there seems to be a new number of bands who have been heavily influenced by the Pavement sound – Mazes for example. Are you flattered by this phenomenon?

Yes, I’m into them. I think it is awesome. I am totally into the concept that these young bands like Yuck and Mazes are saying ‘we are tired of this student music in NME’. I’m into it – it is real people music. Maybe we could play with Mazes in America or England. I would like that.

Words by John Freeman

‘Mirror Traffic’ is released on August 22nd via Domino.

Join the Clash mailing list for up to the minute music, fashion and film news.