It's a shockingly sunny early-April morning, a little less than three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, and Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich are sitting on a bench discussing equine psychology. There are certain horses, observes Malkmus, that place with alarming regularity. "They have the talent to win," he says, squinting into the mid-morning glare. "But they just don't want to run past one of their buddies."
"Second place is the best they'll do throughout their career," adds Nastanovich. "But for an owner, a horse that consistently comes in second is a great investment."
These two make an odd pair of animal behaviorists, to say the least. Malkmus is the evasively charismatic singer, guitarist, and songwriter of Pavement, whose long-awaited new album, Terror Twilight, comes out June 8. Nastanovich is his friend turned roadie turned percussionist-keyboardist. And however improbably, horse racing plays a vital role in the life of their band. Its five members have never all lived in the same city; since 1993, no two have even lived within 100 miles of each other. The one time of year they're sure to gather is the first weekend in May, when they descend upon Nastanovich's modest Louisville home, take in the Kentucky Derby, and -- if they've booked a tour -- practice. This summer's six-week romp hits Irving Plaza June 16, 17, and 20; all three dates sold out quickly.
Despite his success at his current vocation, Nastanovich, 31, has long aspired to earn his living as "one of America's estimated 2,000 professional gamblers." "I live right across the street from Churchill Downs," he says. "I moved there to give myself the best chance to win money." Despite the proximity, the musician ended his 1998 betting year in the red. "I did pretty well as an owner, though" he adds. A trainer friend charges Nastanovich a cheap rate to keep his two ponies in shape; the younger of them, three-year-old Speedy Service, just won his first race.
But when it comes to the Derby itself, Nastanovich keeps his bets minimal. "The field's about twice as big as in a normal horse race," he explains. "It's a sucker's bet."
All this talk of perennial seconds and sucker's bets is not without relevance to Pavement, which has garnered enormous prestige by determinedly staying two steps behind (or ahead of) the cultural curve. At the same time Nirvana was taking punk mass-market by transmuting it into grunge, Malkmus and his high-school buddy Scott Kannberg were headed another direction -- recording a series of arty post-punk musings that earned the unhappy label "lo-fi." (A reference to their homespun recording techniques, the term was soon applied to the band's overall aesthetic as well). They sang in evocatively fractured aphorisms, drawing as much from the work of jazzers like Andrew Hill and Ornette Coleman as they did from the standard-issue rock icons who inspired their contemporaries. And what they lack in commercial clout (their biggest seller, 1994's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, has yet to crack 200,000), they make up for in influence: As a rock pundit once observed, just a touch hyperbolically, about the Velvet Underground: Hardly anyone actually heard them, but everybody who did went on to start a band.
For this interview, the band asked to be taken on an architectural tour of Manhattan with Timothy "Speed" Levitch, the voluble and eccentric tour guide who was the star of last year's documentary The Cruise. It's exactly the kind of wryly evasive maneuver that's earned Pavement a well-deserved reputation for coyness. Sadly, it turned out that Levitch was in Hong Kong, promoting the film, and the band agreed to a compromise -- taking a Circle Line trip around the southern end of Manhattan.
Steve Malkmus is the first to arrive at Pier 83. Sitting dockside at 9 a.m. in a slate-gray windbreaker and rimless spectacles, he fits in all too neatly among the European tourists.
A woman in her early twenties gingerly approaches. "Are you guys in a band?" she asks.
"Yeah," Malkmus replies warily, pursing his lips. "We're called Pavement."
Big sigh. "The Cavemen."
"Are you local?"