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?”
“Yeah.” Actually, he lives in Portland, Oregon, now. But why get into it with a stranger?
Kannberg and Malkmus made their first recordings in their decidedly unhip Central Valley hometown of Stockton, California. But the band’s long-standing reticence, surrealism, and distrust of narrative put them firmly in a New York lineage that extends from Bob Dylan through the Velvet Underground and on to the Talking Heads and Sonic Youth. “I was getting all my information, my ammunition, my creativity rubbing off my friends in New York,” Malkmus says of the band’s early years, when he was already something of a bohemian jet-setter, shuttling between the coasts. Eventually the band headed east permanently: Shortly after finishing Pavement’s debut album, Slanted and Enchanted, in 1992, Malkmus hooked up with Nastanovich in New Jersey (“He wrote me this letter that made Jersey City sound romantic – ‘Cuban sandwiches and Knicks games! You can see the skyline!’ “). There they recruited bassist Mark Ibold, after spotting him at virtually every rock show they went to. Kannberg stayed in California.
“Whereas the Beastie Boys are all about Silverlake and Manhattan,” Malkmus adds, gazing across New York Harbor at the giant Colgate clock, “we’re about Stockton and … Jersey City.”
Self-deprecating and unintentionally wistful, the statement is textbook Pavement. Whereas the Clash made themselves the Only Band that Matters by fiat – through aggression, attitude, and savvy self-promotion – Pavement may well have done the same two decades later (though they’re much too modest ever to make the claim themselves) through far more subtle but no less effective means.
Slanted and Enchanted established the band as the darling of the critics-and-college-students set – from a commercial standpoint, an all-but-certain guarantee of failure. Still, even before the album’s 1992 release, Pavement was caught up in the same feeding frenzy that in 1991 propelled Cobain & Co. from indie-scale stardom to genuine-hit status. Feverishly courted by the majors, Pavement stuck with indie Matador Records, which had signed the band a few years after the label was founded. The decision to stay small rankled original drummer Gary Young, a middle-aged engineer from Stockton who wanted out of the frenetic indie life as quickly as possible. Young’s modestly materialistic ambitions (not to mention his raging alcoholism) didn’t sit well with the rest of the band – who at the time were still in their twenties, working day jobs as museum guards, and inclined to talk unironically about “art for art’s sake.” Young, who still runs a recording studio in Stockton, was replaced by Nastanovich’s high-school buddy Steve West.
Malkmus and West put in a two-and-a-half-year stint together at the Whitney. “It was sort of the negation of work,” says the singer. “We were paid to do nothing except trip out in Zen-like states.” Well, not nothing: “We both got to be night guards a couple times,” he adds. “It’s just you and the engineer there, saving the building from being robbed. It would have been pretty easy – I mean, I know how to, I’m not going to, but it would be very easy to rob that place.”
Malkmus seems just as happy to have left his ten-dollar-an-hour day job behind, but to hear him tell it, the small time suits him fine. “Maybe our idea of what’s good is too – I don’t want to say sophisticated, cause that’s snobby,” he says. “Or advanced … Quirky is a terrible adjective … Idiosyncratic – that’s a nice word.” In fact, anachronistic may be more accurate.
A wandering, contemplative poet-journalist, Malkmus is a modernist of the turn-of-the-century variety, chronicling his world moment by moment, fragment by evocative fragment, image by perfect image. Pavement’s appeal can be slippery, in part because of a deep ambivalence that pervades nearly every aspect of Malkmus’s songwriting. Sentimental enough to open Terror Twilight with a mushy, mid-tempo ballad, he’s also sufficiently misanthropic to have named the tune “Spit on a Stranger” and rounded it out with lines like “Honey I’m a prize and you’re a catch and we’re a perfect match, like two bitter strangers.”
On 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, the band’s second album, rock was the explicit object of Malkmus’s mixed feelings. Alt-rock colleagues like the Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins were not-so-gently ridiculed; bands in general didn’t fare much better.
Now, three albums later, Malkmus looks to be coming to terms with his inner rocker. Always a reluctantly gifted musician – the dissonance of his guitar solos stemmed more from an avant-garde-jazz enthusiast’s desire to “take it out” than from technical shortcomings – Malkmus plays leads on Terror Twilight that can only be described as smoking. “I’ve always wanted to do that,” he confesses of the kick-out-the-jams chorus in the otherwise sedate “Platform Blues.” But the second time the song hits that bluesy, power-rock section, it crumbles into a silly, singsong coda worthy of the Shaggs.
From a musical point of view, Nastanovich does the least in the band. Which makes him, according to Malkmus’s somewhat perverse reasoning, the most important member. “Bob doesn’t play too much on the records,” he says. “But I wouldn’t do this band anymore if he wasn’t in it.” (“My talents are not music-based at all,” Nastanovich cheerfully acknowledges.)
Though they aren’t quite Luddites, the members of Pavement are almost obsessively distrustful of the cult of the new. Malkmus, however, admits to dabbling in a little off-duty cut-and-paste experimentation. “I have a bunch of loops that I played for the band,” he says. “They could probably be hits if I went to the Dust Brothers and spent a year making a record with them. But it would be an artistic sellout. It would be jumping on some kind of post-Beck bandwagon. I mean, John Ashbery” – to whom Malkmus has been compared – “shouldn’t try to write a novel. Or a script for Friends.”
Still, the singer is living in something of a terror-twilight state himself. “I feel really lucky that records can still be made of our caliber of art for art’s sake,” he says, sounding very sincere. “You feel like you’re part of this fin de siècle decadence.”