Stephen Malkmus’ Traffic Jams



Mirror Traffic, Stephen Malkmus’ fifth outing with the Jicks, is also his first since he staged a very successful reunion with his old band Pavement. Despite having recently revisited his storied Pavement days, though, it’s obvious listening to Mirror Traffic that Malkmus’ focus is on the future, not the past. Produced by fellow ’90s icon Beck, the album shows off a newly bright sound and light touch.  (Check out standout tracks “Tigers,” “Stick Figures in Love,” and “Forever 28” over at NPR’s First Listen.) Last week we caught up with Malkmus to hear about his experience making Mirror Traffic, and coming up with a title that wouldn’t get him sued.

IAN COREY-BOULET: Where are you these days? There’s been chatter that you’re moving to Berlin.

STEPHEN MALKMUS: I’m still in Portland. We’re going to live [in Berlin] part-time for the next year. We’re leaving in about two weeks. I’ve been here quite a long time, so…

COREY-BOULET: Why Berlin? Is it a Bowie thing?

MALKMUS: [laughs] No. I don’t really know why. It’s just an affordable European city that’s supposed to be cool. There’s nothing too deep about it.

COREY-BOULET: You’ve said that one of your goals for this album is relevance. What did you mean by that?

MALKMUS: Well, we care if people like what we did. If you’re just making records for yourself, why put them out and do all these interviews and do touring? I’m a huge music fan, and this is what I do with my artistic time. It’s all I really do, except hang out with my family. I value human relationships, and it’s a way for me to interact with the world and feel like I’m part of something. I’m sort of socially inept, so this is my way to connect to people. It’s a means of socializing and having a life. Otherwise I wouldn’t bother. I would just make home recordings and play them for myself. And that’s not really healthy.

COREY-BOULET: This album has a different sound from Real Emotional Trash. How was it to record?

MALKMUS: For this one, we did more songs than we thought we would need to make an album-as-album. We ended up putting them all—almost all—on there. It’s a bit long, but not for a fan of the band. You know what I mean? If I like a band, I don’t care if it’s too long. It’s maybe conceptually a little too much, but I’m glad that they put the extra songs on there.

COREY-BOULET: It seems like, in comparison to the last one, the songs are a lot tighter.

MALKMUS: I was into being more concise. More like the hunt for Bin Laden—just get in and out quick in a Black Hawk helicopter. That was the vibe.

COREY-BOULET: David Berman posted some interesting e-mails on his blog about the naming of the album. Do you like to trade notes with him when you’re working on music?

MALKMUS: At the end, when I was thinking of a title, we sort of selectively did that. I love his words, and I trust him as a wordsmith. I just value his opinion. He put some titles in for us, too, but they were such David titles—except L.A. Guns was the only one that wasn’t really a David title. [laughs]

COREY-BOULET: And there were legal issues with that.

MALKMUS: Yeah. We could have done it still. It was just pretty funny to see how far it could go. I think it’s related to how people are really afraid of people suing. Vampire Weekend—you know about that.

COREY-BOULET: Oh yeah. Well, it’s kind of better as a story—an also-ran title, like Swedish Reggae was for the first album.

MALKMUS: Totally. And the title we have is better, probably, in the end. Titles are very difficult. When you talk to someone like David, who’s serious about it, you can’t slack off and just do it. It’s good to have someone there who’s really passionate about what meaning should be. There’s a lot of different titles, but ours is the best one.

COREY-BOULET: Aside from music, you’re known for being into sports. In Portland, you play on a softball team. Do you have plans to do something like that in Germany?

MALKMUS: I’m probably not going to be there long enough, but I need to exercise right now. I’m becoming really sedentary. I’m almost getting a skinny guy’s belly. And they’re not pretty. If you’ve seen roadies with them—it’s not a good look. [laughs]

COREY-BOULET: Not really a rock star’s physique.

MALKMUS: Yeah, and I’m not a go-to-the-gym type guy. I’ve tried before. And I’m not a jogger. So over there—I don’t know.

COREY-BOULET: Do you like soccer?

MALKMUS: I do. I do play soccer, but it’s exhausting in a way. I play tennis, and I think maybe they’re into swimming there. One time I went to Berlin—it was like five years ago on a tour—and, for some reason, everywhere I was going they had fishbowls. Like a fishbowl by your bed or a fish tank in the bar. They seem obsessed with this IKEA version of nature, which a fishbowl kind of is. They had that going on. I just don’t really like having a goldfish by the side of my bed. I feel kind of sad for it, rather than happy. But I thought that was really weird. Maybe they have human fishbowls.

COREY-BOULET: Switching gears a little, the first video off the album is for “No One Is (As I Are Be).” What’s the idea behind it?

MALKMUS: At first it’s some Exploding Plastic Inevitable-style projections of my face. And a lot of me in the first half of the song, which I don’t like to watch. People like to see the artist in the videos. I haven’t been in a video for 13 years, so I decided I could do it with this. And the lighting is very bright, but I try not to squint. Then it segues into beautiful, slow-motion shots of little kids running around. I don’t think it’s going to make it onto any hip parent blogs, but it does have kids in it. In fact, I think we tried to avoid that a little bit. There are some beautiful children in it, and they look awesome.

COREY-BOULET: Are your kids in it?

MALKMUS: My kids are in it, and all our friends’—all these hip parents’ kids are in it. I think it’s cool. My friend Steve Doughton did it. He worked on videos that John Kelsey did for Pavement. And he’s pretty cool, so it turned out good.

COREY-BOULET: You’ve talked about playing a few songs from Terror Twilight on your next tour. Is there still a Terror Twilight reissue in the works?

MALKMUS: Yeah. We put it off because it wasn’t a nice enough package.

COREY-BOULET: What sort of material is left in the vault for that?

MALKMUS: Not much. There might be something, but I don’t really have time to dredge it up right now. I’m not very useful with that.

COREY-BOULET: Who takes the lead on that? Does Scott Kannberg do most of it?

MALKMUS: Yeah, he does. More than me.

COREY-BOULET: Beck produced this album, and he’s been doing that for other people lately. It seems like more of your contemporaries are getting into new projects—Liz Phair is writing a novel. Is there anything besides playing music that you’d like to try?

MALKMUS: Yeah, I’d like to ghost-write Liz Phair’s novel. [laughs] But I don’t really know about that. It seems like a dignified thing to segue into as I approach the other side of 45. My hands are just full right now. There’s the potential to try to write some kind of biography of Pavement—sort of a cryptic, nonfiction/fiction blowout. The story’s never been told well. But that’s a lot of inward-gazing that I’m not sure I want to do. I like to look out.

COREY-BOULET: So do you think of yourself as an elder statesman?

MALKMUS: No. I see some guys on tour, like Mike Watt. I guess I think of him as an elder statesman. I’m not quite there yet. I’m just kind of a hippie. Age is not that relevant to the music. It’s sort of irritating now—people always ask me, “You’re a dad, and how’s fatherhood?” If Bob Dylan or Neil Young had a kid, it didn’t seem like it made them a different person. It didn’t make you old right away.

COREY-BOULET: Yeah, I’ve been trying to avoid the fatherhood questions. Unless you have something to say about it. Is there anything else you want to get off your chest?

MALKMUS: No, I’ve been getting plenty off my chest. Sometimes I get too much off my chest and I regret it. [laughs]