Back to the Farm with Stephen Malkmus

Benjy Eisen on July 13, 2020
Back to the Farm with Stephen Malkmus

Photo by Samuel Gehrke

The once-and-future Pavement icon follows up his electronica detour with a folk album for Luddites.

It is entirely plausible to compare Stephen Malkmus’ new solo album, Traditional Techniques, to the Grateful Dead’s Workingman’s Dead. But before Malkmus is willing to go down that tube into bong-water discourse, Malkmus—an indierock prolocutor—would have you know that his first acoustic record is not “Pavement Unplugged.”

Rather than being a collection of strippeddown songs he could’ve written for that band, or for the Jicks, his primary musical vehicle for the last 20 years, Traditional Techniques is a sonically immersive album of originals that are dressed up, layered and as unintentionally heady as anything he’s done with either of his established bands. It’s Luddite rock for indie kids.

But much like an oil painter’s spontaneous venture with sidewalk chalk, a determined focus on acoustic instrumentation meant that Malkmus showed up to work with a different toolbox than his old faithful. The medium might be altered but the artist remains the same. It was a trick that led to a creative burst of songs, resulting in an album that traverses new ground while still retaining those trademarked Stephen Malkmus melodies and sensibilities that once made Pavement one of the most important indie-rock patriarchs of the ‘90s.

The impulse behind Malkmus’ new psych-folk foray occurred in tandem with a directive to write some new songs on a 12-string acoustic guitar. A cursory examination of the murky history of the 12-string indicates that it’s possibly of Mexican descent and that it enjoyed brief popularity in the classic-rock era—especially when used in its electric form. You’ve heard it before in songs by The Beatles and throughout The Byrds’ catalog. Tom Petty, Peter Buck and Johnny Marr all kept the instrument alive in the ‘80s.

“Using the 12-string as your songwriting tool makes things sound different,” says Malkmus. “I saw in a documentary that Taylor Swift used to write her songs on a crappy Ovation 12-string, but that’s not a thing many people are doing these days.” Until last year’s surprise release of Groove Denied—an unexpected electronica sidetrack—all of Malkmus’ solo records have employed the Jicks. In that sense, Groove Denied served as Malkmus’ first true solo release; he wrote, performed, recorded and produced all the music himself.

And while Traditional Techniques is now Malkmus’ second consecutive solo album, he didn’t go at this one alone. The album was conceived of as a sort of collaborative endeavor with The Decemberists’ Chris Funk. At Malkmus’ invitation, Funk—who has long proved his Grateful Dead bonafides and is well-versed in acoustic elaboration—assembled the band, offered direction and hosted the sessions at his studio.

“Like any kid of his era, Chris Funk likes indie-rock, and he is dexterous on a whole bunch of resonating instruments. But he’s kind of like a John Fahey; that’s his origin story,” says Malkmus. What’s more: “He’s got a large Rolodex and maybe has aspirations toward connecting people and that kind of stuff.  It’s good for a producer to not only have good ears but also some ideas about how to make these things happen.”

Malkmus brought in Chavez’s Matt Sweeney on guitar and Funk recruited the rest of the cast, including bassist Bill Athens and drummer Dan Hunt. It’s worth noting that Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section member Spooner Oldham and indie darling Blake Mills also make guest appearances on Wurlitzer and guitar, respectively.

“I didn’t know how it was going to sound,” Malkmus admits. “It was sort of a mystery as to what was going to happen. I told different things to different people. I said to the bass player, ‘Think [Van Morrison’s] Astral Weeks,’ even though I didn’t want it to sound like Astral Weeks.”

Malkmus didn’t really tell the other session players much of anything; he told Funk that he was going for something “in the Gordon Lightfoot style, but maybe younger and less manly.”

Funk had previously produced Malkmus and the Jicks’ Sparkle Hard in 2018. It was an instant jewel of a Jicks album—their first release in four years—that spoke to Malkmus’ aging demographic. It was dad rock for the indie set, a cultured and seasoned romp through guitar art. If a Pavement fan time warped from 1999 to 2018, then they would’ve found Malkmus’ transition to middle age seamless. Malkmus still sounds like Malkmus.

Groove Denied, released one year later in 2019, was an abrupt turn down an alternative path, and now this: Traditional Techniques. Music scholars might be used to dissecting reactionary albums, but the leap from prototypical indie-rock to bedroom electronica to psych-folk was a trajectory that even Zoltar’s crystal ball couldn’t portend.

Malkmus details the chaos behind the creative process in a way that resembles a pinball making its way down the board rather than, say, a line of dominos. “I had the Jicks album, then I started working on the home-studio digital album, whatever it was going to be,” he says. “I had those two poles. Then Chris popped up with an idea while I was messing around with his instruments. That put it in my head that this could be done, in terms of the situation. He had the place and there was time. And I had that 12-string that I really wanted to use. Maybe I sound like a child of the depression, but I thought: ‘I must use this thing that I bought!’ Same with the keyboard for Groove Denied—it’s like, ‘I gotta use this shit!’ That’s really how those came about.”

In discussing his own observations about Traditional Techniques, Funk says that the “Malkmus goes folk” moment isn’t quite the surprise that some are making it out to be. There’s a story there, sure, but it’s not exactly a scoop.

“I think a few people have been after Steve to make an ‘acoustic’ record for years,” says Funk. “To my ears, you hear it peppered into Pavement and Jicks records here and there. All said, I feel like this record just allowed Steve to frame a total exploration of ‘going folk’—singing with a softer delivery, a different register and a focus [on] his great guitar playing.”

Malkmus agrees that the acoustic elements may have been a sidestep, but they still weren’t a huge leap: “I’ve been somewhat mellow for awhile now, even in the electric music I’ve made,” he says. “In the Jicks, we do have some aggressive stuff, but when making a setlist, we have to strategically place the fast ones or the super noisy ones in the set because we only have like eight of them, total, in our whole arsenal.”

Traditional Techniques is full of armchair psychedelia. The album opens with a six-minute journey that begins like the intro music for a Western soundtrack and ends with an exotic soundscape jam that hazily recalls Led Zeppelin’s Middle Eastern pursuits. And whispers of some of The Beatles’ more experimental output follow through “Xian Man” and “Shadowbanned.”

Much of that sound came via Funk, who called in musicians to play on instruments that stayed a bit further outside American indie-rock than the 12-string guitar, including a rabab (which Funk describes as a “lute style instrument from Afghanistan,” sonically similar to the banjo) and a kaval (comparable to the flute). “I think I am just getting tired of the same palettes in my own playing and was excited by another stringed instrument played by a master,” Funk says.

“Some of the other layering you hear might be me. I played pedal steel, dobros, mandolin, autoharp, Moog—the stuff I play in The Decemberists,” he adds. “The Beatles went to India and met the sitar, and other rock artists followed. Personally, that wasn’t really my intention of using the rabab and kaval, as it would sort of feel imperialist.”

Still, their inclusion, he allows, might suggest certain crossover psychedelic albums from the 1960s.

Malkmus has mixed feelings about classifying the album as psychedelic. “We know the term is overused,” he offers, as some kind of advance disclaimer. But then he indulges: “If we’re talking signifiers of psychedelia, certainly there are some passages that qualify. For me, maybe a basic one is that the album makes you feel kinda stoned, even if you’re not.”

Does that mean that Traditional Techniques passes the acid test? “I haven’t done the test with it,” Malkmus admits. And while he knows the score would be favorable, he cautions that there are spots on the album where, lyrically, “the trip might get a little mic heavy. There are some bad vibes, but that’s the modern age.”

Indeed, lyrically the album isn’t as carefree as, say, “Out on my skateboard/ The night is just humming” (from Pavement’s “Range Life”), but that comes with the territory of not only the modern age but also of being middle age.

In other words, Traditional Techniques might just be a psychedelic folk album that still doesn’t escape the “dad rock” designation. However, strictly speaking, it’s still dad rock; Malkmus is a dad that plays rock music. The term has become pejorative, in part, because it insinuates “groaner jokes and Coldplay—something to tap your toes to,” he says. But, he ruses, “to be called dad means you’re my son. You can’t feel bad when you’re the dad. If someone is your daddy, that’s a show of respect.” Malkmus laughs, and then adds, “I’m just riffing. But as music, dad rock is slower, more chill, less online. That’s true.”

Semantics aside, the album’s lyrics are no more or less opaque, quizzically literary and seemingly nonlinear as most of Malkmus’ work; the lyric sheet for this one fits right in there. As usual, there are conceivable statements within for those who like to extrapolate and draw conclusions: smug takes on anti-commercialism, the counterproductiveness of over-connectivity, the broken legal system, the hollowed-out reflexes of organized religion, the colonization politics of romance and, perhaps, an examination of identity. It’s also full of defeated protagonists and anti-heroes. One line from one particularly clever song, “The Greatest Own in Legal History,” goes: “Faces of hegemony if you really want to bum out I got spreadsheets on that stuff.”

And then there are the sort of Malkmus-isms that made Pavement fans drool way back in the ‘90s: “I’m Miles Davis better than you;” “May the word be spread via cracked emojis;” “If you leave me please return/ I’m still into watching bridges burn;” “What kind of person steals in reverse?”

Apart from the requisite cultural references (at one point, Reddit, Amazon, Red Bull and TED Talks all appear in the same verse), all of it is up to interpretation. That, of course, also leads to misinterpretation, which Malkmus doesn’t mind. (“As long as it’s not, like, ‘Oh, he wants to kill all people.’”)

“I am sometimes not the most reliable understander of what I am doing,” says Malkmus. “Music just leads me on a discovery mission when I’m doing the lyrics. I don’t really know what is goingto happen. Usually, for better or worse, it starts with some line off the top of my head. I say something that I like or that I want to keep; then I build a story around it. I might have some general idea of what is worthy of talking about, but I don’t really have a plan. I just sort of build around liking music or wanting to be able to have a jam.”

In some convenient, journalistic way, you could say that Traditional Techniques is just a roundabout way for Malkmus to get back to the basics—back to a more analog time in music. Before COVID-19 temporarily paused the concert industry, Malkmus was slated to return to an earlier time in his own musical history this spring, reuniting with Pavement for sets at Primavera Sound’s Barcelona and Porto festivals.

Malkmus insists that they never planned to work on any new material and adds that they hadn’t planned or even talked any additional dates—but the band was planning to rehearse for a full month to get those two shows exactly right.

“The feeling is probably timeless but, to make it timeless, you have to address the time,” Malkmus explains. “It wouldn’t be timeless if I went up there and played a Steinberger guitar and I had a sampler or tape decks in front of me, looping the tracks.”

In that sense, Pavement, in 2020, veers close to being a nostalgia act. But in Malkmus’ mind, that’s neither depreciative nor detractive. He makes his point using the Grateful Dead as an example: “Let’s say you love the Grateful Dead. Would you rather see [the surviving musicians] play new songs? You might want to, but I have a feeling you really just want to see cool versions that are relatively period correct of the old stuff.

“That’s the way I want to take nostalgia,” he continues. “I want to listen to our albums, use the same gear that we used back then and play the songs within the realm of that. Maybe there’s a couple that we can update or change if we come up with something great. But the basic thrust of a concert for a band that’s been defunct for 20 years is to just do that.”

“We [were] going for fun,” he adds. “I [was] praying for some feels.”

As for Traditional Techniques, the feels come ready-loaded, perhaps partially due to the bygone era that the instrumentation recalls, even as it forges ahead in the here and now. The reference points are like an Easter egg hunt for bloggers and algorithms alike, and more than one podcast musicologist will go off the deep end when they take this thing for a spin.

And although, musically, Malkmus rarely sources the Grateful Dead directly, it is easy to draw a parallel between Traditional Techniques and Workingman’s Dead: Both albums came after unprecedented, experimental albums by their respective artists, and both albums showcase acoustic formats without stripping down the arrangements.

“That is a great signal,” says Malkmus. “I don’t know the entire hagiography of the Dead and what led them to that. Was it Crosby, Stills & Nash getting popular? Was it that Jerry was always a roots music guy? I don’t know. But that was certainly, as far as records go, one of their best.”

Malkmus also agrees that there are traces of Led Zeppelin’s world-music pursuits laced throughout Traditional Techniques, including markers on “ACC Kirtan” and “Shadowbanned.”

“But it’s acoustic, so you’re playing all these instruments that don’t jump out as pure metal,” he says, adding that he also enjoys more conventional British folk music. “On top of it is Led Zeppelin III, when they were huge fans of people like Bert Jansch and the Fairport Convention. That’s an English version of ‘back to the farm.’”

Perhaps Traditional Techniques is Stephen Malkmus’ version of going back to the farm. In any event, as Malkmus remarks about Led Zeppelin’s third album: “It’s got the porch thing, but it’s still cool.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more subscribe below.