Pavement: The Return of the Heavily-Favored Underdogs

Will Eno on May 1, 2010

Lauded as one of America’s greatest rock bands of the ‘90s, Pavement returns for a reunion tour that finds them more popular than when they disbanded ten years ago

Pavement, circa 1995 Photo by Kevin WestenbergTHERE WAS A TIME, back when the world was greener and the whole nation seemed to be turning 23, when we needed a leader who wouldn’t lead too much, we wanted a savior who had other stuff going on. This was, in layman’s terms, the 1990s.

The markets were beginning to rise and though we were not beneficiaries in any major way, some of us at least had a story about getting a 50 dollar tip on a 20 dollar tab. In other scene-setting details, the strange dust of Desert Storm was settling and O.J. Simpson was getting testy. It was mainly summertime, those years, and there seemed, in retrospect, to be an eerily normal amount of noise around. Conditions on the ground and in the air – if you can detect these things in real time, and you can’t – were perfect. In rode, many would say, the rock band Pavement.

Stylistically speaking, in terms of clothing, they arrived in shirts and pants and shoes (there’s really no other way to say it). They had haircuts, but it didn’t really look it. While other bands were mumbling or over-enunciating their dreary positions or penny-candy philosophies, Pavement kind of screamed for a generation. But they did it in a way that was so deeply American that it was almost Scandinavian. Or, if they spoke for a generation, they spoke for it out of the sides of their mouths, which gave the generation a little leeway, some wiggle-room to get older in.

Looking back on the band – its history, records and general approach to life and music – an argument could be gently made that they were one of the greatest rock bands ever. Or, the most real rock band ever. Or the only something-something in recent memory. Certainly, a range of critics and streets and prairies full of fans have claimed that Slanted and Enchanted is the best rock album of the ‘90s.

I mention all of these possibilities to Pavement guitarist Scott Kannberg. “It’s kind of funny to think that we are a band in the history of music,” is his unassuming response. “I’m not a musician, ?per se?,” says band member Bob Nastanovich, among other equally modest things, over the phone, while making “a big pot of chili.” Singer and main songwriter Stephen Malkmus is similarly disarming: “The proof is in the pudding of the records and how they sound, how they sound today. We can be up there. We have our niche, a niche, in what’s going on and music history. I don’t know about ‘great bands,’ or whatever.”

Having gotten a sense of the tone and temperature of these three, one can only assume that drummer Steve West, currently playing with his band Marble Valley, and bassist Mark Ibold, who’s been playing with Sonic Youth for the last few years, would display a similar humility and sense of proportion when pressed with any of these claims of greatness.

THERE IS A GROUP of undoubtedly decent and intelligent people who’ve never heard of Pavement.* There is another group who’ll say things like, "Pavement songs are like my own personal On Kawara ‘Date Paintings.’ There is a third and larger group for whom neither response rings any bells. So, for their sake, Pavement was a rock music band in the 1990s, quintessentially. They released five critically acclaimed albums, some selling in the hundreds of thousands, toured extensively, possibly ruined Lollapalooza, avoided eye-contact with Jay Leno, and then disbanded in 1999-2000.

On Kawara is a contemporary painter who made a series of paintings informally called the “Date Paintings.” They are small black paintings, completed in one day, on which On Kawara carefully painted the day’s date, and nothing more. May 7, 1975, for instance. You can probably think of others. In our famous world of flux and change, he wanted to create at least one unchanging and non-revisable thing. And for some of us, the songs on Pavement’s records serve this purpose: we remember exactly where we were the first time that we heard a song, all of the joys and pains that came without musical accompaniment in between, and, exactly where we were, the last time. Presidents have come and gone, new stars have burst on to the pro tennis circuit and everything has gotten older. The march of time has amplified feelings and filled in meanings in a way that disciplined analysis could never do.

Those paintings are also sometimes collectively referred to as “Todays,” which is a worthwhile word. I mentioned On Kawara to Malkmus, and he says, “My wife’s a big fan of his. I don’t really understand it, really. There’s something about it that really moves her. I guess I can see it.” His response is almost immediate, as if I had said something about Picasso or Norman Rockwell. To think that Sarah Palin thought that, “What magazines do you read?” was an example of gotcha-journalism. Malkmus adds, “I appreciate the wide-ranging cultural knowledge of our fan base. That’s cool, no matter what.”

L-R: Steve West, Stephen Malkmus, Scott Kannberg, Bob Nastanovich, Mark Ibold.
Photo by Kevin WestenbergPeople have always asked a lot of Pavement’s music, making great claims for its strange powers. “The songs aren’t that hard to play,” says Nastanovich, coming to the rescue. “They’re not easy, but the songs – I think part of Pavement’s appeal is that songs aren’t really that complicated.” Referring to a difficult new golf course that he and his father recently played, Kannberg, who is a good golfer, says, “Like, it was two-hundred yard carries. Unless you’re an expert golfer, what’s the fun in that?”

On the rise of Pavement Malkmus says, “It all kind of happened in such a seemingly haphazard way. As we got a little more confidence and attention it became a little more ambitious thing.”

There seems to be an understanding, band-wide, that simplicity and a low-key way can still allow for mystery and deep complexity. This has caused some confusion in the critical response. Long and positive articles were written about the “half-hearted try,” and how the band’s most expressive gesture was “the shrug.” But, in speaking with these guys, one gets the sense, right away, that they mean what they say, that they aren’t going to get too worked up about it and that any so-called “pose” is really much closer to a “stance.” Or, even, very plainly, just a way of being.

There was a British comic who once said, “They all laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian – well, they’re not laughing now.” The statement, in the way that it seems to be a proof of its own theorem and the way it kind of eats itself before our eyes, does fairly well in describing the career of Pavement. “A lot of accidents went in our favor,” says Nastanovich, who is as reliably modest as he is talkative, which is a rare combination. I tell Malkmus that it all seems fairly straightforward, the low-key-ness included. “Yeah, we were earnest,” he says. “We didn’t really expect people to like us and think that we were good and special. The defense mechanism is occasionally to say, um, ‘Well, it’s not that important to us,’ or, ‘Those are those the breaks, we tried our best.’ Which was just kind of reasonable. It was all kind of bewildering and that was just a way to kind of keep our cool.”

I ask Bob, Scott and Stephen if there is a sports team that they feel is expressive of the spirit of the band. I suggest the 2007 Boise State Football team, which, in an upset, won the Fiesta Bowl with a combination of trick plays, sideburns, anti-anxiety medicines and just general northwestern joi de vivre. Bob reels off stats and philosophies, and reiterates President Obama’s call for a playoff system. He sees some similarities between the band and the team, but adds, “I don’t know if Pavement is really the powerhouse that Boise State has become.” Kannberg says, “We were always pretty cocky, yet at the same time we were surrounded by people at our label who were very grounded and grounded us.” Malkmus, a fan of Oregon State football and their “jailbird outlaw status,” and due to the fact that his grandpa went to school there, is also very sporting with the Pavement/Boise State comparison: “We have our share of gadget plays. And we were undersized. And we have our loyal fans from our little neck of the woods.”

A word on Nastanovich. On the phone, he is an energetic conversationalist and will engage in whatever subject you might want to raise. He’ll have something honest and apropos to say about it. On stage, he takes on the appealing character of a guy who snuck up there and, thanks to his great smile and tambourine work, has somehow made himself indispensable. Truly. He handled much of the band’s “How ya doing, Cincinnati!?” kind of work, and feels that it is his duty to try to make a show great, to pay back for all the great shows he’s seen as a fan. It seems his sunny disposition and love of horse racing, cooking and sports both amateur and professional, was a crucial element within the mix of Pavement. Malkmus agrees: “Bob is a great friend and is a spirited guy who always gave a thousand percent onstage, no matter what. A really unique and special person. He’s a little more interesting than the rest of us. Bob was always just working on becoming Weird Bob, in a good way.”

Pavement 2.0, November 1993: Nastanovich, Kannberg, Ibold, Malkmus and West (clockwise from bottom left)NOW, TO THE MUSIC. Trying to describe music in words may be something like trying to describe a car crash that happened in front of a beautiful sunset, just as someone started yelling the word “English,” a wild horse ran through the scene, in flames, and you have a stomach-ache or feel really good. It also may not be like this. Nonetheless, the attempt must be made.

It is sometimes said of humans that we don’t think, we compare. Pavement, early on, was compared to the Manchester band The Fall. R.E.M was mentioned, possibly by people who just felt like mentioning R.E.M. Fleetwood Mac seems to be brought up by bandmembers, here and there, and other influences and favorites are energetically cited. The Replacements, The Gang of Four, Swell Maps, Wire and a lot of the American Hardcore bands of the ‘80s. “I used to dress up as KISS,” offers Kannberg. Despite all that love and interest, the band has that simple and rare thing that is so often claimed but hardly ever owned: an original sound.

This original sound derives, of course, from the temperaments and sensibilities of each musician – “non-musician” Nastanovich is very much included, though he has describes his duties onstage as, merely, “Sit back and gauge what needs to be done.” It may also come from the unique way that Pavement chose to exist.

“We weren’t really a band, in the classic sense of a band,” says Kannberg. And this is fine, as there’ve been plenty of bands who were bands in the classic sense of bands, though it didn’t do them any good. Pavement would gather, book a studio, I’m sure all sorts of things would happen, an album would somehow get cut, and then they’d all scatter again.

This gave the live shows, even when the band was technically together, a kind of reunion feel. And this cycle may have given the records the strange and immediate quality that seems to have been hitherto uncapturable by other bands. The sometimes genius of a late-night conversation or a fight outside your window or a cloud that looks like a dog for a second. The band also seems to be blessed by a kind of naturally inward-looking style, in addition to actual events that might have helped them look inward.

“I’m glad that fame didn’t happen,” says Kannberg. “I mean, imagine.” And then he allows a gentlemanly pause.

The songs’ originality extends to their form, as well as to their physical sound and content. The band showed no anxiety about including songs that were under two minutes on their records and few songs follow the predictable arrangements made famous by the predictable many. The songs are almost more like sporting events, somehow, or foreign dramas in a forgotten but recognizable Western style.

For fun, let’s take a look at one, keeping in mind the car crash and your poor tummy and the horse on fire. The song is from the 1994 record, Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, and the title is “Silence Kit.” With a cymbal crash, a guitar enters, hesitantly, almost like a character from “Peter and the Wolf,” and is joined, sort of, by drums that seem like they’re being played in another room on a different day. The bassist hits a string, maybe rolls his sleeve up or waves to someone. It’s either some teenagers in the basement or an Oxford don clearing his throat. You hear someone say, “Scott,” or maybe, “Apricot.” And then, in a way that seems like creation itself, the whole thing starts, all the elements coming together in a menacing groove, with a cowbell that actually reminds you of a cow, proceeding with a determined and mainly innocent gait. Then it all builds, inescapably, to real rock and roll. There is a very long Beach Boys-like “Ah,” which is either satisfaction or Sigmund-Fruedian-contemplation. Then comes the first line, “Silent kid, no one to remind you,” and the fun begins to multiply; the language is so unstable that the words from the verse denoting the main object of our attention – “Silent Kid” – have dripped, like a freshly and poorly painted sign, into the title “Silence Kit.”

Down but not quite out: New York City, circa 1997 Photo James SmolkaPavement albums almost never include lyric sheets, allowing room in the listener for slippage and creative mis-hearings. And these seem crucial to the process of Stephen Malkmus who wrote most of the songs. Much hay has been made with respect to the simultaneous delicacy and load-bearing quality of the lyrics. They are powerful and memorable. Though Malkmus says, “Even at the time, it was kind of, ‘I don’t really know where it’s coming from and don’t want to ask.’ It just comes, usually. The early stuff, I wouldn’t even know how it got written or why it did.”

Two writers in the vicinity of Malkmus are Dr. Seuss and A.A. Milne. A Pavement song about “James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George DuPree” would not seem out of place. Nor would a line telling us to never make “thneeds out of truffula trees.” There is a real freedom and aggressively unattended-to quality in a lot of the lyrics. There are incredibly precise lyrics as well that hit you where you live and don’t leave.

For instance, “You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation of the sequel of your life.” The horror of belatedness, anyone? “Silence Kit” continues, with a couple of beautiful lines that chase their own tails, such as, “Silent kid, don’t lose your graceful tongue.” Then the song kind of rumbles to a stop, kind of like a streetcar, and starts up again, in something of a tantrum. “Hand me the drumstick, snare kick,” and then some more words, and then the last line, “Till five hours later, I’m chewin’, screwin’, myself with my hand.” And we’re done. This is to say nothing of the emotional content of the song, which is high and real.

There’s a filthy limerick that begins, “I once knew a man from Nantucket.” I have a friend who always finished this off with the family-friendly rhyme, “galvanized aluminum clam bucket.” There was something in the absolute wrongness and clumsiness of the meter that made the dirty little limerick suddenly sound like a true story.

“I can see that,” says Malkmus. “It’ll just be going along and then there’ll be a kind of abrupt something there. Kind of breaking the spell for a second, or not breaking it, or making the spell. Not just having everything go along all sweet until the end, just realizing you have a real person there singing this.”

In the song “Folk Jam,” from Pavement’s final album Terror Twilight, released in 1999, one stanza ends with the simple line, “The feeling is mutual,” but the singing of the word “feeling” is elongated so beyond a reasonable measure that the line’s postponement of meaning becomes one of its meanings, adding, at the same time, a stranger and possibly crueler edge to the phrase’s more normative uses.

IN 2010, PAVEMENT HITS the road again, playing together live for the first time in more than ten years. With five members, the band will bring an extra 50 years of experience to its interpretation and execution of the songs. That’s over 18,250 todays. Time, my God – where did it go, which way did it go?

Says Malkmus, “A reunion is a communal nostalgic thing and its about the past, it’s about now, but it’s about then and what that was like, and what we’re like today – we’re still standing or whatever, we’re still here together.”

Kannberg dedicated his 2008 solo record, The Real Feel, to his grandfather, who died last year, and who taught him how to fish and tell time. “It’s a vivid memory in my life, my grandfather trying to tell me time,” he says. “It’s like tying your shoe, it’s so ingrained in your head. It’s weird to think of having to teach someone that.” The statement shows an honorable sensitivity to average things, an ability to slow things down enough to realize that, while we were getting older and time was exerting itself as perhaps the only real force in the universe, it still took a kindly grandpapa with a pocket watch or maybe a kitchen clock, to teach us time. The big hand, the little hand. The white glove of Mickey Mouse is pointing at the twelve. We learn we’re mortal.

Referring to the late 1990s and the last tour, Kannberg says, “At the end, I kinda felt like, ‘This is the end, but I’m sure we’re going to end up wanting to do something again.’ I don’t think I thought it would take ten years.” Then he spoke of his grandfather again.

“I saw my grandmother the other day at Thanksgiving, and she gave me a book that I’d given to him about four or five years ago, a Thomas McGuane book about fishing stories, and I think it was the last book he read. When she told me that, I just started bawling.”

We talked for a little while about last things, last books, the idea that there’s a last store that you’re ever going to walk into. Then, in a lonely and solemn kind of way, the conversation turned to golf.

Woozy does it, 1996. Photo Christian LantryOn a cheerier note, and there’s always a cheerier note, there’s plenty of life left to be lived, probably plenty of time for first things, for middle things. This is a great thing about a reunion tour. Rock and roll can be a quick and difficult experience, and it takes place mainly in the body, so it can’t hurt to take a break, learn some new words, maybe raise a sequel or two and spend some time in the high ice of mind. Kannberg notes that there’ve been years where music just wasn’t working for him.

“It took putting on a Fleetwood Mac record from the mid-‘70s which I’ve never heard before, and it just, like, it clicked. But, I knew that record was there ten years ago, and I knew people were listening to it – and loved it – but, I wasn’t ready for it yet.”

It may be that there are people who were not ready for Pavement, before, who will hear the band clearly now. As for the provisional 2010 set list, Nastanovich says, “Pavement fans will be very happy with the Pavement songs that we’re prioritizing to learn and play.” Malkmus seems to agree: “When you go to a reunion, a non-music related one, you probably – when it’s people you haven’t seen in a while – talk about kids, and what you’ve done, your work, but not really your most secret esoteric stories. You don’t want to bore them with that right away.”

So, any long time fans who were expecting boring esoteric secrets should have no fear. Nastanovich, ever bright and sunny, is excited and slightly apprehensive, as the band will probably be playing to larger audiences than they were ever used to: “Since the band stopped, I think we’re more popular than we were when we actually existed.” The statement raises an interesting philosophical question as to whether a thing needs to exist to be popular.

The band will rehearse in early February, before heading to Auckland, New Zealand for the first show on March 1st. Nastanovich says, “The bottom line is: we want it to be special. We want to play a memorable concert.”
In a world that can often seem to be lose-draw or draw-draw, there is a win-win scenario here: every single song has the potential to be, depending on who you are, a brand new song, or, a hit to sing along with.

Though we spoke over the phone on a bad international line, Malkmus sounds clear-eyed and deeply down-to-earth about the tour. “We’re reliving it here for – um – because we can and hopefully it’ll be fun.”

As to the question of more Pavement in the future, the three members that I spoke with seemed comfortable with the idea of that not happening. All seemed more or less happy and calm with the world as it is, and their lives as they are. Malkmus says, “I’m so dedicated to the new songs I’m writing, whether or not anyone else is, we are, me and my band The Jicks. That’s my gig, for better or worse.”

It will be very interesting, for both the band and for audiences, to see how the 2010 shows go. The live shows of the late ‘90s were often played with a loose geniality that suggested, as said earlier, the reunion tour of a band that was still together. It was almost as if some slightly uncomfortable and long-lost friends had been cajoled onto the stage by other long-lost friends. The band would play, a subtle quarter-turn from the audience, almost as if they were playing to another invisible audience, just to our right. It wasn’t clear as to whether the band’s gaze was set on some dark impossible thing, history possibly, or whether they just didn’t like us that much. The effect was not unappealing. And it was good to be reminded, at a time when we had very few reminders, that there might be, on this earth, even more important things than the things we call “important things.” As it will be good to be reminded again.

None of this is to say that any of this was intentional. People have a particular temperament, and therefore, so must a band. Even more so, possibly. And this may seem like a lot of intention and responsibility to heap on a rock band but sometimes you have to look around yourself and ask, “Who else am I supposed to heap it on?” And now here they come again, very ready, it seems, to manage all of our unreasonable expectations and smile and nod about all our inexpressible needs.

Will Eno is a contemporary American playwright. His plays include Tragedy: a tragedy and THOM PAIN (based on nothing) which was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in drama. He is an Edward F. Albee Foundation fellow and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. The New York Times has called Eno, “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.” He lives in Brooklyn.