Thursday, April 17, 2008
Melody Maker, spring 1992
by Simon Reynolds
"My fantasy. A million heads wigging out, blissed out, in
rock noise. A soulboy's bad dream... The return of ROCK".
I wrote that, five years ago, rave-reviewing Husker Du's final
album. At the time - the height of white soul, George
Michael, Mick Hucknall et al - it seemed like a hopelessly
deluded dream. But it happened. Nirvana - who've explictly
cited Husker Du as the prototype for their pop/noise merger -
have got not just one million but five million (and counting)
heads wigging out. It happened, and it's horrible.
Apres Nirvana, le deluge of dreariness:
LemonheadsSeamL7MonsterMagnetVelvetCrushGodMachine, and as if
enough wasn't as good as a feast, let's not forget the
British Americanophile contingent, MidwayStillLeatherface
Therapy?Jacob'sMouseCaptainAmericaetcetc. I call them shaggy
bands - shaggy hair, shaggy riffs, inarticulate screech of
the heart, 'the new authenticity'. Enough already! It's a
persistent rock fallacy that you can never get enough of a
good thing, the more the merrier. It's understandable, this
desire to build some kind of community out of post-Nirvana
grunge, a new counter culture, a home from home for the
world's misfits. But community breeds conformism, and home is
only a couple of syllables short of 'homogeneous'.
The problem with ALL THESE BANDS is that they've taken a
contracted range of influences - Husker Du, Replacements,
Black Flag, Dinosaur Jnr, Sonic Youth at their
least adventurous - and compacted those groups' most limited
aspects into a bluntly belligerent nouveau hard rock. Hence,
the herd-like hordes blighting our shores with their ear-
bleedin' obviousness. It's time for a cull. Time to
proclaim that energy is over-rated, that not everyone's pain
and confusion is interesting. Time to cling onto the real
mavericks and freaks who couldn't conform if they wanted to.
Over here, we're blessed by the Icarus-like ascension of
Verve and Spiritualized, the lunar fringe of Bark
Psychosis/Papa Sprain, the illicit self-absorption of Suede.
America has its saving graces too. There's Mercury Rev, a new
Creation signing called Medecine (MBV meets Krautrock), the
real-gone Royal Trux, the kitschadelic Urge Overkill, Smog,
Shudder To Think. Most of all, there's Pavement.
Slanted and Enchanted (the most appropriately titled
album since Daydream Nation) is a cornucopia of guitar
bliss, a pleasure avalanche. Pavement is where the
slackadaisical, driving glory of the US garage tradition
(Loaded, "Roadrunner", Surfer Rosa), meets the
exquisitely rarefied noise-for-noise's sake alchemy of
Faust/Can/Neu, meets the warp factor of The Fall. Pavement's
golden horde of guitars billow and furl, flare and swarm, in
a way that's simply lightyears out of reach of the shaggys.
Like Mercury Rev, Pavement generate a lot of humour that
defies transcription, because it's so off-the-cuff and
quicksilver. 39 year old drummer Gary Young looks and talks
like Belcher, the scruffy, bearded, eccentric undercover
officer in Hill Street Blues; other drummer Bob Nastanovich
is genial, talkative, a bit like a lean John Goodman; bassist
Mark Ibold is genial and quiet; guitarist and founder member
Spiral Stairs/Scott Kannberg is just quiet. Cleancut
vocalist/guitarist Steve Malkmus is the most serious member,
probably because he writes almost all the songs and Pavement
is his baby, and he cares.
But if Pavement's waywardness and improbability has an
incarnation, it's definitely Gary; he's the id to Malkmus'
ego. Gary's been in bands since he was 11; his favourite
groups are still King Crimson and Yes; he was in a punk band
called The Fall of Christianity until he was kicked out for
having long hair; his wife is vice president of a water bed
company. "I think I turn it around and add a lot of
tension", he says of his role in Pavement.
"By being always being one beat ahead, in more ways than
one," adds Steve. "But that's good, 'cos whenever there's
stress, we can focus it onto Gary, and worry whether he's
gonna make it onto stage or not. So he's an anchor but he's
also a satellite way out there."
"Antagonist, that's what I am," rasps Gary. His T-shirt
reads 'I smoke Oriental drugs'. Musically too, it's his
rangy, ramshackle, inspirationally loose drumming that
transports the guitar majesty to another plane. Alone of
their US peers, Pavement swing and groove rather than flail.
With a beatnik like Gary in the engine room, there's no way
that Pavement could be a straightahead proposition.
Another reason for Pavement's freakitude is their
curious development. Rather than toiling away for hundreds
of hours in an fetid basement honing a "cohesive sound",
Pavement have collided intermittently (the band are equally
split between the East and West Coasts), recorded EPs and
singles in "fits and bursts", then dispersed. "Rather than
slowly evolving as a group entity, it's more like we've been
evolving separately as individuals and then interacting,"
says Steve. Again, this is reminiscent of Mercury Rev,
except Pavement don't have the interpersonal friction.
"Fists have never been thrown," says Gary. "I've never come
close to blows with any of this lot". "That's because we're
all scared of you because you bite," says Bob.
For a lot of people, the initial intrigue about Pavement
was that they're such cryptic buggers: the damn-near-
impossible to find early singles, the encoded titles ("Angel
Carver Blues/Mellow Jazz Docent", "Krell-Vid-User"), the
unfathomable lyrics, the art-work...
"It's fun to create a mystique, and then subvert it, with
interviews like this, where there's no mystery at all," says
Steve. "We used to want to be that way, not do interviews, be
like The Residents, totally anonymous. But it's not us. If
you see us live, or meet us, we're not that cryptic. In the
beginning, you have more control over something like cover
art, more time to think, 'shall I be cryptic?'."
"It worked, though," says Mark. "When that first single
"Slay Tracks 1933-1969" came out, before I was in the band, I
was pretty hooked by the enigma of it all."
Pavement might have blown their cover now, but the lyrics
are still brilliantly baffling. But what's great about them
is that they're not whimsical gibberish, not sixth form
pseudo-surrealistic stream of consciousness. The words sound
like they're pregnant with meaning, it's just that you can't
quite work what the story's all about. The feelings are there
- yearning, frayed euphoria, worldweariness - but you can't
locate their cause. Like hieroglyphics, they emit an intense
emotional charge, but they're impenetrable.
"We try for that, a quality that transcends wordplay,"
says Steve. "But we don't go for straightahead heartbreak."
Pavement's love of oblique strategies connects with the
obsession with espionage that surfaces in songs like "Fame
Throwa". "Being in a band, is like being a spy," says Steve.
"Cos you're getting information and passing it on. Your
favourite bands, you probably never talk to them. I wouldn't
want to, cos I'd find out they're just as dull as me."
"I have the opposite feeling about this mystique thing,"
interjects Gary. "I want to know the words, where it was
recorded, the engineer."
"Gary also seem to want to know personally everybody that
likes the band," says Bob. "On tour, he's averaging ten to
twenty thousand words a night. People find it hard to
believe Gary is our drummer; they say 'that's the guy who was
doing somersaults in the bar!!'"
Right now, Gary is unnerving me by reading my questions
list upside down (a trick he learned playing Scrabble).
"These bands you're comparing us to," he growls, "Sonic
Youth, Pixies, I've never heard them."
Bob: "Well, I've heard pretty much every Sonic Youth and
Pixies song, and I love 'em. But we also love ELO and
Fleetwood Mac. We have a much more diverse range of stuff we
listen to and love than most indie bands. There are a lot of
groups that completely love three or four bands. And those
bands become a huge force in shaping their style. There's
certainly a whole bunch of bands in the US that obviously
love Big Black, or love Dinosaur Jr. And you can see the
damage. That whole Subpop spirit..."
A stunted spirit. A whole generation of bands are coming
through who think rock began with Husker Du's Zen Arcade,
or worse, with Mudhoney. Pavement's secret is that they're
plugged into whole other infinities of guitar-expansionism.
Bob's wearing a Faust T-shirt (actually from the opera, but
he's wearing it in homage to the Kraut-rockers). Steve quotes
Can's "I'm So Green" when he's explaining why they're not
ready to sign to a major yet. This Krautrock connection was
most apparent on the early EP's "Slay Tracks", "Demolition
Plot", "Perfect Sound Forever": glorious orgies of lo-fi
guitar-reinvention. But you can still detect it in glints and
glimmers on "Slanted", in the seething tornado-spout of
guitar in "Jackals, False Grails", in the molten ore that
gushes from "Fame Throwa".
"All that German music is really important to us," says
Steve. "I played Can's Ege Bamyasi album every night before
I went to sleep for about three years. And I still like Can.
A lot of people are citing them as an influence now."
If you listen to Faust and Neu!, Amon Duul II and Cluster,
(and it's hard as all but Faust are out of print) you can
hear prophetic, pre-emptive echoes of so much stuff: from Joy
Divison and The Fall, to Loop and Spacemen 3, to Sonic
Youth's reinvention of the guitar and even MBV's glide
guitar. But the early Seventies Krautrock axis isn't
something you can really imitate. It's more like they're a
model for total possiblity, it's more about their attitude
and methodology than the sounds they generated.
"You can have a methodology to make a country record too,"
says Steve. "On our next EP, we've
kind of gotten away from the tricks and weird effects that we
did on the early records, the little keyboard in-jokes and
off-the-cuff noise snippets. We did that both to poke fun at
and pay tribute to experimental music and people like Faust."
It's these European influences that give Pavement an edge
over their shaggy contemporaries. Another obvious input is
The Fall; some of the tracks on Slanted sound like
candidates for Grotesque or Hex Enduction Hour, back when
M.E.S.'s lot were at their weirdest and wiredest.
"We like The Fall," says Steve. "But we can't hold back,
we want to have a hook, a bit of beauty. We're not as cold
or dour as The Fall."
Going back to the shaggy bands, not only do they all
sound the same (like cold porridge hitting an electric fan),
they all blurt the same emotion, that bleary, incoherent
blend of rage and confusion: "hey, hey we're the
twentysomethings/and we're going nowhere at all". But I don't
get that vibe from Pavement.
"There is a sadness, but we can't be too melancholy,"
muses Steve. "Our lives aren't that bad. I have a job, an
apartment, I can get a beer if I want one..."
Mark: "We all come from happy families too. I don't know
if that has anything to do with it, but all ten parents are
still alive, still married, which is pretty unique."
Bob: "And I enjoy the company of all them, we have a blast
with every single parent."
Steve: "If we had a road crew, it would be them."
Bob: "They're hip too. Mine were just over here and they
were visiting Rough Trade Records, and my mum told them 'I'm
the Pavement mother'. Gary's father designed the Steinberger
guitar, and he saw us and said "well, you guys are loud but
you're not as loud as Adrian Belew". We've practised in their
house and they moved all the furniture out of the living room
so we could practise!"
Perhaps because they were brought up by easy-going,
post-rock'n'roll parents (doubtless using progressive
childrearing methods, no imposed neuroses, lotsa breast
feeding) Pavement have that true slacker quality: a feeling
of entitlement, a willingness to drift, absorb, marvel, but
none of that neurotic compulsion to make your mark on the
world. And they also have the children-of-the-mass-media-age
quality that's the other half of the slacker equation, a
indelible sense of ABSURDITY.
"When we play live, we do feel the whole ritual is
absurd," admits Steve. "Music isn't life and death for us,
and it's hard for me to believe that art can be like that.
It's something to fill your day and something to talk about,
but to obsess about it seems absurd. I mean, you go to so
many shows, you know what it's like, it's 'here's the next
band, here's what they have to say, it's been said before but
there you go'. In the Sixties people had that idealism about
how words and sound can change the world, and maybe it did...
but now everybody's so cynical, they've seen it all before.
We get everything so fast off the TV, most people have
opinions on everything. The thing is, we do 'mean' it. For
what it's worth. We turn up the vocals, we're not trying to
drown out the words in this morass of slackness. There's
something there, it's just confused."
What I like about the Slacker movie and slacker rock
from Daydream Nation to Yerself Is Steam to Slanted, is
that they contains everything that's good and everything
that's bad about our generation. On one hand, a tremendous
love and knowledge of pop culture, a sense of
curiosity/wonder/absurdity. But on the other hand, this is
a generation that can't get it together to DO anything, apart
from make attractive mosaics out of the fragments.
"We still have some sense of values, either musical values
or the way we live our lives. We're not deeply into that
Mercury Rev thing of leaving behind reality. We're not like
those shoegazer bands who believe that sound is everything,
and songs and words don't count."
What Pavement do is neither evade reality (the Scene that Celebrates Itself [shoegaze]) nor reflect it (the shaggies), but refract it through
kaleidoscope-tinted vision, make it seem even more weird and
wondrous, perplexing and poignant than it already is. And
Death to shaggy!
Westing (by musket and sextant)
Spin, spring 1993
by Simon Reynolds
The big budget bombast of the Butch Vig/Nevermind sound is as oppressively omnipresent as Daniel Lanois/Joshua Tree stratospherics were in the mid-Eighties. But thank the Lord, there's an alternative to CD-friendly Alternative, in the form of the lo-fi underground: avant-garage bands like Royal Trux, Truman's
Water, Thinkin' Fellers Union Local 282, Wall Drug, Fantastic Palace, God Is My Co-Pilot, and droves more miniature miscreants every month. Too motley to be a movement, these bands do share common 'roots' in the more warped tributaries of the pre-punk and post-punk underground (Beefheart, Can/Faust/Neu, Pere Ubu, Swell
Maps, The Fall). They're fond of thrift-store, ultra-cheesy guitar effects and antiquated technology pushed to breaking point. And their ramshackle songs have cryptic songtitles, absurdist wit, Dada doggerel lyrics, and loose ends galore.
The absolute ruler of this particular mess-thetic is, of course, Pavement. This compilation gathers up all the fabulously rare EP's, 7 inchs and flexis on which their cult was founded. Some obscurity-fetishists claim that is the real Pavement, although personally I prefer the fully-formed, songful and swingin' Slanted
and Enchanted. But there's gold in this here murk, and Wesket (by
musket and sextant) is a record all connoiseurs of clamor will cherish.
"You're Killing Me", from their first EP "Slay Tracks (1933-1969), is an auspicious career kick-off: a stylus-skidding scree of distortion coalesces into an angsty punk ditty as haiku-perfect as early Wire. Right from the start, Pavement wreak an
immaculately wrought racket. "Box Elder", though, sounds so runt-like and emaciated you can see why the abysmal Wedding Present covered it. But "Maybe Maybe"'s squall and "Price Yeah"'s drone-swarm look ahead to the billowing grandeur of 'Slanted" songs like "Jackals, False Grails".
On the next EP, "Demolition Plot J-7", The Fall's influence kicks in: "Forklift", for instance, has corrugated riffs, a tinpot organ, and vocals fed through a loudhailer. By the "Perfect Sound Forever" 10 inch EP, Pavement are close to Slanted's exquisite meld of blare and beauty. But like their most obvious ancestors Faust, Pavement still love to disrupt the flow with gratuitous
outbursts of noise, like the impossibly jagged and grating "Drive By Fader" and "Krell-Vid-User". From the ultra-rare fanzine-flexi tracks, "Baptist Blacktick" stands out for the way it slides from Sonic Youth urgency to Replacements' nonchalance, while "My First Mine" stomps uncannily like Hex Enduction Hour era Fall.
Omnivores grazing over the last 15 years of post-punk, Pavement regurgitate a puree of impeccable taste that's seems pretty lipsmackin' to me. Of course, you could argue that this noise-for-noise's-sake approach is going nowhere, but it's going
there in terrific style and that's more than enough for me.
(Im)perfect sound forever, alright!