If you pick up a copy of the current issue of Ghettoblaster Magazine, you’ll find a multi-page interview with Jicks frontman, Stephen Malkmus discussing, among other things, his band’s latest release,Wig Out At Jagbags. If you read it, you’ll hopefully discover someone that’s much more multi-dimensional than the aloof indie rock icon that he’s been painted out to be for the better part of 2 1/2 decades. As the individual who conducted that interview and wrote that piece, that’s the most important thing that I came away with and that I hope comes across. There were a ton of questions that I didn’t get an opportunity to ask, which I had intended/hoped to, but it wasn’t because the legendary songwriter was evasive; it was because he was surprisingly open, accessible, and casual to the point where the urgency kind of just dissipated and seemed non-existent. In many ways, a similar mentality is reflected in his approach to writing, recording, and performing his music–everything seems so effortless.
Since his days as the frontman and principle songwriter for pioneering 1990s indie rock outfit, Pavement, Stephen has been labeled as the “ultimate slacker,” a snarky dismissive figure that doesn’t take his live performances any more seriously than he does press and promotion. Perhaps this is partially how the media explained away why a band that, for all intents and purposes, deserved substantially more recognition in their heyday, never managed to achieve it–“they just fucked off way too much.” But while they became notorious for their sloppy concerts and for taking playful jabs at widely popular and commercially successful “contemporaries” like The Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots, Pavement also pushed out 5 amazing and timeless full-length LPs during their decade-long career, not including the stockpile of tracks written by Malkmus that never even made it onto any of their recordings. In other words, he’s one of the most prolific “slackers” in history. The unfortunate reality is that, even if you write the greatest music and maintain the most credibility, that rarely translates into being the most commercially successful; accessibility and marketing does. Far too often, the fame and dollars trickle down to the bands that have been influenced by such acts, but deliver those siphoned elements through much more processed and digestible filters. And while this pattern of yielding praise as innovators long after a project has disbanded has demonstrated itself to be quite common, it doesn’t seem to be enough to prevent that history from repeating itself, even when it’s affecting the exact same party all over again.
The first and last time that I saw the Jicks live was back in 2011 after their previous album, Mirror Traffic was released. With production by Beck and coming off the tail of the Pavement reunion tour, that release saw Malkmus and The Jicks receiving as much attention as they ever had since their inception. However, after witnessing SM pull out epic 26 song sets with his reformed 90s outfit–once during a headlining festival spot at Sasquatch 2010, and again at the 2,800-plus capacity Paramount Theatre–there was a sobering reality in seeing Stephen on stage with the Jicks at the Neptune Theatre, which is listed as maxing out at a much more reduced 800, following that tour. It was an intimate scene, reflective of both how much legends grow and people miss you once you’re gone, as well as how little they appreciate you while you’re still around and more accessible.
Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks
On April 12th, The Jicks returned to the Neptune to close out their extensive 2 month Wig Out At Jagbags US tour in Seattle. Malkmus and company sauntered onto the stage casually. Stephen posted up in front of an amp head which had letters blocked off and added so that “Orange Amp” was transformed to read “Danger Plan.” At the opposite end of the stage was multi-instrumentalist, Mike Clark equipped with a Gibson SG behind a keyboard rack–the letters on his Marshall amp appeared to now read “a snail.” The meat and cheese of this Portland indie rock sandwich was the rhythm section of Joanna Bolme (bass) and Jake Morris (drums). That last time that they played at this venue also marked the first time that I had visited the Neptune after the former Landmark movie theatre had been remodeled into a live concert venue. What gave me an instant appreciation for the space was how little separation it feels that there is between the audience and the performers, especially with someone known for interacting with and playing to the crowd as Stephen is.
Aligning with the stereotype, the show began in both impressive and dysfunctional fashion. They kicked their set off with their most recent single, “Cinnamon & Lesbians,” a nod to the New Age hippie culture of 1980s Portland, complete with a little “St Stephen“-esque Grateful Dead riff. Coming through pretty strong right out of the gate, they kept the momentum going with “Spazz” from Mirror Traffic, but once they got into the third song, “Planetary Motion” (also from Wig Out), the audio issues that had already begun to seep in had become impossible to ignore. Joanna‘s bass amp sounded blown, or as Malkmus put it “farty.” The opening act–Pavement influenced Boston outfit, Speedy Ortiz–agreed to let her use their amp and the show took an early pause to deal with technical difficulties.
A lesser band might have frozen up at this point, or at the very least, allowed this minor setback to bog down the momentum or… even become a minor setback. Not even remotely phased, Malkmus nonchalantly glanced toward the audience and said, “Whatever. Doesn’t matter right?” He casually walked across the stage to Mike Clark who had taken to the keys, playing “Freeze The Saints” from the 2005 Stephen Malkmus solo album Face The Truth. As Stephen crooned along, lyrics like “Feel no shame. Luck is love is on,” “learn to sing along and languish here. Help me languish here,” and “You said, ‘done is good,’ But done well is so much fucking better” were not only reflective of the moment, but this singular–some might say, beautiful–moment also epitomized what makes Malkmus so great. It’s something that those who “get it” love about him, and prompts those who don’t to throw around unfounded claims about lack of professionalism and dismiss the work altogether. The truth is that, he does have his shit together; he knows himself and his abilities so well that nothing can ever truly be completely derailed, just redirected.
The source for the following youtube video of that “Freeze the Saints” rendition traces back to photographer Matt Boyer and I’m genuinely appreciative that he managed to capture it. This is what it looks like when a Jicks show “falls apart.”
The Japanese couple next to me sang along, swaying side to side, and when it was over, Stephen muttered something to the effect of “Grace under pressure” as he smiled, gave a quick wave with his left hand, and strolled back over to his microphone.
With the new amp in play, the band broke into another new track, “Shibboleth,” which allowed for some wacky guitar work overlaid on a solid bass groove, before smoothing things out with Mirror Traffic‘s “No One Is (As I Are Be).” “Houston Hades” settles into a similar zone, but only after a raucous deconstructed intro. A focus on newer materials doesn’t feel like you’re getting the shaft at a Jicks show, because every track feels like an instant classic. I found myself in a similar situation the last time that I caught them live, not even realizing that the newer cuts had already embedded themselves so deeply into my skull, until experiencing them in that moment. It was around this point when I noticed that the couple who were singing along to every single lyric, new and old, were communicating to each other strictly in Japanese when there were dead spaces between the music. They were completely absorbed by the entire experience; clearly from Japan, English was not their primary language, yet they sang along to every single word of every single song, regardless of when it was released. Something about this made me incredibly happy. Their clear enthusiasm and appreciation was infectious. To them, everything was exactly as it felt, the perfect song to play for that moment.
After dipping into “Phantasies” from Stephen‘s 2001 self-titled post-Pavement debut, the rest of the 16-song set consisted predominantly of new tracks like the loungey “J Smoov,” and no matter which style they embrace or territory that they decide to migrate toward, the Jicks have the innate ability to not only nail each sound, but make it their own to the point that it feels like they invented it. Morris cracked out a quick drumroll to launch the band into the infectious, energetic melody of “Stick Figures In Love” [Mirror Traffic], a song that effectively shifted the night into another gear. Much more animated than I’ve seen him, Mike climbed onto a monitor while playing his guitar, using the soundman’s wobbling shoulders to balance himself as he came back down. Clark is definitely the secret weapon of the group from his understated position on the stage, adding so much, but often so under the radar that it goes unnoticed. It’s great seeing him really get swept up and come into himself as he did. There’s no question that he deserves to have a little more of the spotlight shined in his direction.
After their other recent single, “Lariat“–which makes another reference to the Grateful Dead and which Stephen told me was inspired by his time as a student at UVA in Charlottesville–he found himself on the topic of The Evergreen State College, which I actually attended. From what I caught, he made a reference which involved something to the effect of how “the lead singer of Bikini Kill” went there and about “the lead singer of Macklemore” also attending the college. Then he joked that he knew that one person who definitely couldn’t have attended Evergreen was producer, Ryan Lewis, because his beats are “filthy” and that filthy beats like that don’t come from Evergreen. This prompted Jake to chime in with, “Those beats won more Grammys than you dude.” SM conceded with “I don’t write filthy beats,” before announcing that the next song would be “Janitor Revealed,” to which Joanna added, “Filthy.” This track has a really great little structured build up/break down section that opens up into space for some nice guitar work. “Scattegories” saw Stephen jumping around like he was reeling in a marlin, as he strangled out a wily, squealing guitar solo. “Surreal Teenagers“–one of the tracks that Malkmus had originally written as far back as the Mirror Traffic release–ventures into some real psychedelic doom and, of course, “surreal” territories. They just consistently cranked the show up one notch/track at a time, throughout, going through “Independence Street“–also from Wig Out, but played during the 2011 tour/Neptune show–and ended off strongly with the Face The Truth single, “Baby C’mon.”
When they returned for the encore, they eased in with “Us” [Pig Lib, 2003], which resulted in Steve shooting out little Trey Anastasio-style whale call noises, pushing a wave of resonance and then pulling out into a blues rock solo, before transitioning into the wacky as all-get-out, “Elmo Delmo” [Real Emotional Trash, 2008], a song which really travels in and out of some far out territory–at moments, of the crazy mystical woodland Druid seance or psychedelic hookah variety–and featured Malkmus utilizing his mic as a guitar slide. After that, they blasted into a cover of Rush‘s “Fly By Night,” with Jake Morris handling the vocal duties as well as the Neil Pert role knocking the kit around, as the frontman used the opportunity to fling himself around untethered in his own designated corner of the stage. Intentionally or not, as the song came to a halt, Stephen slipped in a quick riff straight out of The Dead‘s “That’s It For The Other One.”
One exciting thing about seeing The Jicks these days is knowing that they could pretty much tear into anything at any moment. They showcased how solid their more recent material really is, while making sure to pull at least one track from each of Malkmus‘ post-Pavement studio releases–now totaling 6 (1 more than he managed to achieve with Pavement). Last year he released a live album for Record Store Day that featured him covering the album Ege Bamyasi by krautrock legends CAN, live and in its entirely, while accompanied by a band comprised of musicians from Berlin, where he lived for the past 2 years, up until last fall. Back in February, the Jicks mashed Beck‘s “Golden Age” into Pavement‘s “Gold Soundz,” and during their March 28th show at the El Rey in Los Angeles, Pavement co-founder, Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg joined them on stage to play “Stereo.” Hearing them do a Rush song brought that classic line about Geddy Lee from “Stereo” to mind and knowing that he doesn’t seem to have an aversion to delving into that old material anymore, it was the perfect segue into where the night went next.
Grabbing the mic, Malkmus reconstructed a glorified history for his former project, telling the tale of a band named Pavement that was wildly successful, massively rich, and went on to inspire “cute and talented girls” at colleges everywhere. The members of Speedy Ortiz, who’d been traveling with them for the past 2 weeks, joined the headliners on stage. Frontwoman, Sadie Dupuis–who used to front an all female tribute band called Babement–took the mic to sing “In The Mouth A Dessert” while the Jicks and her percussion-manning cohorts backed her like a makeshift Pavement. The audience engaged in the call and response of “It’s what I want.” / “What I want” and the crowded stage embodied that triumphant, yet light-hearted, celebratory air of films like Howard the Duck and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, that end with everyone enthusiastically performing together on stage.
Not content with ending the show on that note, Speedy Ortiz left and Malkmus paid tribute to his proto and post-punk roots by launching into the beginning of Wire‘s “Outdoor Miner” before transitioning into “Mother of Pearl” by Roxy Music. As I was leaving, I located the other people that I knew who were in attendance among the crowd. It was one of those shows where I found myself just standing outside the venue talking about the performance that we’d just seen until we all accepted that it was probably time to get in our respective vehicles and drive our asses home.
The idea of comparing The Jicks to The Grateful Dead amuses me, partially because the reference is starting to get beaten into the ground, but more so because it’s bound to seem completely absurd to a lot of people and even piss some of them off outright. For years, I’d mention how I’ve noticed the occasional Dead sounding elements in their work to people who I knew that were fans of both bands, but even they always seemed surprised. Once I knew that I was going to interview Stephen, it was one of the first things that I thought to inquire about, but then they released blatant references back-to-back in their first two singles, somewhat beating me to the punch. Malkmus isn’t oblivious to certain Dead-like tendencies that might randomly pepper his work and has admitted to enjoying the band’s seventies era, but the early influences for his sound, especially with Pavement, were built much more on the backs of such acts as British post-punk outfit, The Fall, than any “jam band.” But musicians evolve and if there’s one notable separation that many find between Pavement and The Jicks, it’s that the latter has tended to explore more prog-ish, meandering, structured jams at times. It’s a representation of growth and a continued interest in experimentation–Built To Spill is known for venturing into dub and pulling out 20-minute versions of tracks like Neil Young’s “Cortez The Killer” themselves. But after this show, I view Stephen and The Jicks as connecting to the Dead in a much deeper, more abstract, and less obvious way than through any simple phrasing similarities, references, song structure, length, or even “jamming.”
The real strength of the Grateful Dead, when they were on, was their ability to lock in together in a way that transcended the individual notes that they were playing or even the individuals playing them. Melding each instrument together into one fluid entity, they could elevate and shift the sound around the room, like some ethereal tissue paper-thin hang glider majestically coasting on sonic wind. Jerry Garcia was a skilled guitarist, not just due to some natural ability to “space out” and “catch the wave,” but because he studied his craft constantly, toying with different styles and techniques, internalizing them to the point that it was as second nature to him as breathing. Malkmus possesses a similar ability to pull from his arsenal at will, filtering it through his own trademark sound and injecting it perfectly into the compositions at the right moments. Having a band around him that’s skilled and locked in enough to assist in this experimentation and permit it to organically unfold uninhibited, especially in a live setting, creates a feeling completely devoid of sonic limitations. In essence, this type of interplay epitomizes the entire purpose of playing music with others; syncing together and delivering one sound as a unit.
As I stated about Wig Out At Jagbags in our ticket giveaway, “there are traces of everything that’s led up to it, from bright sunny choruses to dark, tangential, psychedelic, pathways. It’s both vintage Malkmus and something entirely fresh, with the legendary guitarist continuing to wield his axe like a machete, veering off of his well worn trail and hacking into new territory.” The show took this approach and magnified it, highlighting their versatility and the extensive repertoire that the Jicks have built over the last decade and a half. The band continues to exceed my expectations and prove themselves to be one of the most consistently inventive and relevant groups in modern history. Of course, having expectations is the foundation of disappointment and there are still those out there who aren’t interested in evolution or change and want to live in the past. I was impressed with the show, but what never escapes me is the reality that, while I feel that my job is to relay my impressions, they are still only my impressions and the odds are that there were others who left disappointed; there always are.
With the 2011 Jicks show arriving in the wake of all of the Pavement hype, the much smaller venue seemed not so much like a demotion, but more like a return to a more comfortable setting for the frontman . The reunion shows brought out the numbers, but the crowds were mixed and seemed less responsive to him haphazardly chopping away at his guitar and flopping around on his back. To all of those that turned out in droves for what the media was promoting as the indie gods that they never got the chance to see in their heyday, it can be easy for Stephen to appear as if he were simply mocking the crowd. What I believe to be far closer to the truth is that he respects the audience enough to assume that they are all in on the “rock star” absurdity with him, and not that they are part the punchline. While it’s true that he employs a lot of what could be described as faux rock poses–jumping jack legs, even raising his guitar over head or playing behind it–Malkmus‘ guitar work remains impeccable and is never compromised by these “antics.” Not unlike fellow indie guitar hero, J Mascis, he suffers from knowing his instrument to the point of looking like he’s not even trying. Performing in these smaller venues lessens the disconnect and this time around, the scene was even better than the last time that they came through the Neptune. Now 4 years removed from the Pavement reunion push and without every single interview about his new release being plagued/overloaded with questions about his former project, this was a crowd that really felt like they were there for The Jicks; not one of those situations like last year’s Chelsea Light Moving show, where the show proved impressive, yet still involved some asshole screaming “TEENAGE RIOT!!!” at Thurston Moore after every fucking song. This new crowd was refreshing and not only did it not require the exhumation of nostalgic Pavement jams, it didn’t even matter if he dug into the older Jicks cuts or not; the new material was welcomed and embraced just as fervently.
When he released his self-titled debut back in 2001, Stephen Malkmus not only considered titling it “Swedish Reggae,” but he initially intended to credit it as a Jicks effort, as well. Matador Records advised against it, but that decision is somewhat of a double-edged sword in the long run. By marketing an artist of his nature as a solo act, it’s inevitable that people will associate them with their former project, but also that they may have difficulty not continuing to do so indefinitely, never fully applying the same value to their new work, or allowing them to freely move forward. If this show reinforces anything, it’s that The Jicks are a legitimate collective that deserves to be respected as one and, in some ways, they could accurately be considered even more of a “band” than Pavement was, at times.
Without denying that this is essentially Stephen‘s project and that these are his songs, The Jicks are much more than simple, faceless session players or hired touring musicians. Replacing someone like Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi, Wild Flag), who left after the recording of Mirror Traffic, is no small feat, but Jake Morris is a comparably explosive monster on the drums, who merged seamlessly into the group. Mike Clark is a musical wizard who regularly juggles multiple instruments on a single track, and gives off the impression that he can handle anything that may need some handling. As for Joanna Bolme, she’s a skilled recording enginer who’s been there since the beginning and seems to be the one that helps to ground the entire operation. Malkmus really trusts her and told me that she gave him a new found respect for bass players. What many people might not remember is that Pavement was basically just comprised of Malkmus and Kannberg at the beginning, with only producer (and future ex-drummer) Gary Young accompanying them on the kit for their first release. What many people may never have realized is that Malkmus actually played bass–and I believe even drums, at points–on some of the Pavement records, himself.
One of the biggest misconceptions with Pavement is the idea that they completely rejected any idea of commercial success, and that they never bothered putting any effort into their craft; some things just eluded them, whether it was due to their own approaches and outlooks, or those of the industry and the music purchasing public, at the time. With The Jicks, Stephen is equally uncompromising and just as willing to hit those sour notes to reach the blindingly sweet ones, but a combination of age, time, and experience is allowing The Jicks to approach that mystical sweet spot more often and with more regularity than Pavement was always capable of in their youth. It’s rare to see an artist consistently progress to this degree, moving forward as if both oblivious and impervious to time–career-wise, physically, sonically, culturally, etc.–always more interested in stepping forward than resting on the laurels of their past. It’s so rare that I believe that many people have trouble recognizing it when it does comes through. Bill Callahan has demonstrated an equally impressive potential for indefinite growth, but perhaps he’s acknowledged for it slightly more, by being tagged as a singer/songwriter, rather than a former rocker.
I may be in the minority believing that Malkmus is currently at a point where he is as good, or better than he’s ever been. I would also wager that more than a few people in attendance for this show would be willing to agree with that, just as plenty who didn’t bother showing up might opt to differ. Perhaps those last 2 years in Berlin afforded him a much needed break that’s left him re-energized. I love Pavement for their amazing songs and their earnest directness, but not everyone seems capable of accepting Stephen‘s work outside of the framing and context of “sloppy as fuck shambolic young underground train wreck.” I have no doubt that Pavement will always be one of my all-time favorite bands, but I’m not one of those who are desperately hoping that they’ll get back together again to tear through those old jams in oversized theaters and stadiums again. I just feel fortunate enough that The Jicks are around to remain one of my favorite current ones.