Pavement: distance skews everything

After more than a decade away, one of alternative rock’s most cherished cult bands are back. We speak to Pavement before and after their headline set at Primavera Sound in Barcelona, discussing time, TikTok and horse racing with a group who seem more comfortable than ever

Right now, Pavement are all over the place, and it’s resulted in an interesting spread of Zoom backgrounds. There’s me, the sun slanting into my living room as a Friday draws to a close. Then there’s Steve West, basking in the mid-morning glow of his Virginia cottage, the wooden shades and bare stonework giving off a slight Little House on the Prairie vibe. And there’s ​​Bob Nastanovich. The band’s percussionist and time-keeper is the most out of place, having just stepped off a seven-hour flight from his home in Des Moines, Iowa, to Portland. Considering he’s been in transit, he’s remarkably chipper, chatting with the easy, laid-back demeanour of a guest on a morning chat show as he fills us in on his movements so far. 

“We’ve gotten off to a great start!” he beams enthusiastically. “The lady sat on my right was a very polite woman named Cody from Chicago, leaned over and was like, ‘Holy shit, you’re the guy from Pavement? Oh my god, you’re like my friend’s favourite band’. So, yeah, that’s two tickets sold already!”

It’s been over a decade since Pavement last played together, and the band aren’t leaving anything to chance. Once renowned as one of the most hit-and-miss live bands in the business, the band’s five members are gathering in Portland to spend an extended period relearning the songs, smoothing out the rough edges and figuring out a set that they can take to Primavera Sound at the beginning of June. The next step is to fly down to Los Angeles. They plan to iron out their new stage show – which Nastanovich half-jokingly describes as a “Gorillaz-style audiovisual experience – so that you don’t have to look at our old asses” – by playing a warm up at the city’s Fonda Theatre. 

Speaking strictly for myself, it makes sense that you wouldn’t want to step out in front of 90,000 people without doing at least a little bit of rudimentary prep work. However, the pair are deadly serious when they stress that this is anything but ordinary for Pavement. “You need to realise that Pavement is fundamentally about winging it,” Nastanovich tells me, dropping his tone and adopting a ‘we-ain’t-shitting-you’ look. “I actually think that having this much prep time is really excessive – in the past I can literally remember regularly having to jot down notes on my setlist to remind me of what instruments I need to pick up before the next song, so compared to that, this is us being really thorough.”

Live shows are probably the best barometer we have to measure this band by. When the camp is harmonious, they’re one of the most effortlessly natural live bands out there, able to miniaturise enormous festival sets into small, intimate club shows. However, their gigs can be downright acidic when things aren’t so good. To find an example of their self-destructive tendencies, you only have to return to 2010 and the infamous Las Vegas show at the Palm Casino as part of Matador Records’ 21st birthday celebrations. Besides sound problems, Pavement were not in a good place, managing to limp through an 18-song set while barely acknowledging each other. The show came to a sudden halt when guitarist Scott Kannberg smashed his guitar and kicked over his amp in sheer frustration. Stephen Malkmus suggested that this might be Pavement’s swan song. NME reported that he sadly told the crowd: “It’s great that Matador organised this event – I think it’s going to be important that you came.”

When I ask the pair about this show, West and Nastanovich exchange knowing glances and chuckle. “Yeah, we sucked,” admits West. “We didn’t play many bad shows that year, but that was one of them.”

History tells us that Pavement’s spats never last for all that long. Even after the disaster in Las Vegas, the band jetted off to Brazil and played two club shows without any drama. Looking back now, the 2009 reunion was just another example of the band flying too close to the sun. Even in their ’90s heyday the band could be erratic. On the one hand, they had a remarkable run, releasing five well-regarded albums in ten years and headlining Reading, Glastonbury, Lollapalooza and almost every other festival. Yet, there was always something about the limelight that didn’t sit well with Pavement. You just have to listen to the lyrics of cult classics like ‘Range Life’ and ‘Cut Your Hair’ to find both a deep sense of cynicism about the bombast of the music business and a slightly anxious undertone that a music career might not have been the best choice. Singer Stephen Malkmus, in particular, seemed to hold the music industry in disdain, and it made for some pretty decent copy, especially for people like me who spent the period between 1995 and 1999 sitting in school classrooms arguing about music. Hell, their long-running feud with fellow alternative rock darlings Smashing Pumpkins was right up there with the BlurOasis rivalry.

1999 turned out to be a pivotal year, both for Pavement and me. The summer that I got my GCSE results I can remember eagerly watching them play the main stage at Reading Festival a couple of days after my results, in what is still one of my top five live performances. I can also remember sitting in my college cafeteria a couple of months later, reading about the band’s implosion at the Brixton Academy, with bassist Mark Ibold moved to tears during the band’s encore performance of ‘Here’. It truly felt like the end of an era. In a typically sarcastic statement after the show, the band told the world that they were retiring to:

  1. Start families
  2. Sail around the world
  3. Get into the computer industry 
  4. Dance 
  5. Get attention

Twenty years on and apart from the computer industry bit, Malkmus is probably closest to achieving the complete list. He was already making music with The Jicks in the dog days of Pavement, and in the years since he’s made a name for himself as a well-regarded solo artist in his own right. Bassist Mark Ibold, meanwhile, spent some time in Sonic Youth, tending a bar in New York and becoming a food writer, while Scott Kannburg makes music as Spiral Stairs, and with former Pavement drummer Gary Young in Preston School of Industry.

“After we stopped, I dropped out of music altogether,” Nastanovich tells me when I ask about life without Pavement. Despite appearing on Silver Jews records, horse racing is the main passion in his life these days, and he’s eager to tell me that he knows the running at every British racecourse. “I’ve spent the last few years ensconced in several horse racing jobs; I own a slow horse near my house and mostly spend my time following the races.”

“I’m a stonemason,” adds Steve West when I glance over. “I still have occasional conversations about the music stuff, but these days I’m constantly looking for fellow masons where I go. When I get to talk about mortar, lime and trusses: that kind of stuff really gets me going.”

“I tend to wake up at 6AM these days,” Stephen Malkmus tells me when we catch up. As a person who struggles to get out of bed by 9.30, my first thought is to offer sympathy, but he’s fairly forgiving. “It’s just something you have to do when you have kids, I’m kind of used to it now.”

A strange sense of synchronicity hangs in the air over this year’s reunion. Not only does 2022 coincide with the tenth anniversary of the band’s last get-together, it also marks the 30th anniversary of Slanted and Enchanted, the band’s debut album and the record that arguably set the tone for the band’s trajectory ever since. It means that this period drips with a weird sense of nostalgia, almost as if the band are sifting through a box of old photographs and letters and deciding what should and should not go into the scrapbook. 

“It’s really funny how the relationship with your music changes over time,” the singer observes when I ask him how it’s been going. “There are songs that we have to play that are, like, certifiable Pavement gold, but then there’s those deep cuts and curiosities that change over time, and it’s been fun to revisit those and see how we feel about them now. We’re just trying to figure out what we want to play based on what we can play; what’s unique and what songs go together tempo-wise.” 

It’s just been announced that Matador will be releasing an anniversary edition of Slanted later this year, and it’s a unique opportunity for the band’s past and present selves to interact simultaneously. Laid out side by side, it’s very clear that the Pavement of 1990 was a very different beast to the Pavement of 1999, let alone 2022. An exercise in spontaneity, vocals were set down in a single take and filled with obscure references and sly in-jokes. The guitar parts lie over the top like afterthoughts glued together by Young’s explosive yet complex drum patterns. This roughed-out approach meant that the band’s gigs were more like performance art when it worked best, an unpredictable force that often confounded as many people as it turned on. To get an idea, I managed to track down footage of an early incarnation of the band playing a 1991 show at the Middle East Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on YouTube, and it’s as chaotically brilliant as I expected. Even though the footage is all warped like an old VHS tape, it nevertheless captures the band’s early years perfectly, from the louche energy to the blissful pop hooks of ‘Box Elder’ and ‘Summer Babe’. The performance is also a window into the chaotic energy that filled the band’s stage show and led to the band’s less than stellar reputation as a live band having to constantly wrangle Gary Young back behind his drum kit between songs. You can see why people labelled the band ‘slacker rock’.

All these years later, it’s a moniker that Malkmus still slightly rails against. “I guess if you pushed me, I’d have to say that we were just embracing what we thought was mainstream. At the time, if you could get signed to [legendary hardcore and DIY label] SST, that would be like being Bruce Springsteen almost. Our music existed in this world of influences and signifiers that were revolving around Maxwell’s and the bands that were playing there.

“It also helped that we had pseudonyms; it meant that we didn’t have to play any live shows and could do whatever we wanted without being held accountable,” he continues. “If we fucked it, we could just be like, ‘Yeah, that was nothing to do with us.’ I don’t even think the early releases had any of our pictures on them or anything like that, so it gave us the freedom to hop onto the next trend, like the whole lo-fi thing that was just starting to happen.”

Slanted and Enchanted has long been held up as an album that both started and defined ’90s alterno-rock, so the revelation that Pavement half expected to crash and burn opens up some weird conceptual avenues. Don’t you wonder what would’ve happened if the record hadn’t caught fire? We could have had a Pavement that spun off into crazy directions, from Soundgarden rockers to Belle and Sebastian-style twee. Malkmus chuckles when I bring up the idea.

“I know, right? Can you imagine? Bob used to get in trouble at Belle and Sebastian’s shows. Always. When they came to New York to promote If You’re Feeling Sinister people were so quiet and respectful, and he was just in the back of the bar going ‘Blah, blah, blah’, and people would just be giving him daggers right to his very soul for fucking with the vibe. I think it summed up the role we played: we were maybe the kind of band to cackle at the back; that whole fanzine culture of being pretty sarcastic. Looking back, I’m still amazed that a band as earnest as that managed to make it through the late ’90s.”

When our time comes to an end, I’m curious how much the Stephen Malkmus of 2022 recognises and finds common ground with the Stephen Malkmus of 1990. After all, Slanted and Enchanted, for all its cult status, was still Pavement’s first significant piece of work, and nobody gets it 100% right straight out of the gate. Three decades represents a lot of personal growth, and it must be weird to have your musings, thoughts and feelings captured and persevered and picked over. 

“Looking back, I was kind of lucky it was 1988 and 1990,” muses Malkmus when I bring it up.  “I think by that time I was getting a little bit cooler and starting to know that you had to be cool, but knowing how not to say too much or say anything that’s too cringe, so I sort of still recognise that person at that level. I don’t recognise how I came up with all the lyrics – I definitely can’t do that anymore. Now, I’m sort of like, ‘What am I going to say?’ More doublethink, doubting yourself and stuff. Back then, I had more of a free jazz, poetry-like, just letting it flow [approach] – it’s hard to create that when you don’t have it.”

“Do you think it’s a self-awareness thing?” I ask him. “After all, everyone gets a lot more self-aware as they get older.”

“It’s definitely easier to be self-conscious now,” he agrees. “I tend to be more cautious because everyone knows who I am, and I’ve got kids at an age where they’ll read it. The internet doesn’t help either. I don’t want to fall back on that, but things are different now. People will just look it up if you try to be obscure and cryptic now. Being wilfully mysterious isn’t the ploy it used to be.”

Roughly a week later, I drop in again to find that Pavement appear to be humming like a well-oiled machine. “I hope I’m not jumping the gun here, but think we’re sounding better than we ever have,” Mark Ibold says when I ask how the preparations have been going.

“It’s helped that we’ve had this really great room with very good sound quality,” adds Scott Kannberg, before injecting a note of caution. “I mean, I still wonder if we’re just going to fall apart when we get on a big stage, but I’ll guess to see what happens.”

In many ways, the motive force that propels Pavement comes from the relationship between Malkmus and Kannberg. Childhood friends, the pair of them started what would then go on to become Pavement when they both lived in Stockton, California. In the years that followed, Kannberg’s more grounded everyman persona and straight-up pop sensibilities anchored the more conceptual, high-minded effects of his bandmates. In the band’s later, messier days, Kannberg still had the most skin in the game, was the last to let go and the emotional wreckage still lingers. 

“Whenever I heard Pavement songs, I just didn’t enjoy them. It all just seemed so far away to me,” he confesses when we talk about his experiences reconnecting with the material. “It wasn’t until about six months ago that I realised that I would have to actually sit down and relearn all the chords and stuff. I went on YouTube and started watching someone play a Pavement song and just started playing along with them, slowly getting back into the chord structures, and even singing along like Steve used to. Then, suddenly, I was like, ‘Man, these songs are great.’ It’s kind of embarrassing to think it took some guy on YouTube to make me realise how great our songs are.”

In the decade since the 2009 reunion, the whole world seems to have rediscovered and reclassified Pavement. But while the renewed interest definitely has its rewards, with the band finally getting some of the love and attention they deserve, it’s also creating a distorted image of their back catalogue. The weird second life of ‘Harness Your Hopes’ is a case in point. A B-side recorded during the sessions for 1997’s Brighten The Corners that wasn’t released until 1999 when it snuck onto the CD-only Spit On A Stranger EP, it was a track known only to the geekiest, most dedicated collectors. But by some quirk of the algorithm, it’s become the band’s most popular song on Spotify and has gone on to spawn something of a dance craze on TikTok. It’s leaving the band more than a little bemused, with Malkmus writing the whole thing off to Stereogum, saying that the sudden rise in likes was because the track was “on a playlist or something… you know, one of those ‘Monday Moods’ or whatever the fuck they do.”

Kannberg ushers a groan at the mere mention of the song or Spotify. For him, music streaming and social media appear to be necessary evils at best, and should be better kept at arm’s length. “I know that their reach is vast, and things like this have helped get Pavement out there to a bunch of new fans, but I still can’t help but think, ‘Man, we’re just giving this stuff away for free.’ It feels like it cheapens it a bit, you know?”

Still, that hasn’t stopped the band from jumping on the craze. As part of the recent reissue of Terror Twilight, Pavement revisited ‘Harness Your Hopes’ by releasing a new video on YouTube, and the song, along with the Spit on a Stranger EP was finally issued on vinyl back in April. It’s a turn of events that still leaves Mark Ibold more than a bit confused. 

“I’m still a bit surprised by our whole response to this,” he says with a roll of his eyes. “First, we go and make a video because some fucking algorithm tells us to, and now we’re practising playing it live. That just doesn’t sound like Pavement to me.”

“I know, man,” sighs Kannberg, understanding his bandmate’s frustration. “But what can you do?”

I guess that’s one of the problems of having a legacy: the bigger it gets, the less control you have over it. As the years go by and the band’s cult status grows ever bigger, their place in popular culture belongs less and less with the creators and more and more with the fans. To me, Pavement felt kind of like a group of kids in the year above, and their music was a roadmap that would help you to figure out the world and your place within it. But as that recedes into the mists of the past, the band’s output also begins to lose the specificity of its meaning, becoming just another star in a galaxy of alternative rock.

“I find it really weird that people equate our band with the ’90s,” says Ibold as we discuss how the perceptions of Pavement have evolved over time. “I was there, and there was a lot of stuff that came out that made me think, ‘Fuck that shit, we shouldn’t have anything to do with that stuff,’ but lo-and-behold, as the years go by, people have attached our band with things that we actively tried to get away from. I guess time and distance skews everything eventually, and things make sense when it was so long ago.”

“I don’t think we come up that much at all,” Kannberg says with a smile. “I mean, people show me new bands and go, ‘Don’t you think this band or that band sound like Pavement?’ but I can never hear us in anything. Yeah, maybe we sound new to these kids, but the only kid I know is mine, and she only really listens to k-pop.”

Our last meeting feels a little bit like an exit interview. As we lounge around the rooftop pool of a hotel near the Primavera site, in Barcelona, the band are excitedly talking about the Mogwai set that they managed to catch last night. “I thought they were just brilliant,” Steve West tells me, bobbing enthusiastically like a kid who’s just caught his favourite band. “They just seemed to get louder and louder.”

Pavement played their big comeback show a couple of nights before, and I’m glad to report that all the hard work has paid off. Backed by a simple set-up and playing the set of crowd favourites, rarities and curiosities that they’d promised, it was almost like they had never been away. My personal highlight came at the end, when Malkmus paid tribute to his bandmates before launching into a wonderful, almost ad-libbed cover of Jim Pepper’s ‘Witchitai-To’. “Water spirit feelin’, springing round my head / Makes me glad that I’m not dead.” (Read Dom’s full review here)

“Soundcheck didn’t go too well,” says Kannberg as we discuss the gig. “But as soon as we launched into that first song, the sound was great, so I knew it was going to be fine.”

“I thought it was pretty good by our standards,” agrees Steve West, before putting the show into some perspective. “Of course, we always want to be good, wherever we were, but for whatever reason, whether it’s an individual person or the way it sounds, we sometimes end up failing miserably. It’s just that the bad shows have ended up checkering our entire history, so I think it was really great that this one went well.”

The sense of collective relief is palpable. Drinking their coffees and chatting happily with one another, the various members of Pavement look as comfortable with each other as they ever have. With the gig out of the way, the band’s priorities are switching to ways to make the most out of their time in Barcelona. West and Kannberg are planning to take their families to see the Sagrada Famila and visit Antoni Gaudí’s home in the Park Güell. Malkmus has already taken off to play some tennis on the outskirts of town and Ibold hasn’t really planned anything. Nastanovich, as always, has horse racing on his mind and is excited to watch the Epsom Derby later in the day. “That’s just my routine,” he says as an explanation. “Back home I’d be grilling, drinking beer and listening to the radio – it’s a pretty easy routine to stick to.”

With the big comeback show in the rearview mirror, the obvious question is what’s next? The band already have a huge international tour announced for the end of the summer, and they’re determined to see Primavera as a jumping-off point to get even better.

“Ideally, you want to get to a point where you don’t have to worry or think too much about every song and add a little bit more each time,” West explains when I ask them about their ambitions for the autumn. “When I go and see a band, I want to see them enjoy themselves and get a little bit creative with the material, and with the rate we’re improving, I think we’ll get there pretty quickly.”

Spending time with the band over the past few weeks, it strikes me that Pavement has been through too much and seen too much to take anything for granted. 

“I mean age isn’t really a factor in this band, and we’ve added a lot to the mix this time that makes it different,” says Kannberg when the conversation inevitably turns to the future. “Who knows? Maybe, we’ll just be a better band this time?”