Pavement are the ultimate rock Rorschach test. To one set of observers, they are demigods of the 90s American underground; the most durable, impactful and casually brilliant act to rise from a generation that wasn’t exactly short on bands who married guitar scree to honeyed melody. To another, they’re a speck.
The band began in California circa 1989, originally just a pair: singer, guitarist and principal songwriter Stephen Malkmus flanked by co-writer and guitarist Scott Kannberg. Soon a fully expanded unit, Pavement’s first two albums are key components in any indie rock starter pack. Slanted and Enchanted (1992) and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994) became standards, codifying where the sound of the genre was travelling in the decade ahead: louche, fuzzy, wry, bittersweet, a little bit jazzy, a little bit peppy, cloaked in obfuscation yet somehow clear of intent. Malkmus had a gift for matching tone and conviction to whatever cryptic swish of the pen he had taken in to the booth on the day of recording, and the band dovetailed beautifully.
And yet, much of Pavement’s arc is caveated with the coulds, woulds and shoulds. As received history goes, when the major leagues came calling, Pavement fluffed their lines: 1995’s elliptical and mellow Wowee Zowee badly hindered the band’s ascent. They toured relentlessly but never notched a gold or platinum record in the US, and in the UK, their biggest single reached an undazzling No 27 in 1999, at which point they were coming down the other side of Mount Popularity and heading for a breakup.
Yet this wobbly dance with the limelight has embellished the group’s lore over time, galvanising fans who see their haphazard approach as a virtue. Wowee Zowee is now considered a classic, on a par with the band’s first two albums – and 1997’s Brighten the Corners is not far behind. By the time the band reunited in 2010 their audience had grown exponentially. Twelve years later they are revving up for another spin on the merry-go-round, with a run of forthcoming rereissues and global shows that will stretch into 2023.
“It’s a game of inches,” smiles Malkmus with the understandable glazed look of someone who has explained the band’s cult status countless times. “There were things we could have done differently when we had a chance of becoming a household name. That said, things worked out fine. We’re here, we have a cool tour coming up, and the word leaked out eventually. I’m sure people think we’re shambolic and shit, too. But they’ll find out one day, you know?”
I join Pavement in Portland, a city that seems chained to the band’s reputation: hip, liberal, leafy, relaxed, a little goofy, white. It’s where Malkmus has lived with his wife, the artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins, for more than two decades, save for a stint in Berlin in the early 2010s.
After the band’s dissolution, Malkmus quickly formed the Jicks, a still-going and still-great corps for shaggier guitar explorations. Kannberg forged ahead with his own solo work under the moniker Spiral Stairs. The rest of the group returned to normality. These days, drummer Steve West is a stonemason and farmer in Virginia. Percussionist and hype man Bob Nastanovich is a Kentucky-based horse racing data analyst who prides himself on being the only American alive to have visited all 60 UK racecourses. Bassist Mark Ibold joined Sonic Youth for their last few years, and is now a bartender and jobbing epicurean in New York, whose columns once graced chef David Chang’s Lucky Peach magazine.
“My mind races sometimes when people come up to me at work,” Ibold says. “What are they thinking? ‘Oh God, this guy’s been in two bands that mean the world to me, but he’s serving drinks behind a bar?’ Maybe we help put things into perspective – that there are few artists left not named Jagger or McCartney who have no financial worries. But still: I’d drop my shifts for Pavement any day of the week.”
In 2022, as in 2010, Pavement mostly look like older approximations of who they were in 1999. There’s extra density in West’s beard, Malkmus’s mop has gone silver-grey and Kannberg’s tufty curtains have been replaced entirely by a baseball cap. Altogether, the group are looking pretty good given that most of them are hovering around the 55 mark, and Ibold turns 60 this year. It’s a jarring proposition to square with the perma-boyish faces staring out from promo videos during the band’s heyday.
The outlier is Gary Young, Pavement’s intense and unpredictable early drummer. “His circus act put us on the map to some degree around Slanted, especially in the UK and Europe,” explains Nastanovich, who periodically checks in on the estranged ex-member. “A brilliant drummer – when he was able to hold the sticks.”
Having spent so much time apart, the band are working on their relationship between rehearsals. On one afternoon off, they head to a gallery exhibition of Hutchins’s work, where the couple’s youngest daughter animatedly holds court with Ibold, Kannberg and West on the kerb. Is she a fan of Dad’s work? “Well, she’s coming to the warm-up show in LA,” Malkmus says, “but her bag is more true-crime podcasts, Olivia Rodrigo and that TikTok thing: ‘ABCDEFU and your friends and your mama.’ She’s like most 14-year-olds: hopelessly online.”
It’s heartening to find Pavement in warm spirits, given that they haven’t been geographically or personally that close for the better part of a quarter-century. Kannberg and Nastanovich hadn’t seen each other since the then-final Pavement show in Buenos Aires 12 years ago. “The dynamics, personalities and humour between us have always been there, and always stay the same,” says West. “It’s immediately comfortable again.”
The reunion was announced in late 2019: two shows locked in for the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona in the summer of the following year – and we all know what came next. Three years of postponements led to a tortuous industry-wide backlog for venues and crew availability, so the band skipped any hesitancy and hedged on 50 dates worldwide, as well as those rescheduled Primavera dates, where they’ll headline alongside the Strokes, Beck and Gorillaz. The biggest risk Pavement face now, West smirks, is him slipping during his day job and chiselling his own thumb.
Pavement have convened at the Bodecker Foundation, a community centre named after its benefactor, Nike designer Sandy Bodecker, whose initials adorn the sportswear brand’s SBs range of sneakers and skate apparel. It’s a hodgepodge of impulses: imagine a recording studio, sports facility and eco-tourism lodge meshed into one. As an adult playpen, it’s well-suited to members of Pavement whose love of sport grounded the band’s literary tendencies, not least those of Malkmus himself. He can be found skating around the building with his turquoise bass in hand, or making use of the indoor basketball hoop between sessions. At one stage Malkmus challenges me, the Jicks drummer Jake Morris and a rep from his longtime label Matador to a quickfire game of trick shots. We get annihilated.
Malkmus has always been an aloof conversationalist, and he won’t be changing his stripes now. Even while rolling out long and thoughtful answers, he verges on the precipice of lassitude, contorting his arms or swivelling on a chair. The topic that really gets him going is YouTube wormholes: he gabs animatedly about videos of oversized horses and gonzo missionary pilots littering the recommendation bar, as well as his bread-and-butter videos of “general around-the-house repair dad stuff”.
Once a prodigious stoner, dad-mode Malkmus’s current buzz is tennis, even arriving to rehearsals on one of the days straight from the court. Everything is set up in Portland to keep him happiest, he concedes. The frontman doesn’t like disruption, trying to keep his internal rhythm (as with his swing) “as smooth as possible. Jerky is a young man’s game.”
With 80-odd songs to relearn in 10 days, the band – who were once notorious for sloppy performances and minimal practice – are atypically rigorous. They’ll be joined on the road this year by Rebecca Clay Cole, a Portlander who is helping to fine-tune some of their trickier material by adding extra keyboard and bolstering the vocals. Watching the band run through their single Cut Your Hair, their closest thing to a hit in the US, with all six members pogoing under the greasy studio light, is a sight to behold. It still sounds fit for arenas.
Influence is valuable currency, but it only goes so far. Although their allies in art-rock, Sonic Youth, never went gold in the US either, at least they could point to guest appearances in The Simpsons and taking fashion by stealth by selling truckloads of T-shirts emblazoned with the artwork of their album Goo. By contrast, the only time Pavement crossed over into animation, it was to be mocked by Beavis & Butt-Head for not trying hard enough, and Malkmus’s position as the bête noire of Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan provides only flickering mirth for the gossip pages.
But cutting Pavement’s branch out of indie rock’s family tree would trigger some deleterious effects. You risk altering or completely losing artists as diverse as Parquet Courts, Animal Collective, Kurt Vile, Beabadoobee, Mac DeMarco, Cate Le Bon, Modest Mouse and many more, positively devastating the mid-sized festival ecosystem. By Graham Coxon’s own admission, Blur’s self-titled 1997 LP wouldn’t exist without his brow furrowing in envy while listening to Pavement – which means, in a roundabout way, no Wowee Zowee, no Song 2.
“Growing up,” says Kannberg, “I was into the Replacements, Big Star and the Velvet Underground – all these bands that never really sold any records, but they were huge to fans and other bands.” He pauses and mulls his words carefully. “I’m hesitant to say we’re in the same category as them. But I think we might be with kids today.”
Few indie cycles come round without a few bands clutching the Pavement 92-94 handbook, but the slacker fashion choices and vibe currently favoured by Gen Z do appear uniquely compatible with Pavement’s music. Malkmus agrees: “We were definitely aware that if we were going to come back, now would be a good time. If you’re kind of introverted, you have a skateboard but you’re not great at it, and you’re a little bit suspect of the world, there could be something in it for you.”
All of which raises the question: if it feels natural, why didn’t they stick it out and sustain the magic after 2010? Kannberg assumed that Pavement would continue. In 2014, an offer arrived from Jeff Tweedy of another group of alt veterans, Wilco, to undertake a joint tour. It was quashed. “I think it would have been a really cool tour to do,” begins Kannberg, before Nastanovich cuts him off. “Sorry, it was a bad idea. I’m appreciative to Jeff for the thought, but I think it’s old men on old men. [And] regardless of any of us trying to convince Stephen to do it, at the end of the day he’s had a lengthy career with the Jicks to tend to.”
This cuts through to the central, and still unresolved, tension at the heart of Pavement. While Malkmus was under the spotlight and courting the majority of press and fan attention, it was Kannberg whose self-worth was most explicitly tied up with the band. The scars from the fallout around their breakup remain evident.
By 1999, the cultural terrain from which their slacker-savant anthems grew had gone stale, and fissures between Malkmus and Kannberg widened throughout the process for the band’s fifth and final LP, Terror Twilight. Pavement split six weeks before the end of the 90s, with a curtain call in London. As the credits roll on Slow Century, film-maker Lance Bangs’s documentary about the band, it’s Kannberg who’s at the front barrier of Brixton Academy, shaking hands and handing out setlists. Malkmus trundled off alone.
“There’s plenty of noble and common reasons to break up a band,” levels Malkmus. “Some projects have a set amount of output and creative ideas. If you’re the one that wants it to end, then sure, there’s stuff to feel bad about – the material side of leaving the guys around you high and dry. But we just ran our course.”
Kannberg took it rather differently: “I got divorced because of Pavement. The friction of my [first] wife wanting me to move on to something else, and me not really being able to in the back of my head, was the cause of it. I wanted to do more music in the ‘right way’ but wasn’t sure of how, exactly.” While the Jicks offered Malkmus an instantaneous second life, Kannberg’s next steps were creatively satisfying but didn’t catch alight to the same degree. Right before the first call to reunite, he was about to become a bus driver in Seattle.
“A good friend of mine and Stephen’s would tell me back in the 2000s: ‘Man, Pavement fucked you up,’ Kannberg says. “And I knew that to be true. But I’d like to say it fucked me up in a good way, because I was able to go on and do music – and get more out of it than I did with the final years of Pavement.”
Still, when the 2010 reunion came round, Kannberg admits the proximity to Pavement’s demise meant he was simply thrilled to have the gang back on the road without probing things too deeply. “But this time, what I’ve actually done is started rereading the lyrics and writing the chord structures down. And – this sounds ridiculous – it took me getting to 55 years old to realise what great fucking songs they are. I never gave Stephen his dues in the past, because it was our band and there’s this tension and stuff, but now I stand in rehearsals and watch him do new things with the material and just think: Woah, we had it. We have it.”
Malkmus agrees. “For some, this tour will be about reliving those days when they were young and fancy-free, getting pissed and listening to Pavement. But we have a better chance of getting new fans than 50-year-olds at this point, right? We get a chance to relive the material and perhaps animate it for the present. It does feel like I’m wrenching more from our music than before. And I’m not just saying that – it really is working for me.” Pavement play Primavera Sound on 2 June and tour the UK from 17 to 25 October.