When New York was shut down from a freak mid-March snow storm, Stephen Malkmus and I hunkered down in a north Brooklyn apartment, listening to The Chainsmokers.
Well, part of a Chainsmokers song, at least. Because Malkmus couldn't even make it a full minute into “Sick Boy” before he made me turn it off. We passed the time listening to some of the biggest hits on the Hot 100 because, for one thing, some of his obligations for the day had been canceled because of snow, and two, pop music had been on his mind a lot lately.
The night before at a private acoustic solo show at Matador Records HQ, he introduced the new Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks album, Sparkle Hard. "I listen to things that are popular and try to think about it in a mathematical way," Malkmus told the audience. The new album-the band's seventh-takes a more direct approach to song craft with "hi-fi Pro Tools recording" and even un-ironically incorporates Auto-Tune.
"I don’t try to figure out the [the pop songs], that’s simple," Malkmus elaborated to me the next day while eating a breakfast sandwich from a deli around the corner. "I just try to figure out why it’s possible-besides that someone spent a lot of money on it."
So he listens to everything from Taylor Swift or Katy Perry, usually on the radio when driving his kids to school or hanging around the house. And he can't help but break down those formulas-and then thinking about them through an extremely Stephen Malkmus filter.
"Pop music catches on like a meme," he explained. "It just takes a little bit of tinder, and it can become a phenomenon. You have to break through that wall a little bit. Why it happens, I don’t really know. I know why Migos are popular-they’re good, and they make great videos, and they’re funny."
Maybe it's not so much comparable to Migos, but Malkmus's songwriting has always incorporated a sort of wise levity. Fans still regard his old band Pavement as the godfathers of modern indie rock, even now in an era when popular music hardly feature guitars anymore. And he'd been thinking a lot about the passage of time and his place in modern music. "When you get older, you have to wrestle with what’s appropriate behavior a little bit more," he told me. "Am I not acting too old or too young?"
The singer turns 52 in May, so it made sense when he told me that he's thinking about maturity. Maybe that explains why many of the songs on Sparkle Hard tackles hard truths. On "Bike Lane," he juxtaposes the death of Freddie Gray-who died in 2015 while in police custody in Baltimore-with the trivial concerns of bike lanes. And on the weighty single "Middle America," Malkmus sings, "Blame stops until you do," in a hook as irresistible as any late-Pavement melody.
None of that means he's done being the Stephen Malkmus we know and love. "I would say [being a musician] encourages you to be in that childish side of your being," he said. "Of course there’s serious, mature music about eternal truths, but a lot of it is about being fun and a kid. A musician’s MO is to contribute to that side of that."
Through it all, though, it's clear that Malkmus has never stopped listening-whether it's to the news or to Drake, whom he admittedly loves. And he's not afraid to have fun, either. With that in mind, we listened to a few songs on a snowy March day, with Malkmus adding his colorful commentary about each track.
Snail Mail – "Pristine"
We start things off easy with Malkmus's label mate Snail Mail, who had released her first track off her upcoming album that morning.
Malkmus: I’m excited to hear it, I haven’t heard it yet.
Yeah, so she’s just playing the tone on the guitar. It’s almost like an Interpol guitar line. Sounds like she’s talking about somebody she’s into. She’s talking to a friend about a friend. Maybe she’s talking about her dog, I don’t know. I can totally hear this on some TV show, where it’s that kind of emo part-but it’s more interesting than an emo band. I feel like she’s calling out the lame people in her town.
I thought about asking her to sing on our song without even knowing her, the one that Kim [Deal] sings on. [Deal sings on "Refute" from Sparkle Hard]. But then I realized that the lyrics are not right for her. It never hurts to ask, though-that's how we got Kim. It sort of goes in line with [the idea that] your band is basically an AirBNB or a shared economy.
That was a very catchy melancholy song. Great chorus. I’d be all over that for my movie. Matador is in a good shape with that song.
The Chainsmokers – "Sick Boy"
We don't even make it over a minute into this one before Malkmus told me to turn it off.
Malkmus: Is this Ed Sheeran? Who is this? I don’t recognize this one from driving to school. But I might have flipped it fast. Okay you can stop. We can stop now. I just want to talk about it.
The "welcome to the narcissism." It’s like, duh. You’re really awake, aren’t you? The woke posing. I’m doing it too while talking to you, but I at least try to hide it. It’s about being clever with your signaling so you appear smart and fashionable. These guys are not doing it for me. Timberlake tries to do it on "Supplies."
"Chainsmokers?" I can’t even believe that’s their name, and that people like that, too. It’s funny. You can’t even do that anywhere. I was really thinking I would do a situationist prank and just start smoking during the concert last night and see what happened. No one would have stopped me at first. People would have been like, "Whoa, what happened?"
Kendrick Lamar, Jay Rock, Future, James Blake – "King's Dead"
I’m cool with this. This is from Black Panther or something? Kendrick Lamar sounds really nerdy on this one. Which isn't a bad thing-I always sound nerdy. It’s a pop version of what he’s doing. Maybe a ham-and-eggs version of the artists that are involved. Simple deep bass and witty snare. Trappy hi-hat. It doesn’t take them too much to make a song like this.
We went to see Black Panther with the family, and first of all I started to think it was a conspiracy or something because the lights wouldn’t turn off in the theater. It was like bringing out that universal feeling, like, "Somebody’s got to tell them, right?" Then the fire alarms went off. And it turns out they burnt popcorn and they had to kick everyone out. By then there was, like, a 20-minute break; we were at a late show, and the kids weren’t into it. So we left. And they gave us a refund, but it’s hard to go see a movie again that we’ve already seen a half hour of. So that’s why I’ve only seen the first half-hour of Black Panther. It was just getting going, and that’s when we had to go.
Migos – "Stir Fry"
I like them. When they're good I like them. It just seems like the most fun band to be in, because they just echo each other and say something funny. This one’s pretty pop. I’m okay with it. Of course, they can’t make their way through an album because they’re a singles band. You get to go in there. One guy does his verse, then you smoke a blunt and try to make someone laugh. You trust the engineer to pick the right one. That "T-Shirt" one has some amazing ad-libs on there. You know that one?
Migos – "T-Shirt"
Malkmus picked this one himself.
This song is good. It has a backward loop. You know [makes an ad lib noise]. I just want to do that it’s so fun. You can’t overthink it really. Their videos are awesome. When we were making our videos, our video guy was like “I can’t make a Migos music video with you” because I had been showing him them. “I can’t put you in one of those fur jackets. It’s not going to work.” Then the reality hit me.
Drake – "God's Plan"
We had time for one more song, so I gave Malkmus a choice: Drake, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, or Post Malone. He went with Drake.
I know some people are obsessed with Post Malone-I don’t know why. To me he looks like the singer of Korn, but from Portland. I can’t go with that. I know Bruno Mars is a totally good guy, but he’s just middle of the road and a great performer. But that’s just background music.
I’ll listen to Drake because his Auto-Tune settings sound nice. And I love that it sounds like hotel lobby music. I kind of think of Toronto as one big hotel lobby, so it’s perfect to me. It’s like a German hotel from the '90s, and that music is on when you walk into your room and you can’t figure out how to turn it off, you’re just looking for the switch desperately. It took me a while to be able to tolerate him, but now I like him because the playing field is weak sometimes and he just does a good job.
Sometimes he’s vulnerable and stuff. It’s tough at the top when you self-identify as that. But he’s still an underdog. He’s from Canada-that automatically makes him one.
Drake's cool, you know. Drake, if you happen to see this, Stephen Malkmus thinks you’re cool.
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