Thursday, March 13, 2008
Interview with Steven Malkmus and Janet Weiss of the Jicks
It’s not all that often I get offered a great story without having to pitch it. So when my editor at Harp called me and asked if I wanted to interview Stephen Malkmus the answer was yes, even though I couldn’t name a single album after Slanted and Encanted.
I knew I needed a gimmick if I was going to pull this off, and I remembered that my ole buddy Mark Baumgarten had mentioned playing softball against Malk. So I figured we could go to a batting cage.
I emailed his publicist and he said Malk said he’d prefer someplace closer to his house because he had a baby at home just a few weeks old. Malk said he didn’t say that, but he was visibly exhausted when we sat down at the table at the bottom of the theater room of the Avalon arcade.
Thank goodness I insisted on inviting Janet Weiss, who joined the Jicks not too long ago (prompting shameless bouts of alliteration from afore mentioned pal…jumpin’ Jupiter!). As you can see, the best part of the interview was interaction between her and Malk.
Since the interview got pretty much cut into a third in the story, here’s the full Q&A I originally turned in. The best detail that got cut from the intro was that Malk spent our collected tickets on some My Little Pony rip-off keychains for his two-year-old (pictured).
Simmantics: It seems like the Jicks got a lot more active when you joined. Did you kick the band into high gear?
Weiss: I don't think I kicked anybody, really, except my kick drum a lot. I am a little bit of a go getter, I suppose…
M: She got it moving really fast, which is good, but everybody wanted that in the group. We were ready to get working. I had been sort of flaking out for a couple of years. I had a family, some children, and everybody has transitions in their life. Our old drummer, John [Moen], was in two bands [the Decemberists]. Everything was just kind of slowing down. So when Janet came and Sleater-Kinney broke up, it was a burst of new energy for everybody. A new hope.
Simmantics: Had you ever played together before?
Weiss: No. It seems like we would have.
Malkmus: One time we jammed on-stage in England like the day after Elliott Smith died. I remember that tour being colored by that.
Weiss: Oh yeah. That was a Quasi, Jicks show. At the Sheppard's Bush in London. We did a rockestra at the end.
M: It was a pretty forgettable show other than that.
Simmantics: So is the Jicks the number-one priority for both of you right now?
Malkmus: Well for me there's nothing else going on, musically. She's not in any other bands except Quasi.
Weiss: …and [Quasi is] on hiatus sort of. A little break. Quasi always exists...it'll never go away. It alternates with whatever other project I'm doing. [The Jicks] had to record and now the record's going to come out and we're going to tour so Quasi will just wait until that dies down. I like to do stuff all the time and most people don't. Most people need breaks. So it's good for me to have [Quasi frontman] Sam [Coomes] who is kind of at my beck and call, I guess. [Laughs.] He's got a family too and he can't tour all the time and he can't go on long tours, so it's nice to have a main project.
Simmantics: So the Jicks fills the hole of Sleater-Kinney for you?
Weiss: It's a different hole for sure. The vibe is really different. I'd say with the Jicks I could be myself as far as my playing goes a lot faster. It was a really easy thing to settle into. When I joined Sleater-Kinney, it was not a scene that I was in. I didn't know them. I had never met them and I had to assimilate my playing into this thing that already existed. And I do that a little bit with Steve too, but our vocabulary is similar, how we talk about music and refer to things. It just made sense right away. And plus I had been listening to Steve's writing for so long it was familiar already.
Malkmus: We explain songs in colors and shapes.
Weiss: And dance moves.
Simmantics: Like, “Make that section a little more orange…”?
Weiss: I love stuff like that, actually. I talk to [bassist] Joanna [Bolme] like that sometimes and she's like, "What are you talking about?" I like colors and shapes.
Simmantics: So Steven has said elsewhere that because of frequent changes in location and equipment, Real Emotional Trash is the hardest album he’s made. Is the same true for you?
Weiss: I've made some that were as hard as this one. One in particular. The Hot Rock was definitely the hard album but for different reasons. This record was really hard in a lot of ways, but at least we got along. That wasn't a problem. The playing I thought was great. It was just that logistics were tripping us up the whole way through.
Malkmus: Sometimes we went to a place and it was nice enough but we didn't get to go the first choice of place we wanted to go and stuff. Anyway, it all worked out in the end.
Weiss: You know, it's funny because when I listen to it, I can't hear all the trouble in it anymore. I just listened to it yesterday and I really, really like it. It doesn't sound overwrought with strife.
Simmantics: Has your writing process changed now that you’re a father?
Malkmus: Just less writing. I changed that process. I don't have much to say.
Weiss: Yeah, 12 albums in! I can't even write one song. That’s not much to say.
Malkmus: Maybe at first there was a feeling of discovery in lyrics, self discovery, but I don't really feel that much self discovery in lyrics anymore. It's more just what sounds good and what flows.
Weiss: Spoken like a true guitar god.
Malkmus: [Laughs.] Yeah. I never really cared. I like the sound of the voice and how it connects. And what's said is just like a couple of lines hit you here and there in certain spots. I don't even have a book with this many letters in it. [Points to reporter’s notebook.] So that tells you something. I’m not obsessive about it.
Simmantics: Are you obsessive about playing, then? Your live shows have taken a turn for the instrumental lately.
Weiss: He isn't obsessive about anything!
Malkmus: I just still get a kick out of it. Yeah, you gotta fill an hour and it's something I enjoy. It's in the moment. It's about what's happening there instead of regurgitating the tight set.
Weiss: "We gotta fill an hour..." We are an interesting combo. I would never, ever say something like that. I'm like the opposite. To me it's the last hour of your life, you know? All those people! You have a chance to connect with all those people and make a difference in people's lives! Crafting this perfect set…
Malkmus: I'm kind of joking about it...
Weiss: It's definitely interesting. He swings me a little, maybe I swing him a little. It makes this thing that has tension. Good bands have to have some tension in them or they're just going to be boring.
Simmantics: Did you ever pursue fame? How comfortable are you with your level of fame?
Malkmus: I probably had some desire to be famous and to be heard and have a voice. Probably not too famous. Obviously not famous to where it's irritating.
Simmantics: But “having nothing to say,” “filling an hour…” It sounds like you’re a reluctant star.
Malkmus: Yeah, that's just a self-depreciating mask or something. If you move to Portland you probably don't want to be too famous.
Weiss: If you're a drummer, you're definitely not out to be famous. Drummers just aren't famous. I can't say that I ever wanted to be famous, but I do like to stand on the side of the stage at shows.
Simmantics: How do you feel about your legacy? You’ve each inspired a lot of people to join bands.
Weiss: I was the kid who went up to Joe Strummer on the street [in LA] with my braces and told him how much his music meant to me. And those people meant the world to me when I was a teenager so I see a little bit of myself in kids and that's cool. There's not a lot of girls playing music that hit as hard as me. Sleater-Kinney was all women so it was it was always a big issue, but the Jicks is just band of good musicians. I think it's a really good thing for girls to see. You don't have to be in an all-girl band. You just have to be good and that's an important message, I think.
Malkmus: It's not the worst legacy. I can't think of anything all that bad. Maybe Weezer at times or something weren't the best band, but they were also great at other times.
Simmantics: You covered “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Maggie’s Farm” “Can’t Leave Her Behind” for I’m Not There. What makes those songs lasting pieces of music?
Malkmus: Well they're just part of [Bob Dylan’s] repertoire and almost everything he did is going to be around still because he's a legend and that time was his time was his time to be especially legendary. It was just good timing for him on most of those songs. He was just on a roll. He had good people playing with him in the studio.
Simmantics: Do you think the music you’re making now will become part of your legacy alongside Slanted and Enchanted [by Pavement] and The Hot Rock?
Weiss: I do!
Malkmus: It's unlikely but it would be nice. It doesn't matter even if the material is unbelievable, just because of the cultural overlay and the times and luck. It's kind of more realistic to be here now and just play. But it seems to be going pretty good in terms of interest in the record this time.
Weiss: It feels like there's something new about it. And playing live, the last couple of shows, it seems like something’s happening. I'm not sure what yet. Oh, I almost quoted Dylan!
Simmantics: You played [Pavement’s signature tune] “Cut Your Hair” for the first time in years with a bunch of kids at a School of Rock show recently, right? How was that?
Malkmus: Backstage it was like being at a Broadway musical. Everyone's running around and it was like, "OK, chorus, who's coming out? We've got you on next, and then this other band, Spoon..." The kids don't really care. They just want to do their song. You just play guitar along with them. Some of the bands, like Poison Idea and the Wipers, were great. It's kinda wild to see kids play those songs. They kind of messed up our song anyway. They just got out of sync in the solo.
Weiss: Did you yell at them?
M: I didn't go to the rehearsal so I didn't have much room to say anything. Not that I would have. “C'mon get your shit together! This needs to be the best song!”
Photo: By me. Though Nilina Mason-Campbell deserves mega thanks for shooting the pics that wound up in the mag for me super last minute. I totally owe her one. Also it’s of note that following this interview I have totally gotten into the Jicks and listen to their new album all the time now and can sing, like, every word.