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Stud on the Tracks 

The freewheeling Steve Malkmus, when hard, is about 8 inches

Wednesday, Mar 7 2001
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Page 3 of 4

“It’s a coming-of-age story that could have been about anything. I tried a dentist, but it seemed too much like Cake and They Might Be Giants with the humor stuff, which you have to avoid. Of course, people have read in it a metaphor of my life in the band. But honestly, it was just, first verse: He’s young; second verse: He becomes one of them; third verse: He’s on his own.”

In this, the third verse of Malkmus’ career, it’s easier to take him at his word, if only because he swears his days of Dylanesque dicking around with us hapless media hacks are temporarily on hold. Hence a warmer, fuzzier singer-songwriter who actually explains the origins, even to a certain extent the meanings, of some of his notoriously enigmatic works.

“I don’t have time to think of evasive answers or make it into a prank right now,” he insists. “It’s a young man’s game, unless you play stadiums like AC/DC or Beastie Boys. I’m just running through it one more time, and that’s why I’m doing all this press and everything Matador wants me to.”

To give you an idea what “all this press” means: Following my intrusion, he had requests for 40 more phoners. This after already doing all the majors here in the States, overseas, Japan, the Net, what have you. “I don’t like to spread myself too thin,” he worries. “But right now, I’m like Gwyneth Paltrow.” Laughing, he adds in the mock rock voice of a Brat Pack actor singing in his punk side project: “I’m overexposed, man!

But he might as well overdo it, especially if, as he says a couple of times to me, “In a month nobody’s gonna care anyway” — and especially if he follows through on those hints at semiretirement he keeps dropping. “I’m gonna take a vacation for two months” once the present tour is complete, he mentions. Then he’s recording another album, again in Portland, with this same group, the so-called “Jicks.” “And that’s gonna be it for me on the big stage. I’ll make more obscure albums I can sell on my own label and get that out of my system before I turn 40. Then, I don’t know what will happen. But I’m not gonna tour around like this so viciously. I mean, this is vicious.”

Speaking of vicious! I ask if “Jo Jo’s Jacket,” with its intro sample of and first-verse reference to Yul Brynner, is actually (“You’re such monumental slime/Let the punishment fit the crime/Tie you to a chair/And house music will blare”) about his perennial chrome-domed whipping boy, Billy Corgan, or, as many believe, Moby. “Yeah, it’s not him,” he smiles. Yes, we have no bananas.

Once the interview winds down, we walk through Powell’s bookstore, where I buy him Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog and he urges me to try Dennis Cooper, but I puss out.

Back at his pad, he puts on the 1969 album Hemat by the Swedish band Harvester, who “grew organic food and made organic music but ended up fighting with each other.” Meanwhile, he does the dishes and starts tidying up, a sure sign that visiting hours are over. He isn’t rude, but still, I feel like A.J. Weberman pestering Robert Zimmerman.

Even so, I help him clean the living room, take more notes (50th Anniversary–edition Scrabble board piled into corner, 7-inch single with pic sleeve of Ornette Coleman’s “The Blessing” b/w “Chippie” propped up on molding-over entryway to front room) and dutifully listen to him spin Thin Lizzy’s first and some Icelandic metal madness called Jesus Christ Bobby.

“There’s a guy in Iceland who wants Heather and me to come live there, but I don’t really want to go,” he says. “This other guy said he’s got a place in Berlin. It’s weird there. Cheap.” I get the feeling he’s not going to be staying in Portland much longer than I am. “It’s fine for now. I got a big basement. But if I was to grow old and die here, then I’d feel like I wasted something.”

On the way to the airport I feel guilty again, because Malkmus curses traffic, clearly eager to get this over with. It’s the only time he’s sworn all weekend. But then he pops in a tape. Of himself. A live recording from a few nights ago. The new album’s first single, a perfect power-pop number named “Discretion Grove,” sounds hard. “What’s this song about?” I ask. “Not much,” he says. For a split second you could cut it with a knife. And then a wonderful thing happens. Another song comes on, one I don’t recognize, and he both lights and lightens up. He tells me it’s a new tune for the next album and eagerly walks me through it, noting how it still sounds too much like Led Zeppelin (not just the obvious “Hey baby” trademark fake falsetto, but even the talky verses eerily recall Robert Plant, a frightening gift for mimicry Malkmus has hitherto kept to himself). But best of all, he giggles over his own allegedly improvised lyrics, repeating them for me after they go by to make sure I get it: “They call me Johnny One Take/With my vocal cords of gold/I can cover 13 octaves/Improvisations no big deal/I can bring you to tears with these vocal cords.”

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