Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. (Credit: Leah Nash)
When we tell Stephen Malkmus that a lot of the songs on his new album with the Jicks, Wig Out at Jagbags, sound like classic rock, but with lyrics that are likely too clever for casual classic rock fans to embrace, we accidentally tap into a brief vein of existential angst.
“It doesn’t last long, it doesn’t really give you a pay off, it’s like a tease, a tease of that kind of stuff; an elusive classic rock with no payoff,” he begins to consider.
“That’s sort of what I feel like life is often like. The big payoffs, we know they are false and we know that they have already been done. It’s like we know our presidents lie and that there are huge losers in capitalism, it’s part of our identity in this era.”
But Malkmus seems like he’s OK with this. He also seems fully immersed in this era.
He’s been taking his kids, aged six and nine, to see concerts by pop acts like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and Lorde.
“I think that’s how music is too,” he says about the false big payoffs. “I can get transported by a person’s voice occasionally and when it’s the right mix of some emotion, just luckily sometimes. I can feel something transcendent occasionally, but even then I am kind of left just saying, ‘Oh hey, nice work! They pulled that off.’”
If Malkmus sounds cynical in conversation, the content on Wig Out is at the opposite end of the spectrum.
There’s the aforementioned elusive classic rock sound, as well as sounds that are almost easy listening. The lyrics feel dashed off, but are never clichéd.
On Independence Street, one of the most classic rockingest tracks, Malkmus sings, “I don’t have the stomach for your brandy/I can hardly sip your tea/I don’t have no teeth left for your candy/I’m just busy being me.”
There’s even a nostalgic ode to going to see punk rock shows with Rumble at the Rainbo. It’s important to note that the song about punk rock is not actually a punk rock song. It’s more of a showy pop number.
For as long as Malkmus has been writing songs, he’s always defied conventions, especially in his early beginnings with Pavement (this year historically marks the year that the Jicks have existed longer than Pavement).
But one has to wonder, will Malkmus ever take an honest stab at something that does give the masses that payoff?
“There’s no point to doing that for us,” he says. “I just kind of don’t have the mind for that. The thing to do is to make a catchphrase whatever it is, I Put a Spell on You, Daydream Believer, just one thing, and that’s kind of the song and then it all just flows around that. That’s a pop song, lyrically.
“I think I probably could write one of those lines and keep repeating it at the chorus and it almost doesn’t even matter what you say, except that some things might be poetic in rare cases, or even not even poetic but emotional, but that formula just feels like a jingle-writer to me.
“I have thought about it, I understand it, and I appreciate the simple genius of people that can do that. I don’t think it’s anything really to talk down about, I just don’t do it. Maybe I can’t do it. It doesn’t interest me. I like the sentiment of songs that do that. It encapsulates a lot of feeling in a small amount of words.”
Running on Pavement
On the Wig Out at Jagbags song J Smoov, a horn plays a light riff that sounds a lot like the “nanny nanny boo boo” melody of the Pavement song, Stereo.This is news to Malkmus.
“Good point! I didn’t think of that,” he says. “I don’t even think the guy who played that knew. The guy that did that, he was just really talented, I just ran three horn solos, and he just did that.“