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A Wary Voice - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
A Wary Voice
There's a new interview with Stephen Malkmus up on Pitchfork. It's rambly and not the interview I would have done, given the opportunity, but strangely compelling for fans of his work in Pavement and as a solo artist. The reason, I think, is that interviewer Paul Thompson transcribed the phone conversation in a way that does a great job of capturing Malkmus's distinctive voice, right down to the nasal diffidence that annoys people who would otherwise dig his music:
Pitchfork: To switch gears a bit, is there anything in particular you're exploring lyrically on this album? We music journalists like to hang these themes on these albums, so if you've got one for us, that would help.

SM: Not really. It's kind of line to line. It's still a mixup of imagery and lines that are varying degrees of connected with what they're supposed to, so it's not really anything overarching. I don't really know the spirit of it exactly, it's just the same spirit that I've always had: cool lines and just going with the flow of the music. So it's kind of meaningful and not sometimes, and sometimes funny and sometimes just weird. Going through it, it's hard to say-- it's just how it flows, too, like a rapper, sort of. For this kind of music, that's kind of the key. You just do what comes out and what goes with that music. That just goes with me. It's kind of hard to explain, I guess.

Pitchfork: Okay, pretty much the same way you've worked with lyrics before?

SM: Yeah, I would say. There's no big coming out party or something, like, finally setting the record straight or something. [laughs] This is what we do, and we do it best, or something. But you know, that's maybe not saying much. [laughs] 'Cause it's what we do, only. So you might say, I don't like what you do... best.

Pitchfork: Can you tell me a little, in the same vein I suppose, about the music on Real Emotional Trash? I gather it's a little harder this time out?

SM: Yeah, there's a few triple part saga acid mind blowers, there's a token weird time signature, in your face one, there's a couple of short ones far more direct and straight ahead. There's not really anything that's pop on there, I would say. Maybe "Hopscotch Willie" is catchy. There's some catchy things. It's like if you look at eBay rare acid folk psych albums and the guy will describe it in a positive way saying "I don't see how there's any way this could possibly have sold a single copy when it came out," and that's a good thing, you know? [laughs] But there's also catchy stuff. I don't know.
While many might find it maddening that Malkmus makes it seem like he is unwilling to commit fully to his own work and at times even seems to mock it -- "a token weird time signature" -- his wariness resonates with me. The experience of meaning it while also not wanting to be seen meaning it is one with which I am very familiar. What I like best about the interview is that, in resisting a tight edit, it demonstrates how the play of Malkmus's voice, even when reduced to a shadow of itself on the page, is determined by a series of subtle refusals, first and foremost -- and this is where Malkmus's involvement with the soundtrack for Todd Haynes's I'm Not There, mentioned elsewhere in the interview, proves illuminating -- the refusal to "be" anything in particular long enough for it to gel into being. It may seem a cop out for him to assert that his lyrics are "kind of meaningful and not sometimes," but the self-negating syntax speaks to his preference for "flow" over fixity.

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2 comments or Leave a comment
From: ex_benlinus Date: December 16th, 2007 04:01 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I think most rock guys take that approach to lyrics. It's more about the music, and lyrics are an afterthought. I think it's a perfectly viable way to make a song, but not if you really have something on your mind you wanna communicate. I used to do it that way. I can't do it that way anymore. Maybe because I'm not all that comfortable with what my subconscious might say. There's the potential with that approach to say a lot more than I'd ever want to.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: December 16th, 2007 05:25 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I've read many interviews with songwriters who say more or less the same thing about they lyric writing. But very few of them put words together with the feel that Malkmus does. And even fewer are able to conjure the sense that worlds of meaning are roiling in the depths beneath a surreal and/or non-sensical surface. Malkmus is a lot like Michael Stipe in that regard, though I believe even more talented. He also reminds me of Bob Dylan's more exuberant, unfettered compositions. The hard thing, especially for someone who tries hard to sustain populist notions, is that the ability to make "afterthought" lyrics resonate the way Malkmus's does is rare, whether in rock or in hip-hop. It's like what happens when a play breaks down in football or basketball: the best athletes are able to improvise their way out of chaos into a semblance of control.

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