Happy Birthday, Stephen Malkmus! A Solo Salute to Other Indie Icons
Stephen Malkmus, born May 30, 1966, is best known as lead singer and guitarist of the alt-rock band Pavement. He's currently carving out a post-Pavement career in tandem with a newer outfit dubbed the Jicks. While he's reaped accolades over the course of the past 20 something years, it's his working class roots that have helped define the attitude and the aptitude of his career.
Malkmus was raised in the blue collar environs of Stockton, California, where he worked various odd jobs growing, occasionally indulging, in the usual mischievous behavior -- drinking, drugs, and the like -- that teenagers are prone to. He became infatuated with guitar after hearing "Purple Haze," and pursued his passion by playing in several area punk bands. While attending college at the University of Virginia, he worked as a deejay on the campus radio station, which is where he met David Berman, later the leader of the Silver Jews, and James McNew, who subsequently went on to form Yo La Tengo.
Those two outfits would later become archetypes for the new rock underground that emerged during the '90s, but nobody better typified that unconventional and unorthodox approach than the group Malkmus formed with guitarist Scott Kannberg (formerly of the band Spiral Stairs). Calling their band Pavement, they released their debut album, Slanted & Enchanted, to massive critical acclaim, and later achieved other kudos and career highlights with Crooked Rain and Wowee Zowee. Together with the band Guided By Voices, Pavement represented the sound of the modern American indie underground, although they never achieved commercial success. Influenced by the angular, off-kilter approach of Brit bands like The Fall, the Swell Maps and the Swans, they achieved a hallowed cult status that continues to reap admiration even to this day.
While touring in support of the group's final album, Terror Twilight, relationships between the band members began to deteriorate. Malkmus reportedly refused to speak to the others on the tour bus, apparently upset because the band was focusing on their older material in the style of an oldies revival. When they appeared at the 1999 Coachella festival, Malkmus actually refused to sing, and afterwards, at a band meeting, he announced his intention to leave. During the concert, Malkmus displayed a pair of handcuffs and told that audience, "These symbolize what it's like being in a band all these years." He subsequently confirmed that Pavement was history. Two weeks later, a spokesperson for their record label put an announcement that read, "Pavement are retiring for the foreseeable future to: (1 Start families 2) Sail around the world 3) Get into the computer industry (4. Dance (5 Get some attention."
Malkmus eventually phoned Kannberg to suggest that he amend the band's website because, "People keep asking me if we're breaking up and you know we're not a band anymore, right?" Kannberg replied that Malkmus needed to call the other band members and inform them that the band was finally breaking up. Malkmus refused and Kannberg was left to convey the news on his own.
Now out on his own, Malkmus went on to temporarily partner with the Silver Jews and participate in a Sonic Youth side project that never gained much traction. In 2001, he released his eponymous solo debut and promptly formed a band called the Jicks, which have backed him on every album he's done since. He's released five efforts to date and also contributed three songs -- "Ballad of a Thin Man", "Can't Leave Her Behind," and "Maggie's Farm" -- to the 2007 film I'm Not There, a fictional look at the life of Bob Dylan. Pavement eventually reunited in March 2010 and went back on a triumphant tour that brought them renewed acclaim.
Malkmus is one of a handful of '90s indie icons who went on to a successful career after their former bands folded. Here are three others, all graduates of Guided By Voices.
It would be something of an understatement to call Robert Pollard the most prolific man in music, given his penchant for releasing new albums on what seems to a monthly basis. The fact that he assumes various nom de plumes (Boston Spaceships, Lifeguards, Circus Devils) only adds to the flood of familiarity, not detract from it, because at the core of all these projects it's Pollards quirky pop profundity that steers the proceedings. Pollard got a running start with Guided By Voices, the left-of-center experimental ensemble that garnered a sizeable cult following and set Pollard's career in motion.
Always askew and well astray of conventional pop, like Pavement, they made music that was angular and off-kilter, neither straight pop nor prog rock, but an unconventional lo-fi confluence of the two. He broke up the band in 2004, but ultimately, its demise accelerated rather than deterred Pollard's productivity. In fact, Pollard's proved himself to be something of an overachiever, releasing two solo albums simultaneously (Gargoyle Decisions and Coast to Coast Carpet of Love) in 2007 and several since then, including his latest, the excellent Mouseman Cloud.
An artist by trade, Sprout graduated from Guided By Voices and went on to release a string of unusually accessible and pop-perfect albums, beginning with Carnival Boy in 1996 and continuing through Moonflower Plastic in 1997, and Let's Welcome the Circus People in 1999.
His Demos and Outtakes collection was released in 2001, the year in which he reunited with Robert Pollard to form Airport 5, independently releasing various singles, and a pair of full length albums, Tower in the Fountain of Sparks and Life Starts Here. He recently released his fourth solo effort, Lost Planets & Phantom Voices.
The late Ed McMahon aside, being a second banana can present a severe disadvantage to anyone attempting to further their career. So credit Doug Gillard with managing to elevate his stature by striking out on his own. Gillard, whose previous resume includes stints with Guided By Voices, Robert Pollard, Richard Buckner, and a host of other cutting edge outfits, demonstrates an astute melodic prowess that frequently takes the retro route, but never fails to strike satisfying resolve. Gillard reaped kudos for his solo debut, but on his sophomore set Call From Restricted, he notches up the atitude -- and for that matter, the amplitude -- with a set of hook-heavy tunes that completely captivate even on first hearing.
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