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Friday, March 26, 2010
Back to those gold soundz
'90s lo-fi innovators Pavement go on tour after a decade apart
Special to The Japan Times
Last fall, when the American rock band Pavement announced it would reunite for a series of concerts in New York's Central Park one year hence, nobody seemed surprised. Though the group stopped touring and recording 10 years ago, it never officially called it quits. The feeling was that Stephen Malkmus, Pavement's creative kernel, wanted to pursue other projects. His four colleagues didn't have a choice since they were more or less along for a ride that had already lasted a decade. This loose interpersonal relationship was central to Pavement's unique position in pop music. Many rock bands are legendary for internal discord, but it's unclear whether any have ever succeeded as well as Pavement has with such a fundamentally tenuous group dynamic.
"Pavement was always more of a project than a band," says the group's percussionist, Bob Nastanovich, from his home in Des Moines, Iowa. "And when more business aspects came into play, it became a serious project. By the mid-'90s everybody had their own set of interests, and that involved people living in different parts of the country, which made typical band activities not possible."
Nastanovich should know. He's always been the member with the most undefined role, which isn't to suggest his participation isn't as vital as any other individual member's, save Malkmus', only that the participation is, for the most part, extramusical.
"My position in the band is trying to entertain the live audience," he says. "I've made contributions on the records, but I always felt my responsibility was more to the live show." Though he's listed as a percussionist and keyboard player, what Nastanovich mainly does on stage is play tambourine like one of those windup dolls you see perched at the entrances of cheesy toy stores and shout out choruses. He does this so well, in fact, that Britpop stalwart Blur's hit "Song 2" was reportedly written in tribute to Nastanovich's habit of yelling "whoo-hoo" at random moments of inspiration.
But his primary status is being a close friend of Malkmus, because if anything defined Pavement as a group, it was the spirit of male camaraderie that made its music more than simply Malkmus' songs filled out with other instruments. Pavement was the sound of a bunch of guys having fun with the idea of being a rock band and exploring all possibilities within the limited scope of the skills each member brought to the group.
Music drew Nastanovich and Malkmus together when both were attending the University of Virginia in the 1980s. "There were some really cool bands coming through Charlottesville at the time," he remembers. "But there would only be like maybe 30 to 50 people at the shows, so you'd keep seeing the same people. He was a pretty easy friend for me to have."
Later, Malkmus returned to his hometown of Stockton, California, and started playing original music with childhood friend Scott Kannberg at the recording studio of a 36-year-old ex-hippie named Gary Young, who would play drums for the pair. They released an EP called "Slay Tracks" in the summer of 1989 on their own label. Totally unpromoted, it nevertheless attracted attention with its ramshackle melodies, lo-fi production values, wiggy but literate lyrics and sudden bursts of guitar noise. After several more EPs released on the Chicago-based indie label Drag City, Malkmus and Kannberg, who were known only by the pseudonyms S.M. and Spiral Stairs, felt compelled to play in front of people. So they hired a fan of the EPs, Mark Ibold, from New York, to play bass and Nastanovich to help out Young. Soon after, Young would be kicked out because of his bizarre, drug-fueled behavior and replaced with Steve West, a high school friend of Nastanovich's.
None of the new members played on Pavement's much-anticipated 1992 debut album "Slanted and Enchanted," released to great acclaim on Matador — arguably the most important American indie label of the '90s thanks in no small part to Pavement. In those days, it was still necessary for nominally indie bands to move to major labels in order to gain widespread notoriety, and most of the American groups that had inspired Pavement, like R.E.M., The Replacements and Sonic Youth, had done just that. But the business was changing, as evidenced by the rise of the Billions Corporation booking agency.
"It's run by a Canadian guy named Boche Billions (real name David Viecelli) who lives in Chicago," says Nastanovich. "He started it in the latter part of the '80s. Pavement was one of his first bands, and like Matador and Drag City, these were people in our age group who got the indie ball rolling. We all grew together."
In 1992, the Internet did not yet offer low-cost distribution and promotional tools for indie artists. As Nastanovich explains: "You build a network and hope it takes off. Basically, it was all due to small companies run by people who liked the band and wanted us to succeed."
This looser business model allowed Pavement to retain its preferred slacker vibe, which never really changed over the course of five critically acclaimed albums, among them 1994's "Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain," which produced the singles "Cut Your Hair" and "Gold Soundz," and 1997's "Brighten the Corners," which included the song "Stereo." Those albums may not have sold platinum but they secured a fanbase that continues to grow a decade after the band's members went separate ways. The vibe, in fact, may be the group's most enduring legacy, since it became inextricably linked to the larger indie aesthetic that emerged in the '90s and which had a profound affect on almost every so-called alternative guitar band that followed. Contemporaries like Damon Albarn, leader of the aforementioned Blur, and Ben Gibbard, mastermind behind "Amerindie" superstars Death Cab for Cutie, openly confessed their debt to Pavement's stylistic influence, and so did late '00s indie groups as diverse as lo-fi innovators Times New Viking and the Welsh hyper-pop collective Los Campesinos! But you have to listen really, really hard to make any sort of direct musical connection. Pavement was too idiosyncratic for mimicry.
What's surprising is that these idiosyncrasies were to some extent calculated. Nastanovich says Pavement was "self-conscious, somewhat anxious" about its image. "There was a certain amount of vulnerability in that we were pretty aware of our history and of what we were doing." The group only survived as long as it did because nobody pressured them into doing things they didn't want to do.
It's ironic, then, that the breakup stemmed from Malkmus' desire for more structure. "The main reason Pavement stopped recording is that Stephen felt like he needed to work with a different set of people who were more technically on his level," says Nastanovich. "He moved to Portland because he wanted an endeavor where he could record with other people who were right there, something more like a typical band setup."
All that was needed for a Pavement reunion was a go-ahead from Malkmus himself. Everybody else was always on board. "We always kept in touch. These are friendships that have gone on for more than half of our lives now," says Nastanovich. "It was a matter of Stephen figuring things out, what with his family, which has grown to four with his two daughters, and his responsibilities with his band the Jicks, when would be a good time for him to devote six to eight months to a Pavement reunion."
Thanks to Billions, the tour has taken on a life of its own and will cover the Pacific, North America and Europe. It's turned into a monster, which is strange because Pavement always seemed like the least nostalgia-oriented band imaginable; the title of its new greatest hits album is "Quarantine the Past."
"You have a point," Nastanovich concedes. "But during the practice sessions Stephen would say, 'I never really got this song right on the album.' He must have said that for half a dozen songs out of the 43 we prepared. He would be, like, 'Oh, maybe we can make it better this time around.' "
Of course, if the band really wanted to get nostalgic, they'd invite Gary Young to play on the tour.
"That subject has been approached," Nastanovich says, adding with a husky laugh, "We're trying to figure out if, when, where and what."
Pavement play April 7-8 (7 p.m.) at Studio Coast, Tokyo (03-3462-6969); April 10 (6 p.m.) at Zepp Osaka (06-7732-8888); and April 12 (7:30 p.m.) at Nagoya Club Quattro (052-320-9100). Tickets: ¥7,350 in advance.