Stephen Malkmus on Traditional Techniques: We’re Just Going To Wing It

For all its rustic texture, visionary put-ons, and gentle earnestness, the ninth solo album by Stephen J. Malkmus isn’t a traditional “singer/songwriter” record so much as a band album cloaked in flowing robes.

Called Traditional Techniques, it was indeed assembled using tried and true methods—mostly acoustic instruments applied to simple folk-based compositions—but the record nonetheless represents the latest in a series of departures for Malkmus. When we last caught up with him he was crossbreeding Suicide, Neu! and Gary Numan, but this one evokes the culty aura of a late ’60s private press oddity, but with an unexpected focus on genuine sincerity that hasn’t always been as easy to spot in Malkmus’ aloof lyrics.

Produced by Chris Funk at Halfling Studio, with its cache of acoustic instruments, esoteric percussion, and synths at the ready, Traditional Techniques takes the listener from social examinations like “The Greatest Own In Legal History” to acid casualty raves like “Xian Man” to straight up confessions of love and loyalty like “What Kind of Person” and “Amberjack.” Along with special guests, including Blake Mills, Spooner Oldham, and Matt Sweeney, Malkmus sings and plays 12-string acoustic guitar with a restrained, but present urgency.

Aquarium Drunkard caught up with Malkmus on a typical quarantine day, after he’d walked the dog (twice), helped his daughters with their school work, and failed to locate a Nintendo Switch, to discuss the new record, punks finding their various freak flags, and the status of the upcoming Pavement reunion. / j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: People have referred to your last three records, Sparkle Hard with the Jicks, Groove Denied, and Traditional Techniques, as a trilogy on the internet. Do they feel like a trilogy to you?

Stephen Malkmus: They’re not necessarily related, so I guess not. You usually don’t do that many that fast. By the time I had Groove Denied [finished] Traditional Techniques was already ready to go except for mastering, so we could start thinking what time to release them and how to do it. So it’s more like a “marketing trilogy.”

AD: Neil Young had the Ditch Trilogy, Bowie had the Berlin Trilogy, you’ve got the Marketing Trilogy.

Stephen Malkmus: That’s what it’s come to. I was busy. I’ve got a good relationship with some Portland studios and musicians here, so for me, it was easier than some other times to make it happen. Not only did I have songs and ideas, but also people who were like, “Let’s do this!”

AD: The three records that resulted from that burst of energy have very different feels. Sparkle Hard was a jammy Jicks record, Groove Denied was electronic, and now you’re on an acid-folk thing. For lack of a better term, at least sonically, they feel like “concept albums.” How does that term sit with you?

Stephen Malkmus: It’s hard to say. Sparkle Hard was recorded with the Jicks and the same crew that I’ve been touring and working with. In a way, that relates to that way of working. It’s “conceptual.” It’s like Wilco or some brand at this point. We have a way of doing stuff. When I was doing the other albums, it was like what else do I want to do? Groove Denied was just me by myself. I didn’t want to do a rock record like that. I could play all the instruments by myself on a rock record, and make it sound like a band, but I don’t know if it’d be good.

Once you start making a couple songs and it starts to feel like something you get the idea of it’s going to be like this or a concept comes to mind. With Techniques, we set some guidelines—we’re going to play acoustic, balance the mixes with quiet drums, and feature stand up bass. I limited myself to an acoustic twelve-string. I don’t think it’s that much more of a concept until you make the album title and do the cover art. You try to create a story behind it, so it all hangs together.

AD: Right, in that way every album is a concept album. You create a story to go along with it. It’s funny that there’s an amorphous defining line between “This album is about outer space” and “This album adhered to a specific aesthetic I’ve thought through.”

Stephen Malkmus: Most of us at this point that have been making records for a while, it’s not like we’re looking for more stuff to do. It’s how you can create a few walls and then flourish within them. It was fun to make Traditional Techniques, though I must say it was different. Within those constructs, you find different corners of creativity to mine. I enjoyed it.

AD: You recently shared a playlist of wobbly Christian psychedelia with some pagan Britfolk, a Tim Rose record, and a few other things that inspired the four walls you erected for this record. Has folkier music like that been a big part of your musical diet for a while?

Stephen Malkmus: I’ve had a big phase of that like everybody, starting with The Rolling Stones or Fairport Convention—though the Stones are more like Chicago blues or whatever. Then there was The Incredible String Band, and people turn you onto more stuff and it gets more obscure, with records like Gary Higgins’ Red Hash. There are some real jams in that style that can really lend themselves to lower budgets and more personal recording. They can hold their own and really sound amazing. There’s a whole world to that music that you guys cover and that we like. The Grateful Dead too—Workingman’s Dead was an inspiration, and their more acoustic records. 

AD: In the ‘90s people like yourself, Jim O’Rourke, and Sonic Youth championed artists from these weird esoteric corners of the folk world, and in doing so really introduced a lot of people to that stuff. Those worlds have only grown more connected. We’ve come from a time when Kurt Cobain would wear a shirt that said “Kill the Grateful Dead” to now, where all the weird indie rock and punk rock weirdos are just as into the Dead as the loner folk stuff on your playlist.  What’s it been like to watch that slow transition?

Stephen Malkmus: Punk and hardcore, for some of us from my generation, that was like our a ha moment, the original thing we were a part of. Loud, aggressive, and hormonal music. It was little bit of a boys club—which folk can be too. Personally, I didn’t really like The Grateful Dead in high school but initially, there was some Grateful Dead crossover with the people that hung with my very small punk scene. Some kids liked both. People would go to Dead shows, maybe more to take drugs, but it was something that was alternative and anti-establishment. The music itself wasn’t something I could really get. I liked the catchier, faster stuff. I was just young. I couldn’t get into it.

I had to learn from other people and not be the first one to like it, which is okay. I came back around. Like I get this totally now. Maybe that happened to other people. Like with John Fahey—I learned about him from Jim O’Rourke. I didn’t know anything about John Fahey before 1993. He lived near here in Salem, and when I first got here in the late ‘90s, there were rumors of him being around. 

AD: There’s this interesting mixtape that floated around from that time that was just straight noise music that he had assembled for a clerk at a record store in Oregon.

Stephen Malkmus: I saw him play. He played with noise background music. Richard Meltzer lived here too, a critic and writer at the time. I’d see him around. I saw Cat Power here too, on the street walking around. She was here for like four months. 

AD: You’ve got Matt Sweeney on this record—what about his playing made you want to have him on this record?

Stephen Malkmus: He has a really nice Martin guitar that someone gave him, so I just wanted that guitar in there really. [Laughs] No, I think it was just really quick. I can be shy about asking people to play on a record, especially if I haven’t played with them before, but I know him, he’s good, and he’s got good vibes. He built his own pedigree of being a session guy for a variety of people, but I knew him more from being in Chavez and playing bass in Guided by Voices and Endless Boogie

AD: Lyrically, the words on this record also sort of place it in the present. With a song like “Shadowbanned,” you’re wildly combining these weird Twitter and Internet jargon terms with the psychedelic folk thing—how did that make sense to you?

Stephen Malkmus: That was a risk, but I think it turned out really good. We made this really horrifying and cool video, and it almost overshadowed the song sometimes. I was going for a Bob Dylan-y free association feel. I like how it turned out for sure. Matt is a riff guy. I don’t know if you’ve seen his Guitar Moves series, but he hears a song and will be like “What’s that?” He looks for things he wouldn’t have thought to do that he likes. I’m like that too. I remember when I showed him how the tune was and what I was doing and he was like, “Ah, that’s surprising.” I wanted to get one song out there that had the flutes. We put him in the mix and it goes wild. Then, Chris [Funk, producer] played a Moog on there. I really like the songs that expand in an unforeseen way.

AD: That’s something I really like about Traditional Techniques. It’s fried in a nice way. Something that happens when people make their “folk record,” a lot of times singer/songwriters get interested in the idea of “authenticity” or “stripping it down.”

Stephen Malkmus: I was hoping there’d be some vibes to it and some jams, like some jazz chemistry and playing like that. I wasn’t so much worried about telling my “real story” with a whiskey bottle. It’s more about the music. Even though I wrote the tunes, we’re just going to wing it and make some music.

AD: Who knows when you’re going to be able to play these live, but was your idea to jam a bit on these and let them sprawl out? They feel custom built for that.

Stephen Malkmus: Some of them were. We were also going to hopefully find some new stuff and release an EP with some more electric where Matt and I could trade off. I had those ideas, but now I have even more time for it. We’ve been sending around stuff. We didn’t even really get to rehearse. I rehearsed with Chris and Jake [Morris, drummer], but the other guys never even got to come out to Portland. It really became clear that it wasn’t going to happen. It was like “Shit, that sucks.” We were really psyched to try this out, and I had high hopes even from our basic rehearsals because Chris was going to play pedal steel. I love a pedal steel. It’s going to happen as long as everyone is still into it, but who knows.

AD: I’m contractually required to ask what the state of the Pavement reunion is. Do you have any sort of plan at this moment?

Stephen Malkmus: Well, provided that Primavera is going to happen, we still want to do that. That’s the first step. It’s not like we have any shows beyond that, even if we had wanted to do any. We’re so popular that they would have been too big for the isolation. [Laughs] Maybe things will be happening in the fall at smaller venues. Maybe? I guess everyone is assuming they’re going to, but I don’t think you can assume that. I can’t imagine there will be football games with stadiums full of people. It’s not only a matter of if they can happen, it’s if people can afford them if they want to go out. People are hurting. We all are. We have less income for fun stuff. Concerts are not the most expensive thing, but still. You can’t go to every one you want to go to. 

AD: Does Pavement have a quarantine group chat going where you guys are weighing the various things?

Stephen Malkmus: No, we just have email chains where we’re checking that everybody is sane and still into it. It definitely took the wind out of the sails for a lot of us. I’m just rolling with it. I wouldn’t say grateful, but I’m breaking even relative to a lot of people. Not financially, but psychologically and overall. I’m in a holding pattern. It’s hard to get motivated. 

AD: Every day it’s a new variation of “I don’t know how to do this today,” but I’m lucky because I like records, books, and watching movies and I’ve surrounded myself with that stuff. I don’t have a problem hunkering down, but you do start to go nuts.

Stephen Malkmus: I don’t want to be one of those people that’s like “I’m actually enjoying this,” but there is something to say about that. Records are definitely fun. I alphabetized them, finally, since I moved them to my basement. Do you have a lot of CDs? I don’t know what to do with mine.

AD: I’m hanging onto all my CDs. I’ve whittled a lot out, but everything left is pretty cool.  

Stephen Malkmus: Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of cool ones, but I’ve got a ton of freebies too. I have a lot. I still remember there was a secondhand place here in 2000s and I took some to sell and got like $3 or $5 each or something. I regret not just doing a full dump back then. I didn’t sell when the market was high! I didn’t sell off at the right time, you know? [Laughs] Oh well, it’s all good.

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