Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus is one of the most adored musicians from the last few decades. The brand of lo-fi garage rock that he has perfected has elevated him to be one of alternative music’s greats. His knack for writing an infectious song that immediately plunges itself into the listener’s veins is remarkable, and his favourite records give a reason why Malkmus has such a gift.
Malkmus formed the group in 1989. While the brand of indie rock that they pioneered was critically acclaimed, they never achieved the level of mainstream success that their sound duly deserved, but that was never what Pavement cared about. They were the antithesis of the grunge era; their clean-cut and delectable songs were created for a different part of the brain than the more abrasive grunge sound. Whilst bands like Nirvana became the talk of the town, the sound that Pavement made had to fight the hard way to be recognised like it is today.
Speaking to Consequence of Sound in 2018 about how he wears his influences on his sleeve, Malkmus commented: “I’ve always been a little bit of a student of what makes a good song, and, as I’ve gotten older, it’s hard to be some kind of trailblazer at that point. There is a little bit of settling into a style that you’re comfortable with,” he explained. “Or, I’ll just try and go around my record collection, try and push myself around when I can to see what sounds good. You know, what’s to pull off.
“Sometimes, I probably don’t succeed entirely, like with some of the heavier stuff. I want to try and do that, but maybe I’m not that guy.”
A few years prior to this Malkmus gave a more profound look at his record collection for a feature with The Guardian in which he examined the records that meant the most to him. The piece also works as an insight into how Malkmus became the mercurial talent he is today and like many great artists, it was ‘Purple Haze’ by the Jimi Hendrix Experience that made him want to pick up a guitar.
Malkmus divulged: “In ninth grade, someone taught me basic bar chords and open strumming chords, but the gateway to me thinking the guitar was a cool thing was the E seventh chord. It’s a slight change in E seventh that was in ‘Purple Haze’ and a variation of it was also in ‘Suzie Q’ by Creedence Clearwater Revival. I was really blown away by the sound of it: it sounded funky and seemed really advanced, but it wasn’t that hard.
Before that, I’d had some lessons, just learning some folk songs with an old man. My mum was into new age spirituality and she got this guy to teach me some guitar. This was all on acoustic; I didn’t play electric until I got into punk.”
Another pivotal record that played a part in the Pavement leader’s life is The Velvet Underground’s ‘Sister Ray’, which still means as much to Malkmus now as it did when he first heard it. “The 90s was when I became a hipster on a quest for unique stuff,” he reflected. “‘Sister Ray’ is the ultimate song. Maybe you can’t call it a song – the ultimate noise statement of all time: there’s never been a song like that and there never will be again. It is with me always.
“Lou Reed was so important in every way and better than Bowie, better than Iggy Pop: he was the real thing. I was living in New York from 1991-97 – it’s an amazing place. The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed; they’re New York to me. It was a great time in my life and I made a lot of friends there.”
This mix of records show what made Malkmus such a talented songwriter; he is a student of music who has learnt the tricks of the trade from the best of them. The singer then added his unique touch to create this sound that has left an unavoidable mark on alternative music today.
Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus’ favourite records
- The Mamas and The Papas – ‘California Dreaming’
- The Jimi Hendrix Experience – ‘Purple Haze’
- The Dead Kennedys – ‘Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables’
- The Replacements – ‘Let It Be’
- The Velvet Underground – ‘Sister Ray’
- Cat Power – ‘Cross Bones Style’