Despite being in one of the most legendary indie rock bands of the 1990s, Pavement always seemed like relatively normal people. Lance Bangs’ fantastic documentary on the band, 2002’s Slow Century, shows five low-key musicians who were goofball friends and sports fans first while being all-time great guitar rockers second. Apart from guitarist and singer Scott Kannberg giving himself the stage name ‘Spiral Stairs’, there’s almost no stereotypical rock star behaviour or tension within the band.
That had changed by 1999. After having evolved together throughout the decade, complete with a maddening touring schedule and massively increased visibility, band leader Stephen Malkmus began to drift apart from his bandmates. The recording of the band’s final album, Terror Twilight, saw Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich largely focus on Malkmus while ignoring the other members. Even worse, Malkmus refused to allow any of Kannberg’s songs on the record, which broke a precedent set by the band’s previous releases.
The band were pushing back against Malkmus’ heavy-handed leadership, while Malkmus began to detest the frequent touring and increased focus put on him. There’s a telling scene in the documentary that highlights Pavement’s most infamous gig – the 1995 Lollapalooza stop in West Virginia. The group play through torrents of mud and bottles, but once Malkmus gets hit square in the chest with a rock, he drops his guitar and leaves. In almost all the concert footage following the incident, Malkmus is noticeably more reserved and aloof while onstage, causing members like Bob Nastanovich and Mark Ibold to increasingly step up in his absence.
Malkmus largely seems like a normal guy – he and Nastanovich and over their shared love of sports, while he and Kannberg form the band because of their shared roots in punk rock as teenagers in Stockton, California. But as Pavement rose in stature, Malkmus began to accrue a reputation for being unapproachable. During an interview with Rolling Stone conducted at the group’s height of fame, Malkmus was accused of being “arrogant and mean”, but Malkmus defended himself. “It’s not true – it’s part of the act. I’m a pretty icy performer. I’m nice at the bottom of my heart, but I like the ‘tough love, bitchy performer’ thing,” he said.
That “tough love, bitchy performer” came out increasingly during the tour in support of Terror Twilight. According to drummer Steve West, there were times when Malkmus refused to talk to his bandmates, instead pulling a jacket over his head and referring to himself as “the little bitch”. It all came to a head when Malkmus refused to sing while Pavement were playing at the inaugural Coachella Festival in 1999. At a meeting following the show, Malkmus explained that he was done, and after the following month’s touring commitments, Pavement would be no more.
The band’s final performance came at the Brixton Academy in London. The show was sold out, and the audience present had no idea that this would be the final Pavement show of their initial run and the last time the five members would play together for over a decade. But they had a clue: adorning Malkmus’ microphone stand were a pair of handcuffs, which Malkmus referred to as symbolising “what it’s like being in a band all these years”.
The final three songs of the band’s initial career were ‘Stop Breathin’, ‘Conduit for Sale’ and the legendarily sprawling Slanted and Enchanted cut ‘Here’. Before ‘Conduit for Sale’, Ibold goes over to talk to Malkmus, and the conversation eventually expands to including all five members meeting together onstage. Ostensibly it concerned the setlist, but the frayed edges are on full public display as well. As the final notes of ‘Here’ descend into white noise, the members put down their instruments and walk away without fanfare, putting an end to the original run of Pavement.
Check out the full Slow Century documentary, including the final three songs of the Brixton Academy show, down below.