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Pavement Throw Open Their Vault: Inside ‘The Secret History, Vol. 1’

Indie heroes Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich reminisce about band’s early-Nineties beginnings.

Indie heroes Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich reminisce about band's early-Nineties beginnings.

“Whoa!” Stephen Malkmus stops short mid-sentence. There’s a brief pause, then he starts to laugh. “I was in this hammock, and it just broke!” he explains. “I’m OK. But I feel bad that the kids can’t swing in it anymore.”

Malkmus is calling from his Portland, Oregon, home, to talk about The Secret History, Vol. 1, a vinyl-only Pavement rarities set due on August 11th — the first of five chapters that Matador Records is rolling out over the next few years. There’s something a little funny about that idea: Pavement are the kind of cult act whose true believers have already heard most every B-side and alternate take, whether from hunting down the original 7-inches in the Nineties or from studious Kazaa and Soulseek sessions after the band’s demise. The first installment of The Secret History collects 30 such jewels from around the time of their brilliantly cockeyed 1992 debut, Slanted and Enchanted — and yes, dear fact-checking cuz, it’s the same material found in the bonus tracks to that album’s 2002 Luxe & Reduxe reissue. Even so, the collection of songs sounds pretty excellent as a standalone listen in 2015. “If you’re just a garden-variety Pavement fan — if there is such a thing — then hopefully this shines a light,” Malkmus says, “where you’re like, ‘Wow, these guys were doing good shit I didn’t know about.'”

Malkmus hasn’t bothered listening to the double LP, since he knows its contents so well, but he has been revisiting some old memories. “I pondered for some time about that time and what it was,” says the singer-songwriter, 49. “We were living on the edge — living day-to-day, just living full-on — and thinking about what we were going to be. It was certainly an exciting time.”

At the dawn of the Nineties, Malkmus was a few years out of college, living in New Jersey with his college pals Bob Nastanovich and David Berman of the Silver Jews. “New York was still a dangerous place,” says Nastanovich, who would soon become Pavement’s genial percussionist. “There was complete chaos on the streets.” Malkmus remembers going into New York to see bands like Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Surgery in those days, but never feeling like part of a scene. “Pavement was very much in the larva stage back then,” Nastanovich says. “People looked down their noses at us, which was kind of welcome, in a way. It brought us together and made us closer.”

Malkmus had formed Pavement and recorded a few now-treasured EPs in 1989 with guitarist Scott Kannberg (a.k.a. Spiral Stairs), an old friend from his hometown of Stockton, California. In January, 1991, he and Kannberg regrouped in Stockton to make Slanted and Enchanted at a small studio owned by a local named Gary Young, who became the band’s first drummer. Young was several years older than his new bandmates — late thirties to their mid-twenties — and he cut a memorable figure from the start. “We were fascinated by him,” Nastanovich says. “I saw a lot of really incredible feats of drinking in college, but this guy was from another planet. He could drink some of the largest quantities of some of the worst vodka ever made.”

Young’s studio wasn’t exactly top-of-the-line. “It had a 16-track machine, but one of the tracks didn’t work, so [Slanted] is probably one of the greatest albums ever made on a 15-track machine,” says Nastanovich. But it proved to be the ideal incubator for Pavement’s early work. “You could completely relax and be yourself there,” Nastanovich adds. “Gary deserves a lot of credit when it comes to that album. The whole thing was really brought together by him. Pavement was really fortunate to stumble upon this guy.” The first Secret History release includes a couple of works-in-progress from those sessions, including a version of “Summer Babe” with added reverb and an alternate mix of “Here,” which Malkmus describes as “trying to make the guitar more like Jesus and Mary Chain — in our minds, which of course it wasn’t.”

Slanted and Enchanted came out on Matador on April 20th, 1992. “To me, it was a great album,” Nastanovich says. “I knew when I heard the tape for the first time that it was a great 1992 record.” Critics agreed. “Slanted and Enchanted was so damn good, nobody even cared if Pavement would ever make another album, let alone go on to a decade-long run as the great American rock band of the Nineties,” RS’ Rob Sheffield wrote in 2002. “But they did.”

Some of the best songs on The Secret History, Vol. 1 come from the summer of ’92, when the band went to London to appear on John Peel’s BBC Radio 1 show. Songs like the moody ballad “Secret Knowledge of Backroads” (which later appeared on a Silver Jews EP) and the Pixies-esque “Circa 1762” show a songwriter who was already restless to roam past Slanted. “My mind was like, ‘Let’s just mess around in here and make something new that’s not been done before,'” Malkmus says. “And that’s what we did.”

Nastanovich recalls the creative process in Pavement at the time: “To keep from getting bored, Stephen would always be making up songs in soundchecks. A lot of those ideas just came from him having a really active mind and loving to play guitar, so when we were put in those impromptu situations, he was ready to fire something out. Some of it is pretty good, and some of it’s eminently discardable.”

Pavement hadn’t played many gigs before recording Slanted. “The only tours we knew about were Laughing Hyenas or the Jesus Lizard — they toured in a van for no money,” Malkmus says. “We were psyched to do that once in our life and then maybe move on.” But good reviews kept coming in for the album, and fans kept coming to the shows, which by then featured Mark Ibold on bass. “It kind of caught on with people,” Malkmus says. “It was part of something that we didn’t know was going to come, which was grunge getting bigger.”

In the fall of 1992, Sonic Youth invited Pavement to open for a few West Coast dates on their Pretty Fucking Dirty tour. “They were at their apex of influence, and it was probably stressful for them,” Malkmus says. “But they were really nice to us.” Pavement ended up supporting the art-noise stars on a longer tour of Europe that November and December. Nastanovich remembers their drummer bonding with the older headliners: “Thurston and Gary and Kim were really good friends, because they all listened to the same creepy music that I didn’t like. That’s one reason why the drumming was really good on those shows, because Gary wanted to impress Kim Gordon.”

You can hear everyone bringing their A-game on the live tracks that close out The Secret History, Vol. 1, taken from the final night of the tour at London’s Brixton Academy. “Whenever you’re opening for a group, the pressure is way less,” Malkmus says. “You’re just a half-hour away from drinking and fucking around. It’s pretty fun.” Nastanovich tells a different story: “It was very nerve-racking to play in front of 4,000 Sonic Youth fans!” he says. “That’s getting in pretty deep.”

Everything went smoothly at Brixton Academy until the last moments of the set. All tour long, Nastanovich had been in charge of making Pavement’s set lists. “It was pretty easy,” he says. “We only knew how to play, like, 15 songs.” Finding paper was a bigger challenge: “So I put the set lists on old drum skins,” he continues. “One piece of advice Gary gave me was that you should always hit your drum skins as hard as you possibly can. Looking back, that was really idiotic. I was going through a lot of drum skins. Steve Shelley couldn’t understand why I hit my drums so hard, but he was nice enough to give me a lot of his old drum skins.” That night in Brixton, Nastanovich’s unconventional methods went wrong, when he excitedly flung one of those metal-edged set lists into the crowd. “I threw it like a Frisbee, 40 or 50 feet in the air,” he says. “And I looked out and saw these two guys having a conversation, probably about how ‘Trigger Cut’ was not as good as ‘In the Mouth a Desert,’ or something. One of the drum skins came down and cracked the guy right in the forehead.” A nervous Nastanovich fled the scene of the crime and called his mom from a payphone. “I was such a chickenshit,” he says ruefully. “That was my alibi. ‘Couldn’t have been me, I was talking to my mother on the phone!'”

That mishap aside, 1992 was a very good year for Pavement. “It was hopeful,” Malkmus says. “You’re a young dude, traveling in a band, and you don’t have to think more than a year ahead. That’s a nice feeling.” For a while, it seemed like anything was possible. “We had some sort of hubris that we could do it our own way,” Malkmus says, “and people would come to us if we made cool, idiosyncratic stuff.”

The band’s growing profile would play a role in the tensions that led to Young’s dismissal from Pavement the following year. “Gary got a little paranoid at times,” Nastanovich says. “He didn’t understand how a band could be in magazines and on TV and not be making shitloads of money. He was very suspicious of Scott and Stephen stealing from him, but they weren’t. I think he was sort of confused over how big his star was.”

In the end, Pavement never broke through to the highest levels of alt-rock stardom, and Malkmus is all right with that. (“I don’t know if I’m into Candlebox,” he says, musing on one of the paths rock took in the Nineties. “They’re probably good guys — I don’t know.”) But their influence continued to resonate in realms both underground and far above. “In a way, it happened anyway, for a band like Weezer, which was a band that had some of the signifiers of Pavement, at least on the outside,” Malkmus says. “I like them. And I think in the wake of Pavement, a band like Weezer could really make sense to a radio programmer or an A&R guy.”

In 2010, a decade after their breakup, Pavement came together for a brief, glorious reunion tour. Rumors of a possible re-reunion have circulated every year or so since then — call it wishful thinking for indie-rock diehards. Nastanovich was recently quoted saying that he and the others tried and failed to sell Malkmus on the idea of resurrecting the band in 2015 or 2016. “I mean, it’s not like we can do one of those lame Midwestern casino tours with, like, two original members,” Nastanovich says now. “Who wants to see Pavement without Stephen Malkmus in it? I wouldn’t.”

Pavement was a long time ago. Band members have kids, side gigs and day jobs; Nastanovich works several jobs in the horse-racing business, and Malkmus’ band the Jicks are a going concern. “It’s a hard thing to put together,” Nastanovich says. “But I think if he feels like doing it again, he’ll do it again. I wouldn’t rule it out.”

Lately, Malkmus says, he’s been playing with some song ideas that might end up on a new Jicks record. “I’m not doing too much, but I’m recording down in the basement, trying to figure stuff out,” he says. “Some times are easy, and they’re just a flowing process; other times you have to reassess. I’m in one of those moments, but that’s not a bad thing.”

What’s he’s reassessing? “Everything,” he says. “You play a song and sing your lyrics, and you’re like, ‘Is that what I am? Is that good?'” He’s been wondering if he ought to work toward a more serious tone in his writing. “Sometimes I have a tendency when I’m around other people to be a jokester,” he adds. “It’s too much to be real all the time. Lyrically, when I’m around a band, I tend to back away and be funny. But maybe I shouldn’t.” 

In the meantime, Malkmus has been thriving on Twitter, which he joined last year under the name @dronecoma. His signature brand of wit is in full flower on the social-media site, with plenty of strangely resonant observations (“‘Late capitalism’ is a silly concept but listen to late Aerosmith and it starts to make sense”) and clever riffs on cultural touchstones from Virginia Woolf to Sideshow Bob. “It’s fun,” he says. “For people with introvert tendencies, you can extrovert in a controlled manner. That’s how I view it.”

I blame the simple fact that it is 2015 for my final question: What’s Stephen Malkmus’ favorite emoji? “Whatever smiley face is there,” he says, and laughs. “I don’t think about it too much.”