Around the Fire You’ll Have Planxty Playing: Stephen Malkmus Feature, HP 2001.

Just a couple of things about this piece.

It was titled Swede Dreams in HP, and still is on the HP site, because when I interviewed Stephen Malkmus his impending debut solo album was going to be called Swedish Reggae. So I, or someone, popped that headline onto the piece. By the time the piece came out, not long later, the album title had changed and it was eponymous—Scandinavia nowhere to be seen. Still, Swede Dreams the headline remained. I occasionally wondered: did anyone reading the piece ever wonder why? Who knows?

This was another interview, like Kristin Hersh’s posted last night, conducted on my parents’ phone in Ballinteer. I remember that it was the last in a long day of phoners for Stephen. He opened by telling me this. He was tired and bored like Bruce. But he was interested and interesting when he got going about Irish music including folk music. Thankfully, I appear to have done some research before ringing him. Still, it was literally today October 14th 2022 that I learned a related lyric from ‘Folk Jam’, off Pavement’s 1999 Terror Twilight: “Irish folk tales scare the shit out of me, yeah”. Go Planxty.

Having broken up Pavement, STEPHEN MALKMUS has had plenty of time to devote to making his eponymous solo album and indulging his obsession with all things Irish from U2 to Thin Lizzy to Planxty. NIALL CRUMLISH cocks an ear and raises an eyebrow.

There are many sides to the inscrutable Stephen Malkmus. You may, like me, know him best for Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement’s definitive sunny Californian college rock record. You probably remember Pavement winning over a generation with Malkmus’ melancholic, half-together tunes: think ‘Range Life’, the pedal-steel-powered pop at Smashing Pumpkins that got them booted off Lollapalooza; the wild whoop of ‘Cut Your Hair’; or ‘Gold Soundz’, their sepia-tinged single that rivals even The Divine Comedy’s Promenade as the sound to evoke the vintage summer of 1994.

More recently we know him for his role as a ruiner of Britpop. Malkmus has long been an unreconstructed Anglophile, and Graham Coxon returned the compliment by commandeering Pavement’s angular guitar noise for 13, waving goodbye to the annoying cockney Blur and pulling the rug out from under an army of idiot imitators. (Leaving idiot Oasis to pull the rug out from under themselves.)

Soon, then, you’ll know him as the man behind Stephen Malkmus, an eponymous solo debut that rediscovers the pleasure in a good simple sad melody that Pavement misplaced circa Wowee Zowee. What you won’t know, unless you’ve scouted the Internet for interesting new things to ask a sick-sounding Stephen Malkmus at the end of a long day of interviews, is that his Anglophilia actually stretches just across the Irish Sea.

To Prosperous, to be precise.

I found a list of your favourite records, Stephen, with Planxty by Planxty on it.

“Oh yeah, I just sit around, playing the folk tunes,” he enthuses, seemingly relieved not to be going straight into another Pavement post-mortem. “Sometimes you realise that it’s not that you’re becoming a dad yourself, but the old-time music rings true to you. Traditional music is awesome, and Planxty put a little contemporary twist on it in the Seventies. I’ve always been a little bit of a sucker for Irish bands, whether it was Thin Lizzy or U2, you know. Even some Cranberries I can stand: probably most Irish people can’t.”

There’s a set of acceptable post-punk influences, I suggest, and Christy isn’t among them.

“Yeah, and I admit that there’s some contrary bone in my body that would make me say Planxty’s better than Blur or something, and I can prove a hundred reasons why. But I guess in the end I truly would rather listen to Planxty in my house in the morning than, you know, Pulp. For me it does more. It just makes me feel good.”

Malkmus develops the point to invent the Christy Vs Ziggy wars.

“It’s music that’s complex but entertaining and there s a real fire behind it. I just have a little suspicion of this music that aims towards the commercial mainstream of any sort, you know. I don’t have a problem with well-produced albums or songs, but when it gets into that sort of David Bowie-style cult of personality, I don’t know, I’m not as into it normally. I don’t like to play those kinds of records in my house. That’s just me. I can still appreciate Bowie or Roxy Music up to a point, but, you know, around the fire you’ll have Planxty playing.”

You made an admission earlier that a lot of people in your position wouldn’t. You like U2.

“Oh, yeah. Well, I’m American for one thing. You could hate them, maybe, back in the ‘New Year’s Day’ era, but generally you liked them. I went to see them, I was at the right age, and I still think they have a good attitude about what they’re doing. They’re a band we definitely looked up to, in a certain way. Of course, Bono goes a little overboard and the bass player looks a little Eurotrashy sometimes. He’s probably a cool guy.

Malkmus, in contrast to Bono, was always regarded as a bit ironic, a bit clever-clever.

“I never really felt that was an issue,” he coughs in demurral. “I didn’t mind that people would think I was being clever or something. That’s how I entertain myself, but, that being said, maybe after a while the mainstream hopes of this kind of music had been sort of swallowed up; some of the fun was taken out of being in a band after Nirvana. Everything got really boring really fast.”

Externally there certainly is a sense that, from Wowee Zowee on, we watched Pavement gradually wind down. The split last year surprised no-one.

“Yeah. It was ten years. I thought it was great. I don’t look back and think it was a nightmare or anything, or, like (hushed), Thank God it’s over! But yeah, I think it was running its course. Now, for some reason, I’m trying to get back in there. I do feel sort of invigorated. I’m by myself now, but it’s with a little more levity. I was always trying my best to write good songs and keep it interesting, fighting to make good albums: I think, though, this one has a more free, happy feeling.”

Any Americans with a bit of warmth and colour in their music I immediately have to compare to Grandaddy and The Flaming Lips. Malkmus considers this.

“Yeah, yeah, I think you’re right, but I’m not always in that area. I consider them the high-voice clique. All the bands that somewhere between their balls and their throat something happened, so they sing like (wounded squirrel noise ensues). Other than that, as far as the songwriting or the people, I feel a kinship with them.”

Jonny Greenwood played on 1999’s Terror Twilight. What’s Malkmus’ take on Kid A?

“I like it,” he affirms. “Song by song I don’t like every song, but there’s a lot of great stuff on there. For some reason the time is right. You know, we need a little bit of weirdness. The media’s very open to something weird right now because everything else is so straight. I don’t know if people actually like it, but they’re going along, you know. Tripped out by it.”

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