Slay Tracks: 1933–1969 EP (1989)
Formed in 1989 in Stockton, California, Pavement—back then, just childhood friends Stephen "S.M." Malkmus and Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg—got an inauspicious start at open-mic nights. "Pavement was originally a pathetic effort by us to do something to escape the terminal boredom we were experiencing in Stockton," Malkmus later told Melody Maker. They recorded their first songs at local musician Gary Young's Louder Than You Think studio (legend has it that Young claimed to have funded the place by selling marijuana). Young ended up playing drums on this and subsequent recordings until he was fired in 1993.
It's not like the "band" had grandiose visions. After making the EP, Malkmus disappeared on an extended trip to Europe and the Middle East. Kannberg was left to figure out how to get the record released, something he later revealed to have had no clue about. As Kannberg told the band's biographer Rob Jovanovic, "I'd send off these little notes to my favorite labels like SST and Twin/Tone and ask, 'How do I do this?'" He managed to get it pressed by a local company but a record label wouldn't come for a while.
First, the British band The Wedding Present recorded a cover of "Box Elder," a song with music by Kannberg and lyrics by Malkmus—about wanting to move to Box Elder, Montana—without Pavement knowing anything about it. (Kannberg has said he was first "offended" about not being notified, but soon came around to it.) Cue the Cinderella story: The Wedding Present's cover grabbed the attention of legendary DJ John Peel, who played it on his BBC Radio 1 show. Almost immediately, the one thousand copies of Slay Tracks became a collector's item. Drag City label co-founder Dan Koretzky, while ordering copies for his job at Chicago's Reckless Records, ended up signing the band on the same call.
Demolition Plot J-7 (1990) and Perfect Sound Forever (1991)
Kannberg moved to Sacramento, crashing with a guy named Jason Fawkes. The two formed a new band, Pa ("Two States," which would appear on Pavement's debut album, came out of this period). When Malkmus returned from overseas, Pa got absorbed into Pavement, with Malkmus writing the lyrics to a song, "Forklift," that the others had already demoed at Gary Young's studio. But Young and drummer Fawkes didn't get along, which helped spell the end of the latter's contributions to the Demolition Plot J-7 EP. In the end, Fawkes only played drums on "Forklift" (the fuzz-laden track was the band's first to use synth).
A year later, the band released the Perfect Sound Forever EP—the name purportedly inspired by a Sony CD ad campaign—which included the noise roller coaster track "Debris Slide." Pavement's first three EPs, plus cuts off the "Summer Babe" single, and a couple of compilation appearances were then gathered for the 1993 Drag City release Westing (By Musket and Sextant).
Pavement 08-21-1991 The Middle East, Cambridge MATHE WRONG HERO NETWORK
Slanted and Enchanted (1992)
In 1992, alternative radio—and grunge, especially—had become the mainstream. But college radio was still the place to find the real underground, and Pavement created a sensation on it with their debut LP on Matador.
It's full of truly excellent songs that now stand as hallspans of the era and have influenced countless future bands: "Summer Babe (Winter Version)," "Trigger Cut/Wounded Kite at :17," "No Life Singed Her," "Loretta's Scars," "Here," "Our Singer." Even Kannberg's chugging "Two States" is now seen as an anti-anthem for the times. CMJ called the album "quite likely the first and last word in American indie rock for 1992."
Pavement borrowed from and often got compared to The Fall (bellowed lyrics), Sonic Youth (noise), the Velvet Underground (the ultimate nonchalance), and early REM (sweetly off-kilter melodies and mumbling), but really sounded nothing like any of those bands (Kannberg said he preferred The Replacements anyway.) That didn't stop Mark E. Smith, the notoriously cantankerous frontman of The Fall, from calling Pavement a "rip-off."
And then there was the "slacker" label that Pavement—like Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. and others who favored lo-fi, fuzzed-out insouciance over the gravely serious ker-chunk of so much of grunge—was often saddled with, even if there was some truth to the designation. We've actually spent less than 100 hours on Pavement—playing, recording, and practicing. We've had six practices," Malkmus told Option magazine. "We don't even play together as a band when we record. Basically I send the guys into the studio and I sit there with a microphone and sing along and I have an idea of where I want them to stop. That's where I put the guitar."
Then again, who knows what to believe from wry, sardonic Malkmus. His abstruse lyrics, like a ransom note jumble, were praised as slacker poetry at the time. "Ice baby/ I saw your girlfriend and she was/ Eating her fingers like they're just another meal/ But she waits there, in the levee washes/ Mixing cocktails with a plastic-tipped cigar," he sings on "Summer Babe."
Years later, Malkmus would admit to Rolling Stone, "The lyrics are kinda silly. It mentions ‘Ice Ice Baby.' There's some imagery from Stockton, California, where we recorded it, mixed in with a cryptic story about a girl and a guy. I don't think it makes all that much sense, but it's got some cool imagery."
Watery, Domestic (1992)
For this influential EP, the band made the permanent additions of Mark Ibold on bass and Bob Nastanovich as a percussion player/background vocalist/grinning jester/hypeman. The incredibly catchy record includes some of Malkmus's most memorable lines: "She's so lackadaisical/ Should've been a West Coast bride" ("Texas Never Whispers"); "I've got style/ For miles and miles/ So much style that it's wasted" ("Frontwards"). Notably, Ibold brings real depth to "Lions (Linden)," which sneers at small-town Friday Night Lights contentment.
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
While the band might have been portrayed as a boatload of slackers, they could no longer tolerate Young's shambolic, show-derailing presence and replaced him with Steve West. (Young, who admitted to having alcohol abuse issues, has told Vice: "I'd do headstands while Malkmus would perform these beautiful solo songs … The crowd would cheer for me up until I lost balance. That must have pissed Malkmus off.")
It wasn't the only big change, as the band eased away from its lo-fi past toward a bigger, more streamlined sound while playing around with genres on this release. There are moments of canyon country ("Elevate Me Later"), free-jazz ("Newark Wilder"); the outro to the intense ballad "Stop Breathin'"), Cure-style gothic sunshine ("Gold Soundz") and shiny happy alternative ("Cut Your Hair").
Due to an ink blot on the original jacket, the song "Silence Kid" mistakenly became known as "Silence Kit." Malkmus has talked about the song starting with "a broken classic-rock intro. It's funny to hear us do that. Obviously we weren't skillful rock stars. Then it's spinning through a lot of hooks really fast, and all of a sudden it's over." (You can also hear traces of Buddy Holly's "Everyday" in the verse melody and Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People" in the intro.)
But the song that got everyone talking was "Range Life," which some saw as bratty and others as hilariously cutting through the noise of alternative radio. "Out on tour with Smashing Pumpkins … , they don't have no function/ I don't understand what they mean/ And I could really give a fuck," Malkmus sings over a Flying Burrito Brothers-esque groove. "Stone Temple Pilots, they're elegant bachelors/ They're foxy to me, are they foxy to you?/ I will agree they deserve absolutely nothin'/ Nothin' more than me." It got the band kicked off Lollapalooza 1994, as the Pumpkins' Billy Corgan—not exactly a man known for his sense of humor—threatened to cancel if Pavement played.
Wowee Zowee (1995)
As if allergic to the slightly more mainstream attention they gained with Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, Pavement reacted by making their most calamitous LP, recorded at Memphis-based Easley studios.
Although the band had parted ways with Gary Young a year before, they gave him a shout-out—the drummer was known to holler "Wowee zowee!" when excited—with the title to their third album. The name came after they rejected as too risky Nastanovich's suggestion: Dick-Sucking Fool at Pussy-Licking School, a spoof on The Rolling Stones' never-released Cocksucker Blues film. That alternate title still made it into the CD's booklet, and you can hear a bit of Stonesy, "Waiting on a Friend"-era lazy blues guitar, deadpan backing vocals, and juke-joint harmonica on "Rattled by the Rush." (In a pop-culture anointment, MTV's metalhead couch pundits Beavis and Butt-Head deemed the song "horrible" and said the band "needed to try harder.")
Beavis and Butt-Head - Do 'Pavement - Rattled by the Rush'JAY KOOL
As on their last album, the band again got experimental with genres—only they pushed the boundaries farther, to a point that turned off a good chunk of fans. There's the art-rock noise of "Serpentine Pad" and "Brinx Job," psychedelic-meets-psych-out on "Best Friend's Arm" and "Western Homes," the canyon country of "Father to a Sister of Thought" (complete with pedal-steel by studio head and engineer Doug Easley), and the math-rock beats of "Grave Architecture." Malkmus has said he screamed so ferociously at the 3:30 span of hippie freak-out "Half a Canyon" that he thought he might have an aneurysm and vowed to never do it again.
Wowee Zowee befuddled critics and fans at the time, but has grown into an underdog favorite. Indeed, if you haven't heard it in a while, Wowee Zowee is worth a revisit. "Black Out" and "Motion Suggests Itself" are prettier than you might remember. "We Dance" is Neil Young moody, and "AT&T," with its guitar slip-sliding all over the place, is big, catchy '90s indie pop at its best.
Brighten the Corners (1997)
Kannberg has said that Wowee Zowee might have been a very different record had they not rushed it—which led to Pavement making the more considered, focused Brighten the Corners.
The band decided to go to North Carolina and record at the home of Mitch Easter, the jangle-pop master who produced R.E.M.'s earliest records and led his own underappreciated band, Let's Active. (Malkmus told Rolling Stone the idea may have come from Helium's Mary Timony, but he couldn't remember for sure.)
Although the record was primarily produced by Bryce Goggin (The Lemonheads, Nada Surf), Easter's work with the band can be heard on "Date With Ikea," sung by Kannberg, who reminds everyone he's just as cynical as Malkmus as he skewers California ideology with lines like "The fitness coast is growing near/ The shores, they don't stay blonde this year." (Kannberg also takes the lead on the wah-heavy "Dream With Passat.")
Album starter and first single "Stereo" doesn't shy away from catchiness while remaining firmly entrenched in Pavement-ness—guitar and vocal freak-outs with goofs on classic rock: "My baby, baby, baby, baby, baby" Malkmus sings before adding the kicker, "gave me malaria, hysteria!" "‘Stereo' is based around the lead riff, which is more like a bass line. That's the whole song," Malkmus has said. "I'm kind of rapping, but my voice sounds like there's been air deflated from a football or something—just sing-speaking some wacky lyrics, trying to get a rise out of people, like with the Geddy Lee line." ("What about the voice of Geddy Lee?" Malkmus sings of the Rush singer's cartoon falsetto. "I wonder if he speaks like an ordinary guy?")
"Shady Lane," a favorite of even casual Pavement fans, finds Malkmus—who turned thirty while recording the album—nailing the dirty little secret of getting older: "The worlds collide, but all that we want is a shady lane."
According to the New York Times, "Many of the songs on the new album, [Malkmus] said, were originally titled after the groups he thought they sounded like." "Fin" started off as "Tusk" from the Fleetwood Mac album, while "other songs were named after Elastica and R.E.M."
The record contains some of the band's prettiest melodies, including "Shady Lane," "Starlings of the Slipstream," "Old to Begin," and "Type Slowly." The latter offers a first look at Malkmus's evolution into an alternate universe jam-band star, eventually honed with his future band the Jicks.
Easter has said of Pavement in the studio: "They had a great way of working, which was quasi-jamming but not just pure jamming ... Things changed a lot from one time to the next and the idea was that you just recorded everything and they would just pick the good one and that became the version … If you heard all the session tapes from this one, it's really respanable how big the shift was on every take."
Pavement - "Stereo"Matador Records
Terror Twilight (1999)
For the first time in the band's history, Malkmus—the main songwriter—recorded demos before going into the studio. "I think part of his frustration with the way the band worked was that he was the only person who was doing serious homework," Nastanovich told Pitchfork. Bassist Ibold felt the tension too, saying in the same interview, "Stephen sometimes seemed frustrated about having people like me in the band that aren't great musicians."
Not much progress was made at Portland's Jackpot! studio, and then things took an unexpected turn when they went into RPM Studios in Manhattan with producer Nigel Godrich, known for his work with Radiohead and Beck. "We had never hired a ‘producer,' with quotations, before," Ibold told Pitchfork. "My impression at the time was that he liked the band, but I wasn't sure that he really felt it." Nastanovich has said more than once that Godrich didn't even know his name. Neither Nastanovich nor drummer Steve West joined the others and Godrich for mixing the record in London, which meant the band called in Domonic Murcott of the High Llamas to play drums on "Major Leagues" and "Carrot Rope." Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood also lends harmonica to the jammy "Platform Blues." "There was a more broken version of ‘"Major Leagues'" early on—it was a little more rickety and cuter," Malkmus told Pitchfork. "But to be honest, we kind of made that song into an attempt to make a pop song, like an almost-catchy song for the masses." (As for "Carrot Rope," Malkmus told Rolling Stone: "I have no idea what's going on with that song. Just completely absurd. Almost like a show tune.")
"Cream of Gold" is big and polished. "The Hexx" could be a Moby Grape outtake. "Folk Jam," with its banjo solo from Malkmus, is like a Lovin' Spoonful tribute. Malkmus has said "Spit on a Stranger" has a "Beatles feel," and the same could be said of "You Are a Light." (Terror Twilight is also the first Pavement record not to feature any of Kannberg's contributions.)
"Stephen has the ability to write these beautiful pop songs, but his whole kind of schtick is this sort of dumbing down—like, pretending he's not a very good player," Godrich told Pitchfork. "I was like, ‘"More people will listen to you if you take a little bit more time!'"
But mass popularity was never what Pavement was chasing. With Malkmus obviously growing restless and members living in different states, making it pretty much impossible to get together and casually write or rehearse, the singer told Rolling Stone, "After Terror Twilight, it was nearing ten years of the band, and I felt like it was going to be a struggle instead of a joy … In the end, it was more or less my decision [to end Pavement]."
Years later, on the Talkhouse podcast, Malkmus called the record "overproduced," before adding, "With that much money you should be able to make something good. We made some things that weren't as good as they could've been."
In 2009, Matador released Live Europaturnén MCMXCVII, recorded at a 1997 show in Cologne, Germany. There are particularly spirited versions of "Shady Lane," "Silence Kit," and "Stereo," and warm takes on "Loretta's Scars" and "Stop Breathin." Guitarist John Bennett from the High Llamas joins Pavement for a lively "Range Life" that finds Nastanovich hamming it up more than usual. Malkmus finds a new target, replacing the Stone Temple Pilots lyrics with "Kula Shaker, in the Melody Maker/ Pin-up stars, big, big cars/ But no tunes or should I say ‘chunes'?"
While they haven't released any new music since the break-up, the band reunited in 2010 for a series of live dates—and will be playing concerts in the US and Europe in the fall of 2022.
Pavement has now released expanded reissues of most of their albums—with the latest, a 30th anniversary edition of Slanted and Enchanted, released in August 2022. It includes a replica of the Courting Shutdown Offers cassette, which collects the demos the band sent to labels before signing with Matador.
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: LA's Desert Origins (2004) includes eight alternate takes, including versions of "Range Life" and "Ell Ess Two" (later to become "Elevate Me Later") recorded with Gary Young on drums. There are also embryonic forms of songs that would end up on Wowee Zowee, including "Kennel District," "Flux = Rad" and "Pueblo." The reissue's liner notes includes a track-by-track guide Malkmus wrote for Melody Maker when the album first came out in '94 that, as Pitchfork wrote, make "clear just how unknowable these songs are. ‘Stop Breathin' is about tennis and the Civil War ... ; ‘Elevate Me Later' is about political correctness; ‘Heaven Is a Truck' is ‘loosely based on the singer from Royal Trux.'" (Although it's unclear if that's a reference to Jennifer Herrema or Neil Hagerty, the latter gets name-checked in another unreleased track, the guitar-noodling "Neil Hagerty meets Jon Spencer in a Non-Alcoholic Bar" that shows up on the Brighten the Corners reissue.)
Wowee Zowee: Sordid Sentinels Edition (2006) captures some live tracks recorded from England and Australia, a handful of contributions to soundtracks and compilations, and a charmingly sloppy jam with Doug Easley on piano.
Brighten the Corners: Nicene Creedence Edition (1997) is absolutely loaded, containing B-sides, a few outtakes, and performances on radio shows like John Peel Sessions and KCRW's "Morning Becomes Eclectic," the latter including the previously unreleased "Destroy Mater Dei." B-side "No Tan Lines" is as Beach Boys peppy as the title implies, while "Wanna Mess Around" is a garage-rock freakout, and "Slowly Typed" stands as a country goof on "Type Slowly." There's also a lovely cover of Echo and the Bunnymen's "The Killing Moon," and Kannberg's "Winner of The" is included too. The deep cut with the strangest resume is perhaps “Harness Your Hopes,” which became an algorithmically-fueled top-streamer for the band in recent years.
Terror Twilight: Farewell Horizontal (1999) attempts to rewrite history by using producer Godrich’s original sequence, kicking off with “Platform Blues” instead of “Spit on a Stranger.” While the deluxe album includes tracks from abandoned sessions at Sonic Youth’s Echo Canyon space in Lower Manhattan (later destroyed on 9/11), there is only one cut, “You Are a Light,” from the ill-fated Portland studio stint. You’ll find several of the Malkmus-only demos, a 1999 New York City concert that includes a ragged cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Sinister Purpose,” and an unreleased track that probably should have made the record: “Be The Hook.” “I had no idea that thing existed!” West told Pitchfork. “I do remember vaguely thinking at the time, ‘This is just too simple, we can’t do this.’ … But now it’s the one I like to start practicing to in the morning. I’m like, ‘”I want to wake up to ‘Be the Hook’!”