The Click: Stephen Malkmus
In his own words, Stephen Malkmus looks back at the 30-minute lunch break that planted the seeds for Pavement’s success.
In 1991, I was a security guard at the Whitney Museum of American Art, back when it used to be on the Upper East Side. That year I was able to take a Christmas break, so I went home to Stockton, California for 12 days and made what became Pavement’s first album, Slanted and Enchanted.
Once we’d recorded the album, we had some cassettes made to hand out to record labels to see if they were interested. Maybe we’d get an advance? I could only hope. Some of my friends listened to the cassette and said, “Wow this is really good, you’ve got something here Steve.” At that point, Pavement had released some EPs but I didn’t really think of it as anything I could monetise – I just enjoyed being part of a scene and doing something with my friends. Still, we sent the album to Rough Trade, John Loder, John Peel, people like that.
At the Whitney, all of us guards were quite poor so we’d grab lunch from the hotdog stand outside the museum. We’d eat these terrible knishes – I’d put mustard on them to mask the greasiness. I used to go out there in my uniform, which was really dirty because they weren’t washed very often. It was made of a horrible, cheap grey polyester, adorned with my union pin – the only time I’ve ever been in a union.
One day I agreed to meet the couple who ran Big Cat Records on my half-hour lunch break. Big Cat had recently released things with Kim Gordon and Lydia Lunch, so they seemed kinda cool, not all ‘indier than thou’. When we met, they were really enthusiastic, saying that they loved Pavement and have this plan in place for us. We decided to sign with them, which turned out to be a great thing. They eventually signed Mercury Rev and lots of bands we love. I remember going back to work after the meeting thinking, wow, maybe I won’t have to work here because I’m getting a $5000 advance. I know it doesn’t sound like a lot of money now, and technically it wasn’t enough for a band to last two months, but it was still incredible to us.
A year and a half after that, Nirvana’s Nevermind came out. That really changed indie’s tenor. Before, indie was just indie as usual – not too far from what Galaxie 500 or Pixies were doing. I remember hearing Smells Like Teen Spirit blasting from a normie dude’s car and it really hit me that something was changing in guitar music. I began to wonder if things would really take off. And look at that, everything worked out.
Traditional Techniques is out now via Domino Records