Being Stephen Malkmus

Catching up with the indie-rock family man on the long and winding pavement

Stephen Malkmus at the running of the papier-mâché elephant bulls.

Stephen Malkmus at the running of the papier-mâché elephant bulls.

9 p.m. Sunday with Entrance; $15. Harlow’s, 2708 J Street.

“Well, having a kid is …” Stephen Malkmus paused for a moment to choose his word carefully, “heavy.” With this statement, Malkmus might have proven himself to be the working definition of the prototypical “grup.”

The term can be traced to Adam Sternbergh’s “Up With Grups,” an obituary for the generation gap first published in New York Magazine. The piece identified the grup (known alternately as the yupster [yuppie plus hipster], yindie [yuppie plus indie], and alterna-yuppie) as one of the generation of ascendant 40-year-olds clinging to the slacker spirit of their indie-rock yesteryears. With messenger bags in lieu of briefcases, they scurry around with reissued New Balance on their feet, Bloc Party on their Nanos, and $200 jeans “designed, eventually, to artfully fall totally apart” on their asses. Swap a few details—Brooklyn for Portland, Bloc Party for the Pixies—and the article points a finger at Malkmus, leader of the almost-famous indie-rock untouchables Pavement. Does the gracefully aging slacker icon and recent father see himself as a grup?

“Nah, no $200 jeans,” he said, via phone from San Francisco, where he began a two-week tour of the West Coast with his band the Jicks.

Malkmus concedes that fatherhood and family life have changed his sleeping habits, but his career scenery remains unvaried. “Its amazing how some things can stay exactly the same in certain ways—the musicians that I’m still playing with and the connections with people in the scene. Some things like that don’t ever change no matter how old you are. The clubs don’t change. I’m playing the same goddamn places; that never changes.”

For a moment, Malkmus sounded a bit uncomfortable about the constancy of a grup’s fate, but he found the silver lining: “At least we’re not playing smaller places.”

It’s been quite some time since he played smaller places. Malkmus formed Pavement in Stockton in 1989. The band blossomed into one of the most influential independent groups of the ’90s and was credited by the New York Times as a “graduate school version of the much more popular Nirvana.” Without landslide popularity or a major label, Malkmus’ sardonic, cerebral songwriting and poised nonchalance made the blueprint for a generation of bands to follow.

Though he admits he’ll always be associated with his first band, he added, “These days there are just as many people who discover Pavement through the recent stuff.”

After Pavement split in 1999, Malkmus’ solo ventures revealed how vanguard smartasses of the ’90s resisted leaving the indie-rock Neverland. His trio of solo records retained slacker drawl and rocker in-jokes—exercises in irony that felt necessary in the ’90s—even if the rebellion seemed more like an old habit. Today, Malkmus can sound like a lot of other 40-year-old dads with a killer fantasy-basketball team and a gig to pay the bills—even if he’s at the “goddamn club” instead of the office and his co-workers now include Janet Weiss, the former drummer of the other ’90s indie-rock powerhouse, Sleater-Kinney.

“With everything else going on with the other people in the band, and a personal life, it can be hard to get everything together and make records at the pace that I had when I was younger,” he said, explaining the slowing of his recording schedule. His last release, 2005’s Face the Truth, took on themes of his new domestic life with the wry bookishness of vintage Pavement.

“It seems like I’ve always started writing songs based in some kind of word play,” he said. “I’ll sing nonsense, whatever comes to mind, and something will eventually stick to build a song around.”

Though his current set list features a slew of new songs he’ll record this spring, he’s struggling to find the time to finish solidifying the rest of the new record. “I never used to have to carry a notebook to get things down,” he said. “But … it’s time to get this thing done. I’m resorting to desperate measures.”

That almost sounds like a mid-grup crisis.