In 1992 a friend made me a tape of Nirvana’s Nevermind. He filled the other side of the C-90 with his favourites of the day by the likes of Buffalo Tom, The Pixies, Wedding Present, and Smashing Pumpkins. I quite liked Nevermind but found nothing else I liked on the tape except for two tracks, “Trigger Cut” and “Sue Me Jack”, both by some band called Pavement. It was the first I’d heard of them, but those two tracks made a great impression on me and I sought out more.
Formed in Stockton, California in the late 1980s by two indie kids in their early twenties, Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg, the plan was for their group to be a studio-only project and so began recording with local drummer and studio owner Gary Young. With their early releases – invariably multi-track EPs – gaining good reviews and a strong following, the band eventually decided to take to the stage, adding bassist Mark Ibold and Bob Nastanovich as roadie/percussionist.
Live performances only added to their reputation as one of the most exciting, original, witty and intelligent bands of the era. A pal of mine had the privilege of touring with them in a support band and told me how he felt compelled to watch them every night because every show was not only different to the previous night, but different in a completely unpredictable way – sometimes exhilarating, sometimes chaotic, always exciting. This friend has never been easily impressed, but then Pavement were unlike any other band.
Having made claims that they are true originals and unlike anyone else, it’s fair to say influences can be heard – The Velvet Underground, Sonic Youth, The Fall, and Swell Maps. Comparisons with The Fall brought the ire of Mark E. Smith, and early tracks “Conduit for Sale!”, “My First Mine”, and “Two States” show that he had a serious point. However, Pavement used their influences as collage material to build a body of work that belonged solely to them, and perhaps unwittingly invented a sub-genre – Slacker rock.
In another similarity to the Manchester band, Pavement’s output was prolific and would include lo-fi experimental fragments, howls of violent punky rage, and material that sometimes appeared unfinished or incomplete, as well as more conventional songs which could sometimes be melodic, and even poppy. Fans could also pore over and analyse the band’s lyrics.
Obscure, indecipherable, mysterious, clever, and sometimes just plain funny, Malkmus has earned his reputation as one of the most formidable lyricists of the past three decades.
‘You’ve been chosen as an extra / in the movie adaptation / of the sequel to your life.’
‘Well show me a word that rhymes with “pavement” and I won't kill your parents and roast them on a spit.’
[Harness Your Hopes]
‘Embassy row, the fumes they lay low
On lanes that are wide where the limousines glide
On the wrought-iron gates and the bone china plates
And don't forget your manners where the anthems play.’
Four albums in eight years followed their 1992 debut, Slanted and Enchanted, during which the band developed and morphed into a very different, but unmistakably still the same, Pavement. Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain saw them hit indie mainstream (if that isn’t an oxymoron) with its super catchy “Cut Your Hair” becoming one of the era’s indie floorfillers. Wowee Zowee in 1995 I regard as their masterpiece, something that Malkmus has also suggested, although Kannberg felt it was rushed and not quite the record he envisaged, had they been given more time. I tend to pair 1997’s Brighten the Corners and 1999’s Terror Twilight. The experimental unfinished song fragments had been dropped in favour of conventional formality, and the band had now embraced a country-inflected Americana, albeit a very ‘Pavementy’ Americana.
Pavement were never going to last forever. They have proved a springboard for Malkmus’ and Kannberg’s substantial solo careers, as well as myriad side-projects (including The Silver Jews, The Jicks, and The Preston School of Industry). Their influence can be heard in the music of the likes of Graham Coxon, Beck, Parquet Courts, and the Oh Sees.