The Stephen Malkmus Guide to Pavement's 'Secret History'

Pavement
Pavement in the early days, circa 1991-1992. Scott Kannberg

Pavement, the California rock band that helped grandfather in an entire generation of indie bands, released a hell of a lot of music in a short span: five albums and nine EPs, to be exact, spanning from 1989 to 1999.

But all of that is merely the tip of the lo-fi iceberg. You could fill several floppy disks with the B-sides, outtakes and alternate versions of tracks that wound up getting sidelined. As Matador, the band's longtime label, writes, "Each of their official albums has a shadow album—and it’s usually as strong as the album that actually did come out."

Enter The Secret History, Vol. 1, a lovingly compiled rarities collection that, as the title suggests, won't be the last of its kind. The first two-hour set is limited to the 1991–92 era, incorporating live cuts, radio sessions with John Peel and outtakes from Pavement's debut, Slanted & Enchanted. Some tracks—like the wonderfully fuzzy "Circa 1762" and the two-minute freak-out "Baptiss Blacktick"—are good enough to be on that 1992 record. Others are downright baffling. 

Slanted Pavement's "Secret History" set, in all its glory. Matador Records

We asked Pavement singer Stephen Malkmus to tell us about his favorite tracks; he happily obliged. But what made this interview unusual and rather fun is that Malkmus had nothing to do with piecing together the compilation and does not remember some of the songs on it. Not in the sense that he doesn't remember when or how they were recorded but in the sense that he remembers virtually nothing about them. His thoughts on "Kentucky Cocktail," for example: "How does that one go, do you even know? Is that the one that's like, 'I'm running back'?" (It's not.) On "Drunks With Guns": "Don’t remember. That’s probably a punky one." (Not really?)

We don't hold Malkmus's hazy memory against him. How much do you remember from 1991? But these gaps in memory also hint at the prolific, freewheeling creative spirit of Pavement's early days, when dwindling funds and lo-fi recording techniques weren't a barrier to making music. Malkmus says he can't imagine recording with Pavement and trying to recreate that style: "I'm not obscure like that anymore. You can't go back. It would just seem too cute or something to try to come from that point of view now." 

But the spirit is alive and well on these formerly neglected tracks. Here's Stephen Malkmus's guide to The Secret History.

"Sue Me Jack" (B-side for "Trigger Cut")​

Stephen Malkmus: I like that one. Bob Nastanovich is on it. You can hear him really quiet at the end. Do you remember [1991 album] Spiderland by Slint? Everyone probably does. It's a classic now. But at the time, Bob lived in Louisville [Kentucky]. Those guys were the new members of the band, the touring band, the first time they came to Stockton [California], and we were getting ready for a tour. I was thinking of a way I could integrate Bob into the band. He's a great storyteller. You haven't met him, but he's really good at telling stories.

So at the end of the song, there's this fade-out where it keeps going. Bob had this idea of something his mom had said—about a Frederic Remington painting. We just said, "Bob, go write something that you want to say in the song." Then we put him on there, but we put him really low. Like on Spiderland, sometimes they would have guys talking on their songs and it was real quiet and hushed. They would tell a story that was, like, some childhood thing about Captain Kangaroo or something. But you didn't know what it was, so it sounded intense. Maybe they were kind of joking around and saying something that sounded intense but it wasn't.

"Baptiss Blacktick" (from the Slanted & Enchanted sessions)

Malkmus: Oh yeah, that's a classic. That's Fall-influenced. I have no idea what era of The Fall. "Baptiss Blacktick" was recorded at the same time of Slanted & Enchanted, the same sessions. The lyrics—I don't really know; it's just trying to be snotty. It has some guitars on it that are a little like Sonic Youth. I thought they were being like Sonic Youth's Sister. They were like [imitates the sound of a guitar squealing], kind of whizzy guitars. But the basic beat is probably like a mid-period Fall approximation. Then the famous part of the song is the breakdown—it's really famous to me. At the end, I sing [in a screamy voice], "I'm just waiting for the Baptiss! Blaagh!" I think that's kind of the key part of the song.

Newsweek: Why didn't it make the record?

Malkmus: That's a good question. It probably was similar to another song, like "Conduit for Sale." We had enough. Whether it was better or worse than some songs that are on the record, we knew it was a B-side, and we were into having really cool, undiscovered songs that were B-sides. Like, "Oh, I like the B-side better than the A-side."

"My First Mine" (from the Slanted & Enchanted sessions)

Malkmus: That is also from Slanted & Enchanted [sessions]. It has a kind of psychedelic narrative about the gold rush and the narrator, he's just kind of bragging about his mine. Again, that one’s Fall-y, in a way. [Fall singer] Mark Smith would make these absurd narratives about something, and you’d wonder what he was on about. For one year, I was really thinking, The Fall is great, and no American band has really taken them as an inspiration. It was also sort of Sonic Youth-y and things of that era. I can’t really remember what I was thinking, except it was kind of absurd and funny to me.

"Greenlander" (from the Born to Choose compilation)

Malkmus: That doesn't sound like The Fall! It's got a descending, "Isn't It a Pity," George Harrison riff. It's just an elegiac imagination of Greenland. Greenland is a very peculiar place, an odd country with an odd colonial history. Even when I was a little child, when I was looking at the globe, Greenland kind of fascinated me. It was just kind of a tragic place where plants wouldn't grow or people ruined the soil really quickly 'cause they tried to use European agricultural techniques and maybe tried to wear Northern European clothes and shoes, and it wasn't working, so they were like, "Hey, these natives—they've got it figured out." It was pretty grim. Iceland was totally grim and poor, and then you multiply that times eight. That was Greenland in the early settling times.

"Circa 1762" (from a John Peel session)

Malkmus: "I can't remember why it's called that or the lyrics. It's like a modern person talking about if he lived back then. It's kind of inserting yourself in there. The music itself on that song is kind of a lurching, waltzy, Pixies-ish thing. I had a few waltzy things. I would always just do one or two on each album. That was kind of a "doo-cha-CHA, doo-cha-CHA." I always like that rhythm.

"Secret Knowledge of Backroads" (from a John Peel session)

Malkmus: That was originally a Silver Jews song. I think it came out on a Silver Jews record. The Silver Jews were a band that existed side-by-side with Pavement. That was one of the songs I made up for them. Then, when we were in the Peel Session, I thought, "Let's just try it a little bigger." The BBC recording studio—it's massive, you know. Queen could record an album there. It's a pretty high-tech place. Also, it has an SSL recording board and engineer who's already there who's making the sound. It's his sound; you don't really mess with it. It's kind of premade for radio in a certain way, not the same fidelity you would make if you were on your own. There's no time to argue about "That's too compressed," or "That's too much reverb." I just thought, "Let's run this through the BBC MIDI." 

"Rain Ammunition" (from a John Peel session)

Malkmus: That was like imagining a Sticky Fingers Stones, minor chord-y kind of Royal Trux-y, Stones-y, melancholy, druggy song. I don't know what [the lyrics] are about. I couldn't even tell you. They're just, like, weird shit.

"The List of Dorms" (from a John Peel session)

Malkmus: That's on a Peel session, too? That's a funny idea, "List of Dorms." Did you go to college?

Newsweek: Yeah.

Malkmus: A big college?

Newsweek: Smaller college.

Malkmus: I figured you probably did if you like our band [laughs]. If you went to a bigger one like [the University of] Virginia, you get there and a lot of people there in Charlottesville, they knew people. They came from their high school, and there were a couple people [from the school], and you could even pick your roommate. I'm sure you would look and there’s all these different dorms. At that moment, when you’re a freshman, you’re kind of defined by who’s in your dorm and who you know. I’m sure that’s the impetus behind the title.

"Frontwards" (live recording)

Malkmus: That song is a classic of Pavement. It's considered to be—trust me. It's on Watery, Domestic, probably the most succinct statement of the band in the long run, if you consider the recording quality and lyrics and just the sound and feel of it. It's still a little Slanted & Enchanted-y, but The Fall has been eradicated. It's a little more song-y in a certain way and melancholy. "Frontwards" is kind of wistfully thinking about 1977 and '78, and being there in Stockton. People just starting to smoke, and chicks with those combs and feathered hair and those tight jeans that make camel toes, and migrants, farm workers and stuff. To me, it's evocative of that. I can really see those images in my mind. And the chord changes are real basic. Oasis could have used those chords, as far as I'm concerned. They're that good.