LEFT OF THE DIAL Stephen Malkmus’ 17-year-old cat, Juanita, has been peeing outside the catbox lately.
He’s been assuming it’s just stress from the new additions to the household — two kittens recently joined the Portland home Malkmus shares with his wife, artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins, and their two young daughters. But he took her (the cat) to the vet today, and it turns out she needed a couple of back teeth extracted, plus they did blood work, the whole nine yards, he says, by way of explanation about why we’re starting this phone interview with him sitting in a veterinary office waiting room, and why, beginning about five minutes later, as they leave, the guttural moans of which only an unhappy cat is capable will serve as the soundtrack for the bulk of our conversation.
“That’s really terrible, isn’t it?” says the Stockton native, thoughtfully, of Juanita’s misery, before insisting that he’s perfectly happy to talk with her wailing in the background. “Got some Exorcist, Linda Blair sounds going on.”
As a guy who’s still best known as a touchstone for (if not the founder of) mid-’90s indie slacker-rock — Pavement’s mainstream breakthrough Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, which came out 20 years ago last month, and which got the deluxe reissue treatment 10 years later, was arguably one of the defining albums of that decade — Stephen Malkmus seems to understand that it’s tough for people to reconcile the skinny, casually bratty, frozen-in-time Pavement frontman with the current Stephen Malkmus: A 47-year-old suburban dad who cares a lot about his fantasy basketball league, and who’s currently trying to figure out if his sick cat is capable of eating yet.
And yet: His solo career, at the helm of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, has actually outlasted Pavement’s at this point. The band’s sixth album, Wig Out at Jagbags, out this January, is full of the wry, observational comedy and narrative wordplay that have come to constitute the Malkmus trademark. (The band’s tour for the album brings them to Slim’s this Thursday, March 27.) And while it’s easy to romanticize the golden days of lo-fi lullabies about young love and record label angst and being so drunk in the August sun — hell, those songs sounded nostalgic about those days while they were happening — the truth is that it was in the years that followed, with the Jicks’ more simplified and twang-ified tunes increasingly showing his ’70s classic rock influences and allowing the lyrics to come front and center, that Malkmus went and became one of the best songwriters we have right now.
Maybe even more sneakily: He seems like he’s figured out how to (gasp) have fun.
“Come and join us in this punk rock tomb, come slam dancing with some ancient dudes/We are returning, returning to our roots, no new material, just cowboy boots,” begins Malkmus, through a nearly audible smirk, on an upbeat ditty called “Rumble at the Rainbo”; at one point, the song devolves goofily into a full-on ska breakdown.
“I was thinking about somewhere like  Gilman, full of people skanking, but with old people, because it’s just funny to see senior citizens doing anything that youthful,” says Malkmus of the track. “But it’s also bit of commentary about how, if you go so far as to really be into a subculture of music, whatever it is, heavy metal, or punk, or reggae, you always have a home there, and that’s nice. It doesn’t matter if you’re depressed, or way overweight, or you’ve been divorced five times; you can go to the show and feel safe and see your people and get lost in the music.”
If he’s at his best as a songwriter when he takes on the point of view of other characters — I fell hard for this tendency with his first post-Pavement album, a Jicks record on which he sings story-songs from the perspectives of, among others, a bloodthirsty pirate, an Alaskan dog sled driver, and Yul Brynner — then part of what makes Wig Out such an enjoyable in-joke is the sense that Malkmus is writing songs while “in character as” an aging rock star who’s looking back on his career with a mix of sentimentality and cynicism, fondness and detachment, á la Don Henley circa The End of the Innocence.
“That [Pavement reunion] tour was kind of like reliving an old play, or something,” says Malkmus of the cross-country jaunt his old band took in 2010, to the fever-pitch-level delight of virtually everyone who came of age listening to indie rock in the ’90s. “It was fun being back with the same dudes, and there were some really cool shows — especially playing hometown shows in Berkeley, Stockton, meeting people my age who were road-tripping to see Pavement twice.”
The songs don’t quite feel like him anymore, he says, though The Jicks are known to play a handful of Pavement songs during some sets — toward the end, when they’re playing other covers. “We mix them in like they’re part of some canon, which is a little cheeky,” he says. “You know, play a Steve Miller song, some Roxy Music, Pavement, then Wire. And yeah, it’s my song, I wrote it, but it’s mostly just feels like we’re playing a song.”
After that reunion tour, something started to feel a little claustrophobic upon returning to Portland. “There was a neurotic, kind of fishbowl feeling,” is how he puts it. So in 2011, the family picked up and moved to Berlin for two years, (“a big giant place where no one cares about you too much”), put the girls in an international school, and reveled in the apparently productive anonymity — Malkmus proceeded to write most of Wig Out there.
The family moved back to Portland in 2013, but the expat’s sense of liberation comes through in free-wheeling tracks like the Billy Joel-ish, Steely Dan-esque rocker “Chartjunk,” complete with horns, shout-along choruses, and a buttery guitar riff, over which Malkmus channels the singing style of the sun-bleached, coked-out ’70s guitar gods he grew up with. “In one ear and out of the other, if you feel the urge to share/think again cause you’re not my mother, actually I’m not contractually obliged to care,” he cautions, happily, but also sounding like he means it. (Acknowledging its Joel-like sonic landscape, Malkmus recently told a Detroit publication that the track, in which he plays both roles of a mentor/mentee dispute, was inspired by the relationship between Detroit Pistons point guard Brandon Jennings and his coach Scott Skiles, back when Jennings played for the Milwaukee Bucks. Dude’s serious about basketball.)
The only thing that will seem, to Pavement fans, to be conspicuously missing from the record: That old Malkmus sneer (or full on flipped-bird) in the direction of the record industry, and the accompanying, all-too-self-aware ambivalence about his role in it. This, from the former frontman of a band whose biggest mainstream radio single called out the entire record industry for, more or less, the concept behind mainstream radio singles.
“We were coming from a DIY scene, and we wanted to control our own destiny, start our own label, be our own boss. We were about artists’ rights,” he says, while noting that he doesn’t begrudge anyone who goes the corporate route. “I mean, Beck [recently] signed to Capitol, but I’m sure he just did it because he was taking advantage of them as much as he could, because he’s in a position of power. A lot of bands weren’t back then.”
In terms of newer music, Malkmus names SF “neo-psychedelia” bands like Thee Oh Sees and Ty Segall as recent favorites, as well as Oakland’s own tUnE-yArDs, Sic Alps, Purling Hiss, Kurt Vile, and The War on Drugs. He thinks a minute. “I like Beyoncé,” he says, like it’s a challenge. “And Jay-Z. And Justin Timberlake; the kids really like him. We listen to a lot of Justin Timberlake in the car.”
Looking back, I ask him — in the minute before he has to go, some other dude is supposed to be calling him soon, and he’s trying to get Juanita to eat some food — can he imagine being 20, and starting a band right now? With the way the record industry is, with everything he knows about what happens after you “make it” — or even if you never do? He sounds relatively at peace on this album, to be sure, but it’s taken long enough.
“Sure!” he replies, without hesitation. “I mean, I think everyone should start a band. It’s really low-stakes, and it’s fun. If you like music, start a band, and just mess around with your friends. It’s better than a lot of things you could be doing, like wasting time on Facebook. Or playing video games. Or…what are kids even doing these days? Snapchat? Sexting on Snapchat?
“Stop sexting on Snapchat and start a band.”
With Speedy Ortiz
Thu/27, 8pm, $21
333 11th St, SF