If you’re a fan of Stephen Malkmus and his copious bands — Pavement, Silver Jews, the Jinks, et al — you’re likely already aware that his new album, Mirror Traffic, is dropping today. But as much as I’d like this to be huge news, the vast majority of the music-loving world is not waiting with giddy anticipation for a new Stephen Malkmus album. In fact, the vast majority of the music-loving world is probably not even aware who Stephen Malkmus is. I can still remember when “Cut Your Hair” was on the radio constantly during the mid-90s, and I was depressingly convinced that Pavement was destined for mainstream success and a future of slickly overproduced hit records. As it turns out, not so much.
With Mirror Traffic, Malkmus (or more likely, somebody behind the scenes at his label, Matador) has come up with an ingenious plot to promote the new album; with a contest designed to fix a problem that really isn’t a problem at all. “Help Stephen Malkmus write an FCC-friendly version of his new single ‘Senator’,” the official contest website pleads. More specifically, they’re looking for another word for “blowjob” for the song’s catchy chorus “I know what the senator wants/ what the senator wants is a blowjob.” The contest ends today, and the winner (announced on September 15th) will have his or her lyrics recorded by Malkmus and pressed onto their very own 7-inch record. “We want this song to be a massive radio hit,” Malkmus wrote on his website, “so get cracking.” It’s probably the most brilliant piece of marketing ever cooked up by a perennially indie artist. Because c’mon, he wants the song to be “a massive radio hit?” No he doesn’t. That’s about as realistic as saying “I want this song to be personally delivered to the moon by Buzz Aldrin.” Unless “Senator” features guest vocals by Lady Gaga and Lil Wayne and was produced by Timberland, it’s not gonna be a massive radio hit. But thanks to this “contest,” Malkmus has the entire Internet buzzing about his album, and every blogger worth his salt has written at least one sniggering post with a title like “Stephen Malkmus Asks For Help With ‘Blowjob’.” For the first time since “Cut Your Hair,” even non-Malkmus fans are talking about his music again.
I called Malkmus to ask about the new Jinks album, among other topics. It was literally the most laid-back conversation I’ve ever had in my non-stoned adult life.
Eric Spitznagel: How are things coming with the “Senator” contest? Are they any big contenders yet, any personal favorites to win?
Stephen Malkmus: I haven’t really looked at any of them yet, to tell you the truth. I know my mom submitted something, and some of my friends from Argentina suggested a Spanish word or phrase for blowjob. But I’m waiting till the end before I look at any of it. It’s better if it’s a surprise.
Wait, did you say your mom submitted something?
That’s right, yeah.
Are you not distressed that your mom has devoted even a few minutes of mental energy to coming up with a synonym for “blowjob”?
No, I think it’s nice. She came up with “nosejob.” That was her suggestion. At first I thought she just picked it because it sounded less x-rated. But I guess she thought that Anthony Weiner’s nose is really big or something. I haven’t seen him enough to know how big his nose is. And then I thought, “Is that like anti-Semitic or something?” I’m almost positive it wasn’t. I mean, she’s not anti-Semitic in any way, shape or form. She was just trying to think of something that didn’t sound dirty.
It’s a tricky challenge. You’re probably not just looking for a nonsense word, right? It needs to fit with the theme of the song, so it needs to be something that a senator would want as much as a blowjob.
Not necessarily. It could be anything funny. When I sat down to write this song, I definitely wasn’t thinking, “I really need to write a song about blowjobs.” It’s not like it was on my mind, or the image of senators getting blowjobs have been artistically haunting me. It’s just a word I picked randomly to put in a song.
It can’t be that random. Do even the most minimal research on U.S. senators and it becomes pretty apparent that all of them want blowjobs.
But that’s because most of them are men, and most men want blowjobs. In fact, all of them do, unless they’ve never had one. It’s not a huge revelation. I think it’s kind of redundant to point out that people would want that. Not just men but women too. Everybody likes to be pleased, unless they’ve taken a vow of chastity or something.
As easy as it is for senators to get blowjobs, isn’t it just as easy, if not easier, for musicians?
I guess so.
You’re still the undisputed king of indie college music. If you went to a college campus right now, how long would it take before you got blown by a girl with Lisa Loeb glasses?
I don’t think it would happen very fast. For something like that to happen, you have to be on the make and glowing somehow. You’re saying nice things about me, you’re flattering me a bit to say it’d happen quickly, but I really don’t think it’s true. I’m like that Jaguar behind the glass that you can’t afford so you don’t even think about buying it. The best you can do is admire it from afar.
You’re telling me you can’t just walk into a college bar and walk up to some random girl and say, “Hey, remember Pavement?”
I could, but I don’t think it’d get me anywhere. I think they’d look at me like I was a professor or a friend of their dad’s. College kids are like 18, 19-year-old. Unless we’re talking about grad students or law students, people that got jobs in finance and then decided they wanted to be a lawyer at 30. I might have some more luck with those people.
Do you ever feel like the metaphorical old guy at the keg party?
Not really. I tend to hang out with people ten years younger than me, and I look five years younger than I am. So it’s really just a difference of five years, and there’s no problem with that. I don’t go out that much anyway, so I’m rarely forced to feel that way. The only time I leave the house is to do a show, and then you’ve got a job to do. The backstage is kept pretty clear of people before the show starts, and then afterwards you just slip out the back and go back to your hotel room alone and watch CNN with the sound down.
You’re not making your life sound particularly rock n’ roll.
I’m trying not to.
Your day-to-day doesn’t involve strippers and punchbowls full of cocaine?
Not really. And I’m dubious that anybody’s day-to-day life is like that. I’ve never seen a punchbowl full of cocaine and I’ve been around a lot of coke users.
Pavement toured for most of 2010, but ’90s nostalgia seems to be in full swing this summer. Are you nostalgic for the ’90s?
I have fond memories of the 90s. If that makes me nostalgic, I don’t know. The 90s were pretty good to me. Of course, that’s just my experience. The 80s were rough for me and other people in my general age range, with Reagan and hair metal and all of that. And I was in high school at the time, and high school is never fun. It’s just challenging and intense. I was a 20-something and into my early 30s during the 90s, and so I was feeling pretty good about myself. I mean, I know the decade had a lot of problem. There was the first Iraq War and the Internet stocks tanked at the end, but for the most part it wasn’t as traumatic as the ten years that preceded it or came after. I bet the 1890s were pretty good too. There’s something about those last ten years before the end of a century. It’s a century’s sweet spot.
What about pop culture from the 90s? Do you know the lyrics to any Spice Girls songs?
No, but I do have the videocassette of their movie. What’s it called again?
Yeah, that’s the one. My partner and I have been going through our old video cassettes, because we’re getting ready to move to Berlin and we’re throwing a lot of stuff away. And I found the Spice Girls movie in one of the boxes. From the cover, it looks like it should be an x-rated movie, because it’s got SPICE in big block letters and these half-naked girls. I was worried that my wife would think she’d stumbled upon my secret porn collection — which I don’t have, by the way — but she thought it was kinda funny.
Do you remember the last time you watched it?
I don’t know. It was a long time ago, if I saw it at all. I’m sure it’s very cheeky.
Is it coming with you to Berlin?
We saved it for my kids to watch someday, but we’re not bringing it. They probably don’t have VCRs in Berlin. Everything’s on hard drives, and that’s a hard drive type city, I would think. I don’t even know where VCRs are happening anymore. Maybe Burma? Or Madagascar. Actually, I don’t think there is a Burma anymore, so they definitely don’t have VCRs.
When you told your family they were moving to Berlin, did they think you were kidding?
Why would they think that?
Berlin sounds like someplace you go right after college when you’re not ready for a job yet and want to see the world. It’s not someplace you move when you’ve got a family.
I thought it was better for my partner to be honest. She’s an artist. I don’t really care where we go. We’re just going for a year. I could have a good time in Guantánamo for a year. I’m sure I could find something to do there, some reading to catch up on.
You have two daughters, right?
That’s right. Six and four.
Are they excited about going to Berlin?
I think they are. They don’t know what’s in store for them, so they’re excited. [Laughs.]
You haven’t told them yet, have you?
Oh, they know. But they don’t know what a 14-hour plane ride feels like yet. They’re very much in the moment. That’s one of the great things about kids, they stay in the moment. They won’t be able to process what it means to move to Berlin until we’re there for a couple weeks and we’re not coming home and there’s not the same kind of cereal.
Have you talked to them at all about what to expect? Do they at least know that English isn’t the official language in Berlin?
They know about that. I have a Volkswagen, and I set all the voice commands to German. You know, like the GPS and the Bluetooth, that kinda thing. So they’ve been learning from her. And all the controls are in German, the mileage and whatever. I think they’re as ready as they’re going to be.
Was there ever a plan B? Or was Berlin always the only option?
It was sort of random. We didn’t have a big plan. Berlin is a cool town, nobody had bad things to say about it, and it’s not Portland. Basically we just wanted to get out of here.
For some reason, I always assumed that if you ever moved out of the United States, you’d go to Amsterdam. But that’s probably because I’ve usually been stoned when I listen to your music.
Well, our sound guy lives in Amsterdam. It’s kind of a hard city to live in. It’s nice because it’s so small and everything’s close to each other. But it’s more expensive than Berlin, and there are tourists everywhere. I don’t even smoke weed, so that was never an issue for me. Not that it’d be a problem to smoke weed in Berlin. People do it openly in cafes and stuff.
Learning that you don’t smoke weed, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve been doing the wrong drugs before listening to your music. What drug would you recommend ingesting to truly appreciate a Stephen Malkmus record?
Wow. That’s pretty hardcore.
Yeah, that’s what it takes.
Would you also recommend a glass a Pinot Grigio and a few candles strategically placed around the bathtub?
No, no, not those kind of bath salts. I mean the drug. You haven’t heard about that? Look it up, dude. That’s all I’m saying. It’s this new thing people are taking. I have a friend of a friend who knew somebody who took it. It’s the worst drug ever. It’s like PCP but worse and cheaper.
If it’s all the same, the next time I listen to Slanted & Enchanted, I’ll probably be soaking in a tub filled with bath salts, not ODing on “bath salts.”
[Laughs.] Yeah, I probably will be too. With a punchbowl full of cocaine.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on MTV Hive