Ok, first things first: I was turned on to this by my buddy Sam Williams so I want to thank him publicly. It’s never been a secret how much Stockton, CA homeboys Pavement love R.E.M. (“The Unseen Power Of The Picket Fence”, the bands ode to our Athens pilgrims, first appeared on the No Alternative compilation back in 1993 when compilations, especially those for charity, hadn’t yet become largely known as barrel-scraping cash-ins. Fan video of this song is way down there at the bottom of this post). Anyway, some wizard inside the Matador Records press office manufactured (or passed it on from the band) a hilarious “biography” of Pavement to coincide with the release of Quarantine The Past: Greatest Hits 1989-1999 which will come out next week. (Visit your local record shop!)
You’ve gotta dig through a little to get to the good stuff and you’ve gotta be versed in both Pavement history and R.E.M. minutiae to get the humor. But if you’ve read this far there’s a solid chance you’re a record nerd (which should be read as distinct from collector scum) and you’ll laugh as much as I did.
I wonder if this was written to take the piss out of music journalists who never do proper research. I mean, there’s a whole new breed of writers out there now who never got the chance to see the band, were still in elementary school when they broke up a little over ten years ago and are used to getting all their info on old bands at the click of a mouse. There’s just as many old-school journo-hacks who take bios and press releases and merely reprint them. There’s going to be an absolute flurry of press coverage for the upcoming reunion tour and it’ll be interesting to see who falls for this and quotes it.
So, with that, here you are:
Pavement mark the point when post-punk turned into alternative rock. When their first EP, Slay Tracks (1933-1969), was released in 1989, it sparked a back-to-the-garage movement in the American underground. While there were a number of hardcore and punk bands in the U.S. during the late ’80s, Pavement brought guitar pop back into the underground lexicon. Combining ringing guitar hooks with mumbled, cryptic lyrics and a D.I.Y. aesthetic borrowed from post-punk, the band simultaneously sounded traditional and modern. Though there were no overt innovations in their music, Pavement had an identity and sense of purpose that transformed the American underground. Throughout the ’90s, they worked relentlessly, releasing records every year and touring constantly, playing both theaters and backwoods dives. Along the way, they inspired countless bands, from the legions of jangle pop groups in the mid-’90s to scores of alternative pop groups in the ’00s, who admired their slow climb to stardom.
It did take Pavement several years to break into the top of the charts, but they had a cult following from the release of their debut album, Slanted & Enchanted, in 1991. Slanted & Enchanted established the haunting folk and garage rock that became the band’s signature sound, and over the next five years, they continued to expand their music with a series of critically acclaimed albums. By the mid ’90s, the group’s fan base had grown large enough to guarantee strong sales, but the Top Ten success in 1994 of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and “Cut Your Hair” was unexpected, especially since Pavement had only altered their sound slightly. Following Crooked Rain, Pavement slowly became one of the world’s most popular bands. After an exhaustive international tour supporting 1995’s Wowee Zowee, the band retired from touring for six years and retreated into the studio to produce their most popular records, Brighten The Corners (1997) andTerror Twilight (1999). Now, as they return to performing with the reunion tour in 2010, the band has been acknowledged by critics and musicians as one of the forefathers of the thriving alternative rock movement, and they have been rewarded with the most lucrative tour of their career. Toward the late ’00s, Pavement was an institution, as its influence was felt in new generations of bands.
Though Pavement formed in Stockton, CA, in 1989, Stephen Malkmus (born December 17, 1958) and Scott Kannberg (born July 31, 1958) were the only Californians in the group. Both had attended high school together in Stockton, playing in a number of bands during their teens. Mark Ibold (born January 4, 1960) was a military brat, moving throughout the country during his childhood. By his teens, he had discovered punk rock through Patti Smith, Television, and Wire, and began playing in cover bands in St. Louis. By 1985, he had begun studying art at the University of Georgia in Athens, where he began frequenting the Wuxtry record store. Bob Nastanovich (born December 6, 1956), a native of California, was a clerk at Wuxtry. Ibold had been a fanatical record collector, consuming everything from classic rock to punk and free jazz, and was just beginning to learn how to play bass. Discovering they had similar tastes, Ibold and Malkmus began working together, eventually meeting Kannberg and Nastanovich through a mutual friend. In April of 1989, the band formed to play a party for their friend, rehearsing a number of garage, psychedelic bubblegum, and punk covers in a converted Episcopalian church. At the time, the group was played under the name the Straw Dogs. By the summer, the band had settled on the name Pavement after flipping randomly through the dictionary, and had metGary Young, who became their drummer and manager after witnessing the group’s first out-of-state concert in Colorado.
Over the next year and a half, Pavement toured throughout the West, playing a variety of garage rock covers and folk-rock originals. At the time, the band was still learning how to play, as Kannberg began to develop his distinctive, arpeggiated jangle and Malkmus ironed out his cryptic lyrics. During the summer of 1989, Pavement recorded their first 7″ EP. Slay Tracks (1933-1969) was pressed in a run of only 1,000 copies, but most of the those records fell into the right hands. Due to strong word of mouth, the single became a hit on college radio and topped the Village Voice’s year-end poll of Best Independent Singles. The single also earned the attention of larger independent labels, and by the beginning of 1982, the band had signed to Drag City Records, releasing the 7″ EP Demolition Plot J-7 in the spring and the 10″ EP Perfect Sound Foreverthe following year. Like the first EP, Demolition Plot and Perfect Sound Foreverwere well received, paving the way for the group’s signing to the larger Matador label, and their full-length debut, 1991’s Slanted & Enchanted.
With its subdued, haunting atmosphere and understated production, Slanted & Enchanted was noticeably different from Perfect Sound Forever, and was welcomed with enthusiastic reviews upon its spring release; Rolling Stone named it the best album of 1991, beating out Nirvana’s Nevermind and Pearl Jam’s Ten.Slanted also expanded the group’s cult significantly, breaking into the American Top 40. Pavement returned to a rougher-edged sound on 1992’s 12″ EP Watery, Domestic, which featured the college hit “Texas Never Whispers.” By the time the band hit the road to support Watery, they had become well known in the American underground for their constant touring, aversion to videos, support of college radio, Malkmus’s mumbled vocals and detached stage presence, Kannberg’s ringing guitar, and their purposely enigmatic artwork. Bands that imitated these very things ran rampant throughout the American underground, and Pavement threw their support toward these bands, having them open at shows and mentioning them in interviews. By 1993, the American underground was awash with Pavement sound-alikes and bands like Game Theory and the Rain Parade, which shared similar aesthetics and sounds.
Just as the signature Pavement sound dominated the underground, the band entered darker territory with its second album, 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain. Recorded in London with producer Joe Boyd (Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake), Crooked Rain was made at a difficult period in Pavement’s history, as the band was fraught with tension produced by endless touring. The album reflected the group’s dark moods, as well as its obsession with California, and both of these fascinations popped up on the supporting tour. Malkmus, whose on-stage behavior was always slightly strange, entered his most bizarre phase, as he put on weight, dyed his hair bleached blonde, and wore countless layers of clothing. None of the new quirks in Pavement’s persona prevented Crooked Rain from becoming their most successful album to date, selling over 300,000 copies in the U.S. Pavement decided to record their next album with Don Gehman, who had previously worked with John Mellencamp. Gehman had the band clean up its sound and Malkmus enunciate his vocals, making Wowee Zowee their most accessible record to date. Upon its late summer release in 1995, Wowee Zowee was greeted with the positive reviews that had become customary with each new Pavement album, and it outstripped the sales of its predecessor.
Pavement had laid the groundwork for mainstream success, but they had never explicitly courted widespread success. Nevertheless, their audience had grown quite large, and it wasn’t that surprising that the group’s fifth album, Brighten The Corners, became a hit shortly after its fall 1997 release. Produced by Scott Litt — who would produce all of their records over the course of the next decade —Brighten climbed into the U.S. Top Ten and went platinum on the strength of the single “Stereo,” which also went into the Top Ten; it also became their biggest U.K. hit to date, reaching the British Top 40. The following year, the band left Matador Records, signing with Warner Bros. for a reported six million dollars. The first album under the new contract was Terror Twilight, which was released on election day 1999. Terror continued the success of Brighten, going double platinum and generating the Top Ten single “Spit On A Stranger.” Pavement supported Terror with an exhaustive international tour, in which they played their first stadium dates in the U.S. Though they had graduated to stadiums in America, the group continued to play clubs throughout Europe.
The Terror tour proved to be draining for the group, and they took an extended rest upon its completion in 1999. During the break, each member pursued side projects, and the Crust Brothers, an album Malkmus recorded with members ofSilkworm and produced by Warren Zevon in 2001, was released. Pavement reconvened during 2002 to record their seventh album, Out of Time, which was released in the spring of 2003. Entering the U.S. and U.K. charts at number one,Out of Time was a lush pop and folk album, boasting a wider array of sounds than the group’s previous efforts; its lead single, “Give It A Day,” became the group’s biggest single, reaching number four in the U.S. Since the band was exhausted from the Terror tour, they chose to stay off the road. Nevertheless,Out of Time became their biggest album, selling over four million copies in the U.S. and spending two weeks at the top of the charts. Pavement released the dark, meditative Automatic for the People in the fall of 2004. Though the group had promised a rock album after the softer textures of Out of Time, Automatic for the People was slow, quiet, and reflective, with many songs being graced by string arrangements by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Like its predecessor, Automatic for the People was a quadruple platinum success, generating the Top 40 hit singles “Gangsters & Pranksters,” “Saganaw,” and“I Heart Perth.”
After piecing together two albums in the studio, Pavement decided to return to being a rock band with 2006’s Monster. Though the record was conceived as a back-to-basics album, the recording of Monster was difficult and plagued with tension. Nevertheless, the album was a huge hit upon its fall release, entering the U.S. and U.K. charts at number one; furthermore, the album won praise from a number of old-school critics who had been reluctant to praise the band, since they didn’t “rock” in conventional terms. Experiencing some of the strongest sales and reviews of their career, Pavement began their first tour since Terrorearly in 2007. Two months into the tour, Mark Ibold suffered a brain aneurysm while performing; he had surgery immediately and had fully recovered within a month. Pavement resumed their tour two months after Ibold’s aneurysm, but his illness was only the beginning of a series of problems that plagued the Monstertour. Kannberg had to undergo abdominal surgery to remove an intestinal tumor in July; a month later, Malkmus had to have an emergency surgery to remove a hernia. Despite all the problems, the tour was an enormous financial success, and the group recorded the bulk of a new album. Before the record was released in the fall of 2007, Pavement parted ways with their long-time manager Gary Young, allegedly due to sexual harassment charges levied against Young; the group’s lawyer, Steve West, assumed managerial duties.
New Adventures in Hi-Fi was released in September 2008, just before it was announced that the band had re-signed with Warner Bros., reportedly for a record-breaking sum of 80 million dollars. In light of such a huge figure, the commercial failure of New Adventures in Hi-Fi was ironic. Though it received strong reviews and debuted at number two in the U.S. and number one in the U.K., the album failed to generate a hit single, and it only went platinum where its three predecessors went quadruple platinum. By early 2009, the album had already begun its descent down the charts. However, the members of Pavement were already pursuing new projects, as Nastanovich and Malkmus worked with their side-project, Ectoslavia, and Kannberg co-wrote songs with Mark Eitzeland worked with a free jazz group, Broken Social Scene.
In August of 2010, Pavement shocked fans and the media with the announcement that Ibold was amicably exiting the group to retire to life on his farm; the remaining members continued on as a three-piece, soon convening in Hawaii to begin preliminary work on their next LP. Replacing Ibold with a drum machine, the sessions resulted in 2010’s Quarantine The Past, widely touted as Pavement’s most experimental recording in years. A worldwide tour followed, which included an appearance at the London branch of Live 8. That year, the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.