It’s been almost two decades since Pavement were active in any meaningful way, the group’s component
parts quietly parting ways in the pursuit of solo projects in late 1999, but
their legacy has grown more profound in their absence. Their influence has been
notable in the subsequent development of American indie over the last 20 years,
informing the sounds, vibes and demeanour of artists that range from The
National to Mac DeMarco, and their
discography, ranging from their earliest EPs at the turn of the Nineties to
their final studio album Terror Twilight
at the cusp of the new millennium, is one of the most revered catalogues in
While Pavement weren’t afraid to plot their own course, equally they weren’t averse to accepting opportunities and helping hands along the way, in a manner that in the past had earned other bands accusations of ‘selling out’ – as if getting your music to a wider audience was in some way beneath a jobbing musician. So it was that they managed to get themselves on the bill for the lucrative travelling music carnival that was Lollapalooza in the mid-Nineties, while remaining signed to a staunchly independent label in Matador that allowed them to retain full creative control over their work.
Formed in 1989 in Stockton, California by college drop-outs
Stephen Malkmus and Scott ‘Spiral Stairs’ Kannberg, later expanding to a
five-piece with the addition of Mark Ibold, Bob Nastanovich and Gary Young,
Pavement spent the next ten years as the darlings of the American independent
scene. Their lifespan overlapped almost precisely with the entirety of the
Nineties, the decade in which almost all of their cultural power and legacy is
bound up. In a way, you can see the peaks and troughs, the hits and misses of Pavement’s
career as a contemporaneous microcosm of the fortunes of the alternative-rock
explosion that hit the mainstream in America in the 1990s. Behind Nirvana and
the massive pop-culture juggernaut set in train by Nevermind, it’s possible to regard Pavement as the most important
and influential American indie phenomenon of the decade. Some critics,
including the ‘Dean of American rock critics’ Robert Christgau, declared them
the greatest band of the Nineties.
Belying that imperious status, Pavement actually started out
as little more than fun side-project for Malkmus and Kannberg, and even then
only after around five years of making noise experiments together. Their debut
EP, Slay Tracks: 1933-1969, was
recorded at Louder Than You Think studios in Stockton, run by Gary Young who
produced and played drums on the tracks. While resolutely lo-fi and in places
messy, it showed that Malkmus had very natural songwriting chops alongside a
willingness to disregard convention. Released on their own Treble Kicker
imprint in late 1989 and with an original run of only 1,000 copies, many of
them distributed by fanzines, Slay Tracks…
was a product of the healthy DIY underground network that had sprung up
throughout America over the previous decade, and it wasn’t long before
nationwide indie label Drag City, based in Chicago, snapped them up. Two more
EPs, 1990’s Demolition Plot J-7 and
1991’s Perfect Sound Forever,
appeared over the next 18 months – all three of these EPs, plus the ‘Summer
Babe’ single, were later collected on the Westing
(By Musket & Sextant) compilation.
Pavement were soon on the move again, finding a bigger home
at the prestigious Matador by 1992, who released their highly anticipated first
proper album. Slanted And Enchanted, the pick of a number of sessions and
initially released only on cassette, completed a meteoric rise for
Pavement from bedroom-based project to the toast of America’s rock press within
two-and-a-half years. However, drummer Gary Young’s erratic onstage behaviour,
including heavy drinking, impromptu stage-diving and offering fans handfuls of
mashed potatoes, was becoming intolerable, and a change in personnel was
necessary to take the group to the next level. Swapping Young out for the much
more reliable Steve West during a 1993 world tour, Pavement’s critical and
commercial stock only increased. Their second consecutive stone-cold
masterpiece in a row, 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rainwas a much more focussed, consistent
and less quixotic effort, including many of the group’s most fondly remembered
tracks, and has since become a key text for generations of subsequent bands.
1995’s Wowee Zowee saw them take a step sideways, wrongfooting many fans and industry insiders who were expecting an album that would push Pavement to mainstream exposure. Instead, they got a lengthy, eclectic album that dramatically expanded their skewed aesthetic, a word-cloud of ideas and influences that included some of their most idiosyncratic moments. Upon the release of Wowee Zowee, the Pavement aesthetic was firmly established in terms of what people could generally expect from the group – a refusal to sit still creatively for any length of time. 1997’s Brighten The Corners performed yet another volte-face and was, on the face of it, the most accessible effort they ever produced, with the effortlessly melodic ‘Shady Lane’ penetrating the UK Top 40, the band’s first British chart hit.
Although Brighten The
Corners was accompanied by a rapturously received world tour, Pavement were
beginning to show signs that they were pulling in different directions. 1999’s Terror
Twilight consisted in large part of songs that Malkmus had debuted
during a brief solo tour the previous year, and ended up being to all intents
and purposes his debut solo album. Furthermore, his outright refusal to include
any contributions from the other members became a source of tension with
Kannberg in particular, the band’s other highly talented writer. It transpired
that Terror Twilight was their
farewell, a six-month world tour ending amid exhaustion, recriminations and
breakdown in communication in late November 1999 with a gig at London’s Brixton
Academy. Some members, including Bob Nastanovich and Steve West, were unaware
of the split until they read it on the internet. Filmmaker Lance Bangs’ 2002
documentary movie Slow Century,
bundling up a 90-minute
film charting the band’s career with all their music videos and footage
from their penultimate show in Manchester, is essential ownership for any
Pavement fan and captures something of the essence of the split.
A brief reunion in 2010, as well as the release of band’s first compilation, Quarantine The Past, demonstrated that there may be some kind of future for Pavement. Stephen Malkmus then confirmed in June 2019, approaching the 20th anniversary of their disintegration, that the group would get back together once again to headline the Primavera festivals in Spain and Portugal in 2020.
For the most part, however, each of the band has pursued
solo projects ever since the split. In particular, Malkmus has performed with
David Berman’s Silver Jews, as well as embarking on his own solo albums and
with his long-standing band, The Jicks, who’ve now released more LPs than
Pavement ever did. Scott ‘Spiral Stairs’ Kannberg formed the acclaimed Preston
School Of Industry in the early Noughties.
However, Pavement’s status has never diminished in the past
two decades, and their influence on generations of independent artists has been
incalculable. Anybody who’s adopted the slacker ethos, any band who’ve cultivated
their own reputation and image without the help of the majors, have Stephen
Malkmus and co. for blazing that particular trail for them. They may be a
product of their time, but their legacy is timeless.
Listen to our Beginner’s Guide to Pavement playlist over at Spotify, and scroll below to check out our whistle-stop guide to their five studio albums.
Influenced: Radiohead, Teenage Fanclub, Beck, Liz Phair,
The Mountain Goats, Built To Spill, Blur, The Beta Band, Mercury Rev, Modest
Mouse, Neutral Milk Hotel, Death Cab For Cutie, Eels, Sparklehorse, Grandaddy,
Bright Eyes, The Dismemberment Plan, The Microphones, The Strokes, Spoon, The
Shins, The National, The Unicorns, TV On The Radio, British Sea Power, The
Cribs, Wild Beasts, Dirty Projectors, Vampire Weekend, Deerhunter, Ariel Pink,
No Age, Yuck, Girls, Wavves, Real Estate, Parquet Courts, Mac DeMarco, Courtney
Barnett, Kevin Morby, Preoccupations, Ought, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Twin
Peaks, Happyness, Hippo Campus, Car Seat Headrest, Alex G, Big Thief, Japanese
Breakfast, Goat Girl
Influenced by: The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Big Star, Can, Pere Ubu, The Fall, Swell Maps, Mission Of Burma, The Replacements, R.E.M., The Smiths, The Clean, Sonic Youth, Violent Femmes, Guided By Voices, Yo La Tengo, Royal Trux, Pixies
Tags: Bob Nastanovich, Ed Biggs, feature, Introduction, Pavement, Scott Kannberg, Slanted And Enchanted, Spiral Stairs, Stephen Malkmus, Steve West, Terror Twilight
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