Formed in: 1989, Stockton, California
Key Albums: Slanted and Enchanted (1992), Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994), Brighten the Corners (1997)
Pavement were one of the most notable names of the '90s alterna-rock crossover, earning critical acclaim and a sizable following in spite of their seemingly non-commercial nature. Fronted by the perpetually laconic Stephen Malkmus, Pavement's shaggy, noise-pop jams were categorized as 'slacker rock.' Breaking up in 1999, after 10 years and 5 albums together, Pavement have remained one of alternative music's most enduring, influential acts.
BackgroundPavement were formed in 1989 by Malkmus and fellow guitarist/songwriter Scott Kannberg. Malkmus had been attending the University of Virginia, where he'd worked on a musical project with his friend David Berman, that would go onto be the Silver Jews. Upon his return to Stockton, Malkmus and Kannberg —former childhood friends— began a recording project.
Originally going by the pseudonyms SM and Spiral Stairs, the pair began recording noisy, lo-fi songs in the studio of local mid-30s burnout Gary 'Plantman' Young. Young would play drums on the demos, and serve as Pavement's early drummer despite his shaky timekeeping.
Those early recordings became the initial run of Pavement EPs: 1989's Slay Tracks (1933-1969), 1990's Demolition Plot J-7, and 1991's Perfect Sound Forever. Despite their poor audio quality and suspect musicianship, they developed a cult underground following, and would later be collected, in 1993, as Westing (By Musket and Sextant).
“Initially, we were all about that idea that people would be listening to our records in 20 years time,” Malkmus recounts. “We sometimes thought more about that, about being this obscurity, unappreciated in its time, than we did about the idea that people would actually like us. We imagined people having these conversations, 20 years later, like: ‘yeah, there’s this weird band called Pavement, and if you like The Fall, or if you like the Swell Maps, maybe you’ll like them; they’re like a ’90s version of that.'"
"Of course," Malkmus continues, "times changed."
In 1992 Pavement released their debut album, Slanted and Enchanted, an album that received an unexpected critical embrace. By that time, Malkmus and Kannberg had assembled a live band —Young, bassist Mark Ibold, and a second drummer, Bob Nastanovich— and had been touring in the lead-up. Though finished by 1991, Pavement's newfound label, Matador, held back on the release until 1992. By the time it came out, the record had built a slow, steady buzz through 'zines, college-radio, and word of mouth.
After starting as "obscurity for obscurity's sake," Malkmus seized the crossover opportunity. "When we got some attention for our first album," he recounts, "I refocused the attack of the band into different realms; where we’d make different kinds of albums, with actual real songs —well, to a certain extent— and some actual mainstream potential."
Pavement never did crack the mainstream, but 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain —blessed by actual real songs like minor indie hits "Gold Soundz," "Cut Your Hair," and "Range Life"— cemented their reputation as one of the US underground's biggest players.
By that stage, the increasingly-unstable Young had been replaced by Steve West, leading to the most stable period in Pavement's history. With their membership sorted, label behind them, and audience stable, they were free to flip-flop on their next two records: 1995's Wowee Zowee a return to the shambolic noise and chaos of Slanted and Enchanted, 1997's Brighten the Corners Pavement's most tuneful, pop-song-populated LP.
The latter suffered slightly from a critical backlash, but by Brighten the Corners the band were critical darlings again; that LP debuting at #70 in the US, their highest-ever chart placing.
Break-up and post-Pavement
The seeds for Pavement's break-up were sown during the making of 1999's disappointing Terror Twilight. “It just kept going, it just kept taking longer to make the record," Kannberg told me, at the time. "It cost twice as much to make this record as any of our others... [and] when we started doing that it didn’t feel very good.”
The sessions, which were taken over by Radiohead's house producer Nigel Godrich halfway through recording, included an increasingly-antagonistic air in which Godrich focused on Malkmus, consigning other members to the periphery. “The way Pavement was, towards the end,” Kannberg says, “I didn't really have much input into it. I wasn't really able to contribute greatly. That's the way it was with the last couple of Pavement records.”
"I think at a point it got to be a little ‘stale’, in some ways, the way we worked," says Malkmus. "[So] with that record, I just let [Godrich] do his 1999-style producing, you know what I mean. I was just: alright, go for it. I pretty much didn’t care, by that stage.”
On November 20, 1999, Pavement played their final ever show in London. Malkmus took to the stage with a pair of handcuffs on his mic stand; symbolic, he said, of his tenure in the band.
Legacy and Reunion Possibilities
Pavement's legacy has continued to live on well after their demise. "[We've become] a sort of iconic band over the last few years,” Malkmus said to me, in 2008. “I feel no shame about that. It’s cool that it has a life of its own; I don’t really feel that responsible for what anyone thinks or feels about Pavement anymore.”
Rumors about a reunion persisted for years, with Malkmus remaining persistently dismissive. “I know both the average fans and even some people in the band would like to see that happen,” offers Malkmus. “But, me, I don’t know. I can tell you it’s certainly not in the cards anytime soon. I mean, maybe it’ll happen. It’s quite attractive in some ways, to do it; because it could be fun, and there’s something charming about nostalgia.”
The charms of nostalgia obviously took hold, because word leaked late in 2009 that Pavement would reunite for a series of shows in '10. The Pavement reformation tour became one of the biggest indie stories of the year, and the band were welcomed as returning heroes, with excitement over the shows far exceeding anything Pavement had experienced the first time around. It was, in many ways, the definitive reunion tour amidst the nascent climate of Classic Indie-Rock nostalgia.