Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks have recorded and released somewhere in the range of 94 songs. They’ve come as b-sides to CD singles, if you care to remember when those were de rigueur. They’ve come on a limited edition bonus disc. They’ve come as part of Matador Record’s ill-fated Buy Early Get Now pre-order initiative and as part of the label’s subscription 7″ series. They’ve come on Record Store Day exclusives and import-only releases. But the vast majority have been scattered across six full-length records. And in the cult of Malkmus, six is a meaningful number.
The Jicks outlasted Pavement’s decade-long run years ago, but with the release of last month’s Wig Out at Jagbags, they’ve also surpassed the five LPs of Malkmus’ original, iconic outfit. Whether Malkmus sits around and stews on the significance of this is moot: It’s more of a reminder to longtime fans that in the wake of 2010’s well-deserved Pavement cash-in, the Jicks remain a consistently stimulating outlet for him, and that from the roots of the band’s 2001 debut – the endearing and often goofy Stephen Malkmus – has grown something that’s sustained and rewarded well beyond reasonable expectations.
Of course, few things are less sexy and more undervalued in rock than consistency. And yet, what Malkmus and his Jicks have done over the past fourteen years is remarkable in its own minor way: They’ve made six very good albums, all with their own defined personalities, none overcast with a sense of diminishing returns, each finding slightly new landscapes for Malkmus to nonchalantly smirk across. This is a rare thing. Most every musician loses the nebulous “it” at some point, or at the least, they temporarily misplace it and churn out a dud. But when you look back upon Stephen Malkmus, Pig Lib (2003), Face The Truth (2005), Real Emotional Trash (2008), Mirror Traffic (2001), and Wig Out at Jagbags, there’s a reasonable case to be made for any one of these albums being the Jicks’ strongest effort.
Malkmus and company are currently a few weeks into a North American tour that will have them crisscrossing the continent until mid-May. A month ago, I called bassist Joanna Bolme to talk about her band and its new record. When I reached her, the four-piece had just pulled into a Cologne venue, a stop near the end of its European tour. It was early evening and she had a mouthful of a bread, a snack after not eating all day. “It’s been really fun, although a bit icy,” she said of the trek.
Bolme is an original Jick – a member since 2000, and the one constant of the rhythm section. (Initial drummer John Moen left to join The Decemberists in 2006; drummer to the indie stars Janet Weiss filled in through Mirror Traffic ; and now the stool is occupied by ex-Joggers sticksman Jake Morris.) She’s spent most of her life in Portland, when she hasn’t been touring with the Jicks, or handling bass for other bands, like Calamity Jane, The Minders, and Quasi.
Back in Europe, Bolme lamented the strength of her native currency, sounding ready to come home: “The dollar is really weak. It’s been expensive.” On the plus side, though, the Jicks were coming off some time in Spain: “It was great to be there and eat really good food and play for people who needed some rock.”
Is touring Europe old hat at this point?
Kind of. I know how to do it. I know how to order coffee and beer in several languages. I know how to find vegetarian food in places that don’t traditionally eat vegetarian food. There’s always going to be something different. Most of the clubs in Europe don’t really have their own sound systems, so it’s not as dialed-in as in the States. It can be kind of dicey sometimes [Laughs]
What are the least vegetarian-friendly stops?
Germany. Germany. Strangely, England is the most friendly, because the whole mad cow thing that happened there. They have lot of options now. But, yeah, Germany is this worst. And that’s where we are right now.
The band record Wig Out at Jagbags in Europe too.
We recorded in Belgium, in the Ardennes. We were close to Luxemburg and Brussels and Cologne – sort of in the middle of all those places, in the country. It was pretty isolated, but there was a little village with restaurants and stores. We had our own house that we stayed in. There was a reindeer farm next door. It was pretty picturesque – a lovely town. And the studio was real nice and sounded great. Being isolated is the best way to record. It allows you to get into your world a little bit.
What were the sessions like?
It was the same as with most of the bands that I’ve been in. We kinda start at 11:00 or noon and go all day long with a dinner break. We work ‘til 10:00 or 11:00 or midnight or whenever, depending on how it’s going. Then we stay up ‘til 3:00 in the morning, drinking beers, listening to music, and just talking about we want to do. It was pretty mellow. But we do work all day – not grinding away, but seeing what things were working that day. Sometimes you go in and try something and it isn’t happening, so you work on something else.
Had you road tested these songs?
We usually try to work stuff out live – not necessarily to perfect it, but just because we get bored of playing the same songs. At some point, you have dip into the songs that you’re working on and haven’t even finished yet.
What’s the nature of the collaboration within the band?
Steve writes the songs, and he comes in with either a complete idea or some sketch of an idea. Depending on what it needs, that’s how much we collaborate. I mean, I’m always there for the recording and the mixing. And then depending on who we’re working with, they give me some room for comments. Some people don’t really want to hear them, but I’m always there. That’s where I’m collaborating most. But we all write our own parts, unless Steve has something really specific in mind, you know? And I help him arrange if there are things that don’t really need to be there. But Steve is the songwriter.
So you’re not exactly passing back notes on his lyrics.
No! [Laughs] And I couldn’t possibly come up with anything half as weird as he does.
At the outset of joining the Jicks, what were your expectations? Did you anticipate anything close to this longevity?
Well, no, I didn’t. The original band was just Steve and me and John Moen, who played drums for the first few records and is now in the Decemberists. It was just the three of us. I think, certainly, if we had looked ahead and thought we would keep doing it, we would not have chosen the name “the Jicks.” That was just a dumb word we made up, because we had to come up with something. It was like, “Oh yeah, that sounds dumb. Let’s do that.” Now, fourteen years later, I’m still a Jick and every time someone asks me what band I’m in, I have to explain that and it’s embarrassing. [Laughs]
So, no, when I first joined, I thought that we would make the one record and tour. I guess that I didn’t really expect anything? But then it turned out that we actually liked hanging out and had a fun time, and we started working on new songs together and it just kind of kept going.
Touring can be so hard. If you can play with people that you actually like to hang out with, and they make you laugh and keep you in good spirits, then it makes a world of difference. It’s something that you should try and hang on to.
Are you partial to any one Jicks record?
I would say that don’t feel as attached to Face the Truth, because I had less to do with it. That record was mainly Steve and John, recording in Steve’s basement. Mike and I played on probably three of the songs, but I was working on a different record for somebody else at the time. We also didn’t tour [Face the Truth] very much. Steve had his first kid right around the same time. So, I guess feel less attached to that record, though I like all of the songs on it. We just don’t dabble in that one quite as much.
But I have pretty good memories about recording all of the other ones, and they’re all different in a way. I like the songs. It’s hard for me to say. Pig Lib was really fun to record. That was a similar situation to new record, where we were holed up in the country in the summertime, just kinda hanging out and having picnics and recording. It was good vibes.
Doing a proper L.A. style production with Mirror Traffic was interesting, because that’s not usually our style. Seeing how that all worked was really fun. Those songs are still real fun to play live.
I mean, I’m probably not going to give you what you want as far as one answer. [Laughs]
The first time I met him he had come over to my friend’s house. He had just moved to Portland and befriended somebody, and that somebody brought him by the house. We were just hanging out. That was the first time I met him.
But I got to know him a little better when I worked at this studio called Jackpot in Portland. Pavement did their Terror Twilight demos there, and I was tape op and just sat around. They would practice and work on songs and I would run the tape or whatever – in case they came up with anything they liked. I hung out with those guys a lot then. They got me into playing more hardcore Scrabble.
After that, me and Steve used to play Scrabble and listen to records. That was the beginning of our friendship.
Is there anything about playing with the Jicks that sets it apart from other bands you’ve been involved with?
We’ve been playing together for a long time. I’ve been with Steve for, what, like fourteen years or something? There’s a definite chemistry. I surprise myself sometimes – Steve plays things differently a lot and can go off on tangents and somehow I manage to follow. I can stay with him through all those weird turns. That’s surprising to me, because I’m like, “Wow, how did we just do the same thing at the same time? That was weird.” There’s something there that you only get with playing from someone for a long time. I don’t even know what it is – it’s not telepathy, but you’re on the same page. I haven’t had that in any other bands that I’ve played with, even though I’ve been in bands where we play together really well. There’s just something really plus about this band.
And then, also, we have Jake Morris playing drums with us now, and I feel like maybe he’s more of a perfect for me. He’s real fun to play with, and I’m maybe a little bit more locked up with him as far where we feel accents. I get a little bit more of that with him than I have in the past with some of the other drummers – that’s not to detract from the other drummers, because we’ve had some really good ones and they were all fun to play with too. I think maybe this configuration there’s something a little different going on. And we’re having a good time playing together. We never come off stage and are mad at each other. It’s pretty good spirited and that’s nice.
You have a long history in Portland, which culturally has come to represent –
[Starts singing] Because of the niiiiiiiinties! [Laughs] Because of the 90s revival?
Exactly. What’s your take on how the city has changed?
Well, a lot of bands move to Portland. Now there are shows all over town. Back in the day, there were probably only fifteen bands you would see. There weren’t that many clubs. It was a little bit more tighter knit, and now it’s, like, a big music scene in a smaller city. That’s very different. And the music isn’t as agro as it was back then. [Laughs] That’s different.