There’s a stereotype that indie-rockers disdain playing, or following, sports. Stephen Malkmus defies the stereotype. He is about as indie-rock as a musician can be: Pavement was among the most influential underground bands of the ’90s, and his subsequent albums fronting the Jicks have only enhanced his reputation for idiosyncrasy on songs full of seemingly offhand lyrics and meandering guitar workouts. Though Malkmus recently told The Ringer that he’s not that into sports, there he is on a tennis court in the 10-minute short film plugging his excellent new album, Sparkle Hard, executing credible forehand volleys and working, in his words, “on a buttery topspin backhand.” He can talk knowledgeably about pro basketball, and why he stopped following college basketball (“All the young men should be getting paid,” he says).
The 51-year-old father of two also plays in a fantasy baseball league with a few other music vets, and has some tips he’s willing to share. “Don’t pick pitchers early, you know?” he tells Paste. “People who have Max Scherzer or Corey Kluber might disagree with me,” he concedes, referring to the respective aces of the Washington Nationals and Cleveland Indians. “You can also wait for people to get impatient and drop people. That’s my advice: Swoop in, especially in these first two months, and look at the peripherals. If the skills are there, the luck will even out. Hopefully.”
“From the art side of it, it’s abstracting it, like taking it two or three steps from ‘I’m mad,’ or ‘I don’t know if I’m happy.’ It’s like taking those thoughts and doing it in a way that you want to listen to it 10 times instead of once.”
It’s working so far this year: Malkmus was leading the standings earlier this month in a league that also includes Mike Mills of R.E.M., Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate and the Baseball Project, and Scott McCaughey of the Minus 5 and the Baseball Project. “He’s smart,” McCaughey says of Malkmus. “He doesn’t make nearly as many moves as I do, but he definitely knows what he’s doing when he gets someone. He will wait for guys who are really good who start off really bad, and you get so frustrated you drop them and he’ll swoop in on them.”
Malkmus used to play in multiple leagues, but says he’s had to pare down to just one. He’s also a working musician, after all. Sparkle Hard, which comes out May 18, is his seventh album with The Jicks and the first since Wigout at Jagbags in 2014. The new record is one of his catchiest, with 11 deceptively focused songs that sound unmistakably like Malkmus—“Shiggy” might be the best song Pavement never made—while also taking chances: there’s AutoTune on his vocals on “Rattler,” and he puts a Malkmus-ian spin on country pop with “Refute,” a duet with Kim Gordon.
Though Malkmus has a reputation for being easygoing and abstract with his songs, there’s a hard edge here, too. There are lyrical references to poverty and bigotry sprinkled around Sparkle Hard, and a scathing summation of cultural priorities on the pulsing “Bike Lane.” “Another beautiful bike lane,” Malkmus sings between harrowing descriptions of how Baltimore police killed Freddie Gray in 2015. “Poor cops / They’re so busy shuttling the miscreants / From the streets to the station / And now they’ve got an audience,” he sings. “Kick off your jackboots / It’s time to unwind.” Despite the subject matter, and the sardonic undertone, the song is upbeat to the point of peppy, with sinuous guitar breaks and a stick-in-your-head refrain. That was kind of the point.
“From the art side of it, it’s abstracting it, like taking it two or three steps from ‘I’m mad,’ or ‘I don’t know if I’m happy,’” Malkmus says. It’s like taking those thoughts and doing it in a way that you want to listen to it 10 times instead of once.” Musically, “I was open to keeping it kind of clean, and kind of accessible. While I have done that, I haven’t done it much in a while, that kind of jangle.”
Apart from one or two explicitly topical songs, like “Bike Lane,” the thoughts themselves are characteristically enigmatic. “It’s kind of a subconscious narrative,” he says. “It’s things you feel: a vulnerable feeling, feelings of paranoia and boredom and also shock. Without going completely black-and-white about it, it’s music and one thing that’s cool about music is that it’s mental, it’s not matter in a certain way. It’s sound and you can’t touch it, that’s what’s cool about it.”
He and the Jicks—Mike Clark on keyboards and guitars, Joanna Bolme on bass and Jake Morris on drums—recorded Sparkle Hard at Halfling Studios in Portland, with Chris Funk of The Decemberists producing. Before they started, Malkmus let Funk suggest tunes to record after sorting through a Dropbox folder with 80 demos. “I was trying to claw my way out of my standard operational moves, you know, so it was good to have him,” Malkmus says of the producer.
Funk appreciated the collaborative approach. “He’s open to many, many opinions and people, but he knows what he wants, too. It’s this interesting process of gathering opinions and listening to them all and never saying anybody has a bad idea, and it just sort of comes out the other side.” Malkmus was more than willing to experiment in the studio, too. He recorded many of his guitar parts in the control room with Funk and engineer Adam Lee, playing through various effects pedals and letting Funk and Lee switch them on and off, just to see how it sounded. “He’s a very inventive guitar player,” Funk says. “He plays in these crazy tunings you could find on Fahey albums and whatnot, and he doesn’t use a pick, either. He’s so got his voice, he’s got his thing down.”
Funk says he was also impressed by Malkmus’s work ethic, defying that old perception of Pavement as “slacker-rock.” Which is not to say there’s not an element of truth to the description. “The first day he turned up for recording, he just rolled up and had two guitars in either hand and they were not in cases, just thrown in the back of the car,” Funk says, laughing. “It’s a shit show, really, but it’s perfect. It keeps you on your toes, and it keeps him on his toes and keeps it fresh, and bizarre and weird. He kind of knows where he wants everything to be without being this dogmatic, horrible person to deal with. It’s actually really fun.”