LEFT OF THE DIAL Stephen Malkmus' 17-year-old cat, Juanita, has been peeing outside the catbox lately.
He's been assuming it's just stress from the new additions to the household — two kittens recently joined the Portland home Malkmus shares with his wife, artist Jessica Jackson Hutchins, and their two young daughters. But he took her (the cat) to the vet today, and it turns out she needed a couple of back teeth extracted, plus they did blood work, the whole nine yards, he says, by way of explanation about why we're starting this phone interview with him sitting in a veterinary office waiting room, and why, beginning about five minutes later, as they leave, the guttural moans of which only an unhappy cat is capable will serve as the soundtrack for the bulk of our conversation.
"That's really terrible, isn't it?" says the Stockton native, thoughtfully, of Juanita's misery, before insisting that he's perfectly happy to talk with her wailing in the background. "Got some Exorcist, Linda Blair sounds going on."
As a guy who's still best known as a touchstone for (if not the founder of) mid-'90s indie slacker-rock — Pavement's mainstream breakthrough Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, which came out 20 years ago last month, and which got the deluxe reissue treatment 10 years later, was arguably one of the defining albums of that decade — Stephen Malkmus seems to understand that it's tough for people to reconcile the skinny, casually bratty, frozen-in-time Pavement frontman with the current Stephen Malkmus: A 47-year-old suburban dad who cares a lot about his fantasy basketball league, and who's currently trying to figure out if his sick cat is capable of eating yet.
And yet: His solo career, at the helm of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, has actually outlasted Pavement's at this point. The band's sixth album, Wig Out at Jagbags, out this January, is full of the wry, observational comedy and narrative wordplay that have come to constitute the Malkmus trademark. (The band's tour for the album brings them to Slim's this Thursday, March 27.) And while it's easy to romanticize the golden days of lo-fi lullabies about young love and record label angst and being so drunk in the August sun — hell, those songs sounded nostalgic about those days while they were happening — the truth is that it was in the years that followed, with the Jicks' more simplified and twang-ified tunes increasingly showing his '70s classic rock influences and allowing the lyrics to come front and center, that Malkmus went and became one of the best songwriters we have right now.
Maybe even more sneakily: He seems like he's figured out how to (gasp) have fun.
"Come and join us in this punk rock tomb, come slam dancing with some ancient dudes/We are returning, returning to our roots, no new material, just cowboy boots," begins Malkmus, through a nearly audible smirk, on an upbeat ditty called "Rumble at the Rainbo"; at one point, the song devolves goofily into a full-on ska breakdown.