Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks' Joanna Bolme: The Cream Interview

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Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
  • Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks
Allow me to be rather obvious for a second: Sometimes in piecing together long-form stories, we music writers like to interview a member of the act in question. Let me be slightly less obvious: Even if those interviews go swimmingly, we don't always get to use as much as we'd like — sometimes that's because the quotes we get simply don't fit the context of the story, and sometimes it's just a question of space constraints.

When I was putting together my preview of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks' show tonight at Mercy Lounge, I got the opportunity to speak with current Jick, current Quasi member and former Elliott Smith backer Joanna Bolme. She was very accommodating and fun to talk with, but I only got to use a quote or two for my piece. Below you'll find my full interview with the lovely Ms. Bolme, in which we spoke about working with Beck, writing songs as a Jick, forthcoming Jicks songs and whether or not she can beat Stephen Malkmus at Scrabble. Get your tickets to tonight's show here. Also, as previously noted, Stephen Malkmus will do a signing/meet-and-greet at Grimey's today at 3 p.m.

Nashville Cream: First of all, you guys haven't quite hit the road yet, right? You're just about to start touring?

Joanna Bolme: Yeah, I've just been packing up the gear in the basement. The van leaves tomorrow.

NC: Cool. Well I want to talk about making the record a little bit. I know in the past Stephen produced most of the the Jicks stuff, but what was it like turning those reins over to someone else, especially somebody who casts as big a shadow as Beck?

JB: Well, Steve wasn't only — I actually had a hand in a couple of the records too. I worked real hard on Pig Lib and Real Emotional Trash. I was kind of actually the one that spent the most amount of time in the studio for that one as far as people in the band. There was a little bit of collaboration meeting with the band too.

We wanted to hand the reins over to somebody for the last record. We had talked about it, because sometimes it moved real slowly when everybody's sort of chiming in. Real Emotional Trash took a long time, and we wanted to move faster. So we thought that it might be cool to bring in a more producery-type person. Just about that time Beck called Steve and asked him if he wanted to work on something, so that seemed like a perfect in-between: a producer and another musician. So, less like an overlord and more like a collaborator or something.

NC: Yeah, like a peer.

JB: Yeah, it was pretty easy, you know? He was more likely to have suggestions about it than hardcore ideas about how things should be. He did actually have us change the feel of a couple songs — he heard things in the songs that we weren't hearing, which was cool. But he wasn't real pushy about things either, you know?

NC: Had you guys ever worked with him before? Did you just kind of know him from touring and that sort of thing?

JB: Yeah, from touring, really. I think he's pretty new to this whole producing thing. He'd maybe only done Charlotte Gainsbourg and maybe something else, but he did Thurston [Moore] after we went in and recorded. I think that was appealing, too. We were like, "Well, let's see what he wants to try."

NC: On the second song, "No One Is": Is that stand-up bass you're playing on that one?

JB: No, it's actually just a Mustang bass with flat-wound strings. I'm trying to remember. I use that bass actually on quite a bit of the record, which was another Beck idea, because that's not my usual style. But I think it came out sounding really cool. I may have even had a felt pick or something.

NC: Interesting. Yeah, it just kind of had that warm sound. That whole song kind of has this really cool sound to it.

JB: Yeah, that was my favorite-sounding song. That was just a lot of Steve's live vocal and acoustic guitar, and that was something we almost didn't do that night. We were getting to wrap it up for the night, because it was kind of getting late, and we had plowed through a lot of songs on the first day. That was the first day. Then Steve was like, "Oh let's just try this before we leave, I just want to see." And it turned out great. That's it [laughs].

NC: Yeah, it reminds me actually of Lee Hazelwood and, like, outlaw country stuff. It's just really different. I just really like the way it's arranged.

JB: Yeah, it's definitely a different style for Steve, for sure.

NC: What's it like writing a song as Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks? How does that differ from building a song as, say, Quasi or other projects you've been in?

JB: Well, it's hard to say, because some of the songs Steve comes in and he's pretty much got them finished, you know, and he knows how he wants it to be, or maybe he's demo'ed it. So sometimes you're like, "Oh, I'm not even gonna try to change anything, because it's good the way it is." And then some things are more like he has a riff or two, and there's a little bit more collaboration. I usually make up my own parts unless Steve has a really good idea for a bass line or something, and then I'll play his idea or whatever.

I guess in other bands I've been in there's a little bit more collaboration, I guess? But I don't know if that's indicative of Steve not wanting to collaborate. It's just sort of, you know, he's a dad now, and he's home with his 4-track recorder or his recorder, and that's kind of what he can do in his spare time after the kids go to bed. He's certainly not lacking for good ideas as far as instrumentation, so you don't really feel compelled to mess with stuff as much. Maybe in some other bands, you'd think something that somebody else came up with wasn't as good as what I wanted. And in this case it's more, "Oh wow, Steve's just made up this cool bass line. I want to play that bass line."

NC: With the Pavement reunion and obviously you touring with Quasi and all those various projects, does that sometimes make it difficult for you guys to get together and work like that? You said sometimes he'll just come in with demos — do you guys see each other frequently enough to kind of play around with stuff?

JB: Well, the Pavement year, we mostly only saw each other when Quasi was opening for Pavement or, like, maybe Steve would set aside a time to go in and do some vocals — then me and Steve would go down to LA and he'd go sing for a couple days, and then he'd go back to doing Pavement or whatever. In his spare time, he was demo'ing out some songs, so actually we have a whole 'nother record's worth of songs now, like post-Mirror Traffic. So we'll probably be playing those and working them into the set.

NC: Cool. And plans after the tour maybe to hopefully track more?

JB: Oh yeah. Well, hopefully, maybe we'll be recording in Berlin this time, I'm not sure. We have a new drummer, and he's real excited about the new songs, because he gets to put his drums on them. So he's ready to go.

NC: I love Janet [Weiss]. She's one of my favorite drummers out there, but I've heard the new guy's pretty good too. So I'm looking forward to that.

JB: Yeah, he's real good. I don't think anybody's going to be disappointed once they see him.

NC: What are some of your favorite songs to play as a Jick?

JB: Right now "Stick Figures in Love" is probably my favorite that we've been playing. We've only done a few in-stores and radio specials thus far. So that's fun. All of them are fun at this stage, because we hadn't been playing them. We recorded them and didn't play them again, and I had to relearn them all, actually. Right now it's still fun, all the songs.

But I think that one, "Senator," is fun. "Brain Gallop" is real fun, I think. It's groovy. I'm trying to remember which songs are on the record, but they're all fun. Aside from the new songs, which are all real fun to play 'cause they're brand-new, we're going to play some old ones, but some old ones that we haven't been playing in the last five years. Those will all kind of feel new again, I think, because we haven't played them for a long time.

NC: Yeah, I'm hoping to hear "Vanessa From Queens." That's a personal favorite for me.

JB: That's your favorite? Well, we'll see! It might be on the list.

NC: Weren't you on an episode of Portlandia not too long ago?

JB: Yes, I played the mayor's wife.

NC: Kyle MacLachlan's wife, right?

JB: Yeah, I was Kyle MacLachlan's wife, but I didn't have any lines or anything, and it was pretty easy. I just had to stand there and look supportive, really. Actually, Janet was supposed to have that role, but she got food poisoning. So Carrie [Brownstein] called me at the last minute and said, "We need somebody to come down here! Can you do this?" [Laughs] That's how I ended up doing that, but it was supposed to be Janet.

NC: I actually have a co-worker here who spent a lot of time in Portland, and he said that he's played a couple games of Scrabble with Steve before.

JB: Oh yeah?

NC: He said the rumor was that you were the only person in Portland who can beat Stephen Malkmus at Scrabble. Is there any truth to that rumor?

JB: I can think of one other person that could. I think my friend could. She throttles me on a regular basis, and I have beat Steve. So I think it would make sense that she could beat Steve as well, but Steve has been playing a lot online. Since he became a dad, he's at home, so he's online. I don't think I could beat him anymore, really. We haven't played for a while.

NC: He's a Scrabble dad. He's got too much practice now.

JB: Yeah [laughs]. Exactly.

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