Interview: Steve West (Pavement, Silver Jews, Marble Valley)
Published on October 10th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams and Jamie Steiner
In a band full of strong personalities, Pavement drummer Steve West made a name for himself as a quietly odd but tremendously steady influence after replacing the unpredictable Gary Young in 1993.
Formerly a security guard at the Whitney Museum of American Art along with Pavement front man Stephen Malkmus and David Berman – both of whom he would also play alongside as part of the latter’s cultishly-revered Silver Jews vehicle – the toy soldier-painting, facially hirsute, dryly witty West went on to appear on a succession of downright classic albums, beginning with Pavement’s 1994 ‘sophomore effort’ Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.
Nowadays, West has transgressed to the front of the stage to be the front man and overall head honcho of Marble Valley, a seven-strong assembly of musicians from both sides of the Atlantic (and the Netherlands) who are set to release their fifth album Breakthrough next Monday.
Rocksucker was the other week treated to a promo copy and I can tell you that it’s an exuberantly wonky/wonkily exuberant blast of an album, a crunchy, stoner-friendly party record that may be arriving too late in the year to soundtrack hazy summer barbecues (at least on these shores) but will at least be ready in waiting for that very purpose in years to come.
As an unashamed Pavement fan boy, it was with great excitement that I took receipt of the following set of answers from Mr West, who – quite aside from being one of popular music history’s unheralded heroes – must be commended for taking the time to answer every single one of the many questions we bombarded him with…
Congratulations on the release of your splendid new album, which I am currently enjoying muchly. What, if anything, is the significance of the title Breakthrough?
Matty Wall of Brighton came up with the name. He observed me on tour spending all my time with my computer, working on the songs. He asked me so many times if I was working on the breakthrough that I started to call it that. It is funny that a band releasing its fifth CD would call it Breakthrough.
It’s got quite a wonky, psychedelic sound to it. May I be so bold as to coin the term ‘wonkedelia’?
Wonkedelia? More like wankedelia. The Valley loves odd humorous sounds and ideas. We thrive on the sarcastic but friendly sides of life.
You again recorded the album at Remko’s Island Studios in Amsterdam. Does there tend to be much in the way of, er, ‘extracurricular activity’ afoot when you go there? Or is it strictly business?
We don’t sleep, so we have plenty of time to work, wonk, wank and take part in extracurricular activities, such as heckling people playing football on the street at five in the morning outside one’s hotel window in Amsterdam.
How did you come to be in a band with people in Holland and the UK – Hull, of all places, I’m led to believe – anyway?
I was on a very happy ferry from Rotterdam to Hull many years ago and ran in to the Hullions on the ferry dance floor. They were returning home from a weekend excursion in Amsterdam and had just won the ferry musical knowledge quiz contest. They were thoroughly enjoying themselves and were asked to calm down and go to sleep by the ferry crew. I thought to myself, these guys would make a fabulous band.
Your drawl in the verses of “Wildlife Free-Zone” is quite similar to Stephen’s in the verses of “Stereo”. Was this a conscious allusion?
No, it just happened that way – I realized it and went with it all the same. I am from Richmond Virginia, the old capital of the Confederacy. The Southern Drawl starts in Virginia and gets bigger as you move south.
Who or what is Dan Map? Does the song have anything to do with the “Danish Programme for surveillance of antimicrobial resistance in bacteria from livestock, food, and humans” of the same name? Doesn’t struck me as being like a “cool, cool party” but I accept that you might have a different take on this particular issue..
Dan Map is a wonderful, uplifting, hard-working person I had the chance to travel with last year. His good cheer vibe puts all around him at ease. I thought he deserved to have a song written about him.
My favourite track on the album at the moment is “Good Life”, in which the narrator laments his imminent demise yet acknowledges that he’s had a charmed existence. Do you have any burning ambitions to fulfil that would enable you to bow out so cheerfully?
Once I hit middle age, I could see where I have been and where I was going. I realized I could make good use of my rear-view mirrors and that would help guide me to the end of the street.
“Chin Chin” now joins the pantheon of great drinking songs. Do you have a favourite?
That Tom Waits song about the piano.
Will all seven of you be performing on your forthcoming UK tour [see below for list of dates]? If so, might the intimacy of some of the venues provide a problem?
Yes, we are all on board. The intimacy between the various members of the band has always fuelled our fires.
The first Marble Valley album Sauckiehall Street came out in 1997, which predates the end of Pavement. At the time of its release, did you have an inkling that Pavement would not be going on for much longer? And, if so, did that play a part in your decision to get another band together? Or was it simply just a case of wanting to express yourself at the front of the stage rather than back?
I think you hit the nails on the head – it was simply a case of wanting to express myself fully on any stage I was on.
Which journalistic clichés/buzzwords are you most tired of reading as descriptions of your music? And what would you replace them with?
I’m not tired of clichés/buzzwords. Much of my lyrics are arranged around silly redundant clichés and buzzwords, with a strong shot of sarcasm.
Do you still sport that fabulous beard? If so, how much maintaining does it require? Can you recommend any particular products or utensils?
Yes, I got the hairies. Just some sharp scissors and an eye for self-grooming.
As a stonemason, how often do you encounter fans as customers?
Never, but I think that will change as my fan base grows older and starts to make boatloads of cash.
Any word on when the deluxe edition of Terror Twilight might see the light of day?
Maybe next year. I’m out of the business loop on the deluxe side of things.
Do the royalty cheques emanating from your Pavement days remain ample? (You don’t have to quote an exact figure.)
I’d say supple not ample. And supple is a good thing.
Have you heard Stephen’s new album yet? If so, what do you think of it?
Yes, I saw Stephen perform the other night. We sang a song together, a Jicks song that morphed into a Doors song and then into a Grateful Dead song. Stephen is great at tying the classic to the contemporary in an original way.
In this interview, you name one night in 1994 when you went out on the town in Prague as your fondest memory of Pavement. Care to elucidate upon what happened that night?
We walked through the streets of Prague in search of an indie rock-friendly bar. Later back at the hotel we sat around this beautiful, gothic hotel room with our shirts off, male bonding.
Do you still have the toy Civil War soldiers that you painted back in the Crooked Rain/Wowee Zowee days?
No, I shot them all up with my BB gun years ago.
Name your favourite Pavement album. Go on. Please!
Wowee – it’s got it all.
Do you know what David Berman’s up to these days? You said in an interview a few years ago that he wanted to write a book. Did that turn out to be the cartoon book he released, or did he want to write a novel or some such?
David just sent me an email about the Whitney Museum. It was a radio interview with one of the guards we knew.
Favourite Silver Jews album? Or am I getting a bit too cocky now?
Are there any obscure and/or up-and-coming artists you’d like to recommend?
Chissy Baucom – we bought a painting of a chicken by her.
If I asked you right now to pick your top three albums of all time, just off the top of your head, which ones would you go for?
The Velvet Underground & Nico, Hank Williams Jr. – Country Shadows and Havana 3am.
(Now for some bonus questions – which Steve was kind enough to answer – supplied by one Jamie Steiner, the very man that got me into Pavement in the first place.)
What would he have done with his life if Pavement hadn’t happened?
Security guard, night shift in some museum in NYC.
In an interview I read, he said that Marble Valley was based on the songs he sang to his dog. Who, if indeed someone else, are Marble Valley songs addressed to nowadays? And is the dog still alive?
I love dog songs. My old dogs are dead but I have a new one that deserves a song. Her name is BARN-yard Boobby.
What is the worst venue he’s played?
P.B. Kelly’s in Richmond, Virginia in the 80s. I loved the place until the mighty James flooded and shut her down forever.
After they had played the final ever Pavement show (final at that time in ’99) at the Brixton Academy, how did they react after what was an amazing show? Did anyone suggest splitting up was maybe a bad idea? Was everyone depressed by the end of an era? Did he feel they were quitting too late? (Basically, situate the question around what immediately happened after the show. I’m really intrigued to know for some weird reason).
We went back to the hotel and had a room party. I think we all knew it was over and were celebrating what we had done together. It was a mighty fine night.
Steve, thank you for going above and beyond the call of duty!
Marble Valley will play the following UK dates in October:
Adelphi – Hull, 13th
Puzzle Hall Inn, Sowerby Bridge – Sowerby Bridge, nr. Halifax, 14th
Mad Ferret – Preston, 15th
Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, 16th
Central Station, Wrexham, 17th
Louisiana – Bristol, 18th
The Windmill, Brixton, London, 19th