One of the most distinctive and original rock bands of the 1990s, Pavement were formed in Stockton, California, in 1989 by guitarist Scott Kannberg (better known as Spiral Stairs) and Steve Malkmus, who handled most of the singing and songwriting duties.
Recording in the garage of drummer Gary Young, their first release, on their own label Treble Kicker, was the Slay Tracks (1933-1969) EP (named after a shooting in a Stockton school on the day of recording). It was a passable 15 minutes of lo-fi angst and screeching guitar. Two further EPs, Demolition Plot J-7 and Perfect Sound Forever, followed soon after, continuing the same angst-ridden theme. These early records contained some fine moments, notably the recklessly chaotic 'Forklift', the uncomplicated indie-pop of 'Box Elder' and the Pixies-influenced 'Debris Slide', but they were patchy and didn't demonstrate Pavement at their best.
More fulfilling was the simple but impassioned single 'Summer Babe', the undoubted Pavement anthem (if such a thing exists), which provided a perfect introduction to their debut album Slanted And Enchanted. Released on Matador Records in 1992, some time after the early EPs, the album was well worth the wait. Although dominated by the loud (and still lo-fi) guitar work, many of the songs showed a pleasingly acute sense of melody, emotion and lyrical attention, particularly 'Summer Babe', but also 'Here' and the glorious 'Trigger Cut'. A bassist and extra percussionist (Mark Ibold and Bob Nastanovich) were called in to add depth to the sound, and also to hide Gary Young's more obvious drumming limitations. All in all it was one of the best records of 1992, and saw Pavement's popularity increasing to match their critical acclaim.
The following months saw the release of a new EP, Watery Domestic, the compilation of the early EPs into one disc, Westing By Musket And Sextant, and the departure of Gary Young. His heart was in it and his live antics were seldom less than memorable, but drumming had never been his strong point and he was replaced by the more competent Steve West.
West's arrival coincided with the maturity of Pavement's sound to a more accessible, thoughtful and, thankfully, well-recorded level, as heard on the second album Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)1. The energy and emotion was still there but the songs were more subtle and diverse. 'Cut Your Hair' was Pavement's first pure pop moment, and an MTV hit. The album also featured slower songs such as the bleak 'Newark Wilder' and one of their all-time classics, the country-influenced 'Range Life'. A lyric in that song criticised the Smashing Pumpkins. That and a reference to the Stone Temple Pilots in another verse landed Pavement in some trouble with Pumpkins singer Billy Corgan, although perhaps the affair never reached its true rock star feud potential.
Pavement weren't ready to rest - their third album came out in 1995. Over the course of its 18 tracks Wowee Zowee showed a more mellow, personal, Neil Young-influenced sound, although the album was again musically diverse. There was no repeat of the success of 'Cut Your Hair' this time round - the songs were more oblique and unusual, often featuring desperately sad, feedback-drenched guitar, wistful melodies, and occasional pieces of largely vocal-free music. It took a few listens to become accustomed to it, but fans still thought it was another great album. The best songs were the most poignant: 'We Dance', 'Black Out', 'Grounded', and 'Father to a Sister of Thought'. The latter was the most accessible song on the album and contained some classic steel guitar breaks. It wasn't all drawn-out depression though - the penchant for screechy vocals continued on some tracks, and 'Flux = Rad' was pure grunge to rival anything on their early releases. Wowee Zowee was accused by some fans and sections of the media of being too sprawling and incoherent, and indeed at times it was, but it was a record that proved they had a mellow, creative side to their musical vision.
Interests and Influences
Pavement took it more slowly after that album, as the band members were starting to focus more on other interests and musical projects. For example, Scott Kannberg took up golf, Mark Ibold honed his cookery skills, and Steve Malkmus spent time in London. Malkmus recorded a track, 'Unheard Music', with Justine Frischmann from the band Elastica. Justine was the girlfriend of Damon Albarn from Blur, and Pavement was cited as an influence on the Britpop band's album Blur, so the collaboration helped to bring Pavement to the attention of UK audiences.
The Pacific Trim EP (1996) was an acceptable, three-track release, but much better was the album Brighten The Corners in 1997. Opening with the storming single 'Stereo', and structured around the spoken/shouted wise-guy lyrics, it was a much sharper, more focused affair. 'Shady Lane' was a slice of catchy guitar pop, continuing the theme of (vaguely) socially critical lyrics, and the album featured many more superbly balanced blends of aforementioned biting words, catchy tunes and weirdness. Also notable was the contribution from Scott Kannberg. He penned 'Date With IKEA', with melodic but distorted vocals topped with a stunning guitar solo, and also the beautifully bleak closer, 'FIN' (aka 'Infinite Spark' - Pavement never could work out what half their songs were called). Again there was criticism of what were claimed to be superfluous songs on the album, but nevertheless it was considered to be a successful and confident return to the territory of Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.
As the months passed, rumours started to abound of a Pavement split. Media reports seemed to suggest that their heart was no longer in it, but the band's insistence that there would be a fifth album was confirmed with the release of Terror Twilight in 1999. It was immediately obvious to fans that this was their most lovingly-crafted and accessible release yet, as the 11 songs combined the old Pavement ways with a new penchant for folksy influences and catchy melodies. The singles 'Major Leagues' and 'Spit on a Stranger' were gentle, tuneful ballads and songs like 'Folk Jam' and the sublime 'Speak, See, Remember' provided the folk contribution. Meanwhile, the third single, 'Carrot Rope', was another catchy tune and a fitting ending to what turned out to be their final record. The album drew great critical acclaim for being both accessible and enduring; although some old-time fans were angered by the idea of Pavement going 'pop', most accepted Terror Twilight for the classic it was (and is).
Sadly, a few months after the release, the prophecies of a split came true. In the autumn of 1999 Pavement announced their decision to split 'for the foreseeable future' and played what was widely believed to be their final gig, in the Brixton Academy, London. Over the next year it became apparent from interviews and from the band's other musical projects (Scott Kannberg went solo and Steve Malkmus started fronting a band called the Jicks) that a reunion wasn't going to happen any time soon.
The first four albums were re-released on CD in the mid-2000s along with extra discs of previously unreleased material, and a 'Best of' compilation Quarantine the Past was produced in 2010 to coincide with the reunion tour that had been announced in 2009, ten years after the split. The tour commenced on 1 March, 2010 in New Zealand and took in Japan, Paris and four nights in the Brixton Academy before concluding in Central Park, New York. In a 2014 interview, Steve Malkmus said there wouldn't be another tour yet, as 'we want [gigs] to be a luxury item.'
Pavement leave behind them a legacy of devoted support, critical acclaim and five memorable albums.