Bryan Charles takes a first-person approach to Pavement, starting with his own relationship to Pavement as a fan and going through the process of writing the book, including lots of interviews with those involved in the album. It’s not directly comparable to Tusk in that the interviewees are generally helpful and not ridiculous human beings, but it feels like a similar register.
Wowee Zowee was Charles’ least-played Pavement album until hearing them play ‘Grounded’ at a concert in Grand Rapids gave him a way in to listening to the rest of the tracks. Nine years later, he began his book proposal considering the albums in turn before settling on Wowee Zowee, now his favourite – he describes it as “wild, unpredictable”, “fragmented, impressionistic, casually brilliant”, “maybe a little aloof at first but once you spend a little time with it it keeps giving back to you.” (It’s actually true about Wowee Zowee, but a steady diet of music writing might lead you to mistakenly think that applies to every piece of music ever recorded, including Lulu.) As an album to examine, though, it does have that interesting quality of being the deliberately challenging (but creatively fulfilling) follow-up to a commercial success – Tusk again, I guess.
Charles’ first interview is with Gerard Cosloy, who wrote Conflict zine and was one of the founders of Matador Records. Describing the responses as “short and dickish”, Charles prints a transcript of a conversation that’s queasily familiar if you’ve ever tried to salvage a hostile interview – the discomfort is more cumulative than easily isolated, but here’s one highlight:
BC: Some people have interpreted Wowee Zowee as a kind of fuck-you record, Pavement taking a deliberate step back from potentially greater success. Do you think there’s any truth to that?
GC: I mean it’s really juvenile to assume Pavement had no other subject matter on their minds than their career trajectory. Just because they traded in humor doesn’t mean their albums were meant to be a running commentary on being in a semi-popular band.
Self-doubt and some Pavement follow, and the interview with Matador co-founder Chris Lombardi goes a lot better – looking at Pavement in comparison to what was popular at the time, like Smashing Pumpkins and Stone Temple Pilots.
Things pick up, and the book passes through a series of interviews. There’s an easy-seeming conversation with Bob Nastanovich about the band dynamic, the Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain period, recording at Easley Studios with the Silver Jews and going back there for Wowee Zowee, and where big money and big success might have fit in. Scott Kannberg talks mostly about the tracklisting, songwriting, and that it was never a deliberate fuck-you (following with “Yeah well. You can promote that myth if you want.”). Then, Danny Goldberg, who was president of Warner Records at the time of the album’s release, on popularity and the marketing and distribution deal they had with Matador.
Mark Ibold admits to a fuzzy recollection of going to Memphis and describes his role in Pavement, then and generally. Doug Easley talks about his studio and the off-the-cuff approach taken by Pavement, as well as the equipment they used. This leads into a brief diversion, a conversation with Mark Venezia who recorded Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain and an earlier version of ‘Grounded’ than the one that would end up on Wowee Zowee.
This is building towards a conversation with Stephen Malkmus, who’s expansive and generous in describing everything, especially the songs and songwriting. (The first-person thing means I was slightly holding my breath at the beginning of this interview, feeling Charles’ nerves and awe, but it seems to flow just fine.) Steve West, then-drummer, talks about the band dynamic and songs. Steve Keene, the artist who painted the cover and several hundred thousand other paintings including one hanging beside me, talks about the image he copied for Wowee Zowee and his own approach to making art. A bit more Malkmus and a bit more Steve West, rounding out consideration of the album, and the book ends in album-listening, free-writing kind of memoir.
I like the style and enjoyed the book – it’s easy to say that Charles shouldn’t have had to ask certain questions if he’d done enough research to earn his nerd stars in the nerd club, but the interviews tell a full story, providing exposition and allowing the subjects to talk and bring the reader in. There’s no real need for a track by track, as we’ve gone through it already, and the character of the album is shown in a slow build of layers. It’s a personable and agreeable take on the album, a very careful tribute.
Inexplicably, it’s also a book that draws conversation with random dudes if you read it in public - I’m not particularly charming, and it happened three of three times. Proceed with caution?