Brightening The Corners With Spiral Stairs

enchantingWave to the camera. (Photo by Marcus Roth)

One thing is abundantly clear when talking to Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg: He loves his old band, Pavement. If de facto frontman Stephen Malkmus has sometimes seemed like he's running away from his past with the Best Indie Rock Band of the '90s, Spiral has embraced it, as best evidenced by his extensive work putting together a string of indispensable deluxe reissues of Pavement's albums.

The fourth in that series is "Brighten the Corners: Nicene Creedece Ed.," a double-disc collection that's a snapshot of the band in 1996 and 1997. Once again, it proves that many of Pavement's finest and quirkiest moments were relegated to rarity status. Highlights of this collection include the saucy, sassy pop of "No Tan Lines," fun covers of "The Killing Moon" (Echo and the Bunnymen) and "The Classical" (the Fall), and the appropriately scuzzy "Neil Hagerty Meets Jon Spencer In A Non-Alcoholic Bar."

I got Spiral on the phone last week and we chatted about the reissue series, the band's mindset while making "Brighten" and that inevitable Pavement reunion, coming to a city near you in 2010. Or 2011. Most likely. Maybe.

What's the process like when you tackle one of these reissues?
Well, originally we did "Slanted" and I had this idea that every 10 years we'd put out our records ... especially with "Slanted" where everything was all over the place. You had the "Watery, Domestic" EP, all these singles with B-sides, compilation tracks. And I thought it would be kind of a cool idea to put everything together that was recorded at the same time. Even some tracks, like on this record, were released as B-sides for "Terror Twilight," yet they were songs that were recorded at the same time. So my original idea was to put everything back in its place. And I saved everything from the Pavement days. And I needed to get it out of my closet. (Laughs.)

Do you ever find stuff that you didn't remember existed?
Oh, tons of stuff! With "Slanted" and "Crooked Rain" we had to bake the tapes; the tapes wouldn't work so you had to take them in, put them in a little oven and bake them so they'd work. Then you'd hear all these old songs that we never actually mixed or put out on anything. We found quite a lot. Not much anymore. For this one there were only a few tracks that we didn't really utilize. But yeah, it's pretty surprising. We did a lot.

Pavement was always one of those bands where a lot of the B-sides and random cuts were people's favorite songs. Like, the "Watery, Domestic" EP is probably my favorite Pavement recording. Why do you think some of those great songs never made it onto a proper album?
Well, they didn't make it on a proper album because we obsessed over making it a proper album. There are only so many songs you can put on that sound good together in the whole kind of classic rock way of putting an album together. Then, of course, "Wowee Zowee," we just put everything on there. (Laughs.) And threw that out the window.

But "Brighten the Corners" was us getting back to the same formula. I like what we did originally. I like "Watery, Domestic," and I liked all those singles that we did. We kind of were a singles band, really. But you can't really re-release that stuff. It's really easy just to stick it together in one retrospective. If people want to go and buy those and try to find those singles, that's kind of the fun of it. I really looked at it as a fan, if I was a fan. I like when bands put together reissues. I mean, a lot of bands put them together really badly. But I always wanted ours to be very well put together and have everything on there. It's kind of like a time capsule of the band.

Yeah, but what about all that money I spent on the "Range Life" import CD single and that "Pacific Trim" 7"?
(Laughs.) Well, that was 10 years ago! People had so much disposable income over the last 10 years it was easy to sell all these records; but now, I don't know. Matador wants to puts all the reissues out on vinyl now and I'm on the fence about that. I want it to be on vinyl but I don't know if all the extras should be on the vinyl as well.

(More after the jump.)

How do you think "Brighten the Corners" fits into the Pavement discography? I've always thought of it as the first album of the second act of the band.
Well that's what I would always say. People would ask me my favorite Pavement record and I'd say, "Well there's actually two favorite Pavement records." There was "Slanted," with Gary Young, that was kind of that era of Pavement. Then Steve West ... of course, "Crooked Rain" and "Wowee Zowee" and on. But my favorite record, probably, is "Brighten the Corners." I don't know exactly why. I think it just kind of captures us as a band finally learning how to play its instruments and being pretty confident in what we were doing. Not that "Crooked Rain" and "Wowee Zowee" were not. It was also the first record where we were all were involved with the record.

Yeah, wasn't that the first album with the full band experience?
Yeah, where we went into the studio and actually jammed and played the songs instead of just a few of us going in at a time and putting down basic tracks and then going in and overdubbing. This one we were actually set up as a band in Mitch Easter's studio. Not the one he has now, it was in his old plantation house. We were upstairs and he was downstairs. Half of us were in his bedroom, half of us were in the hallway, it was pretty cool.

I guess I've thought of "Brighten the Corners" to be comparable to the third Velvet Underground album
Yeah, yeah. It's definitely my favorite of that second phase. Maybe there will be a third phase. We'll see. (Laughs.)

We'll get back to that shortly. I was 16 when the album came out and at that point "Wowee Zowee" was pretty much the greatest thing to ever happen in the history of the world. Then "Brighten the Corners" was much more ... structured, I guess?
To me it feels like the formula of choose five songs a side. I always looked at it like a record -- five songs on one side, five songs on the other. I don't know, there might be 12 songs on that record.

Yeah, it's 12.
(Laughs.) So I always looked at it that way. I think that "Crooked Rain" was like that, "Wowee Zowee" was definitely not and I think we wanted it to be a little more coherent. Because sometimes when you're making records -- well, always when you're making records -- you're always looking to the past and to other records and how this fits in with other records. And being the record collector geeks that we were it was like, OK, this is our ... what was that R.E.M. album? "Reckoning"? No, not "Reckoning." "Fables," that was our "Fables of the Reconstruction." No, not that one, the next one. "Document"! (Laughs.) We kind of patterned our records after R.E.M. records, I think. Except for "Wowee Zowee," of course. Well, that was kind of like "Fables," maybe.

Do you remember the mindset you were in when you were writing songs for "Brighten the Corners"? Your songs on that album reference Volkswagens and IKEA.
["Passat Dream"] is definitely kind of ... I wanted to write a car song. Not for a commercial or anything, but the Beach Boys have songs about cars, you know, the classic car songs. And I was just thinking it would be funny to write one. And I always wanted a Passat. (Laughs.)

Have you realized that dream?
No, I still haven't gotten one. I had a Jetta for a while and that was my compromise. I'm still trying to get Volkswagen to listen to the song and give me millions for it.

That'd be nice. Volkswagen has always had pretty hip stuff in their ads.
Yeah, I know! And that song's pretty catchy. I think they could probably work it in there somewhere. So, Volkswagen, if you're reading. But they're just kind of self-referential songs about what was going on in our lives. We were all kind of getting married and buying houses and it was becoming more of a set thing for us than just all living in the same house and making up songs. I mean, everyone was always away from each other but now we all had our own little lives.

Was there a concerted effort to "go for it" with "Brighten the Corners"? History has been kind to "Wowee Zowee" but considering the alternative boom at the time it never really took off. And then you have "Brighten the Corners" which starts with "Stereo" and "Shady Lane," maybe the two most obvious singles in your catalogue.
We weren't really trying to make it big or anything. I don't know. We still had some crazy songs around. We could have easily made another "Wowee Zowee." But I think we just wanted to change it around a little bit and make it ... I really don't know. It's hard to think about what we were really thinking of.

I think the important thing was just having the songs and when we were done with them they all fit together nicely and that was it. Then we moved on. We did things so fast. I think we made that record in barely a week. So we didn't really have a concept on the whole thing. The concept usually came in when the record label got involved. Like Lawrence over at Domino, that was their first record that they did with us, and he really utilized the whole ... one of the guys from Blur said he liked us. So he totally utilized that whole connection and talked that up in the British press, so that kind of made things a little more ... it was just kind of weird. [Blur] were nice guys, they were nice guys.

So you mentioned earlier the "third phase" of the band. You guys are one of the last big reunion holdouts. Although I will say that when I saw you guys in 1999, I asked if it was the last tour and you told me no. So you kind of lied to me!
With us it was always that way. So much touring we did, it always could have been the last tour. But we'd always get it back together, we just didn't that time. But there's talk of reunion and maybe in a couple years we might be able to pull something off. But Malkmus has got kids now, Steve West has got kids, Mark's doing the Sonic Youth thing and Bob is, uh, still involved with the horses.

So it would be a big change for everybody if we did something. I think we'd really have to plan it and it would take a while. Everybody would have to be on the same wavelength. I know there's been some interest in getting us to play again. I don't know if this year's a good time. Things need to settle down with the whole reunion thing and then we'll just pop out of the box.

Do you keep in touch with the guys?
I saw Malkmus the other night, he played here in Seattle. The only one I haven't really spoken to is Bob. I'm not sure where he is. Nashville maybe? I see Mark occasionally, when I go to New York. I actually saw him in Australia when I was down there last year. Steve West I haven't seen in a while but I keep in touch with him. Everybody's doing good. Steve West has a new Marble Valley record. Gary Young I haven't spoken to in a year or so, but I talk to him every once in a while. He's still clamoring for a Pavement reunion.

Yeah, how would you work that with Gary?
I don't know. It kind of depends on if Gary's up for it. It would be fun to do some of those old songs with Gary. I'm sure it would be interesting. (Laughs.) If we did something it would be really fun and positive and I think everyone would be into it, even Steve would have some fun. Playing those old songs would definitely be a lot easier to play since we're probably all better musicians now. Back then we were struggling to figure out how to play them.

By David Malitz |  December 17, 2008; 1:29 PM ET Indie Rock , Interviews
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Can we have a "Please Explain to Me" segment on Pavement? If they were only known to hardcore indie rock fans (today's Pitchfork devotees), I would understand. But their broader popularity in the '90s mystified me.

Posted by: SSMD1 | December 17, 2008 5:07 PM

ibold was the broader appeal, i do believe...

as a true blue Pavement fan, should i even buy this reissue?

cons: "Passat Dreams" (and most everything else on the original album besides the "ooohs" in "Starlings")

pros: there is never a moment that can't be improved upon by listening to "Westie Can Drum"

Posted by: seannn | December 17, 2008 6:13 PM

First of all, "Westie Can Drum" is the best Pavement song evah, no matter what Malitz tells you.

And Seannn, for what it's worth, "Brighten" is my least favorite Pavement record (I just never got into it first time around) but I am thoroughly enjoying the reissue. Lots of good stuff on there.

Posted by: leafblower | December 18, 2008 11:59 PM

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