Stains on the Sidewalk: We Downed Beers in Chinatown with Former Pavement Bassist Mark Ibold

"It was never a band that really practiced much."

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Aug 13 2015, 2:00pm

(photo courtesy Sprial Stairs Archive)

Pavement was indisputably the hippest band in the land circa 1992. In retrospect, the post-Nirvana hype surrounding the quintet seems hopelessly misguided and quaint, but the emotional impact of the group's music—specifically, its debut LP, Slanted and Enchanted—endures to this day. Brought together at the twilight of the '80s in Stockton, California, cofounders Stephen Malkmus and Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannberg put a sloppy, smart-assed spin on both American indie guitar raunch and the art-punk detritus of drunken Brits like the Fall and Swell Maps. The pair were anything but simple copyists, though; they employed hissing distortion, abstruse wordplay, and crappy fidelity as mere camouflage for stealthy hooks and classic-rock choruses.

This month, Matador Records is releasing The Secret History, Vol. 1, a double-album compilation of B sides, outtakes, radio sessions, and live material that chronicles Pavement's early years, long before the guys replaced nutcase drummer Gary Young, scrubbed the noise from their pop, or parted ways in late 1999. More recently known for his tenure with the final incarnation of Sonic Youth and for his contributions to Momofuku chef David Chang and food critic Peter Meehan's Lucky Peach magazine, epicurean bassist Mark Ibold was relatively new to the lineup when these songs were still fresh. He was cool enough to spend a sticky summer night reminiscing about it all over pints of Hoegaarden in Manhattan's Chinatown.

Noisey: How did you end up joining Pavement?
Mark Ibold: I got to know Stephen when I was in [the New York noise-rock band] Dustdevils and from going to the same shows. The scene seemed so different then; you would see the same 30-to-100 people everywhere. I kind of knew [future Silver Jews frontman] David Berman, who was his friend. We started talking. I saw them at Dustdevils shows and at [the Lower East Side bar] Max Fish. I was aware of the first Pavement single. I discovered it without anyone telling me anything about it. When I ran into Stephen, probably within a year of that coming out, I was like, "Are you kidding me? You're in that band? I never do this, but I just bought three copies of your record." I got to know him better. After their first tour, he asked me to join. They wanted a bass player. This guy Rob Chamberlin, who had played third guitar on the tour, had left. I don't really know what happened with him. I joined for the second Pavement tour in summer 1991. Stephen had these cassettes of Slanted and Enchanted, which had already been recorded. For the shows, I basically learned stuff that Stephen had played on guitar [in the studio] but I figured it out on bass. Stephen lived in New York at that time, Scott was in Stockton, Gary was in Stockton, and [percussionist] Bob Nastanovich lived in Hoboken. It was never a band that really practiced much.

Continued below.

I met you on that tour, after a free show at the Philadelphia Record Exchange.
Outside?

Yeah. In the afternoon.
At [the Philadelphia bar] Khyber Pass, my parents came to see their son play a rock show for the first time. The place was super-packed. It was July or August—very hot and humid—and the temp in the club was over 100. I remember looking out and seeing my mom, drenched in sweat, peering around the wall that separated the two halves of the club. Her face was bright red but she was smiling. Then, minutes later, I noticed some movement in the back of the club. It was my dad, climbing up and standing on a bar stool. As soon as he stood, his head got clipped by a ceiling fan and down he went. Seconds later he was being helped onto another stool. All this was happening while I was struggling to hear Stephen over Gary, who was going completely wild—in a good way—on the drums. The Philly crowd seemed pretty into it. To my relief, my parents had a blast and were really amazed at how cool the kids at the show had been to them. The first time we stayed at my parents' house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, I had kind of warned my family about the band. The next morning, we were all waking up and when we came downstairs, Gary was sitting in the kitchen, talking to my parents. My mom sort of took me aside and said, "Oh, he's such a very nice man!" Little did she know that he had woken up at the crack of dawn and gone to this little seedy bar down the street to get his first fix of booze before returning home and chatting with her.

Anything else stand out from those early tours?
Our first time in LA was a really weird scene. It was at a club in West Hollywood called English Acid at Peanuts.

Almost sounds like some '90s rave bullshit.
At the time, we thought that name was ridiculous, which is funny cause now I’d be thrilled to call my new bar English Acid at Peanuts. Anyway, they didn't really want us to be there and we had kind of a crappy show. There was a strange vibe with tough LA cops driving all around the area. And this guy, who I actually knew from New York, came up to us and said something like, "Dude, Michael Jackson's lawyer is here to check you out." And I was like, "What the fuck are you talking about? Who gives a shit!" It was very LA. In the beginning, we had a couple of those kinds of shows. But in most places, we were very lucky and people were happy to have us. We had this sort of charmed existence from the get-go. There wasn't really an issue with the promoter being bummed or any problems with ticket sales.

Any real disasters?
There was a crazy show in Atlanta at this place Masquerade, which became known as sort of a goth club. The stage was really high and they had a drum riser that was even higher. And Gary was doing his stupid handstands and stick tosses. He was really, really wasted. And he just fell off the back, in the middle of a song. We were playing and I remember thinking that I didn't hear him anymore. I turned around and was like, "Oh God, he's gone." He had fallen like 12 feet off the back of the drum riser. Minutes later, he crawled back up and was playing again. That kind of thing happened a lot. I think it was very entertaining for the audience and sometimes even for us. But a lot of times it would wreck the song.


(photo courtesy Sprial Stairs Archive)

Didn't Gary hit Bob with a car? And weren't there guns involved?
Those were two different things. Outside of New Orleans, our trailer had a flat. We were on the side of a highway, trying to take care of it, and we had separated the trailer from the van. I think Gary got in the van and backed it up. And he hit Bob. He didn't run over Bob; he just really startled him and freaked him out. Bob chewed him out for it. He was sort of like Gary's babysitter on tour. Gary, of course, felt terrible. The guns were a separate thing. I think this happened somewhat later because it was when Gary was really trying to push Stephen's buttons. We'd have to stop the van on tour to let Gary off, at bars mostly. He was one of those guys who had to have vodka to be awake in the morning. One day, he went into a pawn shop and came out with this rifle. And he was just going, "Heh, heh. Look what I got." We were like, "Come on, you've gotta be kidding me. You can barely handle life right now and you're buying a rifle? And you're gonna have this in the van with us while we're on tour?" I didn't see this, but I remember Bob saying that, a day or so later, Gary said that he was gonna shoot Stephen. Which I doubt Stephen took very seriously. But it was still a bummer.

Much has been made about the sloppiness of those shows. But if Steve was in a good mood and Gary was relatively sober, the performances could be incredible, like the Brixton Academy gig included on the new record. How did you feel knowing that things could be amazing or total chaos on any given night?
Every band that I've been in has been like that.

Sonic Youth, too?
Sonic Youth was maybe more pro so it wasn't on the same scale. And we didn't have a wild card like Gary. He could be the worst drummer you've ever heard and he could be the best drummer you've ever heard. Stephen plays great, but there were times when he did not seem like he wanted to be there. That was the most painful thing for me. It was just part of his personality but it was a bummer because I knew how good he could be; it was like seeing a member of your family doing something that was a little self-destructive. Sometimes we took it personally. I would wonder if we were holding Stephen back. I think that's one of the reasons that he has [his current band] the Jicks now; they don't hold him back musically. There's probably more to it than that but that's something he would have to tell you about. At least Gary was trying, even though he would be completely wasted. Sometimes he had weird ideas about us being rock stars and his showboating stuff would be borderline annoying, but then sometimes he'd nail it. And he really was a sweet guy, so I could deal with it to a certain extent.

What do you remember about your earliest recording session with Pavement?
It was for the Watery, Domestic EP [from 1992]. Some tracks from the same session are on this new compilation, like "Greenlander," "So Stark," and "Sue Me Jack." I guess there's a lot of extra material because sometimes the songs wouldn't turn out the way Stephen expected. Maybe it was the way we recorded some of them. Or the vocals weren't right. He probably enjoyed how the songs changed with everybody participating, but he was pretty loose with throwing out material. Stephen wrote most of the stuff but it was cool for me to play on some of it. I felt like I was being brought somewhat into the creative part of the band. I think I did some odd things that weren't even on a bass, like holding down one note on a keyboard or maybe even singing a little. The traditional thing of everybody going into the studio and playing their part wasn't until the second album, [1994's Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain], or even later. But I always feel like my contribution to Pavement and to every band I'm in is partly a social thing: being friends with these people and being interested in the same stuff. I've learned to play bass, but I don't feel like I'm a musician's musician.

That was recorded in California, right?
I remember being at Gary's studio in Stockton and being so freaked and psyched. If I remember correctly, the studio was in a garage or side area of his one-story house. He would climb onto the roof and do a handstand on the edge of the roof. Then he'd let his body fall off the roof and land in a perfect gymnast position on his front lawn.

Pavement was being touted as the next big thing but the band never signed to a major label and the music remained pretty eccentric. Was that a conscious decision? What was going through your head about making a career out of the band?
I don't think anyone was ever thinking of it as being a career. We were doing some high-profile stuff but it wasn't like we were selling a zillion records or being played on the radio. So it didn't seem like it was necessary to have a manager or anything like that. It might have changed the trajectory of the band but I don't know that it would have made us more popular. We all really liked records and listening to music. We embraced weird stuff. We didn't think it was necessary to sign to a major label; the labels that we were involved with were able to handle the amount of business that this band was going to be doing. Especially back then, it was a crazy thing when you stated talking to guys from the big labels. A band that signs and get a huge monetary advance all of a sudden has this pressure to recoup the money. That's probably a pretty terrible feeling and that was never really an issue for Pavement. The way we were operating was still fun. This was also how most of the bands that we liked were doing it. If we had signed to a big label, maybe we could have done everything the same way. But I'm not so sure.


(photo by Mette Tronvoll)

You were still working as a waiter then?
Maybe not in '92. In the very beginning of Pavement, yes. But I've had restaurant jobs since I was 14 or 15.

You moved to New York to get involved with food, right?
One of my first jobs after being a paperboy was working at a restaurant in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It was a cool little French place that had this amazing chef. The guy that ran the place got a job in New York and helped open up a restaurant that was on Chambers Street [in TriBeCa]. It was called Hamburger Harry's and it was a little bit ahead of its time because there's this hamburger craze now; back then, there wasn't. It sold burgers grilled on mesquite wood, catering to people from Wall Street and City Hall. The place was super '80s looking: a lot of brushed stainless steel and weird curves, slightly industrial. The burgers were all cooked on this platform in the back corner, on this huge, raised grill. Once a month, this semi full of mesquite would drive up from Texas and they would unload it. There would be snakes and scorpions and all these creatures in the wood. I moved to New York in 1983 to work in the kitchen because my friend was hired to run it. I was doing salad station and making foot-long hot dogs and milkshakes. Even before that, in '82, I worked here for one summer, at this weird place called the Century Cafe in Times Square. It was completely insane. They hired this sort of model woman to be the greeter or hostess. There was a bartender named Conan. There was this Vietnam vet sous chef downstairs who was a total bastard to me. It was sort of like a midtown watering hole with new-wave cooking, popular at lunchtime. We made deep-fried wontons with deep-fried parsley. I would leave there at like 3pm and walk to this boarding house in Chelsea, where I was staying. Hip-hop was just becoming popular and I would hear [Afrika Bambaataa's] "Planet Rock" on the street. It was coming out of boomboxes and out of cars, so you would hear it playing everywhere. That was so cool.

Did you grow up in a food-centric family?
Oh yeah! My mom has always been into cooking; my dad's into cooking. My mom cooked a different thing every single night.

A different dish every night of the week?
No, no! Of the year! We would hardly have any repetition. Today, it'd be like reading the New York Times cooking section every Wednesday and thinking, "Ooh! Wow! I think I'm gonna try making this dish tonight!"

Jesus. That's impressive.
There would be some repetition of side dishes. Maybe we'd have beans several times a year. She was really into Craig Claiborne, Michael Field, James Beard, Julia Child in the 60s and 70s... My parents were always like that. When I call them, the first thing we talk about is what's going on the grill or whatever.

Did you hold restaurant jobs all through Pavement's existence?
I worked for a big catering company for a while, doing gigantic benefit dinners at the Metropolitan Museum [of Art] or Grand Central Station.

And then you did food styling?
That was quite a bit later, like right when the band ended. Food styling has kind of a bad reputation among chef dudes. But we did more editorial than advertising work. I learned a lot about sourcing good produce and shopping. For that job, we would have lemons on the branch shipped to us and stuff. And I learned how to deal with butchers who just think you're an asshole if you order something very particular. A lot of that job was cooking, too. When you're doing editorial stuff, it's more about just cooking well and making the food look good at the same time; there aren't a lot of tricks. That's sort of how I got involved with Peter and Lucky Peach.

I was gonna ask you about that.
I'm a manager at the [Great] Jones [Cafe] on the weekends and I still tend bar there one night a week...

How would you characterize the place for the uninitiated?
It's a 30-year-old restaurant that you could loosely describe as being Southern style. It has some Louisiana stuff on the menu, like gumbo and jambalaya. But it's more of a New York place than anything else. Maybe 10 years ago, Peter Meehan and his wife were semi-regular customers and they just seemed cool. They minded their p's and q's. They weren't assholes. One day, I think I heard them talking about Judy Rodgers's Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Or they heard me talking about it. So we kind of bonded over that. It turned out that he was the dude that was writing the $25 and Under [restaurant] column for The New York Times. And I was like, "Oh Christ. I like what you're doing. Do you like [former Mofungo bassist and Village Voice food critic Robert] Sietsema? Because that guy's always been my New York hero." So Peter was like, "You should come out with me to a restaurant sometime." We've been friends ever since. In his $25 and Under column, he had written about [David Chang's original] Momofuku, when it was just a noodle bar. He also mentioned in that first review that Pavement was being played in there; he was trying to describe how hip the place was for playing Pavement. Which sounds funny! Very funny right now, in fact! And so when he started Lucky Peach with David, he asked me to write stuff for that. This coming issue will be the first one that I have not contributed to. Every issue has a theme; this will be the Fantasy Issue. Sometimes it's a bit of a stretch for me because I'm supposed to be the Southeastern Pennsylvania correspondent [for my column in the magazine].


(photo courtesy Sprial Stairs Archive)

Fantasy and Pennsylvania don't exactly go hand in hand. How did you become friends with Danny Bowien, the chef from Mission Chinese Food?
Through Peter. Lucky Peach started as part of [the West Coast publishing house] McSweeney's, so there was this San Francisco connection.

Danny started the restaurant out there.
Right. The McSweeney's people knew Danny from Mission Chinese in San Francisco, which I've never been to. I met him before his restaurant here opened up, and he seemed like such a nice guy. I was so happy with his first place in New York, when it was on Orchard Street.

It was fantastic.
I haven't really been there very many times [since it reopened] down here [in Chinatown].

I've never been to this one.
Still?

It's not for lack of trying. It's always a fucking fracas with a long wait for a table when I walk by. Seeing as we're in Chinatown and also talking about those guys, do you find yourself specifically drawn to Asian cuisine?
I don't feel like I'm an Asian food aficionado although I do like it a lot, especially Chinese food. I got super-psyched when I went to [the] Flushing [section of Queens] like 10 years ago and first tried that place Spicy & Tasty.

With the numbing peppercorns in everything?
That tendon salad with the Sichuan peppercorns and the red oil. That tofu and celery dish. All that cold stuff.

The cold appetizers and pickled dishes are such a nice counterpoint to the heat.
Having real Sichuan food there blew my mind. [David Chang and Danny Bowien] are definitely into that stuff. But I wouldn't say that it's really what I gravitate towards. I mean, I love Chinese food but I feel like I just don't know enough about it. Maybe if I was in LA I'd have stronger feelings because I could try more of it. I feel like what my brain and body respond to the most is any food from within 300 miles of the Mediterranean. It's easy and simple and the ingredients are so pure.

Me, too. That's certainly most of what I cook at home. Returning to the subject of music: You're playing with Spectre Folk nowadays. It's Pete Nolan from Magik Markers, backed by you, Steve Shelley from Sonic Youth, Peter Meehan...
The joke is that we're a dad band. We all have other jobs and we play shows every four-to-six months. Steve misses a lot of shows cause he's on tour with either Thurston [Moore] or Lee [Ranaldo]. Sometimes Allison [Busch] from Awesome Color and Call of the Wild plays with us instead. We end up doing the same songs all the time but it doesn't bother anybody cause we hardly ever play. The one sad thing about being a dad band is that we never get to practice.

Didn't you tell me the same thing about Pavement?
This is sort of the extreme version of that. But yeah, it's pretty much been that way with every band I've ever been in.

Jordan N. Mamone is a writer based in New York.