Straight Outta Stockton: Life Lessons from Pavement's Gary Young
Kissing Courtney Love and exercising with Jello Biafra.
Matador Records recently released Pavement’s The Secret History, Vol. 1, a double LP featuring B sides, outtakes, radio sessions, and other live material from the band’s early years. A ton of Pavement reissues have popped up over the years but this little treasure takes us back to square one. Back to where it all started. Straight outta Stockton.
Stockton, California has a dark reputation for being a rough place to live. It’s true that the city has been ranked the Number One Most Miserable City in North America multiple times by Forbes. It's also true that in 2012 Stockton became the largest city in U.S history to file for bankruptcy. Behind all its bad press, Stockton is rich in agriculture and has been home to Chris Isaak, Dave Brubeck, the original hipster Lord Buckley, and home to the cock and balls of indie-rock, Pavement.
I myself was born and raised in Stockton. As a kid, I could hear Pavement jam in a garage on Waco Way in the rural north side of town. They sounded horrible but I was super young and just getting into MC Hammer at the time. Pavement was the only local band to come out of my high school in nearby Lodi, and that made them the coolest guys around. Chi Cheng of Deftones also went to this school and lived around the block from co-founders Stephen Malkmus and Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg’s house in a distinguished suburb called Morada.
Back to basics. College students Malkmus and Kannberg wrote songs over Christmas break 1989 and took these so-called songs to local legend and aging punk rock hippie Gary Young a.k.a. The Plantman, who recorded them in his garage and became their drummer for four years.
The first day Pavement got together to record, a shooting took place at an elementary school in bloody Stockton. Five kids were killed and 32 were injured. So was it a coincidence they titled their first EP Slay Tracks (1933-1969)?
Every winter, I escape the Montreal cold for the Stockton fog and I've been lucky enough to kick a few back with Gary Young, now 62. His body posture is definitely slanted and crooked from all the houses he jumped off, but he's very enchanting to be around. I spent a couple days at the house he's been living in since 1993 with his high school sweetheart Geri. He's like a ghost hiding in the far outskirts of Stockton, tucked away in the cherry and walnut orchards of Spanos County. He's a borderline hoarder but more of a collector. Every time I'm around the fella, I can feel and smell the spirit of rock. He's the real deal and it’s obvious the first time you lay eyes on him. The man still has those shiny youthful eyes and adolescent grin. He may not know it, but if you Google "greatest indie record of all time," Gary Young most likely recorded and drummed on it. Read our interview with him below.
NOISEY: You're a devout alcoholic. How much do you drink and what’s an average day like for Gary?
GARY YOUNG: I'm now down to drinking two 200ML bottles of Seagram's a day along with a beer. I feel pretty good most of the time. Did I tell you I dropped acid 65 times in my lifetime? I drive for miles every morning to the liquor store when it opens up at 6 AM. I hang out with Local Farmers in nearby Linden (home of the Speed Freak Serial Killers). I own a state of the art recording studio with a remote control in my backyard and it sounds like a million bucks. I own lots of fancy amps and a stack of microphones. Aside from that, I hang around hardware stores a lot and buy stuff. That's how I came up with and patented the Universal Shock Mount. I sell mine for $27 and it's one-size-fits-all. The other ugly spider-looking ones out there are way more expensive. I make [mine] individually with my bare hands and mail them out to distributors and personal orders I receive online. I've sold about 13,000 of them. If I hustle like a mad man, I can make ten an hour. It’s in my blood. My father was an inventor and an aviation technician who helped build the Spruce Goose aircraft. Let me show you a certified American flag flown over the US Capitol in his honour.
Stylus magazine listed you as one of their ‘50 Greatest Rock Drummers of All Time’ and your solo stuff was featured on a Beavis and Butthead episode. That's huge!
I got number 42 out of 50. I didn't beat Keith Moon, thats for sure. Everyone behind me on that list deserves to be ahead of me. That journalist is silly, it’s an outdated article to some degree. I appreciate it but I don't think I truly deserve it. I'm sort of a has-been. I heard about that Beavis and Butthead thing but it didn't really do anything for me.
You booked a lot of shows in Stockton in the 80s. Which bands did you book?
The real story is that I was the only guy over 21 to sign rental hall papers for local Mexicano Halls. I hired the Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks and what’s that other famous band? [Long pause] Black Flag. I booked this really cool band from San Francisco called Crime. They came dressed in standard blue police uniforms. Dead Kennedys stayed at my house. I'm telling you, Jello Biafra is just about as out there as you could possibly imagine. I wake up in the morning and he's doing isometric exercises on my living room floor.
What were your first impressions of Pavement and Malkmus?
I was in a band called The Fall Of Christianity with Brian Thalken of The Authorities. Stephen and Scott would come to our shows. They also came to my studio and I recorded their first EPs and Slanted and Enchanted. In the beginning, they had no drummer so I invited myself to play drums and next thing you know, I'm in the band. Here's the deal: When I first heard them, I did not understand it. I'd tell my friends in New York I just made this weird record and I don't really know how to describe it. Three or four years later I realized that we had really done something. But it took me a long time to figure it out. The classic example of this for me is that Yes is my favorite band.
Proto-Pavement: a young Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg. Photo by Conrad Matsumoto.
How many shows or tours have you done with Pavement?
Something like 500 shows. Five times across the Americas and maybe three times around the world.
How many of your own gigs have you been kicked out of?
At least seven times.
You're an ex-gymnast and known for performing headstands during your live shows. You greeted every fan at the front door giving gifts for all. Did that piss off the band?
I'd do headstands while Malkmus would perform these beautiful solo songs. I would stand on my head for as long as I could. The crowd would cheer for me up until I lost balance. That must have pissed Malkmus off. See, the band just didn't want me as its representative. The thing is, most of the fans and media like NME wanted to talk to me or take my picture. I was the crazy guy and Malkmus was the smart one with the good songs. I'd stop playing in the middle of songs and ask the audience for a cocktail. I'd stand in front of the clubs we played and greeted everyone with a souvenir on their way into the show. I stood out at the end and thanked them all for coming too. Then it got more bizarre. I started giving away vegetables. The only person into helping me do this was Thurston Moore. He was so into it. Once in Germany with Sonic Youth, we had 5000 people coming. I found these cabbages the size of basketballs. I had a huge kitchen knife and cut pieces for every attendee coming through those doors. I'm half German but Germans don't have much of a sense of humor so I got kicked out by two blonde paratrooper-looking guys for doing that. They wouldn't let me back in but I ended up sneaking in through the back door. I figured I was an entertainer so I was simply entertaining our fans.
We had a show in London and 250 people were coming to the show so I bought 250 one-cent postage stamps and I'd stick a stamp on the back of their ticket stubs. That was the night John Peel came to our show and I stamped him too.
You know one of the Pavement singles you recorded was found in John Peel's secret favorite record collection box after he died right? It had 143 singles, including The Beatles. There's an entire documentary about this stash. Did that trip you out?
Wait, John Peel died? I didn't know that.
Speaking of famous dead people, you also met Kurt and Courtney?
We were opening for Nirvana at the Reading Festival in 1992. I was in my dressing room RV and there's this kid in there sitting on the couch and [Pavement guitarist Scott] Kannberg's in there too. I start shooting the shit with this kid for about 20 minutes. After that, Kannberg asks, "Do you know who that is?" and I said no and he says, "Kurt Cobain." I had no idea who that was. He then tells me he's the lead singer for this band called Nirvana and I said I don't know who that is either. I then walk about three RV's down and this big, ugly, giant white woman screams “GARY!” and kisses me square on the lips and to my surprise it’s Courtney Love and I'm told she's Kurt's wife. I was really in a quandary at that point and had no idea who these fucking people were. For the record, Courtney and I did not make out. Just a kiss.
How did Pavement work?
Kannberg did the paperwork. Malkmus wrote most of the songs. I drummed and recorded all the shit.
They said you quit but you said you were fired. Was it just all miscommunication?
I really shouldn't say this, but at the time, I felt that there was a lot of money going around and I thought they might just kick me down something. My brother is a three-time Grammy Award-winning musical director and he pressured me into getting something signed on paper. They were 20 years old and had no long term plan. I was the eldest and I wasn't getting any younger. But I don't wanna be an asshole about it. I wanna be friends with these guys. Don't get me wrong, I got paid and I still get some kind of residual money periodically but nothing that's gonna make the house payments.
Gary Young and Mikey Bernard.
Recently, your ex-bandmate Bob Nastanovich admitted he knew where you were coming from, now that he's gotten older. Does that mean anything to you?
I appreciate that. Bob was my best man in my wedding.
Pavement never had a manager. They were super DIY. They didn't want to be the next Nirvana or Weezer. Did that bother you?
Do It Yourself. Thats what you are, Gary.
Well yeah, that's me, alright. I just thought we should be making more money if we're in all these magazines but the band didn't care at the time. In the long run, I was wrong. They made it.
Do you still talk to the guys?
Not really. Scott invited me over to his engagement party and told me they'd take me [to] Europe for their reunion tour. That didn't happen. They did end up inviting me to play four songs at their reunion shows in Stockton and Berkeley.
You were once quoted saying that your replacement drummer Steve West was a great guy but a horrible drummer.
It’s true but I would never say it to his face. When I look at a drummer, if I can't do what he does, then he's definitely better than me. That's how I judge a drummer.
Recently on a WTF with Marc Maron podcast episode, Malkmus proclaimed that out of his entire discography, his favorite recording was with you in Stockton. What do you have to say about that?
How can he possibly say something else? Tell him to get his ass back to Stockton and let's make a good fucking record. Period. I'm serious. We made the greatest record of all fucking punk rock time, come on, let's make another one, whats the fucking problem? My chops are up!
Which is your favorite Pavement record before and after Gary?
Apparently Crooked Rain is good. That Dave Brubeck cover jam “5-4=Unity” was my idea. They also apparently named their record Wowee Zowee after me, that was my line. My favorite Pavement recording with me behind the drums was Watery, Domestic.
Do you think we'll ever get in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Yes. But you'll be dead by then.
Do we beat Sonic Youth?
I'm from Stockton. Pavement comes first.