Pavement, a rock band from the ‘90s that wasn’t exactly unpopular, would’ve played their first two shows in a decade earlier this summer if the coronavirus hadn’t happened. They were scheduled as one of the headliners of Barcelona’s annual Primavera Sound festival in early June, in what would’ve been their second reunion since breaking up at the beginning of 2000. Their first reunion, in 2010, saw the band hit the major festival circuit, which hadn’t really come into shape yet during their original tenure, in and around a months-long tour that took them around the world. Basically Pavement reappears every 10 years, like an indie rock Brigadoon, or would if it wasn’t for world-threatening pandemics.
Fans were hoping for another tour springing out of that Primavera appearance, an idea that frontman Stephen Malkmus seemed open to in interviews earlier this year. Although no other concerts were ever announced for 2020, those Primavera shows have been rescheduled for 2021 (virus willing), so fans should keep those hopes harnessed in case of a comeback. Until then, they can keep listening to the band’s five albums, or checking out the various live videos that can be found on YouTube. Or they can focus on the part of the Pavement canon that we’re going to talk about today: their music videos.
One of Pavement’s defining traits was their apparent ambivalence towards the music business. Obviously you have to be somewhat career-minded to start a successful band that gets played on the radio and MTV and that kicks off a legitimate lifelong career (at least for one member), but Pavement were transparently disinterested in the alt-rock feeding frenzy of the early ‘90s. To this day, over 30 years into his career, Malkmus remains on Matador Records, the same independent label that released Pavement’s albums. They got hit hard with the “slacker” tag in the ‘90s—something Malkmus disliked, but also never seemed all that interested in changing—but it was more a case of them being wary about the music business and trying to find a way that made it work for them than being lazy.
That attitude carried over to their music videos. The only video from their first album, 1992’s Slanted and Enchanted, was an arty live film directed by Thurston Moore. When they started to get serious about music videos with their second album, 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, they were still profoundly unserious—turning them into either absurd comedy sketches or low-key montages of the band in mundane scenarios. That might make it sound like Pavement wasn’t a great band for music videos, but if you were a fan at the time a new Pavement video was something of an event. Like their music, Pavement’s videos distilled a distinct ethos popular with bored (and almost entirely white) teens and twentysomethings into a defined aesthetic, and made sure to have some fun with it in the process.
Since we’ve all been denied the Pavement reunion that 2020 had initially promised, let’s look back at the band’s best videos, starting with a song that caused a silly one-sided controversy when it was released in 1994.
On the surface this seems like a fairly standard example of the “summer festival” video—where a director slaps a bunch of footage of a band playing to large audiences at massive festivals together and calls it a day. This one has a pointless framing device, though, and makes a point of having the band members walk backwards through the teeming masses. It’s a little goofy, basically. Is it a coincidence that the song whose fleeting Smashing Pumpkins diss lost Pavement a slot on the Lollapalooza tour in ‘94 would have a video that’s all live festival footage? That’s the kind of stuff indie rock obsessed nerds would talk about back in the day, at least.
“Major Leagues” was the last Pavement song to get a video, and there are actually two different versions of it. Both make this list. This one looks and feels more like a typical Pavement video than the other, not just because the band is actually in this one, but because they’re just kind of aimlessly screwing around at a mini golf course, intercut with Malkmus’s exaggerated crooning into the camera like a mock teen idol. Malkmus’s tongue-in-cheek posing is the best thing here.
Spike Jonze’s weirdly sedate video features a headless Malkmus, ghostly Pavement members at a business conference, references to Todd Haynes’ Safe, a self-driving car in the ‘90s, and a nutritious breakfast. It’s a little more conceptual than their videos usually get; Bob Nastanovich dancing at a gas station is the closest it gets to the low-stakes goofery you expect from their videos.
For their first few years Pavement was intentionally mysterious. Their early singles and EPs had cryptic art, no photographs, and listed weird code names for credits. This started to change with their first album, 1992’s Slanted & Enchanted, but they were still reluctant to entirely leave the shadows. Their first official video, which was directed by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, pulls the curtain back a bit, showing the band in action, but never quite offers up a clear shot of any of the members. It’s all a dreamy, lethargic blur, like “Here” itself. Hell, with his floppy hair and striped shirt you could think Malkmus circa 1992 was actually Mark Gardener from Ride.
John Kelsey’s video leans into the country rock languor of this Wowee Zowee single, with the band sporting western wear and performing on what looks like a desert diorama at a local natural history museum. There are a few Pavement videos where the band just stands around some innocuous setting—a strip mall, an office park, a field—while wearing matching costumes, and this is definitely one of them.
Pavement doesn’t actually appear in the better of the two “Major Leagues” videos. Instead Lance Bangs’ video features Athens, Ga. man-about-town Dan Donahue intently watching an indie wrestling show at the 40 Watt Club in 1999. There’s an abstract quality to this one that sets it apart from the rest of the band’s videos, and yet the visuals still follow the lyrics more closely than usually seen in Pavement videos. The wrestling show was promoted by memorable ‘80s NWA / WCW jobber the Italian Stallion, and weirdly enough, I was actually there.
“Stereo” is a performance video that’s not particularly interested in the performance, instead zooming in on random parts of instruments and focusing on long, lingering, almost sensual closeups of breakfast cereal. There’s also a cameo by a rubber squirrel, some intentionally dodgy chroma key work, and a weirdly beautiful and perfectly timed long zoom out on the final chorus that might be the best single moment in a Pavement video.
Here’s a great concept that pays off with a fantastic final gag. Scott Kannberg, aka Spiral Stairs, Pavement’s secondary songwriter, gets a video for one of his songs for the first and only time, and uses it to fire the rest of Pavement and replace them with the more telegenic and professionally-oriented musicians in Veruca Salt, whose song “Seether” was a legit mainstream hit in 1994. It’s basically filled with in-jokes for Pavement nerds, like Bob Nastanovich as a big shot at a horse track, and Malkmus as the band’s rock star, and a finale that pokes at the tensions between the “indie rock” scene and the mainstream alternative genre in the mid ‘90s.
This was the first time most people saw or heard Pavement, and it introduced them as a band fully aware of the ridiculousness of the music video industry in the ‘90s. MTV still played videos at the time, and could absolutely make a band’s career if they aired their videos enough. At a time when major labels were dropping huge amounts of money on elaborate videos directed by future Hollywood hit makers, and smaller bands were trying to win over MTV’s programmers with arty short films, Pavement went ahead and made one of the silliest videos that ever got aired on MTV. The big difference between “Cut Your Hair” and a lot of other attempts at humor in music videos is that this stuff is actually funny.
“Gold Soundz” stands out as an almost perfect music video because it so thoroughly captures the essence of its band. It has an air of being tossed-off but obviously had thought put into it; it’s silly but in a way that’s a little bit weird and a little bit arty and not over-the-top or cloying; and it looks like the product of people who are ambivalent about the business side of music. It’s also legitimately funny, but in a more understated way than “Cut Your Hair.” It also fits “Gold Soundz” perfectly despite having no thematic connection to the lyrics of the song.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.