Scott Kannberg (aka Spiral Stairs) spent the better part of the last decade on stage or in the studio with Pavement, the incredibly influential band he co-founded in 1989 with his childhood friend, Steve Malkmus. From its humble beginnings, the band went on to become one of the most important forces in the indie underground, influencing scores of other bands and establishing themselves as one of the cornerstones in the pantheon of underground rock.
Now, 12 years later, Scott Kannberg is starting over again, and he couldn’t be happier. His new project, Preston School of Industry, released their debut album, All This Sounds Gas, in August, and they’re now on a nationwide tour.
Fans and critics alike had waited with baited breath to see what would emerge from the ashes of Pavement. Since Kannberg and Malkmus had shared the songwriting duties throughout the band’s career (Malkmus taking a more prominent roll in recent years), it seemed only logical that the millennium would bring new projects from both musicians. As critics and fans take sides as to who was the more influential or more integral Pavement member, these post breakup releases are adding fuel to the debate.
Malkmus fired the first volley by releasing his self-titled solo album this past February, full of all of the irony, wit and musical slackerisms that we’d grown to love with Pavement, stripped down and laid bare. It seemed that, left to his own devices, Malkmus was free to lay it on as thick or thin as he pleased. Accolades and acclaim came swift from critics and fans alike in an avalanche of press. But in the rush to proclaim Malkmus the true heart and soul of the post-Pavement renaissance, what many people may have missed was that it might have been a little too thin. A little too slack. A little too “tossed-off.”
Fast-forward six months: The competition for the hearts and minds of Pavement fans everywhere heats up by the emergence of Preston School of Industry. For those who doubted the level of Kannberg’s contribution to the multilayered Pavement sound, just listen to the first few chords of “Whales Bones,” the opening track off All This Sounds Gas. It’s evident from the get-go that while Malkmus may have provided the psyche of Pavement, it was Spiral Stairs who gave it its soul. With his signature tension-filled guitar licks that seem to hang on the edge of disintegration, Kannberg captures the true spirit of Pavement. Always known for writing the more anthemic Pavement selections, Kannberg brings a range of influences into play on Gas, including an eye toward skewered melodies and elliptical prose, and he wears them all like a snug-but-stylin’ thrift-store jacket.
From the Cure-like jaunt of “Falling Away” to the alt-country dabblings of “A Treasure @ Silver Bank,” there’s the invigorating sense that all these songs could fall apart at any moment. The album’s charm and genius is that it never does.
While Malkmus chose to fly his own name on his new project’s banner, Kannberg decided to go with a less personal moniker. Taking the name from an old reform school for wayward boys near his hometown, Preston School of Industry seems to lend itself more to the band concept than a solo project, a question I asked Kannberg during a recent phone chat (he was at a truck stop somewhere in the wilds of Manitoba). “Well, that [a solo project] is pretty much what it is right now. I’d like it to eventually to be more of a band, if it could grow into that,” he says.
He seems relaxed and happy with his present position, laughing easily and often, even when I bring up “the competition” between he and his ex-band mate for the public’s attention. “Some people do seem to want to put my record up against his, but I suppose it’s natural for people to think like that … because of the circumstances.” He adds that the public’s obsession with Malkmus vs. Kannberg might actually take away from the appreciation of what both artists have achieved on their own, and admits that it might be more difficult to be heard as Preston, rather than playing up his Pavement connection. “That’s just the way it’s gonna be right now, but I think with the second record, as we both go along, people will have to find something else to write about,” he says, laughing.
One thing that’s likely to add fuel to the debate, particularly in the media, is that both former band mates are out on the road at the same time promote their solo endeavors, even competing directly for the public’s entertainment dollar in several cities. Here in the Triangle their shows are a day apart, but in Chicago, they actually go head to head.
“Yeah, unfortunately we do have the same booking agent,” Kannberg says with a laugh. “I think Steve’s tour was originally supposed to happen a bit earlier, but got pushed back.” But they worked out a compromise for the Chicago show: “People who go to the Malkmus show, which is earlier than ours, can keep their ticket stubs and get into our show at a discount, so that should be interesting.”
For Kannberg, having been part of a band for so long, what was it like to be left to his own devices in putting this record together–was it nerve-wracking, or liberating?
“Well, with Pavement the whole band was hardly ever around anyway,” he says. “It was mostly myself and Steve, and maybe Steve West or Gary (Young). It was pretty liberating this time around though, because, well … because I didn’t have Steve there I guess–not that having him around for Pavement was ever a bad thing [laughs]. But it was good just to be able to make all the decisions on my own. There was the pressure that was associated with Pavement: ‘Oh, we’ve got to get this album done and Steve’s got 25 songs ready and I’ve only got five for this project.’ I was free to bring in different musicians, to experiment with horns, or cello, or pedal steel and I felt free to do that sort of stuff. So yeah, it was liberating in a lot of those sort of ways.”
This freedom to follow his muse seems to have reinvigorated Kannberg after his long, sometimes exhausting Pavement experience. Still, he’s reluctant to completely close the door on his past. “You know how it is with bands; they sometimes just need time off from one another–sometimes a lot of time. When Steve did his solo record, he sort of just said, ‘I don’t want to do Pavement anymore. I want to do this.’ But you know, I’d be open to doing Pavement again. I think that a lot of the attitudes we had at the end would have to change for it to work. It was kind of negative, not what you join a band for. It was still fun, not like a real job or anything, but I think for Steve it sort of became … well, I don’t know what it became. He still hasn’t really explained to anybody why he didn’t want to do it anymore. But that’s Steve, y’know? [laughs]. He never explains anything.”
Regardless of whether there’s a future for Pavement, both Malkmus and Kannberg have acquitted themselves well on their own: Malkmus going his own way, and Kannberg mining familiar territory. And who knows? This time apart might be just what the doctor ordered; it’s safe to say that both their solo efforts have been superior to the most recent Pavement efforts. But if I had to give the edge to either, Kannberg would probably get the nod, just because he seems to be having a lot more fun with it.
Two guys, one band. Separate or together.