PAVEMENT'S DRUMMER STEVE West is carrying a hammer more often than he is a pair of sticks these days. Pavement, like Sonic Youth, Sebadoh and Built to Spill, has defined rock and roll for the last 10 years. West, the band's second drummer, bought an 1850 plantation house in rural Virginia, and while the band's not at it, touring the country to bring fans of their literate, laconic music to their knees, he's fixing up the shack.
"It's not like the movie The Money Pit," says West. "But it will take a lot to get this house into the 20th century."
Bringing a home 150 years into the future seems like child's play compared to building great records and constructing a fan base. Houses are far more permanent and forgiving. As he did with the old farmhouse, West walked into an established Pavement. The band's first drummer, Gary Young, played on all of the band's early singles and 1992's breakthrough CD, Slanted and Enchanted but was eventually fired due to chronic substance abuse, and the resulting erratic behavior. West says that Young has quit drinking, and is occasionally even playing and recording with members of Pavement again; in fact, his contributions can be heard on a new single that is being sold exclusively at the band's live shows. In those early years of the band, Pavement had members scattered on both coasts, and traded tapes through the mail in a novel recording process. West was never an outsider; from the beginning, he resided inside the paved circle.
"(Multi-instrumentalist) Bob Nastanovich and I went to high school together," says West. "Then I worked with (lead guitarist and songwriter) Steven Malkmus at the Whitney in New York City. We would get together and work out the songs in the early recordings."
His contributions on the following four albums and scores of national and international tours since are more concrete. For the recent record and tour, West painted the backdrop that rests behind the band, an adaptation of artwork from the cover of Terror Twilight. His contributions on the record are significant, but what may be more indicative of the band's and his character are his absence on two songs.
"Everyone played their part," says West, "including keeping their ego in check. The only thing that matters is it's fun, and the band sounds good. We know we're the most punk rock band around."
The band's sixth album, Terror Twilight, is a brilliant and gripping release. With Terror, the band, once known for their lo-fidelity productions, have finally stepped into the world of 24 tracks. It's a direction they've been heading in for the last few releases, and the results are evident. With London-based producer-of-the-moment Nigel Godrich (Radiohead's OK Computer; Beck's Mutations) at the helm, Twilight demonstrates that Stephen Malkmus' lyrical wordplays and untouchable associations are at their most wicked. The band became burned out after touring behind Brighten the Corners, and West confirms that they were taking intentional time apart -- in addition to their long-held and well-publicized "no two members living in the same area code" policy.
"We are trying to make the records be an event," says West. "And we're trying to have each release be a few years apart from the previous. We're trying to enjoy ourselves more, and this is probably the way to do it. Instead of dreading the tours, they're enjoyable. Instead of hating the rehearsals and the recording because of what they mean, it's something we look forward to. We've paid our dues, and now we can do it the way that makes the most sense."
Those dues include extensive recording, and it shows on the band's most cohesive and straightforward record to date. To make the album, the band rehearsed for weeks in the studio. Unlike most of the previous releases, the collaboration was more instant and more organic. They continue to be one of the most satisfyingly consistent bands in all of rock.
Beginning with the very first track, "Spit on a Stranger," Malkmus turns a yearningly melodic song of reflection propelled on a jangly, clear guitar into one with several subtexts. Wrong love, love on the rebound, and bitterness all have their turn at the chorus, but it ends on a high note of promise -- "I'll be the one who leaves you high," he sings. The expanded number of tracks allows deeper instrumentation; banjos and harmonicas find their way onto Pavement's roster for the first time and everywhere they make sense with tone, or shift of scene within songs. "Folk Jam" takes a swipe at hippie gatherings: "Tuck in your thoughts, the (good feelings of family) are there, or they're not."
Few bands in their class could comfortably show as many dizzying, diminished chords, nor the straight-out rock-and-roll leads that border on the metallic. "Billie" Jekyll-and-Hydes musically from a soft acoustic (comical?) coming of age to a hideously caustic chorus. "Cream of Gold" is an anthemic rocker that takes to task drug dealers and the newly created Docker class, only to burn out like so many joints. "Time is a one-way track, and I'm not coming back, I bleed in beige, why'd you leave me so far?" sings Malkmus. "Bring on the Major Leagues," a song for homesick teens abroad shows their silver spoon-filled diaries filled with angst. The 11 tracks are rife with surprises of juxtaposition and melody, and dead-on, unmistakably Pavement.
But the times change. When West talks of peers, it's to long-gone SST Records bands, and an earlier ethic of punk rock, touring, drugs and wild musical experiments of raw energy.
"Everything is going toward an electronica," says West. "The days of SST and touring rock bands seem to be in decline. That was a certain time and a flash and it lasted for a while, and I'm glad I got to be a part of it somehow, and carry on that tradition."
Pavement performs with the Dirty Three and Giant Sand at 8 p.m. Tuesday, October 5, on the Rialto Theatre stage, 318 E. Congress St. Tickets are $10 in advance, available at Zips University, CD Depot and the Congress Street Store. They'll be $12 at the door.