On the Bus with Pavement: Tour Diary


On Music

Pavement. Photograph by Marcus Roth, Courtesy of Matador Records.

One of the more remarkable things about being behind the wheel of a tour bus for Pavement is that you can easily kill Pavement if you want to. I bring this up with their driver, Jason, who responds only by smiling at me while driving at a professionally breakneck speed on the interstate somewhere between Saint Paul and Chicago at 4 A.M. as every one of the six members of the beloved nineties band lies asleep in their bunks in the cabin behind us. To my left, Jason’s freshly filled coffee mug—personalized to read LORDY LORDY, LOOK WHO’S FORTY above a beaming middle school graduation photo—jangles in its cup holder.

A fizz of dispatch comes through the receiver from the other driver, Jeff, who drives an identical bus bearing a platoon of tech and crew members that’s ripping down I-90 just ahead of us. Since we left Saint Paul, a relentless stream of consciousness has flowed from Jeff to Jason via CB radio, coursing through points of interest such as God and the best way to cook snake, to which Jason has responded only occasionally, if at all, with transmissions like “That’s a negative,” “Mmhmm,” or “Lord, that is crazy.” Jason has hardly taken a week off since his last nationwide tour (three months, Def Leppard) yet remains magnanimous, gallant, sweatless, surely underpaid. “I think it’s about time for a squirt in the dirt,” goes Jeff’s voice overhead. “All due respect, sir,” Jason says, seizing the mouthpiece, “but there is a woman in this vehicle. Please refrain from that sort of language. Over.” We pull over onto a shoulder and wait as Jeff’s crew bus deposits toilet runoff into scrubgrass with the push of a button. “I make it a point to listen to the bands that I’m moving around,” Jason offers as we watch the spot of sewage bloom, “and I think I get why people like these guys.” 

I’m accompanying the indie rock group Pavement for a thin slice of their hugely anticipated, nearly sold-out, four-month monster of a reunion tour. Founded in 1989 and nominally dead a decade later, Pavement belonged to the category of unsuccessful and confounding superstarsa band who was never really that famous, that scrutable, that glory-seeking or ambitious. None of their albums or songs ever got anywhere close to gold or platinum in the US. But they were treated as life-affirmingly, almost irritatingly influential by their big- and small-time rock contemporaries, knighted as “the finest rock band of the nineties” by Robert Christgau, and earned Pitchfork’s number one song of the nineties, back when people relatively cared about the opinions held by either Christgau or Pitchfork. They summed the epoch’s diffidence (its huge concern for “authenticity,” its allergy toward the idea of “selling-out,” et al.), were blessed and cursed with the idea that they were the vanguard of a loosely defined genre called “slacker rock,” and, for some among a population that remembers using the word hipster regularly, they are—as they were for the long-lionized English DJ John Peel—“one of the best bands in the world.” This is also a band that hasn’t written anything whatsoever together since their dissolution twenty-one years ago and whose last tour happened at the tail end of the aughts. 

As with most artists now granted the vague honorific of “cult band,” the enthusiasm for their reunion borders on unreasonable. Resale tour tickets in some cities were going for a ludicrous $500. Serious devotees have documented and color-coded each stop with spreadsheets that sort out setlists by album and frequency of track repetition. By the end of their North American leg, there had been a fan-made musical and a museum erected in their honor. Now, a feature-length film is purportedly in the works—one that (once again) imagines a universe in which Pavement is “the most important band in the world.” 

I was pre-verbal during Pavement’s heyday, so a cushion of generational remove mediates my fandom. It is unremarkable, pathological, entirely digitally-based. For those of us who grew up in a cul-de-sac with standard-speed internet—barely sentient for the twilight of the millennium, just learning how to use words like derivative in the pejorative from blogs and message boards—Pavement seemed like shorthand for a precious and preeminent disaffection that had phased out of vogue by the time that rock was no longer the biggest thing on the planet. Fans like me ached for what we imagine we missed out on, and could marvel, in a cool, touristic way, at an Arcadian moment in time in which an artist’s persona was de facto a little brambled and blurry. Now, as a fly-on-the-wall of their reunion tour—a spectacle that brings together past and present by framing Pavement as whole, imperative, immortal—two questions loom: Will it recreate the known or unknown universe as it once was? Or will it all just bum me out? 



I am walking briskly and alone along a highway bridge immediately in front of Saint Paul’s Palace Theatre, with seven hours until showtime. Pavement’s two buses stand out against the plain back entrance of the venue like two long, smooth, sleeping orcas.

Most of the team is present on the band bus, either making cereal or padding around in search of the other half of a broken tambourine. There’s percussionist Bob Nastanovich, bassist Mark Ibold, and lead Stephen Malkmus, all dressed like normal adult men, which is to say in jeans, ballcaps, and interesting sneakers. The bus’s interior has a sort of upmarket beauty, with everything stained a uniform tone of peanut butter, cabinets made of a gleaming lacquered composite wood, and a hydraulic magic button in the main lounge that extends the room out four or so feet when the bus is parked. Under the glaze of the growing sun, we look like we could be on the bottom deck of a rental yacht. 

Scott Kannberg, the second songwriter and guitarist, whom everyone refers to as “Spiral,” diminutive of “Spiral Stairs,” is notably absent, squeezing in a full eighteen holes of golf on a course somewhere in greater Minneapolis. (Steve West, their drummer, later tells me he wanted to caddy for him, “but Spiral wouldn’t let me get away with it. He’s got men all over this country willing to carry his golf clubs.”) Rebecca Clay Cole—the band’s overqualified keyboardist, and the only other consistent female presence on the bus—is already out too, roaming around Saint Paul in search of a museum. Bob is busily wrestling a jumbo drum of spring water onto the countertop. A pre-show morning is defined by its bumbling. “We’re in need of a sanity-type situation,” Ibold announces just as Bob leaves to hunt for a screwdriver to stab the jug with, so he and Malkmus and I hail a cab to the town’s Little Mekong district. 

Tour is always part-ritual and part-obligation, but it’s particularly taxing for men who’ve all crossed the threshold of fifty and have been off the road for years. They’ve had more than eighty songs to learn, some for the very first time; the venues are the largest and toniest they’ve ever played; their label’s fuss is greater; the audience is bigger by several orders of magnitude, and every member of the band can fill a notebook with fresh anecdotes on the newfound virtues of diet, hydration, and sleep. “This is definitely the most demanding tour I’ve ever been on,” says Ibold once we sit down at an empty Cambodian restaurant, eating a shrimp cake the size of a domino. “Not just musically, but psychologically.” Ibold—who has a day job as a bartender in Williamsburg and was working a shift the day before he left—is sixty. If history repeats itself, the next reunion tour will happen in 2034, when he’s seventy-two. “We have no plans to tour like the Pixies,” Malkmus says, even before I ask. This does seem like the last of things. 

This time around, Pavement will move athletically across the United States, then to bits of Europe, with an average of thirty-three hours of rest in between each show. I would be surprised if nobody in the band reaches a point of crisis by the time they get to the Australian stretch in a few months. “You tell yourself it’ll be more fun than doing the dishes at home,” Malkmus says. “But I’m just old, man.” I have to ask—what’s the point of all this, then? A new car? Karmic debt? Not nostalgia? “Sure, all of that,” he says, “but there’s something else in there.”

Though this has been obsessively documented, I’m still taken aback by the degree to which Malkmus is very clearly the nucleus of Pavement, the band and the idea. He is its principal singer-songwriter, a blindingly good guitarist, and now shaggier and more silvery than he was in 1994 when Courtney Love called him “the Grace Kelly of rock” but retains a boyish, shitkicking quality about him. He can be remarkably feline, charmingly chilly, and has a voice that permanently suggests that he is unspecifically but thoroughly over it. He is, in many senses, responsible for granting Pavement their near-universal designation as a “slacker” band, which accounts for the general slouch of the band’s posture and reifies the archetypal Gen X attitude of rather dying than surrendering any emotional investment. “You know why I’m doing this,” he says, suddenly. “I’m really playing for the fans that are like, I just really fucking like these songs. And these guys were special to me—they made me feel safe. I’m safe here at this show.” He doesn’t look at me while saying this. “I know what you mean,” I reply, soothingly. “You know what I mean,” he sighs.

By the time we get back to the Palace Theatre, the stage is ready for our opening act. A blast of organic and inorganic smells fill the building: buttered popcorn from a choke point in the lobby, a damp pigeony scent from the door that opens out onto the alley where everyone smokes, and a strong mixed waft from the green room, where a routine order has been delivered. (Their rider: Gouda, tubs of chicken salad, whiskeys and hummuses, slabs of sourdough, diet root beers, regular beers.) Like the sound of a great, muffled gong, the doors open. Two hours to go.


—After checking in with their dog’s caretaker, who was very sorry to let them know that their cardigan welsh corgi has been having diarrhea all day, Bob is rubbing his wife Whitney’s shoulders backstage, watching the opener perform.

—Rebecca is warming up her voice in a rear atrium of the basement by blowing loud raspberries.She’s been brought on tour to make the music sound “about as close to the album as we can humanly get it,” as West notes, adding that she’s “probably the only member of the band that can actually read music.” “I’ve approached this about as devotedly as a person can,” she tells me. “Even before I was approached to tour with them, I’d known that there were piano parts on, you know, a few songs, but all the old albums have these sneaky, crunchy keys and organs all over them. It’s deceptively tough jinglejangle jazz.”

—Spiral has returned from tee time and is now on a long and desperate quest for antacids. After ten minutes, he secures half of a lucky old roll of Tums from our tour manager Mike’s pocket. Later, he shows me a text from his wife, who’s presently somewhere in California dining with their daughter. The photo shows off their spread (pasta, white wine) and her new haircut (blonde bob). “Hott,” his text replies. 

When Pavement goes on, I wonder—are all old bands haunted? The show is a pilgrimage for men who look like they indulge in a good microbrew every once in a while. Those with pleading ankles and spongy knees sit; those still without stand at the front. Some audience members chuck beer cans, shriek, make out, weep. The reports that I’d heard earlier—that a couple was kicked out for having sex at a San Diego show a few days prior—seem totally conceivable, even if this was some of the least horny music on earth. “It’s so funny to see them here,” says a seated patron wearing a Guided By Voices shirt. “This is the nicest venue I’ve ever been in, and it’s like going to a cathedral and seeing a bunch of guys make a sandwich.”  



“Shit,” says a voice beyond my bunk’s curtain. Then comes the clang of a dropped tambourine. Since clambering into my top bunk around 6 A.M., sticking a socked foot onto Malkmus’s pillow to hoist myself up, I’d slept like a rock until 11. 

After seeing the sunrise with drivers Jason and Jeff—barreling southeastward, fighting highway rumble strips—we’d all arrived and parked in front of the handsome Chicago Theatre, where the band was gearing up for two back-to-back sold-out nights. The interior of the Chicago Theatre earlyish on a Thursday looks like your usual swank venue: high-ceilinged interiors with good acoustics, baroque festoonery along the walls, and a tangle of pedals and cables littering the stage like noodles. Dozens of men and women unload the two trailers, rhythmically decanting small plastic tubs from larger plastic tubs, proving David Thomas of Pere Ubu’s claim that touring “is mostly about moving big black boxes from one side of town to the other.” I watch as one tech lugs the giant, silent, theater-screen-sized video rig that the band plays in front of throughout each show, which is both a showcase for some surprisingly good juvenilia from Malkmus’s old lyric notebooks and, according to crew members, a huge logistical pain in the ass. The stage clears for soundcheck, and, now seated as the only audience member up on the prow of the balcony, I had time to study the band at their rawest. 

If you’ve ever listened passively to a single Pavement song, you’ll catch shambly, wooly guitarwork and jammy bass and drum patterns; if you listen closely, you’ll notice that any given Pavement song is filled with total nonsense. In 1995, the New York Times made sense of this by calling the band among “rock’s most notorious nihilists: disaffected, disenchanted, and distanced.” An especially haunting indictment came in an episode of Beavis and Butt-head from that same year, where the two cartoon morons groan at a music video for a track titled “Rattled by the Rush.” “It’s like they’re not even trying,” says Beavis. 

But if Beavis were to see “Rattled” as I see it practiced here before me—Ibold elated, Spiral hardly paying attention, Malkmus shredding while staring at the ceiling—he might notice that it’s not just a performance of ennui: the laziness is also creatively contrived, built into the music. Their tracks are crammed with odd voicings, alternate tunings, a constant sense of tonal ambiguity, slightly uncomfortable intervals. There’s hardly an ordinary sentence or ungenerative thought across their whole catalog. There are few vaguely placeable themes in their lyrics, and the vulnerability behind them—if you can find it at all—always seems like it comes at the end of a bong rip. (Verse 2 of “Rattled” goes: “Pants I wear so well, cross your t’s—shirt smells / Worse than your lying, caught my dad crying.) It sounds like rock, but rock rejiggered by modest, unshowy surrealists—always seemingly noncommittal but irrationally graceful in the end. 

After any obligatory soundchecking or set-erecting, the band and crew basically tool around for indeterminate stretches of time. I find our stalwart tour techs asleep in folding chairs—seated upright, snoring, mouths agape—just off the side of the stage not thirty minutes after soundcheck was over. West has his head down on a desk in the basement. Our tour manager Mike is on an errand: Bob has asked him to buy ping pong balls from Walgreens so that he can chuck signed ones into the audience while he plays. (Ideas for other projectiles—eggs, tennis balls, shot glasses—were dismissed.) Showtime takes forever to come until it suddenly doesn’t.


Voice 1: “We’re gonna need some tea for the team before they go on. Herbal tea is heated between 180 and 200 degrees. Black teas, you’re gonna want them between 200 and 220 degrees.” 

Voice 2: “No problem. But I really don’t think you know what the fuck you’re talking about.” 

Finally, lights go on, and the show is a goofy revelation. Spiral is tonight’s quiet hero. They play a fizzy, relatively deep cut called “Date w/Ikea,” where he takes lead—legs akimbo as in a yoga stretch—and then later leaves the stage, mid-song, mid-set. (“I had to piss,” he explains after the show.) The audience loses their mind. Fans and friends throw trucker hats emblazoned with his name onstage like bouquets.

Tonight’s encore is also uncommonly touching because it includes a marriage proposal. The band jogs out after the compulsory caesura—the audience roars like white noise when they return—and Malkmus nearly ruins the whole thing by telling the crowd that “we’ve got some folks who are about to get married.” But the pageant goes smoothly: Chris, the groom-to-be, ushers his girlfriend Ramona onstage (they are thirty-four and thirty years old, respectively) and twirl around to a sweetish, woozy number called “We Dance.” At the end of the song, Chris gets down on one knee. They are, and it is, a perfectly Pavementian affair: fumbly, lightly lackadaisical, flannel-clad. She says yes. 

Rapt in the tender human awkwardness of it all, we migrate to a totally characterless bar across the street from the hotel where the band and the crew will stay the night. I find our drummer, Steve West, reclining with a Guinness. Bargoers flock to shake his hand, making him sit down and stand up, stand up and sit down. “I’m the most off-the-grid guy here for sure,” he says, swishing the beer around in his mouth like mouthwash. West is now a stonemason in West Virginia with the granite disposition to match. “When this thing started, all of a sudden there were a bunch of dudes from the label emailing me while I’d be out behind my house digging holes. I’m about as good at this band to-do as a head of wilted lettuce.” 

West has belonged to legions of bands prior to this one, but it was his work with the Silver Jews that ushered him Pavementward. The Silver Jews are something of a cousin band to Pavement—West and Malkmus played on some of their albums, Malkmus passed along the Jews’s debut to their first label, and where Pavement stands firmly on the soil of “indie rock,” the Jews err more toward country-flecked, plainspoken poetry—but their legacies have been entwined and underscored since the suicide of David Berman, the Jews’s frontman, in 2019. His life is a subject of delicate love and introspection. “Dave told Malkmus,” goes West, “‘A drummer’s replaceable—we’re all replaceable—but it’s the personalities that you can’t replace.’ So when Pavement needed a new drummer, he offered me up.” He is reverential about David, as all who knew him and didn’t know him seem to be, but his vantage is especially matchless. 

“Artists have always gotten used up and spat out,” West says, leaning back on his stool. “It’s just the way that all of this works. I just hope that everyone remembers how talented he was. I don’t know what took him away from us—I just know that he understood something big about this world. I’m just lucky to have known him at all.” There is a long, terrible grip of silence, then a mangled sound in his voice as he looks away from me. “I loved him,” he says, awfully. “He was my best friend.” 



I wake up to a group text among Ibold, West, and their soundman, Remko Schouten. “Down for Italian beef excursion? Be in front of the hotel by 11:15.”  

The sandwiches from a place called Johnnie’s are pulpy potpourris of 80/20 ground beef and bell pepper and come prepared in ‘‘half-dip,”full-dip,” or austere “no dip” levels of oily jus. Digesting the whole affair alfresco, I get to know Remko, a wizardly Dutchman who’s been Pavement’s sound engineer since 1992, and is the sort of guy who’ll be working the board and time his edibles to kick in halfway through an hours-long set just to make things more interesting for himself. (This is exactly what happens later that night.)

The conversation makes its way through reminiscences (“Ibold once had to fish out his shit from the tour bus toilet in 1992”) and re-evaluations (“Their first drummer, Gary—he would throw garbage into the crowd while we played, which ultimately became a problem”), but it becomes apparent how valuable his constancy is for a band always in flux—through the coming and going of members, shifting affiliations with record labels, spats and tiffs and breakups. “We run on an absurd machine,” Remko says, which is a nice précis of thirty collected years of writing on the band. “Take Bob, for instance,” he suggests wisely. “The fact that he’s here should tell you a lot about this whole thing.” 

Bob is a selcouth blend of audience motivator and whatever’s-in-the-percussion-room player who feels like the id of the group built on a shambolic sort of peculiarity. Most videos of the band online have at least one top-rated comment that reads something to the extent of “What is Bob’s purpose?” The night before, the newly-engaged Chris had offered an answer to the unspoken question outside of the bar. “Bob,” Chris declared, like he was sharing a commandment, “is the secret glue that keeps everything in place.”

“I don’t know about that,” Bob says to me as he unloads his laundry back in the basement of the Chicago Theatre upon our return. “I really don’t have the skills to play music, I’ll be the first to tell you that. But having Rebecca here really shows you how much more vital we can be when we can actually play the songs. God knows I can’t sing. It’s really fucking embarrassing. I’ve done it for years, and I’ve seen my band wince. Even people in the crowd have covered their ears.”

Not the case on our last night in Chicago. It is not the most flawless show, but the most rabid—everywhere the eye lands seems to be a fan shouting every non sequitur lyric. Like all good concerts, it’s convivial and conspiratorial, but there is an urgency in the audience tonight, a sort of disorienting attentiveness bordering on the religious. It seems everyone knows this will likely be the last time they’ll see Pavement together ever again. “Listening to this band makes me feel like the guy I was in college,” says a patron next to me, arms draped like a shawl around a woman beside him. “Sometime between then and now I became an old man, and I’m not sure how that happened.”

After the encore, Ibold and Malkmus dawdle for a few perfunctory hi-byes before swiftly exiting out the back door for a bar called the Empty Bottle, where a band called Wand is playing. Wand is signed to Drag City, the Chicago-based indie label responsible for springboarding Pavement to fame. Drag City’s founder, Dan Koretzky, whom Malkmus has excitedly been calling “Papa” all evening, greets them, beaming to see friends inside the humid dive. “Didn’t think you’d make it,” he says. Ibold, gazing into the audience—which seems to gaze back at him—adjusts his glasses. “Wouldn’t miss it for anything,” he responds. 

On our way in, Ibold and Malkmus are honked, gawked, shouted at. (There’s a Great show, guys! and an I love you! and then a Marry me!) When we get inside, they part the sea. Two men individually buy me a shot of Fernet when they see me passing lagers to their indie rock saints. Standing there—as a band sort of in apex and sort of in twilight, alongside a younger band who are perhaps on the road to their own sort of apex—I can only imagine that all of this is striking a note that they could’ve only dreamed of striking years ago. 



My version of tour ends not on the midwestern road but back in New York, at the Pavement Museum, a four-day pop-up event in SoHo billed as a course through the band’s “real and imagined history.” It turns out the room is a shrine to Pavement in a way that feels half like an exhibition, half like pornography for ultrafans. Contemporary acts—Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, Bully and Sad13—performed Pavement’s splashier hits on a makeshift stage. Old music videos play on loop on tube TVs with built-in VCRs; lyric sheets are strewn around and encased like curios; there are communiques with record labels, lyrics on napkins, old show programs, the suit that Malkmus wore when he worked as a security guard at the Whitney Museum. I see Spiral there and ask him if it all feels a little like a mausoleum. “That’s really nice of you to say,” he replies.

It’s important to note that a significant amount of the ephemera inside the room is totally fabricated. There are tour posters for lineups and dates that never existed; there are T-shirts for real past tours that were created (and knifed to look roughed-up) precisely for the museum; immortalized in a box, there is a pair of handcuffs that Malkmus brandished during a 1999 show, announcing to the audience that they symbolized “what it’s like being in a band.” The placard next to it reads “These are the original handcuffs.” They are not. They were purchased from a sex shop a few days prior. Same goes for another shadow box, encasing a lone brown toenail that allegedly once belonged to their original drummer, Gary Young (again, no: it was clipped off of the foot of the set’s art director), and for a poster of Malkmus starring in an Apple “Think Different” ad “from 1996” that he absolutely wasn’t a part of. “I have no say in this whatsoever,” said Malkmus earlier that week, of both the museum and the upcoming film. “We’ve all sent them some stuff, but I really don’t even pay attention to what these guys are doing. None of us do.” 

All the ersatz stuff is not subterfuge or sinisterism or deepfakery; this is–to explain the joke–a joke, in keeping with the arch “who-gives-a-shit” quality at the core of the band’s brio. A keen-to-rabid fan could plausibly discern between most bits of artifact and artifice but a casual one (which, more often than not, means a younger one) might accept them all, reasonably, as patent bits of reality. One had to admire it. All this puckish stuff made clear how little it matters what’s real: it’s Pavement not only for a generation already seduced by its apocrypha, but also for the present one, familiar with reenactments and revivals, and possessed of its own breed of absurdity. There’s probably also something to be said about how my own relationship to Pavement—private, greedy, and up until recently, comfortably unilateral —might have made the whole hall-of-mirrors scenario unfolding before me feel a little stupid and perverse. It did, but fandom demands a certain level of delusion. It is dumb and blind to real or invented ironies. To press a band into legacy and lucite before they’re gone is a pure and selfish impulse–and it makes it so they can’t ever die.


Mina Tavakoli is a writer from Virginia. She has written for Bookforum, The Nation, The Washington Post, and NPR, among others.