Music & clubs

Berlin is stained: Stephen Malkmus

INTERVIEW! Once-upon-a-Berliner Stephen Malkmus waxes poetic and nostalgic about P'Berg and Portland with D. Strauss. Flip your wig for his temporary home homecoming on Mon, Jan 27 at Postbahnhof.

Image for Berlin is stained: Stephen Malkmus
Photo by Leah Nash

After pounding the pavements of Berlin for a couple of years, indie rock icon Stephen Malkmus has found home and hearth back near Portland.

One of these days he’s going to release a mixtape of the songs he fragments into his own and reorganise the rock ’n’ roll timeline. Wig Out at Jagbags (Domino), the latest from his longstanding post-Pavement concern The Jicks, finds him in good form, churning obscure musical territory into guitar-driven nuggets including some of his finest soloing on record. Flip your wig for his temporary home homecoming on Mon, Jan 27 at Postbahnhof.

I can’t believe I never ran into you in the Netto.

But I’ve read Exberliner before; I would often read it when it was lying around at, um, kebab shops or whatever. I was always on the lookout, but I bought very few Exberliners, I’m sorry to say. We bought one when we first got there, and it stayed in our bathroom, like, for a year. So that’s good! It should be free though. Should be free.

We have a very nostalgic business plan.

Where do you live?

Prenzlauer Berg.

Yeah, well we lived there for, like, eight months and then we moved to Schöneberg and then we moved to, uh, Charlottenburg. So like, out of our 26 months we were just there for eight, but usually I was going to school on the M10 or the M4 – my kid’s school was in Mitte. The first place was on Marienburger Straße, down by where the M4 is. So, if you were in Mitte you would have seen me more, unfortunately. [Laughs] You know, you can fly your freak flag as an older person there, whereas somewhere like Portland is very, uh, domestique.

Portland has a reputation as a city of freaks.

If you’re younger, it’s definitely that way, but once you’re of childbearing age, then you’re just around other parents. People work at the bank, there’s a lot of contractors. And you can’t tell that they’re contractors. In Germany, you know, all the carpenters and contractors, with those outfits that they wear —

In different colours.

Yeah, but here they could be in a band or they could be a carpenter. I mean, I never had any work done on my house in Berlin. I don’t know what the scene is, if they do a good job or if you’re kind of like, always looking for Polish guys to do it on the cheap. We did have a cleaning lady from Poland and she actually flew to Germany every other week. She would work there and fly back.

How did you meet a transnational cleaning lady?

We just were recommended her by some friends, and then, uh, she didn’t speak any English and her German was — she would just say “Guck mal” all the time. “Guck mal. Guck mal.” So she was at my level.

She was proud of her work and wanted you to see it.

Yeah, she was very old. Luckily, she won’t be able to understand this article, but she wasn’t a very good cleaning lady. But she was a nice lady. She was probably beloved by the family that recommended us. But it was like a whole day of not much cleaning and disappearing euros — from just the work, not stealing. [Laughs]

How did you end up moving three times?

The place we first stayed in was really cool and, like, €1300, but it was giant, it had a rooftop. We had to kind of get back for school before they wanted to leave, so we decided to move somewhere else. And then we used this pretty bourgie service: Coming Home, it’s called, and we ended up in this really overpriced place in Schöneberg. But it was an awesome apartment. With a psycho landlord.

He’d knock on your door to make sure you weren’t using any hot water?

He had all this art in there that was his uncle’s. It was like visual terrorism. My wife’s an artist and stuff and it was polluting our minds. Then we ended up in Charlottenburg right by Stuttgarter Platz. That turned out to be my favourite, which I wouldn’t have expected. You know, in Kantstraße there’s a lot of cool, little, cheap Thai restaurants and it’s just kinda funky.

There’s this concept of the West German which is alien to expats. The one with the black fedora that goes to Rogacki.

I love Rogacki; it’s awesome. Some of my friends who are German are like,“I just hate Charlottenburg.” Or “The people. I can’t stand them.” But that’s something nice, not understanding sarcasm or somebody being rude to you. There’s a joy or a freedom in not understanding that the West Berliners are cranky or sarcastic or rude. Do you ever go to the Thai Park?

I heard the city is closing it down because of health regulations.

I don’t think they would because it’s a sign of multiculturalism, although it’s a certain kind of weird multiculturalism when it’s like a German man with his Thai bride, selling things. [Laughs]

“I rescued you from poverty; you must make me spring rolls.”

[Laughs] Exactly. But I love it that that can happen. Do you like living here?

I call it The Great Compromise.

Absolutely, yeah. I think that the life that you can get on a budget is much more civilised than in America. If you’re living the elite life, it’s kind of all the same price everywhere, you know what I mean? Like, if you go to the Bio Company it’s gonna be the same price as in America – well, it’s more there, even – but when you want fancy things it costs the same everywhere. [Laughs]

Germany is incredibly rich, but Germans don’t like to show it except for their cars.

Yeah, they’re cheap. There’s a record store in Charlottenburg and this guy was telling me about how it’s Russian over there and Russians like vinyl as a status symbol. But the records that they like to buy are, like, Deep Purple or Black Sabbath. And they would come in just carrying wads of money, you know, like, ostentatious. And he’s like, “We Germans, we don’t do that. We don’t show our money.” [Laughs] And then these Ukrainians came in, and they took apart the whole store, just picking apart all the records, and he was pissed. He’s, like, “Get out of here!” ’Cause they ruined his alphabetical system.

Misplaced those decades-old Cockney Rebel albums.

[Laughs] Yeah, totally. And then they came back and they brought him, like, a bottle of vodka and they were, like, “We’re so sorry we did that.” That was their peace offering. So that’s the kind of shit you can get in Berlin that you don’t get in Portland, stories like that.

Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks w/The Megaphonic Thrift, Mon, Jan 27, 20:00 | Postbahnhof, Straße der Pariser Kommune 3-10, Friedrichshain, S-Bhf Ostbahnhof

Originally published in issue #123, January 2014.