Joanna Bolme of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks on playing Scrabble with Pavement
Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks (due tomorrow night at the Fox Theater in Boulder) formed after Malkmus's influential band, Pavement, went on indefinite hiatus at the end of the '90s. Initially, it was something of a solo project, but Malkmus ended up recruiting his friend John Moen, as well as Joanne Bolme, who had been working at the studio where Pavement had worked on songs for its final album.
Malkmus and the Jicks weren't too far removed from the sort of complex, almost accidental genius of Pavement in their songwriting. But even as early as Pig Lib, and especially on 2005's Face the Truth, the band showed signs of Malkmus exploring outside of any comfort zone he might have established with Pavement.
Before recording Real Emotional Trash, the band drummer extraordinaire, Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney and Quasi) came on board. Weiss subsequently left the band and was replaced by Jake Morris, but not before recording the Jicks' latest record, Mirror Traffic, which finds the outfit playing tighter arrangements than ever, with lyrics that engage in Malkmus's usual idiosyncratic exploration of the human condition.
We recently spoke with bassist Bolme about growing up and seeing music in Portland, how she became involved with the Jicks, and Jackpot Studio versus Jackpot Records.
Westword: Are you from the Pacific Northwest?
Joanna Bolme: Yeah. I wasn't born here, but I've pretty much lived here in Portland almost my whole life. I was born in Florida, but my parents didn't stay there very long, just a few years. I don't remember much from Florida.
What were some early musical experiences you had that inspired you to become a musician?
I would say we had a pretty decent scene in the '80s and stuff. I guess I sort of got swept up in punk rock and new wave in the '80s, so I got to go see Wipers, and there was a band called the Neo Boys that I liked. Poison Idea played my school. Actually it was Poison Idea and the Neo Boys, because members of each of those bands went to my school, so they played in the cafeteria once. So that was an early inspiration. Also, I went and saw John Fahey when I was seventeen years old. He played a show once a year in town. There was a lot of stuff to check out. The Miracle Workers, I used to go see them all the time. There were some good bands.
Like Dead Moon? Or I guess maybe they were doing the Rats at the time.
It was the Rats at the time, yeah. I guess the thing that made me want to play was that I ended up befriending a bunch of musicians, and they were like, "Why don't you play?" "I don't know, do you want to teach me something?" "Sure!" And I just sort of started playing.
Why did you gravitate toward playing bass, and what other instruments do you play?
I did start playing bass, but I always played guitar, too. The first band I was in for a while was Calamity Jane, this all-girl punk band. I played guitar in that band. I guess I gravitated toward bass. I sort of maxed out my interest on a guitar. I sort of realized I didn't really want to be a shredder or something, and I had a pretty good sense of rhythm and was sort of drawn more to the rhythmic aspect of music. I like to play drums, too. I'm not a great drummer. The bass is sort of the halfway point between guitar and drums. You're still playing a melody, but it's locking in a rhythm. That's why I like to play bass.
You're a multi-instrumentalist as well?
Well, "multi-instrumentalist" is being kind. I can probably noodle my way through most instruments, but I think the only ones I would say I could pass in a band would be guitar, drums and bass. Not much of a keyboard player. Although I could play some keyboard parts and I have played keyboard parts in bands, but not as a main keyboardist, for sure. Mike's the real multi-instrumentalist in our band.
How did you get started with Calamity Jane?
I was working at this thrift store, and I got to work and there was a note in my folder, and it was from a girl, Gilly [Ann Hanner], who was the singer of Calamity Jane. She was looking for someone to play bass with at the time, although Megan [Hanner] came back to play bass. But she was looking for somebody to play with, and she worked at this restaurant down the street, and a mutual friend had said, "Oh, yeah, I know somebody that would probably be good for your band." So that's how we hooked up originally, word of mouth.
Portland is probably a little different from a lot of places, but how did people receive that band?
At the time, pretty well. Portland was a real supportive...it was sort of a small scene back then. We did well within that sort of punk community. It was pretty ideal in a way, because there were a lot of women involved in the scene. A lot of sound people at the time were actually women. There were probably more women doing sound in clubs than men. I think, at the time, I just sort of assumed it was like that everywhere. Then, when I went on tour, I was schooled that that was not the case. That rock and roll was still indeed just as sexist as I thought it was from the beginning. But Portland was great.
When we toured, there was a lot of "Show your tits" and lots of catcalls and stuff like that. But, you know, in a way I kind of miss the adversity, because at the time, lots of us were sort of getting that reaction from people. So only the people who were really serious about what they were doing and dead set on doing it lasted. It sort of weeded out the poseurs.
Were you actually in junior high, and how did you become involved with that project?
Yeah, I was in that band for a while. I've just been friends with Sean [Croghan] for a long time. When I was in Calamity Jane, Sean was in a band called Crackerbash. So we did a tour together. Then when both of our bands broke up, he was putting another band together and he asked me to join.
Was Sean the bass player for Crackerbash?
Sean was the guitar player/singer.
I just remember seeing them at the beginning of the movie Hype!
Oh, yeah, Sean's the big intro: "Let's start a riot" -- that's Sean.
How did Stephen approach you about playing with him in what would become the Jicks?
He was playing with John [Moen] already, just jamming in the basement a little bit. We were friends because we played Scrabble a lot. So one night, when he came over to play Scrabble and listen to records, he was like, "Hey, I've been playing with John, and we were just wondering if you wanted to come over and play bass. I know you're pretty good, and it would be fun." It was pretty casual, so I started jamming with those guys. It was really fun, and we all got along really well.
John I've known since I was seventeen, and he was in the Dharma Bums at the time. Steve I met when he moved to town. A couple of people I knew had befriended him. When Pavement was getting ready to record what would become Terror Twilight, I worked at this studio called Jackpot. They all came there to practice and work on songs and demo some stuff out.
That's where I learned how to play Scrabble. Those guys were indeed slacker guys and didn't spend a whole lot of time working on songs. They spent more time hanging out and playing Scrabble. So I just kind of learned all the two-letter words and all that stuff from there. That's where Steve and I solidified our friendship -- that period when he was at Jackpot working on songs.
Is that Jackpot affiliated with the record label Jackpot?
Actually, Jackpot Studio was opened first. I remember that because Larry Crane, who owns Jackpot and also does Tape Op magazine, opened Jackpot Studio. For some reason, Isaac Slusarenko opened up his record store and decided to call it Jackpot, too. Larry was really pissed off. "What are you doing? It's a small town. Why on earth would you name your business the same thing as my business?" And, of course, both of them would get phone calls all the time for the other place. It's not affiliated, but it is affiliated with Tape Op, because they're both run by Larry.
Are you more directly involved with the songwriting in the band than you were earlier on?
Steve writes all the songs. I chip in every now and then. Not so much in the writing, maybe arrangements and stuff. It's mainly Steve. I probably have most of the input and do most of my contribution in the studio, because I worked in a studio for a long time, and my creative juices get flowing a little bit more in the studio. So I feel that's more where I end up contributing.
Do you do a lot of engineering or more of the mixing?
No -- but, yeah, mixing. I'm there start to finish, usually, but I don't do much hands-on engineering. Well, on Face the Truth, Steve and John recorded most of the basics in Steve's basement, and Mike [Clark] and I played on four of those songs. On that record, I actually did do some hands-on engineering. For one song, I ended up doing my bass part after the basics were recorded, so there was a lot of me just sitting there punching myself in and stuff. In that particular case, I did do some hands-on stuff. But usually it's just more like hanging out in the studio with the engineer and coming up with ideas and instrumentation and edits and stuff like that.
The Jicks curated an edition of All Tomorrow's Parties. What bands were you most excited about having play, and why?
That was a long time ago. Who did we have? I think we had Modest Mouse and the Shins and Fiery Furnaces. White Magic, I remember, played. Oh Träd Gräs Och Stenar, I think that was probably one of the high points for me. Especially since I don't think they're really a band anymore. They're a Swedish band that was sort of a '60s psych band. One of those kind of obscure bands.
They were sort of coaxed out of retirement at one point by a few different people. They're an amazing band. They came to play, and they're all in their sixties, but they still just blew everybody away because they're so good. Since then, at least one of them has passed away. If you're ever in the psychedelic section of the record store, look them up.
You joined Quasi a few years ago. Presumably that came about because you've been playing with Janet Weiss. What challenges did you face playing in that band that you don't in the Jicks, and vice versa?
The challenge with playing with Quasi is that Quasi has been a band for so long and just as a two-piece. So Sam [Coomes] and Janet [Weiss], who were also married, have a very strong relationship already established. So it was kind of hard to be a third person coming into that. With the Jicks, I was in that band from the start. That was the main challenge in joining Quasi, being the third in a very longstanding relationship.
This may be an odd question, given his reputation as a practical joker, but how is Bob Nastanovich as a tour manager?
He was a great tour manager, actually. It was fun having him as a tour manager because he's Bob, and he is how you think he is: good-natured, funny. As a tour manager, he's great. He also has a really good work ethic. He gets stuff done. For people that come to the shows, it's very exciting. "Oh, Bob's here!" "Leave him alone -- he's working!" But yeah, he's great. Anytime he wants to come back to tour managing, I'm sure we'd be happy to have him.
Follow Backbeat on Twitter: @westword_music