Take Cover features interviews with the people behind today's most striking album covers.
The painting on the front of Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks' Mirror Traffic is a bit less abstract than the sleeves we're used to from Malkmus, who's shown a penchant for jagged, homemade visuals going all the way back to his Pavement days. It's a basic picture of three men -- one who's mysteriously pulling at his zipper -- looking at something. But what? And who's responsible for the piece? Over the summer, we gave Malkmus a call to see if we could get to the bottom of this simple-yet-intriguing cover. He went on to talk about baseball, forgotten poets, and what it was like to ride the New York City subway in the early 1990s.
Stephen Malkmus: It came from a book of poetry I have by an American poet named Tom Clark, who's around 70 now. He's associated with the 60s-ish post-beat generation and he's got an extremely long string of books, including non-fiction ones about people like Charles Olson and Jack Kerouac. He's written about baseball a lot, but more as poetry and in a very palatable way for people who aren't into ESPN. He was an editor of the Paris Review. He's done a bunch of shit.
He wasn't primarily a painter, but he made paintings for this book called Baseball, which I have at my house, and the cover of that book is the one that's on our album. We changed it to make it look more "found." We appropriated it. The book is made up of crude paintings of baseball players like with these Zen-like quotes -- "I only wear blue on airplanes"-- next to them.
So I found his blog and wrote a comment on there: "Hey Tom, I'd like to talk to you about using your art for something." I kept it cryptic because I didn't even know who would answer. Two days later, he sent me a really long e-mail about how he knew our music and was a fan. He still had that specific painting but he had a broken leg so he couldn't send it to us, but he said we could use it. He said he'd sold this Dutch Master painting that his wife got out of Austria during the war to finance [Baseball] with color print, and it was the biggest mistake of his life. I was like, "We don't make tons of money off these albums, but I'd like to pay you." He was like, "Absolutely, I'm broke. I've been screwed by the man." It was a sad story.
Pitchfork: What stood out about that particular painting to you?
SM: We just thought it had striking colors and it was a cool, arresting image. In a way it looks somewhat like paintings by Eric Fischl, but done by somebody who is just drawing because they love it, and not because they're an artist. I like that, too. We try to keep things in the "it looks like we did it" genre of style.
Pitchfork: What do you think those guys on the cover are up to?
SM: They just seem like some guys in the bleachers or at a horse race, I can't really tell. But they definitely look like the kind of guys who hang around a race track. I'm pretty sure they look to be from the Bay Area. The one guy looks like he's listening to the game on his radio. There's definitely a hard-boiled, Central Valley bleakness to the dudes. It has a 70s feel but hopefully not the classic stoner-rock kind of thing, you know, bell-bottoms and Camaros.
Pitchfork: That one guy in the back is particularly intriguing...
SM: Yeah, I know. Is he pulling up his pants cause he just pissed or something? He reminds me of so many people. Back when I lived in New York, I'd see people like that on the subway or just around Williamsburg. They might not be in Williamsburg anymore.
Pitchfork: Did you ever see someone use the subway as a restroom in New York?
SM: [laughs] Not really. Just the smells from folks sleeping -- I can smell that smell right now. It's interesting. It's the smell of poverty and sadness mixed with really bad foot odor. I'd usually just move to the other side of the car or grin and bear it; I wasn't trying to be a good liberal by staying in the car, but I usually would. I actually have seen more homeless people in our neighborhood in Portland just walking around than I have in New York in recent times.
But in the early 90s, it was a little weird on the New York subway. I worked at the Whitney Museum uptown and sometimes I'd have to take a late-night subway home. It was spooky, specifically the G train because it was so deserted and ancient. The turnstiles were these upright wooden things. They were pretty easy to jump over if you didn't want to pay.
Pitchfork: Did this album cover and title come together at the last minute?
SM: Yeah, definitely. Everything, up to song titles, mixing, it's all last-second -- you would think over a year and a half that you would spend five minutes on the album title. But there's something corny about starting with a title and working from that. I mean, it's fun in practice or if you're doing bong hits and you think of a cool title and you make the album go that way. But it doesn't really work in reality. I know people like Robert Pollard where it's a constant tour game to think of new titles and concepts at all times. A lot of genius comes from that in his case. But I don't really do it that much.
Pitchfork: Did you incorporate any pictures from the book on the back or inside album art, too?
SM: No, I didn't want it to be too sports-ish. We're not trying to create a forum for nerds who like fantasy baseball and indie rock, and I don't want to feel like the indie guy who likes sports, even though that's partially who I am. Nothing else is Tom Clark-related, it's sort of just the same old stuff you'd expect from Pavement, but it looks nice. The back cover is kind of funny -- it's a send up of another record but I'm not gonna say what it is because they might want to sue us.