Pavement | Interview | Steve West
Steve West is an American drummer best known as being a member of seminal indie rockers Pavement.
He was part of the band from 1993 to 1999 appearing on four of their studio albums. As a native of Richmond, Virginia, West went to high school with future Pavement bandmate Bob Nastanovich; the two first met when West was fourteen years old. He then attended Virginia Commonwealth University, where he majored in art, before moving to New York City and working as a security guard at the Whitney Museum. West was recruited to join Pavement in 1993, after the band dismissed their original drummer, Gary Young. West’s first performance with the band was on their 1994 album ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’; he remained in the band until they broke up in 1999. While a member of Pavement, West started a solo project, Marble Valley, of which he is the frontman. Marble Valley released its debut album in 1997. He also performed drums and backing vocals on the Silver Jews album ‘Starlite Walker’. Pavement is still performing and is currently on tour.
“Right groove is the most important thing”
You were growing up in Richmond, Virginia. What was life like there? Tell us about your upbringing and what did you do as a young kid?
Steve West: Richmond was hot and humid back in the 70’s, it still is. I grew up in a house that had a view of the old train bridge that crosses the James River and spent a lot of my time pretending I was Daniel Boone (early frontiersman). I would build forts out of old bricks for my toy soldiers and then knock them all down.
When did you first get interested in drums? Was there a certain moment when you knew you wanted to be a drummer and play in a band?
A couple of my high school friends took up guitar and bass and needed a drummer, I volunteered, then we started learning classic rock covers around the age of 13 or 14. The moment I learned I wanted to be a drummer was when I missed the game winning free throw shot for the JV basketball game of the year, as a result, we lost. Bobby [Bob Nastanovich] was there and it was crushing, so I needed a career change.
If we would go back in time and visit your teenage room, what kind of records, singles, posters, books would we find there?
My first single was Bay City Rollers, ‘Saturday Night’. I moved quickly from that to The Beatles and The Doors. I thought I was Jim Morrison reincarnated since we were both born on December 8th. I gave up that idea when I realized that he was still alive when I was born in 1966. I ended up loving The Velvet Underground and discovering R.E.M. and Echo & the Bunnymen in my late teens. As for books, you might find any American history book and whatever they were making me read in high school
What was the local scene like for kids interested in music like back in Richmond? What clubs did you attend and what gigs did you see early on?
Bob Nastanovich and I would go out and see the local bands at whatever clubs would let us youngsters in. Bands with names like The Goodguys, The Dads, The Limit, Awareness Art Ensemble.. We attended national act shows on road trips and were able to catch The Police, R.E.M., David Bowie, U2…
You went to high school together with future Pavement bandmate Bob Nastanovich. How did you first meet? Did you hang around early on listening to music?
Bob and I met on the basketball team bench. We sat through all of the games hoping to get to play, he would come over to my house and beat on my drum kit. We love going to see bands, talking about bands with our older girlfriends that we hung out with. This picture shows us playing rockstar for them.
You attended Virginia Commonwealth University, where you majored in art. Would love to hear about your college days. Did you have any bands back then? Any recordings being released or even unreleased from those days?
Virginia Commonwealth University was a good incubator for art and music people. Loads of clubs, national and local acts every weekend.
Tell us about Contoocook Line and the release of 1988 ‘Oliver’s Garden’.
Contoocook Line began in high school and lasted through college years, ending after my first year in NYC. We had a great time playing extensively throughout VA, North Carolina, and NYC. ‘Oliver’s Garden’ came out in ’87 to critical acclaim and I still have quite a few copies on vinyl in my climate controlled basement.
What led you to move to New York City and how did you adapt to the big city?
In 1990 Contoocook Line moved to NYC and promptly disbanded, too much big city life. I did well avoiding getting mugged as a foot messenger in Manhattan, my moniker was “John on foot.” I had a bed over a stove and in a bathroom, and finally in run down lofts in Williamsburg as an early 90’s hipster pioneer, realizing my childhood Daniel Boone fantasy.
I believe you met Stephen Malkmus while you worked at Whitney Museum?
Stephen Malkmus met me at a party at Bob Nastanovich’s Hoboken, NJ apartment. It was a pre-show party for a band playing at Maxwells, which might have been The Frogs. Bob Nastanovich and David Berman had been playing rough house at this party and had left for the emergency room before I got there. Stephen was still there and we got along fabulously. Soon after that we spent a lot of time guarding together at The Whitney. We both ended up living in Williamsburg with pints and pinball on the menu every night.
How did the Pavement initially get together, did you see any of their early shows before joining the band?
I did see a few shows in NYC and DC and they were lots of fun and I rooted for them.
What in your opinion are some of the differences between original drummer Gary Young and yourself when it comes to drums?
Gary Young is a phenomenal drummer, he was a big influence on my playing as I had to learn all those Pavement songs.
Would you like to comment on your drumming technique? Give us some insights on developing your drumming technique.
My drumming technique? Yes/don’t overplay, don’t overdrink, watch your bandmates feet and make them happy, shine when the time is right and find the right groove. Right groove is the most important thing.
I would love it if you could share some of the memories from recording and producing ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’. Were you also involved in the songwriting process?
‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ was recorded in Wall-Eye’s apartment next to Madison Square Garden, NYC. He had a mattress on the floor and a tiny room the size of a closet. The other two rooms were a control room, and a music room with drums. We could get just about any instrument we wanted from the used vintage music store where he worked, which was above his apartment. Most of the ‘Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain’ taping happened on a Sunday when the building was empty. The songs were all by Stephen Malkmus and Scott Kannberg, I just brought the rhythm and fresh air into the studio.
How do you feel being back together playing and touring? How was the tour so far?
Touring has been great, I love playing and we have re-learned about 70 songs so it hasn’t gotten boring yet. Really, touring has been all cake and ice cream so far.
How did your collaboration on the ‘Starlite Walker’ by Silver Jews come about and what are some of the recollections of it?
David Berman, my buddy, wanted a full drum kit on some ‘Starlite Walker’ songs so I drove to Memphis to play on a few. We played together in my Brooklyn loft a lot so it was easy when I got to Memphis to record.
Did you also tour them?
No, we did not tour.
As Pavement members Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich are part of the band, how would you describe the difference in approach compared to Pavement? At least from your point of view?
Silver Jews was David Berman’s thing, the rest of us were along for the ride. David put his heart and soul into every word for every Silver Jews song. The music was more fluid, compared to Pavement songs.
I’m also very excited that we will be able to discuss Marble Valley. What idea / concept initiated your solo venture?
Marble Valley was started in the late 90’s with a more dance, whimsical, lofty feel. The players started with members of the Pavement crew, Andy Dimack and Remko Schouten. They recruited the rest of the band from Andy Dimack’s hometown of Hull, England.
What’s the story behind recording ‘Sauckiehall Street’?
There’s a street in Glasgow called Sauckiehall Street and I thought it would make a good title. I did most of it on a 4-track and had Mitch Easter mix it.
It’s really hard to describe the music as I feel it’s a fusion of influences you gathered up to that point. Do you agree?
Yes, I agree, the early Marble Valley recordings were recorded on a 4-track, by me, and played live by the band from Hull. The music evolved over time, from just a one man show to a full band.
If I would play right now ‘Sunset Sprinkler,’ ‘Wild Yams,’ ‘Slash & Laugh,’ ‘Breakthrough’ what are some of the first thoughts that runs through your mind?
First thoughts would be: What a wild ride we had in that band. Lots of “I overdid it type nights,” and so much fun, almost too much fun for one band to have/handle.
How did you enjoy working on ‘Wowee Zowee’?
‘Wowee Zowee’ was the first time recording with all Pavement members present and it felt great. Easley’s studio in Memphis was so cool and chill, but much more pro than previous studios we recorded in. I painted a lot of toy soldiers in my down time.
On ‘Brighten the Corners’ Pavement’s sound changed a bit of direction… Would love it if you could elaborate on what was going on in your mind when working on ‘Brighten the Corners’ and ‘Terror Twilight’?
‘Brighten the Corners’ was at Mitch Easter’s studio in North Carolina, we watched a lot of the ’97 Summer Olympics and played pool at a dive bar at night. We recorded in a bedroom upstairs while Mitch pressed play/record in his control room downstairs, it felt classic and classy.
‘Terror Twilight’ was in a fancy New York studio and was a little intimidating, but we got through it. Nigel Godrich mixed a real nice sounding record with good staying power even though it was the end of our career and we were kind of running out of gas.
Do you feel that when it comes to song structure and songwriting in general, that Pavement members are approaching it as a building block process with adding layers after layers?
Layer upon layer was a general approach, as long as we got a groovy take, we could move on to adding frosting and sprinkles and candles on the birthday cake.
I bet you get annoyed by this, but is there a tiny chance that Pavement will work on new material together?
I’m sorry, there is not even a tiny chance.
What else beside touring occupies your life lately? You live in Virginia?
I am a stone mason specializing in restoration work using lime mortar. Currently I am working on my mechanics house, it is an 1880’s stone stucco house.
Do you have any active side-projects going on at this point?
My “new-ish” bands are: The Unmastered Masters and The Darlington Pairs. They’re both on Bandcamp. We practice every Tuesday and have a show coming up…
Let’s end this interview with some of your favourite albums. Have you found something new lately you would like to recommend to our readers?
Check out The Pillow Queens from Dublin, we played with them at the Galway Arts Festival in July, they were awesome.
Thank you. Last word is yours.
I’m just glad Covid is over (I think) and the bands get to play again.
Headline photo: Steve West in Park Güell, Barcelona (1999)