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Pop: Blimey! It's Pavement

They're the masters of American underground rock. Blur kneel at their lo-fi altar. So why is Pavement's new album a homage to cricket and darts?
Pavement's Stephen Malkmus and Mark Ibold - icons of bloody-minded American underground rock integrity - are dressed as businessmen. With slicked back hair and pancake make-up, they sit opposite each other at a table, pretending to eat plastic toys from a sushi bowl. It's a vision of corporate endeavour only an Italian photographer conceptualising a Dazed & Confused cover shoot could have come up with.

In a roughneck pub around the corner from the studio, their remaining traces of foundation and eyeliner looking endearingly incongruous in more workaday surroundings, the singer/guitarist and bass player discuss the rationale behind their unexpected new image. "The photographer was saying `everything's sloppy now'," Malkmus recounts, laconically. "Damon's not shaving, Brett's talking about heroin - so let's go the other way, let's go back to Dead Ringers."

Justifiably uneasy about seeing himself as one of Jeremy Irons' Cronenbergian identical twin gynaecologists, Mark Ibold prefers to think of the look "more in terms of Gary Numan's The Pleasure Principle... or those post-new romantic bands dressing up like businessmen - not Visage, the BEF".

It is hard to imagine any of Ibold's peers in the American alternative rock establishment speaking fondly of obscure early-Eighties Heaven 17 off-shoot the British Electric Foundation, but then the Anglophile inclinations of any US band opting to call themselves Pavement instead of Sidewalk has long been a source of satisfaction on this side of the Atlantic. Ten years and several appearances at the Reading Festival on, Ibold still admits to his delight at being on the cover of an obscure British fashion magazine.

"They're getting us kind of wrong, though," Malkmus notes indulgently, "because our thing is a little more earthy and hippie right now. Organic's a terrible word - it's not like we want to get hairy and become travellers - but I suppose `urban vacationers' is the kind of sound we are going for."

"We could use the `going to wedding on a farm' analogy," suggests Ibold, initiating a slew of ill-fated attempts to verbalise the mood of Pavement's forthcoming fifth album, Terror Twilight. Among them are "Renting a villa in Tuscany", "Not so much hot summer in the city, as going out in a dilapidated convertible with a picnic", and - perhaps most resonantly - "Kind of like Harold Pinter going to the country and then coming back".

Recorded in London, with Beck/ REM/Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich at the controls, Terror Twilight hitches Malkmus's helter-skelter lyricism to Pavement's most cohesive musical assault since 1994's magnificent Crooked Rain Crooked Rain. The record was nearly called Dart Math, in tribute to top darts-players' astounding ability to work out complex finishes in their heads. In view of Pavement's oft-recognised influence on the new all-American Blur, it would have been a nice touch to repay the compliment with an album of arrows-related cockney music-hall singalongs.

"I think that would have worked," says Malkmus wistfully, "though I asked Damon what it was that he copied from us, because I couldn't hear it, and he played me one song on Blur where he sings in falsetto [Malkmus breaks into an uncanny impression of Albarn imitating him] and said `I've got to admit, I took that from you'... it was a part of one song!"

The deliriously laid-back skitter and hum of Pavement's new single "Carrot Rope" confirms that if Malkmus thinks Damon Albarn has stolen his soul, he's doing a pretty good job of hiding it. There's a line in the song - "The wicketkeeper is down" - which suggests that darts is not the only British sport to have had an impact. "I know it probably has bad class connotations to be into cricket," says Malkmus carefully, "but from my standpoint it's just a very slow, funny game which I watched a lot when we were making the album and I was having terrible bouts of insomnia."

Where the American ideal of Britain is all quaint pastimes and class distinction, our fantasy image of America is of a huge empty place devoid of all that. "I know," says Ibold, appreciatively. "You have this romantic vision of a copy of Dazed & Confused blowing out of the window of a touring band's truck and down a Texas highway, and a cowboy picks it up and says `damn!'. It's not so true now as it was that certain things don't reach certain Americans, but just going to my home in Pennsylvania, even though it's more of a mall than it used to be, it's still as much of a backwater as it was before.

"In fact, because people have access to all this stuff through the big book and record chainstores, it almost makes them seem more backwaterish - like to me it's more disturbing to see a kid walking down the street in my town wearing a shirt with The Spice Girls on, than it would be to see Sham 69 or something from the Sixties, because they feel like they've caught on, but actually they're three years too late."

Why? Because everyone should have instant access to everything they think they might want? "No," says Ibold. "Because in an ideal world cultures would remain intact and develop by themselves... I know MTV are trying to change from territory to territory now, but basically there's this overall American cultural pounding that everyone receives - like they'll set up an MTV in Asia but the people they choose to work there will be the so-called `hip Asians' in touch with London. And then the product starts to mirror the globalisation, so something like The Offspring will be rap and rock and all these blanded out ingredients, whereas someone like Beck will take all these different weird things and try to make something good out of them."

Where do Pavement fit into this picture? As the last standard-bearers of pre-grunge alternative elitism? "We were never grungers," says Malkmus, almost regretfully. "It was always more art for art's sake with us... I guess we're more like the old British dandy - the one that's still wearing the tweed hunting jacket, but you'd rather have him at the party than the other guy because he tells a good story."

`Carrot Rope' (Domino ep) is out now. `Terror Twilight' follows next month