Late last month, the members of Pavement convened for the first time in years to prepare for their 30th anniversary reunion tour. On day one of rehearsal in Portland, Ore., where frontman Stephen Malkmus lives, he texted to say he’d be late. He was trying to repair a plaster wall in his daughter’s bedroom.
For the next few nights, drummer Steve West joined Malkmus after rehearsal to help patch and paint the wall. The Virginia native has lived for the past 25 years in the Shenandoah Valley, where he works as a mason, fixing chimneys, building walls, and installing walkways. For once, West says, he was the expert.
“I was giving him advice on what he was doing right, or wrong,” says West, on the phone ahead of the band’s Wednesday appearance at the Boch Center’s Wang Theatre. “He was a real gentleman. He’s very thorough — when he gets into something, he really gets into it.”
West’s offer to help inevitably drew good-natured jeers from his bandmates.
“I earned a whole lot of brownie points,” he says with a laugh. “They were calling me Mr. Brown-Noser.”
Malkmus, who has gone on from Pavement to a long career with his band the Jicks and as a solo act, is the distinctively shaky voice of the band and the founding member with the most name recognition. But Pavement has always been a collective effort — five guys united in pursuit of a cockeyed, unabashedly imperfect notion of pop music.
In hindsight, Pavement may have been the band that best exemplified the creative-loafing revolution of the 1990s. They were definitively alternative, remaining on the large independent label Matador throughout their five-album career. Yet they saw no reason why their best songs shouldn’t be “hits.”
Full of noisy breakdowns and inside jokes tuned to a stoner’s frequency, the band’s music hinted at deep studies in the weirdest corners of rock history — Can, Captain Beefheart, Sonic Youth. But it also managed to hit upon some undeniably gorgeous melodies, and Malkmus was and remains a master of the tossed-off phrase that becomes a touchstone.
For years, the knock on the band was that it wasn’t clear they could play their instruments very well, or keep them (and Malkmus’s voice) in tune. But that was also a big part of Pavement’s charm. True to the spirit of the ‘90s, they just didn’t seem to care.
After wandering off in separate directions in 1999, the band first reunited a decade later for a series of appearances at festivals around the world. The current reunion has felt a little different, West says.
Now in their 50s, “you’re less self-focused, more aware. When you become a parent and have kids, it’s not all about you anymore. You have better peripheral vision.”
Malkmus and Pavement’s cofounder, guitarist Scott Kannberg — known by his stage name Spiral Stairs — were adolescent friends in Stockton, Calif. In 1992 the band capitalized on its instantly beloved status on the underground grapevine by releasing its debut album, “Slanted and Enchanted,” one of three Pavement records to appear on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
West joined the band in 1993 following the departure of the band’s original drummer, Gary Young, an unpredictable Stocktonian who was a decade older than the other band members. Young owned the recording studio where Malkmus and Kannberg first recorded.
“Westie” has stayed close over the years with Bob Nastanovich, the band’s jack of all trades. They went to high school together in Virginia, and their parents now live in the same retirement community.
After Pavement broke up, Nastanovich briefly brought West into the fold with the Silver Jews, the band he’d formed with Malkmus and David Berman. West, Malkmus, and Berman (the singer and poet who died in 2019) had all worked together as security guards at the Whitney Museum in New York in the early ‘90s.
Having spent years apart since the last reunion, West says it’s always fascinating to watch the group get back together.
“You see old friends, and a lot of times you wonder, are they the same person? But the relationship dynamics haven’t changed. It’s very comfortable.”
Part of that comfort level might be due to the presence this time around of a sixth member, keyboardist Rebecca Cole. Once a drummer for the Minders, she also played in the band Wild Flag with Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney and Helium’s Mary Timony.
“She’s been fitting in in every category superbly,” West says. “She gets along with everybody. She has a cheery spirit,” which is very helpful, he says, “when our less-cheery aspects come out.”
Musically, “I can’t emphasize enough how much she has improved our songs. She can play those parts we were never able to play. And her backing vocals — we make sure she’s up and the others are down in the mix a little.” He laughs.
Typically, the band hasn’t stuck to one set list on their reunion tour. From night to night, fans may or may not hear signature songs such as “Shady Lane,” “Stereo,” “Debris Slide,” “Cut Your Hair,” or “Summer Babe.”
West says he’s been particularly enjoying playing the cuts the band refers to as their “old man” songs — midtempo numbers such as “Major Leagues” or “Father to a Sister of Thought” that don’t require the frenzy that often marked the band’s earlier material.
“They’re a pleasure to play in their simplicity,” he says. “You just let the guitars do their thing.”
Naturally, the crowds on this tour have skewed toward the musicians’ age. But there have also been plenty of younger fans who couldn’t have experienced the group in its heyday, West says.
A few years ago, the band had an unexpected viral hit when one of its (many) obscure outtakes, “Harness Your Hopes,” hit a sweet spot in the Spotify algorithm.
“Last night, there was a young couple, and they were just beaming,” West reports. “The songs really hold up for young and old. It doesn’t really matter — they’re still the same songs.”
When an audience responds by singing along in unison to the band’s deliberately oddball lyrics, West says, “it’s really amazing. You can’t beat that feeling.
“I’ll build somebody a beautiful chimney and they won’t recognize me five years later. In this job, they do appreciate it. So we’re very fortunate. Very, very fortunate.”
With Guerilla Toss. At the Boch Center Wang Theatre. Sept. 28 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $35. www.bochcenter.org
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.