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‘Pavement is as viable today as we were in the mid-90s’

Pavement’s Bob Nastanovich says in both horse racing and music, he’s learned how to lose. But, at least on stage, things are looking up.

Pavement

Pavement play Bluedot this summer. Photo: PR

At the nexus point of indie-rock and equestrian sport, Bob Nastanovich stands alone. On one side of his life, he’s the affable percussionist, shouter-in-chief and all-round good vibes guru in Pavement, one of the most beloved and acclaimed if also most dysfunctional American guitar bands of the 1990s. On the other side, to mixed degrees of financial success, Nastanovich has since his youth been immersed in the world of thoroughbred horse racing, whether as a horse owner and breeder, manager, jockey agent, correspondent, pundit or, currently, data analyst. To date, he remains the only known American to have attended horse-racing fixtures at all 60 British racecourses.

Ask Nastanovich what a lifetime in rock’n’roll has taught him about horse racing and vice versa, and he gives same answer both ways. “I’ve learned how to lose very, very well,” he laughs.

We talk by wonky video call from Nastanovich’s small home in “a very unsexy place called Paris, Tennessee”, as he puts it, an affordably unfashionable town where he keeps some horses (among his herd: a filly called Range Life, named after the Pavement song). It’s been blowing gales all day and his power and internet keep coming in and out; at one point he has to sit in his car to get a connection.

Towards the end of 2022, Nastanovich was traversing the US and Europe with Pavement on a rapturously received pandemic-delayed reunion tour, the band’s second since splitting acrimoniously in 2000. Unlike Pavement’s first reunion in 2010 – which lasted less than a year and was rumoured to have taken place mainly for financial reasons, including helping Nastanovich pay off gambling debts – this one seems to have somehow stuck.

This summer, the band will reconvene to headline Bluedot in the UK (“a really cool festival,” comments Nastanovich, “we’re happy to be a part of it”) among a raft of other international live commitments throughout 2023 that also includes residencies in Reykjavik and New York City. Nastanovich is cautiously optimistic that Pavement may now be an ongoing concern once again. Although he can’t say for sure.

“It’s just not up to me,” he announces, bluntly. Much more so (indeed, perhaps entirely), it’s up to the band’s mercurial leader singer, guitarist and fulcrum Stephen Malkmus, one of the great idiosyncratic six-string anti-heroes and someone Nastanovich seems to hold in a whole lot of respect (“without his contribution, nobody would have ever heard of us outside of our own garage”). That, in spite of Malkmus clearly being a terrible communicator. On occasions, Nastanovich hasn’t even known about Pavement shows until he’s seen them advertised.

Formed in Stockton, California, in the late 1980s by Malkmus together with fellow guitarist and vocalist Scott Kannberg, Pavement were the dudes least likely to. They emerged from scuzzy and unstable lo-fi beginnings to make a series of epoch defining albums and singles, beginning with 1992’s landmark Slanted and Enchanted. To many, evocative alt-radio staples such as Cut Your Hair, Gold Soundz and Stereo are the eternal sound of misspent youth.

Nastanovich, an old college friend of Malkmus, joined the band in 1990 initially with a nebulous role centred around helping keep the band’s eccentric and alcoholic drummer Gary Young in time and on his drum stool (Young was sacked in 1993, replaced by Steve West). Nastanovich was there until the end, when at the start of a new century – burned out from over-touring, arguments, drink and drugs – Pavement called it quits, Malkmus arbitrarily announcing their break-up live on stage at their final gig in London. For all their critical successes, they never made a commercial breakthrough in the way many of their contemporaries did.

While Malkmus has maintained a relatively high-profile music career since then, whether solo or with his band Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks, the rest of Pavement have had to make ends meet other ways. West works as a stonemason and farmer in Virginia. Bassist Mark Ibold joined Sonic Youth for a time but is now a bartender in New York. Guitarist Kannberg was about to start training as bus driver before the first Pavement reunion in 2010. The epithet “slacker rock”, with which Pavement have become synonymous – mostly in reference to their mellow, loose sound, but with connotations of apathy and aimlessness – could scarcely be less apt in this regard. At least four-fifths of the band simply can’t afford to slack.

Pavement standing together

“It’s all a bonus to me,” reflects Nastanovich of Pavement’s reunions when they happen, always to his surprise, “because, you know, I basically make about $25-$30 an hour as a horse racing employee, and I’d much rather do this type of work. I’d much rather try to fool people into thinking I’m an entertainer.”

Nastanovich calls himself a “non-musician”, and confesses that imposter syndrome dogs him now just as it did in Pavement’s ’90s heyday. “I’ve always been absolutely terrified that I could screw this thing up at any time, you know?” Where the rest of the band came into the latest reunion tour tightly drilled, there was only so much refinement of his musical contributions that Nastanovich could muster. “I personally don’t really need to practice playing tambourine and screaming,” he jokes, “most three-year-old children don’t either.”

And yet, as the band’s utility man, hype man and all-round big personality, he does “understand”, he admits, “my value to Pavement”. The 2002 Lance Bangs-produced documentary Slow Century revealed that Nastanovich was practically the band’s de facto tour manager back in the day, carrying around all the money they made while on the road and guarding it in a duffle bag during gigs. A popular theory, never confirmed but highly plausible, it that Nastanovich’s screaming style strongly influenced Blur’s massive 1997 hit Song 2. Much as anything, you get a sense he’s just a great guy to have around.

This latest reunion tour seems to have a far more positive air about it than the last one did, old grudges and traumas seemingly resolved, or at least pushed aside. I put it to Nastanovich that the body language on stage looks much better. “I think that you’re unquestionably right,” he responds. “We probably appreciate the opportunity more than ever, and it feels sort of, you know, less of an obligation.” Having been through dark days with Pavement in the past, when shows felt like they might fall apart at any minute, “it’s nice to be as close as we’re ever gonna get to a well-oiled machine,” he says.

Nastanovich will “never really understand Pavement’s place or what Pavement means to a hell of a lot to a lot of very enthusiastic listeners,” he concedes. But he’s been “amazed” at recent shows to not only see original fans coming out in droves, but new young fans too – “people in their thirties, even in their twenties,” he says. Whether as symptom or cause, the recent fortunes of obscure Pavement B-side Harness Your Hopes may have something to do with it. After suddenly going viral on TikTok a few years ago, it’s now racked up more streams, 100 million and counting, than all of Pavement’s other songs combined. “It’s always nice to be part of a phenomenon,” Nastanovich smiles. “I would say Pavement is as viable today as we were in the mid-90s.”

While his great passion for horse racing has at times been a curse, putting him in deep holes financially, his alter ego as implausible rock star is a pure blessing he’ll never, ever take for granted. “I guess you learn how to lose very well,” he says, returning to his earlier point about his two great loves, “and there’s an incredible amount of luck involved with both. Thankfully, I’ve been very fortunate in one category and that’s been my participation in Pavement.

“And you know, as far as horse racing goes, someday my ship will come in.”

Pavement play Bluedot Festival 20-23 July 2023. discoverthebluedot.com

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