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Stephen Malkmus: I, Malkmus

Stephen Malkmus passes the Turing Test with flying colours

Malkmus and some other human humansMalkmus and some other human humans

Brian Christian’s The Most Human Human is one of those “zippy personal odyssey through a fascinating scientific question” thingies that are now a subgenre. The foundational event’s an international contest organized around the Turing Test, a philosophical/scientific idea cooked up by late genius Alan Turing. There’s hair-splitting interpretational nerdery about it, but basically, the Turing Test is a tool to help us think about what it means for a computer to think. To pass the Turing Test is to pass for human. At the contest, humans and machines converse with judges onscreen, over a network; judges try to determine bits from cells. One award’s for programs that fool the judges, but another award’s up for grabs, one which the author covets and uses for the book’s title, and as a cri du coeur. Christian maintains that in this dawning era of artificial intelligence and thinking machines, it’s essential to strive for interactions that resist robotic imitation, especially in contexts that reward flattening the richness of our communication, like autocomplete for texting or spellcheck “fixing” our wordplay. We should be the best of our species—spontaneous, playful, inquisitive and relational—in our encounters. We should represent.

Stephen Malkmus would kill Most Human Human. In January, his sixth Jicks record, Wig Out At Jagbags, came out and it’s early days in a long tour. His entire adult life’s been a study in Gen X grace: defining feral ’90s slack-rock sound with Pavement, burnishing David Berman’s poetic brilliance in the Silver Jews, settling in Portland into a loose three-year cycle of album creation with the Jicks, marrying a smart visual artist and having daughters with names typically found in a Portland daycare. If anyone could get away with phoning it in—literally; he’s doing back-to-back interviews, every 20 minutes from a San Francisco hotel room, with sniffles and a slight cough—he could. If any situation’s designed for rote, listless utterances, this is. And most stars (yes, he is) fail the Turing Test at the best of times.

But he resists. Malkmus is laidback, funny, cosmopolitan, responsive. Conversation meanders over weather, the quality of natural light in different geography, ethnic food and Armenian, Chicagoan and Californian history. He picks out odd details and expands the discussion. He mentions William Saroyan and Harry Nilsson, asks about Edmonton and Fort McMurray, and perks up when talking music.

Not his music, though.

Over 20 minutes, he sweetly rebuffs three separate attempts to steer conversation into interview territory. The last time, it’s explicit: Want to say anything about Jagbags?

“Not really,” he says, pleasantly. “No. It’s out there. There’s nothing I can do to sell it, you know? Come see us if you want, and you’ll see why it’s good, even better.” Then: “Have you ever heard this band called ‘Painter?’”

He thinks they’re from Edmonton, but they’re Calgarian—still, impressive.

“It’s not like a cool thing, it’s real, middle-of-the-road, rock ‘n’ roll, well done,” he says. “It reminds you of when people were into Foreigner, Boston and Journey, but it’s better, more earthy.”

He enthuses about Edmonton legends Troyka, and offers to put Troyka members, plus kids, on the guest list, then says his friend at the Mexican Summer label wants to put out Troyka’s rumoured recorded-but-never-released second album. (Troyka, get in touch!)

“Obviously, they’re one of the best bands, ever. We all love Troyka; they’re just the most awesome band. That’s something Edmonton can be proud about, besides oil and the Oilers,” and he laughs, and tacks in another unexpected conversational direction, bringing the human human-ness.

Tue, Apr 8 (8 pm)
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks
With Speedy Ortiz
Starlite Room, $20

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One thought on “Stephen Malkmus: I, Malkmus

  1. Hi Stephen . seeing that you’re playing Victoria Fri. Ap.11/14..even though this is late notice and I have other plans , if you leave a couple of passes I’ll drop in to talk & hear you..thanks ..Rob

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