Testing Grounds for indie greatness
The chaos and experimentation that prepped the stars of Pavement and Silver Jews for success
Most music fans are familiar with the concept of a supergroup—MVPs from several successful bands combining to form a new one. But far less well-known is the term’s inverted twin: the utterly unknown band made up of future musical luminaries. For a moment in the late 1980s at UVA, Ectoslavia was that strange, deeply unfamous reverse supergroup, chaotically flailing about inside an underground scene that never caught on far beyond its members’ social circles and a house on 14th Street, but laying the groundwork for the larger debuts of a cluster of indie rock’s all-time greats.
Members Stephen Malkmus (Col ’88) and Bob Nastanovich (Col ’89) would go on to start Pavement, widely known as one of the best and most influential rock bands of the 1990s. Bassist James McNew, a Charlottesville native who studied Japanese at UVA, would go on to join Yo La Tengo, which Newsweek in 2018 called perhaps the most “sturdy, persistent and reliably great” indie rock band of all time. And band founder and songwriter David Berman (Col ’89) went on to form Silver Jews, declared the “pinnacle of a certain strain of indie rock” by Pitchfork—with Berman himself being called “the poet laureate of the void” by The Fader.
With a band name meant to sound like some obscure European country, Ectoslavia was a presence on Grounds before anyone had even played a note. “I can just see it written all over the place,” recalls Malkmus, who last year toured the world with a solo album. “David’s handwriting, the word ‘Ectoslavia,’ on all of these posters and fake album covers.” The band default mode was extremely casual—a loose collective with a revolving lineup—but Berman’s actions sometimes hinted he felt there was significant potential. He once told future Pavement bass player Mark Ibold to quit his current band and join Ectoslavia. “What the hell are you doing in the Dustdevils,” Berman asked him. “You’re wasting your time.”
Gate Pratt (Arch ’89), who played a 55-gallon oil drum with a railroad tie for percussion, remembers the band as primitive, free-form and chaotic. Rehearsals were often recorded with a boom box, but as Nastanovich has recalled, “The next day’s playbacks were always disheartening.” Says Pratt: “You wouldn’t believe that the people who were in the band would go on to do well in music.”
Still, Berman took the band fairly seriously, swapping members in and out as he saw fit. “Silver Jews weren’t the first band David Berman kicked me and Stephen Malkmus out of,” Nastanovich explains by phone from his home in Louisville, Kentucky. “We both got booted from Ectoslavia.”
Seeds of greatness
Despite the ramshackle output of Ectoslavia (the handful of recordings of the band floating around the internet are pure noise-collage mania), Nastanovich came to appreciate his bandmates’ rare talents. “One of the unusual things about my UVA experience is that I saw that my two best friends were unusually gifted. David, as far as I could tell, was one of the most talented writers in my age group in the country, and Steve was already such a fantastic guitar player and songwriter. So I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is pretty odd.’ ”
Traces of nostalgia for his time at UVA can be found in Malkmus’ later songs, such as 2014’s “Lariat”—where the lyric “We grew up listening to the music from the best decade ever” recalls his bandmates wilding out as DJs at WTJU—and 2019’s experimental “Rushing the Acid Frat,” riffing off his thoughts about the Greek scene. Even one of Pavement’s most beloved tracks, “Gold Soundz,” Malkmus says, has a multilayered UVA reference: The line “so drunk in the August sun” is a nod to a scene in William Styron’s novel Lie Down in Darkness, which is set at the school.
Berman, too, sprinkled references to his time at UVA into his music. Albemarle County is name-checked in the title of 1996’s “Albemarle Station,” as well as local utility company American Water (with 1998’s American Water album). And 80 miles west you’ll find Virginia’s Natural Bridge State Park, where Berman longed to magically convert the gift shop’s merchandise into swag for his band simply by naming his record The Natural Bridge after it.
The strange sounds Ectoslavia produced never resulted in a lasting influence over the city’s music scene, nor did Pavement or Silver Jews become known as Charlottesville’s finest musical export. That honor would go to Dave Matthews, whom Berman—charmingly—believed he might one day eclipse. “Maybe there will be a time when more people in Charlottesville will say ‘David Berman was from here’ than Dave Matthews,” he told the Washington Post in 2008. “I’m preparing for a future like that. But … it still hasn’t happened.”
Berman died by suicide in August just days before he was to embark on a tour with his instantly beloved new band, Purple Mountains, which marked his return to music after a near-10-year silence.
While some music scenes develop around a certain club or, in more recent decades, message boards and social media, WTJU 91.1, UVA’s free-form radio station, was the soil from which Ectoslavia and its offshoots sprouted. Malkmus, Berman, Nastanovich and McNew were all DJs during their time at UVA, as was visual artist Steve Keene (whose paintings would go on to help define the style of Pavement and Silver Jews) and Thomas Frank (Col ’87), a future founding editor of The Baffler, where some of Berman’s earliest poems would be published. “We took it for granted at the time,” Malkmus says, “but it’s funny to see now how all the tendrils of the station have reached all of these unexpected places.”
John Beers (Col ’85), WTJU’s rock director in the late ’80s, was a member of local punk outfit Happy Flowers, which toured with Sonic Youth. Beers’ small, strange success served as an inspiration for the undergrad DJs.
“They were funny and atonal and entirely credible in New York … leaders in the field,” Berman marveled in 2018. Some of Malkmus’ earliest recordings were created as musical public service announcements he’d strum on his guitar during overnight shifts. Meanwhile, on Berman’s “The Big Hair Show,” the poetry student’s sense of humor and devotion to the rock band Butthole Surfers were on full display. “I remember how funny David was on the air,” says classmate Eric Forst (Col ’88). “I remember tuning in one day and hearing him repeat over and over, endlessly, ‘Corn dog roast. Butthole Surfers. Corn dog roast. Butthole Surfers.’”
This mantra was not meaningless, exactly. “We concocted an idea that we would have a 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. Butthole Surfers marathon and, well, a corn dog roast because it seemed fitting,” fellow DJ Pratt recalls. Nastanovich figures they gave away hundreds of corn dogs in the middle of the night for several years until the event was shut down in 1989 due to the overwhelming smell it created on Grounds. “WTJU will not be grilling things in the future,” reads the official apology memo.
The Red House
The so-called “Red House” at 217 14th St. became an unofficial refuge for the “alternative” students of UVA in the late ’80s, whether they lived there or not. Berman and Pratt paid rent; Nastanovich often slept on the kitchen floor after he realized he had moved too far from Grounds; and Malkmus—a Lawnie during his fourth year—would come by after he finished his schoolwork (“Compared to those guys, I think I didn’t goof off, yeah,” he says, laughing). The Red House had three floors of artists and musicians, and together they’d host monthly parties and publish a semi-frequent house newsletter put together by Berman (“WEATHER: get out there, it’s good!”). In the basement, one could find the official practice space of Ectoslavia.
When Frank reflects on the unusually talented cluster of student DJs he was a part of in the latter half of the 1980s, he can’t help but note the unlikeliness of it all. “We played obscure and difficult records on a college radio station, and yet we thought that might lead anywhere.” For these students, “anywhere” turned out to be places of achievement both unique and rare.