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‘There Is Nobody to Help Anybody Understand What Has Happened’

The curious case of Slint, indie rock’s most mysterious band

When Slint’s second and most-lauded album, Spiderland, was released in March 1991, the Louisville, Kentucky, band had been broken up for about six months. The band made no videos to promote the record, did no interviews, and got little or no college-radio airplay. Three years later, two songs it had recorded with producer Steve Albini before making Spiderland were finally released as an untitled 10-inch EP. The cover looked like a crime-scene photo shot from God’s perspective — one more piece of cryptic evidence from one of indie rock’s most mysterious bands.

Before breaking up, Slint had played only about 30 live shows. The number of people who saw them play could probably fit inside a Taylor Swift concert. But Spiderland made converts after the fact. People passed it along, like a ghost story. There were rumors the band had been killed in a car accident, or that the members had all been institutionalized after making the record. Over time, as they began turning up in new bands, those tall tales faded, but the myth of Spiderland didn’t. The music made the strangest stories seem believable. There were trace elements of hardcore punk in it, but the songs unfolded in odd time signatures, marked by jarring bursts of noise and equally unsettling blasts of silence. Some almost unnameable dark force seemed to lurk just beyond the borders of each song, like a monster out of Lovecraft.

It’s worth noting that Slint also looked about as rock and roll as a high school chess team. It was as if the kids from Stand by Me had gone on to pick up guitars and form a band. But at times on Spiderland, they also sounded like the grown-up Richard Dreyfuss, recollecting life-changing trauma from a distance. And sometimes they sounded like the dead body. They were Grade A dorks who’d created something bleak and epic, thereby pretty much guaranteeing that other Grade A dorks would speak about them forever after in almost mystical terms. Somewhere on YouTube, there’s an upload of the audio from an entire early-’90s Slint set at a Louisville club called the Wrocklodge; one commenter writes, “The drummer sat in my Clark Street apartment in 1990 and predicted the financial collapse.” Anything was plausible.

In a world before Google, the absence of information about Slint and Spiderland turned fans into true detectives. They’d show up at the address printed on the back of the album, which turned out to be the drummer’s parents’ house. After discovering the record in the early ’90s, filmmaker Lance Bangs would occasionally hear rumors about Slint playing together again and drive up from Athens, Georgia, to Louisville with a car full of cameras. The stories were always false, but that didn’t mean these trips into the unknown weren’t worth it.

“Sometimes when I would go visit,” Bangs says near the beginning of his new Slint documentary, Breadcrumb Trail, “I would end up at bizarre house parties in strange buildings that seemed like they were half-collapsing. Where there were desiccated chickens nailed up to the wall with strings going through them like a puppet while some noise band played.”

This past February, the A.V. Club’s Jason Heller criticized the makers of obscure-musician documentaries like A Band Called Death and the Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man for making misleading claims about their subjects. By presenting Death or Sixto Rodriguez or Anvil as having missed out on deserved global megastardom by a matter of inches and not miles, Heller argued, these films distort rock history and cram idiosyncratic artists into a one-size-fits-all heroic-loser narrative. Of course, that narrative recurs because Genius Unjustly Forgotten is a plot everyone can understand, not to mention a useful one. When you’re trying to entice regular, non-superfan filmgoers — or justify your Kickstarter campaign — a little hyperbole never hurts.

There’s no credible way to tell that almost-famous story about Slint, and Bangs doesn’t try. He doesn’t really have to. Although Bangs has been screening the film in theaters around the country over the past few months, it’s included as a bonus feature with Touch and Go’s new triple-LP reissue of Spiderland; chances are, if you’ve paid $150 for a boxed set, you don’t need much convincing. Which actually makes for a better film. There are no testimonial interviews with hipster authority figures like Henry Rollins or Thurston Moore, no A&R guys ruing the day they let the band slip through their fingers, no critics crediting Slint with inventing some crucial element of indie rock. Slint’s music was a crucial influence on math rock, slowcore, and post-rock, indie subgenres that were and are exactly as marginal as they sound. Post-rock essentially has no mainstream legacy, unless you count Texan instrumentalists Explosions in the Sky soundtracking five seasons of Dillon Panther football on Friday Night Lights.

There’s not even a mention that the band started performing live again in 2005 and has been playing shows on and off ever since, including a 2007 performance of the entirety of Spiderland at Webster Hall in New York, a show one critic hailed as “a funeral mass for the album.” (Not the Slint album — albums, as a thing.) No member of Slint interacts with any other member of Slint on camera, except in archival shots from the old days. No one mentions what they’re doing now or introduces a spouse or plays with a kid. Most of the interviews seem to have been conducted late at night, in small, unadorned rooms, and everyone chooses their words carefully, as if even they aren’t sure how to tell this story.

“Slint was a part of a mass of events that centered around the Louisville punk rock scene, around the independent/underground record scene of the 1980’s, around the personal lives of the makers of this music, and very little of this is accessible to the world outside, or the world moved on,” writes Will Oldham in the liner notes to the reissue. “So the reception of SPIDERLAND is a confusion of entitlement, justification, and misinterpretation for some of us. There is nobody to help anybody understand what has happened.”

“At some point as a kid, I was just bored of rock,” Slint drummer Britt Walford says, early in Bangs’s film, as a picture of Walford and singer/guitarist Brian McMahan at ages 11 and 12, respectively, flashes onscreen. They’re wearing goofy grins and look too young to be bored of anything yet. “And that’s when I met Brian.”

Walford and McMahan were still attending high school at Louisville’s renowned J. Graham Brown School when they formed their first punk band, Languid & Flaccid. They went on to play for David Grubbs’s remarkable post-hardcore outfit Squirrel Bait, and then Walford became the drummer of Maurice, which toured as an opening act for Glenn Danzig’s horror-metal band Samhain when Walford was all of 14. By the time Maurice broke up, Walford and Maurice guitarist David Pajo had started writing new songs together; they formed a new band with a friend named Ethan Buckler on bass.

Slint played its first show at Buckler’s father’s Unitarian church, although at the time it was a trio called Small Dirty Tight Tufts of Hair: BEADS, a name that makes “Slint” — originally the moniker of one of Walford’s pet fish — sound focus-grouped. McMahan was in the audience at that performance; he became Slint’s guitarist shortly thereafter. They practiced, as Squirrel Bait and Maurice both had, in Walford’s parents’ basement, a space whose significance in the Slint story is Big Pink–ish; among other things, Bangs’s movie makes a convincing case that the greatest advantage a teenage punk band can have is a basement with its own entrance.

It recorded its debut album, Tweez, at Albini’s studio in Evanston, Illinois, in 1987. It’s clearly a record made by kids — squirmy and restless, a trash-sculpture shrine to Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, full of weird noises (breaking glass, tape loops, snippets from a home recording of somebody taking a shit) layered over guitar parts that evoked D. Boon thrashing in a tub of rubber cement. Albini remembers them as being surprisingly mature young men — “I think they’d processed what they needed to get out of being a teenager fairly quickly,” he says — who showed up to the studio with strong ideas about their aesthetic. Walford, Albini says, “was really into the idea that his bass drum should sound like somebody slapping a ham.”

For all its charms, Tweez barely hints at what the band would become. You can see it more clearly in the video Bangs unearths of Slint performing at a high school battle of the bands that year. It took 90 minutes to set up, then played a fiercely abstract and forbidding version of the Tweez song “Nan Ding” while standing as still as sentries. This was probably not a strategically sound battle move; it might as well have submitted a Richard Serra installation to the science fair and called it a project about rust. Pajo: “It’s a good template for our entire career.”

Walford and McMahan tried college at Northwestern for a while, but ended up drifting back to Louisville and that basement, where Slint regrouped to labor over the songs that would become Spiderland. There’s video from those days, too: Walford drumming shirtless and slack-jawed, Pajo picking out guitar harmonics with extreme care, like he’s soldering a circuit board. It’s possible Slint became a cult band in part because being in Slint was like being in a cult. We watch it practicing what would become “Good Morning Captain” as if it’s a puzzle it has to solve before it can leave the room. “If somebody had a riff,” says Todd Brashear, who replaced Buckler on bass for Spiderland, “they would play that riff until the end of time.”

Slint-2-HP

The kicker from Robert Christgau’s 82-word C+ review of Spiderland in The Village Voice: “And if you promise not to mention their lyrics they promise to keep the volume down.” To put it less harshly: That you couldn’t always make out what McMahan (and occasionally Walford) was saying and singing on Spiderland has always been part of this album’s allure. Most of the post-rock bands Slint unwittingly inspired either radically reinterpreted the role of lead vocalist or did away with the job entirely. But Spiderland isn’t an instrumental record. The words matter.

On “Breadcrumb Trail,” two guitars repeat elliptical phrases that together add up to a riff, while someone tells a story. You can hear an echo of Sonic Youth’s similarly structured and half-spoken Hitchcock paraphrase “Shadow of a Doubt” if you’re listening for it. But in that song, there was menace in the way the music circled Kim Gordon’s voice, and drama and pleading in her stage-whispered delivery. The Slint track is just a story, delivered in a pinched and unheroic tone that says, This is just a story — a voice as unexotically American as Louisville, which they say is the southernmost city in the Midwest, or vice versa.

The narrator spots a fortune-teller’s tent at the far end of a carnival midway and goes to check it out. On the way, he takes note of the rubes outside the sideshow. “I couldn’t figure out why they would want to wait in line,” he says. His language is unfussy, conversational: “I pulled back the drape thing on the tent.” He sits down for a reading, then changes his mind and asks the fortune-teller if she wants to go on the roller coaster with him instead. They go for a ride, and the music shifts, so the narrator sounds like he’s screaming into the wind.

If he won’t hear the prophecy, he can go on believing his destiny is changeable, that he can change it, that he’s not like everybody else. I couldn’t figure out why they would want to wait in line. Why would anybody? But in his flight from the preordained, he winds up at the roller coaster, a ride that promises risk and danger, even though it’s really on rails and always leaves you right where you started. “The ticket taker smiles, and the last car is ready. Who told you that you could leave?” The closer you get to it, the more adulthood looks like a gradual narrowing of options ending in death; that feeling is at least one of the shadows over Spiderland.

The songs keep coming back here — to the idea of escape and its impossibility, American themes taken up time and again by American writers and American bands. “Nosferatu Man” lifts a verse — the one that goes, “I can be settled down / And be doing just fine / Until I hear that old train / Rolling down the line” — from Hank Williams’s “Ramblin’ Man.” The protagonist of the brooding, drumless “Don, Aman” flees a party, where “his friends stare with eyes like the heads of nails,” and gets in a car. Around the four-and-a-half-minute mark, a wail of distorted guitar bursts out of the left speaker, as if whoever’s playing wants to turn this into a punk song, wants the music to take off running, to invent the accelerator-stomp catharsis of Deftones’ “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)” a few years early.

No dice, though, because the other guitar won’t budge. It reels the song back in, slows it even further down, almost to a crawl. Don’s escape is only temporary. We leave him not on the highway but back home, looking in the mirror. Right at the six-minute mark you hear a human noise off-mic — a laugh, or a gulp, or a shudder, as if the person who’s been speaking these words is relieved to be free of them.

All those myths about car wrecks and hospitals turn out to be not entirely untrue. In 1990, shortly before Slint went into the studio to record Spiderland, McMahan was struck by an oncoming car while helping a stranded motorist; shortly after the record was finished, he checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. Soon after that, when Slint was preparing to leave on its first European tour, McMahan announced he was quitting. The explanation he gives Bangs is pretty simple: Getting things done was never Slint’s strong suit, and McMahan was tired of playing bad cop. And at that point the band broke up, because no one could imagine continuing without him. It rehearsed together sporadically over the next few years, and McMahan, Walford, and Brashear all backed Will Oldham on the first Palace Brothers album, 1993’s There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You, but they never set foot in a recording studio as Slint again.

Anyone who’s invested time and energy in the notion that Slint cracked under the pressure of making Spiderland — or was somehow swallowed up by the dark forces it conjured in these songs — will find this resolution a little disappointing. It’s the chicken-carcass puppet of third-act reveals. The Slint legend hinges on the idea that this record derailed the lives of the people who made it just as it derailed those of the people who encountered it. But I think Bangs knows that. He doesn’t push McMahan to talk about the accident or the reasons for his hospital stay, so if you want to — if you need to — you can assume there’s another story we’re not hearing. The film is inconclusive in a way that safeguards the myth; it offers no answers, only alibis. 

Filed Under: Music, Slint, indie rock, Pop Archeology, lance bangs, breadcrumb trail

alex

Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ PAPPADEMAS

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