The Amazing Spiderland : Slint’s Gradual Masterpiece

Joe Gross

By Joe Gross

on 04.14.14 in Features

On March 27, 1991, almost nobody in the American record-buying public knew anything about Slint. In fact, on the day their eventually-wildly-influential album Spiderland arrived in stores, the Louisville band wasn’t even a band anymore.

Elsewhere, 1991 was shaping up to be a transformative year. Fiercely independent D.C. punk iconoclasts Fugazi had been touring for months on end, steadily building an audience that would result in pre-orders for their second album, Steady Diet of Nothing, reaching an astonishing 160,000 copies. Nirvana’s Nevermind, released in September of that year, would redraw the borders of rock music, both in the mainstream and beneath it.

And before both of those landmarks, Slint had released a classic record, as visionary and unconventional as any from that strange, heady era. The only difference was that nobody knew it yet.

On April 15, 2014, about 23 years after it was first released, Touch and Go Records will reissue Spiderland in a deluxe package that includes a remastered LP, two LPs of outtakes and demos, a 104-page book containing the band’s history and rare photos, and the DVD “Breadcrumb Trail,” an excellent documentary shot by noted music documentarian (With the Lights Out) and Jackass director Lance Bangs. The film covers the band’s entire career, and contains interviews with all of its members as well as two-time Slint producer and tireless Slint advocate Steve Albini, Ian MacKaye, Matmos’s Drew Daniel, James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem and more.

Clearly, they found their fanbase.

Slint’s origin dates back to the childhood friendship of drummer Britt Walford, an often wild personality whose musical genius formed the band’s pulsing core, and guitarist and singer Brian McMahan, a more reserved presence but no less intense. The two went to basement punk shows together and played in various bands in the nascent Louisville scene, some of them famous (Squirrel Bait) some not (Maurice, which featured Walford). Most of the scene was older — Walford and McMahan were, as one scenster in Breadcrumb Trail puts it, the “baby hardcores.”

Eventually joined by guitarist Dave Pajo and bassist Ethan Buckler, Slint made dramatic, complex rock music while they were still mind-bogglingly young. The band’s median age was about 18 when they recorded their debut, Tweez, with Albini. Buckler left to form King Kong and was replaced by Todd Brashear. In 1990, three years after Tweez, they recorded the two songs — the seven-minute “Glenn” and a rethink of “Rhoda” from Tweez — that provided a transition between the clamor of Tweez and the order of Spiderland. Pajo, the eldest member of Slint, was all of 22.

‘‘Recorded over an intense four days with Brian Paulson, every sound on Spiderland stood in contrast to its era. Where most early-’90s underground rock bands thrived on pedal-pushing distortion, the guitars on Spiderland are clean, almost delicate.’’

Which is to say that when most of their peers were still clinging to some variant of loud-fast rules, Slint created a weird, noisy sound on Tweez and then scrapped it, rethinking their approached to rock music, from the ground up.

There’s a fascinating insight into the delicate heaviness on Spiderland in Breadcrumb Trail. In the film, Ben Johnson, a Chicago roommate of McMahan and Walford, who shared a place while they attended Northwestern, remembers, “One night I had been out. When I came home, Britt was hunched over his guitar and playing [a tape of] Rachmaninoff, a three- or four-second little clip. He’d play it, rewind it, play it, rewind it, and then he’d work on the guitar a little bit. I think he did that for hours and hours.”

Suddenly, a blueprint for Spiderland begins to emerge — a few bell-clear notes, strung together and repeated. “If one person had a riff,” Bradshear says in Breadcrumb Trail, “they would play that riff ’til the end of time while somebody else was trying to write other parts.”

Some of the group’s old pals had no idea what to make of this change. “Britt would come up with these riffs and you were like, ‘What the fuck is that?’” Sean “Rat” Garrison, a bandmate from the Maurice days, says in the film.

Recorded over an intense four days with Brian Paulson, every sound on Spiderland stood in contrast to its era. Where most early-’90s underground rock bands thrived on pedal-pushing distortion, the guitars on Spiderland are clean, almost delicate. Where most bands relied on easy chordings, songs such as “Nosferatu Man” and “Breadcrumb Trail” sound carefully composed. Alt-singers either howled or crooned, but McMahan spoke quietly and sung softly, only rarely screaming, which gives his bellow at the very end of “Good Morning, Captain” a cathartic quality that sounds genuinely earned. After all that tension, it’s a moment of total release, of total collapse.

Naturally, people were confused.

Jon Fine, who was playing in Bitch Magnet at the time, saw Slint twice — once in New York and once in Chicago.

“There might have been 20 people there,” says Fine, now a journalist who won a James Beard Award for food writing, from his home in New York. “[Seeing them play Spiderland material] you didn’t understand what the fuck they were doing. There was this long tension, and Britt would just do eighth notes on his cymbal, and that would be the whole fucking song. I remember it being very quiet and odd and super compelling.”

But even Fine admits being initially flummoxed by Spiderland. And since the band called it quits before the album was released, they weren’t around to explain it. There was no tour to support the record. There were no interviews. There was no band. Just a mysterious photograph of four floating heads in a quarry on the sleeve.

“I remember being disappointed,” Fine says, recalling a Jesus Lizard/Bitch Magnet show during which David Yow of the Jesus Lizard heckled McMahan for making such a shitty followup to Tweez.

Then again, Fine was a Tweez man. “We played Tweez a lot, in the van,” Fine said. “Every aspect of Tweez had such a strong whiff of ‘what the fuck’ about it, and in a very effortless way. It wasn’t like the Butthole Surfers acting crazy for the sake of acting crazy — it seemed to come from a very natural place.”

Eventually, Spiderland clicked. “It took me a good year to pick up on it,” Fine says, “And then I couldn’t play it enough. It became the record I listened to the most in the 1990s.”
Indeed, many critics didn’t know what to make of it. Robert Christgau gave Spiderland a C+ in the Village Voice, calling them “art-rockers without the courage of their pretensions.” Mac Randall, who wrote about the band for the 2004 Rolling Stone Album Guide, wasn’t wild about the record, either, awarding it two-and-a-half stars and lamenting, “The absence of anything resembling a tune continues to nag.”

But slowly, it found its audience — mostly among musicians who were slightly younger than Fine’s generation of post-hardcore indie rockers.

Jeremy DeVine, the head of Temporary Residence records, designer of the Spiderland box and a former Louisville resident, was 15 when he heard the record in 1991, and was instantly addicted.

“The space between the first time I heard it to the 100th time I heard it was probably a month,” DeVine says. “The record itself is great, but context is huge for that album. When I first heard it, there was nothing else like it. There really wasn’t.”

‘‘At the time, [Spiderland] seemed like it came from outer space. These were punk kids stretching out into realms that which were the domain of prog rock. Which was nothing that me or anyone I knew wanted to touch with a 10-foot pole.’’

DeVine also notes that younger bands started building on aspects of the Slint formula almost immediately, most notably fellow Louisville band Rodan, who were still around to spread the gospel. All they added were a few modest tweaks. Where Spiderland‘s approach to dynamics and structure could be summed up as “tension tension tension tension RELEASE,” bands such as Rodan and their terrific album Rusty worked from a formula of tension tension RELEASE RELEASE RELEASE. That same approach was also favored by the Scottish band Mogwai. In fact, the working title of Mogwai’s booming early song “Like Herod” was “Slint.”

Both Slint and Mogwai were, in turn, were a huge influence on Explosions in the Sky, the Texas-based act that launched in 1999. Chris Hrasky, the band’s only non-Texan, heard Spiderland in Chicago. “My friend Eric brought it home and we all freaked out,” Hrasky said. “It was so epic, but also weirdly kind of personal and sort of scary. And then you look at the picture on the cover and it’s like, ‘Dude, these guys just look like guys on the swim team,’ which was kind of awesome.”

Slint was certainly on the minds of anyone who heard Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s debut F♯ A♯ ∞. It scanned like Slint-as-chamber-rock, with multiple guitars, basses, drums and stringed instruments stretching out repeated, hypnotic passages. Where Spiderland sounds like a personal crisis, F♯ A♯ ∞ sounds like the mourning after the end of the world.

“At the time, [Spiderland] seemed like it came from outer space,” Godspeed co-founder Efrim Menuck said while on the road with his other band, Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra. “We played it over and over. These were punk kids like us stretching out into realms that which, at that time, were the domain of prog rock. Which was nothing that me or anyone I knew wanted to touch with a 10-foot pole.”

“With Spiderland,” Hrasky says, “it wasn’t just, ‘Oh, this song is eight minutes long and five of it is just them going crazy.’ No, this is intricately written. Everything is very purposeful and plotted out, and that ended up being important to Explosions — the idea of these long songs that really had movements from beginning to end and were very well mapped out.”

“There’s a timelessness to it that succeeds,” DeVine said. “The recording is just so stripped down and naked.”

“At the time, the fact that these punk kids were making music like that was a huge thing to me and everyone I knew,” Menuck says. “It felt like getting a telegram from China asking if you wanted to come over for six-pack. It was completely out of the blue.”