Trying to find my way home

The sun rises again for musical innovators Slint

Apr 9, 2014 at 5:00 am
Walford, Brashear and McMahan in 2014
Walford, Brashear and McMahan in 2014 Photo by Marty Pearl

When former Slint bassist Todd Brashear is asked what a story about his band should be called, he suggests, “Genre inventin’ ain’t easy!” The story of Slint is unlike any other, a resurrection story unique to these times and this place. It’s a story with multiple layers, where facts and myths meet, past where the river bends, past where the silo stands, past where they paint the houses.

Who — what — is Slint? That question is easier to answer today than it was a decade ago, but it’s still a long answer that might not make sense to everyone. The Slint most refer to, essentially, was four college-age guys from Louisville who spent a summer creating an album that would inspire thousands of music fans and fellow musicians … eventually. Some say they created a new genre given the open-ended and mostly nonsensical name “post-rock.” Others call it “math rock.” The appeal of Slint’s music, and their story, continues in part due to its timelessness, and its uniqueness, and how unexpected and weird the whole thing would all turn out.

Some say Louisville is a weird place. Some of its residents are crazy, they say; some are brilliant, and some have gone wild from isolation or from a lack of appreciation. One of these people is filmmaker Lance Bangs. As a college student in Athens, Ga., in the early 1990s, he earned a chance to work for R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, who had started a film production company. Bangs was also in a band at that time. While at an all-ages venue in Asheville, N.C., in 1991, Bangs heard Slint’s recently released album Spiderland. He fell in love — not only with the music and the atmosphere it created, but also with the mystery the band had formed through the design of the album itself.

Bangs began traveling to Louisville with his cameras, befriending and filming musicians like Jon Cook, the colorful Crain leader and scene catalyst, and attending as many parties and live shows as he could. Bangs would ask his new friends about this mysterious band that had broken up before their album could make its mark: Who were these guys? What were they like? Did they still make music? He heard rumors: that one or more of them had gone crazy, that they had magical powers — stuff like that. But he was still living in Athens, and then moved to Portland, Ore., and spent a lot of time on the road, working on films and videos for everyone from Kanye West and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs to Odd Future and Pavement, as well as stand-up comedy films and the TV series “Jackass.” He was a kid from the underground who began popping up all over modern culture, though most of it was more commercially appealing and found mainstream success: The Black Keys, Arcade Fire, The Shins (Bangs paid tribute to Slint and a related band, Squirrel Bait, in the Shins’ 2001 video “New Slang”). But if any band changed Lance Bangs’ life, it was Slint.

“Breadcrumb Trail” is the name of Bangs’ new film. The 90-minute documentary, which Bangs will show Monday night at Headliners (he’s also showing other films at the NuLu arts space Dreamland on Sunday night), is the most definitive account we will get of Slint, and probably of the 1980s Louisville underground music scene that gave birth to it. Over eight years, Bangs interviewed band members, notable local colleagues and some esteemed peers (including Dischord Records’ Ian MacKaye, LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy and David Yow of the Jesus Lizard). Two of the people interviewed for the film, Cook and Jason Noble, have since passed away.

Arriving now, 23 years after Spiderland, Brashear says it was planned for a 2011 release to mark the album’s 20th anniversary, “but it just took longer.” A book about the album for the popular 33 1/3 series, written by Scott Tennent, was released at that time; Bangs’ film is now available as part of a box set that includes a remastered Spiderland; a bonus album of outtakes, demos and live recordings from that time; and a 106-page coffee-table book, which includes photos of the band, fliers and other memorabilia and an introduction by Will Oldham, the Louisville musician who took the album’s iconic cover photo.

Baby Hardcores

The first 20 minutes of the film takes viewers on a tour of the world Slint’s members — vocalist/guitarist Brian McMahan, drummer/vocalist Britt Walford, guitarist David Pajo, original bassist Ethan Buckler and his successor, Todd Brashear — came up in. Even those who don’t like punk or indie rock would have a hard time not smiling at photos of middle-school best friends McMahan and Walford, known then as “baby hardcores” for their precocious love of the loudest, most abrasive music available. Imagine if Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and some of their friends had a band; now imagine those guys being even weirder than Mark Twain himself could conjure.

The boys, Brown School students with notably supportive parents (Mr. and Mrs. Walford appear happily in the film, and LEO’s interview with band members was briefly interrupted when Mr. Walford and his friends showed up at the same location, looking for lunch; Britt, a laconic interviewee, fell into conversation with the older men for several minutes), started their first band, Languid and Flaccid, in sixth grade.

They soon started another band, Maurice, which they hoped would be even more aggressive. In the documentary, fellow local musician Brett Eugene Ralph describes Maurice as “like Slint, but fast. It was unbelievable.” While in high school, the band would get to go on tour opening for Glenn Danzig’s band Samhain, an adventure documented gleefully in the film.

Walford briefly played drums in Squirrel Bait, who in 1985 became the first Louisville band to achieve some modicum of success through touring and releasing albums nationwide, earning fans and making contacts outside of town (but only after Walford left). Walford, already a noted drummer, also began learning how to play guitar, though he wouldn’t display his skills until Slint dropped Spiderland on the world. McMahan quit Maurice and joined Squirrel Bait; Pajo, the kind of 15-year-old who practiced his guitar for hours each day, replaced him. Pajo’s technical skill, coupled with a love of heavy metal, further pushed Maurice away from the conventions of the hardcore music scene.

Wanting to get back to a more conventional sound, Maurice bassist Mike Bucayu started a second band, Solution Unknown. That band would soon include Brashear. As Maurice fell apart, Pajo and Walford stayed together, drafting Buckler as the bassist in the new band they were calling Small Dirty Tight Tufts of Hair: BEADS (told you they were weird). Buckler was looking to start something fresh, something unusual. Pajo says, “I told him Britt wanted the same thing … maybe they should meet.” Adding to their unusual ideas, the band’s first gig was during a Sunday service at Buckler’s familiy’s Unitarian church on Brownsboro Road. McMahan was in the crowd that day. He soon joined the band, which changed its name to Slint (Walford says the source of the name was his fish).

The Breathing Process

One of the fans and friends Squirrel Bait had made was Chicago musician and budding recording engineer Steve Albini. Slint hired him to work on their first record, Tweez, in 1987. Albini’s production choices would lead to Buckler’s frustrated departure from Slint, though the former wasn’t completely to blame for the goofy teen-boy audio tricks heard throughout the record. At its beginning, the band kept in a recording of McMahan complaining to Albini about the quality of his headphones in the recording studio; what would become a hip-hop cliché in years to come was accidentally created by Slint being goofy.

Other phantom voices are heard; someone is heard drinking, or laughing; odd breaking-glass-like sounds can be heard under the surface (one of the coffee-table book’s most surprising photos shows the high school student band members with minimalist New York composer Philip Glass, who appears to be signing autographs). The song titles, such as “Ron,” “Warren” and fan favorite “Carol,” came from the band’s parents and pets. While the nine pieces on Tweez are undeniably songs, they are off-kilter, some still ahead of their time today; some suffer from Albini’s heavy processing technique at the time (it was the ’80s, even for the best of them). McMahan debuts his spoken-word (or, at times, shouted-word) approach to vocalizing in-between proggy instrumentals. The documentary spends time detailing the fabled existence of what’s known as “The Anal Breathing Cassette,” which may or may not have wound up on Tweez.

They were mischievous boys who shared many in-jokes; outsiders soon realized that a unique language was being spoken around them. Walford, especially, seemed to lack inhibition, a drummer who really did march to the beat of his own drum. McMahan, the “responsible” one of the pair, says, “I needed that” in his life.

Between 1987 and 1990, “a lot happened in those three years,” McMahan says. He and Walford went to college at Northwestern in Chicago, where Squirrel Bait’s Clark Johnson was also enrolled. Quiet McMahan and manic Walford continued to stand out; Walford, who in many ways is the star of “Breadcrumb Trail,” is described variously as unique, crazy and a genius, especially during this period. David Yow acknowledges how Walford influenced the Jesus Lizard song “Mouth Breather.” Now, Walford says, watching others describe him like that “… feels pretty weird, actually. It seems like … not really who I am.”

McMahan says that depiction is not so clear-cut. “It would be hard for me (to describe Walford),” says McMahan. “I think, also, it would be different at different points in time. Like most people — if you know someone for 30 years, it becomes less and less easy … but definitely ‘super-creative.’”

Brashear joined in 1988; Slint had one brief recording session in 1989. In the summer of 1990, the band came back together again in the Walford family house’s basement, an environment Pajo says was “super tolerant,” with Walford’s parents being “cool about all the weird stuff going on down there.” Five days a week, all day, Walford, McMahan, Brashear and Pajo practiced the same six songs over and over again.

“Breadcrumb Trail,” which McMahan calls a “loss of innocence” song, leads off the album they would make of those songs. Looking for a simpler, purer sound than Albini achieved, they hired engineer Brian Paulson, whom McMahan knew, and went to River North Recorders in Chicago in August of 1990. It took four days to make their second record, Spiderland.

Sublime and Strange

None of the Spiderland songs were under five minutes. McMahan’s vocal technique — for the most part, reciting a short story while the band played alongside him, stories about fortune tellers, storm-battered ships and love — was not only not “rock,” but still stands as a fairly unique approach in modern music making. The band’s sense of dynamics — going from soft to loud and back again — would end up paying off better for Nirvana, whose breakthrough album was released six months later.

The combined effect of their innovations gave their songs an epic, cinematic effect that likely compelled some to call it “post-rock.” The band members say they still don’t understand what the term is supposed to mean. Whatever you call it, it was a big leap forward for the band, a more adult and complex vision of the world. Aside from a rave review written by Albini for England’s Melody Maker music newspaper — a review that would, eventually, help spread the word about Slint — the album went unnoticed by the vast majority of the world. And by the time Spiderland was released on March 27, 1991, the band had broken up.

Spiderland is a majestic album, sublime and strange, made more brilliant by its simplicity and quiet grace. Songs evolve and expand from simple statements that are inverted and truncated in a manner that seems spontaneous, but is so precise and emphatic that it must be intuitive or orchestrated or both … Spiderland is flawless. The dry, unembellished recording is so revealing it sometimes feels like eavesdropping. The crystalline guitar of Brian McMahan and the glassy, fluid guitar of David Pajo seem to hover in space directly past the listener’s nose. The incredibly precise-yet-instinctive drumming has the same range and wallop it would in your living room … Ten fucking stars.”

—Steve Albini, excerpts from his Melody Maker review

Interested and Vocal

Slint played less than 30 shows in their day. The cumulative audience who saw them live then probably totals fewer than 1,000. Albini’s review helped listeners begin to catch up to Slint. Fans scrutinized the album’s liner notes for details — publishing the Walford family address in the Highlands as theirs (though slightly misspelled) would lead to two decades of fan mail and unannounced visits. Characteristically, Mr. and Mrs. Walford seem delighted by the response. McMahan was uncomfortable with his lead-vocal duties, so the band encouraged “interested female vocalists” to reach out. “We thought our music would sound really good with a female vocalist,” he says. Plus, “I felt like we were making very dude-centric music,” and his tastes had shifted to more female-driven acts like Julee Cruise, Sally Timms and My Bloody Valentine. One interested female vocalist, the band confirms, was Polly Jean Harvey of Dorset, England. While her letter did not receive a response from the band, she nonetheless started her own band, PJ Harvey, within a year, and has done quite well even though she never got to sing with Slint.

In those final pre-Internet days, fans could only learn more about the band if they knew the quartet, or knew or met someone else who knew of them — easy enough in Louisville or Chicago, but the band now had many new fans rising up all over the world. When a two-song single was released in 1994, with even less information attached, it was like a ship in a bottle. Fans didn’t know then that those songs had been recorded at the 1989 session. Fans also didn’t know then that Slint had tried to reform in 1994, and in 1992, but the timing wasn’t right, for whatever reasons the band today claims not to remember.

Interest continued to grow in Slint as time passed. Spiderland’s best song, closer “Good Morning, Captain,” was used in the 1995 movie “Kids,” and its soundtrack became popular and influential. Sales of Spiderland became good enough each year that McMahan says he didn’t need to find a job, and it freed him to travel. He started a new band, The For Carnation, which sounded close enough to a next-gen version of Slint to satisfy some. (The For Carnation’s 2000 self-titled album inspired, among others, the Louisville band King’s Daughters & Sons; Walford plays drums on one song on the album.) Brashear used his earnings to help start his Highlands video store, Wild and Woolly, which is now 17 years old. Pajo went on to play solo and with a variety of bands, including Tortoise, Stereolab and Zwan.

After playing with the band Evergreen in the mid-’90s, Walford’s musical output stalled. He worked construction and in restaurants. The documentary asks the cliffhanger question, “Will he ever return to songwriting?” But that has been answered already; his new band, Watter, with multi-instrumentalists Zak Riles and Tyler Trotter, will release their first album on May 27. Their label, Temporary Residence, calls it “monolithic mood music.” They are promoting it, in part, as Walford’s “opportunity to play a substantial role in a new active band for the first time in nearly 20 years.”

Oh, and there’s one big thing the documentary forgets to mention: Slint reunited in 2005, touring around the world and playing to thousands of ecstatic fans (minus Brashear, who has a family, in addition to his business; Chicago musician Matt Jencik now tours with the band). They did it again in 2007 and say they will keep it up as long as people are interested, though McMahan laughs as he says, “Sometimes I feel like I’m playing in a Slint cover band.” Bangs began filming the band in 2005, thinking it would be for a live DVD. Over the years, the scope of his film expanded. Slint did the work they’re known for when they were still in school, but part of what made their reformation so potent was how they were able to make their music sound even more powerful 15 and 20 years later, having grown and matured as musicians during that time. While reunions can be hit-or-miss, none of the others — from the Pixies to Led Zeppelin — have seen their members go from boys to men in the process.

Slint plays Nelligan Hall in Portland on Tuesday, April 15, at 7 p.m., and the Forecastle Festival on July 19.

“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 1980s, 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. 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.”

—Will Oldham, from his book introduction