Over two decades since it was released into unravelling obscurity, Spiderland by Louisville post-rock pioneers Slint has ever-increasingly climbed the ranks to be commonly heralded as one of the most revered cult records of all time. As much lauded for its distinctly impenetrable introversion as it is its decidedly forward-thinking musical mastery, the six-track release will finally see a remastered release as part of a deluxe boxset – also featuring a feature-length documentary by Lance Bangs titled Breadcrumb Trail – next month.
Ahead of our exclusive screening of Breadcrumb Trail at The Garrick, Belfast on Thursday, March 27, Brian Coney talks to Slint frontman Brian McMahan, discovering the inspiration behind releasing the boxset, the circumstances that lent to the tension and tangible dread heard on Spiderland, as well as the possibility of both new material and Irish dates in the foreseeable future.
Hi Brian. Slint’s current incarnation coincides with the release of the boxset. How did the idea of that initially come about?
Honestly, a lot of it came from when Dave Pajo (Slint guitarist) and Corey (Rusk, Touch & Go founder) started discussing the idea. I think the first e-mail sent about it was in late 2007, early 2008. We had done two of the reunion appearances and Dave suggested that maybe we should think about reissuing Spiderland and remastering it – basically doing a more deluxe version of the record.
We had also started working with Lance Bangs, the director of the documentary. He shot a bunch of concert footage and did some interviews, and as time went on it became apparent that there was some other people that really wanted to be involved. Between Corey, the band and Jeremy DeVine (Temporary Residence) we started conceptualising what would be a deluxe reissue of the album and, honestly, it was Todd Brashaer (Spiderland bassist) that started the whole thing. Once the idea started to germinate he took ownership of it and started running with it. So he was the guy that basically willed the thing into existence, with great effort and determination and patience. He’s kind of our champion within the band. Lance, Cory, Jeremy DeVine – it would have been impossible without them but Todd really made it happen.
That’s great to hear that it properly came into being via a member of the band. Was it difficult choosing the bonus tracks, and collectively deciding to release incomplete versions of the songs to the public?
Man, I never would have done it. But Todd is a completest – he is a record collector, through and through. He started collecting records as a teenager and he’s been a serious, obsessive collector for his entire life. He runs an incredible video store in Louisville, Kentucky in an age when video stores are very hard to find. Anyhow, he’s a very unique guy and was the one within the band that was like, “No, man. You don’t understand. This may seem insignificant to us but there are some people out there who are going to find this stuff curious and are going to be surprised by it and it’s going to illuminate the process that we went through writing. Even though you might feel uncomfortable now, people will appreciate it.” He made a pretty good argument.
Yeah, I think he was definitely right there. As for the documentary, which we’re doing a screening of in Belfast later this month…
I saw that! That’s great. Awesome.
Do you think the documentary is the final, complete story on Slint?
Yeah, I think it probably is. Yesterday I sent an e-mail to Lance asking him, “Now that we’ve got this behind us, when do we start on chapter two?” and he immediately fired back an e-mail saying, “I already got the treatment ready (!)” So, no, I don’t think there could ever be a competing narrative. Lance’s take on things – other than it being a total labour of love and him being the only person interested in telling the Slint story – I don’t see that that opportunity or that sort of passion or persistence will occur again. We had a long, building relationship that I hadn’t properly realised until he was well into making the film. I kept realising, “Oh my God, he was there when this happened!” He’s such a quiet, unobtrusive guy. He’s a great person to work with and I know he wouldn’t want to be referred to a documentarian but in terms of capturing everyone’s really honest takes and individual perspectives on things he was really able to build trust and get some good dialogue occurring with a lot of people.
Yeah, there’s certainly a cast of characters called upon throughout the documentary. Listening back to the remastered tracks, did you personally notice anything new or especially interesting in how you constructed or recorded the songs?
We didn’t want to do a dramatically different or contemporary take on a record mastering. I mean, these days records are much, much more compressed – almost across the board. I never hear a record that is as quiet and as untweaked as Spiderland. We wanted to maintain that. But the fact is, digitally speaking especially, the gear is really, really good. It was stuff that we could afford when we originally had the album mastered – which we had absolutely no involvement in. We were kids in a band and we just gave it to Touch & Go and it was mastered. So there was no approval – it was just “Ok great – awesome. We’ve got an album.”
With this remastering, though, we worked with Bob Weston. He is a long-time friend – we go way back. He loved the record and really didn’t want to do anything to it, except just preserve the dynamics and maybe offer a slightly fuller frequency. With today’s technology it’s easier for the listener to experience that frequency response, so he just wanted to give it a shot. We did have feedback during the process – we would say, “Hey, this part – I think it could seem a little fuller-sounding here.” None of us were like “Let’s make it loud and give it a contemporary sound.” We could have tried to do that but none of us have any interest in doing that.
That’s great to hear that you were working with him in that process. As the documentary itself illustrates, the writing and recording process was a fairly taxing and intense experience. I think you and few others are of the opinion that this might be blown a little of proportion – that mythologising aspect. But what do you think lent or contributing to that intensity and tension within the recording itself?
For me … [long pause] well, without getting into a long, personal history here. My grandfather was a musician – he was a band-leader – who started off in the US army band, doing tours during World War II, entertaining the troops. When he returned from war and tried to continue in his life, he had a lot of trouble with money. It was tough to be a musician. He did a pretty good job doing day jobs and providing for my father and his mom but I think my dad was always pretty dismissive of my involvement with music. It wasn’t a personal thing – I’m not saying he was harsh or unsupportive, but I never received any encouragement with music.
So, making Spiderland was something I was really, really invested in. I was also at an age when I graduated high school, I had begun college and with a great deal of financial concern I dropped out of college, just because it was so expensive. So I went from that environment into making Spiderland, so it was like I latched on to that – it was my lifeline. You know, becoming an adult, in this environment, it was very anxiety-ridden. My parents were watching me go out to play shows in clubs and half-baked tours and I’d been dealing with that all throughout high school. It was like, “Where’s the money coming from? You need to get a proper job.” So it was really intense. We were all dealing with that but, for me, it was a real emotional time.
Certainly, and I guess you can hear that on the recording itself. As for the so-called mythological and mysterious quality of Spiderland – you’ve said you don’t fully grasp why people have this really pious and obsessive love of the album. Do you share that opinion with anyone else in the band, do you think?
Oh yeah – I mean, everyone. Sure, we’re subject to whatever egoistic flaws that everyone is susceptible to – we’ve certainly got no shortage of those – but I don’t think any one of us ever thought, “This is a masterpiece. People in twenty, thirty years from now will be talking about this record.” It was a long time ago but if people are still into it now, we must have done something right. Although… it’s also just a record, you know?
It is. Both David [Pajo] and Britt [Walford] have expressed pretty much the same thing to me before.
Yeah, I’m sure! If you get the opportunity to talk to Todd, take it.
I will. As you said before, it’s been a long time, but can you recall whether the songwriting on Spiderland was an unspoken thing or was it all carefully and meticulously planned out?
The whole thing was fully collaborative, with exception to ‘Don, Aman’, which we had never heard or played before until Britt brought it to the table in the studio. The rest of it was super-refined. At practice, we had four people suggesting ideas and then editing simultaneously in a totally democratic process, fully. I think the inspiration for different riffs and the feel and tempo and the attitude that we brought into practice was definitely a carefully collaborative process. Once ideas were brought in, it was fair game, you know? At the same time, it wasn’t all strategised – it was very honest and very raw – but as a band, we really tried to refine the ideas and realise them musically as best we could.
Touching upon your fanbase for a bit. I saw you guys back in 2007 performing Spiderland in Dublin. In between a couple of songs, I decided to shout “Make a new album” to which an anonymous member of the audience shouted back “Shut the fuck up”. Bemused, at that moment I realised there are two main types of Slint “obsessives”. How do you feel that there are many people out there who essentially revere you and the rest of the band?
I feel like we’ve been really fortunate that there is some sense of respect, that when we do play these rare gigs that people come into like “OK, I’m seeing something that doesn’t happen often”. These songs have not been heard by that many people live, you know? So, yeah, what people bring to it personally when they travelled to our shows, I can’t say, but we definitely benefit from audiences that give us a fair amount of attention.
I certainly haven’t kept up with my peers in the band in terms of my musical skills – I kind of let those slide at a certain point and artists have been very forgiving with some of my shortcomings as a performer. I don’t think that the experience that you had really is that common. I mean, I think people come to our shows largely with a sense of “Man, I’m really happy to be here. I just want to hear what they’re going to do. I’m not here to get loaded and go out into town that night”. They’re here to hear those songs performed live.
But man, I’m sorry to hear that happened – very odd reaction. We welcome audience participation in between songs but when we’re playing, it’s probably best when that participation is quiet.
Yeah, of course. For me, it was a curious, rather funny realisation, rather than something hurtful. Appreciation and respect works in different ways. Finally, briefly looking towards the future of Slint, what are the chances of new material happening and what are the plans for touring the boxset outside of playing Primavera Festival?
I think new material is highly unlikely. We haven’t talked about it, so there’s no plans there. As for touring, it’s quite possible that that there will be another gig or two in mainland Europe. I mean, we did those UK dates late last year but we would love to get over to Ireland again. I think we didn’t strategise well when we came to the UK – we probably should have made a concerted effort to do Glasgow, Belfast, etc. We don’t have this big touring and production machine is always running but when we get the opportunity to do a gig, it’s usually just spare of the moment. Belfast, though – we would love come. Let’s see what happens there.
Slint play Belfast’s Limelight 2 on Monday, August 18. Go here to buy tickets.