Quiet Revolution: Slint's David Pajo and Brian McMahan revisit Spiderland

As Touch & Go prepare to release a remastered and expanded version of Slint's seminal 1991 album Spiderland, we speak to the band's David Pajo and Brian McMahan about their early career, the worth of nostalgia, and Louisville's special brand of craziness

Feature by Bram E. Gieben | 03 Apr 2014
  • Slint

Slint's Spiderland is variously seen as a source document for the nascent grunge scene, a cornerstone in the establishment of the 90s post-rock sound that influenced everyone from Canada's Godspeed You! Black Emperor to Scotland's Mogwai, and perhaps the ultimate example of a 'lost' and rediscovered classic. Released after the band had broken up, accompanied by minimal liner notes and a single black and white photo of the band taken by future Palace Brothers founder Will Oldham, discovering Spiderland in the late 90s and early 2000s was a revelatory experience, offering a sense of unfolding mystery; before the rise of Wikipedia, social media and streaming sites made music universally accessible, and the band members' biographies became ubiquitous.

Slint reformed in 2005 to play All Tomorrow's Parties, after years of pestering from the band's close friend and ATP founder Barry Hogan. Since then they have played select shows for ATP and Primavera, where they return this year, bringing Spiderland, and their Steve Albini-produced debut Tweez to a new generation of listeners, arguably making them a bigger prospect in the modern era than they ever were at the crucible of the thriving 90s alternative rock boom. With their reputations as legends assured, and with the band's David Pajo going on to become a valued guitarist for high-profile bands like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, Zwan and others, it's easy to forget that Slint were a band of very young, almost completely unknown musicians when they recorded Spiderland, their masterpiece. As Breadcrumb Trail, a new documentary about the band conceived by veteran 90s rock documentarian Lance Bangs reminds us, Spiderland was recorded in just two weekends – one to track, and one to mix, with 19 being the average age of the band members at the time.

“We didn't have any sort of template for commercial success” – Brian McMahan

Slint began in the basement of Britt Walford's parents' home in Louisville, Kentucky in the late 1980s, formed from the remnants of two other bands, Maurice and Squirrel Bait. Despite their young age (ranging from 13 to 16) Maurice had already toured with Misfits frontman Glen Danzig's band Samhain, and that taste of life on the road had whetted their appetites for musical endeavours. The band's core members, mercurial drummer and songwriter Britt Walford, guitarist Brian McMahan and bassist Ethan Buckler, recruited David Pajo as the guitarist for the newly-minted Slint, taking their name from one of Walford's many pets.

"I remember that first practice, just really being blown away by Britt's drumming, and the intensity of their show,” says Pajo. “I was just getting into the punk rock scene. I guess I learned songs pretty fast, I practised constantly. I listened to a practice tape and I learned all of their songs, so when it came to my first practice with them, I knew all of the songs, and I'd also added my own style to it. I was playing my version of their songs.” From the start, it was clear that Pajo was a different breed, a musicians's musician: “I think especially in Louisville, in the punk rock scene, there weren't that many musicians who were total music geeks like I was,” he remembers. “It was more of a 'F you' thing.” He laughs. “I was accepted pretty fast because there was kind of a shortage of decent guitar players. I kind of fell into that world.”

After some time on tour – vividly evoked in Bangs' documentary – the band came to record their debut, Tweez, with Big Black's Steve Albini, who was building a growing reputation as a vital producer for hardcore and punk bands around the Chicago and Minneapolis scenes. “Britt and I, and Ethan, had written almost all of the songs,” remembers Pajo. “When Brian joined, for Tweez, he was starting to show an influence – he became the singer, and his lyrics started showing up, even though we were primarily an instrumental band.”

For Pajo and the others, working with Albini was more exciting than intimidating. “These were the people that we idolised, you know? There were so many bands, but they seemed so far away, to us – people like The Minute Men, or Minor Threat, or any of those bands. To become friends with them? We were super excited. We wanted them to be impressed with what we were doing – as impressed as we were with what they were doing.” McMahan agrees: “We found it energising, more than anything else,” he says. “Steve is a brilliant and articulate guy, and a really prolific artist. He accommodated and worked with us, and our sense of humour, especially well.” McMahan laughs, recalling one incident that saw Ethan Buckler knock on Albini's door for the first time bearing an antique shotgun the band had bought him, while the rest of the band hid in the bushes. “I don't think there are a lot of people who would have appreciated our sense of humour – thankfully Steve was one of those people, and he appreciated and encouraged it, as well as encouraging us musically.”

Not all of the band were happy with Albini's work on Tweez, however. “We didn't want it to be a 'typical' Albini production, but we did want him to experiment, to try crazy ideas,” Pajo recalls. “We asked him to do certain things that affected the production. But I think we took the brunt of it, it wasn't entirely his fault. Ethan was really upset. To him, it was like Albini had ruined our songs. But I think he knew that he didn't... That was what we wanted Albini to do.” Buckler's departure led Slint onto the next phase, and they began writing the songs that would become Spiderland.

There are many memorable and unique features on that album, not least of which was the presence of intricate, almost mathematical guitar playing, and the use of harmonics as melodic signatures. “I never thought about working [harmonics] in as part of the song until I met Britt,” Pajo recalls. “For him, using harmonics as part of a riff or a melody – that was just normal to him. I guess I'd never seen anybody with that approach before.” Pajo's own playing began to be more influenced by 'clean' sounds than the abrasive, distorted headrush of the Louisville hardcore punk sound. “I was into volume and aggressive playing,” he recalls. But, he says, “my tastes were expanding, and I was just more open-minded about certain things. I was definitely getting interested in playing in a way that still had dissonance, or kind of bizarre melodies, but didn't have to be loud to get those feelings across.”

Another huge part of Spiderland's unique appeal were the vocals, contributed by both Walford and McMahan. In a hushed, understated, spoken delivery, they told tales of fairgrounds and fortune tellers, and memorably re-told Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner on the album's towering, ten-minute closer, Good Morning Captain. That direction was largely influenced by McMahan's approach to the vocals, as Pajo remembers it: “If it wasn't for Brian taking a bigger role in the band, I don't think Spiderland would have become the kind of vulnerable record that it became,” he says.


McMahan, incredibly softly spoken and modest, says it was a case of necessity being the mother of invention: “I felt like there wasn't really a storyteller, for lack of a better term, in the band at that point,” he says. “Ethan Buckler certainly is a way better songwriter than I could ever hope to be. But once he left, it seemed like there needed to be a humanising element. I perceived my role, at the time, to be one of engagement with the audience that wasn't purely musical – something that was a little more psychic. The vocal parts that I contributed... I mean, I just don't have that much range.” He laughs, clearly cringing at praise of his contributions. “I don't have that much technical ability to draw on, so I did what I could.”

“We weren't necessarily 'literary' but we loved to read,” says Pajo of the influences the band were processing on Spiderland. They consumed “the Beat writers, and other underground writing.” He also name checks a few Sonic Youth songs with spoken vocals as a key touchstone. The key dynamic, as McMahan underlines, was storytelling – these were to be songs that opened up a world to the listener, telling a story very far removed from the usual rock and roll cliches.

From Slint's inception in 1986, they knew they were not the average rock or punk band. “The only thing we all wanted to do was to create something different,” says Pajo. “That became the template for us. If we wrote one song a certain way, the next song had to be different from that. I didn't feel like we were pioneers or anything; that was just our goal – to try and create something that was new to us. I think a lot of it had to do with our youth, our living situation. Todd [Brashear, Buckner's replacement on bass] was the only one who had a job at the time, we were living with our parents. We had lots of time to do nothing but work on these same songs, over and over. As you get older, the amount of time you have for things like that just gets less and less.” McMahan agrees – asked if he thinks the band would have been able to make Spiderland if they had met a few years later, he says: “No way. I don't think that's very likely. I think we could have easily come together within a few years, give or take, and had a fairly different outcome. It was definitely a product of that specific time.”

Another aspect of Spiderland's uniqueness was its stripped aesthetic, with little to no use of overdubs or studio production techniques. “That one recording session really changed everything for me,” says Pajo. “By the time we came to make Spiderland, we had started listening to old country music, Delta blues, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, all this stuff. We started to take more of a purist approach to recording – more of a documentary style of recording. It just let the music speak for itself. We didn't have any time to do to much in the way of production, even if we had wanted to. We had already extended our budget! It was almost by default that we had to go that route, but we also did want to do that. I remember when we were mixing the record, [Spiderland producer] Brian Paulson turning around and laughing to us, because he was like: 'Every band I work with always want everything to be louder and louder. You're the only guys who want to take things away, and turn things down more and more.'” Pajo laughs again. “That is the approach. We were always about removing things, as opposed to adding more things.”

The subtle alchemy and web of happy coincidence that led to Spiderland being such a classic album had a lot to do with the isolatedness of Louisville (McMahan describes it as “still kind of a backwoods town”) and its proximity to places like Chicago and Minneapolis. In Louisville, “we had a pretty rich set of inspirations to draw from,” says McMahan. “What we didn't have was the sense of any sort of template for commercial success. We had no role models for anything like that, which I think is probably good – it just never entered into our consciousness.” This is a very different scenario, he believes, than young bands encounter in today's media-saturated market.

"There was a much more physical, tangible relationship amongst band members and audience members, the people that constituted a regional or local music scene,” he says. “There definitely were some advantages when we were working together as a band – working with Steve Albini and Brian Paulson, they were guys in our region, our part of the country, who we met at shows, who we had personal relationships with. We saw their bands play, they were accessible to us. We could borrow someone's car and drive the 300 miles to Chicago to record a record with these people. That was expected. I think that level of physical interaction is something that maybe doesn't occur as much these days. The relationships that people forge are maybe a little bit less focused, perhaps, because of the sense that as an artist or a musician, your audience is not built or conceived of in the context of your immediate neighbours. It's conceived in terms of a worldwide audience – a good bit of the globalised, industrial world is accessible within a few hours. I don't know that our experience was better, but it was certainly different in a fundamental way.”

“If you stay focused on the music and only the music, everything else will fall into place for you” – David Pajo

After the band's demise, Pajo joined post-rock band Tortoise and moved to Chicago, while other members of the band drifted between playing in Will Oldham's Palace Brothers, and in the case of Britt Walford, a brief stint in The Breeders while they recorded their first album, Pod. The word of mouth that began to build about Spiderland encouraged them to attempt a 90s revival, but it never paid off. “We continued to play, and it was just natural to try and attempt to get back together, because we all had these songs that were more Slint-like,” says Pajo. “We ended up getting together and working on these songs. They were cool, actually – some of them were pretty different. I think maybe Britt has a tape of those songs. We were still trying different things. It just collapsed, for different reasons. Brian had this idea that we could all go to a cabin in the country and just work on the songs, get it recorded. That's what we started working towards, but then at the last minute Britt pulled out of it – I think he didn't like that idea. It's just one of those things that happens with bands – you start a project, then somebody bails and it just never happens.”

Post-reunion, are Pajo and McMahan ever tempted to reconvene Slint in the studio? Each has a different opinion, perhaps indicating the difficulty of realising such a plan. “None of us just want to keep treading water, playing the songs we wrote when we were teenagers for the rest of our lives,” says Pajo – although this is not an issue that he needs to worry about, with a solid body of solo work under his belt under monikers such as Papa M. “None of us feel like we're out of ideas now, or anything. So it is something that we consider. I don't know... I guess it just depends on whether we all want to do it, and whether we can all afford to take the time to do it. It's more difficult when you're 45 than when you're 19!” McMahan is even less optimistic about the prospect of future Slint material: “The idea has been floated, it's certainly come up, but we haven't made any efforts at all to do that,” he says. “We're all of the opinion that Spiderland was a product of ourselves, at that time – I don't think we would ever indulge in trying to make a follow-up to that record. If we decided to work on new music, it would be coincidental.”

Both Pajo and McMahan laugh nervously when asked to examine the legacy of Slint, and their significance in the canon of American alternative rock – reticent to claim their proper positions as the founding fathers of what would become post-rock, and self-deprecating about their influence on subsequent bands. McMahan has a job in “planning and communications infrastructure,” and is happy to view his music career as “something that I'm really fortunate to have been involved with.” Pajo, meanwhile, despite being instrumental in the careers of several big-hitters in the alt.rock canon, is still reticent about the idea of being 'famous.'

“I really am not interested in that,” he says. “I have really bad stage fright. I've been playing live for like, 30 years now. I still have it just as bad as I ever did. I'm just better at faking it. I just prefer to stay in the background. Spiderland affected my view of music in the sense that I realised that all of the stuff that goes along with being in a band these days – like promotion, or marketing, or touring, or any of that stuff – all of that's important, but it is all secondary to the music and the songwriting. We were a band that broke up before our record came out, and there was almost no information about us. We didn't tour. But people loved the record. The record sustained only because we put so much effort into the songwriting process. It made me realise that if you stay focused on the music and only the music, everything else will fall into place for you.”

Asked if they think the headline slots given to so-called 'legacy bands' like Slint, Pixies and Slowdive at this year's big summer festivals creates a power vacuum which younger, less established bands will soon struggle to fill, both are dismissive. “I tend to think that's bullshit,” says McMahan. “I listen to more new music today than ever before. I greatly enjoy the work of some of the bands who have reunited recently, but for me personally it doesn't feel like they are taking too much of the air that is available to people who love music.”

Pajo agrees, although with a measure of nostalgia for the music industry of his youth: “There are always awesome bands happening, at all times, even if they're obscure now,” he says. “The musical climate is so different now than it used to be.” The availability of music and information about bands and artists via the internet has “destroyed the mystery – it's hard these days to have a band that does have mystique. For people that grew up before the internet takeover, sometimes the only information you would have would be the one record in front of you. The only picture you had of what the band looked like was like, a small, grainy black and white photo. I feel like some of the romance is gone.”

Finally, I ask about a statement offered by Fugazi / Minor Threat guitarist Ian Mackaye, who in Breadcrumb Trail argues that “everyone in Louisville is fucking crazy.” Pajo agrees, to a certain extent: “Growing up in Louisville, I just thought that all your friends were crazy – I thought that was the way it was everywhere,” he says. “I mean literally – the singer from Maurice was getting cheques from the government because he was classified as being mentally insane. I knew so many people who were my friends, and who were getting that cheque. People were committing suicide, going off the deep end with drugs or alcohol. It was so common that I just assumed that was the way it was everywhere. It wasn't until I was in Tortoise and I moved to Chicago that I had any sort of perspective that that scene was sort of fucked up. Everywhere I went – even in the north of the country, like Seattle – there was always this idea that people from Louisville are crazy... and I think they really are. Even going back, I think that madness, and taking things too far, are really enduring qualities in Louisville.”

McMahan thinks the particular brand of Louisville crazy can be found anywhere, if you look for it. “I'm going to have to take issue with the notion that Louisville has a corner on the craziness market,” he says. “I think there are people who have grown up here who have persisted with their interests and their artistic endeavours; their personal quirks and foibles. To the great benefit of the narrative that has emerged around Slint and Spiderland, there have been moments of insanity involved, sure.” In Louisville, he says, “We don't feel a lot of pressure to keep abreast of any given trend or ideological context. So I guess that could make us seem crazy.”

Perhaps just crazy enough. Watching Breadcrumb Trail, learning about the anarchic, prank-based humour of the young Britt Walford – now a softly-spoken, gently rumpled man with slow, hesitant speech - and getting a glimpse into the life stories and processes of a band who have for years been steeped in mystery and rumour, it becomes clear that Spiderland is the document of a group of fame-shy, bookish, deeply emotional kids who made a record that would slowly, and by increments, change the world. Stories of their exuberance and unruliness as teenagers, when the record was made, serve to illuminate how something so unique came to be – and demonstrates that not all young musical geniuses become bloated, ego-fed superstars. Some, like Slint, are content to keep their revolution quiet.  

The remastered and expanded Spiderland box-set, including the documentary Breadcrumb Trail, is out on 15 April viaTouch & Go Records.

Slint play Primavera Sound, Barcelona and Optimus Primavera, Porto on 31 May and 7 Jun respectively.