The making of Slint’s Spiderland
By Nick Green
The idea that slint remains part of the cultural conversation is mind-blowing. Admittedly, Spiderland was a crucial linchpin in the genre that eventually became “post-rock,” and its loud/quiet/loud dynamism certainly proved inspirational for Rodan and PJ Harvey, continues to reverberate in the work of Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and serves as the practical template for Louisville’s Temporary Residence Ltd. label. However, back in 1991, the only guy who had any sense of the importance of what Slint had created was Steve Albini, who awarded Spiderland “10 fucking stars” in an eerily prescient review in Melody Maker, and suggested, “Play this record and kick yourself if you never got to see them live. In 10 years, you’ll lie like the cocksucker you are and say you did anyway.”
Of course, by the time Touch And Go released Spiderland in 1991, Slint had already broken up. The band spent every last dime of its recording budget tracking and mastering songs over two successive weekends at River North Recorders in Chicago in August 1990, then blew through its entire promotional budget remastering a pair of tracks in October. Ardent fans had to wait until 2005 (or 2007) to see anything from Spiderland played live. According to singer/guitarist Brian McMahan, “Sales were almost nonexistent. People just didn’t hear Spiderland. It was kind of let go into a vacuum.” Nevertheless, in an odd turn of events, Spiderland recouped Touch And Go’s initial investment in 1993, and the members of Slint began to receive modest royalty checks—in 2014, the album remains one of the label’s most consistent-selling releases.
It’s not as if Slint was a well-known commodity before Spiderland. The band essentially released its previous full-length Tweez by itself (through friend Jennifer Hartman), and it was an insular affair: The songs were all named after the band members’ parents, as well as drummer Britt Walford’s pet dog, Rhoda. Tweez was jagged and primordial, with sketches of songs, lyrics culled from in-studio conversations and—allegedly—spliced audio from a tape the wry teenagers had made of themselves defecating. Tweez is an album that entertains imperfections, and then-bassist Ethan Buckler was so alienated by the experience of making the record that he promptly quit the band.
“When we were working on Tweez, Ethan and I had a lot of serious conversations about the sound of the band—we wanted there to be clean guitars and a truly organic sound,” says Walford. “I think Ethan felt like the band’s vision was steamrolled in the studio, and that Slint was heading in a direction that he didn’t enjoy. It really wasn’t personal, from my point of view. He was probably right that the band was kind of blown away and enthralled by Big Black and Steve Albini, and perhaps overly influenced by that sound on Tweez.”
Guitarist David Pajo recruited his former bandmate Todd Brashear to replace Buckler, even though Brashear—a self-described “Slint superfan”—had never played bass before. Slint toured a little bit in support of Tweez (there’s a cool cover of Neil Young’s guitar geek favorite “Cortez The Killer” on the new Spiderland boxed set to represent that era), and that’s where some of the songs on Spiderland began to take shape. When Touch And Go head honcho Corey Rusk extended an offer for Slint to make a full-length follow-up, the four band members mutually decided to take the year off from college, work through the material as much as possible before entering the studio, and spend the rest of the time touring to support the album in the U.S. and Europe.
But Spiderland was really birthed in the basement of Walford’s parents’ house, over a three-month period in the summer of 1990. McMahan acknowledges that there was room for “beer drinking, a fair amount of psychedelic drugs and a lot of stupid male bonding,” but as you could guess from the delicate, layered approach of Spiderland, all of the band members were unified by a compulsive work ethic. According to Pajo, “Nobody felt weird about spending hours trying to figure out a three-second transition. If we didn’t finish it one day, we’d go back to it the next. There was literally no concept of time in that basement.”
“It was liberating to take the year off and practice three to five hours a night for five days a week,” says Walford. “When you’re doing something, and you increase the frequency with which you’re doing it, you fall into this sort of groove where what you’re doing keeps getting better through sheer repetition. Aside from ‘Don, Aman,’ which I was still tinkering with and hadn’t presented to the rest of the band, everything was worked through. We had a lot of momentum heading into the studio.”
Discounted studio time came courtesy of McMahan’s day job at River North Recorders, a high-end jingle studio in downtown Chicago that mainly operated during regular business hours. The band took possession of the space on a Friday night and worked around the clock until Monday morning, then returned to the studio to track vocals and mix the record the following weekend. Brian Paulson—who the band knew from his work with Squirrel Bait offshoot Bastro—drove down from Minnesota each weekend to man the boards. By all accounts, it was a tense, pressure-filled affair: Walford set everyone else in Slint on edge by introducing “Don, Aman” at the last minute, and McMahan reportedly asked that the lights be turned off in the studio to calm his nerves while recording the vocals for “Good Morning, Captain.”
“I was really embarrassed whenever someone came to visit us in the studio,” says Pajo. “It always happened when we were doing something that was so boring that they’d be like, ‘Is this the record that you’re making?’ Jennifer Hartman showed up when we were listening back to a recording of ‘Don, Aman,’ and she asked us if we were making a new-age record! I also remember that Britt spent a lot of time tuning his drums to A when we did ‘For Dinner…’ and I was looking at the clock the entire time. In hindsight, I’m really glad that he did, because I can totally hear it now—it’s in pitch with the chord.”
“There are still plenty of records that don’t use digital editing and click tracks, but it’s kind of cool to think back on how we made the record—we just went in there and played it and did a few overdubs later,” says Brashear. “That’s probably why Spiderland has the vibe it has; with Britt, you don’t really need a metronome. And, yeah, we were all feeling pressure because time was so limited, but we were all prone to thinking about stuff too much, anyway. If we had an unlimited budget for the record, it probably never would’ve come out. We would never have been able to leave it alone.”
Spiderland is meticulously sequenced, and was always intended by the band to be experienced on vinyl, with a break in the middle to flip the record and cleanse the listener’s palate. Side one opens in a warm, triumphant fashion with the major chords of “Breadcrumb Trail,” segues into the album’s most straightforward “rock” song (“Nosferatu Man”) and closes with Walford and Pajo’s pas de deux “Don, Aman.” Side two, by contrast, is all about abstraction: Slint keeps things (relatively) loose on “Washer” and “For Dinner…,” then builds toward a maximum crescendo on “Good Morning, Captain.” Everything about Spiderland—from McMahan’s plaintive vocals to the extremely iconic album art (famously recreated in the Shins’ “New Slang” video)—still comes across as shrouded in mystery.
Curiously enough, what became the album’s cover was originally intended as a press shot for the band’s aborted European tour. Will Oldham (a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy), a grade school classmate of McMahan and Walford, followed the band to its preferred hangout spot across the Ohio River in Indiana. Oldham initially shot Slint while standing on the bank of the Utica Quarry, then caught the band all by surprise by jumping in with his camera held overhead and snapped a few frames while treading water. McMahan and Walford returned to Chicago in October 1990 to remix the opening and closing tracks on Spiderland, “Breadcrumb Trail” and “Good Morning, Captain,” but the afternoon at the Utica Quarry represents the last major thing the band did together before breaking up.
According to the Lance Bangs documentary that accompanies the Spiderland reissue/boxed set, Slint reconvened briefly in 1992 and 1994 to work on new material, but failed to come to terms on both attempts. One song from the sessions (“King’s Approach”) eventually made it into the band’s live set, and a sketch of another (cobbled together as “Todd’s Song”) is included as a bonus track on the Spiderland reissue.
A decade later, Slint did reunite successfully, touring in 2005 and 2007. Brashear, who did not participate in either of the reunions, sensed that fans might still have questions about the mysterious circumstances surrounding the creation of Spiderland, and spearheaded a coordinated push to untangle the band’s convoluted history with a reissue. The result—five years in the making—is a highly illuminating labor of love, and full of curious oddities for Slint fans to geek out on.
“We never got a chance to sit back and listen to Spiderland in an objective way; it was always colored by the fact that Slint didn’t exist anymore,” says Brashear. “I think this process has been therapeutic for all of us, in a way, because it’s something we agreed to work on together, and we managed to come to a consensus on everything pretty well. I didn’t imagine that we would have that much that we’d ever want to charge people money for—Slint was never a particularly prolific band. But it was cool to find out that we were unable to unearth material that had some historical value. I’m kind of interested to find out whether this changes the way people feel about Slint. Will that mystique still be there?”
The process of revisiting Spiderland over the years has led to a sort of cognitive dissonance for both Walford and McMahan. “Louisville is kind of a backwater town, so it was remarkable that any band got it together to make a record on a ‘big’ label,” says McMahan. “Admittedly, Britt and I both played in Squirrel Bait, and we kind of defied the odds there by releasing a couple of records with Homestead. But we really didn’t have any role models that had set the bar for us. I do think that Spiderland is a good record, and I think that everyone who worked on the boxed set did an amazing job of keeping things spare and true to where our heads were at when we made it. But any good reception that we have received over the years feels a little mystifying and surreal. If anyone has gotten over it, it’s probably Dave.”
“I actually didn’t like Spiderland at all for about 10 years after it came out,” says Pajo. “I couldn’t even listen to it. All I could hear was the mistakes and all of the little things that I wanted to change. It was hard for me to revisit it, because I had this ideal version of it in my head. Now I can appreciate it for what it is. Honestly, the whole Spiderland experience has totally shaped how I feel about music. When the record came out, there was no touring or promotion. Nobody knew anything about it. But the reason Spiderland has currency now is directly due to the power of word of mouth. It made me have faith in music. If the music is good, people will find it.”