The conceit that Louisville is a workshop for thoroughly odd and interesting music stems in large part from one album — Slint's “Spiderland.”
Hailed as the exemplar of post-rock, the 1991 album has long gotten its due, from swooning rock critics to a new generation of younger musicians who claim it as an influence. And though only a handful of Louisville bands mimicked Slint's style, the album is forever tethered to the town's music tradition.
It was recently bestowed another honor when Continuum Books released an edition of its 331/3 series dedicated to it. Penned by Califonia writer Scott Tennent, the 160-page book explores the making and the lore of “Spiderland,” following the format set by previous 331/3 dissections of The Beach Boys' “Pet Sounds,” Radiohead's “OK Computer” and Neutral Milk Hotel's “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” among others.
Tennent, who also runs the music blog Pretty Goes With Pretty, discussed with us Slint's influence and the process of researching the book.
Why did you want to do “Spiderland” for 331/3?
“Spiderland” is a hugely influential album — and at the same time quite obscure and mysterious. Even people who love the album don't know a lot about its making. The album will be 20 years old this spring, so I thought it was high time its story was finally told.
How did the members react to you writing the book?
I had some trouble getting a hold of them at first. When the publisher sent out a call for submissions to its 331/3 series, they received seven different proposals for “Spiderland” — the most submissions for one album. I think some of those other prospective authors had contacted the band before I did, so when I came along, there was some confusion on the band's part just who was writing this book. They were, perhaps understandably, a little skittish when I first contacted them. I felt like I was coaxing a groundhog out of its den.
Once that was all cleared up, the band was mostly cooperative. I flew out to Louisville last year to talk to Todd Brashear and to Sean Garrison, who was in the pre-Slint band Maurice, and I had a long conversation with David Pajo when he passed through Los Angeles on tour. Britt Walford and Brian McMahan both declined to be interviewed, but they were aware of the book and, I'm told, were glad that Todd and David were involved.
What about the album — and Slint — did you learn in writing this book that most surprised you? Were there any misconceptions that researching helped clear up?
One of the most interesting aspects of researching the book was digging into Slint's history and learning about the band Maurice, which was a metal band that featured David Pajo and Britt Walford, along with Sean Garrison and Mike Bucayu, who would go on to form the band Kinghorse. Most people trace Slint's origins back to Squirrel Bait, a band which included Brian McMahan, but Maurice is a much more direct line. Learning about their story — including a brief tour with Glenn Danzig's band Samhain — added a new dimension to my understanding of Slint. Following the line from this metal band to Slint's early sound, captured on their first album “Tweez” and ultimately to the sound of “Spiderland,” was illuminating.
Why do you think “Spiderland” has been so highly regarded over the years? I mean, the post-rock moment seems to have come and gone — yet it is still considered such an influential album.
Slint basically created a whole genre of music by making “Spiderland,” even if by accident. All the band really cared about at the time was making their own songs perfect, to fit the vision of what they wanted. They set out to please no one but themselves.
As songwriters and musicians, Slint had a lot of quirks — they gravitated to odd time signatures, big dynamic juxtapositions and nontraditional song structures. More importantly, they arranged their songs with an incredibly deft hand, teasing out the tension and drama with sophisticated nuance as well as grand gestures. This was all in opposition to a strain of underground music that was in vogue at the time — loud, abrasive, obnoxious, macho. Once “Spiderland” caught on with the underground, it sounded so refreshing, so new, that bands all over the country — all over the world — began picking up on what they did.
But Slint's level of musicianship was so much higher than most other punk bands of the day that all the ingredients that went into their sound weren't easily aped. I think most of the post-rock bands that emerged in the wake of “Spiderland” picked up on certain elements of the album — the loud/quiet juxtapositions or the spoken vocals or the weird time signatures — without locking in on the sophistication of what Slint was doing. I describe in the book the way that songs like “Washer” or “Good Morning, Captain” earn their drama not through their dynamics but through their arrangements; I also examine the way their lyrics enhance the grandiosity of their music and vice versa. I think most Slint-influenced bands didn't understand that the words weren't just stories set to music, nor were their changes as simple as turning the volume up or down. The best Slint songs aren't so much about hitting a crescendo as they are about getting to the crescendo. That's a subtle difference that I think most bands influenced by Slint have failed to grasp.
How do you think Slint has shaped perception of Louisville music — for good or for bad?
I can only answer this from an outsider's perspective, living on the West Coast for most of my life. Slint definitely casts a shadow over my perception of the Louisville scene, at least for most of the '90s. Many of the really great bands that have come from Louisville — The For Carnation, The Palace Brothers and Papa M — have direct connections to Slint. And many of the other bands that made names for themselves in the '90s, like June of 44, Sonora Pine, Rachel's, The Shipping News, et cetera, were similarly made up of people who started in one band, Rodan, which was clearly influenced by Slint. So the Slint sound became identified with Louisville even though we're only talking about the same 10 people making music under different guises. I'm sure Louisville had a more colorful scene even back then, but as an outsider that's what I was exposed to. That overall vibe seemed to have migrated to Chicago by the mid- to late '90s. And you also have My Morning Jacket, which has reached a huge level of success without any connection to the Slint sound.
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