33 1/3 Odyssey: Spiderland

Being released twenty years ago, Louisville indie rock band Slint’s album Spiderland has been one of the most influential albums of the time since its release. With its angular guitar parts, loud-quiet-loud texture and unusual time signatures, Spiderland has been arguably the most important album of the post-rock era despite never being a top selling album. Famed producer Steve Albini (who produced Tweez, Slint’s first album, released in 1989) wrote a review in British magazine Melody Maker that said “Spiderland is a majestic album, sublime and strange, made more brilliant by its simplicity and quiet grace…. Spiderland is flawless… Play this record and kick yourself if you never got to see them live.”

Spiderland is the subject of one of the newer entries in the 33 ⅓ series, the seventy-fifth overall. The album’s history and context is explored in great detail by LA-based music critic Scott Tennent. It is a thorough and exhaustive account of an album that has a lot of mystery surrounding it. Tennent does a fantastic job unwrapping most of the mysteries of the album and combines careful analysis with first-person accounts of the album and its history from members of Slint. For an album whose influence exceeds its sales, Tennent makes the story of Spiderland accessible to casual fans (such as myself) while even obsessive fans will learn a lot from the book.

Tennent maintains the excellent music blog Pretty Goes With Pretty and is a senior writer and editor at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I spoke with Tennent earlier this month by phone about Spiderland, its legacy and what we can hopefully expect from Slint in the future.

How did you first hear Spiderland? What was your first impression of that album?

I discovered it by happenstance back when I was in high school. I grew up in Fresno and when I grew up there, I didn’t have much guidance in the way of discovering new music. I was a big metalhead for most of high school and I kind of was getting tired of that music but didn’t have anywhere to go. My friends and I would hang out at Tower Records all the time because that was what you did to pass the time in that town. I was reading a review of the album The White Birch by Codeine in an issue of Alternative Press and the description of that band was really interesting to me, it was about how they would go from whisper-quiet to deafeningly-loud. To me, that sounded very interesting conceptually, coming from the genre of music I was in to, which was all loud all the time, fast, blistering guitar solos, whatever. I went looking for that album, but, of course, the record store didn’t have it but in the review it mentioned other bands that they were similar to, including Slint and Seam and Red House Painters and I went on a hunt for those records instead.

I remember seeing both Spiderland and Tweez in the bins and not knowing the difference between them, Spiderland’s cover stuck out to me so I picked that one up. I took it home and I liked it but I don’t think it hit me on first listen or anything. I remember that I owned it for at least three or four months, listening to it on and off and liking it. I was just in my room one night and put the record on and listened to it from beginning to end. I think when “Washer” came on, I had this really powerful experience with the music. I probably had something similar a couple of times before but not at the level I did right at that moment. I feel like ever since then, it has been this album that has been very close to me.

In the book, you write about how the reaction from a lot of people who are impressed with Spiderland is to go backwards and get Slint’s first album, Tweez, and listen to it and realize it is nothing like Spiderland. Was that the same for you, too?

Pretty much. I went back and got Tweez and that record was just baffling to me. I heard it maybe six months after I heard Spiderland and it was like it wasn’t even by the same band. I couldn’t find anything in it that sounded remotely like Spiderland. By that point, I heard a little bit about Squirrel Bait and how that was the band that Slint had grown out of, so I went searching for that band and I think I was even more disappointed by Squirrel Bait than I was by Tweez; not that either were necessarily band records but they weren’t what I wanted. I wanted more of everything that was in Spiderland and I just couldn’t find it. I think it was around the time that I got into Slint that the “Glenn/Rhoda” 10” came out. I remember reading that Slint had reformed and put this record out. I think I got that the second I heard about it. That was my one little moment of finding something that resembled Spiderland and it was sort of what kept the appetite going. Whatever reformation they did back in 1994, it evaporated before they ever did anything with it.

Then the rest of it was going forward. I would buy a For Carnation album (featuring Brian McMahan) when it came out or buy the Papa M or Ariel M (both David Pajo bands) when it came out and they were all good and I liked them but they just weren’t hitting the sweet spot that Spiderland did. I think that was a similar experience for most people. I think Spiderland was such a special experience for so many listeners that everything had to be compared to Spiderland, that was the barometer. Even if it was a good record but fell short of what Spiderland acheived, you inevitably felt disappointed by it.

You were able to interview two of the four members of Slint during Spiderland, David Pajo and Todd Brashear. Do you know why the either members of the band, Brian McMahan and Britt Walford, wouldn’t grant you interviews?

I don’t know for sure what their reasons where but I know that when I did reach out to the band, it took me a long time to actually connect with them. I remember when I did get in touch with them, my editor at Continuum, David Barker, wrote to me saying that David Pajo had contacted him because there were all of these different people were claiming they were writing a book on Spiderland and said we don’t know who to talk to but we want to be involved. There was some confusion because, I think, multiple people had pitched Spiderland as a 33 ⅓ book. When they were pitching the book, they had contacted the band, so when I came along, they were confused about what was going on.

I think they agreed as a band that they wanted to participate but didn’t feel like they all needed to participate. I never heard a peep from Brian McMahan so I can’t say what his feelings were about it other than I knew that he knew it was going on and they were happy that someone was documenting it. Britt Walford was kind of the same way. He said that he wanted to participate and then one day changed his mind and said he didn’t want to do it.

I think knowing that Todd and David were involved let them step back. It was something that happened when they were 19 or 20 years old, more than twenty years ago, so I can understand why someone might not be that interested in revisiting that time.

Why do you think that this record endures so well? It will turn twenty years old this year.

I think I wrote a whole book explaining that. (laughs) I want to think of a way to say it succinctly. I think they created something that was really unique but they were setting out to please nobody but themselves even though they had extremely high standards for what they were doing. I think their approach to songwriting and what they were doing is so idiosyncratic that it became something unique. I think a lot of bands that came after Slint got a lot of their aesthetics from what Slint was doing but didn’t grasp the core and the details of what Slint got to with their music. I think that is what keeps that album sounding fresh whereas a lot of other post-rock albums from the nineties don’t resonate the same way that Spiderland does. That’s how I feel personally, at least, but it does seem in the critical acceptance of that genre that a lot of those bands just hadn’t held up. You don’t continue to hear the same talk of bands like June of 44 or A Minor Forest the same way that you do about Slint.

Do you think Slint will do anything for the twentieth anniversary of Spiderland? They did reform briefly, I believe, in 2004 and 2007.

I haven’t heard anything about them reuniting again or anything. I’d love it if they did but I haven’t heard anything. There was some talk of a reissue for the twentieth anniversary of Spiderland that would have some kind of bonus material. I don’t know what that would entail but I’m sort of on pins and needles with that. There was one song that they recorded during the Spiderland sessions that didn’t end up on the album and that is probably the only piece of material, other than live stuff, that exists somewhere in somebody’s trunk. I have a live recording of that song but I would really love to hear a studio version. It is called “Pam” and it sounds more like “Rhoda” from Tweez or that 10” that they did. It is a great song but I can understand why they left it off because it doesn’t sound much like Spiderland.

I hope they do something with that because the iTunes bonus track that comes with Spiderland is quite underwhelming.

(laughs) I talked to Todd about that and he said that the whole reason that song exists is because when they were putting that record on iTunes, it was six songs long and iTunes wanted to price it as an EP, and of course the band said it was a full-length album and not an EP. iTunes said that they had to have at least one more song to price it as a full-length album, so Todd took his recording equipment out to the quarry where they shot the cover in the middle of the night and just did field recordings of the quarry and packed that on and said “okay, now it’s a full length”. That’s the whole reason that song exists. (laughs)

I did want to ask about the cover photo, which was shot by Will Oldham. I don’t think it really foretells anything that is going to be on the album once you listen to it.

I don’t think so either. It’s a really wonderful album cover. I talk about it in the book. You can read it as a sort of ominous cover, especially with an album title like Spiderland, which is a kind of creepy word. There’s something that is so youthful and innocent about the faces in the picture; there’s something about the way that it is all drained of color and you have the black letterbox bands across the front. It’s like an eerie document from the past. It’s a great album cover.

And they were so young when they made that album and took that photo.

Yeah, I think the oldest might have been twenty-one when they made Spiderland. When Squirrel Bait was together and Brian McMahan was in Squirrel Bait, they had put out two records and toured to New York and back and he was like sixteen. When Britt Walford and David Pajo were in Maurice, the band that predated Slint, they toured with Danzig for a week. Will Oldham was the roadie on the tour and they were like fifteen and touring with Glenn Danzig. What those guys accomplished from like eighth grade until their freshman year of college is totally insane. They never reached Justin Bieber levels of popularity or anything but it’s still a lot to put under your belt before you’re even old enough to drive or drink or do anything like that; it’s a lot of experience to have.

In the liner notes there’s an ad saying that the band is looking for a female singer. Reportedly, Polly Jean Harvey was one who responded to the ad. So when Spiderland was released, they thought they would still continue as a band and that it wouldn’t be the last thing they ever recorded or released.

I think that shows you how abrupt their breakup was. They had gotten all the way to the point where they were sending out all of the artwork and completing the liner notes and were thinking of what they were going to do with their next record obviously because they thought they could use a female singer. They had booked their European tour and gotten passports and went through the rigmarole with the paperwork to travel internationally, which they had never done before. All that stuff was done and then they broke up. I think it was too late for their label, Touch and Go, to go back and fix all of their liner notes. They were probably already shipping the album at that point. There was some kind of aspiration there, even after they finished the record. I think they recorded the album in September of 1990 and they broke up in December of 1990, they were still practicing constantly. There must have been some writing going on there. I think I put this in the book but it was from an article I came across while researching the book and it was about a conversation between Brian and David and Brian asked him “do you remember any of the stuff we were working on after Spiderland?” and he said that it was as different from Spiderland as Spiderland was from Tweez. Who knows what that entails or means but they definitely had their sights set on something else.

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