In their brief, two-album career, Louisville band Slint were an overlooked trio who, years after their demise, became one of the most influential groups in underground music. With their soft/loud style of meticulous playing, Slint helped create a genre in experimental indie rock music that is referred to as post-rock. While few understood Slint during their existence, their style of music—almost an anti-rock 'n' roll sound: droning, cerebral, minimal, incidental vocals—became a blue-print for other '90s bands like Tortoise and Mogwai. "Slint's music infected the bloodstream of underground rock with as much potency as did the Velvet Underground's 20 years earlier," wrote The Stranger's Dave Segal in 2005. Rolling Stone described Slint's sound in a visceral manner; "Slint songs spool out of yards of slack to hang yourself with, using long, tense tempo builds, maundering vocals and half-nodding guitars to set an uneasy half-dreaming/half-awake mood." Although Slint barely toured and had only a dozen songs in their repertoire, their legendary status in independent music has made Slint larger than life.
Growing up as childhood friends in Louisville, Kentucky, Brian McMahan and Britt Walford attended J. Graham Brown School in the early 1980s. With Peter Searcy, David Grubbs and Clark Johnson, they released two albums with the group Squirrel Bait. Following their second and final album, 1987's Skag Heaven, the group broke up and Walford joined up with guitarist David Pajo and bassist Ethan Buckler for a new band. While the kids were listening to a lot of hardcore and math-rock at the time, they wanted to create music that was more musical, delicate, and experimental than the Minor Threat and Black Flagstyle punk their friends were listening to.
The teenagers called themselves Slint; the name of one of Walford's fish. They began to craft sounds and songs that were unheard of at the time not only in Louisville but also almost anywhere in the country. In 1987, the first year of the band's existence, they mainly practiced and played mostly instrumental songs that were meticulous and had extreme volume shifts and a tense and anxious release style. The group played their first official show in front of people at a Unitarian Church that Buckler's family attended. A few months after the awkward show, Walford's old friend and Squirrel Bait bandmate, McMahan joined Slint. The new outfit began to play the odd show in and around Louisville, but few seemed to understand the band's often-monotonous sound that was based around a dark mood, dissonance and tension with a heady atmosphere and random, mumbled lyrics.
"Slint came out of frustration with the music that was happening locally—there were a lot of generic punk bands then," guitarist Pajo told the Washington Post. "We wanted to form a band that was completely different from everything, not just weird for the sake of being weird, but different in a way that was fresh." The band soon came up with a handful of original compositions and wanted to record them. When McMahan and Walford were in Squirrel Bait they had played with Chicago's Big Black and had befriended one of its members, producer Steve Albini. They somehow convinced Albini to produce their upcoming debut recording. Slint went into the studio with the only songs they knew how to play, none of which had vocals, and recorded every one of them. Since McMahan hadn't written any vocals before entering the studio, Albini would record the band talking and chatting and McMahan improved in the studio. Recorded in 1987 with Albini, Tweez didn't actually come out until 1989 on the band's own label, Jennifer Hartman Records and Tapes.
Slint's sound was so unique; no one except for Albini knew what to do with the band. "[Albini] was one of the first, and few, people that got and totally supported us when no one outside Louisville knew about us," Pajo told the Washington Post. When the record was released, there was little fanfare. After disapproving of Albini's production and recording techniques on Tweez, Buckler quit the band and later joined the group King Kong. Bassist Todd Brashear (who had played in Solution Unknown with Pajo) joined Slint in 1987 to do the little touring and even fewer interviews for the release of the band's debut album.
Touring wasn't the most important thing on Slint's mind and after the release of Tweez most of its members began to attend college. McMahan and Walford attended the same school and during their freshman year began to write material for a possible next Slint record. Shortly after, the members all dropped out of school to focus on the band. They spent the summer practicing six to eight hours a day, sometimes five days a week on the new songs.
In late summer, early fall of 1990, Slint took the new songs, all six of them, which were rawer and more confident, to Chicago's River North Studio where McMahan had been interning. Working with producer Brian Paulson, Slint, once again, entered the sessions without any vocals written, producing them on the spot as their sophomore full-length record was recorded in four feverish days. It's a good thing they spent the summer practicing all six songs because the album, dubbed Spiderland, which clocked it at 39 minutes long, would go on to become one of the most cited influential records in underground music in the '90s.
Tweez producer Albini affirmed to Alternative Press what a milestone the album was; "[Spiderland] is a definitive record of the period. There wasn't another record out at the time that has held up anywhere near as well." Old Louisville friend Will Oldham took the cover photo for Spiderland; a now infamous shot of the four members treading water in an illegal quarry, their heads barely peaking from the water. With an upcoming European tour planned and new songs in the work, months before Spiderland was officially released in 1991, the group disbanded for reasons never fully explained.
McMahan was the first to leave; a year after the album was recorded. "In retrospect, I guess my perspective might be that the band was just over, and I was the first one to admit it. Some of it had to do with our personalities, and a lot more of it had to do with shifting priorities; trying to take care of stuff that's a little more basic than playing in a band," he admitted to Alternative Press. Signed to Chicago label Touch and Go, by the time Spiderland was released in 1991, the band was almost a myth. In the first few months, Spiderland's sales and reviews were low, but little by little, it started selling more and more. Unfortunately this took a few years. Released just ten months before Nirvana's breakthrough 1991 album Nevermind, Slint had created a groundbreaking work of their own that few heard at the time.
Through the 1990's Spiderland became an important blueprint for emerging experimental rock bands and began taking on a legendary status over the years. "More known for its frequent name-checks than its actual music, Spiderland remains one of the most essential and chilling releases in the mumbling post-rock arena," wrote All Music Guide's Dean Carlson. The Washington Post concurred; "With a precise, dynamically dense, darkly ominous sound—imagine a young David Lynch making music instead of movies—Spiderland nonetheless became a cornerstone of what came to be known as 'post-rock.'" Slint began to attract a hard-core and loyal fan base many of which were emerging Chicago bands. The term post-rock always popped up with a mention of Slint's name, something that often confused the band members.
In the following years after Slint disbanded, Pajo spent a year at art school in England before going on to play with Tortoise, numerous solo projects including Papa M and Aerial M and the short lived Billy Corgan outfit Zwan. McMahan formed The For Carnation (Pajo played with the group for a short period); Walford drummed for rock band The Breeders under the name Shannon Doughton and spent time with Buckler in King Kong. At various points, all three of Slint's core members spent time with Will Oldham's project Palace.
For the Record …
Members include Todd Brashear (left group, 1991), bass; Ethan Buckler (left group, 1988), bass; Brian McMahan , guitar, vocals; David Pajo , guitar; Britt Walford , drums.
Group formed in Louisville, KY, 1987; released debut album Tweez, 1988; signed with Chicago's Touch and Go Records, released sophomore album Spiderland, 1991; disbanded 1992; became one of the most influential forefathers of post-rock genre; reunited briefly in 2005 to curate and headline the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in England.
Addresses: Record company—Touch & Go/Quarterstick Records, P.O. Box 25520, Chicago, IL 60625, website: http://www.quarterstickrecords.com/bands/band.php?id=70.
Slint briefly reunited in 1994 or 1995 and wrote and played a few songs together, but nothing came of it. After numerous attempts by British festival All Tomorrow's Parties to reunite the beloved band, in 2005, the organizers finally convinced Slint to make a comeback. Both original bassists opted out of the reunion so McMahan, Walford, and Pajo were joined by bassist Todd Cook and guitarist Michael McMahan took the stage in February of 2005, when Slint curated and headlined the three-day music festival in England. The shows sold out on Slint's name alone—before any other band was listed, and the band embarked on a short March tour in the United States and Europe where fans new and old showed up to honor the quietly legendary band. "We never stopped being friends," Pajo told the Washington Post. "Normal life stuff just put us out of touch for a while."
Tweez, Jennifer Hartman Records And Tapes, 1989; reissued, Touch and Go, 1993.
Spiderland, Touch and Go, 1991.
Alternative Press, April 2005, p. 84-88.
The Stranger (Seattle, WA), March 2005.
Washington Post, March 18, 2005.
"Slint," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 25, 2005).
Rolling Stone, http://www.rollingstone.com (May 25, 2005).
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