Slint's Spiderland: Myth, Math & Metallica

Revealing interviews with Slint’s Brian McMahan and Todd Brashear cut to a modern classic’s heart of darkness. Also: hear bonus track from the new box set.

Slint's Spiderland: Myth, Math & Metallica

IN MOJO 246 ANDREW MALE reviews the box-set reissue of Slint’s Spiderland, the unsettling, otherworldly 1991 album that spawned post-rock and math-rock and influenced everyone from Mogwai to Sigur Rós. Here he speaks to two of the band’s key architects, guitarist and vocalist Brian McMahan and bassist (and box-set compiler) Todd Brashear, about the highs and lows of revisiting their ghostly, cryptic masterpiece.

What has been the strangest thing about compiling this Spiderland reissue?

Todd Brashear: Strangest thing? I’d have to think about that for a second. It was all a little bit strange. It’s not like we’re all exactly normal. We are kinda quirky, you know. We all still have a certain sense of humour and I’m sure that had something to do with it all. If we were as serious as that album is… it would be kinda scary, if it was all seriousness.

“Britt was an intense dude. Even before I was in Slint I was half scared of him.”
Todd Brashear

What was your first impression of Britt Walford and Brian McMahan when you first met them?

TB: They were like, I don’t know, they were the people who were in the Louisville punk scene. They were unusual people. To some degree that’s how a lot of us ended up there, because we didn’t necessarily fit in with the normal world, or whatever you want to call it. We were apart from society.

What was your first impression of Slint, hearing them as a band?

TB: I thought it was cool. I was friends with Dave Pajo, because we were in a band together, a punk band called Solution Unknown. I heard Slint really early on, some of their first shows. I was into it because it sounded… it didn’t sound like anything I’d ever heard before. I was a fan of [Pajo, Walford and McMahan’s previous band] Maurice, which was more of an avant-garde metal band, so Slint kinda made sense and Britt was an awesome drummer and still is, but then on Tweez and the early stuff there was definitely a Big Black or Albini influence. I was into it from the first. When I was in Slint, that was when I really started getting into Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley and country music. I was already starting to listen to stuff that wasn’t indie rock. We were also really into Neil Young, and Britt liked The Mekons. We listened to Suicide a lot. Urge Overkill and other Chicago bands.

Slint in 1991: (clockwise from top left) David Pajo, Todd Brashear, Brian McMahan, Britt Walford.

How were you welcomed into the band? Were there auditions? Was anything explained to you?

TB: It feels like I just settled in. I look back and I ask myself, Did I kind of weasel my way in? When I knew that [original bassist] Ethan [Buckler] had quit I probably thought, I could do that. I probably said something to Dave. I remember going to Britt’s house and kinda, quote, “auditioning”, and I got the feeling that I did pretty well. Somehow I learned the songs. I’m not sure how I did that. But I remember doing OK. It wasn’t anything real formal or anything.

But that’s just how we are. We’re all kinda indirect in some ways. The rest of the world sometimes doesn’t seem to know what we’re talking about and then sometimes even within the four of us we can’t figure out what we’re all talking about. Brian’s like the rest of us. He can be hard to pin down sometimes. It’s interesting to think back what our different roles might have been. We all played certain roles with our personalities that probably helped it all come together in some ways, like Brian’s way more detail-orientated and more of a perfectionist and I’m more, C’mon, let’s just rock it out! So maybe having people at both extremes helps you get to the middle, or whatever.

“I think it’s kind of disturbing that people that young were making music like that.”

Todd Brashear

Britt and Brian famously kept the lyrics to Spiderland close to their chest before recording the album. When did you first hear them?

TB: I used to say that I had never heard them until we were in the studio, but then I heard a live tape that somebody had at some point and Brian was doing vocals so I said to myself, Well that’s just wrong if I’m saying that. Part of that is just memory. Now I’ve read a book about it, that 33 1/3 book [Slint’s Spiderland by Scott Tenant] and part of me is just, Well, do I remember that or did I read it in the book? I don’t even know anymore. Part of the thing with all the mystique about Spiderland is that back then, OK, you liked the record, but you couldn’t just look the band up on Google and find every motherlovin’ thing about them. That added to the ability of there being a mystique.

Slint’s original <em>Spiderland</em> album (1991)

The Slint mystique was always weird and spooky.

TB: Yeah, you know, I have kids now and it has a spooky tone and they’ll say, Oh, you know, some friend of mine, he really likes that album, and I’m, I don’t know if kids should really be listening to that. Maybe it’s because I had something to do with it, but it all kind of disturbs me in some ways or something.

A lot of people talk about the practice you put in – “Slint were a machine” etc. – but also stress, accident, and illness had a part to play in the making of Spiderland.

TB: Yeah. The fact is that we did work on it a lot but when we had to get it down on tape we had to do it quick. That probably worked out well for us, you know, because if we had an unlimited budget we could have analysed it to death as we were prone to doing, and who knows if the thing would have ever even come out?

How did the band end?

TB: Brian quit.

Was that anything to do with the car accident he’d been in? Was he sick?

TB: He would have to answer that directly. The way I think, he was just fed up. I don’t think it had anything to do with the other stuff. And you know, at the time, I kinda didn’t blame him. There’d been times I’d thought about quitting. I think it was just a lot of pressure and frustration. And I’m not even sure why. Like I said, he’s more detail-orientated and I’m sure he had a certain vision of how things were going to be as far us being more responsible about whatever our next step was. Maybe in his mind we weren’t… I mean, I personally think we could have pulled it off just fine.

The track For Dinner and some of the outtakes suggest that you had started working in a more collaborative way…

TB: That’s probably true. For Dinner I have no memory of working on. One of the tracks that’s on the reissue is this unfinished thing called Todd’s Song, where we did try to play together after Spiderland came out, the summer of 1992. We recorded some of that stuff on cassette four-track and I guess Britt had taken all the different parts of a song and put them on one tape. I couldn’t find the original four-track but he had the tape with ‘Todd’s Song’ written on it. It’s interesting because it shows us at work and how it was going. Todd’s Song is actually hard for me to listen to. It’s just a real pretty song I guess. It’s emotionally hard for me to deal with for a lot of reasons. Somebody asked me why that didn’t work out and I can’t even answer that. It just kind of fizzled out.

“We didn’t necessarily fit in with the normal world. We were apart from society.”

Todd Brashear

Have you ever given any thought to Slint’s influence?

TB: Well you people talk about math-rock or post-rock… Well, if you say so, but there was one time I was in a record store in town that doesn’t exist anymore and there was something on and it sounded just like Spiderland, and I was like, Wow, now that is weird. Sounded like it, and actually the recording sounded just like it and I was immediately, OK, maybe this is what people are talking about. So I went up and asked the guy, ‘What is this,’ and it was Mogwai. What album? I don’t know, but I was, Alright, now I guess there’s something to this influence thing. But it did strike me… Even the recording was the same.

What do people overlook when discussing Slint’s music.

TB: Metallica? Britt was into them. Maurice were definitely influenced by that. I’m not saying Spiderland sounds like Metallica but they had those song structures, the loud parts and the quiet parts. Maybe there were other bands doing it, but nobody mentions Metallica. Back then people would say we sound like King Crimson and Pink Floyd and I would just think, What are you talking about? I don’t think any of us had ever even heard King Crimson. I was always mystified by those comparisons.

What have you learned from compiling the Spiderland box-set?

TB: It’s interesting to me to be a part of something special that happened a long time ago. I’m not saying this in a bragging kind of way, but any album that anybody feels a certain way about, there’s a certain kind of magic there that you almost can’t figure out. I think we want to figure it out. But through putting this together I realize, Man, you just can’t do it. I could make you a list of 20 different things that are great about Exile On Main Street but in the end they just kind of did what they did and things just lined up the right way and who really knows?

The new box-set reissue of Slint's <em>Spiderland</em>.

With all good rock music, there’s tension there and whatever else. That might be part of what disturbs me about Spiderland sometimes. Just that we were so young and I hear it and I think it’s kind of disturbing that people that young were making music like that. It kind of freaks me out. But it was an outlet for us and who knows what we would have done with all that if we hadn’t been in Slint.

Britt was an intense dude. Even before I was in Slint I was half scared of him. Not because I thought he was going to hurt me but I just wasn’t sure what to think. I first met him and Will Oldham in this pet store where I worked, waiting on them as customers. The people I worked with knew I was not exactly normal so they’d be, ‘Todd, it’s your customers. All you, Todd!’ That was our youth.

Watch the trailer for Lance Bangs’ Slint documentary, Breadcrumb Trail, that’s part of the Spiderland box set package...

What has been the strangest thing about compiling this Spiderland reissue?

Brian McMahan: The strangest thing has been the addition of new fans, because if it was only people of my generation who were paying attention it would be a lot easier to contextualize. Even if they were, you know, not in Louisville, didn’t have a sense of the indie Midwest scene, there was still a set of common experiences, and what’s odd for me is how people are continuing to find that record. It makes it hard to present a really focused perspective without alienating people, so basically I’m a little bit trying to sidestep the question and I’m a little bit trying to consider what I say in the context of a 19-year-old kid who’s just discovered the record and is thinking, Wow, what is this guy all about?

“My instinct would be don’t talk to anyone, don’t reissue the record, don’t play any reunion shows.”

Brian McMahan

Do you think Spiderland should have been reissued?

BM: Todd’s perspective on the offers for reunion shows and the reissue has been that this record and us as a band were pretty inaccessible and there were a handful of people who would really, really like to know more. I personally would never never have done this stuff, but Todd made a pretty good argument for it. He sold me on the idea. My instinct would be don’t talk to anyone, don’t reissue the record, don’t play any reunion shows, but people have been pretty forceful.

Splitting up before the album came out… did that add to the Spiderland mystique?

BM: We got lucky, I think, being part of that spontaneous mythology creation. We didn’t engage with the media either way, but had we engaged, with the 'zine culture or the music press at the time, there wasn’t really a huge infrastructure for getting information out on a broad scale. We definitely avoided it and it was not a considered marketing decision.

When did you become aware of the Spiderland mythology, that it had had become this huge influence, that there was a point in getting back together and playing the album?

BM: Honestly, I really did not understand the type of interest that exists. I could see that the record was continuing to sell but I didn’t have any information about who those people were. So getting out and playing for people on that first reunion tour in 2004/5 was my first real indication that, Wow, this is still relevant. That was the kick in the behind that I experienced, and that was 2004.

Was it a matter for debate as to what outtakes should go on the reissue?

BM: Yes. Definitely. I was really opposed to doing the reissue. The idea of 'bonus material'? The jury is definitely still out on the value of the many hours of bonus material that have been released posthumously for all these reissue projects. We basically gave it up to Todd. Todd is a good guy and he definitely understands that this stuff isn’t going to be for everyone, certainly. But he sees value in it and I’m sure others will see value in it. And personally I find a lot of the bonus stuff funny, really funny. [laughs]

“The lyrics were never part of our rehearsal. That was not something we ever discussed. Ever.”

Brian McMahan

I really enjoyed the documentary that comes with the box set for exactly that reason. It certainly reveals the humour in Slint, the human aspect as opposed to the machine aspect.

BM: Man, you and me both. I really had no idea what [director] Lance [Bangs] was going to do at first. I was the last person to sit down for interviews with him. I was the last hold-out. I don’t think any of us had any clue what sort of film he was making, and he did a great job. Humour was, for us, a huge part of the experience. A lot of the time was spent cracking jokes. There were definitely intense periods working hard but I think the issue of conflict is definitely there. We definitely wanted to make a really really spare, very serious record, but that didn’t characterize us.

The Spiderland lyrics are like small short stories. Where does this storytelling thing come from?

Well, you know, I was a geeky kid, absorbing as much I could living in Louisville: European art-house classics and the stuff that weird dark teens read. The sort of themes that seemed important to me to address were universal, as far as I was concerned. It was stuff that I heard in blues recordings, delta blues stuff, Leonard Cohen records and tons of AC/DC. The Mekons and Hank Williams records were also a huge point of reference for us. It was definitely a super-insular experience. The lyrics were never part of our rehearsal. That was not something we ever discussed. Ever.

Slint, or part thereof, in 2014: (from left) David Pajo, Britt Walford, Brian McMahan.

Young kids with communication issues?

Yeah. We were still at that really self-conscious period. So I think we were really pressing ourselves to be honest and try and get at the heart of how we felt at that time. But it wasn’t something that we necessarily wanted to bring up in conversation.

The documentary implies that the car accident you had prior to recording had a significant impact on Spiderland and its aftermath.

It’s really hard for me to comment on the impact that that may have had. It happened at an age and a point in my life where my sense of mortality still didn’t entirely kick in. I kind of walked away. It was pretty miraculous, actually. I still don’t really understand what occurred physically. It was a surreal episode and I filed that in the what-the-fuck department. Yes, I’m fine but I had no idea what that was all about.

“We were pressing ourselves to be honest and get at the heart of how we felt at that time.”

Brian McMahan

What was behind the decision not to carry on with Slint?

I never had any great aspirations in terms of being a professional musician. We wanted to make that record the best that we could, but us splitting up, for me it was one of those, you know, turns that occur for kids as they deal with responsibility. There was just the distinct truth that we all wanted to do the art or music that we wanted to without regard for, you know, financial consideration.

In the documentary Lance says that you completed the last vocal for the album and checked yourself into hospital. Is that him saying there were repercussions from the car accident you’d had? You know, ‘I don’t feel right, I need to get myself checked out’?

Yeah… Yeah. I think I’m going to take a pass on that question. No offence.

What’s your favourite thing about the Spiderland remaster?

I think Bob Weston’s remastering sounds great. I mean Bob was a huge Slint fan. He owned a Saab with a personalised ‘TWEEZ’ license plate. I’m kinda surprised that that has not been put forth at some point. Bob and I met in 1985. We both played in bands, loved music and had a real enthusiasm and he knew the material as well if not better than anyone. It’s a fairly nuanced remaster. It just has a little more depth, no exaggerated details. It’s subtle. Hearing what Bob did, this is entirely true to what we wanted.

Listen to unreleased Slint track Pam (Rough Mix) here.

Interviews by Andrew Male

Discover Andrew’s in-depth review of Slint’s Spiderland box in the new issue of MOJO magazine.

For more information on the Spiderland box set, visit Touch And Go.