Slint - Biography
Jim O’Rourke has said that the members of Slint made the music they did because they had to make it. As absurdly romantic as that idea is, it is enticing to view creative output that radiates such a powerful sense of newness as being somehow daemonic-ly ordained. Whether the guys in the band had a meta-choice in the matter or not, Slint’s music certainly sounded free of many precedents when it was first quietly released in the late 1980’s. The legacy of the band’s work has left a much different story for many of the groups that followed in Slint’s influential wake. If the tale of Creedance Clearwater Revival spawning a million bar bands is true, then its safe to assume that Slint sired its fair share of math-and-post-rockers the world over.
Slint’s roots run deep in the fertile Louisville, KY hardcore scene of the 80’s. Singer and guitarist Brian McMahan and drummer Britt Walford teamed up with singer Peter Searcy, bassist Clark Johnson and guitarist David Grubbs to form local hardcore legend Squirrel Bait. After two records of youthful exuberance, Squirrel Bait called it quits in 1987. That same year Grubbs and Johnson went on to form Bastro with John McEntire, while McMahan and Walford joined guitarist David Pajo and bassist Ethan Buckler to form Slint.
From the band’s inception Slint was interested in producing something different than the formulaic post-Black Flag hardcore that had so inspired Squirrel Bait and the Louisville scene. “Slint came out of frustration with the music that was happening locally — there were a lot of generic punk bands then,” Pajo said in a recent interview. The music that the group created was instantly and obviously very different to what was happening around them. Focusing on shifting tempos slower than typical hardcore, a dark sense of atmosphere and syncopated rhythms defined by an extremely intense flux of tension and release created through tidal wave size volume dynamics, Slint sounded like nothing else. It’s obvious the band has roots in the minimal austerity of hardcore punk music like Minor Threat and Husker Du, but Slint’s sound is much more detailed, boasting structural conceits unheard of in American punk.
Walford and McMahan had befriended now legendary Chicago producer Steve Albini when Squirrel Bait opened for Albini’s band Big Black. The core members of Slint have stated that Albini was one of the first people to get the band’s sound outside of Louisville at the time. In 1987 Albini was persuaded to produce and record Slint’s debut full length. After a year’s delay, Tweez (1989 Jennifer Hartman Records; reissued 1993 Touch & Go) was released on Slint’s own label in 1989 to little recognition. Although it’s very much a Slint record, in retrospect the sound of Tweez owes quite a lot to Albini. The tight and clear production, the tone of the guitars and bass and the punky speak-sing of McMahan all sound very much in line with Big Black. In fact, if the recording has a major downfall it’s the cheesy chorus/flange saturation often used on the guitars. What sets the record apart though, what makes it a Slint record, are the compositions. The structure of the songs are so unique; the drastic tempo shifts that seem so fluid on “Carol” or “Warren”; the giant walls of guitar swell and sustained drones that descend into tight interlocking parts on “Charlotte.” These deftly executed structural moves just didn’t happen in hardcore music. The extremism of the compositions, the odd lyrics and the merging of aggressive hardcore/metal tendencies with an obviously art-rock bent produced great results not widely heard at the time. Tweez is a good record, an interesting record, but it’s not Slint’s true legacy. The debut is best heard as a warm-up to the sound Slint would define on its next and last record.
After most of the band attended college for a year, Slint’s members came together in the summer of 1990 to work on new music. Buckler left the band after the first record and was replaced by Todd Brashear, a former bandmate of Pajo. By the fall of that year a clutch of new songs were ready to record. The band went to Chicago’s River North Studio, where McMahan had been working as an intern, to record with producer Brian Paulson. The sessions resulted in Slint’s defining moment, Spiderland (1991 Touch & Go).
The music on Spiderland is absolutely singular, head and shoulders above anything on Tweez. At once more raw and confident, the new songs also have stronger and more sophisticated arrangements. The song lengths on Tweez remain around the average rock song length, most clocking in around the three to four minute mark. Most songs on Spiderland average over five minutes, with three tracks running well over six minutes. This allows for more dynamic fluctuation of volume and tempo, giving the band access to epic structural arcs. Perhaps Slint’s greatest achievement was taking these longer, dynamic songs and fusing them with a sense of hardcore economy. “Washer” and “Good Morning, Captain” are possibly the best examples of this. Both songs are absolutely epic in the traditional sense of the term, but manage to do this while employing a truly minimalist aesthetic. This minimalist approach infuses “Don, Aman” and “For Dinner” as well. Both songs are haunting, stark and quiet. Slint’s music was still hardcore in a sense, just distended and mutated to allow for a broader range of aesthetic and emotional concerns.
It’s worth noting the change in vocal delivery on Spiderland. Although singing is not talked about much when discussing Slint, much of the vocals on the second record hit harder than on the debut. The lyrics are less shockingly goofy and follow more traditional melodic lines. The subject matter is abstract, creating strangely haunting images that contribute greatly to the record’s strange atmosphere. Spiderland benefits greatly from Paulson’s production as well. It’s a warmer and fuzzier recording, lending Slint’s songs more textural presence than Albini’s dry and airtight approach allowed. Gone too are the overused chorus-effects on the guitars, traded in for either chiming clean tones or wall-of-fuzz growl. Paulson deserves due credit for much of the feel of Spiderland.
The case of Spiderland, and really of Slint in general, is an archetypal slow-burn scenario. When the record came out in 1991 the band had already been broken up for a month or so. As Spiderland seemingly sat on store shelves, at least according to sales standards, it was actually slowly being heard. By the time Touch & Go reissued Tweez in 1993 and the posthumous Untitled (1994 Touch & Go) single in 1994, many underground American bands had taken Slint’s cue. Kids in Louisville, only a few years younger than the members of Slint, had thoroughly ingested the band’s aesthetic. The best and among the first of the converted was a band called Rodan. Following a trajectory even shorter than Slint’s, the band released one excellent album, Rusty. But in Rodan’s wake came June of ’44 and the Sonora Pine, and later the Shipping News, all bearing Slint’s torch well into the 90’s.
And the sound had seeped out of Louisville into the similarly fertile and much larger Chicago (and surrounding) scene. Bands like Don Caballero, Gastr del Sol, US Maple, Tortoise, Trans Am and A Minor Forest all seemingly picked up the clues Slint’s early work left behind. By the mid-90’s terms like math-rock and post-rock were being used to describe much of the creative music made at the time, with Slint cited as the stylistic fountainhead.
All of Slint’s members have continued with music in some form or another. Pajo briefly worked with Tortoise before focusing on a solo career as Papa M and currently plays in a band called Dead Child. McMahan started The For Carnation, a quieter extension of Slint’s sound. Walford played drums on the first two Breeders records. All three have performed on and off with fellow Louisville native Will Oldham. The three core members of Slint reunited in 2005 to curate and play the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival and have continued to perform various festivals into 2008. There has been at least a tentative mention of possible new music being released.
Toward the end of the 1990’s, Spiderland was canonized as a stone cold classic and the stylistic concerns of Slint’s music had informed indie bands the world over. A slow, slightly unconscious movement, all based around a band from Kentucky that existed maybe four years. But Spiderland still sounds amazing today, outshining much of the similar music that came directly after its release. In the old Touch & Go mailorder catalog, Slint’s austere description was simply, “So far ahead of their time, they’re standing behind you.” Perfect.