“Just keep in mind for the next few days that we’re in Louisville, Kentucky. Not London. Not even New York. This is a weird place.” – Hunter S. Thompson.
With that quote, Lance Bangs begins Breadcrumb Trail, his documentary about the canonised post-hardcore group Slint. For a band that has been so quietly (then loudly, then quietly) influential, what unfolds is surprisingly not a tale of decadence or petulant genius or maniacal egos. And that’s ultimately what’s ‘weird’ down in Louisville: everyone there seems so... nice.
The DVD of Breadcrumb Trail is to be included with Touch & Go’s deluxe reissue of Slint’s album Spiderland. At this point the method of its distribution should be flashing up ‘fans only’ in big red letters and while its subject matter isn’t going to appeal outside of some pretty narrow boundaries, that’s a shame, as the story is refreshing in the way it demystifies the process of creating music.
That the film ends up less about the making of Slint’s two LPs Tweez and Spiderland (and an almost accidental EP) and more about the personalities involved, is pretty standard rock-doc stuff. Though here, the central joy is that the personalities aren’t coked up arseholes with an inflated sense of self-importance and divine right. They’re just a bunch of nice, talented kids from Louisville who like dumb jokes and, by practicing really hard, made some great music. Which, given the self-effacing way in which they tell their story to Bangs, is far more involving than you’d think.
The opening few minutes take a brief detour into a personal journey, detailing director Lance Bang’s discovery of Spiderland. As he narrates we see it sitting there, propped up against a shelf of other records, like the 90’s version of 2001: A Space Odyssey's epoch changing obelisk. Through this portal we enter a pre-fansite world of flyers and flannel and noise shows and the occasional eviscerated chicken. A time when you had to physically become friends with a band to flesh out their biography, rather than digitally stalk them from the other side of the world.
“This is a film about the Louisville culture they grew up in and how they made the record Spiderland,” narrates Bangs. It is, in the end, far more about the former than the later and, it turns out, it’s a good thing the film focuses on Louisville’s music scene. By the end you’ll know that the actual recording of the album isn’t all that interesting. Once you’ve made peace with that, you begin to appreciate why the relatively unremarkable antics of recording it are - by virtue of not being some orgy of excess or a multi year period of torment – really quite remarkable.
Out of an early 80s VHS maelstrom of teenage bands and freeform schooling, Britt Walford and Brian McMahan find themselves drawn together into the binary pairing at the heart of Slint. It’s at this point in the film that Sean Garrison (lead singer of Maurice) appears to provide the film’s motor-mouthed chorus:
“Giant skinheads and weird dudes in dresses; it was fucking heaven” Sean Garrison describing the Louisville punk scene.
Garrison, along with Louisville native David Grubbs, provide background on the early musical years of Walford and McMahan as they appear in punk band Languid and Flaccid; proto-Emo band Squirrel Bait (although interestingly not at the same time) with Grubbs; and with Garrison in the Hardcore band Maurice. A dizzying web of future Slint members hop between these groups, in the process crossing paths with Danzig and Will Oldham. And all before most of these guys had left High School.
It all begins to feel like a Rock Family Tree, except without the notion of pre-destiny that comes with these things. The fact that Slint, David Grubbs, James Murphy, Matmos and The Jesus Lizard (among many others) crossed paths seems less like intelligent design (like in most rock hagiographies) and more the chaotic crashing of tides of talented people into each other, drawn to scenes and places and musical styles before drifting away.
While Tweez-era Slint seems full of Louisville bustle, as Spiderland approaches we see the band spread out across the US. It’s here that the film solidifies around the idea of the quiet/loud dynamic of the music being a reflection of the quiet/loud dynamic of Brian and Britt. Britt shitting in cups, playing with knives and destroying Steve Albini’s house. Brian, being neat and tidy and owning plants. Yet it’s Brian that drops out of university and subsequently checks himself in to hospital immediately after Spiderland. While these things are mentioned we’re left with only vague ideas around what issues the softly spoken Brian dealt with and why Britt, the most overtly ‘weird’ member of the group seemed to drift off unscathed.
When the film eventually winds its way to the recording of Spiderland - though full of nerves and preceded by Brian’s near-fatal traffic accident – it’s suitably anticlimactic, Which is entirely in keeping with the understated band and their understated story: these were a bunch of guys from Louisville who started early and produced a record that sold OK and just happened to define a genre. Which they seem as surprised about as anyone
By the end of its 94 minutes, Breadcrumb Trail has left you with the story of a tight and loose collection of friends. It’s encompassed families and churches, high schools and universities, battles of the bands and punk shows. Significantly though, it omits the all too obvious resolution to their ‘arc’. Denied the adulation of the public in the 90s, Slint reformed for a series of concerts in 2005. Bangs studiously avoids this catharsis (though some footage does make its way in anonymously). It seems that for Breadcrumb Trail, Slint’s story ends with Spiderland, just as it did for a generation of fans pre-2005.
The overwhelming sense, once it is all over, is that the music – what we’re all here for – wasn’t some primal force drawing the chosen ones together at a certain anointed time. These guys were never vessels of some divine spark – this, after all, is a band that only recorded an EP because Albini had some spare studio time. Indeed it’s the very lack of entitlement, the almost embarrassed way the members of Slint talk about that time in their lives, the graft, the planning and the relatively swift execution of the records that make the whole thing fascinating.
As a perfect coda, the credits appear over a song by King Kong called Movie Star, notable for featuring all of the Tweez-era Slint lineup. Which, because they’re friends, they just went off and recorded after King Kong singer Ethan Buckler left Slint. No need for reunion drama, just playing music together. Which really shouldn’t be weird at all.
Breadcrumb Trail is included on the Spiderland box set, which is released via Touch and Go on April 15th. The Quietus is partnering with NTS for a special screening of the film, followed by a Q&A with the director, at the ICA on March 30 at 6pm, tickets are £10/£8 conc. Head here for more info.A special screening will be taking place on March 26th at the Irish Film Institute ahead of further screenings around the UK. See https://www.facebook.com/Slint for more details.
Slint's Spiderland box set comes out April 15. Courtesy of the artist hide caption
Slint's Spiderland box set comes out April 15.Courtesy of the artist
During its original run in the late '80s and early '90s, Slint never reached a huge audience: Its music was, by its nature, too dark and strange and sprawling. But its influence has stretched for decades, and its two full-length albums (1989's Tweez and 1991's Spiderland) are, to this day, counted as underground classics.
It's hard to talk about Slint without using two foreboding and loaded descriptors: "seminal" and "post-rock," neither of which conjures much in the way of warmth. To call a band "seminal" is to redefine its albums as homework; to call a band "post-rock" is to make it seem as shadowy and formless as self-important as the term itself. Listening to Spiderland now, freshly remastered for this box set by Bob Weston, it's clear how much it deserves reconsideration as a work of haunting beauty and surprising warmth.
As a vocalist, Brian McMahan rarely stays in one place for long, and he spends Spiderland speaking, speak-singing, whispering and screaming — sometimes well outside the forefront of the mix. But listen to the revealing nine-minute ballad "Washer," and you hear an uncommonly sensitive and lovely vocal, not to mention a big, bleeding heart. Slint is important, sure, but it's not just important. McMahan and David Pajo weave their guitars together in dense and foreboding thickets, but they also let their instruments breathe in great and graceful ways.
Spiderland is certainly getting the reissue package it deserves: a limited-edition $150 box set with three 180-gram vinyl LPs and two CDs (including 79 minutes of demos, outtakes, instrumentals, live material and other odds and ends), a 104-page booklet (complete with an essay by Will Oldham, who shot the photo on the original album's cover), and a 90-minute documentary called Breadcrumb Trail, by the filmmaker Lance Bangs. But the album still stands gloriously on its own as the modest and compact, six-song, 40-minute set it's always been. It's worth discovering and rediscovering, and worth celebrating as more than the sum of its influence.