Will Oldham

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All four members of the legendary Louisville indie outfit look back on the grueling practices and emotional growing pains that fueled their “20-year-old-dude masterpiece”

In the fall of 1990, the Louisville band Slint found itself at a crossroads.

They’d just finished recording their second album over the course of a rushed weekend in Chicago. They knew that one of their favorite labels, the esteemed indie Touch and Go, would be putting it out, but otherwise, the future seemed uncertain. Though the band wasn’t paying their bills, the members, all in their early twenties, had taken time off from college to facilitate the intensive rehearsals that birthed five of the album’s six tracks. They believed in the music, a suite of spare, unhurried, occasionally volatile songs that unfolded like gripping short stories, but Brian McMahan, one of Slint’s two guitarists and their reluctant lead vocalist, was starting to feel that, going forward, they’d need to revamp their sound. In that spirit, the band printed drummer Britt Walford’s parents’ address inside the album and invited “interested female vocalists” to get in touch about collaborating with the group.

“There was, by that point, I think a fair recognition from all of the guys that, like, ‘Wow, this is totally some nerd dude music,’” McMahan says, looking back on the album, which they released the following March under the title Spiderland.“I mean, despite our, [faux-naively] ‘It will be epic! And appeal to all! Across all cultures!,’ it was confronting the reality of, ‘Man, we are such nerds. We may not be able to do it on this record, but we’ve got to break out of this somehow.’”

Rather than break out, they broke up. Before Spiderland’s release, McMahan decided for a myriad of reasons that he no longer wanted to devote his life to Slint. The band didn’t have much of an audience; they’d only played a little more than two dozen shows during their four years together, never venturing further west than Kansas City. But somehow, in the years after Spiderland came outsporting a black-and-white cover photo showing the four members swimming together in a lake, with scenic cliffs behind them and only their heads visible above the water their “nerd dude music” slowly but steadily made its way out into the world. 

Spiderland eventually earned a place in the pantheon of cult-favorite Nineties albums, and became a hallowed influence for everyone from Bush to Mogwai and Pavement. Thirty years after its release, it remains an unclassifiable triumph of rock moodcraft — its literally soft-spoken vocals and crafty play of harsh and delicate textures often imitated but never rivaled. In spots, such as on “Good Morning, Captain,” which builds during seven tense minutes to a shattering, near-tearful catharsis, Spiderland can break your heart; in others, like on “Don, Aman,” a drumless dirge in which social anxiety seems to morph into something malevolent, it can chill you to the bone. 

Even now — after several Slint reunion tours, Scott Tennent’s illuminating Spiderland entry in the 33 1/3 book series, a bonus-track–packed deluxe reissue through Touch and Go, and the poignant Lance Bangs-directed documentary Breadcrumb Trail — it can be hard to pinpoint exactly where the album’s unique sound and feel came from. But in talking to McMahan, Walford, guitarist Dave Pajo, and bassist Todd Brashear, it’s clear that Spiderland was the product of their eclectic musical tastes, years of playing experience, and a shared sense of searching that seems almost innate to a tight-knit group of young men on the cusp of adulthood.

“Man, it’s really funny, when you’re that close with people, so much goes unsaid,” Walford says in his soft Kentucky drawl, reflecting on Spiderland’s loose themes of post-adolescent reckoning. “I don’t think we ever talked about anything like that. But I feel like there’s lots of understanding that goes within that not talking about it. There was definitely sort of an existential crisis in the air for us.”

For McMahan, the album’s somber, foreboding tone reflects him and Walford leaving home — specifically their sheltered suburban upbringing and small, student-centered school — to attend college at Northwestern, near Chicago, and all the emotional growing pains that came with it.

“It really was a loss of innocence,” McMahan says of the period. “We were just very privileged, and having that cracked open seemed deserving of some mental energy.”

When he reflects on the album now, Pajo too thinks of a certain kind of psychic weight, but also the joy that went into it. 

“We’re just all being youthful and happy,” he says, noting the smiles seen on the members’ faces on the Spiderland cover. “And the music is also very youthful in the sense that … when you’re younger, everything is so life-and-death and huge. So I feel that the whole record really is about that, just a snapshot of youthfulness: the romance and the despair and the laughter — just a bunch of kids being kids.”

slint touch and go records

Slint circa 1990. From left: Britt Walford, Brian McMahan, Todd Brashear, and Dave Pajo. (Courtesy of Touch and Go Records)

Brian McMahan and Britt Walford had met as actual kids, when they were classmates at Louisville’s progressive J. Graham Brown School. They formed a grade-school band, and during the early-to-mid-Eighties, they played together and apart in a series of very different local outfits, including the emotive, Hüsker Dü–ish Squirrel Bait and the imposing, metallic Maurice. The latter band’s bassist, Mike Bucayu, brought Dave Pajo into Maurice, and Pajo and Walford quickly formed a tight bond. 

Walford, a longtime student of classical piano and a proficient guitarist, was hardly a typical punk drummer. Pajo was by then a precocious virtuoso who was rapidly becoming disillusioned with the Eighties shred-guitar cult.

“I no longer thought it was cool to be a shredder,” says Pajo, whose Orange County home makes him the only member of Slint not currently living in Louisville. “I thought it was actually really cool what someone like Thurston Moore was doing — putting a drumstick under the strings was cooler to me than playing a thousand notes a minute.”

He and Walford started absorbing the cleaner-sounding, decidedly un-macho stylings of bands like the Minutemen and the Meat Puppets, and the material that resulted — closer to quirky jazz fusion than aggro metal — led to Maurice’s breakup. Pajo and Walford then founded a new band, which they’d eventually name Slint (a made-up word that Walford had originally used to christen a pet fish), with Pajo’s friend Ethan Buckler on bass. It was in this early trio era, Walford says, that the band first conceived of the spacious and minimal aesthetic that they’d later perfect on Spiderland. 

“Dave started writing a couple songs in [Maurice] with clean guitar, and then somehow Ethan Buckler and I had an idea to do a clean band that just sort of sounded like nature,” the drummer says. “That was our concept.” Asked to clarify what it means for a band to sound like nature, he adds, “Almost sounding like pine trees, or something, is the best way I could describe it. Just being very sort of resilient-sounding, like fresh plants.” Walford chuckles after offering up the description, but it would be hard to think of a better way to characterize Slint’s mature sound.

At this stage, that sound was still a ways off. A key step was when Walford’s old friend McMahan joined the group after seeing their first live show, held in the fall of 1986 at, of all places, a Unitarian church attended by Buckler’s family. During McMahan’s time in Squirrel Bait, he’d met future studio legend Steve Albini — then the guitarist-shouter in caustic noise-punk outfit Big Black — and after opening for Big Black in Louisville in early 1987, Slint booked recording time with Albini for the fall of that year. 

During the sessions in Evanston, Illinois, Albini functioned almost like a fifth member, encouraging the band’s most rambunctious tendencies. The resulting tracks — released two years later by the band’s friend Jennifer Hartman as Tweez —  featured plenty of the clean, understated playing and intricate structures that Walford, Pajo, and Buckler had been honing, but slammed up against cryptic bits of studio chatter, stabs of painfully trebly guitar, and the sounds of actual breaking glass, making for a cacophonous and sometimes hilarious listen. 

When he heard the results, Buckler promptly left the band. (“I didn’t like what Steve Albini did to it, so I decided I was going to quit,” he said in Breadcrumb Trail.) The other members were happy with Tweez, but as they started working on their next batch of songs with new bassist Todd Brashear — who’d seen early Slint shows and played with Pajo in the hardcore band Solution Unknown — they began to conceive of a very different follow-up. 

“I think we wanted to be more of a functional band — not so much of a collection of ideas; not quite as zany — and to really develop an album that was cohesive,” McMahan explains. “Tweez was super cool and definitely conceived as tying together a bunch of disparate things, but we wanted the next record to be focused and uniform, more or less, in terms of its musical profile.”

As their musical priorities changed, so did their listening diet. Pajo recalls traditional Americana and rock & roll coming into the picture as the Spiderland lineup solidified. “Having Todd come in was cool because he also brought in a bunch of different influences,” Pajo recalls. “He was — he still is — my source for country-blues and Delta blues and country music and just any kind of rootsy stuff. He seemed to know all about that world, and he’s a huge Stones fan, so we ended up hearing the Stones more.”

“When I think back to the music we were listening to, we were all getting into more rootsy kinds of things and simpler things,” Brashear says in his heavy Southern twang, pointing out that within a couple years of Slint’s breakup, three-fourths of the Spiderland lineup would be working with their close friend Will Oldham in his archaic alt-folk ensemble Palace Brothers. “I think we were already kind of heading in that direction, as far as our personal taste: less noisy and more simple.”

In the fall of 1988, McMahan and Walford headed back to Evanston to attend college at Northwestern. Even as they tuned in to underground acts like Milwaukee lo-fi eccentrics the Frogs, and future Touch and Go labelmates Urge Overkill (circa their raw 1989 debut Jesus Urge Superstar), they bonded over a variety of established rock staples, from Seventies Neil Young to Back in Black–era AC/DC. 

“The very hard, mechanical rock & roll boogie of AC/DC, it seemed like that, butting up against the Crazy Horse vibe — we were somewhere in the middle, or kind of on that continuum, throughout the Spiderland record,” McMahan says. (Slint would later perform a masterful version of “Cortez the Killer” live at a Chicago show.)

Leonard Cohen was another shared reference point. McMahan and Walford both recall catching the I’m Your Man tour in Chicago during their first semester of school and coming away seriously impressed.

“It was an amazing experience,” McMahan says. “I can’t say I really identified with, or had the worldly experience to align myself with Leonard Cohen, as a musician or songwriter, but it was super cool, his very straightforward addressing of dark subject matter: doubt, grief, love, obsession, and all that stuff.”

Walford and McMahan were also processing Chicago itself in those years. “Chicago, especially with Steve Albini as guide, was and I’m sure still is to some extent harsh and grim,” Walford writes in an email. He recalls hanging out at Leader Liquors, a bar that was “really dingy and peopled exclusively by serious alcoholics, mostly old WWII types,” with Albini and members of Urge Overkill. “Going to Steve’s the first time, before Tweez, Steve showed us ‘The R. Budd Dwyer Tape’ — a grainy video of a city official somewhere in America committing suicide — within minutes of our showing up,” Walford adds. “It was traumatic.”

As they acclimated to big-city life, McMahan and Walford were each stockpiling riffs and song fragments, including the seeds of future Spiderland songs “Nosferatu Man” and “Good Morning, Captain.”

“I would say [Lake Michigan] had a lot to do with [it],” Walford says of the writing he was doing while at Northwestern. “I would just play guitar a lot — always playing Brian’s guitar and amp — record tons of riff ideas and go out to this lake. It’s on Lake Michigan, the school, so I would go out there and just sit on a rock a lot. I did a lot of writing and thinking about music out there.”

The two lived together at the time, but their housing situation didn’t accommodate joint music-making. “We shared a little apartment and it was just a lot of solitary — Britt in his room, me in my room — recording little bits of guitar parts, or even just playing each other pieces of music that we felt were evocative of a certain feel,” McMahan recalls.

Slint was less active while McMahan and Walford were at school, though in early 1989 they did record two songs with Albini, one of which was a brooding, patiently unfolding instrumental called “Glenn” that seemed to exemplify Walford and Buckler’s original “fresh plants” concept more fully than anything on Tweez. They also got to know Touch and Go label head Corey Rusk, who saw them play in Chicago and offered to put out their next full-length. For the band, this was like being courted by Clive Davis.

“It was kind of like the big leagues,” Brashear recalls. “There’s so much music that we liked that was on that label — we all listened to Big Black, Butthole Surfers, you name it — that to me, it’s like, ‘Holy shit, I can’t believe this is going to happen.’”

Around the spring of ’89, Slint became something like a full-time job for the members. That summer, they shared their new song ideas in the basement of Walford’s childhood home in Louisville, adopting what Brashear calls a “fairly grueling” five-day-a-week practice schedule — squeezed in between the members’ other jobs — that would continue the following summer in the lead-up to the Spiderland recording. 

“We would work on one riff for a week, or we would try to figure out how the bass is going to transition to the next riff,” Pajo says. “It was just part of our day, to get together and pick up where we left off the day before.”

The summer ’89 practices, which McMahan calls the “germination” phase of Spiderland, yielded the basic structures of four songs that would end up on the album: Walford’s tricky, fuzzed-out 5/4 rocker “Nosferatu Man,” where Slint put forth their own version of AC/DC’s “hard, mechanical rock & roll boogie,” and his hypnotic, slow-building epic “Good Morning, Captain”; “Breadcrumb Trail,” built around a soothing, Brashear-penned riff that featured the band’s signature use of chiming guitar harmonics; and McMahan’s “Washer,” a melodic ballad with the feel of a wistful lullaby. 

McMahan hadn’t yet finalized vocals for the latter three, but still, in live instrumental versions recorded during two short tours the band embarked on that summer, the Spiderland sound was already fully evident: grand, airy, and entrancing, driven by McMahan and Pajo’s alternately sparkling and tinnily distorted guitars, Brashear’s stoic bass throb, and Walford’s shaggy, elemental trudge.

“Nosferatu Man” was a bit further along, outfitted with fragmentary spoken verses, and harsher shouted choruses. As heard on Tweez songs like “Darlene” and “Kent,” spoken vocals were already part of the band’s repertoire, but on Spiderland, they took on a central role. Neither McMahan or Walford, who share vocal duties on both albums, can remember quite when or how the band latched on to the tactic. “It just seemed to make sense,” Walford says.

Walford’s lyrics for “Nosferatu Man” tell the elliptical tale of a vampire and his elusive mate. “I live in a castle,” Walford says in an insistent near-whisper on the album version. “I am a prince/On days I try/To please my queen.” The song detours into an account of a restless nocturnal existence, paraphrasing Hank Williams’ “Ramblin’ Man”: “I can be settled down/And be doin’ just fine/’Till I hear that old train/Rolling down the line.” Later, the queen disappears right as the vampire is about to strike: “My teeth touched her skin/Then she was gone again.”

Walford recalls seeing both the original 1922 Nosferatu and the 1979 Werner Herzog–Klaus Kinski remake. “I’m a huge fan of [the original],” Walford says. “The way that looks is basically how that song is supposed to sound.” 

Walford says the alienation of the vampire character seemed to mirror his own state of mind at the time. “I guess there’s a lot of guilt or just discomfort with being a man,” he says of the song’s inspiration, “and at the same time feeling just unattractive or unappealing. Feeling like a pariah, in a gross way.”

The Hank Williams tie-in grew out of Walford questioning his post-adolescent lifestyle choices. “I was feeling the whole guilt thing about being a ne’er-do-well and sleeping late, living in my parents’ house and waking up smelling like a bar room. So that sort of tied into whatever it is that people like that are out there chasing in the night. I started listening to Hank Williams at some point in there and that was a big deal — he seemed sort of forlorn in the same way, you know, looking for something.”

Spiderland’s final touches came together in the summer of 1990. McMahan and Walford had both dropped out of school — with Walford even jetting over to Edinburgh that January to drum on the Breeders’ Albini-engineered debut, Pod — and Brashear and Pajo put their own college studies on hold in preparation for the recording session in the early fall. Walford worked up his “Don, Aman” by himself and didn’t unveil it till the actual Spiderland sessions, so even a year later, the band was still chipping away at the same batch of songs, plus “For Dinner…,” a beautifully subdued instrumental initially sketched out by McMahan. 

“It was just five songs,” Pajo says, marveling at how much time the band devoted to such a small body of work. “I never looked at it as being weird at the time, but in hindsight, who does that? I mean, unless you want to be like Captain Beefheart and lock yourself in a room and work on the same songs for a couple of years.”

“It was noticeable that we had so few songs, but that we worked on them that much,” Walford says. “We liked doing it — we didn’t really think about it, or make an effort one way or another, but we did work on them a lot, and they would just expand. That was the magic of Dave’s guitar playing and Brian’s guitar playing and Todd’s bass playing.”

As the band obsessed over the musical details — Pajo’s self-described “anti-guitar” moves, like a keening, one-note solo in “Washer,” which the guitarist says is a “direct lift” from D. Boon’s playing on the Minutemen’s “Cut”; Walford’s crisp, tension-building fills in “Good Morning, Captain” — Walford and McMahan thought about what they wanted the songs to express lyrically and emotionally. The two collaborated on the lyrics for “Breadcrumb Trail,” but mostly they worked alone, outside of practice, with McMahan sometimes rehearsing his words while sitting in a car in his family’s garage. Much as they’d worked hard to unclutter their sound after Tweez, they started to replace that album’s impenetrable rantings with radical honesty, artfully framed. In line with “Nosferatu Man,” they conceived of the other songs almost like mini-movies, with affecting character arcs, and plots that drew you in and created narrative suspense.

“I don’t know that we ever talked about this, but it was almost a rule that you would want a song to offer something positive,” Walford says of his and McMahan’s lyrical approach at the time. “Like, you wouldn’t want to make a song that was just self-indulgent expression. … We wanted to make something that was hopeful, or had something positive to give people.”

It would be hard to mistake “Breadcrumb Trail” — Spiderland’s eventual opener, with lyrics co-written by McMahan and Walford — for “just self-indulgent expression.” In an unaffected, almost casual voice, McMahan narrates the story of a man visiting a carnival. A fortune teller’s tent catches his eye, but once he’s inside, instead of having his fortune read, he asks the fortune teller “if she’d rather go on the roller coaster instead.” The words mirror the shifts in the music to gorgeous effect: Just as the pair are ascending for their first perilous drop, the band moves from clean-toned reverie to a washy, bottom-heavy roar, with Pajo’s distorted harmonics ringing out like bagpipes. As the narrator and the fortune teller give themselves over to the exhilaration of the ride, we cut to an omniscient view of the carnival, meeting a surly ticket-taker below, and a girl getting sick as she steps off the roller coaster. The tale ends on a sweet note: “At the gate, I said goodnight to the fortune teller/The carnival sign threw colored shadows on her face/But I could tell she was blushing.”

As they started working on lyrics for the album, McMahan says that he and Walford zeroed in on a coming-of-age theme, and “really simple, fairy-tale kind of imagery.” A carnival setting seemed like the perfect establishing shot, as it were. “It was an easy point of reference,” McMahan says. “Growing up, the Kentucky State Fair was a big deal. So some of that vibe of childish wonder and amusement had an actual basis in real life.”

If “Breadcrumb Trail” conveys childlike wonder, Spiderland closer “Good Morning, Captain” seems saturated in a very adult kind of regret. In it, McMahan tells the story of a lone survivor of a shipwreck, seeking shelter in a house on the shore. “I’m the only one left/The storm took them all,” he says tearfully through the door. Eventually a child, who may or may not be his own, peers out at him through a window, but never lets him in. “I’m trying to find my way home,” McMahan says in a half-sob. “I’m sorry/I miss you …” Most of the song is a master class in minimalism, powered by a Walford-penned bass line that rumbles steadily through the verses, and accented near the end with Pajo’s faint muted plucking. There are mini peaks throughout, but finally, just before the seven-minute mark, as if a sonic dam were breaking, the band kicks into a massive, lumbering art-metal riff as McMahan repeatedly howls, “I miss you!” in a raw-throated voice. The moment isn’t just the climax of Spiderland but of the Slint experience as a whole.

Some have read the song as an ode to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but McMahan makes it clear that beyond Captain Kangaroo — he confirms that the song’s title nods to the sunny theme song of the beloved children’s show— he didn’t draw on any one particular source. “It’s just, what are the most basic motifs in American songwriting? The river, the fields, the sun, nighttime,” he says when asked about the song’s nautical theme. “There was no Rime of the Ancient Mariner — that would have been totally fair play, but there was no referencing that.”

Instead, the story he was telling in the song was a highly personal one. As he was navigating his own bumpy transition into adulthood, he found himself reflecting on his younger brother, Michael, who was then in high school and was coming of age, like Brian had, in a “small-school bubble” and in a family where communicating one’s feelings was “weirdly just not at all acceptable.” 

“[The song] is acknowledging this bond, knowing, or feeling as I did at the time, that there was not much I could do to help him through,” McMahan says. “For me, being a little bit older and trying to understand my relationship to my family without having an older sibling, in some weird way, it was like a note to my brother, just like, ‘Here’s my take on this stuff, and I hope this can help you.’ But also, literally, the ‘I miss you’ thing, it’s kind of letting go of being able to effect change, like, ‘All I can do is express these sentiments and that’s it. I’m no longer here; I can’t go back to that.’”

“Brian seemed a little embarrassed about it when he played for me,” Pajo recalls of first hearing the lyrics for the final section of “Captain.” “I remember he called it ‘the crybaby part,’ and I was like, ‘Man, I love the crybaby part!’”

Concern for a loved one also fueled “Washer.” The most obvious outlier on Spiderland, it’s built around a simple cyclical form and — for the first and only time in the Slint catalog — conventional singing, in the form of McMahan’s fragile croon. Even on a record that feels altogether warmer and more emotionally resonant than Tweez, it’s a startling departure.

The song takes the form of a goodnight address to a distant lover, encouraging them to make peace with their sadness (“Wash yourself in your tears/And build your church on the strength of your faith…”) and gradually taking on a more pleading tone (“Please, don’t let go/Don’t let this desperate moonlight leave me with your empty pillow”). Later in the song, over a tension-building interlude, the lyrics end on a note of dreamlike oblivion — “My head is empty/My toes are warm/I am safe from harm” — before the band comes crashing back in for Pajo’s screaming solo. 

When he wrote the song, McMahan was thinking of his girlfriend at the time. He says that both she and he had dealt with mental-health issues in their immediate families, and that these had started to manifest in them as well. “We both experienced depression really early in our lives, and it was a feature of our relationship. I’m not going to say it was unhealthy, but it was something that we just had to deal with, and we were young and we were figuring it out,” he says.

After high school, both McMahan and his girlfriend moved away to attend different colleges. “We both pretty quickly felt isolated, got depressed, and there was a point at which I remember leaving Evanston, where I had been going to school, and getting on a Greyhound bus kind of spur of the moment to go to Madison, Wisconsin, where she was in school, because I was really concerned about her,” he says. “The lyrics or some of the tone of ‘Washer’ was definitely couched in a sense that, you know, we’re all fragile people. There were no illusions in her family DNA [that] being upset and expressing your feelings, even if it’s physically or through violence, was definitely on the table. … That sort of fear definitely led to some of that song in some ways. I was worried about her and I was worried about the idea of suicide, and physically I was not in the same place as her.

“And then on the flip side,” he continues, “the interlude, the quiet, more breathy part, it’s kind of the way I was taught to respond to intense emotion, or things that were not neat and tidy, just to kind of disconnect. That’s how I was raised: [Mock-stoically] ‘Emotions are bad, and expression of intense feelings is not appropriate ever.’”

Presenting the song in such a naked and vulnerable way was tough for McMahan. But he sensed that his discomfort was worth overcoming.

“It’s super simple, and it seemed like that was important,” McMahan says of how “Washer,” both musically and lyrically, fit into Spiderland as a whole. “It seemed important to recognize explicitly [that] these are simple feelings and ideas. … There’s a lot of repetition — it’s kind of like, just not afraid to acknowledge [that], yes, this keeps happening.” 

Once he’d written the song, McMahan realized that neither a spoken nor yelled vocal approach would do. “I did know with that one when I brought it to the group that, despite my deep reservations, it would require singing,” he continues. “I just didn’t know how to sing. I had never had a strong voice, and it was almost a duty to deliver what I could for that sort of song in the context of that group of songs for that record. It was pretty horrifying, honestly, but it just needed to happen from where I was sitting.”

Pajo says the song’s inclusion on Spiderland reflects how much the band’s musical horizons had broadened since Tweez. “I think aesthetically we were more open to a song like ‘Washer,’ whereas in 1987, we probably would have laughed a song like that out of the practice space,” he says.

Walford achieved a similar kind of emotional depth, but with a very different effect, on “Don, Aman,” a Spiderland song he wrote and performed on guitar, essentially springing it on the band at the recording session that fall. (Pajo, the only other musician who appears on “Don, Aman,” says he simply doubled Walford’s guitar part, since he didn’t have enough time to work out his own.)

“Don stepped outside,” Walford near-whispers ominously at the beginning of the track. For the next six-and-half minutes, he details the character’s pitiless inventory of both himself and his friends as he stands on the fringes of a party: “He thought about something he just said/And how stupid it had sounded”; “His friends stare/With eyes like the heads of nails.” Meanwhile his and Pajo’s guitars play a spare, uneasy riff, broken up by pulse-racing builds and intrusions of slicing distortion. As a whole, “Don, Aman” feels like the nightmarish inverse of an easygoing campfire folk song.

Walford says the lyrics were inspired by someone he knew. “I imagined social anxiety or discomfort, [and] I sort of just projected my own feelings onto him, or this character,” he says. “So it was also very autobiographical.”

Walford says that the character’s sense of resolve at the end of the song — “Don woke up/And looked at the night before/He knew what he had to do…” — might be a wrongheaded response to his feelings of alienation. “I guess it’s a mistake that there was something he needed to do,” Walford says. “It’s somebody who’s trying to figure out a solution to why they feel like people don’t like them how they are. It [was] honest then, and I think I can say better now that that’s probably not true. It’s probably just your own projections — or, you know, there’s nothing you really need to do that’s so monumental.”

Like “Nosferatu Man,” “Don, Aman” includes lyrical nods to some of Walford’s favorite artists. At one point midway through the song, a disembodied-sounding voice says, “My soul without a king,” which Walford says was paraphrased from Leonard Cohen’s “Heart With No Companion,” which references “the soul without a king.” And the following line, “he could not dance to anything,” riffs on a slightly later line in Cohen’s song: “For the prima ballerina/Who could not dance to anything.” 

The song’s title, meanwhile, is an anagram for none other than Madonna. “She was introduced to me by my girlfriend,” Walford says. “I was listening to Madonna a whole lot, the record Like a Prayer, before we recorded Spiderland. … It was sort of an influence, to listen to something that produced, as opposed to lower-fi stuff.”

Spiderland itself wasn’t particularly “produced,” but the album’s roomy, majestic sound was a major departure from the willfully crude and abrasive feel of Tweez. That was thanks to engineer Brian Paulson, who had recorded Slint’s Louisville friends Bastro (and who would later work with Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Dinosaur Jr., and many others), and whom they chose, according to McMahan, for his “documentarian” approach.

“Paulson’s recordings just [bore] less of the hand of the creator,” McMahan explains of why they chose to record Spiderland with him rather than reunite with Albini. “It seemed like Steve’s aesthetic and his use of mics and various techniques and room sound, they were becoming so trademark. At that point he was transitioning from just being a productive musician and artist in the studio to lending his sound to other artists, and he did that with much joy and gratitude from us with Tweez. And it just seemed like Paulson, I don’t think that he had much invested in, ‘It should sound like this.’ It was more just like, [flatly] ‘Here are the sounds they are making; I am recording them.’”

According to Scott Tennent’s Spiderland book, the Touch and Go budget could only cover nighttime rates for Chicago’s River North Recorders, a commercial jingle studio where McMahan had interned. So they had to both track and mix the album after hours on two consecutive weekends, starting in August 1990.

slint spiderland

The sessions were hardly relaxed. The band actually tracked eight songs on the first weekend, ultimately choosing to leave off the fast, choppy rocker “Pam” and a new version of “Glenn” from the ’89 Albini sessions (which came out in 1994 on an untitled 10-inch). The late addition of “Don, Aman” compounded the time crunch.

“It was a total surprise to all of us,” Pajo says of the song. “It was so inappropriate to be like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re under this huge time constraint — we have from Friday night to Monday morning to make an album for our dream label. Also, I have this song no one’s ever heard that I’d like to record right now.’ … But I’m so glad that he did it. I’m so glad that’s on the record.”

McMahan’s vocal tracking for the album was also particularly fraught.

“He’s never wanted to be the front-guy or the singer, even though I think he did an amazing job,” Brashear says. “So it was all very stressful for him, and kind of painful to watch because he was so stressed out about it. I mostly just remember being glad for him when he got done.”

Pajo recalls watching McMahan lay down vocals for “Good Morning, Captain”: “It was nearing the end of the recording and it was way super late. I thought he was having beers, maybe just to settle his nerves or something. But I guess he got pretty fucked up, and at one point I thought he got sick. I know he had all the lights turned off in the recording part of the room. So basically we would look through the glass from the control room to a blank — we couldn’t see him at all. We just could just hear his voice in the control room.”

McMahan’s recollection of the moment is hazier. He says he’s not sure whether not he got sick after tracking “Captain,” and that it “might have been not only beer” that he turned to that night as he prepared to record “the crybaby part.” “I honestly can’t remember, but I definitely needed some loosening up for sure,” he adds. 

He also threw in one final touch, only hinted at in the song’s demo version: a mesmerizing collage of overlapping verses that precedes the “I miss you” payoff (“I’m torn … I’ll make it up to you …”) and plays up the narrator’s distraught headspace. “It’s hard with really limited vocal power and skills to try and orchestrate some sort of tension, and that was something I was like, [eagerly] I can do this! … [Neil Young’s] ‘Will to Love’, there’s some really trippy, eerie, ethereal moments that have some sort of vibe  — I was definitely listening to that stuff.”

In light of all the stress surrounding the vocals, McMahan says that “For Dinner…,” the album’s shortest track and lone instrumental, provided a refreshing change of pace in the studio.

“For me, it seemed like ‘For Dinner…’ was going to be important for breathing space, especially for us not to have to worry about any sort of vocal duties, but also just to kind of bring it home in terms of focusing on the music as we would experience it most commonly, which would be instrumental,” McMahan says. “Similar to ‘Don, Aman,’ having it be somewhat fresh in terms of the group performing it, I think that was important for the experience of making the record, so there’s a little bit of a sense of wonder.”

Of the title, McMahan says, “I think it was a vague literary reference, like, you know, ‘ruminate’ or ‘reflect’ or ‘take that home for supper.’” 

“For Dinner…” is Pajo’s favorite song on the record, and one that he feels plays a crucial role in Spiderland’s overall blend. “You can’t just have catharsis and you can’t just have the emotional part of it,” the guitarist says. “You need a song like ‘Nosferatu Man,’ which is a rocker, and you need a song like ‘For Dinner…,’ which is basically like a one-note drone. 

“For a six-song album,” he adds, “it does seem like it’s a world of its own.”

After leaving the studio, the band began gearing up for a tour in support of the album, which would have included their first visit to Europe. Brashear remembers being in a positive frame of mind. “At the time, I was like, ‘Let’s conquer the world,’” he says. “And I don’t mean that in a monetary sense. I really believed in what we were doing, and I knew it was something different. When we were supposed to tour Europe, I was like, ‘I’m ready to kick some ass.’”

That optimism extended to the album’s cover, shot at a lake in a limestone quarry in Utica, Indiana, just across the Ohio River from Louisville. As Pajo explains, this was a frequent hangout spot for the band members. “The quarry was a place we also went to with our girlfriends sometimes; skinny-dipping would happen there,” he says. “But usually it was just, like, you’d bring some alcohol and hang out with your friends and bring a jam box and just listen to music and swim.”

McMahan doesn’t recall too much forethought going into the cover shoot. The band members were simply making the rounds of some of their favorite local haunts, having deputized Will Oldham — who was briefly considered for Slint membership in their earliest days — as band photographer. “He was the only person our age we knew that had a camera and knew how to use it, if you can imagine that,” McMahan says with a laugh. 

They made their way to the quarry, and the four band members decided to take a dip. “Will’s taking shots from the bank, and all of a sudden we hear a splash,” McMahan says, “and it’s like, ‘What in the world?! Will is in the water with us!’” 

“I don’t know if it’s ever been said why we’re smiling and laughing [in the photo],” Pajo says. “But it’s because when we jumped into the water, you couldn’t touch the bottom — it was deep enough that you had to tread water. And Will jumped in with his manual-focus camera, so he was trying to tread water and focus to take a picture, and that’s why we’re all laughing, because he was sinking down — it was just really funny and awkward.” 

The band shot a lot of band photos around this time, but when McMahan looked through the options, and saw the now-famous cover image, he knew he’d found the music’s perfect visual counterpart.

“That moment of just joy and, like, ‘What is happening?!,’ just everyone truly in the moment, seeing that on the contact sheets when we got the film developed, it was like, ‘Oh, man — this is not really like the cover of Highway to Hell, but it’s kind of like our version of the cover of Highway to Hell.”  

“The Spiderland cover is not really like the cover of Highway to Hell, but it’s kind of like our version of the cover of Highway to Hell.” —Brian McMahan  

It was Brashear’s idea to  “letterbox” the black-and-white image, making it seem almost like a still from an old home movie.

“I think I proposed that, because — I mean, I love the album, but I also just think it’s one of the most rock & roll album covers of all time — is the Flamin’ Groovies’ Teenage Head,” Brashear says. “That has the black bars at the top and the bottom also, and it doesn’t say their name, or anything.”

Slint also chose to leave their name and the album’s title off the actual front cover. “We made it a sticker because, as part of the layout, it just seemed like it was commercializing this moment that was pretty pure,” Pajo says.

The origins of the Spiderland title are more shadowy. Walford says he remembers the word stemming from the quarry itself.

“It has something to do with that, I believe, because the quarry was very strange. It had all these spiders,” Walford says. “Like, there was a certain kind of spider that was just nesting or making webs all over the ground — the ground was sort of uneven rocks and sandy soil. So, yeah, at certain times of year there would be these spiders that were just everywhere.”

According to Pajo, it was Michael McMahan — who shot the priceless home-movie footage of the band’s practices that appears in Breadcrumb Trail, and would join the Slint live lineup for their reunion tours — who first suggested the title. Brian himself isn’t sure, but he says he can see parallels between the title and the music. 

“You could draw a comparison in terms of [a] methodical, spinning-the-web sort of analogy,” he says. “And there’s something kind of seductive and really earthy about Britt’s playing, but in his character he is a very methodical, very deliberate person. And a similar thing would go for Dave — I think there would be a very direct way you could evoke the image of a spider in the way he writes and the way he plays, the way he articulates lines on the guitar.”

Along with a photo of an actual wolf spider — captured, McMahan says, at the home of his then-girlfriend by the photographer, band friend Noel Saltzman — the call for “interested female vocalists” rounded out the album’s layout. McMahan admits that the idea of trying out new singers from other locales might not have made much practical sense, but says that at the time, he and Walford took the idea seriously. 

“It was totally legit,” McMahan says of the request, which eventually yielded a letter — too late, as it turns out — from PJ Harvey, among many other hopefuls. “When we were workshopping the material for Spiderland … we were like, ‘Ah, man this whole vocal thing, it’s really a big chore.’”

“I didn’t agree with that idea,” Brashear says. “Like, ‘I’m a fan of what [Brian’s] doing. Why does he feel like it’s no good?’ But I don’t remember fighting to have it taken off of there.”

The point turned out to be moot. In December of 1990, just weeks after the band played its final show at an Evanston house party, McMahan sat his bandmates down at rehearsal and told them, in roundabout fashion, that he was done.

“It was so convoluted that we weren’t even sure if he quit,” Pajo recalls of McMahan’s explanation. “It was Todd that had to be like, ‘Man, he just quit the band.’ … It wasn’t like, ‘I am leaving the band and I can’t do this anymore.’ He was [saying] that he was concerned about his future and what he was going to do for money and what if he gets married or has kids, and it was all this stuff that at that age, none of us thought about. We were still living with our parents. The idea of real-life maturity was so alien and far away, so it was just a really strange conversation.”


“My life, so much of it was just playing music with those guys,” says Britt Walford, far left, looking back on the ‘Spiderland’ era. (Photo: Will Oldham)

But for McMahan, Spiderland’s poetic loss-of-innocence themes had given way to actual concern about his future. 

“I think there was probably some fatigue from just the amount of focus that we put into preparing all the material and getting it recorded,” McMahan says. “And thankfully the recording process was not very laborious; it was super fast. But on the other hand, this was our 20-year-old-dude masterpiece and no one knew about it. We didn’t play out; no one cared. …

“And we were all working, parents [saying], [mock-sternly], ‘Are you going to go back to college? What are you doing with your lives?,’” he continues. “I think it was just general youthful ambition, and then disillusionment kind of set in, from my perspective: ‘What are our chances of making any money off this?’ Playing in Britt’s parents’ basement was not a super sexy proposition.”

The band had started writing more material, but McMahan says it just didn’t feel the same.

“We’re all creative people and it took a lot of focus just to do what little we did, just [to] keep ourselves applied to that task, and without reinforcement it was just kind of like, [wearily] ‘Well, we could set at it again and see what comes next,’” he explains. “And we did start into that. But it was just kind of underwhelming, what we had to look forward to at that point.”

“I wasn’t surprised when he quit, to tell you the truth,” Brashear says, “because I thought about doing it myself a few times. … It was pretty intense, but that probably comes out in the music. Like, if it was all just a nice fun time, I doubt [Spiderland] would sound like that.”

The dissolution of the band hit Walford especially hard.

“I just didn’t know how to deal with it,” he says. “My life, so much of it was just playing music with those guys. It was just a major, major thing that happened.”

Slint itself was no more, but upon its release, their swan song started to find an audience. Their old friend Steve Albini penned a prescient “ten fucking star” rave in Melody Maker. “In its best state, rock music invigorates me, changes my mood, triggers introspection or envelopes me with sheer sound,” he wrote. “Spiderland does all those things, simultaneously and in turns, more than any records I can think of in five years. … In 10 years it will be a landmark and you’ll have to scramble to buy a copy then. Beat the rush.”

Further into the Nineties, Bush’s Gavin Rossdale would name Spiderland as his favorite album, and “Good Morning, Captain,” would land on the soundtrack to director Larry Clark’s infamous Kids. Meanwhile, the members of Slint worked on various Will Oldham projects and with original bassist Ethan Buckler in the goofy, groovy King Kong. Pajo joined trailblazing Chicago instrumental outfit Tortoise and released his own elegant instrumentals under the names Aerial M and Papa M. McMahan formed a new band called the For Carnation, whose placid yet vaguely sinister soundworld seemed to pick up where Spiderland left off. 

And in 2005, Slint itself — sans Brashear, who was raising a young family and running his own business — launched the first of several reunion tours, which stretched through 2014 and took them all over the U.S. and Europe. (Michael McMahan, on guitar, and fill-in bassists Matt Jencik and Todd Cook rounded out the live lineup.) On a run of 2007 shows, the band played Spiderland live in its entirety.

McMahan was initially skeptical about the reunion, but the rapturous reception the band received — such as at one memorable Rome show in 2007, where, Pajo says, “Brian couldn’t even sing ‘Washer’ because the audience was singing louder” — shifted his thinking.

“I was the last person on board to do the reunion things, and I pretty quickly realized, like, ‘Oh, wow, no joke, people really want to hear this stuff,’” McMahan says. “So I definitely warmed up to it. I do remember a show in Rome where the sad-songs vibe [was] being fully embraced in this way that — I mean, every Slint show from back in the day that I can remember, it was just people side-eye looking at us, like, [mock-disgusted] ‘What are these guys doing?’ And it was a really different experience playing ‘Washer’ [in Rome].”

Slint haven’t played together since 2014, but they’re all still close. Brashear, who’s happily retired from music these days, says that a recent email thread about band business devolved into casual banter about how Taco Bell was discontinuing its beloved Mexican Pizza. “We all started giving all these Taco Bell memories about what we used to eat there,” Brashear says. “So by the end of it, all four of us, plus Corey from Touch and Go, we had a Zoom meeting where we all just sat there and ate Taco Bell together. And I was like, ‘You know what? This is kind of beautiful.’”

New Slint music is still an open question. The band members did toss around some riffs and fragments during their reunions, and in 2007, they performed “King’s Approach,” an unreleased song they’d begun when they briefly reconvened in private in 1994. Pajo — who, with a suicide attempt and debilitating motorcycle accident in his fairly recent past, says he’s feeling better than he has in years — keeps busy with Papa M and the recently formed Household Gods. He calls himself “Slint’s biggest fan” and loves combing through the many Spiderland cover memes that have cropped up over the years, including a memorable Sopranos-themed one. In his mind, the only impediments to writing and recording with McMahan and Walford again are logistical.

“I don’t know if it would be under the name Slint, or what, but I feel like we would be making music if we all lived in the same town and it was convenient,” Pajo says. “It’s just not as easy as it was when we were teenagers. But Britt’s still the ideal drummer, and Brian’s still the ideal bandmate and collaborator, and Todd as well. I feel like none of that’s changed.”

“I don’t see any reason why the book would need to be closed on it,” McMahan says of the possibility of further Slint collaboration. He goes on to stress that the isolation of the pandemic makes the idea seem all the more enticing. “I will say right now, just being able to hang out with those guys in a room and noodle around and play some music would be a blast,” he says.

Walford has an extensive musical CV — in the Nineties, he played with the band Evergreen and jammed with local blues musicians, and more recently, he’s worked with Kim Deal and atmospheric instrumental rockers Watter. But in terms of a band where he’s had a full creative stake, he says he hasn’t found anything that’s felt as fulfilling as Slint. “I just have really struggled with figuring out a different way to make music,” he says when asked if he’d be open to making new music with the band. “So I’ve always sort of thought about that.”

At the same time, none of the members have any expectation of, or interest in, revisiting the territory they mapped out on their “20-year-old-dude masterpiece.”

“I feel like none of us are ever going to make a record like that again,” Pajo says. “It’s one of those things where the magic just happened and we can never recreate it.”

McMahan clearly appreciates the continued interest in Spiderland, but he says he doesn’t spend much time mulling what’s kept so many listeners coming back to it for three decades and counting. “What is it about any record that you come back to? Sometimes you get lucky,” he says with a laugh. 

Then he adds, “And in the most modest sense possible, I think we got lucky on multiple levels.”

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