From the back cover…
“Of all the seminal albums to come out in 1991—the year of Nevermind, Loveless, Ten, and Out of Time, among others—none were quieter, both in volume and influence, than Spiderland, and no band more mysterious than Slint. Few single albums can lay claim to sparking an entire genre, but Spiderland—all six songs of it—laid the foundation for post rock in the 1990s. Yet for so much obvious influence, both the band and the album remain something of a puzzle.
This thoroughly researched book is the first substantive attempt to break through some of the mystery surrounding Spiderland and the band that made it. Scott Tennent has written a long overdue look at this remarkable album and its origins, delving into the small, insular musical universe that included bands like Squirrel Bait, Maurice, Bitch Magnet, and Bastro. The story, helped by in-depth interviews with band members David Pajo and Todd Brashear, explores the formation of Slint, the recording of Tweez, and the band’s dramatic move into the sound of Spiderland.”
A little taste of what’s inside from Scott Tennent…
The accepted story of Slint’s origin winds back to Squirrel Bait and usually ends there, as if the notion that Brian McMahan and Britt Walford shared the stage with fellow godfather of post-rock David Grubbs was too mythic to contest. But to trace a straight line from one band to the other is to overstate the significance of Squirrel Bait at the expense of the intertwining relationships and lesser-known bands shared by each of the young men who ultimately created Spiderland. Squirrel Bait is but one thread among many.
It’s certainly not the first thread. To pick that up you’d need to travel back to J. Graham Brown Elementary School, Grade 6, 1981. Founded ten years earlier, the Brown School was (and is) notable for its open, unstructured learning environment. The arts were heavily emphasized and each student’s curriculum was individually molded based on their unique aptitude, interests, and self-discipline. “I think [Brown] was pretty significant for all of us,” Brian McMahan told Alternative Press in 2005 — “all of us” being he and his classmates, Britt Walford and Will Oldham. “I don’t think I would’ve been so involved in music or writing if I hadn’t gone there,” he said. Just eleven and twelve, respectively, McMahan and Walford had already picked up instruments; Oldham was musically inept, but his older brother Ned, an eighth-grader, played bass. So Brian, Britt, and Ned, along with friends Stephanie Karta and Paul Catlett, started a band. They were called the Languid and Flaccid, and were an “art/noise band,” according to Clark Johnson, then a high school freshman who saw some of the band’s shows. “They were just little kids,” Johnson recalled in a 1986 interview in a small Xeroxed zine called the Pope. “They had songs like ‘White Castles’ and ‘Fire Engine,’ then they also had songs like ‘K Song,’ ‘L Song,’ ‘M Song,’ ‘N Song,’ etc. Their best song was called ‘Big Pussy,’ and it was so good. Brian sings on it way before his voice changes . . . Yeah, Languid and Flaccid were great.” Sean Garrison, a young Louisville punk, was also a fan. “Languid and Flaccid were a very garage-y band,” he told me. “Very clever . . . slightly smart-assed. It was just amazing hearing these guys. Man, they could play.”
Most tween bands tend not to justify their place in the annals of indie rock history, if only because they seldom make it off of the playground and onto a bona fide stage. But the Languid and Flaccid played out, holding their own against the other, older bands in the scene like Your Food, Malignant Growth, and the Endtables. All-ages venues at the time were scarce, so the Languid and Flaccid would get on Sunday matinee bills at a dingy downtown dive called the Beat Club. Garrison, known around town as Rat, first caught them at a Beat matinee. He was fairly new to the scene; he’d gotten involved because his friend, Brett Ralph, had recently become the new singer for Malignant Growth, arguably the biggest punk band in town. Just fourteen himself, Garrison became immediately compelled to check out this band of twelve-year-olds who had a set’s worth of all original music. So he made his way to the Beat Club to see the Languid and Flaccid open for Your Food on Halloween 1982.
“There was this little seedy pocket in Louisville then,” he told me. “The Beat Club was next to a really scary strip club — you couldn’t get seedier than this — called the Penguin. It was serious.” The Languid and Flaccid boys would get dropped off by their parents, who would help them load their equipment into the dank and dirty club populated by the intimidating punks who were part of the Louisville scene. “The guys that were in bands back then, some of them were really scary. Really scary. And some of them got scarier. But those kids could hang. It was very, very impressive, at least to me. It blew my mind.”
It was on the exact same day — Halloween 1982 — that Clark Johnson and his childhood friend David Grubbs kicked around the idea of starting their own band. The two sophomores were loafing around listening to records when Grubbs piped up out of nowhere, “Why don’t you play bass?” So Johnson picked it up. The two didn’t actually start practicing until December; they had to wait for their drummer, a friend named Rich Schuler, to come home from his first semester at University of Cincinnati, and Johnson didn’t own his own equipment until the following year. It wasn’t serious anyway: they named the group Squirrelbait Youth, in simultaneous emulation and parody of the DC hardcore scene, not to mention the local bands who were aping the anti-authoritarian rage with all the suburban naïveté they could muster. “Our first song was ‘Tylenol Scare,’ right after the Tylenol thing. And ‘That Badge Means You Suck,’ things like that,” Johnson told the Pope. Most of the energy put into Squirrelbait Youth was in concept — it was more of an inside joke between Johnson and Grubbs, mocking the local punk scene. Besides, Grubbs was in a more serious band at the time, a new wave group called the Happy Cadavers. They had just self-released their debut 7”, With Illustrations. “Grubbs was not taking [Squirrelbait Youth] seriously at all and not putting any time into it,” said Johnson. But the Happy Cadavers soon dissolved, and Johnson pressed Grubbs into putting more stock into their venture. “We dropped the ‘Youth,’ and I bought a bass.” It was impossible to be more serious, though, when their drummer could only practice on spring break and winter and summer vacation. They needed to find a replacement.
By late 1982 the Languid and Flaccid had already been around for more than a year, and Walford, McMahan, and Oldham were growing up and growing restless. They wanted to make music that was louder, faster, more aggressive. So they started a second band which they dubbed Maurice. Rat, who had become utterly enamored with the Languid and Flaccid, saw an opportunity to ingratiate himself into the new act. “I just kind of pushed my way in. They didn’t need [a frontman], I just insisted they did. I was like, ‘Man, I’m doing it.’”
If their intent was to create a more aggressive band, then the addition of Rat was a coup. “My level of rage was so much higher than theirs, it must have seemed comical. Just like their lack of rage sometimes seemed comical to me,” Garrison recalled. “Back then I didn’t realize that the angst or the fury I had, it definitely wasn’t teen angst. I was way beyond that.”
Indeed, Rat’s background could not have been more different from that of his bandmates. Walford, McMahan, and Oldham all grew up on Louisville’s East End, a middle-class and upper-middle-class part of town filled with tree-lined streets and well-kept lawns. As evidenced by the boys’ enrollment in the Brown School, their parents viewed their children’s potential as unlimited. They encouraged their kids to learn music, literature, and art. None of this described Rat’s childhood. Louisville’s South End was a more working-class, blue-collar part of town — and Rat lived south of there, in Pleasure Ridge Park, twenty miles beyond what was then the city limits. His father was an ex-marine who worked at the local ironworks. “I come from a family where if you didn’t have a dangerous job and you didn’t bust your ass, then you were a pussy.” The danger of daily life was no exaggeration — Garrison’s father, like his grandfather, died on the job. Garrison launched himself out of his home and out of his neighborhood like a juggernaut, plowing his way into the Louisville punk scene. He landed in Maurice, where his shrieking caterwaul both compelled and alienated audiences — and his bandmates.