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Interview with Author Scott Tennent – 33 1/3: Spiderland

Music journalist Scott Tennent has authored the latest installment in the long-running and excellent book series 33 1/3, which dives deep into the most seminal long players ever released. Slint‘s Spiderland finally receives its due thanks to Tennent, and considering how little is known about the history and making of  the album, this book all but guarantees-or-your-money-back that new shit will come to light. It wasn’t even until 2009 that anyone explored the infamous address listed in the album’s liner notes (and yes, that was me).

The book just hit shelves this week at your local book retailer and on Continuum Books’ store. In lieu of its release, Scott was nice enough to sit down with me (and by sit down, I was sitting down typing questions to him over email, and I assume he was sitting when he responded) to talk about how he got involved with the book, what he learned, and the science this multi-faceted retrospective book shall drop.

From 33 1/3:
“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.”

KB: First, care to start with your biography?

ST: Sure – I write the blog Pretty Goes with Pretty, which I’ve been doing for about four or five years now. In my non-internet life I’m a writer and editor at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where I’ve been since 2006. Prior to LACMA my wife and I lived in New York, where I was a book editor at Princeton Architectural Press. One of the last books I worked on there was Mingering Mike—a must-have for record nerds everywhere!

Back in another life, about 10 or 11 years ago, I also ran a little punk rock, all-ages club/art gallery in downtown Phoenix, AZ, called Modified. Lots of bands that are fairly huge now played in my little 150-capacity space. I still remember My Morning Jacket playing to about 40 people on their Tennessee Fire tour, and Jim James played “I Will Be There When You Die” in the middle of the room with no microphone. Transcendent. Then they stayed at my house and one of them left their purple underwear behind in my bathroom, along with a note of thanks signed “My Morning Crack Hit.” Modified lived on well after I left; I believe it still exists though I’m not sure how much live music it does anymore.

KB: How did you get involved with the 33 1/3 series?

ST: Like most of the other authors in the series, I got the gig following an open call for submissions. They got something like 500 or 600 submissions in their last call—including, I think, seven different proposals for Spiderland. It took them a few months to whittle down their list, and I was very fortunate to learn that mine was one of the proposals they accepted.

KB: Out of all the hundreds of, what we’ll call, “bar-raising” albums, why Spiderland?

ST: Spiderland has always held a really significant place in my life as a music fan. I was a teenage metalhead all the way up through my senior year of high school—this is 1994 or so—and I stumbled across Spiderland somewhat randomly. It completely “changed my ears,” as a friend of mine likes to say. To this day, everything I’ve heard after Spiderland has had to, in some way, measure up to my experience of being knocked out by that record.

On a less personal level, I also felt that Spiderland and Slint in general are very mysterious. As important of an album as it is, even a lot of diehard fans seem to know very little about its making, and the stories people do know are often half-truths at best. There’s a story behind every significant album, and I felt like Slint’s story hadn’t been properly told.

KB: While Spiderland is almost universally regarded as the impetus of “post rock,” as it were, there were bands at the exact same time across the globe that, arguably, also begot the genre, such as UK acts Talk Talk and Seefeel. Why is that album cited as the genre’s origin? What was it about that time in the early ’90s that created this sound?

ST: Honestly I don’t really know why the tag stuck to Slint and not, say, Seefeel, who really do embody what I think the phrase was intended to mean—bands using rock instrumentation to make non-rock music. Closer to home, Tortoise or Gastr del Sol both seem more “post-rock” than Slint or the bands Slint influenced. Slint was still a rock band at the end of the day, they were just more restrained.

Whatever it’s called, I think Slint were tapping into a trend in American indie/punk at the time which was a reaction against the more masculine, dirty, rugged rock of bands like the Jesus Lizard or Killdozer or Big Black. Tweez-era Slint fit on bills with these bands, but they evolved into something colder and quieter; and there’s pretty much zero openings for a macho/maniacal front man to spit and swagger in their music. Early on, before they were officially Slint, they actually had a macho/maniacal front man, and that’s exactly why he left the group. Getting quieter, playing longer songs, and showing off a high level of musicianship was basically their answer to the sloppy and abrasive punk of the late 80s. In a weird, inverse way, it was their way of being ballsy. Bands like Bitch Magnet and Galaxie 500 and Codeine were also making music in similar contexts.

KB: To get a feel of the Slint members’ lives in the late ’80s and early ’90s, did you get the chance to visit the locales within Louisville and Chicago that may have influenced the music, both those still standing and not? What did you learn, and how did these places shape the alien sound found on Spiderland?

ST: Yes, I was in Louisville last year, Halloween weekend, and basically went on a mini-Slint tour. I didn’t make it to the house you stalked, but I did get to the quarry where the album cover was shot, which was an amazing experience. I halfway expected the quarry to exist in black and white; I was sort of shocked to enter the quarry and see all the trees and the blue water. It was like being in the Wizard of Oz.

KB: What were the most surprising things you learned through your research and interviews?

ST: You know, I don’t even know where to start with that question. There was all manner of trivia and anecdotes that surprised me on one level or another. Some of the most fascinating stuff for me was the pre-Slint history. Very, very early on, back when I was still just formulating a pitch to send to [the publisher] Continuum, I came to the realization of just how important Maurice was to Slint’s story. Being from Louisville, you probably already have some awareness of them, but I think people outside of Kentucky don’t really grasp who Maurice were or how they factor into the story. Maurice was a metal band that existed concurrently with Squirrel Bait, and featured Britt Walford and David Pajo, along with Sean Garrison and Mike Bucayu, both of whom went on to form the band Kinghorse—another legendary Louisville band. A lot of Slint fans have really elevated Squirrel Bait as being a kind of incubator for Slint and it’s really not the case. Slint grew directly out of Maurice. That’s a broad answer to your question; there were also a number of smaller details, on a super nerdy level, that surprised me too. Lots of those kinds of details are in the book.

KB: I know that often when I follow someone, for lack of a better word, “legendary” on Twitter, or I meet someone in real life, a lot of the mystique is gone. Is Slint still as mysterious to you after writing the book, or did the mystique turn into something else?

ST: I guess you could say it turned into something else. The fascinating thing about Spiderland, to me, is how it casts this long shadow backward over their history. Since Slint broke up before Spiderland came out, and only two guys really continued to seriously make music—now we’re basically down to just Pajo—you’re sort of forced to look backward and dig up everything you can about what led to Spiderland. Pajo aside, they don’t have these long careers with deep catalogues. And because everything pre-Spiderland is so… not Spiderland, the album just becomes all the more magical. Who were these guys? What were they thinking? How did they get to that sound? How did they capture such a profound album on tape? Well, now I’ve answered those questions about as best as I think I can… and in many ways the answers make me marvel just as much as the questions.

KB: While the book focuses a lot on the history and tangential events before and during Slint, did you have an opportunity to dive into the web of post-Slint projects, such as Papa M, The For Carnation, and King Kong? Why, from either your research or personal opinion, were those projects so vastly different from the groundwork they laid as Slint?

ST: I do get into this a little bit in the book, in my discussion of the instrumental, “For Dinner…” The gestation period for Spiderland was really long; they were writing and honing most of those songs over a two-year period. But “For Dinner…” was the last song they wrote as a band. It seems to point in the direction both Pajo and McMahan would later go, which is much less dependent on the quiet/loud dynamic and heavier on atmosphere and repetition. I feel like even if Slint had stayed together in some alternate universe, they never would have made another record like Spiderland. Whatever came after would have been totally different.

Speaking of the For Carnation, however, I did return to their catalogue after many years away from it. I think when the 2000 self-titled album first came out my head was somewhere else and it just didn’t stick to me at all. But in listening to it over the last year or two, it has really affected me. I think that record is a masterpiece and deserves a serious reappraisal.

KB: Being fan-boy here, I remember reading a legend that PJ Harvey answered the call for a “wanted female vocalist” from Spiderland’s liner notes. To your knowledge, did the guys ever receive that letter?

ST: I have not seen the letter, but I was told by the band that it does exist, and that it’s stashed in a box in one of the guys’ garages. I tried to get a copy or a transcript of the letter but they wouldn’t give it up; they felt like that would be a betrayal of PJ’s trust, which I can appreciate.

KB: As an outsider, what’s your general impression of Louisville’s music scene, past and present?

ST: The Louisville scene I know best is the one from the 90s. I was a kid growing up Fresno, California, with no real understanding of the indie rock world. Once I bought Spiderland in 94, I gobbled up everything I could—Bastro, Rodan, Crain, Palace Brothers, Gastr del Sol, Rachel’s, Retsin, Sonora Pine… all that stuff. Growing up in a town that didn’t really have a huge scene, I think I really responded to the sense of community I saw from afar in the Louisville scene at that time—all these friends working and playing together, each supporting each other’s projects.

I had also been a big fan of Kinghorse back in my metalhead days, though at the time I didn’t realize they were from Louisville. My high school band covered Kinghorse’s “Lay Down and Die” at a talent show once—our very first show ever. So on that level it was really cool to have met and talked to Sean Garrison about Maurice.

In preparing to write this book I did a lot of research into the early punk scene in Louisville, with a lot of help from the website Louisville Hardcore. I read a lot about these bands without hearing them and assumed there was a little glorifying going on as far as locals remembering how great these bands were. Then when I was in Louisville I picked up the Bold Beginnings compilation at Ear-X-tacy and was pleasantly surprised to hear how truly great a lot of it was. The Endtables reissue that came out this year is also terrific. It’s amazing to think of how vibrant and high-quality the punk scene in Louisville was as far back as the late 70s and early 80s.

The House That Slint Built (Perhaps)
[Photos + Video] The For Carnation – Art After Dark @ The Speed Museum, Louisville – 10.23.09

MP3 :::
Slint – Good Morning Captain
Slint – Nosferatu Man (Live in Chicago, March ’89)