For Louisville bands in the ’90s, Slint was in the water

Slint Spiderland

Louisville’s LEO Weekly entertainment paper recently invited me to share some of my memories about Slint’s Spiderland album for their special issue commemorating the year 1991. Because there were so many other great contributors, they were only able to publish a segment of what I wrote. Here is all of it.

Scott Ritcher

In the Louisville years before Spiderland, Slint’s first album Tweez had been bizarre and captivating. As much as Spiderland has since become the sensation that it has, Tweez had already established something serious about the band. My friends and I were in Louisville bands, but not like Slint. They were mysterious and had powers the rest of us didn’t. 

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, groups like my band Sunspring were still playing odd brands of punk rock and just beginning to experiment with dissonance and uncommon time signatures. Slint was showing us how much could actually be done. They were making the move from the chaos of punk to something that combined art, forethought and control. It seemed so educated. They weren’t going in a new direction, they were taking a big step up. Appropriately, since they were a couple years older, it seemed like they were graduating. 

On Tweez, Slint made orchestral moments out of waves of guitar feedback that seemed to bend together and stop in unison. When we saw the band perform live a couple times around town, they demonstrated this, as drummer Britt Walford commanded the band’s noise, silence and movements with motions in the air, as a conductor would. 

The band found entirely new uses for guitar harmonics and, in contrast to their Louisville contemporaries, they dared to sometimes play as quietly as they could. It wasn’t long before we were all stealing these new colors off their palette.

Nobody expects the unexpected

The group of people I hung out with and made music with, in retrospect, we were goofballs. We were spending a little too much time trying to “unite the scene” – and making fun of the demo tapes that got sent to my label – to really focus on the craft of songwriting. So it makes sense that we had a hard time whenever we tried to talk with the guys in Slint. They were the esteemed older scene and we were Beavis. We could say hello to them or speak briefly at a show, but the guys in Slint seemed to have their own language. Both verbally and musically, they didn’t communicate like other people.

With that in mind, the surprise was compounded when Spiderland came out. We all expected it to be amazing, but perhaps also anticipated it to be a sequel; a continuation of the magnificent, dynamic noise that wowed us on Tweez.

Instead, they came out with a small set of fairly long songs that was otherworldly, yet so crisp, and presented as if they were simple and obvious.

I remember listening to Spiderland for the first time the week it was released. My friends Joey Mudd, Breck Pipes and I were hanging out a lot, and I remember us listening to it as our eyes opened wide. We talked about it a lot. Something was happening.

Several times in my life, I have found myself flabbergasted by new records that simply didn’t sound like music to me. Whether it was the first time I heard “Kiss” by Prince (a sonic affront to the production and required set of instruments that should be on a hit record) or the Cardigans album Gran Turismo (a stark, minimalist pop record without a single grain of reverb or studio polish), it has inevitably been these alien recordings that end up becoming my favorites. And so it was with Slint’s second record.

What are they doing?

What was most shocking to us when we were first met with Spiderland was the emotion. We thought of these guys as brilliant technicians, yet here they were unabashedly exposing a raw, fragile vulnerability. Our music was about emotion, we thought, but just as Slint had previously shown us how much more was possible musically and sonically, now they were showing us colors we could paint with lyrically and emotionally. Our music was marked with heartbreak, criticism, excitement and outbursts, but now along comes thoughtfulness, storytelling and sensitivity.

I’m certain we didn’t realize all this at the time. Some of it struck us as comical at first, but once we got over the shock of it, we fell hard and its mark had a very long tail.

In contrast to Tweez, Slint became acclaimed and revered for a whole different set of things they did on Spiderland: songs that are urgent and uneasy, yet methodical; lyrical performances that exhibit a bare, undefended innocence; rhythm patterns you’ve never heard before, but quickly tap your foot with; control over the guitar that can finesse it from being delicate and barely audible to the teapot squeal of a hole in a dam that won’t burst.

As Slint stepped away, plenty of bands formed in Louisville in the ’90s, all picking up valuable pieces of what they had put down. You can hear, just by listening to the bands during the subsequent years – Rodan, Crain, The Telephone Man, Metroschifter, June of 44, Eleven Eleven, et al – Slint was clearly in the air we were breathing.

Like many, I selfishly wanted to hear their third and fourth albums. I wanted to see where that trajectory into the unknown was headed. I wanted my eyes to be opened again to things I didn’t know could be done.

But when you think like that, it becomes so easy to overlook the fact that the members of the band didn’t stop making great records in 1991. I hope that’s not lost when taking note of this anniversary. There is so much to talk about in the exploration they have done since, both individually and in collaboration with other artists.

They gave us something really special with Spiderland, and hopefully it will continue being the gateway that leads listeners to find everything else they do.