‘Not musical alchemists on some lofty pedestal, just goofy teenagers with some chops and an ear for an interesting tune’ – MacDara Conroy on Lance Bangs’ Slint documentary Breadcrumb Trail
Slint’s Spiderland is one of those records that just take on a life of their own. Taking the macroscopic view, it emerged in early 1991 from the same bubbling cauldron of subterranean creativity from which Nirvana would spew into the mainstream a few months later. Zooming in closer, beneath the ‘year that punk broke’ bluster, it was embraced in the years after its release as a touchstone for a new way of doing ‘alternative rock’; the holy grail of post-rock, if you will. Closer still, it was a document of a band that awed their contemporaries in a fluid, potent music scene prone to experimentation.
You have to get even closer than that to see what it really was: one weekend in the studio with a bunch of regular guys who enjoyed playing together. Not musical alchemists on some lofty pedestal, just goofy teenagers with some chops and an ear for an interesting tune. There’s ultimately no mystery to it, or even to the fate of the band that dissolved after its making, as Lance Bangs’ documentary Breadcrumb Trail asserts, other than that created by the aura the record’s taken on over the near quarter of a century since its release.
Titled after the first track on Spiderland, Bangs’ film follows the trail of crumbs back to early-’80s Louisville, Kentucky where he finds a story of two inseparable childhood friends, Brian McMahan and Britt Walford. One’s a quiet, bookish sort, the other the wild one always up to mischief. Just regular kids, so – other than the fact they were in a hardcore band sharing bills with Minor Threat before their balls dropped. And were helping invent post-hardcore in Squirrel Bait when barely out of elementary school. Even by the time of Spiderland, via basement practice sessions presciently captured on video, Walford barely looks old enough to be left at home without a babysitter.
Bangs drops little bombs like that throughout a film that actually leaves a lot out the story; there’s not much discussion, for instance, about the band’s friendship with Will Oldham, an actual famous person who’d been in movies and everything and yet couldn’t play more than a couple of chords on his guitar. It also falters somewhat in that Bangs doesn’t really try to pin the guys down on their relationship to that record today. He’s close to them as a friend, so some punches are definitely pulled. (He admitted as much in the post-screening Q&A at the Irish Film Institute on 26 March.)
But there’s a lot that can be read between the lines; it’s impossible to ignore the contrast between Walford’s parents, who beam with pride at their son’s accomplishments, and his own ambivalence about his doings. And as the film is mostly the band members in their own words (Bangs presents the usual ‘talking head, historic clip’ aesthetic, colouring the picture with contributions from the likes of Steve Albini and James Murphy) you can still definitely get a sense of their surprise at how everything turned out, and that they’re maybe as mystified about the whole situation as the rest of us.
Breadcrumb Trail is included in the Spiderland box set from Touch & Go available from 15 April