With just six songs and a running time under 40 minutes, the 1991 album “Spiderland” by the quartet known as Slint is an unlikely landmark. Yet the record, with its clear ringing guitar sounds stabbed by distortion and snapping, rolling drums, has an unsettling power and air of mystery that has made it deeply influential in the years since. If empty, mist-shrouded parking lots had a native sound, this would likely be it.
The new documentary “Breadcrumb Trail” — also the title of the album’s opening track — pieces together the history of Slint and the recording of the album, but it’s also a consideration of the Louisville scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s from which they sprang and the key dynamic between band members Britt Walford and Brian McMahan.
Directed by documentarian, music video director and "Jackass" affiliate Lance Bangs, the film had its world premiere at L.A.’s Cinefamily last week and wraps up its local run Tuesday night. Created ostensibly for inclusion in the upcoming box set reissue of "Spiderland," the film is making a short circuit of alternative venues around the country, including San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Chicago, Austin, Philadelphia, New York and abroad. Bangs didn’t submit the film to festivals or distributors, and the bookings have come largely through venues reaching out to him.
“In no way is ‘Spiderland’ interchangeable with everything else coming out in the spring of 1991,” said Bangs in a recent interview with The Times. “A completely different world is created by that record, which is singular and lasting. And to me, it’s sort of disingenuous that on occasion some of the members will say, ‘Oh, we were just making music.’
“Their sensibility is genuinely different."
By the time the album was released, the band had broken up. The record did not include the names of the four musicians who played on it — Walford, McMahan, Todd Brashear and David Pajo. There was an address for "interested female vocalists" to which a then-unknown P.J. Harvey apocryphally inquired. The film untangles the band’s back story, a complicated family tree of Louisville bands, and includes unseen early rehearsal footage, a club show in New Jersey from the band’s only tour at that time and even video of a school battle of the bands in which the group spends more time tuning and setting up than it seems to do actually playing songs.
Bangs and band members McMahan, Walford and Pajo were at the first L.A. screenings, which were introduced by Scott Tennent, who wrote a book on Spiderland as part of the 33 1/3 series, published in 2010. For a record whose legacy is built, in part, on its mystery and lack of information in a pre-Internet age — rumors of mental breakdown stoked the album’s legend over the years — explaining what actually happened presents some hazard of damaging its dark perfection.
“I think it still holds the power,” Tennent said in a separate interview. “And I was nervous about that when I was writing. Especially for me. Although I knew Lance was doing his movie, when I was embarking on the book, there was really nothing. So I was kind of worried I was going to break that spell for people. Not only for myself, but everybody else.”
Bangs has been following the story of Slint since the group was active in the early ’90s. “Breadcrumb Trail” opens with footage shot by Bangs back then, when he took a trip to Louisville in hopes of finding band members or seeing them play in other groups. (The film itself spans eras with footage captured on VHS, super-8, 16mm, Hi-8 video, early digital video and more current HD formats.) It was with the group’s first reunion shows in 2005 that Bangs got back into their story. Initial plans to shoot and release a live concert film were scrapped but led to Bangs gaining a foothold within the band.
“It was definitely a major step to get them to answer questions on camera and talk about that time period and reflect on it and open up about things,” said Bangs, adding that many of the interviews with Walford were shot in the middle of the night.
The Q&As following those first screenings presented something of a snapshot of the band’s slippery attitude toward their own legacy, as the elliptical evasions, polite non-answers and general sense of bewilderment coming from the group members was somewhat frustrating for audiences but also made total sense in light of what had just been seen.
“I just haven’t really figured out what to do, I guess,” Walford said to a question regarding his sporadic output in the subsequent years. It then fell to Bangs to mention that Walford does, in fact, have a new project, a trio called Watter, that is releasing an album and playing a show in L.A. in April.
“I don’t think we hit a wall after ‘Spiderland,’ " said Pajo, who has gone on to record and tour with numerous groups, including Stereolab and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Pajo also noted, “I do believe we will never make a record like that [again].”
With a book, an upcoming box set and Bangs’ documentary, the story of Slint and the mysterious web of its “Spiderland” would seem to be fully untangled. It speaks to the album’s strange power that there are still unknowns to be pondered, its odd world of carnival fortune tellers, the anxiety stricken and lost sea captains retaining its disorienting pull.
“The deeper you get into the story, the more shocking it is that ‘Spiderland’ even came into existence," Tennent said. “None of that prepares you for what they did with those six songs.
“It’s so hard to understand or articulate how they did it. And they’re probably the last people that could articulate that. They seem to speak through their music and not through words.”
The trailer for "Breadcrumb Trail" is below:
Follow Mark Olsen on Twitter: @IndieFocus