March 11th, 2014 | Interviews

dave van patten

Lance Bangs knows everybody, so it makes sense that he’d be the one to coax the guys from Slint into on-camera reminiscences and an unashamed ponying-up of tapes in which, way back when, they recorded themselves breathing in and out of their butts. Married to the American music scene and, a bit more literally, to Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker, Bangs has played in bands and directed videos for every big indie outfit in the Western world. He’s also made behind-the-scenes documentaries for filmmakers like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, helmed a lauded Maurice Sendak doc with Jonze, documented HIV treatments in Zambia, and took on director-of-photography video duties for Kanye Himself. Throughout those and dozens of other projects across the years, Bangs has also quietly been putting together a film about Slint, the sound and the mystery having grabbed him early and pulled him toward early 90s Louisville. Over two decades ago, not knowing it was the birth of a feature-length project, he began working to find out who Slint was and why the band disintegrated having played only a handful of shows and just as they were developing an iconic, epochal sound. The final film accordingly includes both his old in-the-moment footage and new nostalgia talk from Steve Albini, natch, but also Britt Walford’s mom and dad. It’s an appropriately thoughtful documentary that unrolls at its own pace while locating previously unknown video and the soul of Slint itself. For fans of the indie mysterions who recorded the classic album Spiderland before they were old enough to drink, who decided not to give interviews about a record that any other band would be hyping as a crucial pivot in a still-early career, Bangs serves up answers—and they come with a side of erotic cakes. This interview by Rin Kelly.

My first question is: do people stop you on the street and say, ‘There’s the puking guy from Jackass!’?
I get that more than I ever anticipated I thought would happen.
I remember being drunk in a bar once and glancing up just as someone changed the channel and revealed you there throwing up. I was kind of Jackass ignorant at the time, but there all were incredibly impressed that I knew the puking guy. Be proud.
Well, thank you.
Your Slint film starts out almost Citizen Kane like, with you journeying from Athens to Louisville repeatedly, in the early 90s, to try to figure out Slint.
In the spring of 1991, I was in a band—I did spoken word with a friend I had gone to high school with. And another Athens band called Bliss asked us to open up for them, so we traveled up from Athens to Asheville, North Carolina, where there was an all-ages thing called Squash Pile. The woman that ran Squash Pile was this really great artist named Patti Torno. It’s a warehouse down in the former train track area of Asheville. It had been flooded a couple of times or so. You’re driving through the southeast at night, you end up in this weird place, and then this music comes on—it just set this weird presence or weight to the room, so we were all asking, ‘Wow! What is this?’ ‘It’s this band called Slint from Louisville, Kentucky, and I wanted to kind of get them to play a show here but they broke up before they put out a record.’ That sort of got me curious: ‘I’ve got to find out more about this band, find their other records, see what they’re up to now.’ When I went back to Athens where there’s a million people who are into music culture there and there were record stores and college radio DJs, but nobody seemed to know anything concrete or real about who the people behind that record, or what they were doing next, or why they’d broken up, or why they put out a record without a name on their cover. Everything just seemed incredibly mysterious. From there I started getting in a car with cameras and driving up to Louisville, trying to chase them down or figure what was going on—how did they make that record or what was behind it? And where were they going, and what were they doing? And as soon as you get to Louisville you’d hear these crazy stories about Britt. ‘You just missed him, he went for a walk and never came back,’ or he disappeared to a cabin in the woods, or they’re in seclusion, or they checked into a sanitarium. You couldn’t tell if people were kind of fucking with you or pulling your leg or if other people just had kind of miscommunicated. It was a sort of Sasquatch-folklore legendry about the people behind it, but it added to the sense of what that record was like.
There’s a similar kind of mystery in the recent Big Star doc—obviously because Alex Chilton didn’t participate. He didn’t want to talk about it. Then he died before they could negotiate. Your movie has that kind of mysteriousness, but the members of Slint are still in the film.
They appear, and they speak, and they represent themselves, which is pretty intense within this subculture of this audience for this movie because there’s an entire book about them that Scott Tennent wrote—that 33 1/3rd story about the record Spiderland, for which neither Britt nor Brian ever spoke to the writer or cooperated in anyway. It’s remarkable that he did such a good job of putting that book together and writing it so well despite their inaccessibility.
So how did you manage to get access when other people hadn’t?
They were slightly aware over the years of my approach to come find them and socialize and get to know them. At that point, I think Britt Walford was totally cognizant. We met and ran into him a bunch of times when he didn’t realize we were coming up from Athens—or semi–hunting him. We’d end up at parties at his house. He had this house where everything in the neighborhood had been condemned or torn down, but the structure that he was living in had been left up. Every other house on both sides had been torn down. You could see the impression of where the other houses had been on each side. I think he lined all of the interior of the house with tin foil, very similar to maybe the Factory, so you went in and it was this very disorienting place where nothing felt like it made sense. It felt like everyone had to not make eye contact. Everyone was strange or off. He also would turn up randomly. You’d hear stories that he would surface in Olympia, Washington or Atlanta or Athens or New York. Then, I guess when I made more films that they had seen …. in early 2000 or 2001, Brian McMahan was actually living in Los Angeles. I was working on the film Adaptation for the documentary to go with it and I thought that the ideal person to voice over for anything would be either Britt or Brian cuz on the presence of the voices on Spiderland. We never got it together in time to record, but they kind of gradually become more comfortable and they were willing to let me bring cameras and shoot some footage or interview them. Most of these happened really late at night. Sort of 3 AM nocturnal conversations of people finally opening up and being comfortable.
There’s kind of palpable sense of that. You intentionally allow these interview subjects to speak at length with their own Louisville rhythms—so many of them soft-spoken, elliptical, and thoughtfully unrushed. And it’s almost like a Slint song. It gets there by its own time and by its own logic.
That was something that was really important to me during the edit—to get to their mind state or rhythm by letting things unfold and make the viewer kind of enter into their pacing, or their rhythm, or their quieter sensibility. Most people who get into what you might expect as a rock band or entertainers are more outgoing exhibitionist-type people, but these guys are a little bit more internal—not actively trying to get their thoughts into soundbites or dazzle anyone with quick flashy statements. There was a regional presence to their conversation, but I feel like Britt and Brian have a very shared sensibility that was forged intensely when they were ten or eleven years old and forming who they were going to be as people. They were bouncing off of each other quite a bit and recognizing something in each other that they amplified in themselves. Other people in the film articulate that and say, ‘You might think you know what they are talking about, but they are communicating on some other wavelength.’ This is a feature length documentary that I have been assembling for 21 years, and chipping away at [it] while working on other projects. It goes out of its way to let them represent themselves or speak in their own manner and style and hopefully that atmosphere comes across to the viewer to get a sense of people that aren’t outwardly trying to be flashy.
That’s why I brought up the Big Star documentary. They tried to make Memphis itself a character, and tried to talk about how Memphis was a place far away from New York or L.A. where people try to be the center of attention. And you did make Louisville a character.
Right on. I actually met Alex Chilton why I was working on the Slint film in 1994. I was kind of passing through New Orleans, Louisiana, and was crashing a friend’s house in a place that had a stable house attached to it. Alex Chilton was somehow standing in another room in the same weird building. I went down to kind of get up the nerve to talk to him because at that point he was kind of notoriously unapproachable and not interested in being out there and sociable in the world. I kind of went down the hallway in the morning and he was playing Beatles records. You could smell him cooking breakfast and sunlight was coming through the windows, and it was like … I guess that music does make sense for this kind of time or setting. I got the nerve to knock on the door. I’m glad I did—like not being too afraid to knock or say hello or trying to reach out to people even if they are intimidating or feel like they’re putting out a vibe of not wanting to be engaged. If you go for that sometimes, it’s great talking to people.
Did you ever write that address that was on the back of that Slint album? Did you get anything back?
I must have sent a letter there. And my wife Corin Tucker—on one of her early tours when she was in a band called Heavens to Betsy, they stopped in Louisville and tried to audition or figure out how they could get a shot at being a vocalist or Slint. That was the other thing that was interesting—there were people in that early time period like P.J. Harvey, who did respond to that and react and try and communicate and get in there. But the band was already scattered and didn’t really respond to letters that were coming in.
So it’s true that P.J. Harvey herself wrote and was pitching herself as their new female singer?
It’s absolutely true, and we ended up not including her letter in the film because she wanted to keep it private—but it exists. There are all these really remarkable women that were totally embedded throughout the scene and the culture, there was Tara Key from Antietam and there’s Rachel Grimes from Rachel’s, there’s Tara Jane O’Neil from Rodan … It was a pretty well-integrated racially and culturally and gender background music scene. An admirably open subculture for people at that time.
You hunted down some previously unknown footage for the film, but you also got your hand on the ‘anal breathing’ tapes. What unknown footage did you dig up? Was the anal-breathing thing a blockbuster revelation?
Most other bands circulating in that time, you had audio cassettes being passed around of them playing live. Regular people were taping in different cities or shooting footage, and that never really happened with Slint. Nobody had anything circulating of them playing live. And they did so few live performances before vanishing. It was kind of prior to the era of ever being immensely documented. Then we found out that there was someone that went to high school with them, and they played at a high school battle of the bands and they were on tape doing it. The opening band had a video camera, and they were going to shoot their own show, and Slint happened to be on the bill. And it turned out that Brian McMahan’s younger brother Michael, who was probably 14 at the time, took a camcorder and went down and filmed them when they were writing, rehearsing, and arranging a lot of their material for Spiderland. We dug up that footage and found out that was amazing content on putting that record together. And Will Oldham, who sort of did an arts program at his high school, had made a fake TV show called Waxy 138, and we got hold of that footage of himself and Britt and Brian when they were teenagers, running around making stuff. None of this had been thrown up on YouTube in the past or circulated. That’s kind of why the mystery and mystique about the band had been preserved for as long as it had—there wasn’t underwhelming footage of them on some random night.
Is not surfacing kind of part of that Louisville character?
It might be. People are more inward and not, sort of, desperately seeking attention or self-publication in the same way that people in other regional scenes might be.
And the anal breathing?
People had talked about it and claimed that these things existed where they learned to breathe without using their mouths. At first it seemed like a weird innuendo or yoga practice or exaggeration of them being beyond human beings. It turns out when they were pre-teens and onwards to their early teens, they had learned some weird yoga trick to draw air in and out of themselves and they were recording the sounds that it made.
Which ultimately just sounds like farting, giggling kids, right? Did they actually put some of that on the record, or what was it that ended up on the record that they were laughing about you bringing up?
I think there’s other audio of bodily functions that are buried deep in the mix in the album Tweez.
It’s funny you have these stories about them being prankish when they were young.
That was interesting to discover because on first impression, listening to that album, it sounds like very sensitive and thoughtful and vulnerable—and then you find out that they were these manic geniuses for mischief and pranks. 80s punk acting-out blow heads.
I actually hadn’t expected them to be the way they were at all. It was very fascinating to walk into the movie with one expectation and to have them be quite different. They weren’t as morose as I would have anticipated, and they didn’t talk at length about the kind of things that you would expect that band to talk about.
The other thing that is kind of interesting to me is that the world that they emerged out of … like the other bands in the Midwest in general that were putting out records like on Touch and Go and Amphetamine Reptile were much harsher—like grotesque violent imagery or dudes with leather jackets. Very macho, like a slaughterhouses in Chicago vibe. Despite being these kind of funny prankish young teenagers, they were making this much more vulnerable, introspective music that stood out from everything else.
Then on top of all that you have James Murphy reminiscing about sexycakes?
Britt would kind of pop up in different areas. He managed to form LCD Soundsystem with James Murphy and none of them ever remembered that they ever talked about it. I shot hours of conversation with both James and Britt and talked at length about everything, and finally James Murphy remembered: ‘Wait a minute … Oh my God! Like the first LCD Soundsystem show, Britt was the drummer! How did I forget about this!?’ How is it some amazing guys end up in projects together over the years and he’d just keep walking away or deciding that he didn’t want to make that what he did or how he was identified. People became aware of that record and loved the sound of it and were kind of figuring out how can we make that record sound like Spiderland? How do we get that drum sound or guitar sound? People were trying to find him to drum in their band. And he had gone to New York City and wasn’t active playing music, and took a job washing dishes at the Old Devil Moon café. Somehow the people that ran that had this deal of making erotic cakes for bachelorette parties or whatever. So he really got focused on the craft of baking erotic cakes and kind of devoted himself to that for a while. It makes you want more and more amazing stories about that path that this guy has taken through the world.