"Even after all this time, those screams gives me the chills… If Brian [McMahan] hadn't made himself vulnerable on that record we wouldn't be talking about it now. It would have just been an interesting album of instrumentals, but he wore his heart on his sleeve."—Dave Pajo on Spiderland
I think Slint guitarist Dave Pajo is probably right. Though vocals play something of a background role on Spiderland, they're pivotal to the appeal of the album. Pajo's referring specifically to the famously torrential "I miss you!" climax of "Good Morning, Captain," but the act of "[making] himself vulnerable" extends to the other two McMahan sung/spoken tracks on the record, "Breadcrumb Trail" and (especially) "Washer," not to mention drummer Britt Walford's haunted turn at the mic on "Don, Aman." I know that, to me, forming my own Slint mythology as a teenager, the delicate emo-ness (for lack of a better term) at the heart of many of these songs—buried beneath layers of stoic restraint—was crucial to their appeal. The vocals were often cryptic, but they were key.
Seeing Slint last night at the Wick (great room, btw!), I felt a similar kind of emotional pull, a familiar choking up. But while part of that was just nostalgia kicking in—I've loved this band and its songs for 20 years—there was something else going on, too. As I've grown older, the part of my brain/heart that connects with music seems to have fused in some very direct way with the part of me that drums and experiences the drumming of others, so that when I hear drumming I truly love, I feel the same kind of emotional squeeze, if you will, that I used to associate most directly with the voice and the verbal expression of feeling.
I always had a sense that Britt Walford was a special kind of player. But it's only during my recent listening to Slint that I've elevated into my personal drumming Hall of Fame. (Inhabited by the likes of Levon Helm, John Bonham, J. Read, Milford Graves, Neil Peart, Dale Crover, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Bill Ward, Whit Dickey, Bill Bruford, Damon Che, Roy Haynes, Ed Blackwell, Pete Sandoval, Thymme Jones, Dave Lombardo, Paul Motian and John Stanier, for starters.) What these players have in common—in my own head, at least—is the ability to bring something so personal to their execution ("style" feels too superficial for what I'm getting at) that to hear them drum is to hear them speak. Walford, a man who does, in fact—to judge by Lance Bangs's excellent Breadcrumb Trail doc—have a very distinctive speaking voice, has developed one of the most simultaneously unassuming and unmistakable drum voices I've ever heard. There's something about that act that moves me to no end.
The Walford voice is there on record, but as with, say, Milford Graves, you need to hear it live to really know it. What it comes down to is the primordial boom-thwack, the massive lowness of the bass drum, floor tom, etc., and the high, cutting punctuation of the snare. Walford is a master of the rimshot, where you bring the stick down more or less exactly parallel to the head, so you grab a bit of metal (or wood) from the rim of the drum as you strike. Even on hushed songs like "…For Dinner," increasingly one of my favorite Slint tracks, Walford truly goes for that thwack. He's not a basher, but he knows, physically, how to bring the hammer down, how to focus your attention with that one well-placed stab.
There's also his feel. To me, this is holy ground, beyond the realm of what you can really talk about. It's the part of drumming that, these days, can literally bring tears to my eyes. Behind-the-beat isn't everything to me; I am after all a devotee of Neil Peart and Tony Williams, two quintessentially alert, "forward-leaning" drummers, to my ears. But behind-the-beat is a big part of who I am as a player and a listener. I rarely get closer to heaven than when I'm listening to, say, Bonham or Helm (both classic behind-ers) play time. After last night, I would add Walford to that list. There is a glorious shagginess to his time, a feel that, as with Helm, is tough to dissociate from his drawly Southern vocal cadence.
The absurdity of Slint getting saddled with the term "post-rock" really hit home anew last night when I stood there and listened to Walford grind out the absurdly rocking chorus and bridge on "Nosferatu Man" (Drew Daniel ingeniously singled out Walford's "sidelong lurch into the one" in his Wire review of the Spiderland reissue; the initial kick-in on "Nosferatu," around the 1:00 mark on the record, is a great place to hear that in action), or the relentless, tripping-over-itself groove of "Glenn." It's no wonder that, according to the documentary, Walford gravitated to playing blues in the years after Slint's breakup (God, would I love to hear what that sounded like…): This man has the grease, the slipperiness of cadence that's a signature of so many of my favorite players, that sense of approaching the instrument with a kind of deceptive sluggishness, giving the beat that essential drag, that hair, that shuffle. The realm in which a word like "leaden" is the highest compliment.
I love these feels that lurch along, and Walford has one of the lurchingest I've heard; it's almost cartoonish how much he slurs the beat, but he's always, so to speak, in time. To hear him play live, that combination of deadly boom-thwack dynamic control and unflappable rhythmic lag is all the more poetic. I really did feel choked up being that close to it. And so, yes, the "I miss you!" climax of "Good Morning, Captain" stung a bit, in the way it used to, but a classic Walford move shortly before it squeezed my heart even more. It's that tiny stutter of a fill he plays right around 5:30 on the album version, which slurs and punctuates the transition into the staccato end section of the verse: brrrrrr-rap-pap. I never knew exactly how he was playing that brrrrrr part. It wasn't that it was necessarily difficult to play; it's just that there are a few ways you could approach it—toms only, some tom / bass-drum combination. But I made sure I paid close attention last night. Walford has these two large, super-deep rack toms that he makes beautiful use of throughout the set (the downside is that they completely obscure him if you're watching him, as we all were last night, from a low angle), and it turns out that the brrrrrr is a quick roll on these two toms, culminating, of course, in that mighty double snare thwack. It's the kind of fill that a lesser player might have stumbled on by accident and discarded, but in Walford's hands, it's the emotional pivot point of the song—the drummer's alley-oop pass to McMahan, who is gearing up to shout his lungs out during the most straightforwardly climactic moment in the slim Slint discography. And yes, I do love that "I miss you!" moment, but to me, now, it's almost beside the point: all I need to know, emotionally from this music—its meticulousness, its idiosyncrasy, its stubborn rockingness (post-rock be damned!), its groove, its patience, its violence, its surprise, its joy and anguish, is locked up in that brrrrrr-rap-pap. It's been said of Steve McCall that he could "break your heart with a drum solo." Walford is the kind of player that, for me, only needs about 1.5 seconds of rhythmic real estate, the space of a fill that many listeners might gloss over completely, to accomplish the same feat.
I've followed all this recent Slint activity with great interest. Such a weird feeling to have all these interviews suddenly appear (that Guardian piece I linked above is probably the most insightful, but Drowned in Sound and Fact have also run great pieces), and to think that McMahan and Walford declined to work with Scott Tennent on his still absolutely essential Spiderland book only a few years back.
Re: the box set and the documentary, you need to hear/see these if you're a fan. Re: the box, I'm particularly thrilled by the surfacing of a studio version of the great lost Slint track "Pam," which was—much to my delight—the opening song of last night's set. (I really hope they see fit to record "King's Approach" at some point.) And re: the doc, I mean—I loved it all. That basement practice footage stopped me in my tracks like few music-related archival-video excavations ever have. Shockingly, we get a quick, tantalizing visual/aural glimpse of the Walford brrrrrr-rap-pap at 1:30 in the trailer. Look at the way he holds the sticks, lets them fall with deceptive slackness. Have you ever seen such looseness coupled with such deliberateness? (And is Walford using the same red kit today that he was back then? I think he might be…) Kudos to Lance Bangs for zeroing in on that crucial moment.