David Pajo's pronunciation of Louisville is distinctly Francophonic. He says, "Louie-ville." Odd, considering it's his home town and, as anyone who knows a resident of the city — or even anyone that's spent any time in Kentucky — can tell you, there's a correct way to say it: "Lou-uh-vull."
Pajo laughs when he's called out on it and sounds a little surprised.
"I must have lost it 'cause I haven't lived there in so long," he says via phone from a Louisville tour stop.
That would make sense. He was the first of his band, '90s post-rock legends Slint, to leave the city after they broke up in 1991, spending time in Chicago, New York and Columbus before settling in his current home outside Philadelphia.
He's also gone on to have arguably the most artistic success post-Slint out of any members. In the almost 25 years since the band dissolved, Pajo's released albums with the likes of Tortoise, Royal Trux and Billy Corgan's Zwan — not to mention some 22 solo albums under the names Aerial M, M, and Papa M — and has served as the tour guitarist for Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol.
The day that Pajo called us, Slint, which has reunited occasionally since 2005, was playing, as Pajo puts it, "a not-so-secret show" to a home crowd. The concert was in celebration of the release of the Spiderland box set, which includes a remastered version of the studio album, 14 unreleased tracks and a 104-page book. The limited release collection, now sold out, also includes a documentary about the band's early days, entitled Breadcrumb Trail after one of the songs on Spiderland. It's directed by Lance Bangs, a filmmaker perhaps best known for music videos with Pavement and Arcade Fire, as well as his cinematography for Jackass.
To hear Pajo talk about it, this would seem like a big deal over nothing, just some band he was in as a teenager. "I always think of Slint as just a blip in the radar," he says. 'We're just one of many bands that broke up in Louisville."
That's just not true. Spiderland is a huge deal. It's one of those albums that coke-bottle-lensed record store clerks speak of in hushed tones, one that sent ripples out of Louisville, affecting musicians the world over. With the exception of My Bloody Valentine's Loveless, there might not be a record released in the heyday of college rock that so shaped guitar playing. When everyone else went for size, distortion and noise, Pajo and co-guitarist Brian McMahan played clean, precise guitar parts with a keen ear for dynamics.
It also might win the prize, as long as Cannibal Corpse isn't running, for the album whose packaging most closely match its content. Spiderland's cover has become an icon, perhaps for just that reason. Shot by Will Oldham (you might know him as Bonnie "Prince" Billy), it features the heads of the band in black and white floating above a water-filled quarry. It's a cover every bit as stark as the music inside.
Far from stifling the band, Louisville's small-but-mighty punk scene pushed them in increasingly adventurous directions. "It was really looked down upon if you sounded like another band, like an existing band either in the scene or globally," says Pajo. "It was really encouraged to have your own sound and to not sound like anyone else."
Though Pajo, at 20, was the oldest member of the band when Spiderland was recorded, Slint's members had already amassed plenty of experience in other bands pushing the boundaries of what a rock group was supposed to sound like. Pajo and drummer Britt Walford played in a band called Maurice, which, like Slint, experimented with unconventional intervals and time signatures. But when Pajo started pushing for them to play with cleaner guitar tones, he was met with resistance, and the group disbanded. "The last Maurice song became the first Slint song," he explains.
Slint brought two particular forces together: unconventional influences, and a sense of workmanship. The band didn't just seek to push rock's boundaries, they looked deeper into rock's roots for inspiration, seeking inspiration from Neil Young (their cover of "Cortez the Killer" is just that), Leonard Cohen and the Delta blues.
"All that stuff sort of became more exciting to us than the current hardcore scene," Pajo says. "We had one foot in what was current and obscure, but also being excited by stuff that was pretty old. I guess I didn't see much of a difference. I didn't really think of it in those polarities. If it was good it was good."
But this latter attribute is perhaps the most notable, and the most revelatory element of the box set. Slint worked tirelessly to perfect their sound. Pajo says that the demos of the songs on Spiderland are his favorite pieces of the collection, as they closely resemble the final versions of the tracks. "I think it'll show some insight into how pretty much everything on the album was deliberate, even though it was recorded really quickly."
After that, everything about Slint would stop being deliberate. The day after Pajo and McMahan finished laying out the artwork for Spiderland, McMahan quit the band, and the others decided that they shouldn't continue without him. Slint's reputation left the controlled environment of the studio, seeping its way into heavily postered rooms, into the minds of kids in black T-shirts, into their playing, into the rock mythos.
It wasn't such a different sense of fascination that first motivated Pajo. When he recalls his own memories of being a young rock fan, fascinated with rock bands' mystiques, he may as well be talking about Slint. "When you're young and all you have is one record and like a blurry black and white of them, maybe really small on the back, you can only imagine what they're like, and who they are as people."
With the box set and the movie, some of their secrets will be revealed. Breadcrumb Trail contains archival footage shot by Oldham, as well as interviews with the band, and contemporaries like Steve Albini, Fugazi's Ian MacKaye and Jesus Lizard's David Yow. They began getting materials together for the box set, which was slated for release in 2011, for the album's 20th anniversary. It missed the deadline, however, because of the amount of material that they wanted to include. "As we worked on it, it kind of just got bigger and bigger," Pajo says.
Despite the intentionality, the attention to detail that returns with the return of Slint, some things still remain out of their control. An air of mystery hangs over Spiderland, even for Pajo. "I don't know what we did right," he says. "I'm glad we did it."