Interview: Scott Tennent
Scott Tennent is the talented blogger behind Pretty Goes With Pretty as well as the author of Spiderland, one of the newest entries in the esteemed 33 1/3 series published by Continuum Books. I met Scott last month at a release party for the book here in Los Angeles, and I made him promise that he would let me interview him about his experience writing Spiderland, his first visit to Louisville, and — of course — all things Slint. On Tuesday night he and I chatted (online!) for nearly two hours about all those topics and more. Just in case you don’t make it to the end of the interview, you can check out Scott’s blog by clicking the link above, you can follow him on Twitter andÂ Tumblr, or you can submit your own questions about Slint/Spiderland/Louisville/etc. here. And now, for your reading pleasure…two nerds talking about Slint!
ST: Scott Tennent
EL: Hello Scott.
ST: Hey Evan.
EL: How are you?
ST: Good, just chowin’ down on some dinner.
EL: My lady is making me dinner right now. Life is good.
ST: Yeah, and the best part is I can talk with my mouth full.
EL: Ha! Soâ€¦I didn’t plan any questions, but I’m sure that won’t be a problem. I could talk Slint/Louisville for days. I won’t force you to stay that long, though.
ST: I had a feeling. Actually I’ve been looking forward to talking with someone who is a hardcore nerd for Slint/Louisville.
EL: Well, tonight is your lucky night. To be honest, I’ve never read a 33 1/3 book before. But if they’re all as good as yours I might have to start investing in more.
ST: I’ve read, I think, maybe 10 or twelve. They’re all very different from each other.
EL: I’ve seen some of the titles, but if memory serves I think the first one I saw was for some canonic “Indie” album and it was written by a Pitchfork reviewer. My initial reaction was one of, “Oh, so it’s going to be like that is it?”
ST: Some are total fiction, some are more personal…
EL: Being closed-minded, I turned myself off to the idea.
ST: John Darnielle and Drew Daniel didn’t change your mind?
EL: Who what now?
ST: John D. wrote one on Master of Reality, and Drew wrote one on Throbbing Gristle. I haven’t read the TG one yet. John’s is great.
EL: It’s a bit embarrassing, but I’m so closed off to that world. It’s odd for me, because I’ve done so much music criticism and have written about music for ten years. I should be more ashamed I’m not reading more about it.
ST: It’s probably healthier for you to be into writing about music but not aware of that world.
EL: How did you get involved with the 33 1/3 series? Is it just the type of thing where you pitch them? Or do they seek out writers?
ST: Continuum, the company that publishes the books, does an open call for submissions every few years. When I pitched mine they got like 500 or 600 other pitches, including 7 for Spiderland!
EL: Holy Crap!
ST: Of those 600, they chose 11. The whole selection process played out on their blog at the time. It was like American Idol. Every few weeks they’d send out a blog post and say, “We’ve whittled it down from 600 to 150… from 150 to 50… from 50 to 25… until they got to the top 11.
EL: Wow. Do you think your blog gave you an advantage? Or is everyone who pitches also a critic/blogger?
ST: Not everyone is a blogger. I think one of the people who got chosen in that round is a poet, if I recall correctly. I don’t really know if my blog helped me or not. I think people with blogs more popular than mine have been rejected in the past. I think a lot of the people who submit proposals are choosing albums that mean a lot to them but are maybe TOO obscure. Like, Continuum needs to sell books, you know?
EL: And some of the books are even written by other musiciansâ€¦
ST: Yes, Darnielle, Drew Daniel (Matmos), Joe Pernice, and Colin Meloy have all written books.
EL: So once you’ve won the American Idol competition, what’s the process?
ST: The process…Well, I did a shit-ton of research and basically wrote two-thirds of the book. Then I interviewed everyone, which made me go back and rewrite the whole book.
EL: So you’re basically on your own? There isn’t some formal, standard way Continuum works? It’s “Go write the book, we’ll publish it?”
ST: Once the manuscript was finished, I turned it in to my editor, David Barker. He read it and gave me feedback – actually really helped me shape the chapter on the album itself. Then it went to a copyeditor, then I reviewed the design, then a proofreader…I am an editor by day, and was a book editor for a long time, so I was super anal about getting my manuscript perfect and on time. I didn’t want to be “that author.”
EL: I think I heard/read somewhere that Continuum has a policy which states only one album by a given artist can be written about. So no one else can write a Tweez book in the future. Is that maybe sort-of correct?
ST: Well, that was the case all the way up until the most recent call for entries (the one I was chosen for.) Marvin Lin, who does Tiny Mix Tapes, wrote a book on Kid A. There was a book on OK Computer a few years back.
EL: Radiohead. Always pushing the envelope!
ST: I know. It’s ushering in a sea change in the publishing industry already.
EL: You mentioned you wrote two-thirds of the book and then had to rewrite?
ST: Yeah. I wasn’t totally sure who I was going to interview, if anyone. So I had to devise this plan for how I would write the book if I couldn’t get anyone to participate. I treated the whole thing like a mystery… I did a lot of research and tried to unearth the story of Slint without their input. Then, Todd [Brashear] and David [Pajo] and Sean Garrison all agreed to be interviewed, so I kind of new their basic story before they told it. Though of course they clarified a lot and told me a lot I still didn’t know. There definitely would have been some errors had I not talked to them directly.
EL: And you kind of made a point to note in the book that Brian [McMahon] wasn’t interested in contributing…
ST: Or Britt [Walford]. I felt like I had to mention that because it was becoming apparent in my interviews that everyone viewed those two, specifically, as the real brains behind the band. Not to take away from Pajo’s contributions, but Pajo specifically said “Britt and Brian were Slint.” In a perverse way, I’m actually glad they didn’t participate. (At least I’ve convinced myself of that.)
EL: Without getting too much into it, do you think their lack of participation was more inability to find the time or just disinterest?
ST: I don’t really know. I had zero communication with Brian. Britt originally said he’d talk to me, then abruptly backed out. I think probably they just weren’t that excited about revisiting their teenage years, or answering all my tough questions about their tweezer fetishes. Todd and David both told me that Britt and Brian were glad that someone from the band was talking to me.
EL: I would definitely be happy with that much band input were I in your position. Did you travel to louisville?
ST: Yeah, totally. Plus as much as I wanted to tell the story of Slint, I didn’t want to totally dismantle their mystery… I think Brian and Britt’s absence from the book still preserves that mystery. Yes, I went to Louisville over Halloween weekend 2009.
EL: What were your impressions of the city?
ST: I don’t know… for one thing I was in love with the colors of the trees in the fall. Coming from Southern California you don’t really get that. I went to a few different areas of Louisville: Bardstown Road is kind of the strip where the cool shit is. Ear-X-tacy is the cool record store, and Todd’s video store Wild and Wooly Video… Then I went to some kind of mall with a bunch of sports bars that felt like Anytown USA.
EL: 4th Street Live?
ST: Yeah I think so.
EL: i’ve been there 4 or 5 times now, and I love it. I went there the first two times during a cross-country road trip. 4th Street Live was dull, but I loved Bardstown. People would ask what my favorite city in the country was when I returned to Jersey, and i didn’t even hesitate before saying Louisville.
ST: There was a weird disconnect for me because I was there in 2009 but my head was totally immersed in 1984-91. So I wasn’t really soaking in what the town was like today. I was viewing everything through a prism I’d invented. Like, I went on a Slint Tour, basically. I went to Brown School, but left quickly because I realized I must’ve seemed like a creepy pedophile hanging outside the school.
EL: HA! I didn’t go to Brown School while I was there, but i heard stories about Brown School from people who were there at the time.
ST: I went to Utica Quarry (obviously, if you’ve read the book) – that was a trip. And I looked in on this club called “Cahoots” which used to be Tewligan’s Tavern, which seemed to be the place for the scene back then, but is now a joke.
EL: The thing for me regarding Louisville was, it was late summer, the weather was perfect, and — at least when I was in town those two times — you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting someone. My first night there walking from a bar on Bardstown Road I bumped into Will Oldham, a month later I found myself wrestling for control of the jukebox in a bar against My Morning Jacket and VHS or Beta. All the musicians and artists and writers know each other, they shoot pool and drink together. It just seemed like a really different “scene” than what i was used to in New York and Los Angeles.
ST: Have you been to the quarry?
EL: I didn’t see the quarry. But I read about it in your book!
ST: Well, secret’s out. Just follow the directions on page one of the book.
EL: Yeah, now you tell me.
ST: Also, if you ever want to move to Louisville you can actually buy a home at the quarry. It could be your back yard!
EL: I read that in the book, too. Did that take away from the austerity of it all?
ST: Yes and no. The whole experience of approaching the quarry was surreal. That was just the surreal cherry on top. The neighborhood is still coming together so the beauty of the quarry isn’t totally ruined… yet. It definitely will be in time.
E: The first time i went to Louisville everyone i spoke to, when they found out i was writing a travel/music book, implored me to meet Sean Garrison. It never materialized. what did i miss out on?
ST: Everything. He was a total trip.
EL: That’s pretty much the description of him i’ve heard.
ST: I originally contacted him via Facebook, right before I got to Louisville. He was up for talking, but then sent me this message, like “FYI I am literally crazy. I don’t know what I’m going to be like when you get here. Be prepared.” When I showed up he was making something out of leather to be used for a Renaissance Fair costume.
ST: I am so glad he talked to me though. He made the book so much better… not only because he gave me insight to the least-reported part of Slint’s history, but also because everything out of his mouth was totally quotable. His line about music being like a viking ship is my favorite part of the book. “I have come to humiliate you with my band!”
EL: It would be sacrilegious to say that he’s more of a Louisville legend than Slint, but…
ST: Well I almost think he –or Kinghorse– is more of a legend than Slint. Slint barely existed… they played 30 shows in their entire lifetime. Tons of people from Louisville at the time didn’t actually experience Slint. And if they did it wasn’t necessarily a meaningful experience. Kinghorse on the other hand was huge in Louisville. Hundreds of kids at every show. Metal kids, punk kids, everybody.
EL: …And Slint’s fans were still marginalized, whereas Kinghorse drew from all the cliques. Exactly.
ST: I grew up in Fresno and was in high school in 1991…I discovered Kinghorse years before I discovered Slint. It blew my mind when I found out a few years ago that both bands sprang from the same place.
EL: That’s incredible. And you met todd at his store?
ST: We had dinner together at a restaurant near his store.
EL: When i was supposed to meet him his wife was having a baby, but i still went to the store. How was that meeting?
ST: It was great. Todd was very chill. Terrible memory, but a really nice guy.
EL: Did you try to contact Ethan [Buckler] (Slint’s original bassist)?
ST: I tried but didn’t get in touch with him.
EL: And where’d you meet Pajo?
ST: Pajo had originally declined to be interviewed – I think he was just really busy at the time I originally reached out to him. But then in the winter I saw that Papa M was playing in LA so I tried once more. We had a long, long conversation at the Norm’s diner over on Pico, near the Apple Pan.
EL: How was his memory?
ST: Much better! (Actually he claimed that Todd was just withholding stories from me.)
EL: He and Sean had to have been imperative to getting good information about Maurice (David Pajo and Britt Walford’s pre-Slint band with Sean Garrison, Mike Bucayu and — very briefly — Brian McMahon). Speaking of which, what did you do know about Maurice before talking to them?
ST: Absolutely. I had some info on Maurice, but they really filled me in on the details. I knew the basics of Maurice… who was in the band, how Britt went back and forth with them and Squirrel Bait, that they toured with Samhain… but all the details of those stories I couldn’t have gotten without the interviews.
EL: That’s such an important link between Squirrel Bait and Slint.
ST: So important! The more research I did, the less interesting Squirrel Bait became to me, for purposes of the story – musically speaking, that is. I think the story of Squirrel Bait was still important to tell as a kind of foreshadowing of Slint’s end. If you think of Squirrel Bait’s story as one side of the coin– sort of a “professional” band who took touring seriously and really made a point to make a lot of connections– and Maurice’s story as the other side of the coin– practice practice practice and no other real sense of urgency– you have the recipe for Slint’s demise. Oh and also that Squirrel Bait were undone by college and real life.
EL: Yes! Did you get the impression from talking to those involved that at this point they look back fondly on Slint? The 2005 reunion aside.
ST: Kind of… Maybe more accurate is to say they look back fondly on their time as friends playing music together, but I think they are baffled/weirded out that so many people have latched onto what they did. I really don’t think, ultimately, that Slint felt terribly significant to them at the time. Like, they decided to make it significant but then they broke up instead, so it wasn’t significant. But then years later they’ve been faced with all these people who are like “YOU WERE SIGNIFICANT.”
EL: And the reunion tour was a perfect example of that. You had a crowd so enamored and reverent that they would loudly hush everyone between songs. And these guys on stage who were totally disconnected, in their own world. Eeveryone who approached it that way turned into a weird spectacle.
ST: Pajo said that their stage presence in the reunion shows was pretty much identical to their presence in the early days… very little movement, long breaks between songs that killed all the momentum. But you’re right – the audience reaction was probably 180-degrees different. One more reason why people back in the day probably didn’t think Slint would have much of an impact/legacy! I have to say I kind of ignored the reunion in all my research.
EL: The reunion is insignificant to the story, and especially to the album. Which we should probably talk about before you have to go…
ST: Sure, fire away. I’m just hanging out. I have time.
EL: I don’t know about you, but i have very specific memories regarding the first time i heard Spiderland.
ST: Do tell.
EL: A friend of mine had introduced me to the Albini discography when I was in high school — Shellac, Big Black and Rapeman — and from there my fascination led to researching what other albums he had worked on, which inevitably led to the Spiderland review you cite in the book.
ST: Were you floored by the record on your very first listen?
EL: I don’t even think I had time to close my web browser before I went out to hunt for this album after reading that review, and I found it at a Borders (the two “indie” stores I knew didn’t even have a copy!), and I listened to it on my shitty portable CD player two or three times in a row trying to make sense of it, then I listened to it while reading the review again, and then I got on the AIM and started bragging to my friends about this album I’d “discovered”.
ST: Ha ha. I “discovered” Spiderland in, I think, 1994. I was a junior in High School and was pretty clueless about indie rock. I would hang out in Tower Records and read Alternative Press for fun. I read a review of Codeine’s The White Birch and the reviewer’s description of the record made it sound just totally astounding. I had to hear this record. Only Tower didn’t have it. The review called out Seam, Slint, and Red House Painters as being similar to Codeine so I looked for those. Came home with Spiderland and The Problem with Me.
EL: Codeine…That’s a band story which needs to be told.
ST: Yeah, Codeine are a great band. Sort of a curious band. But I wasn’t totally knocked out by Spiderland right away. I liked it, sure. But I think I’d owned it for a good three or four months before it hit me. I was doing homework in my room one night listening to the record when I zoned out to “Don, Aman.” I sort of snapped back into it right as “Washer” started and I listened to that song without moving a muscle in my body for its entire duration. I practically fell out of my seat by the end – and this is despite listening to the song on and off for months already!
E: Maybe it has something to do with what’s going on around you when you encounter it. I know at that time in my life I was thirsting for something new and exciting. I was just getting out of my Alternative/Arena Rock youth phase, so that probably expedited the process.
ST: Yeah, maybe. I think it just requires that you pay attention to it, period. You probably wanted to pay attention to it because you knew it was special, per Albini. I didn’t know jack so I just let it play the same way I just let Anthrax play. Like, dude, put on the tunes and jam. It required me to shut everything out and pay attention. Then it opened up.
EL: And how intently did you find yourself having to listen in order to write the actual Spiderland chapter of the book?
ST: Super intently! I’m still amazed at how deep inside these songs I was able to get in just the last couple of years. I thought, after 14 or 15 years of listening to this record, I was already as deep as I was going to get. I think that’s partly why my editor had a comment on that chapter – I had gone too far up my own ass. There’s stuff in that chapter about how the words and the music sync up… there was a lot more of that in the earlier version of that chapter. I’m glad I cut that all out. I was off the deep end.
EL: Yeah but you pointed out some incredible things. At the time the book came out, i hadn’t listened to Spiderland in a while, and while reading the book, and that chapter specifically, I had to have it in my car stereo, at home via mp3, or spinning the vinyl just to keep up with what you were saying. At the risk of sounding like one of those reverent crowd-hushers, you could make the case that it demands you go off the deep end to really grasp it all.
ST: That’s awesome. It gives me immense pleasure to know that fans of the album (especially hardcore fans) are getting things out of that chapter.
ST: Haha, yeah, you’re sort of right.
ST: I think for me the real epiphany I had in writing the book was understanding how Slint’s spoken word works in their music – why so many other bands before and since who tell stories over music just make super boring records.
EL: You’re right. I’m hard pressed to think of what other band that worked for.
EL: Oh, wait. I got one.
EL: King Missile. “Detachable Penis.”
EL: But I don’t know about the rest of that album…
ST: Ha ha. Have you heard their song “Jesus Was Way Cool?”
EL: I don’t think so. If it wasn’t on Happy Hour, I didn’t care.
ST: I haven’t heard it in a million years but I remember getting a big kick out of it back then. Stillâ€¦ in all seriousness those King Missile songs work because the stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. The music could be anything.
EL: Has the process of writing the book and listening to the music Ad Nauseum soured you on Spiderland at all?
ST: I’m not soured on it at all. Maybe a little burned out for the moment but it remains one of my all-time favorite records. There’s supposedly going to be a reissue w/ bonus material later this year… I will be first in line for it.
EL: That doesn’t surprise me. I went to Electrical Audio three or four years ago and one of the interns let me know that Steve was gathering all the tapes he had because they were trying to do the same with Tweez.
ST: I would love a reissue of Tweez!
EL: Ok, it’s a silly question but i have to ask – favorite song on Spiderland?
ST: “Washer”. Easy.
ST: Glad to hear it. Nothing against” Good Morning Captain” — duh, nothing against any song on the record! — but I always have a little twinge when someone says that’s their favorite. I have multiple friends who do not know each other who, when they heard I was writing this book, said “I remember when you made me listen to “Washer” in the dark!”
ST: I’ve just outed myself as the nerdiest fanboy ever.
EL: Writing a book didn’t achieve that?
ST: I was a nerdy fanboy with some degree of journalistic integrity.
ST: I had one friend ask me if I was going to make him read the book in the dark. I told him “If you really want to get it, you will.”
EL: What was the best story you heard during the process of interviewing everyone for the book — best meaning most insightful thing you didn’t know, or just funniest. I don’t knowâ€¦best.
ST: I have two answers. First answer is everything Sean Garrison said about Maurice. Second answer, again, gets into super hardcore nerd territory. Pajo told me a bunch about the details of how they wrote songs… the painstaking details they went into. When he told me that Britt played all up-strokes, that kind of blew my mind. There are SO MANY BANDS who came after Slint who just did this insistent all-downstroke, all clean-tone pattern and called it “post-rock”. So I thought it was hilarious to hear that Slint didn’t actually play that way. Probably I’m the only person who will think that that is the most interesting story in the book, but there you go.
EL: No way! That was one of the things that i had never perceived before but could discern after paying closer attention. So that was definitely something i learned.
ST: Yeah, I heard “Don, Aman” in a whole new way after I learned that detail.
EL: Ok, I don’t want to keep you that much longer, so I’ll just ask some simple questions. What’s the feedback been from those who have read it?
ST: Happily, it’s all been pretty positive. Supposedly everyone in the band has read it and enjoyed it. I got a really nice note for Pajo about it, which seriously made everything worthwhile.
EL: I saw he posted on Twitter while he was reading it that he had actually learned something he didn’t know before.
ST: Yeah, I think I corrected both he and Todd on a few points while I interviewed them! I found a newspaper article that pinpointed the day when Slint broke up (quoted in the book). When I showed that to Pajo he was amazed.
EL: That’s insane. If you were to write a book about another album, what would it be?
ST: Drive Like Jehu, Yank Crime. No question.
EL: And now that you’ve brought the story of one of the most important albums of our time to light, what will you do now?
ST: I so want to say “I’m going to Disneyland,” but in all seriousness I’m beginning to formulate another book in my mind; I’m just beginning to sketch it out. Still about music but won’t be dedicated a single band/album.
EL: And lastly, what’s the best way for people to learn about you and buy the book?
ST: If you can buy it from a indie bookstore, do that! Or if you’re lazy buy it from Amazon. (How’s that for mixed messages?) As for me, I’m everywhere on the internet… Blog, Tumblr, Twitter. I also have a little feature on my tumblr blog where you can ask me any questions you like about Slint, Spiderland, Louisville, etc.
E: Awesome! Thanks so much Scott. The book is all I could have asked for from a Spiderland book, and I’m so happy to have met and befriended you. Thanks for subjecting yourself to this interview.
ST: Thank you! Obviously I can talk about Slint forever… really a pleasure to talk to someone who loves the album.
[image courtesy of Amazon.com]
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