If you Google the words “Brian McMahan,” you’ll wade through Web pages devoted to a religious speaker, a gold-medal-winning Canadian rower and a wedding photographer. What you won’t come across is the subject of this article: a 38-year-old Louisville, Kentucky, native who has sung and played guitar for a series of post-punk bands that actually merit the term “legendary.” As a teen, Brian McMahan participated in Squirrel Bait, a classic hardcore punk group. He and drummer Britt Walford went on to form their most well-known band, Slint. In 1991, that group released an album called Spiderland. At the time, Slint had no public profile, and they broke up soon after. Yet the album continued to sell steadily and — in the mid-’90s — it gained stature as the defining document for a sensibility known as post-rock: slow, fragile music that — at least in Slint’s hands — was equally complex intellectually and emotionally. Upon Slint’s breakup, most of that group went on to launch Will Oldham’s much-beloved roots-music project Palace Brothers. Then, in the mid-’90s, during a spell living in Los Angeles, McMahan led a quieter, truly peculiar group called The For Carnation – again with the participation of many of his Slint bandmates.
But back to the legendary part. Every group McMahan has participated in has blazed new trails, and disbanded quickly, leaving their working methods, intentions and influences shrouded in mist. It’s not that McMahan’s music is particularly underappreciated or obscure. Fifteen years after Slint’s breakup, that group is playing the largest venues of its career, having reunited to play Spiderland in its entirety. It’s just that the music he makes seems to exist in a historical cul-de-sac touched by mystery. McMahan is currently based in Evanston, Illinois, and we were excited at the opportunity to talk to this rarely interviewed frontman. The hesitant yet well-mannered McMahan’s soft-spoken answers merely opened the door to more questions.
L.A. WEEKLY: Do you ever wonder about the consistent five-to-10-year lag between your bands’ initial lives and their eventual public recognition? It almost seems strategic.
McMAHAN: I feel like if anyone notices a specific musical project in this day and age, it’s pretty exceptional, because there’s so much out there. When the bands have stopped functioning, it’s usually just been loss of interest. I don’t think myself or any of the people I’ve worked with have had that much foresight. It’s more of a natural ebb and flow of creative opportunity.
There have been rumors of Slint becoming an ongoing concern.
It’s not a focused effort, but it may happen.
Are you getting used to being a professional musician?
I’ve worked as an electrician for the past seven years. I’m not really interested in having a career as someone courting an audience on a regular basis. That said, if people rally to hear a particular record, I’m happy to enjoy that attention. It has been weird. I wouldn’t have expected us to get together and play old Slint songs. It’s uncharacteristic of how the band worked. We’re essentially digging into a musical niche we weren’t conscious of while we were making the music. But I want to reiterate, I’m not trying to jump-start a career.
Of all the groups you’ve been involved with, ?was The For Carnation your baby?
Probably. I was the editor for the group.
Editor? That’s an interesting term.
I don’t think that’s any sort of definitive way of looking at it. But I think that for the way I work, maybe it’s an applicable term.
Your bandmates in Slint went on to play for groups like Tortoise and the Breeders and with members of the Pixies, Zwan and the Smashing Pumpkins. Are you less of a musician’s musician than the other folks?
Definitely. I don’t have particularly great skill or ability — musically speaking — so that defines several parameters pretty definitely.
Like the fact that the music you’ve been involved with has always been sort of slow?
In the past, I’ve thought it’d be cool to pick up the pace and do something that’s a little more up-tempo, but it just doesn’t feel right. There’s as much whimsy in what I do as within anything else, but I guess I have a sense of modesty. I fear that I am being obscure now. I guess I’m not going to try to make a record that sounds like Queen. I don’t think I could do a very good job of that.
The music you’ve made sounds as if it bears little influence from other music — like it stands apart in the history of rock.
It’s probably a little more of an internal thing. For me, the motivation for getting together and working on music is not attached to art. It’s as much a social thing as anything else. I don’t mean that in a casual “let’s get together” way. It’s just sort of communal.
The music is very cerebral — almost literary.
I do like some music that gets into a meditative state, but I’ve never thought of the stuff I’ve written as being particularly literary.
Well, it’s definitely not party music.
I’m with you there. I think that’s what comes naturally. I really like party music, but I’m not prepared to try and make it.
That brings me to my final question: Would your musical tastes surprise people?
It would be pretty sad if my musical taste could surprise anyone. It doesn’t seem that important. But when I was working with Touch and Go on the For Carnation album — the self-titled record — I was trying to give people a sense of what the material sounded like at one point, and I was like, “It’s a George Michael sort of thing.” I got a lot of blank stares. If there’s anything consistent, it’s that I’m not particularly in step with the times — or not within any kind of underground. I’ve never been a true, hardcore subscriber to any sort of style manifestos. I liked Minor Threat and Michael Jackson. Things haven’t really changed that much.
Slint will perform Spiderland at the Henry Fonda Theatre on Mon., July 23. Earlier this month The For Carnation reissued its first two EPs as an album called Promised Works (Touch and Go).