As Slint re-release their 1991 masterpiece Spiderland, Huck drops our interview with Lance Bangs, director of The Breadcrumb Trail - the story behind the enigmatic band and the making of their fabled album.

As Slint re-release their 1991 masterpiece Spiderland, Huck drops our interview with Lance Bangs, director of The Breadcrumb Trail - the story behind the enigmatic band and the making of their fabled album.

I’m checking out some torture racks at the Tower of London with legendary documentary filmmaker Lance Bangs and his son Marshall. Conversation turns to prisoners as we step out into the sunny courtyard and I overhear Lance discussing the situation at Guantanamo with young Marshall, the most switched-on thirteen-year-old you’ll ever meet. They’re more like old friends than dad and son.

The two Bangs got to London just a few days ago from their home in Portland – which they share with mum and wife Corin Tucker (of Sleater-Kinney) and five-year-old Glory – for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties (ATP) in Alexandra Palace, where Lance was screening his new documentary The Breadcrumb Trail about mysterious Louisville band Slint. Despite splitting up after recording their seminal 1991 album Spiderland, Slint influenced a whole generation of indie-rock – from Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor to PJ Harvey and Pavement – causing tremors in 2005 when they reunited for an ATP show in Camber Sands, UK.

Lance suggested we couple our interview with some casual sightseeing and although he’s technically on holiday there’s a Super8 slung around his neck. “I’ve had this compulsion since I was eleven years old,” he says softly, from behind a viewfinder. “I just don’t feel comfortable without a camera in my hand.”

Lance Bangs grew up in a transient military family. He began shooting personal films to document his travels and his curious eye was soon recognised by like-minded wanderers. “I was leaving home a lot, staying in laundromats and gas station bathrooms, and filming the things I was going through,” remembers Lance, now forty. “I was volunteering at a Greenpeace event and met Michael Stipe [of REM], who had a film group that gave grants to underground filmmakers. He and artist Chris Bilheimer [who created most of REM’s artwork] helped get me down to Athens, Georgia. I was still seventeen. And he kind of took me in, gave me film to shoot and paid for the processing.”

With Stipe’s help, Lance started documenting bands that came through on tour, like My Bloody Valentine and Dinosaur Jr. “I never went to film school, I never learned about production. I just started making whatever I could without a clear path,” he says.

Fate took a decisive turn in 1995 when skater-turned-filmmaker Spike Jonze saw Lance’s Sonic Youth footage and invited him to collaborate on a music video for the band’s iconic single, ‘The Diamond Sea’. “Spike went out of his way to share the directing credit and that was a great gesture,” says Lance. “That was one of the first things I did that was broadcast on TV and it drew other bands to me for work.”

Lance continued to collaborate with Spike on commercials, music videos and films, and has since built an extensive filmography embedded in underground culture. He’s worked on music videos and tour documentaries for the likes of Pavement, Arcade Fire, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Hives and Bjork; feature films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Where The Wild Things Are; TV shows like Jackass and Loiter Squad; and the online Vice series Young Americans, which explores issues that affect kids.

Lance gravitates to out-of-this-world characters and has a unique ability to tell their story from the inside out. Which is why hanging out with him in your home city can be an experience in itself.

When you started filming Slint in the 1990s, did you know you wanted to make a documentary?
I knew I wanted to gather footage, but I didn’t know what story I wanted to tell. I had heard rumours about Slint from so many people, I just wanted to know what was going on. People said things like, ‘The guys from Slint have learnt how to breathe through their ass!’ They just seemed distinct from other bands of that time. And they made this massively remarkable record [1991’s Spiderland] that people really related to. It was infuriating that they didn’t continue to make more music. You could see Dinosaur Jr or Sonic Youth live, because people would film them and circulate the tapes. But with Slint, there was no footage. So I just wanted to shoot whatever I could without the idea that there would be a feature film at the end. Now, having shot all that material, people who have discovered Spiderland in recent years can see how their story pieces together.

How did you meet the guys?
Britt [Walford, drums] had a band called Evergreen that performed with Pavement when I was making the Pavement DVD – I got to know him through that. We would visit him in Louisville. He had this house where other houses on the block had been torn down and he’d covered all the walls with aluminium tin foil rather than wallpaper so the entire inside of the house was shiny silver. And he’d just turn up in weird places. Like, we’d be in Atlanta, Georgia, to see Stereolab and we’d just find him wandering in the parking lot. He was in Washington for a while staying with Bikini Kill, he was in New York City drumming for Cat Power. He was fascinating. It was just like, ‘What is this kid’s deal? What is he up to?’ Like the way that he turned up on those first couple of Breeders records, you didn’t expect him to be there, he just had this dynamic of popping up.

What was your relationship with Louisville?
I just love that city. I had a theory at the time that the cities that had interesting underground cultures were the ones that had rivers running through them. So Louisville was out in the midwest where a lot of places had nothing going on, but it had this river running through it. In my mind, it had all these great personalities like Will Oldham and the kids in Rodan and all the hardcore bands that were coming out at that time. Hunter S. Thompson, Muhammad Ali – just a lot of interesting personalities. And it was also underrepresented. People were talking about the Dischord scene in Washington DC, and Husker Du and The Replacements in Minneapolis. Louisville felt like something that wasn’t yet recognised. It was also a weird crossroads between the southern dynamic that we had in Athens, Georgia, and the midwestern scene. They weren’t quite as gnarly as the people in Chicago, which, as outsiders felt distinctly male, violent and aggressive. It felt like Louisville was somewhere in the middle.

Was it difficult to shoot the band?
Slint had been so guarded and non-communicative in the past, it was a long process getting them to open up. A lot of the interviews [filmed after Slint reformed in 2005] were shot late at night, like at three or four in the morning after hours of conversations. A lot of the things you see on screen look dark or nocturnal – almost like when you’re on a date with someone and they’re still talking at one or two in the morning and there’s like a weird spark in the air. A lot of the interviews had that dynamic. It’s kinda funny – that’s when a lot of the information comes out.

Why do you think Slint continue to be so inspirational?
Spiderland is such a distinct record. It feels like the entire object of that record – the design of the sleeve, and then the six tracks, kinda building and tangoing throughout the record to this amazing crescendo of ‘Good Morning Captain’ – is like its own bizarre little world that you can enter for forty minutes. And so I think people keep discovering it and being drawn in and mesmerised by it.

Has your motivation for making film changed over the years?
When I was younger it was just sort of a way of documenting what I was going through like, ‘This is the twenty-four-hour laundromat I’m staying in. This is what the lights look like and here I am talking into this tape recorder,’ [Laughs]. Just preserving myself. It felt like I was going to disappear and not be around anymore, so it was more like writing a journal than traditional filmmaking.

But since Michael and Chris brought me to Athens and I started making things with other people I’ve just enjoyed the process of finding whatever I’m most interested in – making an effort to travel and not miss the things that I’m curious about; make what I can make from my own perspective. Similarly with the world of skateboarding. I was just hanging out with personalities like [Johnny] Knoxville when he was a writer for Big Brother Magazine and Spike’s childhood friends. There were all these great, funny personalities running around who were writers or photographers or snowboarders or skateboarders. I was never a great skateboarder or extreme sports dude. [Laughs] But it was just about having that sensibility to be able to hang out and shoot footage with guys that added personality to it. That then turned into the Jackass stuff.

How did you start working with Odd Future?
I directed a documentary [called Family Portrait] on a street in Los Angeles called Fairfax in 2008 or 2009 and I was spending a bunch of time at a bookstore called Family, which puts on poetry readings and art events. There’d been an underground comedy venue called Largo right next door where a lot of comedians like David Cross were doing really interesting material and Elliott Smith would play there. So it became the street where I’d sort of hang out in LA.

In recent years, when Odd Future were in high school, they started coming there to skate. So, in the background of these videos I’d be doing with [Teenage Teardrops label founder] Cali Dewitt or [Beautiful Losers curator and filmmaker] Aaron Rose you would see these black teenage kids doing tricks down the block of what’s normally an older retirement Jewish deli sort of neighbourhood. It was like, ‘Wow, what’s the deal with those kids? They seem kinda interesting.’ I started getting to know them and they turned out to be Tyler and Earl and the kids from Odd Future. Then Supreme opened shop there and these other skate/street clothing places popped up and it shifted from what it was to this new dynamic. I befriended those guys and shot footage of them and heard the music they were sharing with each other on the internet. Syd Tha Kid, this teenage lesbian who was producing and arranging all this horrifying imagery and fucked-up vocals, seemed like a fascinating character so I did a little documentary with her and that was maybe how I connected with them and started shooting what they were up to.

At the time it was a weird struggle because the content of Tyler and some of Earl’s lyrics were so repulsive. You could see that he was this genuinely creative, clever, smart, confused kid who had all kinds of fucked-up family situations to deal with and you realise, ‘Oh right, he’s just seventeen.’ So it was interesting to document them, but also good to question, ‘Do I really want to amplify what he’s up to if the content is so fucked up?’ It was about finding ways to navigate that and work with these people, who are fascinating and amazing artists, and wait for the rest of the world to catch up and discover the nuances of what they do and what deeper, more complicated sides to it there really are.

Do you ever worry that your work reveals too much?
Well, I’m not really coming into it with a sense that I need to make a defined piece that needs to be released. I’m fine just to have this archive of pieces that I can show people socially and that don’t necessarily get released. I did an entire feature-length documentary with Arcade Fire in 2005 called A Year Without Light that I’m really proud of it, but it didn’t feel like the right time to release it. We made this kind of remarkable film of everything they went through when they put out that first record – everything that blew up, all the attention they received and how it affected the personalities in the band – and it’s sort of a time-capsule piece now that we’re holding onto. Maybe at some point in the future there’ll be a good time to release it. But I’m happy to just keep making things whether or not they get publicly released. For me it’s about someone like Spike just coming over to my house to watch the film and we’ll talk, write notes or whatever. I’d rather preserve the connection with the person I’m documenting than be like, ‘I need to get them to break down on camera so I have the edit.’ That’s not really my approach.

There’s always an element of humour to your work. Is that intentional?
It just seems to turn up. I don’t go out of my way to stage it. I think in my own aesthetic or taste, I’m drawn to sad things – everything I listen to is incredibly bleak and dismal – but I like finding the sides of people’s personalities that are surprising or idiosyncratic and that often comes out in being funny or bizarre or surreal. The Slint film is full of funny moments – of the behaviour of some of those kids over the years – and the turns that their minds took to be able to confront the world and themselves.

This article originally appeared in Huck 40 – The Cat Power issue. Check out the trailer to The Breadcrumb Trail below.