On the back of my recent quarry visit in Plymouth, another quarry excursion, this time in Utica, Indiana.
Utica is a small township just north of the mighty Ohio river, which forms the border between Indiana and Kentucky. The nearby city is Louisville, known for the Kentucky Derby and Muhammad Ali but for me, Louisville was the home to the band Slint.
Slint endorsed the American Gothic style, even in the light and sub-tropical heat of America’s southern states. Their shadowy, intricate sound would become a genre of its own: post rock. But in 1991, a web of mystery surrounded the band and especially their second (and final) album Spiderland. For many, it appeared fully formed from nowhere, with successive plays revealing ever richer means to understand it. For years after its release, I’d eagerly scour record shop racks, looking for further recordings.
By chance, in 1995 I met Slint guitarist David Pajo at a party, not long after I moved to Birmingham. He told me it was here he’d got his Celtic knot tattoo and how he had later discovered the SLINT BANDS category at the local record shop. He confirmed that the band had split up. He also revealed where the album cover was photographed: in a disused quarry in Indiana. It’s a haunting black and white group portrait, the band floating dreamlike and disembodied in an expanse of water surrounded by pale rocky walls. The photo is given the ‘Cinescope’ black bordered letterbox treatment and has no accompanying text. Unlike many 90s bands I listened to, this album remained current for decades.
Skipping forward a decade or three, while planning a trip through USA, I realise I will be near the quarry at a certain point and decide to pay a visit. As I travel through America, I ask people I meet in various cities if they know Slint. Many are younger than the album. My Athenian travelling companion knows the band affectionately from the 2000s, when Post Rock peaked in its popularity. In Baltimore, at the Brian Eno obsessed Baby’s on Fire café, my enquiries draw blanks from the tabled coffee-sippers. Then as we try to explain Slint, we realise we are listening to it over the cafés’ speakers. The next day in Annapolis - an antique harbour town with some of America’s earliest surviving buildings - a record store we visit displays Spiderland at the front of an old crate in the window. Later, when I arrive in Louisville, my friend who hadn’t heard of Slint three weeks previously, announces that via his local music contacts, he has been able to invite two members of Slint over to meet me. Thirty years on, it seems the legacy of Spiderland is still there, if confined to the shadows.
The quarry is several miles up the river from Louisville, too far and too hot to walk, so we cycle there. I love the neighbourhoods we travel through - every block has a haunted house, decaying grey weatherboards surrounded by trees. Turkey vultures circle overhead. Concrete defences for when the Ohio floods. We spot the bar we will return to: the garage of a large residential house has been transformed into a pub. Then towns of trailers and narrow houses, gardens planted with Stars and Strips: this is Trump country. Vast trucks and pickups overtake us en route but we have our own cycle lane (more or less) throughout.
We follow the riverside pike out of the city until it turns past the Consolidated Grain and Barge Company; an imposing cluster of sun-glinting grain silos. Sheepish clouds graze gently across a brilliant blue sky. So much of America has a cinematic setting but this scene feels very familiar somehow…then all the elements suddenly clack together. This a Slint song. We are inside it!
Past where the river bends
Past where the silo stands
Past where they paint the houses!
…as spoken - rather than sung - on Carol, from the band’s first album Tweez. The lyric, I realise after thirty years, is a map to the quarry. It is a revelation that comes from being in the environment itself. So what did the quarry mean to the band?
Further cycling through the quiet township of Utica allow a few answers to pop into focus. The quarry’s out-of-town location and landscape-preserving burrowing meant it must have been something of a secret valley to those that found it, or were told about it. As teens growing up and finding their own space, this must have been a key location for exploration, forming friendships and for romantic encounters. Swimming underwater in the darkness. Things that matter most as a teen
I know before I arrive at the quarry that I won’t be swimming in it. The area is now surrounded by a cluster of houses, huge even for American standards, and the quarry itself is sealed off with railings. It has been named Quarry Bluff: as in the vertical white walls of the quarry but also suggesting a sense of being a pretext, a false front. This private community represents the painted houses of Carol: after heading through districts of trailers and shotgun shacks, this is the aspirational, manicured part of town with something to prove. And that is what’s being expressed in Carol and immortalised on the the sleeve of Spiderland: a personal secret territory invited by another class and indeed is the wider story of gentrification. The narrator is initially angry about it but then becomes philosophical about the nature of loss.
Residents cruise slowly past in their tinted-window 4x4s, suspicious of this intrusion of their personal space. I ignore them, confidently enjoying the spectacular gulf into the white limestone quarry, beautiful blue water being fed by the Ohio river and surrounded by wild flowers and bees. Claiming the quarry for myself, if only for a few minutes.
The sun was setting by the time we left. After the garage pub and back at the hotel, exhausted by cycling miles through the sub-tropics, we play Spiderland on iTunes. It features a long extra track I didn’t know about: Utica Quarry, Nighttime, and I fall asleep to 15 minutes of chirping crickets chirping and barking dogs.
Take away something that you know
The reason that you're always there
Use it 'til you're through
But remember when the time comes
You got to let go