by Hank Shteamer
His list of recordings over the past three decades isn’t vast, and his drumming charms aren’t the type that 32nd-note junkies fawn over. But his contributions to landmark albums by indie-rock kings and queens cannot be overstated.
Sitting in a Vietnamese noodle shop in Greenwich Village, Britt Walford is polite and gracious. Compliment the drummer, and he sighs and utters a humble, “Man…” in his nasal Louisville drawl. But ask him about the why of what he does—his beautifully loose sense of groove, for instance, or his masterful way with ghost notes—and he seems bewildered. His most common response? “I guess that’s just how I heard it.”
It’s somehow fitting that Walford’s drumming might be a mystery even tothe man himself. In the years since its early-’90s breakup, Slint, the indie-rock band that brought John Britton Walford to the world’s attention, has inspired awe and curiosity worthy of a lost civilization. Breadcrumb Trail, an excellent 2014 documentary by Lance Bangs, fills in a lot of the facts, and an expanded reissue of the band’s magnum opus, 1991’s Spiderland, provides key context in the form of demos, outtakes, and a scrapbook of photos and flyers. But, even now, Spiderland seems almost like an apparition. It’s not a drummer’s record in the classic sense—you don’t get the feeling that many have puzzled over its parts in the practice room—but Walford’s determinedly laid-back feel and wide, rumbling sound are integral to its hypnotic power. In 2014, Spiderland’s percussive DNA resurfaced on This World, the debut by the hypnotic post-rock trio Watter, Walford’s first new project in nearly two decades.
Schooled in classical piano from age six, Walford began drumming in sixth grade, when he joined the Languid and Flaccid, which included his classmate and future Slint collaborator Brian McMahan. “It was purely a creative thing,” Walford says of his early, self-taught drumming, “which was different from piano. That was a training thing.” Aside from a brief audio snippet in Breadcrumb Trail, no recordings of this group have circulated, but the documentary contains anecdotes of the prepubescent band—friends dubbed Walford and McMahan “the baby hardcores”—sharing bills with menacing Louisville punk crews such as Malignant Growth.
Walford’s list of early drumming influences is brief. “I listened to hard rock and lots of AM radio music, so the only thing in particular was maybe AC/DC—Phil Rudd,” Britt explains. “And then, once we were listening to hardcore, Jeff Nelson of Minor Threat was a big influence. That’s the biggest step I ever took in drumming—in math class, trying to figure out the Minor Threat beat and how the foot was independent from the right hand.”
Walford cofounded his first mature group, Maurice, with another future Slint bandmate, guitarist David Pajo. The First Shall Be Last, a 1985 Maurice demo available digitally from Pajo’s Blazebirth Records, is the earliest extended document of Walford’s drumming. Maurice played a hyperactive, dauntingly complex form of progressive punk—miles away from the emotive, Hüsker Dü–style proto indie rock of Squirrel Bait, with which Walford had worked briefly after the Languid and Flaccid. (As he would later do in Slint, the drummer also contributed select guitar parts to Maurice.) With typical self-deprecation, Walford refers to the Maurice period as one of “peak silliness,” probably a reference to the manic, overstuffed nature of the songs. But while Walford’s hardcore-informed performances on tracks like “Imitate Christ” lack the grace and poise of his later playing, his ideas are ambitious and his execution fearless.
This daring approach carried over into Slint, whose early output bears some traces of Maurice’s off-the-wall invention. Tweez, the band’s often-overlooked 1989 debut, features a crushingly massive drum sound courtesy of producer Steve Albini. “I liked the Samhain snare drum sound, which is a pretty weird sound,” Walford says. (Like his bandmates, the drummer was a serious Glenn Danzig enthusiast, and he got to know the horror-punk legend when Maurice toured with Samhain in 1986.) “I think Steve was like, ‘No,’ and I was like, ‘Okay!’ So he was a huge influence on how that all sounded.” The record is the perfect place to appreciate Walford’s skillful navigation of mathy rhythms and counterintuitive structures; listen to the lurching grooves on “Charlotte” or the loopy circus-fusion breakdowns in “Pat.”
While the band’s sound at this time seems to bear traces of prog, metal, and jazz, Walford portrays Slint circa Tweez as an island unto itself, simply the product of what he terms “audacious experimentation.” “I listened to Metallica’s Kill ’Em All a whole lot,” he explains. “That was a huge influence, mainly the guitars and the riffs. As far as metal, I wasn’t into anything other than Metallica.” Walford’s jazz exposure was even more minimal. “I picked up on [jazz] just barely at Doo-Wop Shop, the music store I worked at. Some guys asked me to play in their jazz group at the local university, so I did that a little bit. That was pretty much it—it was completely uninformed, lowbrow exposure.”
The Slint sound, and Walford’s playing, grew steadily more meditative and minimal. The centerpiece of Spiderland, the band’s second and final LP, is “Good Morning, Captain,” a seven-minute mini epic driven by a wiry and hypnotic vamp laid down by Walford and bassist Todd Brashear. As guitarist/vocalist Brian McMahan narrates the story of a sea captain returning home after a shipwreck, Walford punctuates his unchanging beat with minimal embellishments that seem momentous against the stark backdrop. (Walford credits McMahan’s lyrics for inspiring some of these flourishes. He cites the lone ride-bell accent at 5:07 as a direct response to the line “delicate hand of a child.”) Listen for his slurry snare anticipations and brief triplet-heavy tom rolls, and, at the 5:30 mark, a five-stroke tom/snare fill that has the impact of a steel trap snapping shut.
The album’s heavier moments—the fuzz-bathed breakdowns in “Nosferatu Man,” the famously cathartic climax of “Good Morning, Captain”—showcase Walford’s relaxed approach to accompanying a riff, along with what friend and Matmos member Drew Daniel referred to in a Wire review of the Spiderland box as the drummer’s “sidelong lurch into the one.” Breadcrumb Trail footage of Spiderland-era rehearsals shows Walford achieving his weighty sound with an unusually loose-wristed grip and an almost casual attack. Walford acknowledges his preference for a behind-the-beat feel, but he’s at a loss to explain where it originated. “Man, yeah, I’m not really sure what that is,” he says. “I think maybe [I was] just trippin’ out.”
A knack for minimal grooves also served Walford well during his brief time in the Breeders. The sole album he recorded with the group, 1990’s Pod—one of his favorite documents of his own playing, despite the fact that he appeared under the pseudonym Shannon Doughton—is an excellent place to appreciate the Walford feel. (The same goes for “Biker Gone,” a 2014 single by Breeders leader Kim Deal.) The basic, rock-solid beats are exactly what Deal and Tanya Donelly’s stripped-down alt-rock songs need. “The best thing about that experience was, just like Slint, the collaboration,” Walford says of the Pod period. “That was really cool, because the songs weren’t finished when I joined the band. We all kind of worked by consensus, so it made things pared down a lot. If one person didn’t like one thing, it was gone.”
Walford speaks with similar fondness about a brief but intense 1995 experience playing blues in a Louisville club. He felt out of place when he first showed up at a local blues bar—“I think there’s a scene in Animal House where some frat guys go to a bar and everybody turns around and looks at them; that totally happened,” he says—but he eventually became friendly with singer and harmonica player Fred Murphy. When Murphy mentioned one night that he was in the market for a drummer, Walford volunteered his services. “I said, ‘Well, I could maybe do that,’” Walford recalls. “So I showed up at this place called the Red Devil Motorcycle Club and played with these guys, and they didn’t say one single word to me except, like, ‘Blues in G.’ But then they asked me back, and we played there for maybe six months to a year. It was amazing, man. They didn’t want me to ever play hi-hat—just never. So that was kind of interesting.”
The experience likely fed into Walford’s work with Evergreen, a punky Louisville indie band. The drummer’s only recording with the group, a self-titled 1996 full-length, features some of his rawest, most straightforwardly rocking work on disc. Walford recalls that he had less input in Evergreen than in the much more meticulous environment of Slint. “I like that just as well,” he says. “If there’s no input to be had, I’m happy not to, because it’s good how it is.”
The same description would seem to apply to Walford’s new band, Watter. “I like playing simple stuff, where I can concentrate on the finer points,” Britt says when asked about his current preferences. And this project definitely fits the bill. A collaboration with multi-instrumentalists Zak Riles (Grails) and Tyler Trotter, Watter focuses on sprawling, sensuous post-rock that makes Spiderland sound busy by comparison. Songs on the band’s debut LP, This World, often feature only one or two pared-down beats, but Walford’s percussive signature is unmistakable—in the tastefully syncopated bass/snare trudge he lends to “Bloody Monday,” for example, or the dynamic mid-tempo backbeat that closes “Seawater.”
In Watter, as in conversation, Britt Walford is self-effacing. But there’s a passion and conviction buried beneath the shyness. Walford knows what he wants to do. And he feels that he’s just now discovering it. When asked how he thinks his playing and his approach to the instrument have evolved over time, he says, “Sometimes if I listen to stuff that I’ve done, I’ll think, That’s too much. Other than that, I feel like I’m a little bit less certain of things nowadays. But when I play music, everything makes sense.”
Tools of the Trade
At press time Walford was between drumsets. With Slint he used a 1984 Tama Superstar kit with 12×13 and 13×14 toms, a 16×18 floor tom, and a 16×24 bass drum, along with a 6.5×14 Tama Imperialstar Mastercraft steel snare. “Nobody makes shells like Tama,” Walford says, “and I really like birch. Also, the hardware is still the best.” His cymbals include 14″ Sabian Rock hi-hats, 16″ and 18″ Paiste Signature series Full crashes, and a 21″ Sabian Rock ride. His bass drum pedal of choice is a Camco. “Those were single-chain with a circular cam, as opposed to oblong ones, and a ‘fall away’ heel plate. They were simple—and so light and fast.”
Phil Rudd (AC/DC) /// Todd Fuller (Malignant Growth) /// Jeff Nelson (Minor Threat) /// George Hurley (the Minutemen) /// Neil Peart (Rush) /// Dan Hobson (Killdozer) /// Jeff McAllister (the Monarchs) /// Jaki Liebezeit (Can)