The Slackers Interview

New York City sextet The Slackers originally formed in 1991, and have since made a name for themselves as one of the world’s finest traditional ska bands, with records such as ‘The Question’ and ‘Wasted Days’. Having recently released an amazing seventh album, ‘Peculiar’, they toured the UK last month; I spoke to saxophonist David Hillyard shortly before a recent sold-out show at the London Garage.

How’s the tour been going so far?

It’s been going really well, we’ve done about five shows so far, and the crowds have been great…we’re just feeling good to be back over here!

So how long has it been now, since the Slackers first visited the UK?

I’ve been trying to remember – I think it was about six or seven years ago. The first couple of times, we only played one or two shows, but after that we started touring here properly. It really feels like we’ve got some momentum going here now, though, because tonight’s show is sold out, and so were the last two, so it’s going pretty well.

There are a few songs – most notably, ‘Propaganda‘ and ‘International War Criminal’ – that are overtly political; would you say that the Slackers are generally a political band, or are these songs more of a reaction to the current political climate?

We’ve always had political songs, even on our earliest records, although maybe they weren’t always that obvious – we’ve got a reputation of being a band that writes love songs! And that’s cool, because we do, but we’ve always written about a lot of other things too. People we admire, like Curtis Mayfield and Bob Marley, those guys would always address the issues of the day, and what was going on – and we try to do that too. The whole 2-tone movement was very political – you had black and white kids growing up together, being exposed to each other’s culture…almost everything about 2-tone was political.

You write about stuff that affects your life, you know, and right now there’s a lot of people dying, America’s at war, there’s a whole bunch of stuff going on…and if you don’t comment about it, you’re being kinda irresponsible, I think. It’s sad that in the States, a lot of bands are being escapist, and people are into 80’s pop music, which I think was pretty empty for the most part. I guess maybe they want to remember the music from when they were kids, when life seemed so simple!

A lot of ‘Peculiar’ was recorded live – do you usually record that way?

Yeah, most of the instruments were recorded live – it was done two ways: one was at an actual gig, and others – like ‘What Went Wrong’ – were recorded in an empty hall, at soundcheck time. About half the horns were over-dubbed, and the rest were done live – all the instrumental songs were recorded live too.

A couple of years ago, we were in the studio, and we were having trouble getting ‘loose’ – so we decided to take it on the road for a while, when everyone’s reflexes are good and they really know the stuff, and record it whilst playing it live, in an intimate and comfortable setting.

Peculiar‘ seems more immediate and livelier than [previous record] ‘Close My Eyes’ – was that intentional?

Yeah, we wanted to grab you right off the bat – we kinda felt like ‘Close My Eyes’ was a little too low-key, a little too lo-fi at times, so we wanted ‘Peculiar’ to have more of a punch to it; the way the songs were arranged, and the sound of it too. The mastering guy did a really good job – he really took the sound of it to another level.

So what is the ska scene – and live music in general – like in NYC these days? Has it suffered from Giuliani and Bloomberg’s [former and current NYC mayors] efforts to ‘clean up’ the city?

It was down for a while, but now it’s coming around – the good things about this whole 80’s revival is that more young people are forming bands, which is always a positive thing. It wasn’t looking good for a while, because a lot of venues in Manhattan were getting closed down, but eventually a lot of new venues started opening in Brooklyn, to take their place.

So it’s on the rise again, but it’s kinda hamstrung, by all these regulations – the city government’s always finding some new law to make it more difficult to run a club; they’re afraid of nightlife, you know, they just want a really boring city! I just wish all those people would move to Iowa or something, just go somewhere that’s quiet.

What are the Slackers’ plans for the near future, after this tour ends?

We’ve got a California tour planned soon, then we’re going to Mexico for two days in June, then to Japan and other international touring over the summer. Then in August we have our annual boat gig, where we play a couple of sets on boat that takes us around Manhattan Island – it’s become a tradition! We’re probably gonna come back to Europe in September/October time, but we’ll probably only do a couple of UK dates, because we need to tour Germany and more of the mainland.

‘Peculiar’ is out now on Hellcat Records. Check for more info.

Alex Gosman