Photo of Slaves © BatGippa photography.
For Louder Than War, DB Schenker interviews Kent duo Slaves, whose angular and highly original take on raw garage indie rock has made them one of the hottest bands on the country atm.
Two piece lo-fi garage band Slaves are hot stuff at the moment. And rightly so. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that their track “Where’s Your Car Debbie?”; a taut, wiry gem of a track, bristling with pent up angst and fury, is probably the best 2 minute track of the decade so far. I remember quite clearly hearing it for the first time on Mike Davies punk show (RIP) and being knocked side-ways by its brilliance. A few seconds later I’d rewound it (love those DAB radios!) and was going again. And again. It came out towards the end of 2013 and kick started a momentous year for them in 2014, one they ended having signed to the Virgin EMI label and with a highly praised performance on Jools Holland’s show under their belts.
And so to 2015, a year that’s started excellently well for them as they’ve been selected to join Palma Violets, Fat White Family and Amazing Snakeheads on the influential NME awards tour – full dates at the foot of the page.
So we like Slaves, and when we approached by one of our writers asking if he could do a feature on them we bit his hand off first, put him in touch with the band second and left it at that. You can find his article below, but first off please check out the afore-mentioned “Where’s Your Car Debbie?”
It’s Tuesday and I’m skulking in the rain on a canal towpath outside my office talking on my crap smartphone to a lad from Tunbridge Wells about Crass. And about how musical boundaries don’t matter in these, our later days.
The lad in question is Isaac Holman, front man and standing drummer from the garage duo Slaves. Who might, just might, be on the brink of something really fucking big.
You might have heard of Slaves. They recently wiped the floor with U2 on Later with Jools Holland. They are all over BBC radio like a sweaty rash. At time of writing (January 2015) there’s cyclical airplay of their singles. They are signed to a major. It’s likely that by the end of next month the fucking Guardian Guide will have done a feature on them.
This is on the surface a curious state of play for a couple of grafters who until very recently were flogging their wares on the largely overlooked UK DIY punk scene – or to directly quote the BBC, “the UK toilet circuit”. A scene known for its sparsely attended shows, work ethic, high regard for quality and its refusal to die. A place where no-one with money or influence has looked for over a decade. More on that later.
Perhaps the spark that the BBC and the cold business brains at Virgin EMI see in Slaves is to do with the fact that they are more than the archetypal “scrappy guitar band” Isaac says they are. Like some other young bands on the UK DIY circuit such as Grand Collapse, Slaves are literally the children of punks, and can trace a lineage to Medway garage scene of the early 1980s. And they also take much from the half-forgotten hip hop / guitar cross-over tradition.
“My dad’s a massive vinyl geek basically. I grew up with a lot of punk and reggae” Isaac says. “When I started making music it was more on the hip hop side though, to be honest. Me and a few mates would beatbox and rap in the playground. When Slaves first started I was listening to a lot of Beastie Boys and Laurie [Laurie Vincent, guitar] was listening to a lot of Crass. We’d finish practice and my dad literally wouldn’t let Laurie leave, and he’d just put a pile of vinyl on his lap and be like “listen to this, listen to this, listen to this”. It would be all the old Medway garage punk bands and stuff. We were into stuff like that ourselves when we started – stuff like Billy Childish, the Husbands and so on.
I’ve always been into flow and syncopation and if you took the music out from our stuff and put a hip hop beat over it, the lyrics would work”
A quick listen of Laurie and Isaac’s band before Slaves, Bare Face on bandcamp flags up these garage hip hop roots more clearly. Slaves’ killer trait, Isaac’s ultra-simple stand up “steering wheel drumming” also has its roots in this lyrical style. As Isaac explains.
“I’d never played a drum kit until our first practice. We were looking for a drummer, but we didn’t have that many mates and no-one wanted to drum for us. So Laurie gave me these drums and said “while we’re writing the songs just bang these” so we had at least got a beat. We wrote one song like that… and we were like “fuck it, shall we leave it like this?” And that was it.”
This also explains Isaac’s unusual habit of playing with his sticks held the wrong way round – something proper drummers always remark on.
“I think my style of drumming is very primal. I just like to hit it to get the loudest hardest sound I can, and I haven’t managed to get any sticks that are heavy enough for me. I usually just get the heaviest sticks I can in a shop and just turn em around and use the fat end”
It could also be that Slaves are hitting something of a zeitgeist. Neither the kids nor the music industry are stupid. The kids know that they are being lied to routinely by the mass media. They know that the established political system that is supposed to represent them does nothing of the sort – and probably never will again. They know that their future is probably a fucked up horror of melted ice caps, runaway global warming, raging economic and social inequality and untreatable superbugs.
The kids know all this but are too swamped with information to work out what to do about it. And the music business – well. The smart money probably says that there is a gap in the mainstream music market (filled as it is with spineless indie bands and rock dinosaurs) for a bit of youthful piss and vinegar.
“Me and Laurie are definitely not educated at all in the way of politics, and we don’t know anything about any of the parties or what they stand for” Isaac said, “I dunno, I guess you should take a bit of an interest but it’s just something I’ve never really latched onto. Our lyrics are more personal politics. It’s every day observations… literally whatever we think about.
It can be, like with the Hunter that we’ve just released (see below). That was a bit more serious and had more of a message. But then we’ve done Girl Fight. Which was literally about two girls having a fight. Everyone’s very suppressed and angry at the moment, but no-ones’ really sure what about, but that song – the Hunter – is trying to capture that feeling.
People just want energy. I don’t think people give a shit about genre any more. They just want something that’s hard hitting, and that’s going to say something, something that’s going to make them want to move.”
The Hunter, which is a technicolour blart of looming menace and testiness that gives a post-modern voice to this generational unease, is indeed a case in point. Whether this really will hit a nerve will soon become apparent. Because the hype is quickly building. The BBC have named Slaves as one of the runners for their sounds of 2015, given them a prime time live session – and they will of course be touring the UK in February with a bunch of music press darlings du jour on the NME Awards Tour. And the need for the youth to feel they have made their mark is not going to go away.
“Being played on daytime commercial radio. That’s still a bit bonkers” says Isaac “I think a band like us wouldn’t have been played on the radio a few years ago… it was all house and dance music and R’n’B, and no-one really wanted to hear guitar music. But I think now style, genre, musical taste whatever. I think everyone is just merging into one.
“I think that’s a good thing – and a bad thing. Society these days is a little bit faceless. I don’t think anyone is going to remember our generation for anything really. I dunno. This could be it.”
There is sincere talk in some quarters of Slaves “doing a Nirvana” for the UK DIY punk scene, with their new album – set to be released this summer – propelling an unfashionable subculture into mass consciousness in the same way that Nevermind did for grunge and the apocryphal Generation X.
Before anyone gets excited though, the second coming of punk has been heralded before. Gallows in their Frank Carter era, circa 2009 were supposed to be the spark that lit popular culture alight with old school hardcore carnage. History tells us that Gallows did OK, but not brilliantly, and were dropped by a major after one album.
They did admittedly spawn a modest hardcore subculture, with its latest and probably final incarnation in the questionable TotalUprawr club scene. But Gallows’ impact was hardly transformational. And most consumers of music have never heard of them.
But then again, Gallows never played on Jools Holland. So who knows.
Slaves are still full of regard for the DIY punk scene – and the skills they learned on the circuit. This should be some reassurance to the DIY stalwarts and traditionalists that see any truck with the mainstream as selling out – or, like Steve Albini, wholly unnecessary. Whether other bands on the DIY scene could work productively with a major is unclear, despite (anecdotal) reports of the industry sniffing around DIY bands like Petrol Girls, The Exhausts and Doe to name three. As to how Slaves’ former mentors, London’s Wonk Unit would fare, the answer is probably more clear cut.
“Yeah… it would be interesting to see how it could work” says Isaac, “Imagine someone like Alex Wonk trying to work with a major label. It would be quite funny.
Wonk Unit took us on our first ever tour and showed us the ropes. Alex from Wonk Unit I always say is pretty much my biggest inspiration as a front man… he showed me that you can just go on stage and literally not give a fuck.”
When asked about the NME Tour – which they will share with the full 2015 indie picture card set of Fat White Family, Palma Violets and the Amazing Snakeheads, and which may possibly propel them into whatever rock stardom territory looks like these days, Isaac’s answer is deadpan.
“Yeah, it’s going to be wicked. And it’s going to be interesting. I think the NME want it to be absolute carnage – and really clichéd – but me and Laurie we’re so not like that. We go on these tours and usually in bed by midnight or we’re in our pants and looking on the Asos [clothing] website together.”
Which perhaps also explains why Slaves are always so snappily dressed. Nonetheless, the question inevitably and unavoidably remains whether Slaves will follow the same troubled path as almost every other band to ever have dealings with major record labels. Particularly in the post-Napster age when margins are so tiny and every penny of return has to be squeezed out of the talent in order for the business to survive.
The odds are never good. But Slaves do appear to have been given a lot of creative freedom, and have old heads on their young shoulders at least. They also appear determined to take full advantage of the resources that only being with a commercial label can offer.
“To a lot of the bands on the DIY circuit it can sometimes be a bad thing to sign to a major label. They see it as selling out or whatever. But Virgin EMI are sort of running us like an indie anyway. We’ve got complete creative control. And I think our experience of working with a major has been nothing but delightful.
Me and Laurie are a musical partnership. I don’t think we’re going to stick to one genre because we are so into everything else. On the album that we’ve got coming out, some of the tracks on that have got synths. We’re also going to start experimenting with our live set up, bringing in drum machines. I absolutely love our set up now, but you would be mad not to explore.
I’d like to go back to some of the old school hip hop – and explore some of that. I think Laurie’s up for it too. We want to start working with a few different musicians too, like try working with some rappers and stuff. I think we’d both like to end up producing one day.
And that’s pretty much it. See how it goes. See what we fancy doing at the time. And just always pursue what we want to do.”
And, in the final analysis – that is all punk is. Doing exactly what you want because you can. And because you have to. Punk is dead. Long live the punks.
Before heading out on the NME tour the guys have a handful of headline shows:
- Thu 12th Feb Tunbridge Wells, Forum Tunbridge Wells w/Baby Strange – SOLD OUT
- Fri 13th Feb Shipping Forecast, Liverpool w/Baby Strange – SOLD OUT
- 14 Glasgow Barrowlands (w/ Interpol)
- 15 Leeds Met Uni (w/ Interpol)
- 17 London Forum (w/ Interpol)
…and those NME Awards Tour 2015 dates:
- Thurs 19 Feb Sheffield Leadmill
- Fri 20 Feb Leeds O2 Academy
- Sat 21 Feb Newcastle O2 Academy 1
- Sun 22 Feb Glasgow O2 ABC
- Tues 24 Feb Nottingham Rock City
- Thurs 26 Feb Manchester Ritz
- Fri 27 Feb Oxford O2 Academy 1
- Sat 28 Feb Birmingham Institute
- Mon 2 Mar Bristol O2 Academy 1
- Tues 3 Mar Portsmouth Pyramid
- Weds 4 Mar London Forum
If you can’t
With thanks to Brendan at BatGippa photography for all the pictures above, taken when they played Wolverhampton Slade Rooms last year.
All words by DB Schenker. More writing by him can be found at his author’s archive.