Like the city where they came together, New York's The Slackers are a colourful and gritty collective with a wide, deep range of different flavours and sounds. An hour before a fantastic show at the Rickshaw Theatre in Vancouver, BC, long-time Slacker/sax player Dave Hillyard and ska historian/guitar player Jay Nugent sat down with Punknews contributor Gen Handley to talk about the new album, The Great Rocksteady Swindle and their memories of a punk legend.
So, The Slackers have The Great Rocksteady Swindle coming out. What can fans expect on this album?
Nugent: The joke of it is that we left it blank. Like, we didnât really make a record and weâre just conning 12 bucks out of people.
Hillyard: Itâs a swindle because you just get silence when you put the CD in. (laughs) I think itâs a pretty strong record, you know? The band recorded it just playing in a room about [this size] in Berlin. (glances around the smaller dressing room) We knocked out 23 tracks in three days and we finished most of the horns and vocals in Berlin in that three-day period too. So, then we just fine-tuned it and mixed it in New York and yeah, it came out good. It was weird because on the last album I felt that things were going in aâ¦ I donât know, what would you call it? (looks at Nugent)
Nugent: More post-productionâ¦
Hillyard: Yeah, more layered and this one is just nice, hard and direct.
Nugent: We recorded everything, as much as possible, the basic tracks, right when we were doing it. A couple of things got over-dubbed. At the studio, this guy had a lot of old east-German synthesizers and like tape delays, so [Ruggiero] got to play around with that and that was cool. But there werenât any crazy over-dubs. We maybe just came back and did a couple of little things. On a lot of them, I think the scratch vocals were used so we didnât redo the vocals on most of them. Some of the scratch horns were used so we only redubbed the horns on a couple of things. So yeah, we just knocked them out. Vic did about nine of the tracks - did the mixes - and I did about six of them. Vic really wanted the songs to sound as natural as possible so a lot of tracks were left really raw. On a lot of the ska tracks he really gave them that old-room sound - like some of those old Maytals or Wailers records where itâs really just a microphone in a room. Thatâs the kind of music weâre trying to make.
So was it one of the easiest Slackers albums to make?
Nugent: Oh yeahâ¦
Hillyard: Yeah, it was definitely one of the quickest - took about two months?
Nugent: We tracked the basics at the beginning of November and thenâ¦
Hillyard: We were done by the beginning of January.
Nugent: Yeah, and we mastered it January 3.
I had read that thereâs a Specials reference to the song, "Mr Tragedy?"
Hillyard: Yeah, the beginning is similar to the song , "Enjoy Yourself." Itâs a little tongue-in-cheek joke and he did it in a fake British accent.
Nugent: He didnât even intend to do it - it was something he did off the mic and wasnât supposed to be on the record. Itâs a tune that our drummer (Ara Babjian) wrote and itâs actually the first tune heâs written for the band. I was mixing it and because I had it on a loop and kept hearing it over and over again, I got used to hearing it and felt like it belonged in the song. I moved it to the beginning of the tune because I thought it made a nice intro.
Hillyard: Yeah itâs just a play on what Terry Hall says at the beginning of "Enjoy Yourself."
So how has the band changed since Better Late Than Never to the Great Rocksteady Swindle ?
Hillyard: Hopefully we got good. (laughs)
Nugent: Yeah, learned how to play. (laughs) Well, the lineupâs changed a bit, but not so much. Like, Dave, Vic and Marcus were on that record and theyâre still doing it. I was actually asked to be on it, but I was living in the Lower East Side and they were recording in Brooklyn and I didnât feel like schlepping out to Brooklyn. I wasnât even in the band at that time and didnât end up joining until about eight years later. Glen [Pine] joined the band like, a year or two later.
Hillyard: So itâs been a long time for Glen too. Itâs weird because Iâve actually known Jay since I moved to New York so for about 17 years or something.
Nugent: All of our bands used to play together - The Slackers, Leftover Crackâ¦
Hillyard: And we played in Stubborn All-Stars together.
I read on your website that The Slackers music is "an extension of the traditions of the United States." With so many different sounds in the U.S., isnât it a daunting task to at least attempt to encompass all those types of music?
Hillyard: Everybody in the band is into different kinds of music, but mostly into roots music, to a certain extent. Weâre talking about blues, country, jazz, soul, reggae, skaâ¦we take Jamaican ska, but we re-Americanize it. A lot of ska came from America - it was all blues tunes played in a weird Jamaican way. Now we take Jamaican music and play it with American influences, be it garage rock or whatever. These days, the bandâs into a lot of different stuff. Like, some of the guys are into psychedelic music, so that pops up here and there. There are also the ubiquitous Beatles and Dylan references that are all over the place. We basically want to make albums that stand up - that you can listen to 20 years from now and still enjoy. We want to be classy.
Nugent: There was a lot of bands were trying to be The Skatalites or Prince Buster and we love that stuff and thatâs the sound we like, but at the same time itâs not 1964 and itâs never going to be that again. That was a different time and place so we canât do that again. What I always liked about The Slackers is that they blended that old Jamaican â60s sound, but Vic has this nice, almost like Dion and the Belmonts, this Bronx-crooner doo-wop thing going, Glen brings this Beach Boys, Paul McCartney thing, thereâs this Memphis influence going on - thereâs a lot of stuff going on. A lot of bands try to do the Jafakinâ thing with the accent and stuff, but weâre not that and we never will be.
Hillyard: Itâs also that our songs are topical and theyâre not about skanky rude boy gangsters…
Nugent: Yeah, genre catch phrasesâ¦
Hillyard: Yeah, or like, the funky skinhead from the ghetto - weâre not about fantasy characters, weâre writing about things that actually happen. (laughs)
Nugent: The songs should be able to stand on their own. Like, bands that are genre bands, if you try to change the song and try to play it in another style, it just doesnât make sense - The Slackers have real songs.
Hillyard: You could play our songs in different styles and they would still hold up.
Yeah, I agreeâ¦
Hillyard: Itâs like swing bands. I mean, I love swing and I love jump blues, but I really hated the swing revival because all the songs were like, "And Iâm a hip cat walking down the streetâ¦" Thatâs a genre song; itâs about nothing. Like the old jump blues songs were about getting into knife fights and fucking getting drunkâ¦
About real shit, right?
Hillyard: Yeah, real shit.
Is the entire band involved in the song writing process?
Nugent: Now, more than ever.
Hillyard: Yeah, one of the cool things with the band right now is that every member could be a band leader or a songwriter with their own writing, you know?
Nugent: This last record was the first one where everyone in the band wrote a tune. Like normally, Vic and Dave wrote most of the tunes, Glen wrote a couple, so did Marcus. Every now and then, my predecessors T.J. (Scanlon) or Luis ("Zulu" Zuluaga) would write a tuneâ¦
Hillyard: Those guys wrote like, one tune in 10 years.
(laughs) Nugent: Every now and thenâ¦
Hillyard: By that, you mean oneâ¦(laughs)
Nugent: I think weâre all working together and bringing our strengths and interests. People bring their influences, but youâve got to go in the best direction. I try to write songs for the band that they can not only play well, but can sink their teeth into and enjoy playing. I think everyone tries to do that because if the bandâs not comfortable with it, it wonât get on the record or on the setlist, you know?
It sounds very democraticâ¦
Hillyard: Yeah - in a sense of hashing it out over a period of time.
Nugent: Yeah, it pushes everyone to write their best and everyoneâs got to bring their A-material.
Does ska mean the same thing as it did in the â90s?
Hillyard: No (shakes his head). To us, when we refer to ska, weâre talking about Jamaican ska from the â60s. Sometimes a band gets lumped-in with the third-wave stuff and thatâs comparing us to bands like Fishbone or Reel Big Fish - we donât really sound like them.
Nugent: Just being post-2 Tone and being American makes us third-waveâ¦
What do you mean by "post-2 Tone?"
Nugent: I mean, being after the English bands in the late â70s and early â80s - like The Specials. If youâre after that and youâre American, then youâre third-wave. But I could kind of see that. The traditional stuff that The Slackers, Hepcat, Stubborn All-Stars were doing from the early â90s was really a reaction to the music like, Less than Jake, The Toasters and those bands. People were like, "Wait a second, somethingâs gone way off the mark. Okay, it is what it is, but itâs lost that groovy element to it." Itâs almost like this high-energy agro thing and you canât dance with your girl to this music - you just stand there and jog in place or mosh.
Hillyard: Itâs a different thingâ¦
Nugent: Yeah, it all branched off from the same tree, but itâs really a whole different genus.
Hillyard: I used to play in Hepcat when I was really young and Hepcat started because we all enjoyed the music that the DJs were playing in between the bands more so than the actual bands playing at the ska shows we were going to at the time. So we were like, "Why donât we play some shit like that?" And so we did. Itâs the same thing that happened in New York with Jeff ["Django" Baker] and other peopleâ¦
Nugent: Well they were like, "Wait a second." Like, Django started Stubborn All-Stars and me, Vic and Dave were in it and he also had a band called Skinnerbox, which was an edgy, New York, urban thing with dance hall and funk. He wanted to go back to the music that he got into it for - like Prince Buster. So thatâs why he started Stubborn All-Stars. I remember The Slackers were originally a five-piece - Vic played guitar and sang, Q-Maxx (Marq Lyn) sang, T.J. played guitar, Marcus played bass, and Luis played drums - they were more of a rock, 2 Tone band. So in â93, Dave came from California, [Jeremy "Mush One"] Mushlin came from the Allstonians in Boston - he played trumpet - and then Vic traded in the guitar and got a Fender Rhodes keyboard. Overnight, The Slackers became this rock-steady, traditional ska band. I love the old Slackers, like the â91 to â93 thing, but when they started that original batch of tunes like, "No More Crying" and "Runaway" and stuff like that, I was like, "Wow man, this is great." They were really playing this old kind of music, but it was not the red, gold and green, dreadlocks, "Ya man" kind-of thing - they really had this great thing going and it was really cool.
Is The Clash a big influence on you as well?
Hillyard: Yeah, we were lucky enough to open up for Joe Strummer - it was one of the great moments in Vicâs life when he ran into Strummer after a show in a bar - I think it was the 7A or something in New York and Strummer said, "The Slackers are ace! Ace!"
Nugent: He even big-upped The Slackers when he was singing "Straight to Hell." In the middle of the song, he yelled, "The Slackers!" We were like, "Holy shit."
Hillyard: If we talked to The Clash about music, we would probably like the same things. They started out with punk, but they started listening to reggae, ska and rhythm and blues, rockabillyâ¦
Nugent: They could play almost any style and could pull it off and it would sound like one band.
Yeah, for sure - they were true, genre-defying musiciansâ¦
Hillyard: They grew up and matured. From playing real simple shit to getting a groove while keeping their edge. They grew as songwriters and incorporated so many different sounds into their music.
Did you ever meet Joe Strummer?
What was that like? What did you talk about?
Hillyard: He complemented Vic on being able to back up the van and trailer - he was impressed.
Nugent: He was friendlier than a lot of artists who were much smaller and always made a point of coming down to say, "hi." We opened for him around â99 and again right after 9-11 in 2001 and he left a note on our case of water or something saying, "It was good to play with you guys again. Joe."
Nugent: Yeah, in our dressing room.
Who has that note?
Nugent: I donât know who has it, but it was a really nice touch. The Clash were on top of so many things that were happening. Like, roots, dub, obviously the â77 punk thing, but also like, funk and rap, rockabillyâ¦
Hillyard: Theyâre one of the reason why weâre around because The Clash are one of the bands who popularized punk and reggae and sowed the seeds for that music.
Nugent: Like, youâre from Punknews and why are you interviewing us ska and reggae guys? It comes down to The Clash, but you could say Bad Brains, The Slits, The Ruts and even Sham 69 did some reggae too.
Hillyard: Weâre basically doing what weâre doing because those guys got something big enough toâ¦
To send out a ripple effect?
Hillyard: Yeah, to send out a ripple to the States, which eventually woke us up. Every so often Iâll run into somebody who claims that they heard about ska through original ska. But unless youâre some 75-year-old Jamaican guy, youâre pretty much bullshitting me. Or a 60-year-old English guy. Ska didnât really take off in the States - there was like, a hand-full of novelty tunes like, "My Boy Lollipop" and people didnât really know what it was. There were a few songs, but it never really dawned on people what this music was and where it was coming from.
Nugent: Well, how come it caught on in England and not in the U.S.? There are several reasons. Itâs largely because the black community in England is, for the most part, of Caribbean descent. So thatâs the black music in England in the late â60s and â70s. Whereas in the U.S., black music is gospel, R and B, and hip hop - reggae was seen as something foreign. In England, reggae was black music - it was the core of black music. Also, England is smaller and therefore a radio station - like the BBC - can reach more people and also a band can go on tour from one end of England to another and hit every major city and distribute their records. You couldnât really do that in the U.S. Now, with more and more far-reaching radio stations, things are changing, but until recently, music was very regional and it was hard to hit the whole country with a sound.
Hillyard: New York had a Jamaican scene, but until the â70s and Bob Marley, the ska-reggae stuff didnât really get out of the Jamaican community.
Where do you guys get your energy to tour so much and keep on recording?
Nugent: Itâs our job man. Itâs how we pay the bills.
Hillyard: Itâs because you love doing it. Itâs on stage where I feel I have more purpose and I come alive.
Nugent: Yeah, I love doing it. If Iâm sick or Iâm tired, that all goes away once youâre out there and itâs going.
So itâs therapeutic thenâ¦
Nugent: Yeah man. Itâs our jobs and at this point, weâre not really qualified to do much else.
Nugent: People ask me how I can travel around all the time and I ask them back, "How the fuck can you do a nine to five job like five or six days a week?" Iâd go crazy. This job is really fun.
Is it just as fun playing in The Slackers now as it was in your â20s?
Hillyard: Yeah, you know Iâm not as drunk as I was in my â20s and I wear earplugs so I have a lot more fun now - and Iâm not as confused as I was when I was younger. It gets better as you get older.