Here's the interview I promised with The Slackers. I spoke with sax player David Hillyard as the band made their way north to Lackawanna, NY and their their upcoming shows in Ontario. Click below for our conversation on everything from their new record Close My Eyes, Kerouac, major labels, the 90s ska explosion, Johnny Cash, Duke Ellington, Berlin and getting promoted to assistant-manager.
Close My Eyes seems to have a more serious lyrical focus when compared to Wasted Days. Was there a more conscious effort to write this way?
David: No, well it was just sort of the way things have been going. It just kind of happened that way. Weâve been into a lot of wars in the past two years, a lot of personal tragedies in the band too.
The song "Bin Waitin" showed up on your website as a demo in May. Lyrically was that song reflecting the same thing?
David: Yeah, itâs pretty apparent from the song. Iâd say its like peopleâs reaction to being attacked, which is "Iâm going to strike them back" but in fact they end up sinking to the same level as those people want you to become. You become the evil empire people think you are if you just sink to their level.
You used a Kerouac quote in the album cover. It looks like thatâs where the title came from. Was there a specific reason for that choice, did it describe the mood?
David: Well Vic reads a lot of Kerouac, he would have to tell you that.
Victor Ruggiero: That really kind of explains the title. The title really comes from the song, which I wrote a few years ago. Then I was reading "Visions of Gerard" while we were on the road and I was arranging the record and all of a sudden I came across this passage. You know what "Visions of Gerard" was about? Itâs about Kerouacâs older brother who died of rheumatism at a young age. Itâs him talking about how all this crazy shit you read and everything that goes onâ¦ you just close your eyes and it all just goes away. Itâs really the mood that the recordâs about. Itâs like he says "thereâs no mamma, thereâs no pappa, thereâs no crazy bustling crowds or buildings or smoke"â¦ it really fit the whole mood. I didnât put the whole quote in because itâs a whole page, but thatâs the end of it "All I gotta do is close my eyes and it all goes away"
Thatâs really fitting.
Victor: Kind of like: is that a realistic way of dealing with things… Or is that THE way to deal with things?
(back to Dave) So what was the song writing process like for this album?
David: Itâs kind of like our other albums in that there are some songs that have been bubbling around for a while and some Vic brings in that are complete. Other times the rhythm section will come up with a rhythm and heâll write lyrics over it.
Me and him usually collaborate. On the songs we write together Iâll write part of the music and the lyrical content and heâll edit it. It sort of varies from song to song. Itâs an organic process that usually takes about a year.
You have a new drummer this time around. At least on the recording, itâs was Allen Teboul, which was different from the last album. Also the last time I saw you live you were playing with Ara from Leftover Crack.
David: Yeah Allenâs not playing with us anymore.
I heard that, who are you with now?
David: Itâs Ara, heâs going to become our permanent drummer.
Also your website said that your guitarist TJ Scanlon was becoming a father.
David: Yeah he is a father now. He has a young son. It happened about a week and a half ago.
â¦so youâre playing now with Agent Jay from the Stubborn All Stars / Agent 99?
David: Yeah, yeah. Itâs funnyâ¦ the good thing about being from New York is you have a nice deep reservoir of musicians you can draw from when you get in a jam. Agent Jayâs actually played with us before but not on record. Heâs played with us live a whole bunch of times.
So there was no big transition when bringing him in?
David: Naw, he was an obvious choice and it was very easy.
You guys also released a record a little while ago which was the Slackers and Friends CD, On the record you collaborated with Cornell Campbell, Doreen Schaffer and lots of greats from the ska and reggae scene. How did that come together?
David: I think that one started a couple years back. We were asked to be the backing band for Cornell Campbell (this was `99 or something like that) for a gig in New York. So we wrote a bunch of his songs and while we were hanging out with him we said "weâve got some rhythms, do you want to sing on them?" So it started from there, we started collaborating with people we liked and people we were introduced too.
Weâve known Glen Adams for a long time because heâs been working on our records since Redlight six or seven years ago.
So you just spent time on it as you were able to get together?
David: Yeah it took us about a year and a half to get it all togetherâ¦ with people weâd be meeting or working with at the time. We were at The Congosâ because they asked us to be their backing band. The whole record never came out but we ended up using a couple of the tracks.
I see you had Venice Shoreline Chris on there with you too?
David: Yeah. Chris was actually the opening act for our first national tour in `97.
Was he with King Apparatus at the time or was it just him?
David: It was just him. Heâs the best opening act you could have because you can just take him with you and just put him in your back seat. Heâs kind of tall but he doesnât take up that much space.
Did you just stack him with the equipment?
David: Yeah exactly.
Have you sent he make-up of your crowds change as the popularity of ska music rises and falls?
David: Well I think for us weâre constantly on the up. Itâs just a steady growth process. Weâre like the slow steady train. The interesting thing right now is that itâs not so much the same kids that are coming out to see us, itâs like college age is probably the biggest bulk of our audience. Thereâs a variety of others where weâre the only ska band they listen too, the other stuff they listen to is various kind of alternative rock.
So when the ska explosion of the mid to late 90s happened, most of the attention was on acts coming out of California. Did you notice there was a similar spotlight turned on New York at the time?
David: To a much lesser extent. 96 was when most of those bands actually charted and by 97 it was pretty much on itâs way out. I mean the Bosstones had hits and No Doubt had hits and Rancid had some hitsâ¦ Reel Big Fish… They werenât really focused on us per se, but a lot of people will tell us that they were completely unaware of what we were doing… since we were playing the older style, something actually rooted in Jamaican music as opposed to pop punk and rock with a horn section.
It seemed like at that time the majors were signing up a lot of those bands but meanwhile New York bands like The Slackers, Skinnerbox, Stubborn All-Stars were all on labels like Moon, Triple Crown or at the largest Epitaph. It didnât seem like the scene was a broken up as much by the big business.
David: (pause) It was weird. I mean bands like the Toasters were probably at the peak of their popularity then, Moon Records were definitely at the peak of their popularity. But for us not really because we were very smallâ¦
You guys only released your first album in `96
David: Right. So we were on a slow growthâ¦ compared to what most of the bands were doing.
So about the current level you 're at right now. Whenever we post some news about your band Iâve never seen a negative response to it
Thatâs actually pretty good! Are you happy with your current level of exposure or are there aspirations for something bigger?
David: Well Iâd like to be a lot more successful (laughs). I think right now weâre up to making about as much money as you would if you were a fry chef at McDonalds. Iâm aiming that we can at least be assistant manager or manager someday. (laughs)
You see the thing is when youâre in a ska bandâ¦ itâs like "whatâs the matter with having success? Whatâs so wrong about it?" I donât have a problem with that. A lot of people sold albums and made great music over the years, a lot of people I admire. Duke Ellington sold a ton of albumsâ¦ he travelled around in his own train!
I guess today you donât see bands with as much roots influence as you guys have really getting exposure in the mainstream.
David: I mean, thatâs part of the problemâ¦ but itâs not because weâre opposed to it. We think that the record companies are a big monopoly and they tend to put a lot of crap to the topâ¦ a lot of fluff. But Iâm veryâ¦ (?)â¦ Weâd like to be more successful; weâd like to have bigger crowds and bigger record sales.
Last time I saw you guys was in Guelph, Ontario on New Years Eve, it was soon after Joe Strummer died and I believe you played a tribute to him in the set. Here we are now and Johnny Cash just has passed away. How has that affected the band?
David: Yeah there are a lot of Johnny Cash fans in the Slackers. Vicâs a huge country fan in general, but even those of us who arenât as big country fans like Johnny Cash. He was an icon, a great songwriter with an amazing voice. Heâs the sort of thing that we aspire to be, writing songs that will last 20 years from now.
We actually have been doing dedications to him in the set pretty regularly. Qâ dedicated "Old Dog" from the new record to him.
Speaking of Guelph, you guys seem to be up here quite a bit, do you enjoy the city?
David: Yeah, itâs good. J sets us up and itâs been really good.
Yeah Jâs actually been really good for the scene up here. He brings a ton of bands through that a lot of towns our size, even though weâre a college town, donât really get. So weâre pretty grateful for that.
I spoke with someone last night from Northern Quebec. Heâs planning to drive down to Guelph for your show on Thursday, which is (I think) a 700-kilometre drive.
David: Thatâs crazy!
He was planning to drive down, see the show, drink about 10 cups of coffee and drive back up.
David: (laughter) Wowâ¦
Thatâs devotion on the part of your fans.
David: We have a few fanaticsâ¦
No one following you around like Deadheads though?
David: You know we do a little bit, especially in the Midwestern United States. When we were in Europe we had people follow us around from show to show to show.
Do you see style crowds in different geographical areas changing?
David: Yeah, like in the south some places we play like San Antonio or El Paso most of our fans are Chicano. In Europe we have fans in Spain and Italy, all over the place.
(at this point Dave had to help navigate the bandâs van through New York State) Your own band, Dave Hillyard & the Rocksteady 7 just released a new album titled United Front on Do Tell Records. What does this band let you explore outside of the Slackers sound?
David: Itâs more of an instrumental thing, very jazz oriented. We play fewer songs, like 6, but theyâre like ten minutes long. Itâs a lot of instrumental stretching out and not constrained by the formula pop song.
You can improvâ a bit more.
David: Yeah exactly. Itâs all about improvâ… Setting up a wall of percussion.
Are you intending to get out a bit more with that band after the Slackersâ tour is over?
David: Yeah. Iâm actually planning about heading up to Canada again some time.
We went and asked out readers to submit questions for you guys and we got a really great response from them. However the one question we received the most is "when is ska music is going to come back?" Are you guys really tired of getting asked that?
David: I think it was big in 95/96 so weâre getting to be 8 or 9 years from itâs peak. So weâre actually getting to the point where the "early to mid 90s revival" is going to come out.
Do you really see that happening?
David: Well Iâm half joking and Iâm half not. Itâs a big joke that Western society feels the need to recycle itself continuously.
Especially with the "rock revival"
David: Well right now the 80s are "in" so anyone who can setup any crappy synthesizer sound and write anything that sounds like Berlin can have a pop hit. I personally thought most of that stuff sucked at the time and it sucks the second time around.
â¦but the early 90s were a pretty exciting time in music so hopefully weâll get around to that. I already hear more Nirvana being played so itâs only a matter of time.
To keep with the clichÃ©d questions Iâve got, does the music-downloading controversy concern you?
David: Well if people stop buying stuff it concerns me (laughs). I mean itâs useful for promotion. The problem is a lot of these kids think itâs great because it keeps everyone amateur and music should be for freeâ¦ but amateur musicians are often not the most skilled musicians or write the most interesting things. Most of the people I admire in music are people who made a living playing music, from gigging and selling their albums.
Thatâs hard to do when you have to go back to your job at McDonalds the next day.
David: Yeah exactly. I donât see the romance of the "poverty stricken musician." Itâs not that romantic.
The whole MP3 issue, for me, takes some substance away from music as well. Thereâs something to be said for getting the art and lyrics as the musician intended. Going into a record store…
David: I personally do that. The people who get hit the most are the mom and pop record stores because they donât have the selection. The people who want the pop stuff can just go out and get anything they want while the people who want more obscure stuff will go "oh Iâll go download it and try it, Iâm not going to risk buying it." So a lot of the impulse buying of more obscure stuff is lost.
You see I grew up in the 80s where vinyl collecting was a really big thing. So Iâm all about that, I have a personal record collection thatâs pretty big.
Do you have a number?
David: You know I have no idea. I probably have two to three hundred 45s and basically a whole wall of LPs. I donât know if itâs up to a thousand yet, I donât think so. Somewhere between five hundred and a thousand, I donât know (laughs).
Speaking of that, what are you guys listening to lately?
David: Letâs see, the Wailers live in London. Itâs a bootleg from the early 70sâ¦ The new Rancid record thatâs outâ¦ Today weâre listening to Johnny Cash.
So what do you think of the new Rancid record? I know Vic played on a bunch of songs on it.
David: Yeah Vicâs all over it. I think basically theyâve returned to â¦And Out Come The Wolves and wanting to have pop hits.
What about the whole Hellcat / Warner Bros signing controversy?
David: Once again, from my point of view if Warner Bros wants to distribute my album Iâll definitely let them… I donât knowâ¦The whole thing about the majors is theyâve got their heads up their assâ because they got rid of all their A&R teams. Theyâre desperate and flinging around, hoping the American Idol produced hits keep coming through or buying up indie labels so if something on the indie label has success they can push it into the mainstream.
Itâs definitely a weird environment. What weâre seeing lately is majors snapping up bands only to turn around and get them to release independent records to build a fanbase before ever releasing the major-distributed record
David: Like I said, the major labels are a bunch of accountants right now, guys with MBAs who know nothing about music. They donât have the Clive Davis' anymoreâ¦