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First Listen: The Slackers – “Hanging On”

The Slackers must be the most inappropriately named band within the international reggae/ska scene. While their moniker alludes to underperforming and procrastinating, as the hoodie I’m wearing indicates, this group of dedicated New York City musicians have forged a three-decade long career with equal parts knowledge, talent, passion and hard work.

Since 1991, The Slackers have released fourteen studio albums of their signature sound, a mix of ska, reggae, rocksteady, soul, garage rock, jazz and dub. Typically, they perform about 100 shows a year, but like many other touring bands, when the pandemic hit, they had to get by with livestreaming, often individually and occasionally as a band, in addition to some select outdoor performances for much smaller audiences than they were accustomed to. With vaccines rolling out in 2021 and bands returning to more active gigging, The Slackers sold out seven nights of limited capacity outdoor gigs in New Jersey and Brooklyn in May and June which paved the way for events with larger audiences and ultimately a return to full capacity indoor shows.

Now, in 2022, with the guile and tenacity of the legendary rats their home city is known for, The Slackers return full force with almost 40 shows already on the calendar and their first studio album in six years dropping next month. Titled Don’t Let the Sunlight Fool Ya, the band recorded the entire album during quarantine, when, after gathering for live-streamed performances at their “sound guy’s” house, the fellas would stick around to work on new songs. The album is everything Slacker fans could hope for, possibly one of their best from their deep catalog. Pre-orders can be placed here.

Leading up to the forthcoming LP, the band has released four singles, two of which accompanied by wonderfully animated music videos. This past November, the band posted a video created by New Orleans artist Phil Vanderyken for the first track on the album, “Windowland.” The song quips about quarantine life trapped in the confines of a New York City apartment, capturing that claustrophobic stir-craziness that one feels when they can only watch the world through the limited scope of whatever their windows provide. The song features lyrics we can all relate to from the early days of the pandemic:

I’m far away from your cough and your sneeze

Washing my hands and my groceries

A protocol to control disease

It also includes spoken-word dialogue from front man Vic Ruggiero in his signature thick Bronx accent, little conversationalisms that bring to mind the casual, personal tone with which he sometimes addresses audiences during live performances.

Then, last month, the band published a marvelously inventive  video for the title track on the album using the puppetry skills of videographer Jess “theletterjess” Iwaszkiewicz,  who had apprenticed with Martin P. Robinson, the Senior Puppet Director for Sesame Street.  She explained, “The large puppet heads are made from cardboard and masking tape. The bodies are made from wire and fabric, and the arms and legs were stuffed with insulation. The small egg puppets are wooden eggs with wire and fabric for arms and legs.”

The tune, a wistful reggae number, warns listeners not to be fooled by the bright sunshine due to the cold temperatures.  Those of us in the northern latitudes can appreciate the irony of a clear yet cold winter day, yet the song is symbolic of a deeper sentiment.

Ruggiero confirmed,Of course — it’s all metaphor. And if you get the real Northeast weather, it’s even better! Those days when you think it’s all good to go outside, you think you’re done with winter, and then you realize you’re gonna freeze to death…that’s the USA in the past two years, and it’s always been. We thought because we had Barack Obama that racism was over — it’s not.”

“Thought the world made sense,” he pondered.  “We thought people were starting to get socialism ‘cause they liked Bernie Sanders, but people don’t even know what the word means.  They don’t realize that the modern world outside of America are all socialist democracies. They think that social security and unemployment, the 40-hour work week and weekends happened because God said so, but people fought for their rights.

“And there’s still tons of awful things that come to light that we need to fight to fix. Don’t let the sunlight fool ya — it’s a cold world out there. But we can do something when we all mean it and make sacrifices. Civil rights didn’t happen ‘cause people said, ‘That’s a nice idea’ and that’s it. People died, moved, went to jail.”

Esteemed saxophonist Dave Hillyard’s view of  the song pertains more to the pandemic than politics. It was one of the first two songs we recorded in 2020. It was right after the first wave had subsided in New York/New Jersey and we were able to get together in the same place. The covid was low but it was before there was a vaccine, so we had to be careful around each other. It was a sunny spring. But it didn’t feel safe.  So, I think the song just fit.”

He continued, “People want the pandemic to just be over. I’m as tired as anybody. I try to remember, though, that virus doesn’t care about me being tired or how long I was off the road. It just tries to reproduce when it can.  That’s it. That’s all it does. So yeah, I think the title is about being careful.  That we can make it through things together if we take care of each other.”

With these songs and others from the new album sure to be on the set lists, The Slackers hit the road at the end of this month. 2022 performances begin on March 30 with three shows scheduled in Pennsylvania followed by dates in Delaware, Virginia and Georgia. After a month to recharge, they kick things off again with a hometown show of sorts in Jersey City on May 7, before heading north of the border for a few performances and then heading out west through the end of May. The summer remains open as of now, undoubtedly to be filled with additional gigs, and in late September they head to England to begin a jam-packed month of shows throughout Europe.

The band can thank the pandemic for this incongruous tour schedule as Hillyard points out: “You realize that we are still making up shows that got rescheduled from 2020! Many of them have been rescheduled three times at this point!”

In anticipation of the April 15th release of Don’t Let the Sunlight Fool Ya, today Rootfire premieres another track from the album, “Hanging On,” a soulful ska tune that expresses resilience in the face of all the adversity we’ve collectively been subjected to. Additionally, we interviewed several members of the band, including Hillyard, Ruggiero and drummer Ara Babajian.

Here’s to another three decades of Slackers music.

Rootfire: Given that touring is such a huge part of what you guys do, I wanted to talk a little bit about the band’s schedule that awaits.  What is the main mode of transportation for the band these days? Are you all on one bus, or multiple?  Or are you driving in cars and sleeping in hotels? 

Hillyard: In the states and Canada, we tend to fly between central locations and then we drive in either a 15-passenger van or two minivans.  The two-vehicle thing seems to make the band members happy.  Sleep is one of the most valuable commodities on the road. So, making sure that people get their rest is key.  And yeah, we mostly stay in hotels. Some people have a romance about crashing at people’s houses and sleeping on floors. I’ve been touring for 34 years now, since I was 18. Some days you end up on the floor, or on an air mattress, or a couch. But there is nothing “real” about that. I am always happy to have a nice comfy hotel bed. So, to answer your question, we fly, we drive, and we stay in hotels.

Rootfire: My head is spinning from this schedule, but this is “old hat” for The Slackers by now. Do you ever wake up on tour and have to think hard about what country or city you are in?  What country, city and/or venue are you most looking forward to visiting or performing in? 

Hillyard: Since 2015, we have tried to divide the year to a ‘touring season’ and a non-touring season.  That is a busy spring and fall, ‘cause that’s the best time to play clubs.  And then strategically doing some festivals and outdoor shows in the summer. Man, with Europe, I miss it all. It’s been several years. I miss the clubs, the crowds, the food, the drink….so many things. I just took it for granted that it could keep on happening. I think this next tour I’m going to try to savor things. Enjoy where I’m at.

Rootfire: Do you have any idea which European country you have the most fans, or have sold the most records?  By what means will you be traveling around Europe – bus, trains or planes? 

Hillyard: In Europe, we traditionally fly out and then charter a tour bus for the month we are out there. In some ways, it’s simpler than in the States with its combos of flying and driving. In Brazil, we did tours where we flew every day for two weeks because the cities are too far apart, and the roads aren’t great.

With the tour bus in Europe, it’s simpler. We are a self-contained moving island for a month. We have bunks. Equipment is in the bays. The drives tend to be at night and then we wake up in the city you are supposed to be in the next morning. I actually get the most sleep of the year when we are on a European tour.

Our most popular area in Europe is centered around Holland/Belgium. This area stretches west into Southeast England around London and into Northern France down to Paris. Then east from Hamburg down to Koln. Around half of the Slackers fans in Europe are in that region and around half the gigs are usually there. The rest of the fans are more scattered about in places like Berlin, Vienna, and Madrid.

Rootfire: The pandemic dealt a crushing blow to the music industry, especially independent artists like yourselves, in terms of income. However, many people, including myself, can cite silver linings that came from this dark time. Are you able to find any silver linings that came from the past several years?

Hillyard: I’d say overall the pandemic has been a horrible experience. Being in NYC in March of 2020 was an experience I wouldn’t wish upon my enemies. People talk about how great it was to get off the road or spend extra time with their family, but I was already tight with my family.  We rallied and my apartment became a law office, a college classroom, a recording studio, a mail order merch warehouse, and a high school classroom. We did what we had to do to keep going. I’m proud that my family came through it strongly and we are still tight. We made it.

On my end, I learned a lot about latency and the potential and limits of livestreaming. I felt it was important not to be silenced by the pandemic — that music still needed to be made.  So, we figured out ways to keep doing this during the pandemic.

We were really lucky that our sound guy, Marc Critelli, had a house in New Jersey that was large enough for the band to gather without being on top of each other, and then he wired it for livestreaming. At a time when space and technology was hard to come by, Marc really shone through.

We also went from selling our merch primarily at our shows to selling 90% online.  We did that in a week. Transferred everything and brought the merch over to my living room because I knew there was gonna be a month at least where we weren’t going to be able to move around the city.  So that was something else I learned how to do during the pandemic.  The support of our fans online really made it possible for us to continue. They kept us from being silenced.

Rootfire: How did this impromptu approach of writing and recording in Marc’s house differ from the band’s typical process to creating new music, if at all? What challenges or obstacles did you have to overcome, if any, in creating this record? 

(Drummer Ara) Babajian: This approach to recording differed from our usual process in that we didn’t have to worry about the cost of studio time and hence there was no pressure to get anything done too quickly. We got to take our time and tease out ideas, jam on rhythms, try alternative takes, you name it. We still worked really quickly and efficiently because that’s just what we do anyway, but the lack of time and money constraints meant we could relax and be ourselves and thus make a truer record.

The main challenge/s we had to overcome in making the record had to do with distance, finding a way to get Vic and Glen, who live on the West Coast and thus 3000 miles from the rest of the band, over to the east coast during a serious pandemic. Vic was in the Bronx from April through June 2020 and then after that Vic managed to drive back and forth cross-country in his van. However, Glen was not comfortable traveling at all during that time and so we were without his services until 2021. Once Glen reunited with us, then it was a matter of making sure everyone was vaccinated. We put half the band in one room, half the band in another, we continued to wear masks around each other, put a giant shield around the drums and just hoped for the best. Glen and Vic very graciously gave up their west coast lives to live at Marc Critelli’s house for 2 months while we completed the majority of the record. They made a big sacrifice in terms of bridging the physical distance and therefore allowed the record to be completed relatively quickly.

Ruggiero:  Funny, we had less challenges actually because we had shit to do except hang around and play music! If anything, I was trying to play more because I was going nuts!! And the band is as insane as I am and can’t sit still for two months without chewing off our fingers with boredom. So much to write about…the world has gone insane. This is what a band’s job is, especially punk bands and we essentially follow the punk ethos in the Slackers. Chaos is kinda where we belong.

My favorite tune on the album is “Statehouse.” This may be one of the most powerful songs the band has recorded, pulling no punches about the usage of the Confederate flag. Have you discussed whether you will perform this song down south and are you curious how it may be received?

Hillyard: I guess we will find out.  We will play our tunes and sometimes we get hassled for them. Mostly online trolls. We have always had songs that were more political than others — since the beginning of the band. We take inspiration from bands like The Clash or The Wailers that said what needed to be said and didn’t pull punches.

Ruggiero: Well, I sing the tunes ‘cause I need to sing ‘em —  for myself — ‘cause I think that’s what art and being a conscious being is about. Nobody wants to be preached at — me neither — so I make sure to keep my songs on myself. I don’t belong in anyone’s head except my own and vice-versa. So, in that line of thought, no one should wave a Nazi flag in my face either and expect me to be happy about it, and everybody ought to know the facts. That song is about facts — honestly one that even I didn’t know completely. I share ‘em as I find ‘em. I did research. (Laughs)

Do you guys have any favorite tracks on the album and if so, which and why? 

Babajian: My favorite track on the record is “I Almost Lost You.” Marcus (Geard, bass player) wrote this song. He has the ability to write crushingly sad country ballads and adapt them to ska or reggae formats. There’s so much depth of feeling in this particular song that whenever we play it, I feel like I need to somehow make the drums weep, which is an interesting endeavor! Another favorite is “Nobody’s Listening,” which Vic wrote and is a perfect little punk rock n’ roll ditty. It’s angry but soulful, which I think describes a lot of the material on this record.

I’m proud of our band for being courageous. I told the guys a few times that we were gonna say things that everyone wouldn’t agree with — real things — and basically the band was like “We’re a reggae band,” and reggae talks about a lot more than girl problems and getting high. I feel like I’m in The Clash with these guys – You know, the Wailers didn’t hesitate to say anything they thought was important They said some stuff I don’t agree with, but they said it! And the conversation is the important thing! Music is where I learned about my politics and it’s where I find truth and honesty in this crazy ass world.

Looking back to the earlier days of The Slackers, did you have any idea that this band would continue to create music and tour for over three decades?  Did you have goals for the band and if so, have you met or exceeded them? Do you have any future goals for The Slackers? 

Hillyard:  I first joined the band in 1993.  I was just sitting in at first and then I never left. I kept on until this day.  And yeah, it just happened. I was supposed to be an urban sociologist. I was close to getting my PHD when we got our first record contract.

My short-term goal is to try to share this new record we got to anyone who will listen. I think this album is the best thing we have done. It really flows and I hope people take the time to listen to it. My longer-term goal is to set up the band into a touring cycle where we do fewer shows, but they are bigger.  I think as we get older that’s going to be necessary.

What are your favorite aspects of this life you have chosen and what are the aspects that you dislike the most, or would like to change?  

Hillyard: I still love travelling. I like looking out the window and watching the landscapes go by. A lot of times, I’m in better touch with my friends on the road than I am at home, because on the road I have more time to go visit them. That’s something I’ve been working on — trying to be better in touch with my NYC friends.

I’ve definitely had days when I missed my family. My son grew up with me being gone periodically on tour. My wife and I knew this was gonna happen, so we tried to have him grow up around a big extended family that loved him. He knows his grandparents, uncles, cousins, and close family friends. He has always been surrounded by love so that gave me the security that I needed to go out on the road and do what I needed to do. And the advantage of being a musician is that when I’m at home, I’m really at home. I had time to take him to school, take him home, take him on trips, cook dinner, and just do all the dad stuff.

The thing about music is that you are creating something. No one can take that away. It’s something beautiful and meaningful in the world. Hopefully something that is healing for other people as well. As long as I can keep creating, I plan to do that.

I just want to take a second again to thank all the fans of the Slackers.  You guys keep us going.

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Ever since becoming deeply moved and then essentially obsessed with reggae music as a teenager, Dave has always strove to learn as much as possible about the history and culture of reggae music, Jamaica and Rastafari, the ideology and lifestyle intertwined with reggae. 

Over the years, he has interviewed many personalities throughout the reggae world including Ziggy Marley, Burning Spear, Lucky Dube, Bradley Nowell and many artists in the progressive roots scene.

Dave has also written and published a novel, “The Cosmic Burrito,” a tale of two friends who drive across the USA in search of the ultimate burrito. He plays ice hockey weekly for a recreational team he founded and manages, Team Rasta.

Reggae music has filled his life with a richness for which he will forever be grateful, and he gives thanks to musicians far and wide, past and present, whether they perform roots, dub, dancehall, skinhead, rocksteady or ska, whether their tools are analog or digital, as well as the producers, promoters, soundsystems, selectors and the reggae massive at large who comprise the international reggae community.

You can follow Dave on Instagram at @rootsdude and Twitter at @ElCosmicBurrito.

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