Where:Gov Ball NYC Stage
Commercially potent twenty something bands who’re tackling the self-destructive, somnambulant mood of mid-2010s Britain can be counted on the fingers of one hand – perhaps even one finger. Slaves, the hyper-motivated Kent duo of Isaac Holman (vocals, drums) and Laurie Vincent (guitar), have followed a spectacular 2015, in which they became the year’s most important homegrown breakout artists, by recording another explosive hit album in waiting.
Called ‘Take Control’, it’s devastating barrage of punk-rock fury was produced by one of the legends of early hip hop and New York punk, Mike D from Beastie Boys, who, says Laurie, “became like another member of our band – we can safely call him our friend, which is surreal!”
Buzzing from the success of last year’s Mercury-nominated debut, ‘Are You Satisfied?’ Isaac and Laurie weren’t content to sit back and lap up the plaudits. “If you stop making music, you stop being relevant,” reasons Laurie, “so we just cracked straight on with it”.
Enraged by the apathy and cultural neutering afoot amongst their own generation, and in society as a whole as the country lumbers towards Brexit, Slaves made a conscious effort to raise their game musically, in order to deliver their wake-up call all the more powerfully. ‘Take Control’ duly finds the pair sharpening up their skills, both in songwriting and in execution, hatching a tumultuously heavier sound which far exceeds any reasonable expectation of a two-man outfit.
“Every Slaves album is like a self-help guide,” asserts Laurie. “You listen to ‘Are You Satisfied?’ to get inspired to change things. It’s always about questioning things, but now it’s about following through, and starting the mission, and, like the title says, taking control.”
For his part, Mike D was already clued-in and energized by the youngsters’ debut. “I feel right now that the world needs something like Slaves – something that’s more raw, more alive, and less polished. I was impressed by their strong point of view. They actually speak their mind about social topics.”
He was also amazed to find, in an initial meeting with Laurie, that they shared many of his own musical tastes, despite the fact that they’re barely half his age. “There were so many influences he mentioned that I love - from the Gang of Four to The Cramps, to The Damned to Public Image Ltd to The Slits, and on and on – all records that I truly loved, and I couldn't believe he knew all of them so well for a person his age.”
Laurie and Isaac, meanwhile, were under no illusions about Mike’s own influence on contemporary music, via the Beasties’ iconic catalogue from the late ’80s and ’90s. Laurie points out that he’d come to realise that one of their idols while growing up, Eminem, “took a lot of his shit directly from the Beasties”. Not wishing to succumb to hero worship in Mike’s presence, Vincent says they focused on the benchmark of Elvis Costello producing the first Specials album – “that these two really different artists came together to create this amazing body of work.”
Recognising a massive potential in the rough demoes Holman and Vincent furnished him with, Mike says that he “saw a clear role for myself in the process. The band just needed to be pushed a bit in terms of developing the songs further.” He adds that “it was important to me to make a record that, while not super-polished, is not at all lo-fi.” In that context, he references his favourite U.S. hardcore records, whose impoverished production values inevitably reduce their impact today. He wanted Slaves “to be able to compete with any big-sounding rock record, whether it be Metallica, Slayer or whatever, but still have the heart of a Black Flag record”.
A big ask, for sure, but it’s one that ‘Take Control’ fully delivers on across a rollercoaster 43 minutes of righteous anger and bitter desolation, of fierce intensity and absurdist humour. The effect on the listener is like being slapped around the face by a hefty salmon, kicking off with incandescently pissed-off lead single, ‘Spit It Out’, which Isaac describes as “a hard-rock banger”, whose red-flag ire is targeted at bone-idle early-twenty-somethings who moan about their lot with sour-faced indignation, but refuse to get off their arse to do anything about it.
By most standards, the album was made quickly, but by comparison with ‘Are You Satisfied?’ they spent an age on it. There were a few days’ pre-production at Mike D’s gaff in Malibu, California, where the three of them worked on honing the tunes Isaac and Laurie arrived at the table with, and then a fortnight of actual recording, at Jackson Browne’s studio in nearby Santa Monica – a week either side of Slaves’ three-week US tour supporting Wolf Alice.
Several tracks deploy vintage equipment featured on classic Beasties records, including ‘STD’s PhD’s’, ‘Angelica’ and ‘Consume Or Be Consumed’. Captured back home in London, by contrast, ‘Steer Clear’ is a mouth-watering team-up with Baxter Dory, who lent his distinctively baleful vocals to a memorable duet with Isaac – the emotionally ravaged icing on the cake.
Slaves first emerged in 2012, working their way up through Kent’s toilet-venue circuit to become one of the success stories of 2015. The band’s debut album ‘Are You Satisfied?’ smashed in to the UK Top 10 and earned the band huge critical acclaim. Thanks to their charismatic mash-up of punky urgency and silly humour, they bagged Kerrang!’s Spirit of Punk award and NME’s Best Video award (for ‘Cheer Up London’), while also securing nominations for the Mercury Music Prize, and for Best New Band at Q and NME.
Along the way, they’ve won the hearts of The Streets’ Mike Skinner, stolen the show on last year’s NME tour, had Skepta join them on stage at Radio 1’s Big Weekend and toured with Jamie T and Wolf Alice – the latter in America in March, after which Wolf Alice’s drummer, Joel Amey bunked off to California to play on key ‘Take Control’ romp, ‘People That You Meet’.
If that song chronicles some of the colourful characters they’ve encountered during their Stateside adventures (including a certain Beast-ly production guru), much of the rest of ‘Take Control’ feels quintessentially British, tracking back through a UK lineage that includes the larey pop swagger of primetime mid-’90s Blur, the boiling-point rage of The Clash’s first album, and even, on tracks like ‘Angelica’, the withering portraiture of The Kinks’ Ray Davies.
As Isaac pointedly states, “We prefer to talk about other people, rather than ourselves.” Adds Laurie, “It feels like everyone’s reverted to that in music at the moment, just talking about themselves, like a reflection of the self-obsessive thing in pop culture. It doesn’t really feel like anybody’s commenting on other things, they’re just stuck in this self-absorbed world of social media. It’s like that whole thing is blocking out real expression, and nobody’s being encouraged to be thinking and be creative anymore”.
Parts of the album unequivocally satirize the zombifying effect of blanket reality-TV programming and smart-phone addiction. Amongst their peers, they perceive an attitude of entitlement to the kind of luxuries and privileged lifestyles tantalizingly dangled before them through all areas of the media. People even envy them the position they themselves have managed to attain, without being prepared to invest even a fraction of the graft it’s taken to get there, in rehearsal and on the road.
Slaves have a unique chemistry, where there can be no passengers in the ranks, and each member achieves their own potential by rising to the challenge implicitly laid down by his opposite number. “Isaac can play a bit of guitar, and I can kind of scrape together some words,” Laurie notes, “but without each other, we’re really not as powerful. Slaves is the two of us – this intense, special moment of time. We both love the challenge: like, ‘You write the best riff you’ve got then I’ll give you my lyrics!’ That’s how we inspire each other to keep doing better.”
For their fans, they offer an alternative, a rallying point for dissenting ideas amid the superficial torpor of youth culture’s Instagram fixations.
“Our band is something to be part of,” Vincent continues. “I’m sure loads of other people making music feel like, ‘I’d quite like to be in a band like Slaves, but it’s too much of a risk. I’ll just be a DJ instead’. We both feel very privileged to be part of a band where you come to our show, and you’re part of a gang that sees the world differently. We have this real sense of community.”
Now, equipped with the incendiary ‘Take Control’, the Slaves army will surely only expand in number. Copping out, and softening their sound for wider success, was not an option.
“Even since our first record, new bands are selling less than ever,” Laurie reasons. “We’re not gonna do much better by selling out now, and we wouldn’t be happy doing that anyway. We felt like we still had a whole lot to say. We’re not in it to make money; we’re in it to make music. We’re not gonna try and write a hit, we’re just gonna keep writing the music we love, and that always seems to work out for best.”
Indeed, in a Britain sleepwalking into cultural and economic crisis, Slaves are emerging as a unique and vital voice for our times – as good as it gets.