We’re high above London on a balcony. Beside Clash sit Slaves, who are waiting on our photoshoot to begin. They’re entirely nonplussed by the occasion; a slight timeout in a day punctuated by press activities, a rehearsal and record shopping on Brick Lane.
Far below us, a white delivery van is attempting to reverse down an alleyway, skipping perilously close to a series of bollards, igniting the anger of a passer-by. Guitarist Laurie Vincent begins to laugh: “He doesn’t give a shit does he?” Comrade and drummer Isaac Colman can’t quite hold in his laughter. Laurie turns, saying: “It’s fucking weird London, isn’t it?”
In an odd kind of way it’s sort of appropriate. Slaves are the band who don’t quite fit; the band who gatecrash the charts but still don’t suit the cognoscenti. They’re not even from London, but a rundown town in Kent, a background that keeps their feet on the ground amid scenes like these. It’s something that raises its head during our conversation: that fear of losing sight of where you’ve come from. “The further you get into this industry you can see how artists lose touch and go off the rails,” Laurie admits. “I do think it’s really important to surround yourself with the right people.”
New album ‘Take Control’ - Top 10 in a year when guitar records simply don’t hit the Top 10 - is a testament to this. For one, it shouldn’t really exist: tasked with creating a follow-up to their breakout debut, the pair shunned all options presented to them. The title, it seems, should be taken at face value.
“I wasn’t that happy with the last record,” Laurie admits. “It was the first album we’d ever made, confidence wasn’t as high, and we didn’t use all the tools we could have. So I think now, looking back, that album is us dipping a foot in the water, and now we’ve come back. We took on the challenge.”
“We’ve grown up since then,” he argues. “We know more about music, and the music industry. And we know more about ourselves. It feels like when you’re doing your first album you get ushered about and told what to do: ‘Demo with him, demo with him...’ And it all just goes in one ear and out the other, and you become a bit of a zombie. I feel like with this one we’re really switched on and we know what we’re doing.”
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So they flew out to California and kicked out the jams with an actual, genuine Beastie Boy. ‘Take Control’ is helmed by Mike D, with the legendary rapper seemingly being a fan of the band’s debut record. Phone calls were made, and pretty soon Slaves had a plan laid out.
“He rang me, and it was a case of trying to talk to him but not sound too excited,” smiles Laurie. “We were pencilled in to do some demos, so as soon as we got into the studio it felt like, ‘This man is a busy man so we need to make sure we do it now.’ And we made it happen. Whereas some acts might have waited, I think we just had the confidence to be like, ‘We need to stay here and record an album.’”
Sessions lasted all day, with Mike D imposing a serious work ethic on the group. Isaac speaks in quietly admiring tones: “You were trapped in it, almost. You just had to do it.”
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There was almost this real appreciation of each other’s cultures.
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The rapper’s immense experience and serene sense of calm put Slaves at immediate ease. “There’s no doubt that he was ever trying to impress us: he’s Mike D and he’s so comfortable with who he is that it didn’t ever feel like he was trying to step on our toes,” explains Laurie. “To the point where if someone said, ‘Would you make another record with him?’ I actually feel like I’m not sure I want to make another record without him.”
Mike D seemed to immediately pick up on the supernaturally close relationship between the two members of Slaves. The band’s practice sessions include plenty of music, picking apart riffs, choruses, and drumbeats - but they also use conversation as an instrument in itself. Laurie nods: “A lot of our songs are written verbally. Like, we’ll have an idea, and we’ll pretty much discuss how it should sound before we’ve even got into a room together to write. A lot of our ideas are written together like that.”
Appreciating this, the producer dealt with the band’s idiosyncrasies immaculately, pushing them towards the sort of one-take street punk that the likes of The Ruts or UK Subs once made their own. It was an approach honed on long car journeys to and from the studio, playing their favourite records and spinning off ever more flamboyant yarns. “All we would do is listen to ’77 punk,” recalls Laurie. “Buzzcocks, and The Damned, and The Specials. Discussions about drum sounds, and references. It was really, really surreal, and it was cool because he was a kid on the other side of the ocean being so excited about this sound that seemed so far away. Which kind of related to how we look at the Beastie Boys; like, that’s such a faraway sound. There was almost this real appreciation of each other’s cultures.”
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I have to isolate myself. I have to be completely shut off.
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One of the producer’s real strengths was gaining the trust of singer Isaac Holman. Onstage, the frontman is a coil of energy just waiting to explode, exemplifying the frustrations of dead-end life, and the frustrations it creates. In person, he’s actually quite shy; softly spoken but erudite, withdrawn but capable of pinpoint observations, he’s a curious contradiction.
“It has to be right when I’m recording my takes, otherwise it’s just dry. You want to keep it special. I have to isolate myself. I have to be completely shut off. I don’t want to see anyone.”
The vocalist recorded his takes in a specially constructed booth. “I need it to be dark, and I need no one to be in my way. I don’t want to see anyone, and I don’t want anyone to see me. I just need to be on my own.”
What emerges, though, is a taut and remarkably intense record. ‘Take Control’ opens with the sheer venom of ‘Spit It Out’, and continues with the spite of ‘Lies’, and the disgust of ‘Play Dead’. Mike D raps for the first time in however long, while Baxter Dury almost steals the show with a surprise guest appearance. “I feel like this album shows our progression. I feel proud. I feel like we’ve made a record that sounds like what we’ve wanted to do.”
“I was happy with ‘Are You Satisfied?’ but I just knew we could do better,” he says. “This one gets what Slaves represents in the whole album from start to finish. I’ve got no qualms with it. It’s exactly what I wanted it to be.”
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Lose either of us and it’s gone. It’s that magic.
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It’s a record that hinges on the relationship between two people - two friends, misfits, and outcasts - who built their own world because they couldn’t fit into anyone else’s. It’s a record built by conversation, by near ceaseless energy, and by constant, constant touring that built up an army of fans as loyal - and as gleefully out of step - as Slaves are to each other.
“We did it the old fashioned way,” Laurie observes. “We’ve got this family of people, this dialogue with real people, who helped us load our amps and still come to watch us. Obviously we’re doing something right if they’re still there.”
This dialogue is part of the intensity that surrounds Slaves; this insatiable desire to move forward. “I think there’s an importance to capturing it while you’ve still got it. And who knows if we’ll have the same energy when we’re in our 30s, or something.”
Each member, they say, is irreplaceable. “We wouldn’t be able to do that. Lose either of us and it’s gone. It’s that magic.”
Isaac adds: “I think it’s just the chemistry. You can’t really explain it.”
Somewhere down below us, the white van driver has finally made his escape, pursued by a series of expletives from those in the street. High up above him, Slaves can’t help but laugh, entranced and repulsed by the city around.
Punks in the Top 10 and outcasts from the underground: Slaves are the band who probably shouldn’t exist. You can’t really explain it, and neither can they. But whatever it is, it works.
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'Take Control' is out now.