Slaves Interview: On Breaking The Top 10, Sleaford Mods And Shutting Down Glastonbury

It’s Saturday night at Glastonbury, which means the Shangri-La field is thronged with revellers looking to make the most of their last big night of debauchery, before the whole place disappears into the Monday-morning mists like an Avalonian Brigadoon. For Slaves’ Isaac Holman and Laurie Vincent, that moment probably can’t come soon enough. “I feel I’m on the verge of a panic attack, or a heart attack, or a knife attack,” groans Isaac, who hasn’t slept since Thursday and looks like he’d rather be anywhere but waiting to go onstage at Glastonbury’s “Carnie Zone,” surrounded by BDSM police officers and demoniacal ringmasters wielding flame-spewing pitchforks. He might be sporting all the accoutrements of a man who’s embraced the spirit of the occasion (his entire outfit, from his tweed deerstalker, to his leather waistcoat, right down to his bumbag, was purchased onsite) but Isaac’s reserves of adrenaline and enthusiasm are running perilously low.

Still, if Slaves have already peaked for the weekend, at least they made it count: ten hours earlier, in front of a packed-out John Peel Tent, they tore through a brilliant set that Isaac will describe more than once as “the pinnacle of our career.” It ends up being one of the most talked-about sets of the weekend, catapulting the band’s debut album, ‘Are You Satisfied?’ back into the Top 40. It continues an incredible run of success that’s seen Slaves play sold-out shows across the UK and win the favour of personal heroes like Jamie T, Skepta and Mike Skinner. For Laurie, whose last visit to Worthy Farm came two years ago as a punter, today represents a sort of validation: “I promised myself I wouldn’t come back here until I was playing,” he tells me. “Two years later, I’m here. It’s good to set yourself goals.”

Yet Slaves haven’t got here without putting a few noses out of joint. Shortly after vacating the John Peel stage, the duo once again found themselves targeted by the following act, Sleaford Mods, whose frontman Jason Williamson has previously dismissed them as “fucking appalling”, accusing them of “trying to play this working-class game.” At Glastonbury, Williamson makes another withering comment about the “support band” sounding like Take That. Isaac and Laurie were within earshot but have yet to rise to the bait, and they’re not about to start.

“I’ve got nothing to say about that,” mutters Isaac darkly when I ask if there were any awkward encounters in the backstage area. Once the Dictaphone is switched off, he returns to the question, but seems angrier at me for bringing it up than at Sleaford Mods for saying it in the first place, fulminating about how “NME is just trying to stir up shit” between the two bands, and that getting involved in a slanging match, “is hardly sending out a positive message to people.”

Right now, Isaac isn’t doing such a great job of that, either. Interview terminated, he walks out onto the Shangri-Hell stage and confides to the audience that “I feel I’m at death’s door” – never the most auspicious of openings. Yet even when they’re exhausted and emotional, Slaves are a startlingly powerful live band: Laurie, boiler-suited and prowling the stage with predatory glee, churns out brutalist riff after brutalist riff, while Isaac expends the last of his energy on a hopping-mad performance that’s equal parts passion and frustration. They might not particularly want to be here, but Slaves still find a way of rallying you to their cause.

“I’d had a really heavy one on Friday, and I wasn’t feeling very well that night,” says Isaac sheepishly when we meet again in London, four days later. It may be the hottest day of the year, but the atmosphere is noticeably lighter than the last time I saw them. Isaac, wearing a pristine white T-shirt tucked into a pair of Adidas running shorts, looks like he’s ready for a day at the beach, while Laurie – stockier, shaven of head and with heavily-tattooed forearms that look like they might inflate after a can of spinach – sips a smoothie from a hollowed-out coconut. We’re watching the world (or a particularly ridiculous part of it) go by from the roof of Shoreditch’s Boxpark, where the pair’s favourite vegan restaurant is located. It hasn’t opened yet today, however, so the band’s merch guy procures us a box of cronuts. I ask what flavour they are. “Ape cum,” grins Isaac, biting into one end as a creamy, toffee-coloured ooze squirts out the other. Slaves, it would seem, have cheered up.

Now that they’ve recovered from the weekend, they’ve had time to reflect on what they enjoyed about Glastonbury, rather than the hassle of “being pulled around by people we’d never met to go and do various shows and interviews.” The highlight – besides that John Peel Stage performance, of course – was, “getting to meet some lovely young fans. One guy in particular, he’d been bullied, but told us that our music had given him so much confidence. He’s using my guitar pick at his school’s battle of the bands, which is happening today. It’s always uplifting to meet young kids who are inspired by us.”

Because of the nature of Slaves’ music – aggressive and incendiary, but inclusive in spirit – these sorts of encounters have become increasingly commonplace. “Someone told me that we saved their life, and that was before we’d even been signed,” reveals Laurie. “They told us that they decided to go to art college and chase their dream, because our music made them feel alive again. We’ve heard stories from 50-year-olds who’ve gone out and bought their first guitar, or started up their old band again. What we’re doing is giving people a message that they can relate to, that makes them feel happy, and that’s why they’re responding to us. Our humour and our message is exactly what this generation needs.”

Both members of Slaves grew up in Kent, on the fringes of two distinct youth cultures – Isaac found himself drawn to grime and hip-hop, while Laurie gravitated towards the local punks and skinheads. It’s a part of the country which clearly has grievances – UKIP wouldn’t have targeted the area so heavily at the last election otherwise – and while Slaves’ circle of friends are all staunch left-wingers, says Laurie, “I do sort of understand why people feel that way. Towns in Kent are pass-through towns. People drive through them and don’t even realise they’ve done it. In the shadow of the city, that’s where we grew up. In my eyes, it’s just as bad as not being near a big city, because people tend to overlook you even more.”

Yet Slaves’ affinity with the ignored and overlooked is rooted in more than geography. Until the band were signed last year, Isaac worked “on and off” as a carer in his hometown of Tunbridge Wells, helping those who were unable to look after themselves. “The majority of the people I was working with were elderly, but were quite a few who were young and paralysed, or immobile,” he says. “That kind of work makes you realise that when you walk down the street, there are probably people in those flats and houses who can’t leave them. There’s another side to the world that most people don’t ever see.”

When Laurie’s father, a successful businessman, suffered a debilitating stroke five years ago, he too became housebound, “and that’s probably why me and Isaac related to each other so much. Isaac was doing that job, and there were people doing the same thing for my dad. He understood what was going on in my life, whereas most people couldn’t. When you see someone so strong and so powerful lose everything like my dad did, it makes you realise how fragile life is. At that point, I dropped out of school, got loads of tattoos and started doing exactly as I wanted, expressing myself more. It’s sort of why my personality is like this. It’s why Slaves is like this. It’s a big part of it.”

Given that they both have frontline experience with the care industry, which has been ravaged by government cuts, I ask if they took part in the 250,000-strong anti-austerity demonstrations in London last month. They didn’t, and are wary of taking such a definite political stance. “I read about [politics] and I dabble in it, but I don’t want to be Billy Bragg,” says Laurie. “I relate to Eminem and Ian Dury and Iggy Pop: artists who reference people and to day-to-day life. It’s so easy to call our band a punk band say, ‘Oh, they should be involved with politics.’ But no-one’s asking Charli XCX if she got on the anti-austerity march, and that’s just as important, isn’t it? There are issues other than politics which need to be addressed.”

That might sound like a cop-out, but in fairness, Slaves have always been more about expression than ideology – for them, the decision to opt out of the workaday existence so many of their peers settle for was a political act in itself. If they could change one thing about their generation, says Isaac, “it would be this idea that you have to go to university, that you have to get a steady job. Fuck having a steady job. That sounds like hell to me.” He counts himself fortunate to have a family who never pressured him into going to university, who “always wanted me to do something artistic. My dad is obsessed with vinyl and comes home every day with two or three new records under his arm. My mum was always paying for art books. They always hoped I’d do something creative.”

Laurie’s situation, however, was quite different. “Deep down, I think my mum still wishes I had a degree,” he says. “I don’t know why. The way I see it, I’m 22 years old and I’ve already achieved my dreams, whereas most 22 year-olds are just finishing uni and deciding whether to waste another year on a masters because they don’t know what to do with themselves. When our parents’ parents were our age, they were married with two kids and a house. University is making everyone avoid any responsibility.”

Not only do Slaves feel uneasy making political statements, they don’t much like being called a punk band either. Obviously they grew up listening to punk – Laurie says that “the turning point in my life” came when his dad picked up ‘London Calling’ in a three-for-£10 promotion at HMV. Furthermore, until quite recently, Slaves’ most dedicated regional fanbases were found in “punk circuit” towns like Derby and Mansfield, places where most touring bands never set foot but which both Isaac and Laurie talk about wistfully: they say they’d rather tour there than the “key cities” that national promoters keep telling them to play.

Nevertheless, as far as Laurie is concerned, “punk is a dead idea. In 1977, when John Lydon was playing gigs in bin liners, everyone in that scene was in it together, they were all part of the same thing. Now, when you talk about punk to someone who doesn’t know anything about the history, to them it’s just a leather jacket and a mohawk. We don’t want to be called punk because there are far more people who don’t understand it than do. We align ourselves with the original ideas of punk, but punk is just a fashion statement now. Why does our generation always try and relate everything back, when there’s an opportunity there to do something new and original?”

“Grime is the real punk of today,” adds Isaac. “It has its own attitude, its own way of life.”

Grime is what Isaac grew up with: his old band, Bearface (which Laurie later became a member of), “was basically a punk band with me rapping over it,” and he sees similarities between the genre and what Slaves do. After covering ‘Shutdown’ for the Radio 1 Live Lounge in May, the duo have become friendly with Skepta, who even joined them onstage to perform the song at the Big Weekend in Norwich. “We found that we had so much in common with each other in terms of what we wanted to say, what we wanted to do, how we wanted to make people feel,” says Isaac, who reveals that a proper collaboration is “definitely” in the works.

“We’ve been in the studio with him, writing material together,” adds Laurie. “We don’t really know anyone in bands – we tend to just hang around with our old mates – but Skepta is someone who I actually do consider to be a friend now. He’s a bit older than us, and it’s good to get some words of wisdom from someone like him. He said to us, ‘You boys have got the message early, haven’t you?’”

The ‘message’ – that you alone are responsible for your own happiness, and that you don’t have to bow to anyone else’s expectation – is what Slaves are all about, and it’s spreading: for evidence of that, look no further than they way they’ve straddled the divide between the punk kids of Britain’s pass-through towns and the Radio 1 playlist (whose support, says Isaac, “we’re both bewildered by”). They can afford not to worry about what their detractors think.

“I think we’re definitely the Blur in that situation, and I’d always rather be Blur,” smiles Laurie, referring to their one-way feud with Sleaford Mods. “At the end of the day, the punk fans we have in Derby are the most working-class people you’ll ever meet, and they don’t doubt us. They don’t think we’re fucking cons, or fakes. That’s all I need.”

Slaves might be validated, but they’re not even close to being satisfied. “We’re not stopping until we’ve headlined Reading And Leeds,” promises Laurie. It might sound fanciful now, but so did everything about Slaves’ success this time last year. A little positive thinking goes a long way.

Slaves will play this year’s Reading and Leeds Festival in August.