Slaves Interview: On Punk, Their Controversial Name And Asking ‘Are You Satisfied?’

Slaves guitarist Laurie Vincent is standing over a man wearing a zip-up polar bear costume, shouting at him. “Get down, I wanna ride you!” he yells, pushing the man onto all fours. Next to him, with his arm round another polar bear, is the band’s singer and drummer Isaac Holman, who’s dressed as a businessman in a suit and thick-rimmed glasses. Nearby, leaning on an ice cream van with a carrier bag of frozen lollies in his hand, is actor and comedian Shaun Williamson, who played Barry Evans in EastEnders and appeared in Ricky Gervais’ Extras.

We’re in south London’s Burgess Park, at the video shoot for Slaves’ latest single ‘Cheer Up London’ and the rowdy Kent duo are in high spirits. The riotous humour in evidence in this bear-infested scene seems to infect everything they do, from the song itself, inspired by the times Isaac (who writes all Slaves’ lyrics) chose to walk to the east London studio where they spent last winter recording debut album ‘Are You Satisfied?’, rather than use public transport. “I just didn’t fancy it, there were a lot of sad faces,” he says. Two fluffy white dogs peer out from the neon-pink sleeve of ‘Are You Satisfied?’, which features up-for-it, motivational blasts of hardcore-and-grime inspired noise like ‘Do Something’ and ‘Feed The Mantaray’. Their gigs – where Isaac, topless and Popeye-like, screams and attacks his stand-up drumkit while Laurie, a heavily tattooed skinhead, pogos and hacks at his guitar – are packed with as much witty repartee as they are aggressive riffs and drumbeats. Their recent Facebook anecdotes for their fans include a story about Laurie, two years younger than Isaac at 21, being picked on by his pet (“My cat just looked at me and said ‘You have got a head like a bowling ball, you know that don’t you?'”) and Isaac marvelling at competitive sausage eating (“Some bloke is the world champion at hotdog swallowing. That is mad.”) In interviews, they’re liable to fabricate stories about meeting EastEnders character Sonia Jackson at a service station.

And so, today, they’ve closed off a section of the park and filled it with balloons, ice cream and a busload of their mates. The video’s slapstick plot – Isaac and Laurie dash round London trying to cheer people up – mirrors the song’s lyrics, which aim to gee up those sourfaced commuters (“Put another 0 on your paycheck/ Are you done digging your grave yet?/ You’re dead already”).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCU9ZKgfwlc

It’s a step up from their last promo, February’s lo-fi ‘Feed The Mantaray’, which was made using a green screen and saw them driving a red Mini through a cartoon seascape while being chased by the titular fish. They used to put pictures of Barry Evans on their merch and Isaac’s mum still drinks her tea from a mug emblazoned with his face. “Shaun’s from Maidstone,” Laurie explains. “We used to live 10 minutes from each other. So he’s in the video, Kent represent! He does have to leave at four o’clock though – he’s in a musical in Dartford.” For Slaves, who slogged between pub gigs in a Vauxhall Astra for two years after forming in Tunbridge Wells before signing their deal in March 2014, this video – complete with star guest – is a big budget endeavour, and they’re going to make the most of it.

“The whole of ‘Are You Satisfied?’ is pretty much social documentation,” Isaac explains later over lunch. And tracks such as ‘The Hunter’ deliver lines like “He was starving, his children were crying to be fed/ And now they’re falling and dying but at least you are ahead”), in the conversational style of a friendly bloke down the pub.

But rather than just offering kitchen-sink grimness, Slaves want to inspire others. “There’s a real feeling that everyone is hard done by and suppressed,” says Laurie, “But what we found when we started this band is that we’d made our dreams come true.” The guitarist drums a ringed finger on the table and continues, “I wish there was more inspiration, so many people say ‘I don’t know what to do’ or ‘I can’t do this’, but somebody has to do it. In our generation there’s lots of negativity towards people being creative. When I was growing up no one ever said ‘You can do it’. Our band says you can.”

After they formed the band when a 17-year-old Laurie approached Isaac after a gig by the drummer’s old band Bareface, Laurie dropped out of his illustration degree and worked in a milkshake shop (“I figured if I wanna draw I’ll do it anyway”) while Isaac worked in a care home, aiming to become a male nurse if the music stuff didn’t work out (“I still miss that work”).

That hard work along their journey gives them their motivational spirit, while the aggression that fuels their songs stems from a desire to do things differently. From their varied sound – a mix of hardcore noise, pop-rock choruses, rudimentary rhythms and rapid-fire vocals from Isaac, who rapped in his old band – to their bovver-boy aesthetic, Slaves seek to offer an alternative to the “mainstream indie” they grew up with. “I don’t wanna be in any band apart from Slaves. Changing the format of what being a musician is, that’s what excites me,” Laurie says. We’re alone at the table – Isaac has momentarily gone in search of a new wooden fork after snapping his first one. “There is a format,” Laurie continues. “If you get really deep, everyone eats three meals a day, gets up for school at this time, goes there until they’re a certain age… These set ways extend to music, four people in a band and that. I feel like we’re right at the end of being in that world. It’s like, hang on, why do we eat three meals a day? We need to start asking those questions.”

For Laurie, being signed to Virgin – who landed the Sex Pistols in 1977 – is the seemingly unlikely but perfect vehicle to be the change they want to see. “Labels make dreams come true; doing it yourself is fucking sick, but we need the traditional support method. Our idea is to make new things and tie them in with tradition.” He has a message for anyone who questions Slaves signing to a major, too. “People say ‘fuck majors’. Do they know why they’re saying that? It can be a good thing. Virgin have other good singers and bands and they struggle ‘cos they can’t get the ideas out of them, but with us, we’re telling them what we want and making it happen.”

The Sex Pistols parallel is interesting. At the end of album closer ‘Sugar Coated Bitter Truth’, Isaac repeatedly bellows “Do you ever feel you’re being cheated”, echoing John Lydon’s snarled goodbye at the end of the last Sex Pistols gig in San Francisco on January 14, 1978. But Laurie scoffs at the comparison. Slaves are tired of being called punks – they don’t share the nihilistic approach of the Pistols or Oi! bands like The Business that followed in the 1980s – and label themselves “primal”. “I wanna write my own blueprint. I wanna stick out like a sore thumb, so you can look back and say ‘Slaves did it like this’. That’s far more attractive than copying something that’s already happened. What we’re doing hasn’t been written yet, we wanna be the next thing. You’ve got to set your mission, haven’t you?”

Three days after we meet, Slaves post a 400-word statement of that mission on Facebook. It is in response to allegations that their name is racially insensitive, given its historical context and their own white backgrounds. Its tone is notably serious: “Our name and music is aimed at being a slave to day-to-day life and routine, it is a metaphorical use of the word.”

Scrutiny of their name intensified as 2014 rolled into 2015, and their profile increased rapidly thanks to radio play for singles ‘Hey’ and ‘The Hunter’ plus opening slots on Jamie T’s autumn tour and February’s NME Awards Tour with Austin, Texas. In March, US magazine The Fader ran an article headlined Why Would A Band Of White Dudes Name Themselves Slaves?, which – while making only fleeting mention of the Californian pop-metal band also called Slaves – tagged Isaac and Laurie as “arguably the most controversial” of “bands whose names provoke a reaction”. It also included links to abusive tweets aimed at Slaves and quotes from Laurie, who said: “We just liked the word. We weren’t trying to provoke.”

Forty-eight hours after the statement went out, we’re sitting backstage at London’s Scala, where Slaves are about to play the first of two sold-out shows. Their girlfriends, a few bottles of champagne and Isaac’s iron (“Course he’s got one,” says Laurie) are next door. Bar the occasional sound of a drum rattling through from the stage, it’s quiet. We sit on a squeaky leather sofa and get straight to the controversy. “We’re not defending it, we’re explaining it. We spent ages wording [the statement] and I feel we’ve made people a lot more comfortable by doing it,” Laurie begins. He points frustratedly at his iPhone and continues, “I’ve been stuck in this for two days reading everything. The people that were against us haven’t changed their minds. What frustrates me is, just ‘cos you don’t share the same views as people doesn’t mean you have to call each other names. If I read [our statement] as a reasonable person I’d go ‘I still don’t agree but what you’re trying to do is good.'”

Slaves don’t do “swearing at or insulting anyone” and are frustrated their fans are disparaging others to defend them. Neither member can believe the names they’re being called, but they’d still like to meet the naysayers. “They’re hate-filled before they’ve even said anything, calling you a prick or a white middle-class dickhead, wow, we haven’t stepped into each other’s lives. I would happily invite someone round to see what they say, let’s get in a room together, forget the argument and just see if we get on as humans, that’s much more important,” Laurie says.

Does he think Slaves – who admit their music is aggressive – offering to “get in a room” with their detractors could lead people to think they might leave with a broken leg? Isaac laughs sarcastically but Laurie remains solemn-faced and answers, “No. I think they [the people commenting] are the more aggressive ones.”

The band keenly point out that black culture is a heavy influence on them. “Skinheads came from black music and black people,” says Laurie, who mixed with Kent’s skinhead population during his teens and learned that many adopted the look to “cut the bullshit”. “That’s why I’ve got a lot of tattoos and a shaved head, when I didn’t people would shout stuff at me in the street, now no one says anything, I avoid aggro. My parents don’t like it, but I’m proving there’s more to people than looks,” he continues.

Isaac acknowledges, though, that the word ‘slaves’ is a loaded one, as “everything has connotations”, but maintains that Slaves’ explanation should suffice. Laurie is unhappy with how it came across in The Fader. “The journalist was really nice, and agreed with me but then twisted it,” he remembers, adding that this interview will be their last on the subject.

“It’s been three years. We wouldn’t have got this far if it was that wrong. What do you think?” he asks uncertainly, before saying he wants the press to “Put their fucking balls in their hand and say ‘We’re backing you.'”

One person who’s promised public support is Jamie T. When they saw him at a recent rehearsal, the Wimbledon singer was “bouncing around with anger” about the backlash. “I asked if he’d come out and talk about it if things got really bad,” Laurie says, “he was like ‘Fuck yeah. You don’t have to tell people anything.'” “He also said ‘Thank fuck there’s someone making some controversy,'” adds Isaac.

But while they feel their positivity sets them apart from the indie template (“We’re British, we should be like The Smiths and write miserable things”), they do almost seem to relish the fact it’s their band that’s shoving noses out of joint.

“We’re showing everyone what 2015 is like and it’s fucked up,” Isaac says. “It feels like an important time to make a stir, is anyone else gonna do it?” asks Laurie excitedly. “It’s almost like we were given this. I believe in another power sometimes. I’d almost like to have been a band without a controversial name like The Strokes and just keep making sick music and inspire people that way, but maybe we were meant to walk this path.”

It seems that Slaves see being controversial and rattling cages as an extension of their desire to be original, rather than justification for the allegations over their name. Still, it feels at odds with their believable good intentions.

Their music is inspiring people all the same. Isaac and Laurie talk animatedly about “50-year-olds who have said ‘your band makes me wanna do art again”. “People have told us we’ve made them restart their bands and believe in themselves, that’s why Slaves is important,” Laurie says.

Slaves is also incredibly important to the two people in it; the band has turned Isaac and Laurie from two Kent schoolboys a year apart into two young musicians living their dream. When they were working 9-5 and their friendship was threatened by frustration at not breaking through, Slaves kept them motivated. Laurie strives even harder in tribute to his father, who “went from being a high-flying city bigshot to sitting on the sofa all day every day”, after he had a stroke five years ago. “To watch your dad do that is crippling. There’s more to us than we put out, and it’s frustrating when you get abuse for it, so we’re starting to tell people where we came from,” he says. Isaac backs him up: “We’ve got no guard up now.”

Their relationship was further damaged while recording their album. Halfway through 2014’s festival season, when they were supposed to be writing, Slaves fired their manager. They’d flown to play a festival in Spain with no money, their equipment hadn’t arrived and they were booked for another show in France the next day. “I went ‘Do you know what, we’re coming home,'” Laurie remembers, “I said ‘Get us on a flight, we’re not doing the fucking show.'” Isaac was anxious about rocking the boat soon after they’d signed their deal, so Laurie issued an ultimatum. “I said to Isaac it was the manager or me, it got so bad.”

They went home and wrote the caustic ‘Do Something’ (“If you’re not moving/ DO something!”), before starting a recording process that would prove even more stressful. During it, Laurie shared his girlfriend’s single bed at her parents’ house and Isaac was “poncing” at his girlfriend’s house share. “We were both in pretty unstable positions. I used to sit in the studio and draw the same man every day, he had red lipstick and was bald on top,” says Isaac, who became so anxious he lost patches of his hair and broke out in spots. “I was in a bad way, I didn’t wanna get out of bed,” he adds. Laurie, meanwhile, was at his throat, trying to coerce him into the studio. Producer Jolyon Thomas (SCUM, British Sea Power) arranged the timetable so they’d arrive and leave separately. “We stopped talking for a few weeks, but we got it done,” Laurie says.

Onstage a few hours later, the introspection that choked their dressing room during our earlier conversation evaporates. Slaves dive repeatedly into their delirious pit of moshing fans. Isaac’s eyes roll back in his head as he bawls “CHEERS!” and thwacks his cymbals at the end of an encore of early track ‘Beauty Quest’. Out in front of him, in a white boiler suit with ‘MAN OF KENT’ scrawled on the back, an ecstatic Laurie walks on the upturned hands of the crowd. As the gig ends, he’s screaming, his fists are clenched and the tattoo of an eagle that covers his chest glows red in the lights. They look, frankly, like maniacs, determined to imprint their inspirational racket on all before them.