Kent duo Slaves set themselves up as the cartoon face of punk with their 2015 debut ‘Are You Satisfied’. Just a year later, they return a more serious and political force with the Mike D-produced ‘Take Control’. Dan Stubbs gets inside the most intense partnership in pop
Isaac Holman has two-day-old tomato ketchup in his ear, residue from shooting the video for new single ‘Consume Or Be Consumed’. In it, he and Slaves guitarist Laurie Vincent cram vegan hotdogs into their gobs, squirt sauce, lick each other and vomit uncontrollably. Shooting it was a sensory onslaught heightened by an odour emanating from Isaac’s sport shorts which, thanks to their many wears on stage, have a stench so noteworthy it briefly dominates the conversation when we sit down for a lunchtime chat at a Hertfordshire pub. “Those shorts are what I imagine hoarders to smell like,” says Laurie, visibly searching for the right words. “Like, you know when you’re walking around a shop and all of a sudden you have to move because someone stood next to you smells so bad? Like, B.O. is one thing, but this thing has different layers to it…” Isaac nods, and adds matter-of-factly, “I sweat so much on stage it’s f***ing repulsive.”
For most people, all of the above might be seen as a sign that personal boundaries have broken down and it’s time to consciously uncouple from your pal. But for Slaves, this friendship, existing beyond the barriers of politeness, is the dynamic at the heart of their brutalist punk act. It’s a relationship with shallow roots – they met in another band before splintering off to form Slaves together in 2012 – but it’s one hardened by an extraordinary last year-and-a-bit spent living in each others’ pockets: on the road, at festivals and recording their second album at the Malibu home of Beastie Boy Mike D. It’s given them a bond that’s less like friendship and more like symbiosis. In interviews, Laurie does most of the talking, often leaving Isaac staring into the middle distance with a half-smile on his face, as if remembering a Buzzfeed list he once enjoyed. Onstage, the power balance is flipped: Isaac is a natural frontman, Laurie is happy not to be the centre of attention. Laurie recently moved to Brighton with his pregnant partner, Isaac says he might follow him down there.
“I’d say we’re like brothers, there’s no other way to describe it,” says Laurie. “And when you’re not with your brother you wanna be with your brother,” says Isaac. Then it’s Laurie again: “I do feel [we] have this sort of importance to each other where if you’re in a social situation there’s a stronger bond between us than anyone else in the room. It’s that feeling, like, when you catch each other’s eye, we sit back and grin about stuff. There’s a really deep connection.”
Like any brotherly relationship, it’s not always rosy. “To do what we’re doing you have to be extremely focused and that can drive a massive wedge in between you,” says Laurie. “I have days where I don’t want to talk to anyone, and then I have days where I’m jumping off the walls,” agrees Isaac. And today? “I feel good today…”
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Isaac has every reason to feel good. When Slaves put out debut album ‘Are You Satisfied’ in May 2015, you wouldn’t bet on it going Top 10. There isn’t, after all, a great precedent for smash-hit hardcore duos with a singing drummer, ear-searing guitar riffs and an absurdist, wordy sense of humour delivered, like Ade Edmondson as Viv the punk, with an air of hardly-contained menace.
Yet at Reading & Leeds 2016, in one of the best-attended mid-afternoon sets of the festivals, Slaves stepped up as arena rockers in waiting. “The Main Stage is like a proving ground: can they do it?” says Laurie. “I don’t think anyone was anticipating us having that many people [in the crowd]. Normally when you get up on those big stages it doesn’t feel as big, but that one was, yeah, ridiculous.”
Alongside their onslaught on the music world, Laurie – a trained tattooist, and covered in ink himself – has concurrently been chipping his way into the art world, producing two all-new collections of his Keith Haring-like paintings in the space of a year, and designing a range of clothes, Young Lovers Club, that is now stocked in Selfridges. Isaac, for his part, has been working on solo material, though he’s yet to perform beyond the city limits of Royal Tunbridge Wells. Pushed to describe his material, he says it’s “quite Slaves-esque, but more melodic.” As a duo, they’ve worked with Chase & Status, formed a friendship with Skepta, toured the States with Wolf Alice and played two consecutive nights at London’s 4,900 capacity O2 Academy Brixton. This is alongside relentless touring that’s won them legions of fans but has been costly to their health; Laurie’s broken two bones so far in 2016, while Isaac suffers from hypermobility, a condition which means his joints dislocate easily. It’s exacerbated by his metronomic, monkey-with-a-drum performance style and has led to numerous cancelled gigs. “I’ve had surgery on one shoulder, one of my knees, and I’ve got surgery on my other shoulder in December,” he says. “Hopefully my arms will stay in, from now on.”
Then last month, in a gob in the face to the typical, tedious three-year touring and release schedule, the band released a follow-up album, ‘Take Control’, a mere 16 months after the first. As well as their sound and their charisma, it’s their relentless work ethic that’s put them on top.
“It’s a different life now,” says Laurie, gnomically, when asked about their successes. “Not in terms of with the band, you know. It feels so different now it’s like we’re in a different place.”
That idea – being different, existing outside of normality, is absolutely key for Slaves. Their Chase & Status collaboration was the acidic, Prodigy-like ‘Control’; their album is named only incrementally differently: ‘Take Control’. Control, authority and individuality is an obsession, not just in the band’s music, but in the churches and bishops that pop up frequently in Laurie’s artwork. So what does the word ‘control’ mean to them? “It stems from everything,” says Laurie. “The whole album has this concept – ‘do it yourself’.”
Do it yourself: a founding punk ideal. And for a group frequently (and pointlessly) accused of being plastic punks, there seems to have been more of a concession to the roots of the genre on the harder-edged ‘Take Control’. They even look more punk, somehow – Laurie has added a spiderweb face tattoo (“It scares off the people you wouldn’t want to talk to,”), and Isaac’s fashion sense has solidified around a foppish twist on the East End bovver boy: today, a wife-beater vest with a furry suede overcoat and a single fingernail painted baby pink. Asked if there’s any significance behind it, he replies, “Only that I was bored and there was some pink nail varnish around.”
Slaves’ lyrics are pointedly more political too, but often as a polemic for personal control. “Our music is not saying vote left or right, it’s saying it’s all wrong, so take a wider perspective,” says Laurie. “I think we both agree that society is fundamentally flawed in the sense of, like, go to school, go to uni, eat three meals a day. All of that stuff isn’t necessarily proven to work for everyone. I’ve got a massive bee in my bonnet about going to school and how it didn’t feel necessary. People have these assumptions of how you have to live your life and get a proper job, but it happens that some people don’t have proper jobs and not everything is based around money. We just want people to think for themselves.” Do they feel smug about breaking out of the grind? “Smug isn’t the right word,” says Isaac, “but I definitely feel proud. In the general sense I just feel f***ing proud of me and Laurie.”
It’s perhaps a bit of a cop-out, picking your politics from an uneasy mix of libertarianism, nihilism and egalitarianism, but the band have tackled real issues too, whether aligning themselves with the Girls Against group, who challenge sexual harassment at gigs, or speaking out about Brexit. “You never feel comfortable talking about politics because you get misquoted all the time,” says Laurie, “but I felt more confident about it this time. There came a point about six months ago where I realised we actually have a platform now. Something like Brexit is really sh*t, and every musician thinks it’s sh*t, so why aren’t more musicians saying that it’s sh*t?” The duo both grew up in Kent, home to former UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s South Thanet constituency. Did they see the attitude shifting? Isaac: “Yeah, like, how many houses do you see in towns in Kent with the St George’s flag outside? I think it has something to do with the sense that you’re in the place where everyone is coming through – you arrive in the country through Kent.”
The duo’s political stance was one of the things that first attracted Mike D to them. The former Beastie Boy, who turned to production following the death of his bandmate Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch in 2012, told NME: “I was impressed with the band’s strong point of view. They actually speak their minds about social topics.”
The band’s first meeting with the producer, real name Mike Diamond, was a little frosty. “We’re sitting waiting in this restaurant, Mike is late and we’ve been there half an hour. He’s a busy man and when he arrives his phone is constantly going, loads of texting going on. So in my typical blunt fashion I was just like, ‘Shall we all put our phones down then?’ From that moment on he f***ing loved it,” says Laurie. “I feel sometimes with our brothers from across the pond you have to sort of warm them up a bit first before they engage.”
The irreverent master-student relationship is reflected in the song ‘The People That You Meet,’ recorded the day after an all-nighter with Wolf Alice, whose Joel Amey appears on drums. The verse in question goes like this: “I know a man called Michael / He hails from NYC / Now he lives in Malibu / In a mansion by the sea / Production is his game now / He called my friend Laurie / He used to be a Beastie Boy / But now he works for me.”
Did he mind? “I went up during it and I was like, ‘What do you think about this then, eh, Mike?’” says Laurie. “He went, ‘If he’s gonna slam me, at least do it f***ing good – this is a sh*t f***ing vocal take.’”
Laurie and Mike D now speak on the phone every single day, and are already discussing future collaborations. “He’s become almost like a third band member,” says Laurie. “At the moment, we don’t want to record without him. It feels like he gets the best out of us.” The results can be heard on the record: as well as having more bite, it also sees the band toning down the funnies. For a duo too easily viewed as punk’s answer to Ant & Dec, but too different from that in real life for it to be tenable, that’s a wise move. “People expect you to be funny and mad all the time, but sometimes you’re really not up for it,” says Isaac. “Like yesterday in Leicester, these three lads came over when I was just sitting on a bench. I was still friendly, but I got a sense they were let down that I was just a normal bloke on a bench.”
Mike D may be the third member of the group, but that doesn’t mean he’s signed up to join Isaac and Laurie on what they’ve lovingly dubbed the ‘Back In The Van’ tour. The 15-date jaunt hits up smaller venues in unglamourous, lesser-toured towns. Today: St Albans, not a million miles in location or spirit from Royal Tunbridge Wells, where Slaves formed. The band feel at home, but no more than they did in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, last week. “I don’t really know how to explain it apart from I don’t really feel like a southerner,” says Laurie. “Essex and London – that’s all people care about in the south. I feel more related to a northerner.”
A typical day on this tour sees the band waking up in a local hotel, checking into the venue, then exploring the surroundings to seek out a vegan lunch and raid the local charity shops (“We’re quite obsessive clothes collectors,” says Laurie). Today, at music pub The Horn, they relax in the bar before the gig in the main room, where fans ranging from heavily tattooed 30-somethings to schoolkids in uniform have gathered for the gig. Most have paid just £1.99 for the privilege, but some don’t have a ticket and nervously await a 7pm raffle draw for the last few pairs. As Laurie and their crew play pool, he and Isaac stop occasionally to pose for pictures with a trickle of incredibly polite young fans. The backstage area offers no luxury: it’s the size of a toilet cubicle and about as comfortable, but it’s where Isaac goes to strap himself up before the show, the everyday result of his hypermobility. He’s still a model of calm shortly before showtime, and I ask if it takes much to get in the mood. “We are still us on stage, but we’re channelling different part of our personality,” he says. “I’m still definitely me; just a different me.” Bruce Banner wouldn’t make such an understatement.
Half an hour later, the band on stage, the gig is an unrelenting thrill; dark, noisy, sweaty and savage, the new songs rubbing up against older favourites including ‘The Hunter’ and ‘Feed The Mantaray’. But it’s not all love from the crowd. “Suck my dick!” shouts a girl at one point. “Suck your dick?” replies Laurie. “OK, you can get out. Go on. Get out.” Another cry from the audience: “Suck. My. Dick.” Laurie’s seeing red, but Isaac steps in and takes control, interrupting his bandmate with the cue for the next song. It’s that symbiosis in play again, the balance of power, the exercise of control – the special thing that happens when these two are in action.