Slaves: two go big in Brussels – the inside story of their stadium-ready new album, direct from the studio
It’s mid-April in a bowling alley in Brussels and Slaves are celebrating having just completed recording their third album. Amaretto is sunk. A waiter enquires who the snappily attired pair are. Interest piqued by “Le Slaves”, he hurries off. Moments later, their Mercury-nominated 2015 debut, ‘Are You Satisfied?’, is blaring out over the speakers, but rather than asking for it to be turned off, they good-naturedly join in.
“Just keep thinking of the PRS [money],” jokes singer/stand-up drummer Isaac Holman. As the bovver-booted squall of ‘Cheer Up London’ plays, everyone – the band, their producer, and engineers – chant its lyrics of ‘You’re dead! Already! Dead! Dead! Already-ready! Dead! Already! Dead!” at guitarist Laurie Vincent’s toddler son, Bart, who’s clapping and reacting with gurgling glee as if it’s better than Paw Patrol and In The Night Garden… combined. “I think having a load of people singing my songs at a baby in Belgium is one of the most surreal things that’ve ever happened to me,” observes Isaac, surveying the scene.
Weirdly, this off-duty snapshot seems to sum up Slaves: brutalist riffs accompanied by riotously bizarre – often wildly funny – imagery. Six hours earlier, NME sits down with Isaac and Laurie at ICP Studios, where they’ve been sequestered for the last three weeks working on the follow up to 2016’s ‘Take Control’. Belgium was an eleventh-hour replacement. Originally a studio was booked in costal Kent – near where they formed in 2012 – but “the week before we went, they revealed there’s an 8pm curfew, so obviously that really stumps what you can do in a day,” says Laurie, who’s been clocking in at 10am and leaving and 1am the next day.
Confidence is high. “If you’re still here by your third album, you feel like you’ve got to give it your everything,” declares Isaac. “It feels more precious than ever because it’s a shock to get here – you think: ‘This might be our last crack at it’,” adds Laurie. “Even though we know it won’t and we’ll keep going in some sense, people are always into a band’s first album and to get people to listen fresh on your third record without already going ‘I know Slaves. They just sound like that’, you’ve got to put out a pretty big statement to win over new people. So I think we’ve both had that in mind to make something special.”
“We had a mission statement to not settle with the first incarnation of things. I think it’s quite historic for us to finish a song and then it’s done and we record it. Now we’ve written choruses on purpose rather than having choruses accidentally.”
As they’re under strict record company orders to remain tight lipped about the album and track names (“It’s a personal album about actual friends and stuff – I wish we could say the title because then it would make far more sense,” says Isaac), talking to them about it feels teasingly like an interview on 24 Hours In Police Custody where the perp is cagily withholding information for fear of implicating himself.
And although videos on their Instagram showed Laurie playing a trumpet (he taught himself the two notes required for the title track) and experiments in percussion, it’s a relatively back-to-basics collection. “Consciously, this record is just guitars,” explains Laurie. “There’s one song with bass. It’s a Slaves guitar album – we didn’t wander off into synths like we did with the last record.”
How else does it compare to the last record? Isaac: “I think it’s… Nah, I don’t want to offend anyone…”
Laurie: “Who are you going to offend?”
For the uninitiated, “Mike” is Michael ‘Mike D’ Diamond, who produced ‘Take Control’ at his Malibu pad and gained a shout-out on the track ‘People That You Meet’, with Isaac rapping: ‘He used to be a Beastie Boy but now he works for me!’ At the time, they anointed him the unofficial third member of the band, and Laurie said they spoke on the phone daily.
Laurie: “Oh right, no. He probably will never read this.”
Isaac: “Anyway, in my opinion, this just sounds a lot bigger and lot more full than our last album and the tunes are better.”
Did they consider working with Mike again? “Yeah, and we had text conversations and stuff and he’s like, ‘I’ve always got your back musically, whenever you want to do anything’,” says Laurie. “But he’s got his own career going on in a different way, like he’s just starting up his DJing and stuff and he’s got his radio show and it just….”
“Didn’t feel natural,” interjects Isaac.
Laurie: “It didn’t feel like it was going to happen. There’s always going to be a friendship and relationship with Mike.”
Isaac: “We love him.”
Instead, they’ve reunited with Jolyon Thomas, who produced their debut. “It’s like getting back with your ex,” laughs Laurie. While brainstorming names to help guide them, kismet intervened when a record that had been produced by Jolyon randomly started playing. They took it as a sign. So – with demos in tow – Laurie invited him to lunch to ensure they were on the same page. “He didn’t want to make ‘Are You Satisfied?: Part 2’ and neither do we. He wanted to push us.”
Much has changed since Slaves recorded that initial LP, both personally and professionally. Laurie is now married and lives in Brighton with a child, and toys litter the studio as a result. “I’m a lot more balanced. I’ve got more of a homelife now and feel more confident,” he says. That assurance extends to their music. In 2015, they were the cartoon-punk wildcards: visceral, three-minute tirades against the nine-to-five rat race plus absurd songs about mantarays and sasquatches on the loose in rural Kent presented them as a kind of Crass sketched by Hanna-Barbera. Back then, they gate-crashed charts and Radio 1 playlists dominated by singer-songwriters and chirpy dancepop. In the space of three years, they’ve taken their incendiary live shows from sweatboxes to stadiums – they’re supporting Foo Fighters at the 66,000-capacity London Stadium at the end of the month. “Nobody can downplay the importance that we’re going to meet a third of Nirvana,” says Laurie, spiderweb-tattooed face beaming. “I might slip a demo under Dave Grohl’s [dressing room] door!”
“Because we’ve been playing quite big venues lately, Jolyon said he could tell our sound has changed,” he continues. The record’s production has, they say, swelled accordingly. “When you go from playing basements to arenas, your sound naturally evolves.” Adds Isaac: “Sonically, the fast-paced, intense riff-songs reverberate badly through a bigger room. So you find yourself wanting to write these big anthemic tunes with big choruses”. Laurie picks up the baton again: “I’ve also got this mentality where fans will go, ‘Go and write ‘The Hunter’: Part 2.’ But I’ve already written that and don’t need to write it again. What I’m craving is that moment where the crowd is too loud singing your words back to you. We’re heavily influenced by Britpop and Blur – we want that ‘Song 2’ moment.”
Asked about influences on this album, Laurie consults a ‘Here’s one I prepared earlier’ iNote of bands, reeling off the likes of hardcore outfit The Casualties, The Breeders and Violet Femmes. “Fatboy Slim has been referenced continuously since the first session. He’s pop but also transcends so many genres and writes //big// songs.” Touchstones include Green Day’s ‘Warning’, Queens of the Stone Age’s ‘…Like Clockwork’ and the first two Oasis albums. When the recent Supersonic documentary came out, lifelong Blur fan Laurie broke the carinal either-or rule and crossed the picket line. “I felt like a traitor. But then I went to the cinema and thought: ‘Do you know what? I was 23 then. I can’t still be Blur versus Oasis. I can listen to both. It was such a big question for our generation.”
Described by Isaac as “a concise piece of music to sum our band up”, the new album is partly a reaction to ‘Take Control’, a sprawling 16-track opus they viewed as more of a mixtape. Its higgledy-piggledy nature – it even contained hip-hop style skits – was a result of being released merely 15 months after their debut. “It wasn’t as much of a body of work as [album three]”, reflects Isaac. “We just chucked all our songs on it.” It received a mixed critical reaction, with Laurie admitting to sneaking off to hate-read reviews. “We’ve been through the mill,” he muses. “We had a first album do better than anyone thought and then an OK second album – it wasn’t bad but it didn’t blow anyone away. It was experimental. I still think it will be the one die-hard Slaves fans in years to come will say is their favourite record. At the time, Mike D was talking to us a lot about [Beastie Boys album] ‘Paul’s Boutique’ which got absolutely slammed in the media and is now viewed as a masterpiece. We didn’t want to just go ‘Album two – here’s a pop record’, because that would have been too obvious.”
While their first two records should be regarded as quasi-companion pieces – their debut poses a question (‘Are You Satisfied?’) and the follow-up offers an antidote (‘Take Control’) – album three is its own autonomous beast, which sees Isaac take aim at among other things, selfie-culture and automation – like a Rage Against The Self-Service Checkout Machine. Isaac jokes that his robot-hate makes him the “anti-will.i.am”. “There’s a “song in 3-4, so a punk-rock waltz” which they describe as “a coming of age, day-in-the-life snapshot of where we are now,” as well as a “wildcard” tune which Laurie calls a Slaves dance tune. “Isaac’s talking about seeing someone on a bus and being concerned, thinking ‘What’s wrong with you?’ It’s a bit Fatboy Slim. It’s feelgood. I feel it’ll be that song of the summer that’s going to annoy everyone but you’re all going to be singing along to it.” Before you dig out the glowsticks however, he offers the disclaimer. “When I say it’s the Slaves version of a Fatboy Slim or dance tune, there’s still a massive gap for that not to sound anything like that to anyone else.”
Listening to Isaac’s boisterous bellowing on ‘Take Control’, their then-A&R Mike Smith (responsible for signing Arctic Monkeys and The Libertines) asked Laurie: ‘Do you think you’ll ever get Isaac to sing?’. “And I was like, ‘next record, definitely’”, remembers Laurie. He’s made good on that pledge. “There’s a few moments on this album where it’s just guard-down Isaac singing. Before it’s been a defence of how good you are at shouting.” For his part, Isaac needed little coaxing. “I guess I was a bit scared of it before but I’m well up for it now,” he says.
Did Laurie know Isaac could sing? “Yeah I did because Isaac’s always had these softer house party songs in his bag, which I’d heard for years. He’d get drunk with an acoustic guitar and play them to everyone – and they’d love them.” But then, with a fraternal bond strengthened by relentless touring, there’s little they don’t know about each other. They’re Yin and Yang: in the opposite of their onstage roles (where Isaac is essentially the frontman, bashing his kit with the frenzy of sugar-deprived kid hitting a piñata), Laurie is the more loquacious in interviews, Isaac happy to be his sidekick. “We only realised the other day that when one of us lays down on the sofa, the other will get up,” says Laurie (naturally). “When Isaac starts doing something, I just go and chill and then, instinctively we swap.” They’ve only ever properly rowed twice, and regular visits from Laurie’s wife and son have led to an even more harmonious recording environment. As Bart – taking after his father – strums a child’s ukulele next to us, Isaac says: “Having him here means it’s a really nice atmosphere – it’s defused any tension there might ordinarily be in the studio.”
Of the three tracks that NME is previewed today, one meets the primal platonic ideal of what a Slaves banger should sound like, powering along with bug-eyed, nostrils-flared, ‘Did you spill my pint?’ intensity, this time targeted against Instagram narcissists. From the opening snarl of ‘Poolside poses but don’t fall in/You’ll remove the golden glow from your otherwise pasty skin’, it’s rightly hailed by Laurie as “one of Isaac’s finest hour’s lyrically”. ‘I’ve grown my muscles to intimidating proportions’, he hollers at one point, touching upon the (Popeye-sized) arms race in gym selfies, before it ends with him screaming: ‘SLAVES! SLAVES! EVERYONE FOLLOW ME!’.
“It’s just a proper statement of intent,” explains Laurie. “It really sums up what our band’s about, from the more post-punky sounding beginning to the hardcore outro.” “Social media can be used very positively, but it’s addressing the people that are like ‘look what I’ve bought – isn’t it amazing?’, ‘look where I am’. If you didn’t take a picture of it, it’s like it didn’t exist,” says Isaac, of his witty wordplay. “Everyone’s competing with each other. When you get a buzz from the number of likes you get on a photo, it turns you into a product. It’s like Jolyon’s always going on about his 350 Instagram followers constantly…”
“2359,” interjects Jolyon, from across the room. “But let’s not split hairs.”
“You’ll probably get another 10 from this interview, mate,” responds Isaac.
With a growing number of artists such as Jack White banning phones at gigs, would they follow suit? “I couldn’t because I’m not a dictator,” reasons Laurie. Besides, “Do you know the irony? We’ve had a few tours where Isaac’s told people ‘Put your phones away’, then a few weeks later we’re complaining there’s no pictures of the tour. You can’t win.” Issac’s as guilty of being addicted as the next man – “I find myself saying ‘Right, I’m going to have a week off Instagram then without even knowing I’m doing it, I’ve got my phone out and I’m looking it thinking ‘Fuck’s sake’ – and when asked what he thinks of those men who show off their intimidatingly-proportioned muscles, he squeezes his own plus-sized bicep – revealed by a vest – and deadpans: “It’s terrible, innit?”
Issac’s witty wordplay is also the sound of Slaves “embracing the fact we’re humorous and this is part of our band.” In the past, they fretted that enjoyable moments like having their merch guy come out in a mantaray suit might be casting them as some kind of gonzoid-Chuckle Brothers. “We went through a little phase where we thought, ‘Shit we’re becoming a joke band’,” says Isaac. “We had a few gimmicks live and a lot of our lyrics were quite jokey. Then we went through a little time where we panicked about that and tried to be quite serious. Now we’re owning it.”
Whereas the first track is a souped-up monster truck of a Slaves song, the next is a curveball. With Britpop whoops and a hook that burrows its way into your brain, it’s so brilliantly sugary Jamie Oliver might try to tax it. “I really wanted to do a bubblegum punk song because I love that vibe, from listening to those overly-produced Hole songs or The B-52’s,” says Laurie. “It’s just the classic story of being dumped by a girl which we’ve never done before. We’ve never spoke about love before.” For the lyrics, Isaac collaged together everyone in the studio’s experiences of heartbreak, like a sonic Jeremy Kyle. “I took snippets of different breakups,” he says. “I remember sitting down with these two and asking ‘Have you ever been dumped? What did it feel like?” Laurie sees it as a “universal pop song” along the lines of The Beatles’ ‘She Loves You’. “Except,” notes Isaac, singing, it’s “She dumped me/yeah yeah yeah”
Worry not that this soul-baring might come at the cost of neglecting the mosh-pit, as they also play a phlegmy gob of punk primed to incite a cauldron of flailing limbs at Reading and Leeds festivals. With the tub-thumping matra of ‘Two arms, two legs, two faces’, it rails against ‘another let-down generation’. “It’s aimed at a broad spectrum of everyone feeding you different information all the time,” notes Isaac. “Like the people in power – calling them bugs. You’re fed inaccurate information. We have deep chats in the studio and at the end of it, we’re always like: ‘Who even knows if it’s true anyway?’ echoes Laurie. “The more ludicrous something sounds now, the more inclined I am to believe it.” “It’s like the rise of the flat-earthers!” expostulates Isaac, before putting out an appeal: “I really want to meet a flat-earther.”
Despite seemingly becoming more overtly political last year, marshalling a Glastonbury crowd sing-along of ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn!’ and now recording two kilometres away from the European Parliament, they don’t explicitly reference Brexit or name fake-news-spouting politicians. “I’d like to make a record that feels relevant forever and Brexit is just a really shit blip in history,” says Laurie. “We’ll get through it somehow. I’m not trying to underplay how badly we felt about it – and recording here makes us more upset. But we don’t want to direct our rage at specific people. We don’t want to give any more glory to them, we don’t want to have to mention these people and cement them in history for being idiots.”
“There’s almost like a tick-box chart for young bands now in the music media: have you mentioned Brexit? Have you addressed the Tories? But the truth us, there’s only so much finger-wagging you can do at the establishment. The world feels in too much of a state to focus on one thing.”
Not naming names extends to a guest star they’ve enlisted to provide backing vocals on one of the tracks. Is it somebody we’d know? “May-beeee,” they both grin, conspiratorially, before Laurie adds: “We want to keep it secret, put it out there and if people notice, they notice it more. It might be a bit like when Elastica had Damon Albarn on their record.” Could that be a coded reference to Isaac’s relationship with Ellie Rowsell from Wolf Alice? We hope so.
In January, Slaves unveiled their own label – Laurie’s T-shirt bears the Girl Fight Records logo – and its first signing, Lady Bird (“We’re such control freaks that eventually we want be responsible for everything – from producing an artist to tearing our hair out over their artwork,” says Laurie, who has a lauded side-line as a Keith Haring-inspired painter), but it’s on the backburner while they concentrate on their own music.
“I’m fiercely ambitious,” says Laurie. “I’ve got a goal. I don’t necessarily want to be the biggest band in the world, but I want to headline festivals. I’m sick of seeing people going ‘Who’s going to headline our future festivals?’. It’s not about having number ones. It’s about being onstage when everyone’s at their peak. It’s that last slot at Reading and Leeds. And having people refer to it for years to come like Nirvana ’92. That’s what I want to do – and I see this album is a means of getting there.” Judging by the triumphant nature of what NME’s heard, Slaves are poised to have the world – flat or otherwise – at their feet.