If Slaves frontman Isaac Holman hadn’t warned me he was impatient, it would have been difficult not to notice. Over an hour in an organic café in Dalston, east London, his eyes dart around the middle distance through the window. When an oldish man walks past wearing red shoes, red trousers, a red shirt and a red leather jacket, he’s almost overcome with childlike delight. “Look at that!” he gasps, thumping the table. “Brilliant!”
Isaac’s demeanour is reflected in the nervy, itchy, explosive punk music he makes with Laurie Vincent, his partner in Kent duo Slaves, who’s two years his junior at 21. Onstage, they summon an almighty racket with minimal ingredients, Isaac banging a stand-up drumkit while singing, shrieking and shouting; Laurie tearing searing riffs from his guitar. Usually seen in smart but sweat-drenched shirts, they come across like call-centre workers having a public Falling Down moment, or cuddly versions of the droogs from A Clockwork Orange.
Or, at least, that’s what they used to be like. We find the band on a break from sessions for their debut album, on which they reveal they’re experimenting with synthesizers and drum machines in an attempt to fill out their sparse sound. “We’ve got to evolve as a band,” says Laurie. “Everyone tells us we sound better live and our recordings don’t do us justice. We’re aiming to turn that on its head.”
The LP will be the group’s first since signing to Virgin EMI, but will follow the self-released mini-album ‘Sugar Coated Bitter Truth’. Slaves may have gone for the major-label contract, but their roots are fully in Kent’s DIY scene. The pair grew up in towns far enough from London to mean creating their own entertainment was a necessity. “If you grow up somewhere like Kent, to find two people that are into the same thing is hard,” says Laurie. “I was in bands from the age of 12, but it took me seven or eight years to find one person that I clicked with.”
Laurie, who previously worked in Topman, and Isaac, who was training to be a tattoo artist, found each other via their previous bands. Isaac was rapping in a punk/hip-hop group called Bareface, of whom Laurie was a huge fan. Laurie later joined Bareface, then the pair split off to form Slaves. Knowing that Isaac was a rapper places his vocal style in context. “I started rapping in the playground while my mate did the beatboxing,” he says. “I reckon I could do most of Slaves’ songs over a hip-hop beat and it would still work.”
Slaves’ sound came directly from their limitations. “We’d been looking for a drummer, but Laurie brought around these two drums for me to bang while we were writing,” says Isaac. They didn’t see how it could work live until Isaac’s dad sat them down and educated them in the long history of garage-rock bands with stand-up drummers.
Early gigs were raucous and the group gained a reputation as trouble-starters. They were banned from playing in Maidstone once; as a result, audiences expected things to get lairy and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. “It’s like good old family fun now, but our shows early on were way more aggro,” says Isaac. “It was never actual violence or anything, it was just people going fucking crazy.”
The songs are fast and furious. One, ‘Girl Fight’, tells of a rough night out in Royal Tunbridge Wells. It’s disappeared from recent setlists because the duo fear its two-minute, spoken-word intro and 27-second running time might mark them out as jokers. “I feel like we’re a small percentage a comedy band – like, we’re not a joke, but at the same time, it is a joke?” says Laurie. “I think you’ve got to have both sides.”
The axe nearly fell on one of their best-loved tracks, ‘Where’s Your Car Debbie?’, for the same reason. The song details a paranoid dash to escape an encounter with Bigfoot – in Kent. The story, Laurie insists, is real – as is friend-of-a-friend Debbie, even if they’re not speaking to her any more. “She really let us down when we were filming the video,” says Laurie. “She was going to play Debbie but she just didn’t turn up.”
The anecdotes the group post to Facebook share that song’s relationship to the truth – a recent one described, in Isaac’s words, “Laurie losing one of his nads in a kayak”. They usually sign off with the message “Be kind to your pets”. I ask why, and Isaac suddenly becomes super serious. “The thought of someone being horrible to their pet is just, like, gut-wrenchingly horrible,” he says.
A shared sense of humour is par for the course for a pair who’ve spent so much time in close quarters that they seem to have fostered a sense of symbiosis. “It started off like a business friendship, but now we’re like brothers,” says Laurie, to nods of approval from Isaac. They dress similarly, too, abiding by a list of rules: top shirt buttons can only be fastened when wearing a tie; trouser cuffs must ride 1.5 inches above the shoe. Oddly, Laurie likens playing with Isaac to copulation. “Music is like pure passion, isn’t it?” he says. “You’re playing something which has just come out of you – so yeah, I reckon sex and music are linked.”
And with that, the group head off to continue working on their firstborn.
Slaves are one of NME’s artists to watch in 2015. Read this week’s magazine and NME.com throughout the week for more interviews with the most exciting new acts this year.