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Taking Control

Jack Davies meets punk rock duo Slaves to talk taking control

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"Nowadays, people are always gonna find something to be pissed off about."

So said Isaac Holman, frontman and drummer in Tunbridge Wells punk duo Slaves backstage before their show at the O2 Academy in Leeds. This was his response to my question about the controversy surrounding the obvious connotations of the band's name, but ironically reflects their approach to music - they seem perpetually and unashamedly pissed off.

The two-piece, comprised of Holman and guitarist and bassist Laurie Vincent, formed in Kent in 2012 and have found themselves key proponents of a revival of punk music. They have released two Top 10 UK albums, played numerous prodigious festivals including Glastonbury, T in the Park and Reading & Leeds, and even received a Mercury Prize nomination in 2015 for their debut, Are You Satisfied?. But how has punk, a genre that seemed consigned to the past other than for the lightweight, pop-punk stylings of the likes of Green Day, been able to see a resurgence in a music industry awash with manufactured pop and safe stadium rock?

"We're in a dark, deep place at the moment" said Holman. "People are looking for bands who have something to say."

"There's a big divide between the higher powers and normal people, and it's getting bigger," continued Vincent. "It's like how George Orwell describes the proles in 1984, as if normal people are oblivious. These normal people who voted for Trump are people who are angry. They got their say, but now they're wondering if they used it properly."
We're in a dark, deep place at the moment. People are looking for bands who have something to say.

This darkness, this anger with the status quo of things, is almost tangible in Slaves' music. And if it was evident in their debut album, their follow-up, Take Control, released earlier this year, seems even moodier again. This is perhaps something of a surprise - it comes at a time of great success for the band, and was recorded in sunny California, of all places. But the band are keen to point out that they've still got plenty to be angry about, and plenty of points to make with their music.

"No matter what's happening in terms of success, we've still got our own anxieties," noted Holman. "It's like people assume that as soon as you achieve any remote modicum of success, you haven't got something to still be pissed off about. But I know I've still got my demons."

Building on this, Vincent added that "sometimes, having good stuff happen to you makes you notice the dark shit even more."

Indeed, Take Control seeps venom, revolting against the normality of everyday life. On closing track 'Same Again', Holman wails "Same again/Week in, week out/I'll get the next one/I'll get the next one", protesting against the mind-numbing dullness of the 9-to-5.

"It's all about the normality of the everyday routine," said Vincent. "The loss of smaller businesses and the rise of massive supermarkets, people smoking... fucking vape cigarettes, being glued to their mobiles."

Holman continued: "the meaning of the name 'Slaves' to us is about being slaves to smoking, to your 9-to-5s, to anything in this shitty society." Even the band's website URL reflects this message:

Yet, while it may be slightly darker, their second album still exudes all of the vitality of their first. The songs run at a pace of a million miles an hour, some (namely the scuzzy 'Fuck the Hi-Hat') lasting only a matter of seconds. This, perhaps, is in no small part down to their new producer, hip-hop pioneer Michael 'Mike D' Diamond of legendary US outfit Beastie Boys. I was keen to find out how such a seemingly peculiar collaboration came about.

"He was working with Jake Bugg who's also on our label, he got a copy of our debut and apparently really liked it," explained Vincent, still seemingly in disbelief at the development. "Soon, we're hearing rumours saying 'Mike D wants to work with you' and it's like 'oh, do one'. Then one day I'm sitting in my flat and I got a phone call from America, and he basically said 'I wanna make you even better. I liked your first album, but I think it could be even better', and it basically all spiralled from there".

The band, however, while being "immensely honoured", in the words of Holman, never found themselves too in awe of the situation to make light of it - Holman sings "He used to be a Beastie Boy/But now he works for me" in a tongue-in-cheek strike at his new producer on 'People That You Meet'.

Furthermore, the band were determined to 'take control', so to speak, in regards to their second album.

"With the success of the first, it would have been so easy to just switch off and let the label sort out recording, release dates, tours and all of that" points out Vincent. "They hadn't heard anything, no demos whatsoever. We just went off to the studio in California, recorded it and gave it in. That's what it's about; taking control."

Talk soon turned to their unexpected nomination for the 2015 Mercury Prize for Are You Satisfied?. At the time, they didn't realise the magnitude such an accolade carried, and it was only when Vincent was "watching it this year when it dawned... how big it was."
You can see how people lose their way with a bit of success, build their careers on winning awards. That's not going to happen to us.

Holman, though, is keen to emphasise that awards and accolades are not what the band is about, and that they are too grounded to let this affect them negatively: "You can see how people lose their way with a bit of a success, build their careers on winning awards. That's not going to happen to us."

"It's weird as well, because if we didn't have that success, we'd still be making music anyway," added Vincent. "But we do, and with it comes this massive scrutiny, people reviewing us as if they know what our aims are, what we're trying to do, using it as some guideline to determine any further success. We don't really give a shit what you [the reviewers] think anyway, don't come to our gigs, don't buy our records."

Conversation with Slaves, much like their music, flows at a break-neck pace. It encompasses their influences (Vincent lists Crass, Gang of Four, The Clash and Iggy and the Stooges as particular inspirations, with Holman adding more modern artists: Jamie T stands as a "massive influence" to the band), their origins (Holman: "we're proudly Kent boys. We aren't pretending to be anything else), and a longing for the more halcyon days of their parents' era (Vincent: "they had it so much better in terms of music, sense of community").

In their live performances, their adrenaline and energy is what makes them stand out as one of the most exciting acts in the live music scene today, with Vincent playing a cool and more subdued Ying to Holman's bawling, emphatic and often shirtless Yang. And what makes their overtly engaging live music even more impressive is the fact that there are only two of them making a racket loud enough to transform an room full of gig-goers into a cacophonously frenzied, bouncing, gurgling mess.

The band recently embarked on their 'Back in the Van' tour, prior to their main tour for Take Control, where they played numerous tiny venues across the country.

Holman described it as "quite a grounding experience", noting that "it was cool to play in towns that bands don't really pass through, and give them a bit of a shock." This shock factor Holman talks about, this ability to send a crowd into hysteria, is something the band clearly strive for; the atmosphere at their gigs is incredibly vibrant.
As soon as we get on stage, we just look at each other, the adrenaline kicks in, and it's like 'fucking hell, this is electric'.

"As soon as we get on stage," explained Holman, "we just look at each other, the adrenaline kicks in, and it's like 'fucking hell, this is electric'. When I look at Laurie and our eyes meet, everything kicks off."

"Weirdly, with two of us, I think there's more to bounce off," added Vincent, considering the effect of their stripped-down two person ensemble. "It's more raw, that energy that we have."

At the end of our meeting, I was keen to know what Slaves want for the future, whether they're even slightly tempted to want number one albums, festival headline slots, more awards, accolades and the like. Holman was resolute in his response.

"They're not the goal, it's nice to be recognised, but they're just ego things. For us, we're living the dream, we're living off of our creativity, off of what we want to do. Let's see how far we can take it."

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