The Last Big Thing

The Slackers, an eight-man ensemble from New York City, keep the ska torch burning.

The Slackers. Grog Shop, 1765 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights, 216-321-5588. 10 p.m., Sunday, December 19, $6.
Everyone's a songwriter in the Slackers.
Everyone's a songwriter in the Slackers.
No, ska hasn't gone away. A few years back, the No Doubts and Reel Big Fishes of the world propelled the genre to "Next Big Thing" status, earning it a prime spot in the alt-rock locker room, right between neo-swing and electronica. And of course, the craze promptly vanished from the mainstream, replaced by the next "Next Big Thing." Hope you like rap-metal, kiddies.

But really, ska hasn't disappeared -- it has simply moved back underground into the hands of the purists and professionals, where it belongs. The Slackers, an eight-man N.Y.C. powerhouse, are a prime example of this reversing/reviving trend.

Don't be confused by the name, though. It's misleading for such a prolific, hardworking band. With 10 years of experience on the New York ska scene under their belts, the Slackers don't tour just to push new product. Their last album, 1998's The Question, was epic, after all -- it's a 19-song, 68-minute manifesto of breezy, laid-back, and extremely well-crafted ska songwriting. A sweeping world tour immediately followed, with high-profile big-city gigs rubbing elbows with smaller, more subdued college town performances. And here they are again, more than a year later, still plugging away. Why such a Herculean effort?

"Because we're sick," asserts Slacker saxophonist David Hillyard with a giggle, as he speaks via phone from a tour stop in New York, where he's relaxing backstage with the rest of the band -- Marcus Geard on bass, Jeremy Mushlin on trumpet, Luis Zuluaga on drums, Victor Ruggiero on vocals and keyboards, Marq Lyn on vocals, T.J. Scanlon on guitar, and Glen Pine on trombone.

"Right now, we're getting ready for our next record," Hillyard explains, a lonely trumpet warming up in the background. "We just recorded 10 tunes, and now's our chance to go out on the road and see how people like the tunes. Sorta give people a chance to hear what we've been up to. Everything now has a real strong groove; we're trying to maybe strip things down compared to The Question, which had a lot of layers to it. We're also trying to work on the songwriting aspect even further. We want all the songs to stand up."

The Slackers clearly excel at the songwriting aspect -- each member of the band contributed or co-contributed at least one song to The Question, belying the typical one-songwriter/chain-of-command format. It's a two-tone musical buffet, if you will. If the Slackers' songwriting philosophy resembles a potluck supper, Hillyard brings the sour grapes. A brief overview of the songs he wrote reveals a common theme -- "And I Wonder?" examines a failing long-distance relationship; "Face in My Crowd" accosts a snobby, punk-ass fan; and "No Love" mourns the specter of unrequited love. Its opening line -- "You know/You know/You know/It's no good to be in love/When you're not loved" -- makes it sound like ska's answer to "Love Bites."

"Yeah, that was when I got dumped," sighs Hillyard, giggling once again. "I tend to write negative songs for some reason. I actually wrote my first optimistic song in a while recently. The lyrics even say "I feel good' at one point."

Hillyard pauses.

"But don't worry. It's probably just for a minute."

Despite the downer vibe, Hillyard's tracks mesh seamlessly with the rest of The Question, which includes garage-schlock horror-film backdrops ("The Mummy"), wry meditations on growing old ("Find the Time"), and a witty comparison between alcoholism and modern-day information overload ("Knowing," which boasts the chorus "Knowing is a two way sword/Of what you learned and what's ignored/And wisdom is a liquor store/Tastes so sweet, but just wait till you wake up in the morning").

The juxtaposition of so many styles might confuse matters at times, but Hillyard ultimately feels the band benefits from such diversity. "Vic [Ruggiero] is the main songwriter, so that gives the band continuity," he says. "But I like having everyone's opinion. It keeps it interesting, you know; you can get different kinds of songs, the different songwriting styles. It keeps things from getting boring for us."

The band's endless live schedule also alleviates that boredom and enables the group to constantly generate new ideas and new tunes. "When we're out on the road, people get ideas for songs," Hillyard explains. "Lots of songs have to do with our personal relationships falling apart while we're on the road."

He giggles again.

And when the band comes home, to the vast monolith of New York City, the Slackers rejoin an increasingly high-profile local ska scene that also includes such mainstays as Skinnerbox and the Stubborn All Stars. These various bands have constructed a distinctive N.Y.C. sound, of which Hillyard gladly considers the Slackers a part. But do the Slackers consider themselves a part of the nationwide ska scene, which still occasionally generates a mainstream radio hit? How similar is a Slackers tune to a modern rock radio tune?

"We're pretty far apart," Hillyard admits. "We have a lot more roots influence. Our influences aren't that much into pop music . . . We've got a lot of '60s garage, some stuff like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones is kind of ubiquitous, and there's also a lot of jazz. I'm not into a lot of the music that comes out right now. [Ska] is really deep music, like blues and calypso. It's got a lot of the same timeless elements."

Without selling millions of records or getting much in terms of radio airplay, prolific bands like the Slackers ensure ska's timelessness will continue well into the new millennium.

"We're gonna keep doin' what we're doin'," Hillyard asserts. "We're not gonna get popular. We're like a cult band. We have our following, who come to our shows and really like us, and hopefully we can give something back, because they've helped us out a lot. Our fans are really loyal. They might not be the most numerous, but they're pretty loyal."

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