Slaves are probably Kent’s most famous musical duo, or at the very least the duo most proud of hailing from the garden of England. As Laurie, the guitarist, sits down opposite us at a Shoreditch café it’s easy to make out the word ‘Kent’ tattooed on his hand, a semi-ironic, semi-serious tribute to his home turf.
Semi-ironic and semi-serious is a good way to describe the duo, too. They’ve spent their previous two albums flitting between scathing commentary on how we live and songs like ‘Feed the Mantaray’, complete with their mate dressing up as a manta ray on stage. (Apparently said mate is now ‘first mate on a yacht in Malta’, no word on whether or not he’s still got the costume on.)
Both Laurie and Isaac are in high spirits, and keen to share bizarre anecdotes about anything and everything. Laurie tells (between laughter) of the curry house on Brick Lane that has a picture of Chris Martin in the window eating a curry, but have written “Chris Martin from Coldplay” underneath, in case you didn’t get who it was. He also mentions a bagel place nearby where A$AP Rocky got shouted at for queue jumping once, or so he’s heard.
Isaac, on the other hand, is wondering whether or not to have a coffee. On the one hand, he hasn’t slept properly in days, playing a show in Serbia, travelling straight to Latitude to see Wolf Alice play (Ellie Rowsell, the singer / guitarist, is his girlfriend), then promptly getting a lift all the way home straight afterwards. “Why the fuck did I do that?” he groans. “I might have a coffee, but the last time I did I was walking down Oxford Street afterwards, and I started thinking about Elon Musk saying we all live in a simulation, it basically gave me a panic attack!” No caffeine for Isaac, then.
They may be scattergun when it comes to general conversation, but as soon as talk turns to the album Slaves are laser-focused. “We wanted it to be a concise, confident piece of music,” Laurie begins, Isaac making a noise of agreement. “I think the key thing we wanted to nail was the choruses. We spent so long discussing choruses between the last album and this one; we’d even go to watch other bands and have in-depth analysis of what was in their choruses. It sounds mad, but I think we’ve always done whatever feels natural, but this time…”
“We’ve basically just banged ‘em out before,” Isaac jumps in. “This time we decided from the off that we were going to have some proper choruses, which was a new approach.”
“We turned down a lot of A+ Slaves songs too,” Laurie adds, referencing the albums slender nine-song tracklist. “I think there’s a danger as an artist of getting a bit like, ‘Of course everyone wants to hear everything, it’s all great!’ And all that does is mean there comes a point where people are skipping tracks. I get it with albums now, I’m listening to albums that are considered great, and I’m sat there skipping certain songs.”
“Definitely,” Isaac nods. “Beforehand we would put whatever we had on an album, so it was more of a mixtape than a coherent body of work. We just didn’t think about it. It is daunting looking at the tracklisting on the back of an album though. You just sit there thinking, ‘Fuck’s sake, is that it?’”
This shift in gears is something Slaves have been thinking about a lot, and wasn’t a decision they took lightly. “We looked around at everyone doing 16, 20 track albums and we thought we would cut it down. Kanye may have beaten us to it, but we had the idea first.” Laurie grins, daring us to take the statement seriously. “A big part of this album has been the number of deaths in music, and especially David Bowie passing away. There’s been so much media about music again, and it just dawned on me when I started looking at Bowie’s albums, they’re all so short. His last one, ‘Blackstar’, was only 7 or 8 tracks and I just thought to myself, ‘If David Bowie’s doing it, there’s got to be a reason’.”
“The ordering of the tracklist is completely conscious too,” Laurie continues. “We argued about it up until 11:59 pm on the day it was meant to be handed in, and we still didn’t agree on it. I could sit and talk somebody through why every song is where it is and the ebbs and flows of each one. We had some long discussions over the course of months about everything. Do you start an album by surprising someone? We ended up deciding we shouldn’t, because the core fans would probably just turn the record off.”
They both laugh.
“It was about enticing people in with what we’re doing, and this might be a bold statement to make, but [opening single] ‘Lives They Wish They Had’ takes everything we’ve ever done up to this point and makes the best possible version of it. It’s got Isaac’s direct lyrical observation; it’s got a nice hooky chorus, it’s got everything.”
At the other end of the album - and the other end of the scale - is closing track ‘Acts of Fear and Love’. “That song sounded like absolute shit before we recorded it,” Laurie acknowledges. “We genuinely thought we wouldn’t be able to include it. On this album I’ve had to stop and admit that it doesn’t matter if I want to play a riff, it’s got to make Isaac’s vocals sound good. ‘Acts of Fear and Love’ had this mad chorus of screaming feedback, and I just had to reel it in and play a few chords instead.”
“That’s when it transformed,” Isaac adds. “We completely took it apart and put it back together to make it work. The more introspective lyrics felt natural though, I haven’t been as comfortable doing that in the past, but with this album, I just felt like I could be.”
“It was a conscious decision though; we did encourage it,” Laurie says, turning to Isaac. “As soon as you started doing that I just thought it was where we should go. We’ve done so much other stuff, and I feel like people need to hear that side of you, hear what you’ve got to say about yourself.”
In making this pivot towards the more personal, ‘Acts of Fear and Love’ feels less political than their previous work, but Laurie is keen to keep carrying that torch. “We’ve always been massive advocates of bands using their platform, always. But our band aims to inspire young people to feel involved and feel included, not to rewrite political rulebooks, because we don’t have the ability to do that on our own.”
“I think we want to inspire people to speak their minds,” Isaac sums up.
“There are politics in all sorts of things,” Laurie continues. “The thing is you run the risk of being pigeonholed into being a ‘political band’, and some people don’t want to be barked at like that. You need to have a really strong sense of self to draw a line and not talk about your personal politics, and we tried to do that with this album. There’s even a love song on the album, because we just thought. ‘Why shouldn’t our band be able to have both?’ We can be political and show an emotional side too.”
“That doesn’t mean we avoid politics entirely though,” he goes on. “Just that it isn’t front and centre. I think ‘Magnolia’ is the most political song on the album, but it’s comical as well. Not being very eloquent at speaking about political subjects has meant we don’t always hit the nail on the head, but I think with ‘Magnolia’ we do.
“’Giant faces are smiling at us, call the number on the side of the bus, all I wanna be is attractive and carefree.’ When Isaac wrote that I was blown away, I was literally grinning. That hasn’t happened in a while, but it used to happen all the time. I can just imagine myself on the streets of Brixton staring up at that bus.”
“It’s just about people doing whatever they’re told,” Isaac explains. “Which we’re just as guilty of as everyone else.”
And do 65% of homes have a magnolia wall as the song claims? Isaac laughs. “No comment on that one, no comment.”
Throughout our conversation, it’s clear that the duo are taking things at a much more measured pace, and having a child has been a major driving force in this change, for Laurie at least.
“Maybe I’ve got one somewhere too… maybe a few,” Isaac winks, tongue firmly in cheek.
“Having Bart has changed me,” Laurie says. “It’s given me the ambition to make something that he can listen to when he’s older and say, ‘Woah, my dad did this!’ So far everything we’ve made has been quite cult. I feel like we’re in a place where we’ve made this cool underground band that’s peeked out over the top, but hasn’t made that big push. Maybe one day someone will make a documentary that features us, but I don’t think we’ve made something absolutely seminal yet, and that’s what I want with this one.
“I said to Isaac when we started it; we could make an album that’s just more of the same. We’ve got enough songs that we could go into the studio now and make a ‘Sugar Coated Bitter Truth’ part 2, or a ‘Take Control’ part 2, but we wanted to see how big we could take this. We’re trying it out, and if we don’t like where it takes us, we’ll go back and make a hardcore record next time. And that ambition stems from me having a kid and wanting to up the ante.”
Shortly before the new album was announced, it was revealed that Slaves were starting their own label, Girl Fight, and had signed Ladybird as their first band. Most groups would probably take it one project at a time, but apparently, Isaac and Laurie aren’t fans of putting things on the backburner.
“We were in the studio with Ladybird last week producing their new song,” says Laurie, clearly enthusiastic. “Girl Fight is specifically for them at the moment, we are thinking about what to do next, but nothing has worked out yet. Ladybird are our project, and it’s very much still going on behind the scenes.”
With talk of Girl Fight comes talk of the backlash that came after Slaves, a male group, signed an all-male band called Ladybird to a label called Girl Fight. Laurie pauses when this is brought up, collecting his thoughts.
“We set Girl Fight up primarily because we love Ladybird. There will be a girl band or a band with female members, but it just so happens that the first band is a group of guys.
“We need more women in music so desperately, especially in rock music, but Ladybird have one of the most positive, inclusive messages out of any band I’ve ever heard and their new single is all about openness and the struggles of men talking about emotions. I think it’s really important that we nourish them because they’re gonna bring a lot of good into the world.
“Having said that, we do need more women in the music industry, and we’ve got to work out how to effectively make that happen, at all levels. I think it starts at the bottom, at birth, there’s this weird stigma in people’s heads, like the whole Action Man and Barbie thing. If I ever have a daughter, she’ll get guitar and drum lessons, and I think people thinking that stuff isn’t for girls is where so much of this starts out.”
His passion for the subject is clear, as he continues: “There are some great bands we wanna do more with. I’ve just been checking out this awesome band called Thyla from Brighton. I’d love to do something with them, but because Girl Fight is so small, we just don’t have a big infrastructure.
“That’s what makes it so easy with Ladybird; they’re our friends so when we text them, they immediately know the vibe, there’s less ‘management’ actually needed. If we sign someone we don’t know it’s going to be completely different and they’re going to have different expectations, we’re just not there yet.”
Taken from the September issue of Dork. Order a copy below. Slaves’ album ‘Acts of Fear and Love’ is out now.
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