All band photos by Wild Don Lewis.
Worlds collided a few weeks ago when I introduced the legendary punk rocker Rikk Agnew to my friends and our hosts Steve and Max (a.k.a. Cyrano and Lotus) when we were guests on KXLU’s Molotov Cocktail Hour. I casually mentioned that Steve used to sing for a band called Slug, and Rikk immediately recalled being blown away by them at Bogart’s in Long Beach. In fact, he flashed back on them somewhat recently and had even dug up videos on YouTube. And then the very next day, the ex-member of the Adolescents and Christian Death sent me a text saying that he downloaded the recently remastered tracks on Bandcamp and to let Steve know that he was in Slug heaven!
I’m super excited about the return of Slug as well, fondly recall seeing them often in the ’90s when they were practically the house band at Jabberjaw. With a punk upbringing and indie work ethic but dimensions of industrial, noise, and dub, they could play with bands like Nation of Ulysses, Unsane, and Ruins as well as Fugazi. So how could I not ask Steve if he and some of the other guys would answer some questions about how the reissued music came to be, where the band is today, and whether or not they’ll ever get back together to play a show. And here are the answers.
The participants: Steve (vox), Todd (guitar), Michael B. (second bass), Tomas (drums).
Martin: Why now?
Steve: The reissues of the Slug material is something that has been in the works for a while now. It was just a matter of finally pulling all of the threads together. The biggest incentive was how 2016 marked the 25th anniversary since we released our first single. As time goes on, we had a growing desire to archive the documentation of Slug in one central source. Revisiting the music, the artwork, photos, lyrics, etc
Tomas: Let’s just say we talked about re-releasing this material in a variety of ways, CDs, vinyl, etc. for quite a few years but the 25th anniversary concept gave us a hard target to work around. And thanks to Todd for really providing the spark to this project by setting up our website, Bandcamp, and other entities, Steve for scanning rare photos, Damion for compiling, engineering, and remastering contributions, and all the other band members for their input. It was definitely a group effort on a lot of levels, just as our songwriting from this period was.
Todd: Tomas drove this effort. We’ve been discussing these reissues since before I moved to NYC 14 years ago, and Tomas was always the one to relight the fire after years of inaction and distraction among all of us. He spearheaded our digital presence on Facebook, drove coordination alongside Steve with our Jabberjaw friends during their recent anniversary and book release, and worked with Bandcamp and his marketing contacts to get the word out on these reissues. It wouldn’t have happened without his perseverance.
Michael B.: I don’t know what got the rest of the gang to get this going, but I’m just happy to finally have digital copies of these… I don’t have a record player so it’s nice to be able to pull these up and force my kids to listen to how “Dad used to be cool… I swear, a few people actually liked us! No, I’m not making it up! Yeah, well you’re grounded!”
Martin: How do the songs sound after not hearing them for a while?
Tomas: I think they do stand up. They were written in a certain atmosphere that suited the times with the available equipment and skills that we had, and given that few of us were trained musicians at all, these tracks sound original in their own way. We never had one aesthetic, like say noise rock or industrial noise as our anchor, we freely borrowed from tons of influences: experimental classical music, field recordings, ethic folk traditions, dub, industrial dance, punk, post-punk. It sort of all went in the Slug blender and came out as our sound. In my opinion, what I think really comes out now, is how solid Steve’s lyrics were. Sure, they were often buried in the denseness of our compositions, but reading them now, he captured the mood of our songs perfectly.
Todd: It’s interesting how some tracks sound very fresh to me and others I find haven’t aged as well, and some are even combinations of both. “Diesel” was an unreleased track we’d recorded in one of our first sessions and I hadn’t heard it in a long time. It’s a product of the time in many ways–musically it captured all of us really well at that early point in our evolution, with Tomas’ excellent fractured rhythms, a good mix of the various bass and guitar sounds we’d been hashing out, and Steve’s great lyrics railing on the then-raging Gulf War. But it also has a few elements in the mix I’m less certain of, like the machine gun sound effects at the outset and the dual vocal tracks that I remember thinking were great at the time but now sound a bit dated to me. All that said, I love the track and I’m really glad it has joined the others are out in the world.
Steve: Some definitely sound different than I remember. I think some aged pretty well, and others I hardly even remembered. And yes, aspects of “Diesel” are a little cheesy, but I think that song has a heart. It’s been a strange voyage of discovery to hear something you were a part of (even the sound of my voice) and come back to terms with it so many years later. I’m still stoked on everyone’s playing–the inventive and deceptive rhythms of Tomas, the towering power of the basses, and fuzzy, murderous slices of guitars. It’s great to hear the alternate mix of Swingers, emphasizing different instruments and with added vocals from Carla Bozulich and Beth Capper.
Michael B.: I’d always been frustrated by how our recorded output never matched our live sound but Damion did a great job beefing them up, so to speak. My playing is a bit more buried in the mix which is a good thing because I was the least talented of any of the members.
Martin: Are there songs you didn’t like then that you really dig now? Vice versa?
Michael B.: “Diesel.” I didn’t even recognize it as one of our songs. It took a few listens to finally get the recognition brain cells firing and it is much better than I remembered as it was my least favorite of our stuff. Vice versa? “Horrible Skull.” It used to be my favorite song of our set in the early days and was bummed when everyone voted to drop it from our sets. Now I hear it and just kind of think “Eh.”
Tomas: Personally, as the drummer, I was pushing the band to play some of our early songs live when we played out, rather than just the newest things we’d written. There was some tension around that, but we did succeed in playing some early material, like “Elevator,” from time to time, and I really love the intensity of our earliest compositions. I liked the early tracks then, and I still like them now.
Steve: I always felt like it was impossible to capture our sound on record, but I’m not ashamed of anything. These two releases include the earliest recordings committed to vinyl, and I love the immediacy of them. I hope people can appreciate our raw imperative to make a ruckus and not fuss over it. There were no wrong answers in Slug and everyone’s contributions were valid. I always thought there was an unspoken aesthetic with our band that we all understood and maintained — instinctively there were things we did or just did not do. perhaps in collectively shaping our sound, we defined it. Thankfully, I think this process kept us progressing and changing all the way through our lifespan as a band.
Going back and listening to things like “Horrible Skull” or the whole “Sore Thumb” single, I think there’s a youthful urgency and, at times, an almost naïve charm to them. Many times, we included moments of the humorous and absurd into our songs, as well as the obvious concussive waves of aggression and force. After we came up with “Godstopper,” it became our show closer, and it’s always been an icon of sinister menace and malice to me. Listening to it now, that songs seems to embrace my feelings of fear and loathing moving into 2017. As it was a 200 copy, tour-only single, I’m glad to see it out in the world.
Todd: Most of my mixed feelings have to do with the recordings themselves, some of which I’ve always liked more than others. I do wish we still had the studio tapes of some of the earliest recordings so we could go even deeper into remixing and cleaning up with modern digital tools, but that said I’m still happy with the way most of these tracks were captured and proud of what we did during this period.
Martin: Is the music like a time machine? Therapy?
Tomas: The music is a reflection of our aesthetic at the time. We were DJs into found sound, tape collage, William S. Burroughs, Test Department, Hafler Trio, and Malian traditional music, as well as very loud extreme music, Japanese noise, frenetic punk, and industrial music. We had amazing peers and musicians in bands like Distorted Pony, Waldo the Dog Faced Boy, Oiler, and Unsane. We reflected the fractured politics of that time too, Bush 1’s disastrous Iraq campaign, the L.A. uprising, and post-Cold War reverberations. So the music was our reaction to what we were seeing, hearing, feeling, and experiencing, and we made that our art and our lifestyles. All of us were very much serious about living our music culture, supporting other bands, going to shows, putting on shows in backyards and other spaces, doing zines and faux propaganda missives. It was our collective statement as friends and artists.
Todd: Agree completely with Tomas’ assessment. It is great to hear these tracks and remember much of what was going on among us and how we captured those moments in these songs. One of my favorite tracks from this period, both then and now, is “Godstopper.” It’s probably the best snapshot of our energy during that period, having been recorded right before we kicked off our first national tour. It was also written/recorded right around the 1992 L.A. riots, an event that I believe strongly reverberated in our music at the time. Plus “Godstopper” was one of our first recordings in Tom Grimley’s Poop Alley–Tom’s influence on our recordings can’t be understated, and the mix of “Godstopper” is a great example of how well he honed in on what we were doing.
Steve: Listening to it now, it reminds me of a time when Tomas, Todd, and I were living together; Rich was silk screening our shirts; and we were hand dying them and drying them on the clothesline behind our apartment across from LACMA. It makes me think of late nights at Kinko’s pasting up show fliers and art for the singles, meeting other bands, and making new friends as varied as Caroliner Rainbow, Unsane, Jawbreaker, and Lois. It reminds me of the bloat of the music industry before it was about to implode, a huge shift in the music scenes of L.A. (the death of hair metal, the rise of Riot Grrrl) the true breakthrough of international music which we were listening to a lot of (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Baba Mal, Master Musicians of Jujuka, Buddhist Chants, etc), the rapid growth of rap and hip hop, and watching Twin Peaks. Also eating toast at Ship’s coffee shop.
For me, our music was more like therapy when performed live. That energy onstage with the rest of the band was like being in the eye of a sonic tornado. I thought about the shows of other bands I liked and remembered best, and thought I wanted to do the same: to give someone in the audience a worthwhile performance. At the same time, I always ended up losing myself in the music and could just be in the immediacy of the moment. Listening to the recordings can also be somewhat melancholic, like seeing old photographs or hearing a story about an old friend who has passed away. It brings up a lot of feelings about the past and how seemingly simple those days were. You treasure them, are proud of them, but know those times are gone. What did David Bowie say? “Things that happened yesterday, only happened in our minds”?
Michael B.: Yes to both. It brings up a lot of memories–some wonderful and some very sad. After Slug, I went through a very troubled period of my life which got progressively worse (addiction, HIV, divorce, homelessness, and prison) so the songs definitely makes me reflect on a more innocent, less complicated time. For the record, I’m doing well now: 8-1/2 years clean, remarried, good health and back in school to get my Master’s in Counseling. Put that in your article to make me sound good!
Martin: When are the physical copies with photos and essays and stuff going to happen?
Steve: We’ve flirted with the idea of re-issuing the physical media over the years, but it just hasn’t come to fruition. I would love to have great pressings of the re-mastered songs out in the world. We’re open to ideas, suggestions, and offers if anyone cares enough. It’s something we’ll be pursuing as more Slug material is re-mastered by us.
Tomas: We’re seeking label partners with resources to help with that side of things. If there is interest and we can find a good label to work with then it’ll happen. We have the raw material (music, photos, text). We just need a good label to work with.
Michael B.: When you find out, let me know.
Martin: Has the process got a lot of you back in the same room or has everything happened via texts and email?
Michael B: Since I’m in St. Louis now, the only contact I’ve really had has been through the rare email with Steve (and Rich via Facebook).
Tomas: Texts and emails mostly, with personal visits when we’re in each other’s respective cities. Steve, Damion, and Dave Stone are in L.A., I’m in the Bay Area and Collin and Todd are Back East,
Steve: I still see Damion every week as he and I still DJ our radio shows back-to-back on KXLU. Everyone else has fled the coop, but I often check out pictures of Rich (McKinley) skating in Santa Cruz. I see Todd and Tomas once or twice a year and Michael B. and I talk once in a blue moon. I run into Dave Stone around every so often, and Collin and I talk about music and meet up when he’s in town…Mostly the reissues has been facilitated through the miracle of computers, but sometimes over the miracle of coffee and pie, too.
Martin: Think you could pull of some of the songs live? Maybe just a few. On a small stage. Maybe at one of our Save Music in Chinatown benefit shows since Jabberjaw is no longer around…
Tomas: Ha ha! We’d love to do that some time Martin. Let’s hope fate makes that happen some time soon.
Todd: It’s fun to think about abstractly, but when the idea was brought up as part of the Jabberjaw anniversary a few years ago, I had to vote against us participating. Besides the logistics of it, I’d selfishly hate to sully my personal memories of what we were 20 years ago by pretending to have any chance of capturing that energy again. Our lives are all very different now and, with that in mind, Tomas’ answer to question 4 above is probably the best argument against us playing live again.
Michael B.: I still have the same strings on my bass that I had for my last show with Slug (’94?) so my part would sound kind of skeezy. Then again, my stuff always sounded really skeezy in comparison to the other guys. (And before you ask, Mr. Writer Man, yes “skeezy” is a word.)
Personally, I’d love to have a chance to play one more time for nostalgia’s sake as I have no creative outlets whatsoever and hold onto my time in Slug as “my salad days,” kind of like the high school football player who still goes to the games long after he’s graduated. But I think the rest of the guys have pretty much moved on and grown artistically with other outlets. I have no contact with Damion whatsoever (I miss the little guy) but from what I understand, musically Slug is just not his thing anymore and I can’t imagine Slug being Slug without that wall of immenseness he created with just four simple strings.
Maybe I could be like Greg Ginn and do a Black Flag maneuver… I’d have to find some amazing musicians to mask my ineptitude, though.
Steve: I have no doubt in my mind we could pull off the songs live, but it would take some large efforts on all of our parts. We are scattered all across the U.S., so logistics as well as Father Time tend to put the kibosh on any realistic hope of getting together. Then consider practicing and stripping off enough rust to do the songs justice. I would be there in a heartbeat, but it’s highly doubtful at this stage of the game.
It doesn’t mean I’m going to stop seeing shows in Chinatown, though…