The return of Slug!

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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).

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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!”

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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.

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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.

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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…

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Check out Slug at slugla.com and buy the music at slug.bandcamp.com.

 

Steve Ratter (Slug, Molotov Cocktail Hour) on Jeff Siadek’s Desert Island

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Is Steve Ratter the most rockin’ guy or the biggest nerd? The answer is yes.

I was introduced to Steve as the former singer of KXLU-bred and Jabberjaw-tested Slug in the late ’80s, and it’s been a pleasure to get to know him better since he and his wife Max became involved in the Save Music in Chinatown project earlier this year. Following the last benefit, which they kindly deejayed as Cyrano and Lotus from the Molotov Cocktail Hour, I’ve become more aware of Steve’s participation in indie card games.

So how stoked was I when he kindly let me hijack lunch last week by asking questions about his involvement in the underground board and card game scene as well as the new game, which is being funded on Kickstarter right now.

How would you describe Desert Island to non card game players?
Desert Island is a 4-6 player card game where the participants are castaways marooned on an Island. At the beginning of the game, each player finds out, secretly, who they love and hate among the other players. The goal is to escape the island and try to ensure that your secret love survives and that your secret, hated enemy perishes. Each turn, by playing cards, the characters have to choose from foraging for food, helping to prepare the signal fire, or trying to take something from another player. There is a great deal of trading weapons and tools, asking for help, or moving into someone’s else prime location on the island. There is also pirate loot to be found, and holding onto it  just might give you the edge to victory. It’s a big game, packed into a small box.

Negotiation, bluffing, temporary alliances, identity deduction, and backstabbing. Do you have to be a dick to be good at it?
No, but it helps. This is a game of interaction and asserting one’s self. I don’t think anyone likes to be pushed around, and playing Desert Island is a great exercise in not only achieving your goals but navigating the waters of negotiation. Not unlike situations in everyday life, right? Lifeboat draws on a rich history of shipwreck and survival literature like Treasure Island, Lord of The Flies, and In The Heart of The Sea. Naturally, when a group of people are stuck “in a bottle” together, certain loyalties, grudges, uneasy truces, paranoia, and other human coping mechanisms start to develop. From the get-go, there is a player you should protect and another you might want to passively hinder (if not outright harm). At the same time, you (potentially) are also the object of someone’s goodwill and of someone else’s machinations. Very quickly a social dynamic starts to develop and it’s natural for players to begin to role-play, casting  themselves as a slippery weasel, a peacemaker, a bully, diplomat, or despot. As you want your secret love to survive, you also don’t want him or her to win the game with say, a stash of pirate loot. You’re playing to win, after all. There is a fine balance between helping someone survive versus helping him or her to thrive.

As a guy who makes a living creating art for video games, what’s cool about working on a card game?
Well, I think there are important social dynamics that happen around a dining room table that just can’t be replicated online, or even sitting next to one another with controllers on a couch. An “analog” board or card game allows players to think, respond, strategize, second guess, and bluff in ways you can’t in video games.

It’s also a different skill set that I’m using. When I work on art for video games, It’s a long process, sometimes a couple of years to see your work truly in context. Making handsome looking art in video games is only a small part of the equation. Some of your other responsibilities after the art making include working with designers on how your art is used, optimizing your work  to run smoothly, debugging problem areas, and ensuring your work appears consistent and intuitive  to the user. So there’s an aspect of tweaking and tinkering right up the moment when a video game is shipped.

In video games, I have to employ a long-term view of what something is going to look like. For artwork in a card game like Desert Island, I can get results towards my goal pretty quickly. In games, you collaborate with many people and have to consider their concerns and responsibilities. In this card game project, I am working with one other artist, Fred Davis, who handles the graphic layout  and acts as my Art Director. The designer of Desert Island is Jeff Siadek and, as his company is Kickstarting the project, he has final say. By and large though, the images and how they appear are up to me. Fred and Jeff are there to support what is the “best image,” and we’re usually on the same page. I’m happiest  if I can present something humorous or give it a story of some sort to tell. I like to put little things in the art for perceptive players to pick up. I guess that comes from hiding Easter eggs in video games all these years.

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Have you always been into card games? Even when you were in a art/noise/punk band?
I’d have to resoundingly say “Yes!” I grew up in a big family and I think my parents knew board games provide a lot of bang for your buck when it comes to entertainment at home. My folks also provided a great example of getting together with their friends for evenings of massive card games of Bridge. While I didn’t participate in those, I could see there was some heavy-duty adult fun going on there. We had a game cabinet in our house, and I have many fond memories of playing board and card games with my brothers and sisters. As I got older, my love for those experiences was rekindled in college with what I call the “Euro-gaming revolution” that started in the late ’80’s/early ’90s.

Strangely enough, that was close to the time I guess I started playing in a band. New games were coming out of Europe that stressed player interaction, resource management, and deeper experiences of player choice and consequences.  These games seemed different from the ones we grew up with. Take a classic chestnut like Monopoly. You have one choice in that game–are you going to buy a property or not. And usually, if you can, you should. House rules aside, I don’t  consider that a very engaging experience and I think we’ve all played marathon Monopoly games and for what? A thrilling conclusion? Usually everyone is burned out and the richest player dominates the last hour in what becomes a game about attrition. I enjoy a game most when a narrative starts to unfold and I’m drawn into its theme. Well-designed games have an elegance to them and by the end, you have taken part in a story.

This appreciation of storytelling  possibilities also led me early on in junior high to classic role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. And as I got back into it in college, my early bonding experiences with some members of my band were playing games with them like Settlers of Catan and D&D. We were (and still are) all a bunch of geeks in our own way and embrace what we love. The Revenge of the Nerds happened and you know what? The Nerds won.

You mentioned that the game has been translated into a bunch of other languages. Is there an international scene that I don’t know about?
There most certainly is. Board gaming as a social and even family phenomenon is absolutely huge in other countries. The predecessor to Desert Island, a game called Lifeboat, has been printed in English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Russian. It’s not uncommon for families outside the U.S. to play board games as adults, and for people to have gaming groups that get together regularly. This is largely due to the quality of the games, but it’s also a great pretense for people to get together, blow off steam, maybe do some trash talking, and have a shared experience. The idea of a weekly game of poker, mahjong, dominoes, or backgammon among friends is pretty familiar, but it’s essentially a subculture that does the same thing. In San Francisco, there is a very thriving board game underground–maybe it’s because of the weather and people enjoy staying in and playing games on cold nights. And I see that interest growing in L.A., in some ways greater than it ever was! In the past couple years, there are small game stores popping up and it’s cool to see.

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Going back to a music analogy, there are small game companies that put out  games just like indie record labels have always put out underground music. Jeff’s company is his own, run out of his house, and his stock fills his garage. Anyone that has run a small record label can relate to that, myself included. It’s a labor of love. In the world of games, just like record labels, for every Lookout!, Drag City, SST, or K-Records, there is also a Touch & Go, Dischord, Epitaph, and Matador.

To put it in worldwide context, the biggest annual game convention just wrapped in Essen Germany. It’s like the E3 of board and card games and goes on for days! Unlike video games, board games have a longer shelf life, and favorite designers and artists are regarded almost like beloved authors whose work you can enjoy over and over. So I guess someone out there must love Monopoly, right? Video games certainly occupy places in the hearts of their players, no question. However, as hardware changes, video games tend to drift away into the fog and stay there as happy memories, like playing Frogger in an arcade as a kid, or Yars Revenge on an Atari 2600 or Karateka on an Apple II. I’m not sure who is that excited about going back and re-playing Lode Runner, Pitfall!, Lemmings, Zork, or Doom.

I thought it was interesting how you guys printed out cards for beta testing at gamer conventions. What tweaks did that lead to? Did any of you sit in on those sessions?
We’ve play-tested the game at my house and at some other private sessions. Desert Island’s designer, Jeff Siadek is like a chef, always adding a bit here, tweaking aspects there, trying to craft a balanced experience. And like a great meal is delicious, a great game is also fun. It’s a lifelong passion for Jeff and it’s a blast to collaborate with someone so driven. Printing out prototype decks has proven to give the game early life, make it feel substantial and tangible. Even in the testing phase, when you get your hands on real cards laid out in front of you, the game suddenly breathes. I might be asked about something or make a suggestion, but Jeff is the one at the helm. Some examples of changes that happened fairly recently were: making the wild boar attack more severe, making the character of “The Kid” not quite so weak. These might be small things, and even sound obvious, but there is an invisible engine under the hood of the game and the designer is the mechanic. Many of these revisions made at the tail end of testing have to do with streamlining the game, so it doesn’t become bogged down under its own structure–finding the balance between too much and not enough. Think of a restaurant where there’s five things on the menu versus being in one that has a seven-page menu. People need to feel empowered, but you also don’t want someone to feel overwhelmed.

Kickstarter campaigns can be effective but are also difficult to pull off… What do you think is the coolest premium for Desert Island?
The little black wooden skulls are cool, as are the custom banana tokens, but I think I would have to say, the coolest premium is our “Voodoo Volcano Tiki Expansion.” If we hit our highest stretch goal, we will include more cards in the game, and I get to draw cool Tikis with supernatural powers, a voodoo doll, and an old friend from the previous game will be returning, in a hilarious, state of transformation.

Plans for a third game? Other projects?
As Jeff is the creator of Desert Island and its predecessor, Lifeboat, I’ll have to wait and see if he can make it a trilogy! My immediate future involves going back into the world of video games, working for an amazing start-up called The Tangentlemen. I will be joining  my incredibly talented, inspired, and veteran group of friends on a game of dark, existential horror. They are already crafting an eccentric and curious experience and it’s going to be a wild ride. I’m looking forward to lending my art, storytelling contributions, and possibly even music endeavors to the project. But I have a feeling  I’ll be called back to the world of Desert Island for another adventure someday, and when it happens, I will gladly be on board!

For more information on Desert Island and how to support it, check out the page on Kickstarter.com. And don’t forget to keep an eye on slugla.com just in case…