A few weeks ago, security at the Austin Reggae Festival sectioned off a plot of fresh grass in front of the stage. The Slackers were performing for an audience of a few thousand, of which only a few hundred knew the band’s name. “So you start with a bunch of people just staring at you,” saxophonist Dave Hillyard recalls, “But you slowly get them grooving.”
In this case the groove was tough to get. The literal distance between the stage and the audience was uncanny for a band raised in basements and intimate clubs. There was subsequent rift in energy. "Since the stage was back, it was hard to meet the crowd.”
Suddenly, like an ion charged beyond stability, “A 60- or 70-year-old lady just pulls back the barrier runs in and starts dancing like crazy in front of us. A whole rush of people followed her. It felt great."
It’s these live moments The Slackers perform for. Well, for these moments and, “for survival,” Dave admits, "But we started doing shows to go out and be with the people.”
The band began rehearsing on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1991. Since 1997 they've adopted a prolific touring schedule, averaging over one-hundred shows per year. Dave thinks part of their appeal derived from good timing: “The funny thing is that the music industry has changed. Live music is what it’s all about now. I guess we were unintentionally ahead of the curve."
Their live shows take them across the globe and back, from Berlin to Sao Paolo. Still, Dave is indifferent to traveling. "I like playing shows. I enjoy playing Cleveland and Kansas City. We’ve been playing weekday shows in Orlando since the '90s. And sometimes the city outside doesn’t matter. What matters is going on inside, at the club."
Beyond the groove and intimate clubs, The Slackers lyrics reach deep within and far without, from melancholy to war crimes through dark-humored but danceable aggression. The band’s International War Criminal was such an explicit attack against the Bush administration, it featured a demonic caricature of W. on its cover. But the band isn’t strictly political. Dave recognizes the genre’s historical roots in Jamaican independence but insists, “Ska isn’t inherently political music. It's inherently social music, as dance music. It brings people together with themes of unity and harmony."
Dave’s main goal is to get fans to dance. But if fans do decide to dig deeper into the songs’ meanings, The Slackers are cool with that too.
"We try to have little bits of wisdom but we don’t want to preach. Musicians are only so knowledgeable. Sometimes we have great insight but it’s often just a one liner, not a manifesto."
The Slackers are twelve rough tracks towards a new album, which they hope to release this summer. At each show they include one or two new tunes with classics from their first album, Better Late Than Never, and a bunch of stuff in between. The new album is still unnamed and, in characteristic inclusion, Dave welcomes fans to offer suggestions. Someone track down that 70-year-old lady. We bet she'd have some good ones.
The Slackers. Saturday, May 16, at Kreepy Tiki, 2606 S Federal Hwy, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets range from $15 to $40. Call 954-641-2601 or visit the event's Facebook page.