The Slackers Take Their Ska, Reggae Sounds Straight to the Fans

The SlackersEXPAND
The Slackers
Photo by Joelle Andres

Make no mistake: The Slackers are consummate pros. Since first working out their eclectic blend of ska, reggae, jazz, latin, and blues in a basement in Manhattan's Lower East Side almost 25 years ago, they've earned a reputation for being one the hardest working and well-traveled ska outfits on the planet. But even seasoned pros need a little help from their fans every now and again, as the Slackers's longtime sax guru Dave Hillyard recently found.

"We just did our boat gig, and the power went out right toward the end of the set," Hillyard says. "So we ended up doing 'Wasted Days' with just drums, horns and the audience singing all the parts. You can't plan that. It's great that we have a lot of really nice people that enjoy our music, because we can't do this without them."

Hillyard isn't just placating to the healthy legion of diehard Slackers loyalists. In fact, the band is counting on its fans now more than ever. These days, the Slackers are making moves on their own terms: Their latest, yet-to-be-titled full-length record marks their second stab at crowdsourcing, having initially dipped their toes in those waters with 2013's My Bed is a Boat EP. Through the crowdfunding site Big Tunes, the group has raised just north of $23,500 to date through the campaign, which ends September 9. The money raised will cover the full cost of the recording sessions, mastering, artwork, and distribution of the new record.

Over the years, the Slackers have taken to working quickly, squeezing in the time to write and record in between touring. That's no small feat for a group prone for playing more than 100 shows a year. This time out they slowed their roll, taking the time to cull together twelve new tracks over a prolonged, four-year period. They divided up their songs amongst three producers, with four each for  Brian Dixon of the Aggrolites, Vic Axelrod, whose production credits include work with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and Amy Winehouse, and their own guitarist, Agent Jay.

"It's been five years since we did a full album of original tunes, and I think we just wanted to take the time, learn the songs well," Hillyard says of the band's slow and easy approach this time out. "The idea was to try and get some different producers in there, get some different sounds and a different feel. Sometimes working with different people outside the band can be liberating. They're like an impartial referee."

The Slackers have successfully navigated the ebbs and flows of ska's mainstream popularity over the years. As one of the cornerstone acts of New York's legendary Moon Ska Records, they gave ska fans a more substantial alternative to the scores of ska/punk acts that broke in the Nineties. Later, the Slackers hooked up with Hellcat Records, the sub-Epitaph imprint helmed by Rancid's Tim Armstrong, for a string of solid and well-received releases. The label system has treated the Slackers well over the years, but Hillyard said the traditional way of doing things hasn't proven as sustainable as it once was during the genre's mid-Nineties resurgence.

"It's been quite an endeavor," he says of crowdsourcing. "And you learn doing this. You realize the reason the labels exist in the first place is to take some of this work off of the artist's hands."

For contributing to the making of the record, fans can score the new record over a number of formats, including a set of three 45s, a CD, an LP, a double LP with alternate tracks and takes, and as a download, which will be delivered in November. Vinyl pressings of the new record, meanwhile, will be available in February to those who donate through Big Tunes, Hillyard reveals. Until then, fans can next catch the ensemble in the groove at Irving Plaza, where they'll share the stage with the Pietasters on December 19.

"We're lucky that we've been around a long time and have a good fan base," Hillyard says. "We have these little pockets of fans all over the place, scattered all around the world. The internet is perfect that way, because you can reach out to thousands of people who will step up and support us." If their latest endeavor is any indication, it sounds like this symbiotic relationship with their fan base is on that will continue to shine long after ska's heyday and the label construct that brought them there.

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