by Richard Thorne

theSlacks: uNZipping theSlacks

by Richard Thorne

theSlacks: uNZipping theSlacks

With their third album due out in just days, Richard Thorne caught up with theSlacks in a cluttered garage/rehearsal room in sunny Stratford, where the fun lovin’ four-piece folk rock act have spent several days ironing up the studio-compiled songs on ‘Information Ape’, getting ready for their new album’s release tour.

There’s a lot of love in the ‘Naki for theSlacks, and fairly so given the band has been entertaining the locals (and themselves) for coming up to a quarter century now. Formed by and around brothers Scott and Mark Armstrong – vocals / rhythm guitar, and vocals / lead guitar respectively – back in 1999, most New Plymouth residents must have seen them perform at one festival (like say, WOMAD) or another (like say, Festival of Lights), and enjoyed their clever, enthusiastic folk-pop and Te Reo embracing brand of Kiwimusicana.

Songs like Yeah Nah, Be Cool and Two Tui eventually led the group to 2016’s ‘smash hit’ single Big Aroha, with its virally loved music video shot in the Motuora Four Square. Eight years on (let’s face it, a full lifetime for most bands) sees the release of the Slacks’ third album, ‘Information Ape’, a record they refer to as their first studio recording as it’s the first time they’ve afforded themselves the luxury of taking time to refine an album of tracks in studio.

The first Slacks’ album, ‘Suppressed Inventions’, was recorded not long after the band got started. Mark recalls staying with friends in Auckland which led to them meeting then Montage Studios owner Mike Donnelly.

“We partied with him one time and he told us to come over and check out his studio. We had a bunch of songs we were gigging live, and he offered us a few days of recording with this amazing engineer, Nick Abbott. So we did that first album in like two or three days.”

Introducing a new, much rockier sound, second album ‘Welcome To The Rolling Vibe’ came in 2014. That wasn’t long after bassist Blake Gibson and drummer Zane Greig joined the band, the pair relocating as a rhythm package from Palmerston North rock act Stoods.

“Like wood with an STD,” Zane helpfully explains. “We all just clicked.”

They very evidently still do. Interviewing the band is not unlike wrangling a chatty octopus, each arm keen to grab attention and make an impression, with playful comedic lines swirling all around. Being good mates, each adds a ‘y’ to the others’ names.

“Yeah, me and Zaney have been in the band for 17 years,” Blakey illustrates. “That whole time there’s been blowback from the fact that in ‘Suppressed Inventions’, Scotty sang all of the songs, even Marky’s songs, and there’s been this simmering tension since that they’ve never talked about properly. But they kind of talk about it through us, like when you were kids!”

Cue general laughter and more banter. Scott takes reluctant credit for the band name presentation as theSlacks.

“I love word plays, and we all enjoy a good pun – words are a big part of the songs for us. Back in the day, when the internet was fresh and relatively new, I found out there was a lot of other bands called ‘Slacks’ around the world. I tried to outsmart the internet by writing the band name slightly differently so that it might help people search, but the internet doesn’t care… so it’s become more a millstone around our necks.

“It looks like a mountain,” encourages Mark, describing the tweaked single-word shape with a finger. He’s right.

“We’ve got a little mantra,” Mark continues. “To record good music and to play good shows with good people. When we are hitting those markers we’re succeeding.”

“It’s what’s kept us going for 17 years,” Blake adds, sounding serious.

By 2020, the songwriting Armstrong brothers had once again reached a point of having a bunch of music that needed recording, but determined this time to take time, and do ‘a proper studio album’. Owned by former London-based musician and producer Sam Johnson, Rhythm Ace Studio in Oakura meant they could stay local and do just that. They’re lavish with praise for Johnson who not only engineered and produced, but also added a third guitar to several tracks, and more besides.

“He’s a great guy to work with and rapidly gaining legendary status down here,” says Zane. “He’s got quite a back history from the UK of over 25 years.”

Officially released on the third of May 2024, ‘Information Ape’ has been heralded by four video-accompanied singles, though two might have been an accidental release, hard to tell among the ribaldry. theSlacksOnTV is their Youtube video channel.

“We did Old King Young and that got released because everyone was feeling like, ‘We’ve been three years at this, we need to release something,'” Scott recalls to general agreement.

“Then Information Ape got released, cos I did the video using AI images and I thought, ‘I’ve gotta get this out, it’ll be cutting edge’, not realising that someone like Disturbed did an AI video like eight years ago…

Zane comes to his rescue. “No, we have been billed as the first band in NZ to release a totally authentic AI video, but that’s been slow to catch on.”

“Then it was Love To Go,” Mark takes up before the laughing settles, “which we’re really, really proud of. It was done by an amazing guy, Simon Duncan, who’s a head animator at Weta. He did this really cool Kiwiana treatment that’s along the same lines as the Big Aroha aesthetic, and gives a really good visual to the song. And then there’s Crystal Mountain High, which is a montage of our history playing live and at festivals and stuff. It has Luminate festival, where we played in front of a naked audience…”

Their 11-track album is a trainspotter’s delight, a clever Kiwi band’s aggregated homage to several of their best favourite late ’60s/early ’70s British rock artists, bound together as a commentary on society’s current data-driven meltdown.

If the Old King Young title doesn’t give enough of a clue, the video descriptor notes that the song is ‘…our nod to Neil Young – a musical and lyrical tribute to perhaps the greatest singer-songwriter of all time.’

“Neil Young is particularly close to my heart,” says Mark. “That song fell out a couple of weeks after I saw him, and I was deliberately trying to tribute the man, write a song like him, and also thank and honour him.”

“And grab some of his lyrics,” adds Blake to more laughter. “It’s like a ransom note that’s cut out of magazine headlines and stuff! Using the guy’s own lyrics as a way to say, ‘I’m a real big fan of yours – here’s this letter I wrote for you.”

Here It Comes is another paean to Young, this time the more muscular Crazy Horse era, and again was channelled by Mark.

“Yeah. So this is the start of the b-side of the album. The first five are the folky-inspired Slacks, Side 2 is the heavier side of the album and it starts with this Southern Man-styled song.

“I wanted to write a song that was riff based, and it is actually about a bar fight that I saw brewing, and then happen. It’s like the heaviest song on the album, deliberately so. It’s about conflict basically and I wanted to make it sound heavy and violent. The theme of the fight that happens in the song is also the theme of what’s happening in the world,” he grins.

While the previous two albums have been 60:40, Scott’s songs to Mark’s, this one is split evenly – five and a half songs each, with Pinecone Flue Open being a brotherly co-write about brotherly and sisterly love. Despite the Kiwi title, it has a swamp blues feel, and kicks off with the jaunty fiddle of Mireya Ramos, bandleader of NY-based all-female mariachi act Flor de Toloache. When they played at WOMAD, Ramos got stranded in Taranaki by NZ’s national Covid lockdown. Her laughter at the track end indicates she probably enjoyed recording with theSlacks.

The Kinks remain Scott’s songwriting touchstone and on this album he does Ray Davies proud. Track two, Friends Sit And Talk, is the first obvious example, a song that wriggles along to a strummed acoustic and theSlacks’ signature group harmonies in the chorus. The chordal simplicity might bring Postman Pat to mind, but lyrically it’s no kids’ song.

“Well it’s two songs stuck together,” Scott laughs at the suggestion, “…trying to do a classic McCartney thing. I’ve never been a massive proponent of just straightforward blues, where it’s about the rhythm. I like jumping from chord to chord, like Ray Davies and like Bob Dylan, so it does wriggle around.”

“Normally, it takes us a long time to work out vocal arrangements,” Blake joins in enthusiastically. “It will take at least a couple of practices before we can really settle on something. For the b section that finishes the song we had an idea and went in and sang a three-part harmony, just like that. It was like the first time that it ever happened, but it was a real cool moment!”

“I think Friends Sit And Talk is kind of the Ray Davies form of songwriting, that vignette, on the street observational songwriting,” adds Mark. “And there’s a lot in that song, and Information Ape too, storytelling in the lyric and a slightly, probably sardonic viewpoint. But also in a really fond, and loving way – the same sensibility as Davies. Is that right, Scotty?”

“I would describe that song as Paul McCartney over at Ray Davies’ house, having a cup of tea… that’s the first time I really impressed myself!” the school teacher/songwriter adds wryly.

Scott says he hates writing love songs since “all the good ones have been done”, so he focuses on the observational.

“For Friends Sit And Talk I literally went and had a coffee downtown and just looked at people and wrote words, thinking, ‘If people are looking at me they’re gonna think I’m a songwriter. Cool!’

“It came out of that, but then it always does twist itself into some kind of like, not quite snide comment about society, but not such a glossy look at it. Yeah, and I’ve just always loved The Kinks, and The Small Faces which are similar.”

The admiration is shared by his brother who wrote the album’s title track, Mark describing the singalong, upright piano, music hall backing of Information Ape as vaudeville, “…and The Kinks were certainly vaudeville.”

“It’s strongly folk-influenced with the honky tonk piano, and harks back to those times musically. We were looking for a concept or theme to bind the album, and I guess that was the one where we thought the message is right for what we want to promote. It kind of framed up the mood I guess.”

“As the album title, it’s an easy visual and an easy concept for people to get their head around,” Scott takes over. “And it enabled the songs on the album to have some connection. The songs reflect the flustered times in which we live, with data-dust falling around us all like staticky snow. Sometimes, being connected feels more like being hopelessly tangled.”

Alongside the observational commentaries and wittily clever word plays, the songs on ‘Information Ape’ have been carefully shaped musically by both the band and producer Sam Johnson, who added the more exotic effects like space echo and wurlitzer.

“There are like 11 stories on the album, and we tried to approach each song with a different musical feel and tone,” says Mark. “Sammy contributed quite a bit, too, playing guitars and working on the backing tracks when we weren’t recording. It was nice to have another contributor there.”

Multi-instrumentalist Blake also deserves additional credit because there’s a lot more going on than just his bass, guitars and drums.

“On the album I played lots of stuff. So I played keyboards, and I hit stuff and also played synthesisers. I did all sorts of weird little things, but in the recording process I met and fell in love with a mellotron, so a lot of our children are on the album.”

All up, the gestation period of ‘Information Ape’ has been over three years, recording taking about half of that with weekend sessions spaced out by several weeks. Mark describes it as leaving no stone unturned, noting there were also lockdowns when they couldn’t progress anything.

“Getting this album out on vinyl was an absolute folly of ours from the beginning, so that’s been our focus,” Scott confesses. “I think part of the learning process is that we probably will just go back to singles in the future!

“The cool thing is, because the songs were written and ready for recording before Covid, none of them reference Covid, and I kind of like that, there’s really been a glut of that sort of song releases. You might think some of the songs could possibly be about that sort of thing, like the information age kind of collapsing, and some of the difficulties that come with that. More than ever we’ve got to discern what’s actually going on, and what’s just clicks and likes.”

‘Information Ape’ makes an entertaining place to start the process.