Tiny Dicks and Big Ideas: I Went on Tour With Slaves

The punk duo have left a trail of rage in the UK, but how would they cope in the USA – where nobody really knows and nobody really cares?

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Apr 18 2016, 11:10am

“I’ve got a very small, tiny, tiny willy,” jokes Slaves’ Isaac Holman, almost seductively, as he half-shuffles, half-dances his way past me and out of a small dressing room at Union Transfer in Philadelphia. The clock has just struck 7pm, but the 24-year-old vocalist/drummer had his first drink over eight hours ago, when we set off from the band’s hotel in Brooklyn. In a little over an hour’s time, Slaves will take to the stage for the first night of a two week stint supporting Wolf Alice across the USA. And I’m following them… for a bit.

To be fair to Holman, he hasn’t been drinking all day. It’s not that he didn’t want to, just that he’s got one eye on the show. Besides, it’s the first day of the tour. There’s plenty of time for that further down the line. He pops into Wolf Alice’s dressing room, then returns, and says the same thing again, just to make sure I’ve got it down right: “I’ve got a very small, tiny, tiny willy.” A mischevious grin spreads across his face. Later, after their set, he’ll be prancing around in nothing but tight white briefs – Slaves only wear “briefs”, you see, never boxers – chanting the words to a rhyme he made up in the van on the drive to Philadelphia, and which, over the course of the next 36 or so hours, we’ll keep repeating back and forth to each other as some bizarre sign of affection: “The pussy is pink. The pussy is hot. The pussy is everything that I’m not.”

I’ll be honest, I’d heard mixed accounts of the Kent punk band before I met them. Some suggested they were frantic to the point of unapproachable. Others that they were somewhat of a comedy double act in the making. When we’d first met that morning at their hotel in Brooklyn, both Holman and Vincent had hugged me warmly, like we were childhood friends reconnected after many years apart.

They are certainly a strange pair. For a start, they look like they’ve been ripped from the mood board for a Shane Meadows film, but dragged backwards through Topman en route. Their belligerent barrage of confrontational noise was formed from a surprisingly knowledgeable bedrock of genuine British punk, running from Joe Strummer through to Frank Carter, yet one reviewer tersely remarked “as Royal Blood are to metal, they are to punk”. Sure, Slaves are signed to one of the biggest labels in the world, and their debut album was nominated for a Mercury Prize, but it’s hard to argue against how fresh it sounded to hear music as abrasive as theirs dominate the UK top ten. From spending time together, I wanted to find out who they really are. As it happens, there’s more to them than beers, willy jokes, and sales figures.

“This is new to us,” says Vincent about this run of US shows, “but in some ways it brings us back to our comfort zone, in the sense that we love playing shows that are unexpected. In the UK, we got quite comfortable, because you have a fanbase and you have ticket sales, whereas now we’re back on the road playing the unknown, and that’s where we thrive, I think.”

Holman agrees: “It’s obviously nice to get success, but you don’t want to get too comfortable with it. You always want to feel like it could go wrong or it might not go well, and you get that playing to people who might not necessarily know who we are. The confrontation is fun – getting some hecklers again! There’s a lot of aggression in our songs, but there’s also a lot of humour, and the humour seems to go down really well.”

Humour is indeed a large part of who Slaves are. One of their songs, which lasts for a little over two minutes, is about their friend Debbie and her misplaced car. It repeats the line “Where’s your car Debbie?” over and over again. In photoshoots, they’ve appeared riding on the back of humans dressed up in polar bear outfits. They used to put the face of Eastenders character Barry Evans face on their merch. Whether on stage or off – goofing around during a performance, with their fans afterwards, or backstage with their crew – fooling around is a large factor in Slaves output. This time last year, the band’s guitarist Laurie Vincent said “I feel like we’re a small percentage a comedy band – like, we’re not a joke, but at the same time, it is a joke? I think you’ve got to have both sides.”

Vincent’s right, because amidst Slaves’ comedy there is indeed a sense that they have some deep, thought-out, pertinent opinions – which is perhaps another part of their appeal. For example: during the three days we spent together, they don’t shy away from stepping on the soapbox. Both of them are vegan (“I’m 98% vegan,” corrects Holman) and their reasons for being so, which they explain in the vegan restaurant we head to that afternoon, are driven by a mixture of philosophical, political and moral ideologies.

“Essentially, the reason I’m vegan,” explains Vincent, the group’s heavily inked guitarist, “is that when you learn about the meat industry’s effects on our world, and how, if we stopped consuming meat we could feed the whole world’s population on the beans that we feed to the cows – and we wouldn’t be destroying the ozone layer with the methane and we could reverse global warming substantially within 90 years.”

“And the animals!” chimes in Holman.

“Oh yeah. And the killing of all the animals. But from someone who grew up as quite a hardcore meat eater, I think you have to address the global side of it first. Because the more I’ve gotten into it, the more compassion I feel for the animals. I think a lot of people think it’s their God-given right – I don’t believe in God – they think it’s their right to eat meat, but essentially we’re going to be standing around in 30 to 40 years’ time when the ocean dries up and we’re going to be blaming each other. I want to have kids and I don’t want to have their world fucked. We live in houses with roofs and we have mobile phones, so I don’t think there’s an argument to say we’re hunter-gatherers. We’re not. We’re fucking lazy and we don’t do anything.”

“We’ve fucked it, basically,” says Holman succinctly, between mouthfuls of kale salad.

The band make a fair point: if we stop harvesting animals, we could reduce the costs of climate change mitigation by as much as 50% by 2050. Who wouldn’t want that? Not Morrissey, that’s for sure. As politics go, talking about the benefit of removing the world’s biggest source of methane is about as far we get into it, but that’s not to say they’re not interested or invested in other issues. On the first night, I give them both a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker. Vincent sticks his on his guitar case, Holman on the front of his drum kit, something which elicits cheers from the crowd three nights in a row, and a chant of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” on my final night back in New York with them. “I wonder if Jeremy Corbyn has stickers like this,” ponders Vincent, wistfully. “He’s not quite as cool though, is he?”

For each of the three nights I’m with them, they soundcheck and perform a new track called “Consume”; a snarling, acerbic attack on the way in which capitalism dominates modern society. Likewise, “Cheer Up London” aims to galvanise an anarchic, post-riot generation who refuse to condemn themselves to a lifetime of commuting for a job that gives little in return, capturing the malaise of the rat race and confronting the idea of conforming to accepted societal values. It’s just one song which helped position their debut record, Are You Satisfied?, as an assessment on today’s society, somewhat. In an interview with the NME, Holman said “We're showing everyone what 2015 is like and it's fucked up”.

Yet, despite this, Slaves comedic undertones mean there’s a tendency for them to be slightly misunderstood, and to be interpreted more as the missing link between Dara O’Briain and the Sex Pistols. Like they are borrowing real problems, dressing them up in a punk outfit, and factory-packing them off to the masses. But the more I spend time with the pair, the more it becomes clear that that isn't quite the case. They definitely haven’t thought that manipulatively about it, let alone had the foresight to draft a pseudo-political masterplan just to sell records.

That much becomes clear as soon as you see them live. Their two-piece set-up – wherein Holman channels Ray Winstone through the fierceness of Charles Bronson, as he attacks his drum-kit – is a venomous, exhilarating storm that puts most bands to shame. As I watch them onstage that first night in New York, an old man in his fifties moshes on the front row as Holman stands behind his drumkit and smashes the shit out of it while Vincent’s imposing fretwork sends the crowd into a frenzy. Before launching into a vicious version of “Cheer Up, London” the band insist that everyone in the crowd hugs someone next to them. They comply. When the song starts, the pit becomes a violent whirlpool, a frenetic blur of bodies whipping into each other with furious abandon. There’s a heckler, too – a wasted guy who crowdsurfs his way onstage during final song “The Hunter” and tries to sing along before cursing out the band and diving back into the fray, where he’s swallowed by a sea of sweaty limbs.

“That’s what watching us was like a few years ago,” says Vincent in their dressing room afterwards. “Playing in England and getting to 5,000 capacity, you lose that intimacy. When we first started in the UK, we used to just hope that everything would work, and today when we soundchecked nothing was working. But then, by some will of a higher power, everything went beautifully. We went out there with nothing to lose. Those people don’t care about us. Mine and Isaac’s connection has never been as strong.”

I’m ten minutes late to meet them the following day. After last night’s show, we went to Hank’s Saloon, the diviest of dive bars in Brooklyn to drink ourselves stupid. Much to the chagrin of their tour manager, I’m nursing a sore head, but when the boys see me, they run up holding each other’s hands and give me another emotional hug.

We get in the van, I bring out the beers and the road trip begins. None of us have eaten yet, so we stop at a Popeyes on the way. I tear ravenously into some fried chicken, ignoring Vincent’s words of humane wisdom from the previous day while they eat their vegetarian side dishes. Back in the van and on the road, we find a half-full bottle of wine under a seat. Holman and I share it. When we arrive at the next venue, we lay in the sun – Holman topless, of course – while Vincent, who’s also topless, practices his admittedly amateur skateboarding tricks next to us. “My goal,” he says, “is to spend all my spare time on tour skateboarding, so I get fitter and better.”

As we lie there, Wolf Alice’s Ellie Roswell sits on a bench nearby, and looks on. It seems like almost everyone is just killing time. It’s the boring reality of touring, I guess. There is little in the way of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. In fact, for Slaves on this run – and especially for Vincent, who has a girlfriend back home – it’s about 30 to 40 to minutes of rock and roll and, booze aside, fuck all of the other two. Holman is single, but despite some mild flirtation here and there with a few people, he makes no conquests in those three days. Still, it could be worse.

“Yeah, tour’s not very exciting,” he admits, “but then I could be sat in an office punching numbers into a keyboard. Lying here in Philadelphia in the sun – I can’t really complain, can I? I’ve got it quite good. And also, what we do is quite mentally and physically demanding. A show for me is fucking shitloads of exercise, which is why I don’t get drunk before I play…” – there is a beer in his hand, but he does admittedly stop after this one – “…because it’s fucking hard work. It’s really fucking hard work. For Laurie, as well. We put so much energy into every single show that we do, no matter where it is or who it’s to, it’s fucking hard”. Then, the golden words that seep into the foundation of Slave’s existence: “But it’s so much fun.”

That element of fun is evident when the pair play again that night, giving their all to a crowd that definitely doesn’t give as much back as the band deserve. Yet while Slaves mission du-jour is to serve up a boisterous performance of both rage and amusement, on record and off, they take the semantics of their career pretty seriously. Before the gig and after, they debate vociferously about what exactly they’re going to do and how, working on the nuances of their live set. One of their pre-gig rituals is to iron whatever they’re going to be wearing on stage - in this instance, for Holman, it’s an England shirt; for Vincent, a New York Yankees number that he bought earlier in the day. As always, Holman’s top comes off after one song – which is becoming something of a concern for Vincent. If Holman takes off his shirt after the first song of every gig, he’s worried that it’s going to become contrived. It’s a quandary. Slaves aren’t a contrived band, but are aware that some people think they might be, so they seem to be constantly contriving to be uncontrived.

The thought of new material is never far away from conversations either. Earlier in the day, Holman was approached by a homeless guy asking for money, an encounter that inspired him to scribble down on a piece of paper words for what, at some point, could well become a new song: “I met a man called Terry / He told me a joke / The content was dirty / And he was a dirty bloke / I handed him a dollar / So he would go away / He shook my hand and wished me well / And went about his day.”

The following day, we return to New York, this time for a show at Irving Plaza. It’s early evening and the pair seem refreshed and in high spirits. Holman, in particular, is raring to go, and marches with purpose and vigour around the block a few times, firing out steam like a cartoon kettle. With his camouflage army jacket and dark round sunglasses, he’s almost a caricature of the band that people assume Slaves to be, rather the band they actually are. He bumps into Vincent as he’s signing a bunch of Slaves vinyl, some pretty rare, for an eager fan outside the venue. Both pose for photos with the man, before we walk towards a sports shop near Union Square to try to find a Yankees shirt for Vincent’s girlfriend.

“I really hope he wasn’t just going to stick those on eBay,” laughs Holman as we walk there. Vincent, wearing bright red trousers and a bomber jacket, agrees.

“He seemed like a nice bloke,” he says, “so I’m going to pretend they were for him, even if they weren’t.”

The sports store is cavernous – a maze of rooms across different levels, divided into sections. As Vincent ponders of what size shirt to get his girl, Holman’s attention is brought to a bright pink ‘super bounce’ ball that does just that. There’s a moment – brought on by his mischievous grin – that I think he’s going to fling it violently across the store to see what happens, but he never does. He just bounces it, in a very controlled yet slightly unhinged manner, over and over again.

Despite their tour manager Neil insisting they don’t go out for too long, time slips away, and we get back to the venue just 15 minutes before doors are set to open. They soundcheck for three minutes – just one song – and then Vincent heads upstairs to, obviously, fastidiously iron his trousers (“I’ve actually had breakdowns about ironing trousers before,” he laughs).

Minutes later, Holman is getting Vincent to write ‘KENT’ across his back in impeccably neat capital letters.

They head out onstage at 8pm and give their most brutal performance so far, full of fire. The older guy from the Rough Trade gig is down the front again, going hard, as are pockets of a crowd that’s decidedly not their own. Again, before ‘Cheer Up, London’, Slaves ask everyone to hug somebody else, and again everybody does. And it’s in that simple act that the pair’s true nature can be seen. Not just nice punks, but quite lovely punks: two best friends having the time of their lives doing what they love. “We’re going to really miss you,” says Holman, as I say goodbye after the show.

It’s not their fault, but it’s clear to see that Slaves exist in a problematic realm. They’re positioned as a punk band – which they undoubtedly are – but at the same time their songs wouldn’t sound out of place in a television advert for a Union Jack-themed Mastercard. Their music is inspired by political and social issues, but those are often overlooked by old school punks, who dismiss the band’s more serious undertones as they would marketed facsimile. Yet to do so is to misunderstand the very essence of Slaves. It’s not that they’re not punk, it’s that they’re a different kind – a new kind – of punk band, one that primarily exists as much to entertain as indict, as much to have fun as to shake up the foundations of society. As such, it’s easy for what they do to be misconstrued, and for their credibility to be overshadowed by eccentricity, humour, the fact that they are full-blooded, whole hearted, sweat-pouring entertainers.

I swap email addresses with Vincent and we all make plans to meet in a few weeks in LA, where they’ll be going to record some new songs once the tour is over. It just so happens I’ll be there at the same time. They wave goodbye and climb aboard the tour bus. I walk towards the nearest subway station, slightly pissed, and remotely sad.

A couple of days later, I add Holman as a friend on Facebook. He accepts almost instantly, and within minutes I get an alert that he’s written something on my wall. At first, I wonder exactly what he’s put on there, but as I read it, it all makes sense. It’s the only thing he could have written, and the only thing I’d have wanted him to: “The pussy is pink. The pussy is hot. The pussy is everything that I’m not.”

Mischa is not on Twitter.