Ska cult band the Slackers remain true to a much earlier ska sound
Not every ska band during the brief ska craze of the mid-’90s was selling out venues. While ska-influenced alt-rockers No Doubt were dominating MTV and radio, and ska-punk goofballs Reel Big Fish were on the set of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s BASEketball, the Slackers were playing a more rootsy traditional ska sound to half-empty dive bars. Things didn’t pick up for them until a few years later after ska supposedly died a painful death.
“It wasn’t our kind of ska boom. It wasn’t happening based off [traditional] bands like us and Hepcat. It was because of the Bosstones, Goldfinger, Reel Big Fish,” says Slackers lead singer/keyboardist Vic Ruggiero of ska’s fleeting golden age, when most of the ska bands on MTV in the ’90s were playing a hyper-kinetic punk-fueled version of ska. “We were lucky we didn’t get caught up in that. When the hype died, all the bands died. Ska became a dirty word. Everyone stopped going to shows. The people that just liked us, they kept coming to our shows—they became loyal fans. We had a much better scene.”
Of all the bands in that era with a big-hit ska single, it was Rancid—a punk band—that brought the traditional “2 Tone” sound of 1970s ska to the mainstream, with their hit “Time Bomb.” Rancid’s Tim Armstrong embraced the Jamaican-inspired grooves of the Slackers, and signed them to his new Hellcat label in 1997—making them the first band signed to the label. While the Hellcat label remained diverse, traditional ska and reggae was a major part of the roster, including such groups as Hepcat, the Aggrolites and King Django.
Even with Hellcat, the Slackers weren’t an instant hit, but through constant touring and a spot on NPR’s All Things Considered in 2001—at the pinnacle of ska’s uncoolness—they gradually built a more substantial following.
“Touring is what we do,” says Ruggiero. “Once you commit to doing the music thing as your main gig, you’re kind of forced to do it as much as you can. The idea is you go out there and you play in front of people. And you convince them that they should come back next time you’re in town, and bring their friends. It’s a simple formula. It’s something that’s doable.”
Around the time they were on NPR, the Slackers released their fourth album Wasted Days, which was a continuation of their traditional ska grooves, but expanded to include elements of soul, and more importantly, ’50s rock ’n’ roll and doo-wop.
“We always listened to ’50s music,” Ruggiero says. “It’s got a romantic sound to it, it doesn’t matter what they’re singing about, it’s make-out music. I think there’s an element to that of us in the group. We all wanted to make make-out music on some level, like ’50s doo-wop, or early R&B-kind of slow jams or rock steady.”
The Slackers’ later records mix these elements with ska, and sound less like a Jamaican band and more like what they are: A group of white guys from New York with style and groove. Of course, the other defining factor is Ruggiero’s ragged voice, which is reminiscent of Mick Jagger and Van Morrison.
“I remember practicing for a long time, trying to sing in a way that it felt like me singing, and it wasn’t some other guy that I had heard,” Ruggiero says. “It’s got to sound convincing, coming from you. The guys who I always thought were the coolest singers, they weren’t always hitting the notes perfect. They were making the melodies good, but it was more the delivery and their uniqueness.”
The Slackers hit the road consistently, and put out albums every couple of years. Members even fill in the gaps with side bands and solo projects. They’re a well-oiled machine at this point, and a model that’s seemingly outdated, but it works—people continue to show up to see them, even as the music industry has completely changed around them.
These days, ska may not be as popular as it was in the ’90s, but it isn’t as unpopular as it was in the early 2000s either. As far as Ruggiero is concerned, ska is bigger than a lot of people think.
“There’s a lot of secret ska,” he says. “There are a lot of bands that play ska, especially in the hipster scene. All these bands that are supposed to be retro, like Vampire Weekend. They have ska songs, but nobody calls them ska songs. Or even Bruno Mars. All these guys have massive reggae and ska influences. You can hear it all over their music. Nobody’s putting them in any category.”
INFO: 9 p.m. Catalyst Atrium, 1011 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. $14/Adv, $16/Door. 429-4135