Clever guy that he is, Eric San manages to both completely answer and totally avoid the question of which specific old records inspired the Slew’s 2009 debut disc, 100%.
The stock answer usually given to interviewers comes easily enough. When the Vancouver-born, Montreal-based DJ first began cooking up songs with Seattle DJ Dynomite D (aka Dylan Frombach), the goal was to produce something that sounded like Black Sabbath fused with the legendary Public Enemy production crew the Bomb Squad.
The only problem is that sort of works as a description for the Slew, and it sort of doesn’t.
There’s enough sludgetastic goodness on the album’s 10 banging, riff-riddled tracks to suggest that someone threw both Fear of a Black Planet and Paranoid into a pressure cooker, melted them down, and used the resulting mixture to stamp out a 180-gram vinyl test-pressing of what would eventually be marketed as 100%. Where the argument doesn’t hold is that the Slew’s songs are spiked with vintage-sounding vocal samples that are clearly neither Ozzy Osbourne nor Chuck D. So what exactly were the recordings that the band raided to flesh out 100%? San—known to his mom as Kid Koala—is more than happy to evade that query.
“We decided right from the beginning that this record was going to be hand-cut,” he says, on the line from his home in Montreal. “So we wanted to give ourselves the opportunity to explore a lot of those old rock-production techniques. We were plugging turntables into guitar amps and then overdriving the amps and seeing what that did to the tone. It’s quite laboratorylike in some aspects in that we were experimenting with mikes and using tape delays and all these old techniques that we had learned that all those old records were made from.”
And, not to force the matter, but, again, what were the exact names of those old records? After all, neither San or Frombach seems to sing, but 100% is loaded with knockout vocal performances. The scratchadelic jungle thumper “Shackled Soul” practically drips sweaty ’60s-vintage R&B, while the already excellent “It’s All Over” is made even more brilliant by samples of a random soul man shouting “Right on!” and “Tell it like it is!”. Not that you’ll get any info as to who that voice belongs to, considering San’s other official party line is that the Slew was originally an obscure psychedelic ’60s rock band from the Emerald City, and that he and Frombach were hired to create soundtrack music for a documentary on the band. So is 100% built around samples of the gone-but-evidently-not-forgotten group the Slew, or did the two deejays hit the jackpot crate digging at a garage sale thrown by Light in the Attic Records?
“We’re not going to talk about that,” San says with a big laugh. “I will say, though, that this record was mostly recorded in Seattle.”
Because of that connection to the city that Kurt Cobain made famous, San and Frombach originally billed the Slew as the band that was going to bring “grungelism” to the masses. As much as music writers will normally bite on any new subgenre they don’t have to be bothered thinking up themselves, grungelism was one that didn’t fly.
“There were a lot of late nights in the studio, especially when we were in Seattle working on it,” San says of 100%. “A couple of things would come together, and we’d be like ”˜Yeah—this is like grungelism.’ We liked that because it was two completely ridiculous media terms brought together to make an í¼ber-ridiculous media term. It didn’t exactly catch on, though.”
That’s not surprising considering that 100% swings in a way that the likes of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and Tad never came close to. Built around chugging guitars and acid-rock sprays of six-string, “Robbing Banks (Doin’ Time)” might be the best pure dance-floor detonator since the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”, and goddamn if Jimi Hendrix himself doesn’t seem to be standing front and centre on the morphine-blues jam “Problem Child”.
What the Slew does have in common with the early-’90s grunge giants of Seattle is that it’s heavier than fuck, this now being doubly true of the group’s live setup.
Realizing that he’d need a small platoon of DJs to re-create the record on-stage, San opted instead for a live back end, enlisting the former Wolfmother rhythm section of Chris Ross (bass and keyboards) and Myles Heskett (drums). Funnily enough, the two Aussies were far more concerned about the decidedly unconventional configuration—there are six turntables on the frontline—than the Slew’s cofounder.
“I think it was quite scary for Chris and Miles,” San says. “We’ve done a few radio interviews where they talked about being on the plane coming over for the first time, right before our three days of rehearsal before we started our first tour. They were kind of horrified that things would be like ”˜Hi. Welcome to the Slew. Here are your headphones, and here is your click track. You will be playing to this for the whole duration of the night, and if you deviate from it, you’re fired.’ When they showed up, though, it was like, ”˜No one’s wearing headphones—the DJs aren’t wearing headphones. We’re all just going to play.”
Still, there were preparations to be made. Well aware of the way Ross and Heskett brought the thunder in their former band, San built turntable platforms that were capable of withstanding, if not a minor earthquake, then at least the kind of full-bore sonic assault one might have expected back in the day, from (take your pick) Black Sabbath, Bomb Squad–era Public Enemy, or the Seattle legends known as the Slew.
On some nights, though, even that’s not enough.
“We’re jumping around and breaking needles with records flying all over the place,” San says. “It’s supposed to be like that. Things fall apart and you just have to learn to roll with it. Luckily, Chris and Miles are heavy enough of a rhythm section that they can distract the crowd when thing are melting down.”
Which is fair warning that, even though the Slew is fronted by two dudes on half a dozen turntables, it rocks. And more importantly, it rocks just as hard as the bands that led to the birth of 100%, whatever the names of those bands might be.
The Slew plays the Commodore Ballroom on Tuesday (June 29).