Three decades after a completely chaotic implosion, Slow roars back into action
I’m barrelling down Vancouver’s East 2nd Avenue listening to the first new music Slow has made in 31 years.
The song is called “The Asphalt Plane”, and even though it was recorded in a basement on an iPhone, this driving, alchemical wedding of melody, mystery, and sweet Stooges-like violence sounds unmistakably like Slow. It’s ferocious. I want to pee my pants.
When I convey this information a few days later in separate calls to Sub Pop president Jonathan Poneman and Elliott Lefko of mammoth, L.A.-based concert promoters Goldenvoice, they both respond in exactly the same way: with a reverent “Wow”.
To clarify: receiving a field report on the developing reunion of a fabled Vancouver band that existed for less than three years in the ’80s has prompted two of the heaviest hitters in the U.S. music industry to both lose their shit just a little bit. Rumours floating across Vancouver have thrown the local seismograph into a similarly twitchy condition. And now, well—it’s official. Slow has returned, and the band wants to talk.
“Never imagined it in a million years. Never,” says my driver, Tom Anselmi, who also happens to be the man on the car stereo yowling the lyrics to “The Asphalt Plane”. After some 30-and-a-half years of saying “absolutely no” to a Slow reunion, he’s as surprised as anyone—mostly his bandmates—that Tom Anselmi has finally said yes to a Slow reunion.
“There was no way that I was interested in doing that,” he continues. “I mean, I just…was…not…interested.”
A little later, the five members of Slow—vocalist Anselmi, guitarists Christian Thorvaldson and Ziggy Sigmund, bassist Stephen Hamm, and drummer Terry Russell—are hanging in the backyard of house in deep East Van, cracking each other up with half-remembered stories, bickering amiably over details, and trying to get their heads around this most unlikely of second acts.
“I think we’re all pretty surprised that it’s happening,” says Hamm, who’s only half joking when he describes Slow, at the time of its breakup in 1986, and with stiff competition coming from Glass Tiger, Luba, and Corey Hart, as “the biggest thing in Canada”.
That untimely flame-out came after a catastrophic cross-country tour, booked on the heels of the band’s defining moment, when Slow both inaugurated and destroyed the Festival of Independent Recording Artists at Expo 86—on their singer’s 19th birthday, no less—with a hopelessly inebriated display of teenage nudity and, as legend has it, Sieg Heils delivered to Bennett and Vander Zalm, the twin Bills behind Expo’s bloated tribute to upwardly mobile wealth.
“Oh, it was nuts,” Zulu Records head Grant McDonagh will later tell the Straight. “It was a mess of a show but a phenomenal art piece. They fucked everything up, but it was funny as hell. That’s the thing about Slow. They were always entertaining.”
Reached in New York, Poneman is apparently still kicking himself for not making the trip from Seattle to see one of his favourite bands at its most ill-tempered, lamenting: “Because we all love to witness history, right?”
For the band, “history” meant the avid blessing of the legendary Creem magazine (“Why in tarnation they don’t rule this stink-ball of a planet is beyond me!”), but also the threat of indecency charges and, as Anselmi puts it, “journalists literally outside of our jam space, mobbing us in droves.” It also meant national infamy.
“We’d just ruined Expo, we’re headline news, we’ve got an independent video on heavy rotation on MuchMusic [“Have Not Been the Same”]—we’re, like, famous, kind of,” Anselmi continues, about the doomed tour that followed. “In Vancouver we’re just reprobates. We go to Toronto and people think we’re rock stars or something.”
Road stories of Olympian teenage decadence and magnificent stupidity duly spill out in a wild blur, most of them related to either drugs, booze, violence, driving without a licence, or trying to cross the border with a Videomatica membership card for ID. We can report that on at least one occasion there was sex in a mansion with a Sears catalogue model. When guitarist Ziggy Sigmund finishes telling us about the bouncer who broke his arm in Hamilton, Hamm pipes up: “And you had syphilis too, didn’t you?”
“I didn’t have syphilis, fuck you,” Sigmund shoots back. “I had gonorrhea.”
Slow was young, fascinating, beautiful, and dangerously smart, with the chops and the musical intelligence to back up its endless naughty-boy shit. Anselmi refers to their “prankster mentality”, but here was the perfect picture of reckless angelic insolence, the kind that might have inspired an admiring chapter in Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces, if he’d ever heard of them. Sometimes the audience didn’t know what was in store. Pulling up to one club, the band discovered it was billed on the marquee as “Flow”.
“So we were, like, ‘Fuck them,’ ” says the singer. “We never thought about the people that paid money to come see us. ‘They got our name wrong, so we’re doing Flow tonight, and this is Flow’—which was, of course, some ungodly noise that no one would ever want to listen to.” That adventure ended with guitarist Thorvaldson getting shitkicked by Toronto band Bunchofuckingoofs.
It all came together for at least one knockout show with their friends Soul Asylum at Toronto’s RPM Club. That was the night Psychic TV’s Genesis P-Orridge tried to haggle a band T-shirt out of Anselmi by “silently commanding” a companion to give the vocalist her panties. Anselmi just wanted the 10 bucks.
He recalls, with a snort: “Me being the fucking dick that I was, I was, like, ‘No, that’s not happening,’ and then his whole sex magick vibe just failed miserably in front of me.” In what the singer describes as “a threeway”, another punter stepped up and bought the panties from P-Orridge, who used the funds to acquire the shirt. Everyone went home happy.
In the days that followed, that would change. After Toronto, the tour ground to its ignominious end in rural Quebec with the penniless band camping on the side of the road trying to eat from a field of corn signposted “not for human consumption”. (Hamm nostalgically refers to it as “cow corn”.)
By that point, the ’69 Econoline van they’d cadged from drummer Russell’s parents had lost its muffler, exhaust system, starter, and clutch. Wonders Hamm, idly, “Didn’t someone hotwire a steamroller? I remember at one point waking up in the middle of the night and there was one of those big steamrolling machines driving by and one of you guys had hotwired it.”
After returning to Vancouver, Slow played one last show at the Town Pump before Anselmi called it quits.
“There were lost opportunities there,” remarks Grant McDonagh, three decades later. “But they made waves. They only played Seattle once, I believe, but man, they made a difference.”
In reality, Slow played in Seattle at least half a dozen times, and the band’s impact on what would emerge roughly three years later as grunge has become something of a truism.
“We didn’t go back to our grunge laboratory and go, ‘Gee, flannel!’ ” says Poneman, who would know. “But were Slow influential? Absolutely. When I was coming up in the early and mid-’80s, everybody went to every good show, and whenever Slow came to Seattle, they put on a great show.”
Undeniably, with its first single, “I Broke the Circle”, and the astonishing EP that followed, Against the Glass, Slow had the attention of anyone who mattered. McDonagh financed and released both recordings in 1985 after an excited Anselmi handed him a demo rejected by CiTR for “sounding like Goddo”. He glommed immediately onto a sound and vision defiantly at odds with the grinding orthodoxies of punk.
“The difference,” explains McDonagh, still audibly amazed that a bunch of teenagers could arrive so fully formed, “was they loved soul music, they loved jazz, they loved Stax. I remember going to a party once, maybe Christian’s dad’s place, and he’s, like, ‘Yeah, this is the Sam and Dave room.’ ”
Indeed, from the riveting first bars of “Have Not Been the Same”, Against the Glass still sounds staggeringly original; like Alice Cooper doing the Stones doing the most dissolute R&B you’ve ever heard, powered into delirium by Anselmi’s incomparable bellow. On a good night, which was most nights, “they were phenomenal, a killer live band with just an incredible underground buzz,” says McDonagh. “People knew: there was something going on.”
McDonagh has done his bit for the reunion, handing the master tapes from both sessions to Toronto’s Artoffact Records for a just-released, deluxe reissue of Against the Glass that also includes both “I Broke the Circle” and its B-side, “Black Is Black”. This is already a miracle given Anselmi’s historic ambivalence to previous reissue plans. “I liked the fact that it was collectible, and that people had to pay a lot of money to get it,” he says with a mischievous smile. He adds that he even spent $45 on an original copy from Neptoon.
It was an Instagram account announcing the rerelease that smoked out Poneman, who sent a message pleading: “Please say you’ve got the reunion bug.” An intrigued but still skeptical Anselmi subsequently approached his old friend Lefko, the Canadian-born promoter who’d booked Slow into Toronto’s RPM Club back in ’86 and let the band crash at his apartment for a month. (“In the shower,” according to Sigmund.)
Lefko’s clients over the years have included Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, so it’s not like he needed to do this, but he subsequently crunched the numbers and persuaded Anselmi that a Slow reunion was not only viable, but maybe even profitable.
“I just thought they were so good,” he says. “I always looked at them as embodying the great spirit of rock. Just always flying that flag for rock and living it all the time.
Slow in 2017 looks amply prepared, once again, to fly the flag and live it all the time. What was initially envisioned as a short reunion tour has evolved into a longer-term project that begins with a debut show at the Fox Cabaret on December 2 followed by studio time with Dave “Rave” Ogilvie. McDonagh firmly states that none of this would be happening if anyone, Anselmi in particular, wasn’t quivering with excitement. As Lefko puts it, referring to the Sex Pistols’ notorious 1996 cash grab, “It’s not the Filthy Lucre Tour.”
Meanwhile, the timing is genius. As the sun sets behind the skyline on this beautiful Vancouver fall day, stories are traded about one of Slow’s legendary punk residences, “the Terrible House of Sickness”, where bathtub speed was being run out of one door and fenced goods out of another, and where Thorvaldson recalls peering up from his guitar during practice one day to see armed cops bursting into the living room. Drummer Russell describes the “running tally in the Meter Achievers Club”, which required occupants to vomit from the porch onto the gas meter, as memorialized in a comic strip by sometime visitor Colin Upton.
“A direct hit was worth three points,” Russell explains. “I still think it was one of the driving forces behind the new wifi smart meters.”
Only a stone’s throw on Windermere Street from where we’re all sitting, the Terrible House of Sickness is “probably worth $3.5 million now”, remarks Anselmi, darkly. In some ways, it feels inevitable that the band that exposed Expo in a historic act of Dadaist piss-taking has returned to Vancouver at this specific moment, like earthquake lightning produced by the city’s collective psychic stress.
Anselmi characterizes Expo as “a manifestation of everything that was ugly, of the spectacle and the lie, the beginning of ‘World Class City’ ”, while Hamm asks how anything, let alone a band, can take root in a Vancouver that’s since become the so-called most livable city in the world to nobody except the rich.
“We were on welfare and we’d rent a warehouse, for, like, nothing,” he says. “If you gotta go to a rehearsal space and pay $75 to practice for three hours?” He shakes his head, sadly. “Now you gotta make your art between 7 and 9.”
“And you gotta have three jobs to afford that,” adds Anselmi. “How the fuck are people supposed to do anything cool?”
Says Russell, rather succinctly: “Our base is a lot less placated than it was during the Obama administration.”
Nobody’s turning back the clock, of course, but for anyone feeling some dismay over what looks like a decades-long effort to turn Vancouver into the plaything of global capital, then maybe these guys can deliver a savoury, “Told you so.” And if that all sounds a little high-minded, Anselmi is ready to get a bit more personal about his very sudden drive to conjure high-quality chaos all over again.
“At the end of the day,” he begins. “It’s not about fuckin’ society, or Vancouver, or Canada, or the U.S., or any of it. It’s about the fact that I need some time to get fuckin’ lost and have the experience of not thinking about anything, and to just be in the moment. And nothing creates that kind of visceral experience, for me, like singing rock ’n’ roll.”
After sitting quietly for the most part, Thorvaldson offers his own poignant coda. “I think it was a really great band,” he says, softly, “and personally it’s just always been a huge regret that it didn’t go further than it did. I’ve regretted it enormously. So, I would have been ready to do it anytime in the last—how long has it been? Thirty years? I would have jumped at it.”
And with that, Slow descends to the basement and piles straight into “Against the Glass”. There isn’t even a count-in. It just seems to happen, and it sounds monstrous, like Vancouver eating itself alive in 2017, or maybe a hotwired steamroller fuelled by cow corn. Mostly it sounds like Slow.More