We patricipated in the organization of the event and on November 3, 2018, The Slackers played in Pogłos. I took the opportunity to meet Vic Ruggiero to talk about the band that has been playing their own version of ska for almost thirty years.
Magdalena Miszewska: Since today we meet in Poland, I would like you to go back in time and maybe remember something about your last trip here. I believe it was Warsaw, 2007.
Vic Ruggiero: Yeah, that’s a long time ago to remember. I think I remember that we played songsa polka.
MM: “In heaven there is no beer”.
VC: That’s right. We did it spontaneously, because I know how to play it on accordion but the band had never played it before. That was a magic moment (laugh).
MM: And maybe you remember your first time in Poland, it was Cracow, 2003. It’s important, because you probably don’t know that but.. Well, the story of RudeMaker.pl had began earlier than 2003, because there was this internet forum called Soundcrazy and people from all over Poland were writing to each other on this forum. They never met in person. And then there was The Slackers gig in 2003. And people from all over the country came to The Slackers show and then they met and now they are friends till this time. And all those people who came to Cracow in 2003 are probably going to be here today. And a lot of them are gathered around RudeMaker.pl. So The Slackers gig was something like the birth of RudeMaker. Maybe you remember something special about it?
VC: That wasn’t the one that was on the boat?
VC: This was in the centre?
MM: I think, because I wasn’t there.
VC: It was Christmas time, because I remember they had the beautiful Christmas market in the centre of town. That was actually really nice and I ate some really delicious food. They had bigos and some other really good food. And then the place that we played. I don’t know if it was a venue. I think it was an apartment. It was like somebody had an old apartment, and we played in a regular apartment building. It was really cool. And it was a lot of people but it wasn’t like this here – this is meant with a bar and everything. This was really like playing in your grandmother’s apartment or something like that. And we set up in the living room. It was cool. I didn’t know what to make of it. One of the things I remember in Cracow, when I first went there, was that there’s a bank called Greenpoint and it’s from Brooklyn. And if you go into the centre of Kraków, there’s Greenpoint bank. And I remember I was laughing. “It’s Brooklyn. It’s like a colony of Poland” (laugh). But yeah, we grew up around Polish culture, eating pierogies and golabkis and all this kind of thing, you know. It’s very much a New York thing and New Jersey too. New Jersey is completely Polish.
MM: OK, enough about food. Maybe we should talk about The Slackers for a change. Twenty seven years and you guys are still playing. I don’t want you to come back to the beginning of The Slackers, but I was wondering if you consider your band a successful one. What’s a success? Are The Slackers successful?
VC: Well, I guess if we bring all the people of Poland to meet each other at the first gig, that’s a success of some sort. We’re an underground band. We’re not popular like Prince or something like that. Just because Reggae and Ska is always underground music. So for that we’re successful. I think we’re in some ways more popular than bands that I thought were my favorite bands, like old reggae bands and stuff. It’s hard to say how popular they were. The Steel Pulse or Burning Spear. I mean, obviously, bands like The Specials were big but only for two years. They were maybe a band for three or four years and then they finished.
MM: But people still have really great memories about them and the guys are going on a European tour next year [2019 – MM]. I believe some of the shows are already sold out. I bought my tickets to Berlin on the first day, because I was afraid that they will sell out quickly.
VC: But they weren’t a band for all the time in between. They did three years or something and then they stopped. And then 20 years later they start up again.
MM: And the lineup changed.
VC: Yeah. There was one tour that they had all lined up except for Jerry Dammers. But it’s strange because we’ve been a band the whole time, we’re like Frank Zappa or something like that, where the band that never breaks up. It’s strange. I feel like I have some amount of success. But it’s a strange thing, we’re living in the punk world basically.
MM: Did you guys have some moments when you were thinking that you have to leave The Slackers, just stop playing, stop doing this.
VC: The Slackers are very stubborn people. And so, I don’t think we think about things like that. Whenever it seems like we should stop, it makes us want to do it more. Like if things are difficult. Usually that’s why we would think about stopping this, because that maybe something is difficult. It was nice actually when in the early 2000s, about the same time we came here first, not to Warsaw but Cracow, all these bands were quitting, all the ska bands in the US. People were asking us: “Oh, why don’t you.. You should maybe stop?” and we thought that this is great, because now there’s no more ska bands. So all this shitty music is gone and now we can be the good music (laugh).
MM: When you come to think about the success of The Slackers, well, it could’ve never happened, because we already know from Jesse from The Aggrolites that you do the totally wrong drumbeat for the guitar parts and you are not nerdy enough to go and check out all the recordings of Treasure Isle or Studio One [that’s what Jesse said in my interview with Reggae Workers Of The World – MM]. Then there’s the second thing that you write so many words for the songs. That’s not really a thing with reggae, ska or rocksteady music.
VC: It’s true, that’s right.
MM: And then all the guys from The Slackers are songwriters, so possibly you fight about the songs all the time. It could have never happened. You could have never had any success and end up doing something else.
VC: I don’t know, it’s a strange band. It’s a very strange band. It’s nice actually that everybody is a songwriter, because some of the guys actually write pretty good songs. I’ve been in a few different bands but this has been the main one that I’ve been in my whole life. I started the band when I was 19 years old and now I’m 47 years old. So, it’s very strange for me to think of anything else. Though I have my solo stuff that I do. I have the Reggae Workers stuff, I played with a bunch of different bands but The Slackers are kind of my identity.
MM: but you guys do fight, because I read that you self-titled your last album because you couldn’t agree on the title.
VC: Oh yeah, we couldn’t agree. I don’t know why that is. Well, sometimes when there’s too many people talking about something, it makes it difficult. Like when we make records it’s usually two of us that are the bosses of the record. So, when we made “Self Medication”, it was me and Glen. The last record that we made me and Dave made most of that record. And then Jay mixed a lot of it. It’s always little groups of people, it’s not everyone altogether. Like Ara just comes in and plays the drums and then he goes home. We all get together, we play, almost everybody goes home. And then a few people stay around and they finish the record, and they make the big decisions and, say “Oh, we need a different solo, that saxophone’s not working. We need a guitar solo”. And then we call up Jay, “Come in and do that”. And sometimes I’m the one that goes home and it’s Jay that stays there and he’s working. Yeah, I guess it’s more of a collective kind of a band. And people are really interested in different parts of it. At some point someone gets really inspired and then they are the boss.
MM: If you have an album that is self-titled and it’s not the first one, it’s one during your career, you can treat it like a new opening. This album is different than the others. I think you just have to look at the cover to see it’s going to be more psychedelic, and I know that you guys are into strange music from 60s and 70s. Did you let yourself go on this album and put more of that psychedelic stuff? Because we can hear it. Did you want to do it or it just spread all over?
VC: Glen the trombone player, he’s always talking about psychedelic things. I said “We always talk about it, let’s put it on the record”. Or he really likes The Beach Boys. And so I said “Well, if you really like The Beach Boys that much, when the song comes to this part, you’re the boss Glenn. Let’s make The Beach Boys happen”. It’s like everybody gets their moment. So, I think the psychedelic stuff, maybe that’s more of Glen putting his influence and me saying “Yeah, great. I know how to do this. I think this can happen”.
MM: Is there an Iggy Pop fan in The Slackers? Beacuse I think “I want be your girl” is Iggy Pop-ish a bit.
VC: Yeah, that’s funny. I think maybe half the band likes Iggy Pop. Sure. How could you not like Iggy?
MM: Considering songwriting and songs, what do you think makes a good song? Is it the song that the audience likes and always requests? Or maybe it’s the song that you like to play and never get tired of? Or maybe it’s a song you like to listen to?
VC: Different things. With the band we were talking about a song called “Rude And Reckless”. Everybody likes that song but I always say there’s not too much to it. The lyrics are very simple. The music is very simple. But there’s something about it that everybody likes. I think the guy who sings on the record is also really good. I sing the lead vocals but then there’s a guy who’s a deejay and he’s really good. So, I think, you can have a song and it’s wow, it’s a great performance. And then there are other songs that are just a pretty song but of course it’s always up to the people. I can say that I wrote the best song but if you don’t like it then who cares.
MM: But sometimes a song that you don’t think about it as a really original song or something that you would remember for years is a hit. I’ve got this thing with Hepcat. They have a song “Dance Wid’ Me” with silly lyrics about going for a coffee or something and going to a dance. It’s my favorite song. I just love it so much and I don’t even know why because you wouldn’t think there’s something in it. But there is. And I don’t know what’s the magic thing about it.
VC: I think things like that happen when the band has a sound. Certain bands just have a sound and you like to hear that sound. It doesn’t matter what, they could be reading from the phone book and it’s OK. I think with Hepcat it’s more that they have a sound, a feeling. And sometimes you record a song and everybody’s recorded the same song, right? Like in the 60s bands would do that all the time. But there would be one version that was the magic version. So, that’s what it is. It’s the sound of the band. Or the sound of the day that they recorded, there was some magic moment and they captured it on record.
MM: And after 27 years of writing songs for The Slackers do you regret any?
VC: Regret any songs? Some of them are not the smartest songs. There’s a couple of lines that I think I would have changed here and there but I don’t know. I learned from Bob Dylan you can change the words as you go. If you don’t like the words you’re saying last year you change them this year. And so, the song is always changing if you want. It’s like folk music, you can change it.
MM: It’s a good idea for an album when you don’t have any ideas, you can record old songs and make them new ones.
VC: Well, we do that, we play old songs. Once in a while, we have a recording session, and we think “well let’s play that song again”, because maybe we’ll do a different version and it will be better.
MM: And how does the reggae scene look now in New York? I’ve seen an interview with your bass player and he was talking about this boom of some kind about reggae music, that The Frightnrs have so much audience and you didn’t have it in the 90s.
VC: It’s strange. I think right now I wouldn’t say The Frightnrs. The Frightnrs had a critical, they had a lot of people that liked them that were writers or people that have a record shop or something. It was the people like us that went wow. That album is special too, because it’s a rocksteady album that they made especially for this reason to make just the rocksteady album. Whereas The Frightnrs were a different kind of a band too. They played very 80s, early dancehall, like Johnny Osbourne or Barrington Levy. That style. They’re a great band. The rhythm section is fabulous. The scene in New York is strange, because it’s not like everybody agrees on one thing. In New York it’s always “I like rockabilly, I like punk, I like country music, I like reggae, I like jazz” and if you go to the show everybody from everywhere goes to the show. If you live in California or something you say “I like reggae” and you only go to the reggae show or “I like jazz” and only go to jazz shows. There are different places where reggae is really big right now. All around the U.S. reggae is getting really popular. In New York it’s always been, because in New York we always have Jamaicans and it’s a different thing. But reggae is more popular in the US now than it’s ever been, I think, in the whole history.
MM: It’s good to hear. I hope that this wave will come to Poland because right now we were shocked when we found out that RudeMaker.pl, which is a site which was always dedicated only to ska, early reggae and rocksteady music, is now the only working website about reggae music in Poland. All the roots reggae sites are down, people don’t write anything. If you listen to roots reggae or Polish reggae you don’t have a place to read about it. It’s only RudeMaker which was always dedicated to this small part of reggae music. I think we are in a hole right now and hoping for the wave to come back and change everything.
VC: Interesting. Usually roots is what’s biggest, it was the big hit internationally. France loves roots, England loves roots. I think same in the US. Now the new trend in the US is to have this kind of sublime kind of California. It’s a little roots reggae and it’s a little kind of hip hop, so it’s not really our style. But we do fit in, because people hear the reggae beat.
MM: So you still got new audience coming to your shows?
VC: Actually we always get new people, always some young people that show up and they say “Oh, I just found your music.” It’s a strange world The Slackers live in. It’s always just been a very strange place. We never really know what’s going to happen. We play reggae but we don’t have dreadlocks or anything. We’re not Rastafari. We play ska but we’re not skinheads. We don’t play the fast ska. We play our own thing but we didn’t make this music up. We play the music that existed already. We just found a little piece here, a little piece there and then we put it together, and then it becomes our sound, The Slackers sound. It’s a very strange world for us (laugh).
MM: We’ll see what it will look like in another 27 years. Hopefully you’ll still be playing.
VC: OMG, I don’t know. Another 27 years. How old will I be? I’ll be old.
MM: Well, The Rolling Stones are older.
VC: I’ll be dead. I think in 27 years there’ll be no more Vic (laugh). But anyway it’s been good. I hope that The Slackers have another bunch of years in them. I think the band is, like I said, very stubborn. And always has new ideas. They always want to make another record. And I always say “Please, don’t we have enough songs?”. I write so many songs, and even me I’m like: “Please, I think it’s OK”. I mean the world is crazy right now. So maybe we need more songs but I really don’t know. It’s a strange place to be.
MM: So how many years we will have to wait for another album?
VC: I think we’ll start another album soon. I think I start teaching the band new songs this month. And then if we learn a few songs this month, we’ll record in another few months, and then, maybe in a year or two we’ll have something. But isn’t the earth strange right now? It’s a very strange time. Governments are strange and the environment is strange. It makes me feel very weird about everything, about playing music. It feels different.
MM: Why? What feels different? What difference does it make for making music?
VC: It’s hard to be optimistic. I try to be optimistic.
MM: But the best songs are always the sad ones.
VC: It’s true. I write sad songs, sure. But in my heart there is optimism. I believe that things are going to work out. I believe in some romantic ideal that is there. All the music I love from the 60s and 70s believed that it would change everything for the better. Even punk, right? Punk in the 70s and 80s, especially the 80s, punk was like: come on we’re going to change the world. And it did, it did make the world better. Thanks to punk and reggae the world is a more beautiful place. People are more moral, they have more ethics, they have knowledge about things. But now I’m really like “God, what am I doing”. I have to try to be optimistic, I think. I have to believe that humanity is OK. It’s hard to have faith in humanity sometimes, don’t you think?
MM: I don’t know, I’m always pessimistic.
VC: You’re pessimistic? I have problems with pessimism. I have to fight against it.
MM: So keep on playing songs.
VC: It’s a strange thing. As an artist it’s always weird. It’s obvious to me that the way that The Slackers play along with other bands that I love, we’re thinkers, and so we think about how our music affects the world. Or how the music affects the people we know. And how it affects me. So it’s like I create this little special world for myself where everything is perfect. Where the music I love is the most popular music, and all the people that come to the shows are fans of the same thing and they say “I love this song that you made.” We can talk about music that we like, records we find.
MM: Oh it would be a really creepy world.
VC: But it’s like a beautiful world that we made for ourselves. That I can talk about blues records with you. Or I can talk about old country records and that The Slackers fans have a world that it all works together. It’s a special beautiful place, that I get to live in for as long as I’m here. It’s strange.
photo: The Slackers in Pogłos, Warsaw, 03.11.2018, by Stępel