The Slackers play ska straight from New York. For almost thirty years these guys have committed themselves to music. We decided to visit them backstage during their European tour and talk about chords, guitar hacks, and their favorite songs.

In the backstage of underground club Vera we meet up with Jay and Dave of the Slackers. The New Yorkers finish their lunch and while Dave is struggling with entering his name in an easyJet form, Jay joins us at the table.

Dave Hillyard live in Vera. Photo: Simone van der Heijden

Hi guys, thanks for having us!

Jay: No problem at all.
Dave: Guys just start without me. [jokes] I’ll join you once I’ve hacked this challenge on my phone.

How is your European tour going?

Jay: Good! This show in Vera is the tenth show.
Dave: Yes, it is. It’s the first third of the tour now.

Thirty shows in total? Wow, that’s a lot.

Dave: Yeah, it’s about a month on the road. It takes a bit longer than usual because you have all these extra flights. Unless you make a lot of money you can’t just do it in a week or a weekend.

Jay live in Vera. Photo: Simone van der Heijden

You guys have been playing for about twenty-five years, how do you do that?

Dave: Even more. The band started in 1991 so that’s twenty-eight years. And we haven’t changed our line-up in what? Maybe sixteen years? [looks at Jay]
Jay: Fifteen years ago, November. That’s when I joined you guys and Q-Maxx left. So, for fifteen years we haven’t changed our line-up and that’s the longest time in the band’s history.

Yeah, that’s a pretty long time. You must be so synched musically that you know all each other’s moves before they take place, right?

Jay: For the most part, yes. Sometimes it can be a bad thing that makes you inflexible and unprepared when someone does something you don’t expect. It can rub you the wrong way like: “Why is he doing that?!” When you actually should be happy when someone is trying out something new. That’s a good thing. It encourages spontaneity and growth. 

Do you still rehearse on a regular basis?

Jay: Yes, we usually do that before we tour. We’ll go in and brush up because we take breaks for winter and summer. But sometimes when we’re all in town, we’ll just do it to get together. And when we’re on tour we rehearse every week or so just to get in some new material.

Has anything changed since your first rehearsal together fifteen years ago? 

Jay: Our rehearsals now are shorter and much more regimented. It used to be these five to six-hour jam sessions down in this little studio called Version City – King Django’s recording studio. The Slackers had every Tuesday and Thursday, when there would be these long rehearsal sessions. 

People would bring beer and drinks. We would spend five hours working on two songs, playing them like endlessly, working on arrangements and experimenting with different parts. Now it’s like two or three hours. We rent a studio and we have very specific things to work on. It’s much more regimented, nobody is drinking or smoking. [smiles] It’s like work.

Dave: Well let’s be honest that in the old days half of the rehearsals we were drinking and smoking. [laughs] Come on Jay it’s not like we played for five hours straight. It was a five-hour rehearsal, but it was two and a half hours of actual playing.

So it started pretty romantic and then you grew up.

Jay: Yeah, pretty much!

Dave: But also New York changed. It’s not cost-effective to rent out a rehearsal space all the time anymore. It just costs too much, you know. There used to be a lot of basement space in NY for an affordable amount of money, where people would keep their gear and everyone would come together and jam. 

“The old rehearsals had a loose sense of time.”

Nowadays it’s easier to rent a rehearsal studio for a couple of hours where all the gear is already there. It’s not your own of course but still, it’s easy plug and play. The new challenge is that everybody has to show up on time. The old rehearsals had a loose sense of time.

Jay: It’s a different type of fun. Back then the hang was the fun – smoking, drinking, playing, and jamming. And now it’s fun to get tight and actually accomplish something. It’s cool to start the day here… [makes a measuring movement with his hands] and see this much progress after three hours. So it’s still fun, but just a different kind of fun.

The Slackers live in Vera. Photo: Simone van der Heijden

How many hours on average do you spend practicing your instrument when you’re by yourself?

Jay: For me it’s about an hour a day. I try to do more, but on average I’d say it’s an hour.

Do you have some tips and tricks for players who want to improve their guitar practice? 

Jay: I started taking lessons again after nearly thirty years and my teacher, rather than teaching me advanced stuff, corrected some fundamental mistakes I was making. As far as technical things go: alternate picking, anchoring my first finger no matter with what finger I’m playing the notes, playing to a metronome, stuff like that. All basics.

“if you put in the work now, it will benefit your technique and overall playing skills in the future”

Yeah I know it’s not fun – scales or anything – but doing these things actually improved my advanced playing and made it much easier. It was having to go backward to go forward. So my tips are that if you put in the work now, it will benefit your technique and overall playing skills in the future.

And how about you Dave, how much time do you spend on practicing the saxophone?

Dave: Well, I wasn’t practicing as much as I should and then I started picking it up and rehearsing again. As for tips, I do best when I find a melodic phrase that’s an example of a technical exercise.

Like, I don’t really get scales and chords unless I go like, “oh that’s what it does.” The feeling it gives you, it’s like a color. So, find a song or a solo that represents the thing you want to learn. 

Since you’re part of a big band, is it difficult to keep it tight musically?

Jay: Within the band there is a structure we all know and keep to. You have the frontline, and the backline is the rhythm section. To not overplay is a key thing. Everybody has their job.

So the horns are responsible for the melody and most solos. The backline has to keep the rhythm and occasionally I’ll get a solo, or there might be some more lead type of work. All those things leave Vic free to sing, play along with every layer on his organ, and give the whole composition more color. So we all know our parts, we stick to it and don’t overplay.  

Dave: Playing as a team should be the main thing. It’s not every man for himself. All the parts have to fit together.

What’s the first thing you guys do during a soundcheck before a show?

Jay: [laughs] We don’t soundcheck, but obviously, when we do, it’s very important to try out if everything is working. Just systematically check your gear step by step: does your instrument make the sound it has to, is your amp adjusted the right way? It sounds stupid but even if everything worked perfectly the night before, there is still a chance it doesn’t when you come on stage a day later. Shit happens: a cable could break, a tube could break, a plug could go bad. 

So just check all the little dumb things from amp to paddle. Turn it on for a second, check the vibrato, check the reverb, look at your EQ numbers, make sure your cables are working. You’ll always have to adjust them a bit when the venue is full, but still it’s good to have a good starting point.

And how does that work for you on the sax Dave?

Dave: On the sax it’s important to check if all the keys are working. You don’t want to go on stage and be like ooohhh … [makes a surprised face] 

Have you guys ever had such epic fails?

Dave: Oh yeah sure, we’ve most definitely had that. 

Jay: You can soundcheck everything and still something can go wrong when you go on stage thirty minutes later. I’ve had my guitar very badly out of tune even though I had tuned it a few minutes earlier. Or right when I’m about to solo my cable cuts out, that’s happened.

Dave: The guys have seen, more than once, pieces falling off my saxophone. So I developed a technique to prevent this stuff from happening. It’s a riff I know which covers all the keys and all the notes. So if I’m smart that day, I play it back and forward a few times to be certain everything works.

And how often are you being smart?

Dave: [grins] I play it a lot actually. It’s the circle of fourths thing and when you go through it, it’s like the typewriter hack “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” which covers all the letters of the alphabet.  

Jay: Really? I didn’t know that!

Dave: Yeah, so I do the equivalent of that on the horn.

Cool hack! Now for something different. Jay, do you still have your first guitar?

Jay: I actually do have my first guitar. It’s in an old case which I recently found when I was moving house. I haven’t played on that instrument for years. It’s a beginner’s model, something like an Aria Pro, but it’s not that. I just keep forgetting.

I used my first guitar like a year, before I found my Les Paul. Even though I wasn’t a good enough player at the time, to have a Les Paul. I found it used and cheap, so I borrowed the money from my dad. [smiles] It was cheap but I couldn’t afford it then as a fifteen-year-old boy, but still have it and played it since then.

Dave, do you still have your first sax? 

Dave: No, I don’t actually. It was an alto that I traded to get something else. My main horns are both Coufs, and I have one of them since 1980. That instrument I don’t bring on the road anymore because it’s really old and worn. That horn literary has no shine or lac left on it anymore, and it breaks occasionally. 

But as I said I have two, so now I use the other one which isn’t worn out and hasn’t been on the road with me twenty-something years. When you play a lot of live shows things break, that’s why I also bring a backup sax, just in case.

Here’s a dilemma: if you could choose between rehearsing nine times and performing once versus being on stage nine times and rehearsing just once, what would it be?

Jay: That last option is about our ratio when we’re on tour! [laughs] You can’t pay the bills rehearsing. If you’re just starting out as a band, yes you should rehearse nine times before a show. But once you’re gigging it’s better to continue gigging instead of staying inside some rehearsal studio.

Dave: I’d say you learn quicker when you’re on stage because once you’re up there you have to figure it out if you don’t want to make a fool out of yourself in front of all the people.

“the first chord I learned was the G chord.”

Do you have favorite chords or keys you like to fall back on when writing songs?

Jay: We try to use keys that are in the vocal range of our frontman. So we often use F, Ab, Bb, and G.

Dave: We have most songs written in F and G because of Vic’s voice. Sometimes Ab and C. It kind of depends on if the song is mostly instrumental or vocals driven. For the instrumental parts, we tend to fall back on C, Bb or Gm.

Jay, do you remember the first chords you ever learned?

Jay: Probably the G chord or maybe the A chord. I took lessons at various times, I tried to learn. My father played guitar, my older brother played guitar. Naturally, I wanted to play too. But my dad didn’t want to teach me because I wasn’t old enough yet. 

In fourth grade, at school, there was a teacher who taught us how to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” but his method was very poor. It was one note at the time without any holistic approach, so I never learned what those notes mean and how they relate to each other.

So, I had my first real guitar lesson at the age of fourteen in the local guitar shop. In that lesson I learned more than all those hours in fourth grade or in junior high where the violin teacher also taught guitar. 

What did that lesson contain?

Jay: The guy there explained that there are twelve notes of which only seven of them are used for the most part in one particular key. He also showed me what happens if you move fingering positions up and down the guitar neck. And to get back at your previous question, I guess the first chord I learned was the G chord.

Are there any tips or tricks that you could share with us about learning to play your instrument?

Jay: You know what they say: “guitar is easy to learn but hard to master.” So if you just learn the simple hand configurations of the chords, then move up and down the neck. In other words: if you know how to play an E chord, an A chord and the minors that go along with those two chords, you just have to move them up and down the guitar neck.

Once you’ve figured out how that works with root notes on the lower E string you just move up a string and do the exact same thing. That’s pretty easy to understand and it will get you pretty far for starters. It’s all you need if you just want to strum some chords and sing along.

“mistakes often lead you to interesting places”

How do you look at chords from a saxophone point of view, Dave? 

Dave: [smiles] You mean playing multiple notes at the same time? Well, that’s mysterious to me. For a saxophone player, it’s important to recognize the chords others are playing. That means knowing the colors of the sound or the shape of certain progressions, so I can build a melody over that.

Which songs of the Slackers could you recommend to our readers to try out?

Jay: It depends what you want to practice on. Some songs consist of a few simple chords, but I try out an alternate strumming pattern. On other tracks, I want to look smart and I use all those different chords, but the strumming pattern is pretty basic. 

But let’s say you want to really practice your rhythm and get tight at the ska part. There’s a tune called “The Same Every Day”, which is a good way to practice that. It’s all about the rhythm.

Then I wrote a Slackers song called “Spaceman 3104” which is all about clever chords and I tried to be a balladeer on that one. So if you want to learn other chords than just the basic ones, try playing that one.

Great! We’ve arrived at the final question. What overall advice would you give a starting musician? 

Jay: Do your own thing. It’s good to be inspired by a band or an artist, but stick to being yourself. Another important thing is to keep things fun. Find something that makes you happy.  

Even if you’re having trouble with the audience, your bandmates or a song that just doesn’t come out the way you want it. Look for that thing that makes it all worth doing. Because when you do, you’ll stay motivated and keep progressing. That’s the way you get better over time.

Dave: You practice and try to sound like other stuff. You learn from other people’s way of playing, but at the end of the day remember that making mistakes is okay. Those mistakes often lead you to interesting places, so you just have to roll with it. That’s the way you figure out who you really are.

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