Interview: Vic Ruggiero. Tidings From The Road.
The Slackers have played a show every night for a month across the continent, seemingly never tiring of touring after more than twenty years. As the rest of this New York ska/rocksteady/reggae/rock’n’roll band pack their bags to head home, their charismatic frontman is staying in Europe and on the road with his latest side project, recording and touring with Jesse Wagner [The Aggrolites] and Nico Leonard [The Moon Invaders].
Vic’s credits include not only the mighty output of The Slackers but also an array of solo records, side projects and collaborations, whilst his keyboard skills have been featured on records by artists as diverse as Rancid and Pink.
With songs that traverse a labyrinth of subjects, from murder and heartbreak to government propaganda and wrought family relationships, Vic is a fascinating and prolific artist.
As German towns fly past the window, Vic talks about inspiration, the mystery of songwriting and why The Slackers never quite get off the bus.
Can you tell me about the songwriting process and where you draw your inspiration from?
Well it definitely changes over time and I still don’t know where songs come from. Actually, I was thinking about it as I was singing on stage at this big festival: what are the songs that really seem to work on people? And it’s the ones that came from nowhere that really work, you know, like Have The Time – it really came to me in a flash, all the parts of it, just all at once. People have told me a lot of times and I’ve read from different songwriters that the ones that come in a snap are ‘the ones’. They just appear. You don’t even have to learn the words. I know it’s a good song when I don’t even have to memorise the words. It’s like they’re just here!
Do the lyrics come first or the idea, a character or a theme?
With me, usually a phrase comes first. But a lot of times the phrase and the melody are connected. So, you’ll just hear it. Or maybe you’ll hear a melody and the words are right inside the melody. But songwriting’s mysterious, it’s not as much of a craft for me. I mean it’s a craft in that I know what to do with a song, but the real essence of a song is really weird and the weirder it is the better.
Do you sit down and decide that you’re going to write something or only write when inspired?
Well, a lot of good songs come from deciding that it’s time to write something. “Ah, it’s been a while since I wrote something, I should just write anything.” And I’ll just write anything. I realised I hadn’t written a song for a long time a few years back and I was sitting around and I was just making up songs. I made one up off the title of a book. Another one I just did the simplest words I could think of and I ended up with that song Taking Care Of Business, which is the first song on the Blindspot record [Vic’s 2008 solo album Something In My Blindspot]. But it’s like sometimes you don’t know it’s good. [Laughs] It ends up everybody likes that song. It’s the one that people yell out more than others. That’s really cool. I really thought that was a crappy song. I was like, “ah, there’s nothing to it”.
Do you write for The Slackers, do you write for yourself or do you write and see how it turns out?
I had an experience recently where I thought I just really hit my stride and I show up to The Slackers with all these songs and I’m like, man, I’ve got all Slackers songs. It ends up I don’t think anybody liked them in the band. The one I liked the least is the one that Dave liked the most and it ended up being that one that we learned.
So, it’s quite a democratic process deciding what goes onto a Slackers album? With so many writers in the band how does that work?
Yeah, nowadays it’s like that. It’s really if everybody likes it. You can see when a song is taking off. There’s a good argument for saying that I should only be writing for The Slackers – that way it keeps the ideas vital. When I started off I was writing tons of songs that didn’t make it into the band or were obviously not Slackers music. But I still tried to feed into the song… make the sound unique. Like a punk song would end up in The Slackers and be Watch This. Songwriting is strange. Recently I had this melody in my head and I had words but, of course no guitar or anything, because I was driving and then, once I stopped, I thought let me try to play it on guitar and see if it works. And I realised there was no way to make the chords match up the way they did in my head. Like mathematically or just the way it’s all arranged, it wasn’t working. That’s when you really write something – you hear it and it doesn’t have to make sense. The less it makes sense the better, ’cause that’s like Springsteen or something, his melodies, or The Clash, they don’t necessarily match up, they’re not mathematical thoughts, they’re really just inspired thoughts. There you go. I don’t know what the question was. [Laughs]
With the trio project that you’re just starting, are you writing together?
Yeah, Jesse said he has some rhythms and I think he’s a good lyricist, instinctively. He’s a kind of craftsman. He knows what words go with what and he’s got a sense for things, but he claims not to be a songwriter. I’m like a songwriter and arranger, in some ways I have more ideas when it comes to that, than I do when it comes to the performance. But I feel like I haven’t been as lyrical these days, I’ve been really minimalist. I used to be really wordy. One time I was sitting with a friend and they say “God, but Vic you write a lot of words for rocksteady”. Like, who writes this many words? Have you ever listened to a rocksteady song and heard this many words? I should write haiku, you know? Because rocksteady and reggae – sometimes there’s no lyrics. You just look at it, there’s a few lines, really simple. There’s genius to that.
At one of the recent UK shows you introduced Married Girl saying that when you wrote it you couldn’t record it for a while because there was someone who would think it was about him.
So, are you often writing from real life, are a lot of these stories based in reality?
Yeah, they’re like real life inspired. But they don’t end up real life. Obviously the Married Girl song is extreme. You couldn’t believe how many people thought Dave’s song The Fool was about them. People were like, “so, what are you trying to say to me, man?”. I forget what song in particular but there’s a line in another song by Dave where I really feel it’s about me. Every time I sing it I think, “God I hope Dave doesn’t think that about me”. You know? But I know it’s narcissistic to imagine that it’s about me. But who knows?
In the live show, you bring in quite a lot of bits of other songs, like Black Sabbath’s ‘War Pigs’. Does that just happen during rehearsal when you’re messing around or is it a song that the band’s talking about at the time?
Sometimes it’s like that, but usually it’s just that schtick that you wanna be a soul singer and soul singers always do that in a part of the set. Like they would say: “and if Al Green was here, Al Green would say [singing] “love and tenderness”. And if James Brown was here, James Brown would say [singing] “please, please”.” On one hand it’s to show off that you’re able to sing other songs over something where it doesn’t fit, so it kind of shows off your prowess and that you can imitate, but then, to me, maybe it’s also a little self-deprecating in that it’s like well just in case you thought this was so original, really it’s just every song. If you have a good melody, you sing it over anything. We’re really not that smart. You know? And it works on the crowd. I mean, doing “Hey Ho! Let’s Go!” – we did it at a festival the other day as a tribute to the Ramones, because now the last original Ramone has gone, right? So, to get everybody singing “Hey Ho! Let’s Go!” , plus we’re a band from New York – there are things that you can do like that that are fun.
You always take requests at shows, which the audience really appreciates as it gets a chance to influence the set list, but do you ever get asked for songs that you don’t play or bizarre things?
Yeah, once in while we get a weird request and we do it.
Can you give an example of that?
We were in Poland and I knew this polka “In heaven there is no beer, that’s why we drink it here”. I started doing it and of course everybody in the crowd knows it, they don’t know it in English but they start singing it in Polish, and the chorus is just ‘la la la la la la’, so the band just picks it up. Man, we play this scorching like 2 Tone version of In Heaven There Is No Beer – once and only once in our lives!
The line up of the band has stayed the same for a long time. A lot of bands don’t last that long with the same people. What’s the secret to keeping everyone there?
The Slackers never quite get to where they’re going. So, you’re always on the bus going somewhere and you never get there, so you’re just kind of on the bus. The bus changes direction sometimes and you’re like “I thought we were going there!”. No, actually it’s changed, we’re going in another direction. We’re like “I don’t know where I am now, so I better stay on the bus, I mean, if I get off here I might never get home”. [Laughs] And that’s kind of like The Slackers. It’s a blessing and a curse. The curse is that we never get to where we’re going but the blessing is that it’s always fresh.
With that bittersweet contemplation, we arrive at the venue and Vic heads off to join the rest of the band and get ready for what turns out to be a blistering final gig of the tour. Here’s hoping they won’t be ready to get off the metaphorical Slackers’ bus for some time yet.
22 July 2014, Cologne, Germany. Words and Photos By Imelda Michalczyk. Imelda has her own site Rebeladelica.