By Brian Tucker
It’s been a few years but punk rock band Totally Slow is returning to play in Wilmington, once again at Reggie’s 42nd Street Tavern. The last time there it was 2015, their first show here, and memorable as one that really delivered. Formed in Greensboro, N.C. in 2012, the band seemed to enjoy performing and their sound was youthful and highly energetic. Band members are in their late 30s or more and the music, especially songs on their self-title debut, sound like a bunch of kids playing.
They are playing the show March 31 with Youth League and in support of new EP Imperium, out on March 16 via Self Aware/Bitter Melody Records.
Below Hicks talks about the new album, musical pasts, and more.
Six years in as a band, do you feel you’re still evolving/growing as a band, still having fun?
Hicks: Oh Jesus, is it really six years? I think it’s five. Let’s say five. I’m not really one to rest on my laurels – our most popular song was “Acid Rain” and we knocked that off the set list years ago. I get bored easily and if this isn’t fun or engaging anymore then I will stop and do something else. We still have ideas and keep getting offered cool stuff and other people are willing to help us put out records, so I’m still very much enjoying the process.
Was Imperium written in a burst of creativity?
It was a burst for sure. We were fleshing out how things sounded with a second guitar in the band plus really feeling the acute existential dread of politics sparked something in me creatively. As time goes on I think we find ourselves throwing our hands in the air when terrible stuff happens in the world. It all just becomes this dull throbbing sensation which isn’t a very effective catalyst for the imagination. Everything got a little more stark and easier to compartmentalize in 2017. I’m kinda fucking upset.
Sonically Imperium sounds like a departure from Bleed Out and Totally Slow. Was it a surprise that it sounded different to you?
We added Chuck (Johnson) on second guitar and he’s really more of a bare-knuckles hardcore punk kind of person, and I was already starting to lean that way with Bleed Out, which I think sounds really different from the first record, which was essentially a demo of stuff we were banging around on acoustic guitar. I think you can definitely track my sense of optimism bottoming out as the records progress, and the aesthetic of Imperium was a very conscious decision. I wanted to make something fast and relevant, both sonically and in terms of production speed.
I didn’t want the pressure and money and time that vinyl entails so my thinking was always to do a cassette with Self Aware for this release. In hindsight it was perfect that Bitter Melody wanted to do a CD version as well, just because you can bust those out really fast too. I wanted it to be fun and angry at the same time.
We also recorded it differently, with the guitars live in the room with the amps so everything would sound hot and present and you’d get all of the noise in the room when writing and performing.
You really deliver the goods on “Lust Will Drag You to Hell.” Can you share a little about it, lyrically or the music’s construction?
That’s cool this one stands out to you. We were ready to record an EP but it needed a sixth song. We were going through old practice tapes and found the basic skeleton of “Lust.” I have zero memory of writing it or practicing it at all, I guess at some point we didn’t know what to do with it and let it go. With vocals added it transformed from a straight surf jam to a really driving almost Hot Snakes sounding song.
Lindsey Sprague (Daddy Issues) and I have talked for a while about starting a band called “Lust Will Drag You to Hell” based on a church billboard in town. It’s a funny tactile phrase (and also kind of true), and the odds of us actually having time to do a band together anytime soon are pretty low so I used it for this song and had her do some backing vocals.
I’m not really big on explaining lyrics, I like to keep them abstract enough that you can kind of write your own story in your head with them.
Imperium is about ceding control for the sake of comfort. Was apathy part of these songs, about people tuning out, or becoming purposely less-aware?
It is really, really easy to get humans to agree to with a terrible idea by scaring them. Border walls and wars and idiotic bathroom bills and any other divisive intrusive horseshit that gets foisted on us as an urgent proposition are all sold as counter-measures to nebulous anathema. Right now it’s not apathy that we are up against as much as finding ourselves so overwhelmed by a cascade of crappy ideas that things we used to find shocking have become normalized. It’s a bit of an abstraction but certainly is the basic theme of the record.
“Indiscriminate” is a great surprise, almost like a different version of Totally Slow. Can you say why you shifted gears on that song or did it exist in another way?
When I’m envisioning the flow of a record I’ve been seeing this inverted triangle, with the throat-grabbing stuff flanking something maybe a little more pensive in the middle. We did that with ‘Free Hugs’ and the reprise on the last LP. I say this all the time but I am a huge fan of slower repetitive stuff like Lungfish and Unwound and it does inform me creatively. I can’t really write songs that sound like that but there’s shrapnel of their aesthetic in my DNA for sure.
Was adding a second guitarist been an idea for some time? Did another guitarist open things up creatively, or did it help to broaden the band’s sound?
We were getting kind of stuck, creatively – I felt like we needed to shake things up a bit. We also could not effectively recreate the songs from Bleed Out live in my opinion, because that wall of guitar noise is just so critical. (Johnson is) really more of a bare-knuckles hardcore punk kind of person, and I was already starting to lean that way with Bleed Out, which I think sounds really different from the first record.
I have loved everything Chuck’s done musically and we had talked casually about doing something together – it just seemed natural to try having him play with us. So we did a practice test run, and he played a show with us the next day. What you hear with the new record is the result of that, and live is just several orders of magnitude better sounding as a four-piece.
Your debut album, what never escapes me is the youthfulness of it – from its sound to the vocals. What can you attribute to that?
I learned to play guitar listening to my dad’s Ventures records. In early high school Agent Orange really was the “aha” moment as far as realizing how the genetics of all this different rock music are really closely related, and that has informed me ever since. 80’s skate culture and 90’s DIY are who we are. It’s what my musical politics are – that energy, and that realization that the rules of growing up, are a construct to a degree.
I didn’t have examples of punk bands getting famous when I started – that was never on the radar. We did it because it was just what we did. It still is. I guess you could call that ‘youthful,” but to my mind it’s more just not putting an expiration date on being a certain kind of person or engaging in certain types of creativity.
What do you think about being part of the canon of punk/hardcore/rock and roll music that everyone from skaters to young adults can relate to on some level?
Wow, I never considered myself canon, but that’s awfully nice of you to suggest. I have three of those kid things and they’re already hardly kids anymore. Time is relentless, and mortality always looms. So it’s rad to think maybe I Ieft something laying around that someone else might pick up and find inspiring in some way. What else is there, really? You like to think that your creative output is timeless and not a rehash, sometimes maybe we pull it off. Thanks for saying that, it means a lot to me.
The cover art for the debut, skaters on old cars, where did that picture come from and why did you use it?
The knucklehead with the mohawk is actually Greg, our bass player as a high school punk living in L.A. There are several little Easter eggs on that record – the lettering on the back was done by David Hayes, who was involved with Lookout! and then Very Small. The music on the debut was more hopeful and some of us were starting to hit 40 and looking back and it all kind of tied together perfectly.
Going back in time, what band would Totally Slow be a good fit with on a tour, or a band you would have liked to share a tour with?
That’s a tough one to nail down, and probably each of us would have a different answer. It would have been pretty great to tour with someone like 7 Seconds or Adolescents in their heyday. We’ve gotten to play shows with some of our heroes like Government Issue and Ugly Americans. We did The Fest when Descendents were headlining, and a week before Wilmington we’re playing with Agent Orange in Raleigh. I guess going back in time won’t be necessary.