Nothing is easy enough

Two years ago, I and my former bandmates in The Carter Administration, Todd K and Ryan, were at Battletapes studio perusing the recently-published encyclopedia of Nashville underground rock: The Other Side of Nashville. It’s a history in discographies of Nashville indie and alternative rock. We played a short game of stump-the-book by naming obscure Nashville bands and checking to see if they were covered. Most every band who ever released a record was in there. So it was easy to guess that Tiny Corkscrews or The Grief wouldn’t be listed. An early band I had with Todd K and my brother, Heather, wasn’t listed despite our one cassette release. Ryan’s band L. Diablo wasn’t in there. But we were small fries. One glaring omission — given that the fertile early 2000s scene was covered in great detail — was the band Slack.

I reached out to Rev. Keith A. Gordon who created The Other Side of Nashville to ask him about the oversight. He told me: “As for Slack, they’re mentioned in the ‘M.I.A.’ section, which means that it was most likely that I just didn’t find much information on the band, or at least not enough to put together an entry.”

This is the story of Slack going M.I.A.

Slack was founded by brothers Chris and Nick Spoltore. They played their first show in 1995. Efforts with an early bass player didn’t work out. While attending MTSU in Murfreesboro, Chris met bassist Ben Wilkinson who remained with the group until its demise. Like the Ramones from whose simple, chord-heavy punk Slack drew great inspiration, the band members each adopted the last name “Slack.”

Around 1999, the band had a cassette release that played the role most cassettes did: announced their presence to club bookers and provided them something to give to fans. Cassettes were business cards in 1999. CDs were merch.

In 2000, the band released the CD Sorry To Drop This On You on Superdrag Sound Laboratories — a label run by Don Coffey from Superdrag. The songs were thick and sludgey. Though they weren’t slow, they weren’t fast. Huge, fat power chords landed on the listener like proverbial lead balloons. Drummer Nick hailed from the percussion lineage of Dave Grohl: fat toms, brutal kicks, loud-ass cymbals. Slack wasn’t built for speed. They were built to do damage. Though they looked like one and were embraced by the other’s scene, they weren’t punk and they weren’t indie rock. In a 2004 interview, Chris suggested “awesome rock” as their genre.

Subverting punk was an accidental pastime of the band. In October 2000, I wrote in the Nashville Scene:

Their music takes great inspiration from punk but doesn’t offend or aggravate; in fact, listening to their lyrics, Slack often lie down and take a kicking. Their misery is super-contemporary, a kind of jaded, “I’m so bored with being cynical” attitude.

Sorry to Drop This On You marked a turning point in the band’s growth. It included a lot of the songs they’d been playing for years — closing that first chapter of the band while also promising what could come. It also heralded bigger ambitions in the band. Shortly afterwards, they retained attorneys and began making in-roads into a business that most Nashville indie rock bands ignored. They began reworking old songs and writing new ones with a commercial angle. The new material wasn’t pop but they’d clearly set their sights on Foo Fighters-esque AOR rock and left Misfits-influenced punk behind.

In 2004, a new compact disc appeared: Nothing is Easy Enough on Shorebreak International. Nashville fans would be forgiven for not knowing that label name. It was a label run by their management team. The record didn’t exactly scream, “commercial appeal!” but compared to Sorry’s unpolished, Turbo RAT-powered sludge, Nothing was an honest declaration that Slack wasn’t content being a sarcastic indie rock band. Old songs had been re-imagined into leaner, more aggressive tunes. They’d gone from dropping Fat Man and Little Boy to priming ICBMs.

In short, they weren’t lying down anymore. They were kicking back.

Then 2005 happened.

It is not unfair to call 2005 the year that Nashville indie rock’s commercial ambitions got eaten up and shit out by Los Angeles. The Cliffs Notes version is that within a few months, Feable Weiner, The Pink Spiders, and Slack all made records in L.A. that didn’t fulfill the promises of their ambitions. But in true Slack style, the band hadn’t even planned to make a record in L.A.

Slack landed in Los Angeles after a short tour sponsored by Rusty swimwear (I know; I laughed too) was abruptly cancelled. Stranded in L.A., the band got in touch with producer Nick Raskulinecz whom they’d met years earlier through mutual friends Superdrag. Raskulinecz — who had just partnered with a guy named Dave Grohl to open Studio 606 — suggested they make a record. Slack would become only the second band to record in 606. The result was a culmination of their AOR objectives. Under Raskulinecz’s production, the band sounded bigger and bolder than ever. They also sounded slicker and more commercial.

Unfortunately, that album was never released. Slack’s management had a handshake deal with a label to release the record but no contract. Management couldn’t get along with the label and then they couldn’t get along with the band. Then the label folded. Outside pressure on the band surrounding those deals didn’t soothe tensions within the band.

Chris somewhat abruptly announced to the band that he wanted to leave the rock and punk behind and make indie dance music. Ben and Nick both declined and the band dissolved.

To an outside audience, it might have looked like a simple break-up. Those close to the band, though, saw it wasn’t simple at all.

Chris seemed literally to have gone M.I.A. Rumors spread about his new band’s approach to “brand management.” An effort seemed to be afoot to get publications to stop using the name “Slack.” Slack’s entire web presence including YouTube videos on other people’s channels went offline. That and the purgatory in which the record sat led to the same chilling effect: Slack was forgotten.

Depending on your perspective, they became one or another cautionary rock ‘n’ roll story. Either:

  1. The pressures of management, label, and money led to a completed album collecting dust and a band breaking up or
  2. On the precipice of finishing something great, the lead singer developed “artistic differences” with his band and disappeared.

The frustrating business deals did not end with the break-up of the band. Poor communication between the lawyer, management, and the band resulted in some parties being left in the dark on the status of their record. It led to a cold war stand-off between the factions of the band.

Their disappearance illustrates another lesson that is not usually applied to bands: publish or perish. There is no quicker route to obscurity than to keep a record in “the can.”

The intervening years have produced a truce between the members. While no reunion appears on the horizon, tensions have de-escalated. Ben makes music with the VampTones. Nick plays with the Lees of Memory.

But most importantly in considering the legacy of this Nashville trio, Nick has made Slack’s Press Your Luck — the L.A. record, the Rasculinecz record, the lost record, the last record — available on Bandcamp. When I spoke to him for this article, Nick told me, “The purpose of putting the record up was for people to get to hear the music and enjoy what was the greatest time of my life for sure. And honestly I don’t wanna be associated with the bad shit.”

Press Your Luck shows the band at the apex of their awesome rock powers. Chris’s voice is the perfect sneer other recordings failed to capture. Ben’s bass glues the bottom end of the songs together while sounding more prominent than ever. And Nick’s drums punch rather than drop. The record isn’t a leisurely cruise over their target. It’s an aggressive, head-on attack.

The opener “Escape Artist” shows off the band’s growth right away. There is no sarcasm or heartbreak in the song. There is no sludge. It is a tight package of wiry riffs delivering a dose of “it could get worse” cynicism.

“Over the Threshold” has a big chorus like they’d never done before. It sounds more like the indie rock of their heroes Superchunk (yes, both ‘Chunk and ‘Drag meant a lot to Slack) than the stadium rock of the Foos. That comparison goes right down to Chris’s voice cracking as he goes falsetto during the verse.

“Told Ya So” updates their bomb-dropping cynical sludge into a crushing assault. The loose strings of Chris’s guitar ringing out harmonics and the interplay between Ben’s bass and Nick’s drums tighten the sludge and give it a texture they’d never found before.

The live staple “Eyeliner” has been aggro’d out the ass. Faster and more, uh,disgusting than I remember the song, it’s a great mid-album break that pummels its one-riff into your brain. This is the most punk Slack ever sounded yet it is also huge. When the bridge stops the pummeling to break into half-time, the song encapsulates the band’s twin influences of three chord punk and stadium rock.

“That’ll Be The Death Of Me” is a 6/8 swing in power chords and jeering, jaded vocals. There are several songs on the record that cause a listener to think, “why wasn’t this a hit?” but “That’ll Be the Death Of Me” is one I can imagine being a sing-along in the Boro or the Exit/In.

“Teenage Zombie” is a titular nod to their Misfits-influenced “whoa-oh” past. The song is fast-paced and benefits from Slack’s years of practice getting their three instruments to sound like one chugging monster.

The closer — “End of the World” — is a closer in every sense. Singing about a relationship apocalypse that doesn’t strike any fear in him (“Is this the end of the world? Cause I’m totally bored”), Chris along with the other Slacks puts every element of their style into one song. The “whoa-oh” background vocals are present. The loud cymbals, the chugging guitars, the rumbling bass, the half-time shift, the big crashing last chord — they are all there. It’s like they knew they were going out with that one and they wanted to lay it all on the line.

When I first heard the unmastered record ten years ago, I didn’t like the parts that I like the most now: the vocal sneer, the overt AOR style, the discordant riffs that stand in for guitar solos (not that I wanted proper solos; I just didn’t like the obviousness of these). But what I realize in revisiting this record and the legacy of Slack in 2015 is how perfect an artifact of the band, the time, the tension, and our town it is. The record is an important example that artists need to make their work public. In lettingPress Your Luck finally see the light of day, Nick Slack has paid his band, their fans, and Nashville a great tribute.

In 2005, when I was running, there was an argument I repeatedly dismissed that Nashville could become “the next Seattle” — a town in which the rock industry would find all the next big things. I rejected this argument for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I thought the industry had changed too much with the digital revolution for a “next Seattle” to matter at all. But secondly, I just didn’t want it to happen. I didn’t want my grimy rock scene to become a hip place to which hairy assholes would immigrate.

The most vocal opponent I had in this argument was Chris Slack.

Ten years later — in the wake of Jack White, the Black Keys, new clubs, a restored East Nashville — I have to admit: Chris was right. Nashville arguably became a “next Seattle.”

It’s just a goddamned shame that the bands who built the scene here, the ones who bled to draw attention to Nashville’s vibrant, imaginative indie scene, the ones who lived and died in town, don’t get credit for what they planted here. Slack were one of those pioneers and Press Your Luck is a artifact of what was but also an echo of what could have been.