Slaves have just finished their first US festival slot at Austin City Limits, when two armed policeman come marching towards their dressing room. Onstage, guitarist Laurie Vincent instructs the crowd: "Anybody watching us who's voting for Trump, fuck off. Go to the other side of the festival." The officer cracks a smile. "I sent a video of you performing to my wife," he says. "She said: 'That'll wake you up!'" The policemen request a picture with the raucous British punk duo—that's Laurie and his shirtless partner-in-crime Isaac Holman. "Thanks officer," says Laurie. He turns towards the crew. "Well, that's never happened before!"
The day before, Slaves' freshly released second album, Take Control, went to Number 6 in the UK Album Chart. The collection is a call-to-arms to young adults who complain about their humdrum existence, yet do nothing about it. It beat last year's acclaimed debut Are You Satisfied? by two chart positions. The band's label, Virgin/EMI, voiced concerns about releasing another record just 16 months later, but in the spirit of the power-wielding themes of Take Control, Slaves did what they wanted. In fact, they want to put an album out every year. Two top 10 albums isn't bad going for a couple of guys from Kent, an area far enough outside of London to lend their songs an everyman perspective beyond the UK's capital. "The live show is secondary. At the end of the day a painter wouldn't paint the same painting every day," says Laurie of their need to keep creating. "It gets repetitive."
One way of avoiding repetition is wardrobe. Before the set, Laurie bounces about the dressing room. "Hat or hair?" he asks, taking his beanie off, putting it back on. "Energy! Energy! Gimme, gimme!" puffs Isaac. Onstage, Isaac pulls his shirt off after one song. Hunched upright over his drums, he booms into the mic, every thwack is a full force smack. Before their biggest singalong, "Cheer Up London," he sits on the edge of the stage, doubling up as a stand-up Cockney town crier. "This goes out to all the miserable commuters on the buses, on the Tube," he says, referring to London's subway system. "If you're not happy in your profession, do saamfink else. Don't infect me wiv your negativitee. I'm a HAPPY MAN!"
Every belt of his pub punk anthems—"White Knuckle Ride" and "Debbie Where's Your Car?"—are like savage responses to Ian Dury's assertions on "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick": "Hit me!" Whack. "Hit me!" Bang. Turns out Dury is one of his heroes. "Ian Dury's the boss," Isaac tells me later. "If he was around now, he'd be slated by the same people who slate us."
Today in Austin, no one appears to be having an adverse reaction to the duo's serrated punk. The crowd swells to double its size over the course of their 45 minute set. As they race towards the final song, Isaac lies over the amp playing dead, his sweat-wet torso rising up and down. Then he swivels round and bolts like a raging bull for one last boxing match with the drums. He comes off-stage and shakes off the sweat. How was that? "Lu-ver-ly," he smiles.
Isaac is what Grace Jones might describe as a slave to the rhythm. "It's fucked my body up," he says, demonstrating how to pop his shoulder back in its looser-than-loose socket. Their gigs are so brutalizing that one of his shoulders had to be operated on earlier this year, the morning after a notoriously messy industry night out in London. That scheduling could have been avoided. "I had to be at the hospital at 7.30 in the morning," he says, as he recounts stumbling onto an operating table fresh from the party. "They put a pipe down my throat to stop me from swallowing my tongue. I hadn't slept, then I'd been KO'd. I was blinking one eye at a time when they brought me back around and this nurse was laughing at me." He's alarmingly unperturbed. "I'll be a hunchback one day," he says grabbing a spoon for his rare American breakfast: Fruit Loops. "When in Rome!"
Laurie seems less cavalier, a sensitive soul. Before this trip he went to see Bridget Jones's Baby with his girlfriend (verdict: "fucking good"). He's unintentionally funny ("I had an ex-girlfriend who didn't believe in giraffes…"), and unpretentiously fanning out over The Cribs and The Gaslight Anthem. A painter and designer, he's decorated with a plethora of self-sketched tattoos. His right sleeve is all his own. He has a spider web on his head, a pirate crossbones on his neck, and a massive alligator down his right ribcage. He had those three done in a two-week window. "Then I got tonsillitis," he laughs. Round his former neck of the woods, Laurie's tattoos likely sealed his twin fates as a musician and artist.
Isaac, with his easy charm, comes from a creative pedigree—a family of naturally musically-inclined folk. Laurie on the other hand, well, you get the sense that Laurie's got something to prove. For one thing his parents are more traditional; they expected him to go to university. "The first song Isaac ever heard was "Monkey Man" by The Specials," he says. "Mine was probably Shania Twain." Ironically, despite their debut's title, Laurie seems short of satisfied with how well the band have done. "I'm a proper dreamer. We're not a household name. We're successful in our own right, but we could always be bigger."
"I wanna cook my back," says Isaac, venturing to a sunspot and taking off his shirt again. Slaves spent a portion of last year opening for London rapscallions Wolf Alice, but despite this, and their home turf success, the duo remain anonymous in America. Laurie has his own tactic for dealing with skeptical members of the public: "You know Mike D from the Beastie Boys?" he told hotel staff earlier. "He produced our new record."
He did. Out in Santa Monica for two weeks last summer. Mike had heard Take Control early on and reached out to Laurie. The songs are technically as punk as anything the Beasties did (that is, punk in ethos), and spliced with skits. "Rich Man" is lyrically inspired by Blur's "Country House" and the news of former UK Prime Minister David Cameron's off-shore tax benefits, meanwhile "Lies" was written in reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis—that reaction being "pissed off." The title track of Take Control itself is almost a fired-up take on Baxter Dury's "Claire" from the 2011 cult classic Happy Soup (one of the only LPs the pair share in common). Whereas Dury pleads, "Don't waste your life, Claire," Slaves reverse the tables and tell the tale of ennui from the band's perspective as modern men. "Don't ask me where I'm going, I'm just following my feet," blares Isaac.
Elsewhere "People That You Meet," is the record's standout track: a judgment-free, social commentary on the weird characters the pair stumbled upon during their Stateside travels, written with Wolf Alice's drummer Joel Amey. They'd been drinking all afternoon and during soundcheck, before a show in Nebraska, Slaves started jamming to a bass riff, then Joel jumped on his kit to play along. The song's first character is Terry. "He was in Philadelphia, a homeless guy telling jokes for money," explains Isaac, before giggling about the following verse about a sex shop. The final few lines are a home run: "I know a man called Michael / He hails from NYC… He used to be a Beastie Boy / But now he works for me."
What was it like recording that in front of Mike D? "I was hammered," Isaac notes for the umpteenth time. "Me and Joel had been partying all night and Laurie said, 'Whatever you do please don't come in hungover.'" Mike D was getting his hair cut in the kitchen and didn't hear the lyric until Isaac was doing his last vocal take. Laurie continues: "Because Isaac was so smashed his takes were getting worse." Mike D wasn't annoyed about the line, but he was riled about the takes. "He said, 'If you're gonna fucking cuss me, at least do it fucking well!'"
The song's brilliance is bittersweet given it's about extending the benefit of the doubt to strangers, where that courtesy has not been returned to them. Press has been favorable and damning in equal measures. Laurie in particular has an encyclopedic knowledge of his critics and is naturally defensive. He admits that since school, he's felt that people have pre-judged him. There is definitely a sense of Laurie versus The World. "Did you have any preconceptions about us?" he asks. "It's not a problem if you have. Everyone does."
Not everyone understands Slaves' humor. It's dark like Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, twisted like if Mike Skinner had a Keith Flint inside him raving to get out. They're often described as "aggressive" or "angry" when in fact they're seeking to alleviate those feelings at gigs, promoting a place for relief, community and—heaven forbid—fun. They've supported online awareness group Girls Against, plus they proactively police sexual assault at gigs, responding to fan concerns posted on their own Facebook. "I'm not scared of confronting people. I'm not big and I've never had a fight, but I always stop shows and call out security guards that could easily squash me," says Laurie.
Unlike other polarizing British lad bands, like Royal Blood or Catfish & The Bottlemen, Slaves deny their purported laddy-ness. Their detractors take umbrage with more ideological issues before the band have strummed a single note. Why's that then? Well that would be the name: Slaves. When I broach the topic, Laurie seems exhausted. Given the political temperature and the social media age we live in, it wasn't the wisest choice, but still they've stuck with it. And they've "equipped" themselves for interviews.
In America, criticisms are even more vexed. The Fader once asked "Why Should a Band of White Dudes Name Themselves Slaves?" The band chose the name to evoke a sense of oneness in the face of overbearing authority. "We are all slaves in this modern age, whether it be to our jobs, corporations, social media, or society in general. We are all in this together," reads their statement on Facebook. Given that Viet Cong recently changed their name to the infinitely less problematic Preoccupations, was there a point when Slaves considered making a similar move?
"No," says Laurie firmly. "Then it wouldn't have been our band. Our band is set to challenge. That's the point." My assessment is that the band likely hadn't even thought about connotations of historic slavery when they chose it, and neither did those around them. Initially managed by Three Six Zero, the same company who handle Rihanna and Calvin Harris, this ensured their music was placed in the hands of major influencers early on. "Kanye West was on his honeymoon listening to our first album by the pool," says Laurie, as if to infer that the rapper saw no issue with their moniker. "Why is your band name a problem?" asked Mike D more recently. "To us, it says a lot about society," offers Laurie, who agrees that social media warriors have a silencing effect on bigger conversations. "The internet has made things way more conservative and it should be doing the opposite."
He sighs, catching himself. "If I listen back to what I just said I'm open to someone calling me an idiot." Then continues. "Slavery is fucked up. There's a band called White from Glasgow but they make very different music from us [modern Krautrock]. If we were called White, would that cause the same issue? What if there was a funk band called Slaves? New Order: Is that not fucked up? They still headline festivals and that feels way worse."
As with everything in Slaves' world, there are two ways of looking at things. "It feels like our band name is important," says Laurie. "We gave it to ourselves, and it's making us work harder." Laurie accepts that he'll be questioned on this topic for as long as Slaves exist."Usually with people who are likeminded to us," he notes. "They're the ones who wanna be argumentative." If controversial music is intended to inspire debate, this certainly does the trick…
Laurie reads out one particular hurtful comment that mocked the cover art for Take Control, suggesting he'd ripped off the balaclava design from Pussy Riot, and capitalized on it. In fact the artwork's origin can be traced years back before the album's conception. The inspiration came from VICE magazine; a photo of a girl wearing a mask caught Laurie's attention. "I loved the femininity of the eyes, juxtaposed with the ominous mask. So I painted it. It was just an image. The soft versus the provocative."
But for Slaves this is not the be-all, end-all. "This is the starting point," says Laurie. Once they've diversified their shows, and caught a sniff of potential festival headline slots, they want to retire the band and graduate to a production duo. The pinnacle would be to make a collaborations-led album, something akin to the Gorillaz's output."I don't wanna be smashing them drums forever," says Isaac. "I wanna crooooooon!"
As we wrap up our chat Laurie's phone buzzes. It's grime MC Skepta inviting him to karaoke tonight. In London. He's one they'd love for the future collaborations album. "We hold each other in high regard," says Isaac, standing up. His back is well and truly "cooked."
Having had enough of festivals for the year, the boys ditch ACL's afternoon lineup in search of cowboy boots in downtown Austin. Isaac's has a specific, longstanding vision involving black and red boots and some "arseless chaps." He wants to pose in that outfit with Betty, his three-month-old pet rat, on his shoulder. Then Laurie is going to paint this portrait for the mantelpiece in Isaac's apartment, just up the road from his family home in Kent.
Meanwhile Laurie (who's newly relocated to Brighton on England's south coast), has an extra special present waiting for him back home: In early December he'll become a father for the first time. He shows me his iPhone home screen—it's a picture of his pregnant other half. "That's love, innit?" While Laurie's on paternity leave, Isaac's scheduled to get his other shoulder operated on.
Unlike Isaac, Laurie doesn't like going back to Kent, from the politics to the way people live, it's just not his bag. "It makes me realize how fucked up it is. I have a lot of anger. It's a ghost from my past, a dark place." Laurie's family didn't really encourage art as a vocation—he doesn't like the small-mindedness—but he's terribly fond of his folks. To this day he tries not to swear because he imagines his mother flinching with every cuss.
As Isaac marches ahead, off to buy his first Snickers Xtreme (verdict: "too extreme"), Laurie pauses to consider all we've discussed. "You know I wasn't conscious of it when I was younger, but I think the reason I got all my tattoos was to save my breath." It comes back to preconceptions. For people who won't approach Laurie because they think they know what a guy "like Laurie" is about, it means he doesn't need to engage. "In a way, it's the ultimate bullshit filter." I hazard a guess that he feels the same way about Slaves as an entity, not just a name. Slaves are about saying what you like, doing what you like, and flying free in the face of their critics.
Eve Barlow is a Scottish writer living in the City of Angels. Follow her on Twitter.
Slaves were shot by Jessica Alexander, in Austin, Texas.