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"You know what it is about our band?" asks Marq Lyn, vocalist for the Slackers, a New York City-based ska act. "We have the be-humble-and-shut-the-fuck-up policy. If anything slightly good happens to us, that makes our day. If someone gives us half a peanut butter sandwich, that makes our day."
Given those standards, it's hardly startling that Lyn is thrilled by the accolades that have greeted The Question, the Slackers' third full-length (and second for Hellcat Records). An excellent collection of rock-steady ska, the disc is not only the group's best effort to date, but according to Lyn, it represents the first time that the band, which also includes vocalist Vic Ruggiero, bassist Marcus Geard, guitarist T.J. Scanlon, drummer Luis Zuluaga, saxophonist David Hillyard and trombonists Glen Pine and Jeremy Mushlin, has truly jelled. Just as important, it proves that the serious struggling that preceded it wasn't in vain.
The Slackers got their start in 1990 after Lyn met Ruggiero behind a restaurant counter. "We worked at this gourmet deli for, like, rich people and soap opera stars on 33rd Street and Second Avenue," Lyn says affectionately. "I worked in the pasta section and he worked in prepared foods. Every day we used to come in and talk about music and shit, and stuff we wanted to do. One day I just bumped into him on the street, and he invited me to come down and jam with him."
At the time, Ruggiero was fronting a punk outfit that also included Geard and Zuluaga. But shortly thereafter, ska began to predominate--and Lyn's background was a big part of the reason why. He was virtually raised on the music: His uncle played keyboards for ska greats Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, his brother worked as a rock-steady DJ, and his father still oversees Caribbean Rhythms, a show on BET. Because he spent his childhood shuttling back and forth between Jamaica and New York, he says, "I heard every ska song, every rock-steady or ragamuffin or lovers' rock song that ever was--and it sunk in."
During the next year, the Slackers grew to encompass the combo's current membership, even though the atmosphere at the basement studio where they held their jam sessions left a lot to be desired. "There were rats," Lyn remembers. "And there was a laundromat next door, and their sewer system ran through our studio space, so we used to get all the backwash soap water flooding up to our equipment. One time we went down there, and the whole basement was flooded." Still, Lyn looks back on this period fondly. "Everybody was down with each other, so it was okay to be uncomfortable. We just wanted to play, and we didn't care where the hell it was. You could have thrown us in the sewer as long as there was electricity."
The way Lyn tells it, the Slackers' rise from an unknown combo with the world's worst rehearsal space to an international touring attraction seemed to happen without the musicians even noticing the change: One day they were up to their knees in swill, and the next they were on the bill at New York's Knitting Factory alongside the Skatalites. "That was our first big show," Lyn says. "We met [Skatalites founder] Tommy McCook, who was a big influence on our sound, and we kept in contact, getting him to do shows with us and stuff. But he fell into illness."
Indeed, McCook never got all of his strength back after heart bypass surgery in 1995, and he died last year. But Lyn likes to think that McCook's style lives on via the Slackers. The band's debut, the 1996 Moon Records release Better Late Than Never, treats ska's traditions honorably; its successor, Redlight, includes "Cooking for Tommy," an homage to McCook, and The Question is dedicated to the late performer. The group's name to the contrary, the Slackers brought considerable intensity to the project. "When it came time to put the record together, everybody just came to the calling," Lyn testifies. "We were all ready for battle."
Helping to cement the Slackers' old-school ska sound were a couple of veterans from McCook's era: Glen Adams, who played keyboards with Lee "Scratch" Perry, and Clive Chin, a mixing legend who worked alongside Bob Marley and Coxsone Dodd. These experienced pros helped corral the group's disparate musical styles, which Lyn says are "a lot like an AA meeting--there's so many of us, it's like a support group for music. We each sit down and bring our own thing."
Keeping such a large band together hasn't been easy, especially since the members are widely scattered: Various Slackers hail from Brooklyn, Manhattan, Westchester and even Boston. But the musicians still stick to a strict two-day-a-week practice regimen--a chore made somewhat more pleasant by a new, vermin-free studio located in the basement of a record store. Hitting the road together remains a challenge, though. "We're all eight of us piled into one van for this tour, so everybody sleeps sitting up," Lyn notes. Fortunately, he's learned how to deal with this discomfort: "I've adapted my body, so even in my own house I don't use the bed. I sleep on the chair, the couch, the floor. It doesn't matter."
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