Interview: Sly & the Family Drone
I am feeling more positive about everything and I actually want to be playing music and sharing that with my friends in the band and thinking about playing some gigs. I think it'll be good to have something to aim for, we'll get this new record planned and hopefully start booking some tours again maybe end of the year or early next year.
Sly & The Family Drone have roared and clattered their way through the UK underground for a decent few years now, making friends wherever they go, handing out drumsticks, spraying us in beer and exhorting us into a shared convulsion of sound. Their gigs are a giddy, chaotic release, both an in your face noise assault and a massive amount of fun at the same time. They have a handsomely presented new album out capturing them in full flight called simply and self explanatorily Live at Cafe OTO. Its release date has been nudged back to August after main man Matt Cargill had to go back into hospital.
2018 has not been great for the band. Early in the year, Matt was touring with Bruxa Maria and Silent Front when their van was involved in a serious accident. Happily, everyone survived but Matt and Gareth from Silent Front were hospitalised and are still on their way back to full fitness. To add insult to very real injury, all the bands’ equipment was stolen from the wrecked van. I caught up with Matt to chat about his recovery, the new album and the future of Sly & the Family Drone.
(((o))): So Matt, you’ve had a pretty rough year of it.
Yeah, pretty much. I still have to do daily IV which isn’t much fun but has gotta be done. It’s for bone infection, it’s antibiotics and I take painkillers for my arm as well. I’ve not had much of a chance to do a lot else other than hospital visits really but it seems like it’s going in the right direction, which is good.
(((o))): That is good to hear, how much of you got smashed up?
mmm, errr, quite a lot. There was my humerus which was in a few bits so had to have metalwork put in, I broke my collarbone, a few ribs and a finger. All down my right side basically.
(((o))): Ouch. So are you part metal now, have they made you bionic?
I am more metal than man mostly, there’s a pretty good set of metal in my right arm now so airports will be fun. No, it’s alright, it’s manageable now. I can get about and I’m back at home. It’s the upper arm that’s the worst bit. I had another operation on that recently and I’m still sort of recovering from that, not really resting but I’m not supposed to be lifting any heavy amps or anything at the moment. Hopefully, when I get some physio in, my arm will get some sort of power back and I’ll be twatting floor toms again or whatever.
(((o))): How is the return to playing live looking then?
I didn’t know when my operation was going to be so basically we made no plans for the summer and we had to cancel a load of gigs and festivals, so everything’s on hold really.
(((o))): This is with Sly?
Yeah, in the interim (between operations) I did feel like it was going to be alright to play some Sly shows but one; I hadn’t got all my gear back together and two; I ended up going back into hospital the week before this festival. So, I said we better say no just in case, I didn’t want to confirm something and then have to let people down last minute. So we haven’t played since December I think now.
(((o))): Just December? It seems a long while, and the crash was early this year?
The crash was in January, it was six months ago. We were driving to play in Paris and the van didn’t make it that far and that was that. No shows all year, so it’s been a long while. Sly were supposed to be touring again in February, we had a European tour booked and I had to cancel that. It sort of all disappeared.
(((o))): Meanwhile then you’ve got his new record coming out of a gig from three years ago in London?
Yeah, at Cafe OTO. It was a ridiculously hot, sweltering summer evening, someone had some limoncello and we were parked outside having that. Hirvikolari played as well I think, the two lads off of Teeth Of The Sea, doing really great modular synth and cornet and then we played. It was me, Kaz the drummer, Ed and Dan who does UKAEA now. So we played as a four piece but sort of halfway through the set there was a cue and we got a load of our mates to bring brass instruments and acoustic, woodwind sort of stuff along. So, on cue they’d all join in with this sort of raucous brass section, they were all dotted around the crowd with trumpets and stuff.
(((o))): I wondered about that because you can’t quite work out what’s happening but there is clearly some brass in there somewhere.
Yeah, it’s kind of all buried among the chaos but there’s, I don’t know, ten people or more maybe in there who appeared in the crowd with brass instruments and there were a couple of people in the crowd recording it too, so there’s a mixture of mics that were set up for the house recording and some others with some little handheld zooms. So you get a bit of audience noise in there as well.
(((o))): Most of the stuff that you’ve recorded is live, even if that’s not with an audience there isn’t it? This record sounds much better, I think, than the others and I know you’re a sound engineer but it must be quite technically challenging to try and capture you guys playing live because it’s so chaotic.
I think we’re probably better at recording now anyway, over the years we’ve put out loads of live recordings or tapes or whatever and I do tend to enjoy playing in a live setting rather than trying to capture it in a studio sort of thing. You don’t have the time constraints or pressure or clock watching or any of that of the studio. This one we mixed it ourselves and got a friend of ours Alex Peterson to master it, he did a really great job, and we didn’t really have anything in mind for it. It just sat on my hard drive for a couple of years. Then we talked about it and we decided, in the interim here, lets put this out and that’ll tide us over hopefully. People seem to be enjoying it, I’ve had a few preorders through and some nice reviews so far so it feels like it’s a good thing. It’s a CD as well and we usually only do tapes and vinyl and I was slightly concerned that people wouldn’t be up for it. I don’t personally buy CDs . . .
(((o))): So you’re not pioneering the return of the latest dead format to make a comeback?
Exactly. Not particularly no. I don’t have the means to play CDs myself and I haven’t bought one in years. But because of the length of the recording, you could sort of split it into half ‘cos it does have this sort of natural break into ‘one’ and ‘two’.
(((o))): It does, the first side seems to have more sections, and then the second is a more unified Sly type thing. Like you say it splits in half but you’ve had some great titles for your stuff in the past, is there any reason you went for something as simple as ‘one’ and ‘two’?
I guess in that there are different movements within that first bit and sections within each half but it would have been difficult to arrange and split the recording up so I felt the natural pause just made for a good two halves.
(((o))): There’s a loose plan to it all though?
Yeah, yeah, when we play live there’ll be cues or we feel like it’s going to work to go into a certain bit yeah, but it’s mostly improvised with a few touch points.
(((o))): Going back to the brass, this was recorded a while before you did the Dead Neanderthals record, would you say this was a step towards that? were you like, “this is quite good, we could pursue that”?
Do you know that guy Paul Margree? He wrote a review of the Dead Neanderthals record we did and he actually saw that OTO gig as well. He said it was more like a dada theatre piece than a nicely thought out piece of music. But then he said “what if they always had brass for real?” I only read that review after we’d actually done the Dead Neanderthals thing. But we’ve played with people with sax before that and then the Dead Neanderthals thing came together and we recorded that live ourselves. We booked a room, a quite dead space, and that was two saxophones two drums and electronics. Also our sort of permanent line up now is myself, Kaz, Ed, and James Allsop playing baritone sax. On our last tour, last summer, he was with us and he’s on our new record as well.
(((o))): So the brass is pretty embedded in the current version of the band then?
Yeah, that’s the solid line up and has been for nearly two years I suppose. We’ve recorded another album ready with James as well. That’s been recorded and mixed and mastered and hopefully somebody will put it out but I don’t know yet. We’ll see if we if we can start a bidding war or something. Or just end up putting it out ourselves again probably
(((o))): You put this one out yourself, is that right?
Yeah, I got Nick who does the print project at Golden Cabinet up in Shipley to do all the letterpress so the CD artwork is all made on a 100 yr old letterpress. He laser cut all the shapes designed it and printed it on a nice gatefold CD. I’m really pleased with the package and how it’s come together
(((o))): Is the lovely band shot in there?
It is yeah
(((o))): I love that, ‘cos it’s got these really elegant, cool jazz almost, abstract shapes and then there’s that picture of you guys looking gorgeous, which is hilarious.
Yes. That is in there, it’s a separate little bit, we got a glossy like an actual sort of photograph that tucks in there. Like you say there’s that nice abstract black and white artwork and then this horrible ‘glamour’ shot of us.
(((o))): Someone was trying to tell me it was photoshopped, that it’s just your heads stuck on but I’m not having it – it’s a real shot isn’t it?
Yes, it’s a real photograph. It was taken in our house. The clothes we are wearing are our own so you’ll get one of those to put on your fridge or whatever. I got loads of them made so they’re just knocking around. In local phone boxes.
(((o))): So, there’s been a bit of change, the other thing being that you lost all your gear as well. Do you feel that this album kind of captures a previous phase of the band and when Sly return it’ll be different? Will there be a new set up and a new start, so to speak?
Yeah, it’s getting that way. As I say we’ve got a new album that’s recorded and has got totally different stuff on it and the way we’ve been playing as a four piece with James and the baritone has kind of changed the dynamic anyway. So it is totally different to what you’d hear on the Cafe OTO CD. In terms of the gear… some of that stuff was really specific, I’d had some of it for years and I knew exactly how to get certain sounds out of it and like I said, we would have certain cues or different movements in the set or whatever, ‘songs’ almost, that I knew what pedals I’d be using for certain bits and that’s all gone and it’s not that simple to get it all back. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Buzz Osborne off The Melvins talk about this but his guitar pedals are all ones you can just go into any old guitar shop and just pick ’em straight out because they’re all Boss pedals. So if anything happens you can just go anywhere in the world and just get ’em. Unfortunately, my set up isn’t like that.
(((o))): That’s a very practical, very Buzz approach
Yeah, I mean there’s a couple of replaceable ones in there but some are discontinued or handmade or whatever
(((o))): Did it not change a lot anyway? I imagine your gear probably had quite a hard life.
Sometimes. Gradually it sort of mutates over time but I’d say certainly for the last year or two it had been pretty constant. I bought my first piece of new gear about a week ago so I’m gradually building up my collection again. Obviously, I had some stuff at home that wasn’t in the van but Sly have only played together once since the accident and that was only about a fortnight ago. I haven’t really felt like playing music at all and I didn’t have my gear to even do it. But now I am feeling more positive about everything and I actually want to be playing music and sharing that with my friends in the band and thinking about playing some gigs. I think it’ll be good to have something to aim for, we’ll get this new record planned and hopefully start booking some tours again maybe end of the year or early next year. Depending if and when people still want us, we’ll see.
(((o))): I’m sure they’ll be interested to see you again. Will you have to be taking a more genteel approach to performance now?
I hope not. I don’t actually know yet, physically I feel alright in myself but my arm is still quite weak and I’ve done a little bit of drumming but nothing too full on. We haven’t quite got to that stage just yet so I’m not quite sure but I hope it won’t affect anything in terms of how active I can be, we’ll see.
(((o))): So you’d say you’re looking to pick up where you left off pretty much?
Yeah I hope so, it was a real shame, the European tour in February was all coming together nicely and I was looking forward to playing some new places and stuff and then just had to cancel everything, just had to write everything off, postpone it all. Hopefully we can just pick up again and people will have us back next year or we can come back with some other tour dates. We’ll see, but I feel much better about the whole thing and I’m keen to get back to it whenever that may be.
(((o))): When the accident happened, you were touring in Bruxa Maria and the last time I saw you was last year at Supernormal, you played with both Bruxa and with Dan in UKAEA at that . . .
I played three shows with UKAEA. A couple at new year, and Supernormal. Then this year they’ve had a few more but I’ve been in and out of hospital and didn’t have any gear so I haven’t been involved in any of that. I live with Dan so we often practice and do music at home or whatever.
(((o))): Something I felt about that UKAEA set was it had a similar sort of shape to Sly. It’s more electronic obviously and different sounds and so on but still an overlap of ideas. How improvised is that because it seems to work in a similar way to Sly?
I think it does, Dan sort of has a score in his mind, or a even a visual score which we’ve done for Sly before where there’s a start, a middle, and an end and there’s certain touch points or cues and everybody knows where to follow or at what point to change, but there is always room within that to improvise or extend bits so in that way it’s pretty similar and we enjoy doing that. I like being able to play that way. Did you see them at Supersonic just?
(((o))): I did yeah. A weird thing about that, and also thinking about you having the brass come in on the record. After UKAEA played at Supersonic they had the procession, which was pretty cool but it felt to me like there was a similar energy that just didn’t quite make it across. Like, it’s almost there, both of them are dragging the audience into being involved in what’s happening and it almost gets outside itself but it didn’t quite go off. There’s a possibility there for Sly to do something with, that could be interesting because you pass out the drums into the crowd and stuff, have you thought about doing it with marching drummers and brass like that?
I’d be interested in doing something like that for sure. We were going to come back to Supersonic, and we talked about doing a kids gig but it never happened for some reason. I do like that sort of idea of a procession or whatever, that’s how it started with Sly. Me and the first drummer Toby playing at a festival as a two piece. It was out near Winchester or somewhere on a farm, Fuck Buttons played and a few others. We played, we set up in the middle of the grass, ran the power out there. There were loads of families around and we got kids to start hitting the bins and then everyone got involved with glass bottles or drums or whatever and then there were a whole load of people playing and we were like ‘this is amazing!’ and then it stuck and carried on. But that’s where that first came from, the kind of feeling of procession and a carnival kind of atmosphere. I haven’t thought about that for a long time but that’s kind of where it comes from yeah.
(((o))): Well, this is the thing, listening to the new record and thinking about it – Sly is a noise band essentially but, when you say that people think some angry man is going to be shouting at you and making you feel bad about the world and it’s not like that is it?
Yeah, I mean there certainly are some elements of that but I think it goes through a transition throughout the set or whatever it does, a kind of flow. We might all be actually shouting or whatever but it goes through the mics or other effects and actually when it comes out the other side it can be euphoric and cathartic and all those other good things. It’s not flat-out negative or abrasive, it’s sort of the opposite. I quite like that people get that from it. Hopefully a few more people will pick it up and we’ll get ready for this next one.
Sly & The Family Drone – Live at Cafe OTO is released Aug 10