COVER

Tom Anselmi joins his band­mates to ex­plain why Slow has re­turned af­ter three decades to do it one more time with feel­ing.

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - > BY ADRIAN MACK

I’m bar­relling down Van­cou­ver’s East 2nd Av­enue lis­ten­ing to the first new mu­sic Slow has made in 31 years.

The song is called “The As­phalt Plane”, and even though it was recorded in a base­ment on an iphone, this driv­ing, al­chem­i­cal wed­ding of melody, mys­tery, and sweet Stooges­like vi­o­lence sounds un­mis­tak­ably like Slow. It’s fe­ro­cious. I want to pee my pants.

When I con­vey this in­for­ma­tion a few days later in sep­a­rate calls to Sub Pop pres­i­dent Jonathan Pone­man and El­liott Le­fko of mam­moth, L.A.– based con­cert pro­mot­ers Gold­en­voice, they both re­spond in ex­actly the same way: with a rev­er­ent “Wow”.

To clar­ify: re­ceiv­ing a field re­port on the de­vel­op­ing re­union of a fa­bled Van­cou­ver band that ex­isted for less than three years in the ’80s has prompted two of the heav­i­est hit­ters in the U.S. mu­sic in­dus­try to both lose their shit just a lit­tle bit. Ru­mours float­ing across Van­cou­ver have thrown the lo­cal seis­mo­graph into a sim­i­larly twitchy con­di­tion. And now, well—it’s of­fi­cial. Slow has re­turned, and the band wants to talk.

“Never imag­ined it in a mil­lion years. Never,” says my driver, Tom Anselmi, who also hap­pens to be the man on the car stereo yowl­ing the lyrics to “The As­phalt Plane”. Af­ter some 30-and-a-half years of say­ing “ab­so­lutely no” to a Slow re­union, he’s as sur­prised as any­one—mostly his band­mates—that Tom Anselmi has fi­nally said yes to a Slow re­union.

“There was no way that I was in­ter­ested in do­ing that,” he con­tin­ues. “I mean, I just…was…not…in­ter­ested.”

A lit­tle later, the five mem­bers of Slow—vo­cal­ist Anselmi, gui­tarists Chris­tian Thor­vald­son and Ziggy Sig­mund, bas­sist Stephen Hamm, and drum­mer Terry Rus­sell—are hang­ing in the back­yard of a house in deep East Van, crack­ing each other up with half-re­mem­bered sto­ries, bick­er­ing ami­ably over de­tails, and try­ing to get their heads around this most un­likely of sec­ond acts.

“I think we’re all pretty sur­prised that it’s hap­pen­ing,” says Hamm, who’s only half jok­ing when he de­scribes Slow, at the time of its breakup in 1986, and with stiff com­pe­ti­tion com­ing from Glass Tiger, Luba, and Corey Hart, as “the big­gest thing in Canada”.

That un­timely flame-out came af­ter a cat­a­strophic cross-coun­try tour, booked on the heels of the band’s defin­ing mo­ment, when Slow both in­au­gu­rated and de­stroyed the Fes­ti­val of In­de­pen­dent Record­ing Artists at Expo 86—on their singer’s 19th birth­day, no less—with a hope­lessly inebriated dis­play of teenage nu­dity and, as leg­end has it, “Sieg Heil” s de­liv­ered to Ben­nett and Van­der Zalm, the twin Bills be­hind Expo’s bloated trib­ute to up­wardly mo­bile wealth.

“Oh, it was nuts,” Zulu Records head Grant Mcdon­agh will later tell the Straight. “It was a mess of a show but a phe­nom­e­nal art piece. They fucked ev­ery­thing up, but it was funny as hell. That’s the thing about Slow. They were al­ways en­ter­tain­ing.”

REACHED IN NEW YORK, Pone­man is ap­par­ently still kick­ing him­self for not mak­ing the trip from Seat­tle to see one of his favourite bands at its most ill-tem­pered, lament­ing: “Be­cause we all love to wit­ness his­tory, right?” For the band, “his­tory” meant the avid bless­ing of the leg­endary Creem magazine (“Why in tar­na­tion they don’t rule this stink-ball of a planet is be­yond me!”), but also the threat of in­de­cency charges. It also meant na­tional in­famy.

“We’d just ru­ined Expo, we’re head­line news, we’ve got an in­de­pen­dent video on heavy ro­ta­tion on Much­mu­sic [“Have Not Been the Same”]—we’re, like, fa­mous, kind of,” Anselmi con­tin­ues, about the doomed tour that fol­lowed. “In Van­cou­ver we’re just repro­bates. We go to Toronto and peo­ple think we’re rock stars or some­thing.”

Road sto­ries of Olympian teenage deca­dence and mag­nif­i­cent stu­pid­ity duly spill out in a wild blur, most of them re­lated to ei­ther drugs, booze, vi­o­lence, driv­ing with­out a li­cence, or try­ing to cross the bor­der with a Video­mat­ica mem­ber­ship card for ID. We can re­port that on at least one oc­ca­sion there was sex in a man­sion with a Sears cat­a­logue model. When gui­tarist Ziggy Sig­mund fin­ishes telling us about the bouncer who broke his arm in Hamil­ton, Hamm pipes up: “And you had syphilis too, didn’t you?”

“I didn’t have syphilis, fuck you,” Sig­mund shoots back. “I had gon­or­rhea.”

Slow was young, fas­ci­nat­ing, beau­ti­ful, and dan­ger­ously smart, with the chops and the mu­si­cal in­tel­li­gence to back up its end­less naughty-boy shit. Anselmi refers to their “prankster men­tal­ity”, but here was the per­fect pic­ture of reck­less an­gelic in­so­lence, the kind that might have in­spired an ad­mir­ing chap­ter in Greil Mar­cus’s Lip­stick Traces, if he’d ever heard of them. Some­times the au­di­ence didn’t know what was in store. Pulling up to one club, the band dis­cov­ered it was billed on the mar­quee as “Flow”.

“So we were like, ‘Fuck them,’ ” says the singer. “We never thought about the peo­ple that paid money to come see us. ‘ They got our name wrong, so we’re do­ing Flow tonight, and this is Flow’—which was, of course, some un­godly noise that no one would ever want to lis­ten to.” That ad­ven­ture ended with gui­tarist Thor­vald­son get­ting shit­kicked by Toronto band Bun­cho­fuckin­goofs.

It all came to­gether for at least one knock­out show with their friends Soul Asy­lum at Toronto’s RPM Club. Af­ter that, the tour ground to its ig­no­min­ious end in ru­ral Que­bec with the pen­ni­less band camp­ing on the side of the road try­ing to eat from a field of corn sign­posted “not for hu­man con­sump­tion”. (Hamm nos­tal­gi­cally refers to it as “cow corn”.)

By that point, the ’69 Econo­line van they’d cadged from drum­mer Rus­sell’s par­ents had lost its muf­fler, ex­haust sys­tem, starter, and clutch. Won­ders Hamm, idly, “Didn’t some­one hotwire a steam­roller? I re­mem­ber at one point wak­ing up in the mid­dle of the night and there was one of those big steam­rolling ma­chines driv­ing by and one of you guys had hotwired it.”

Af­ter re­turn­ing to Van­cou­ver, Slow played one last show at the Town Pump be­fore Anselmi called it quits.

“THERE WERE LOST op­por­tu­ni­ties there,” re­marks Grant Mcdon­agh, three decades later. “But they made waves. They only played Seat­tle once, I be­lieve, but man, they made a dif­fer­ence.” In re­al­ity, Slow played in Seat­tle at least half a dozen times, and the band’s im­pact on what would emerge roughly three years later as grunge has be­come some­thing of a tru­ism.

“We didn’t go back to our grunge lab­o­ra­tory and go, ‘Gee, flan­nel!’ ” says Pone­man, who would know. “But were Slow in­flu­en­tial? Ab­so­lutely. When I was com­ing up in the early and mid’80s, ev­ery­body went to ev­ery good show, and when­ever Slow came to Seat­tle, they put on a great show.”

Un­de­ni­ably, with its first sin­gle, “I Broke the Cir­cle”, and the as­ton­ish­ing EP that fol­lowed, Against the Glass, Slow had the at­ten­tion of any­one who mat­tered. Mcdon­agh fi­nanced and re­leased both record­ings in 1985 af­ter an ex­cited Anselmi handed him a demo re­jected by CITR for “sound­ing like Goddo”. He glommed im­me­di­ately onto a sound and vi­sion de­fi­antly at odds with the grind­ing or­tho­dox­ies of punk.

“The dif­fer­ence,” ex­plains McDon­agh, amazed that a bunch of teenagers could ar­rive so fully formed, “was they loved soul mu­sic, they loved jazz, they loved Stax. ”

In­deed, from the riv­et­ing first bars of “Have Not Been the Same”, Against the Glass still sounds stag­ger­ingly orig­i­nal; like Alice Cooper do­ing the Stones do­ing the most dis­so­lute R&B you’ve ever heard, pow­ered into delir­ium by Anselmi’s in­com­pa­ra­ble bel­low. On a good night, which was most nights, “they were phe­nom­e­nal, a killer live band with just an in­cred­i­ble un­der­ground buzz,” says Mcdon­agh.

He has done his bit for the re­union, hand­ing the mas­ter tapes from both ses­sions to Toronto’s Artof­fact Records for a just-re­leased, deluxe reis­sue of Against the Glass that also in­cludes both “I Broke the Cir­cle” and its Bside, “Black Is Black”.

It was an Instagram ac­count an­nounc­ing the rere­lease that smoked out Pone­man, who sent a mes­sage plead­ing: “Please say you’ve got the re­union bug.” An in­trigued but still skep­ti­cal Anselmi sub­se­quently ap­proached his old friend Le­fko, the Cana­dian-born pro­moter who’d booked Slow into Toronto’s RPM Club back in ’86 and let the band crash at his apart­ment for a month.

Le­fko’s clients over the years have in­cluded Leonard Co­hen and Nick Cave, so it’s not like he needed to do this, but he sub­se­quently crunched the num­bers and per­suaded Anselmi that a Slow re­union was not only vi­able, but maybe even prof­itable.

“I just thought they were so good,” he says. “I al­ways looked at them as em­body­ing the great spirit of rock. Just al­ways fly­ing that flag for rock and liv­ing it all the time.”

Slow in 2017 looks am­ply pre­pared, once again, to fly the flag and live it all the time. What was ini­tially en­vi­sioned as a short re­union tour has evolved into a longer-term project that be­gins with a de­but show at the Fox Cabaret on De­cem­ber 2 fol­lowed by stu­dio time with Dave “Rave” Ogilvie.

The tim­ing is ge­nius. As the sun sets be­hind the sky­line on this beau­ti­ful Van­cou­ver fall day, sto­ries are traded about one of Slow’s leg­endary punk res­i­dences, “the Ter­ri­ble House of Sick­ness”, where bath­tub speed was be­ing run out of one door and fenced goods out of an­other, and where Thor­vald­son re­calls peer­ing up from his gui­tar dur­ing prac­tice one day to see armed cops burst­ing into the liv­ing room. Drum­mer Rus­sell de­scribes the “run­ning tally in the Me­ter Achiev­ers Club”, which re­quired oc­cu­pants to vomit from the porch onto the gas me­ter.

Only a stone’s throw on Win­der­mere Street from where we’re all sit­ting, the Ter­ri­ble House of Sick­ness is “prob­a­bly worth $3.5 mil­lion now”, re­marks Anselmi, darkly. In some ways, it feels in­evitable that the band that ex­posed Expo in a his­toric act of Dadaist piss-tak­ing has re­turned to Van­cou­ver at this spe­cific mo­ment, like earth­quake light­ning pro­duced by the city’s col­lec­tive psy­chic stress.

ANSELMI CHARACTERIZES EXPO

as “a man­i­fes­ta­tion of ev­ery­thing that was ugly, of the spec­ta­cle and the lie, the be­gin­ning of ‘World Class City’ ”, while Hamm asks how any­thing, let alone a band, can take root in a Van­cou­ver that’s since be­come the so-called most liv­able city in the world to no­body ex­cept the rich.

“We were on wel­fare and we’d rent a ware­house for, like, noth­ing,” he says. “If you gotta go to a re­hearsal space and pay $75 to prac­tice for three hours?” He shakes his head, sadly. “Now you gotta make your art be­tween 7 and 9.”

“And you gotta have three jobs to af­ford that,” adds Anselmi.

Says Rus­sell, rather suc­cinctly: “Our base is a lot less pla­cated than it was dur­ing the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

No­body’s turn­ing back the clock, of course, but for any­one feel­ing some dis­may over what looks like a decades-long ef­fort to turn Van­cou­ver into the play­thing of global cap­i­tal, then maybe these guys can de­liver a savoury “Told you so.” And if that all sounds a lit­tle high-minded, Anselmi is ready to get a bit more per­sonal about his very sud­den drive to con­jure high-qual­ity chaos all over again.

“At the end of the day,” he be­gins, “it’s not about fuckin’ so­ci­ety, or Van­cou­ver, or Canada, or the U. S., or any of it. It’s about the fact that I need some time to get fuckin’ lost and have the ex­pe­ri­ence of not think­ing about any­thing, and to just be in the mo­ment. And noth­ing cre­ates that kind of vis­ceral ex­pe­ri­ence, for me, like singing rock ’n’ roll.”

Af­ter sit­ting qui­etly for the most part, Thor­vald­son of­fers his own poignant coda. “I think it was a re­ally great band,” he says, softly, “and per­son­ally it’s just al­ways been a huge re­gret that it didn’t go fur­ther than it did. I’ve re­gret­ted it enor­mously. So, I would have been ready to do it any­time in the last—how long has it been? Thirty years? I would have jumped at it.”

And with that, Slow de­scends to the base­ment and piles straight into “Against the Glass”. There isn’t even a count-in. It just seems to hap­pen, and it sounds mon­strous, like Van­cou­ver eat­ing it­self alive in 2017, or maybe a hotwired steam­roller fu­elled by cow corn. Mostly it sounds like Slow.

Slow, in its grunge-pre­fig­ur­ing, Expo-de­stroy­ing hey­day. June Boe photo.

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