INTERVIEW: Slug | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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SLUG is Ian Black’s surreal venture into writing, recording and producing, and his new album, HiggledyPiggledy, comes with the backing of previous co-band members Peter and David Brewis from Field Music. Establishing himself as the Dalí of North East music, Black embraces the potential of rough musical edges brought on by spontaneous inspiration and dips to the edges of his sanity by trudging through the tumultuous territory of sonic experimentation. Due to be released on 18th April via Memphis Industries, HiggledyPiggledy gives itself license to be a patchwork of musical snapshots from various eras, rewarding us with sounds that fascinate, surprise and impress.

Following on from his 2013 debut album RIPE, also made in collaboration with the Brewis brothers, Black decided to take on the challenge of producing a solo album, obliging himself to master the ins and outs of recording, within the tight span of five months. He admits that he had to build up a fake sort of confidence: “Because you are never as good as you think you are,” he says, “and that’s good, because it means you always have to overstretch yourself and that’s when you come up with new ideas and become a better musician, and possibly songwriter.” 

Open-minded and bravely overextending himself, he decided to intensify the pressure of meeting his deadline by relying on chance during his first recording session in the hopes of creating a strangely enticing combination of art pop and prog rock. “I thought what I’m going to do is turn up with absolutely nothing and just see what happens in the studio and that would add to a spontaneous feel…kind of like how David Bowie turned up to record Heroes with no lyrics.”

Wanting to take a step away from the melodically textured RIPE, Black turns the songwriting process upside down, starting with drums as if they were human voices and having the percussion dominate the melody. The process, instead of it being as ‘fun’ as he imagined it would be, almost pushed him to the brink of madness. It was the album’s opening song and first single, No Heavy Petting (referring to a do’s and don’t’s sign at Black’s local swimming-pool) that pulled him through when he was close to giving up. What was first intended to be a “sexy song”, No Heavy Petting melted into a tongue-in-the-cheek reflection on the sexualisation of TV and is a perfect example of Black’s peculiar approach, in which he marries overbearing rhythms, reminiscent of Led Zeppelin and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, to a droning violin and Moog synthesizer.

Peculiarity and a tasteful love of mockery, inspired by Dadaesque views of art and society as is evident in SLUG’s wondrous live performances, are at the forefront of his musical persona. It is no mean feat for songwriters to pull themselves in as many directions as Black has done, creating a unique sound that is at once a contemporary re-imagining of rock classics and a reflection of lesser-known avant-garde bands. He does this while weaving in hints of jazz and “tales from the pub” – conversations reflecting people’s frustration linked to political situations.

It is no mean feat for songwriters to pull themselves in as many directions as Black has done

Each song on the album alternately pokes fun at our society’s obsession with wealth, power and sex. Basic Aggression is driven by a sense of toxic masculinity that fuels the contagious spread of people’s anger at the way things are, a seething unhappiness that becomes apparent during political shifts like Brexit. Lyrically more so than in the forceful nature of the music, he references Blur’s comical style, as he parodies the right-wing opinions of locals in his hometown of Sunderland.

With the same violent dynamic shifts and insistent drums as Basic Aggression, Black takes the avant-garde tones of The Residents and blends them with 70s post-punk band Punishment of Luxury in You Don’t Have To Wake Up, a playful look at love songs where men sing about watching their girlfriends sleep. In Tongue and Arbitrary Lessons In Love, Black moves away from the punchy crunch of percussion to more melodic waters while continuing to exaggerate and intermix a range of rock styles, adding rich soundscapes such as those found in the Holy Mountain soundtrack by Don Cherry and Masahiko Sato’s OST for Belladona.

Whereas Tongue is another risky convergence of musical influences, the forlorn sublimity of Arbitrary Lessons In Customs instantly sets itself apart from the rest of the tracks on the album. “As you get older and you fall out with some people,” Black explains, “you realise that you still love them in a way, but you’ll probably never speak to them again.” Inspired by John Carpenter’s music and conducted by synthesizers that sound like a rushing stream of violins, the personal honesty of the song makes it resonate with any listener.

HiggledyPiggledy attests to Black’s frank, humble approach to songwriting, an approach that is coupled with self-criticism and a realisation that if you don’t pull your own work to pieces, sculpting it to perfection, it will be too late when other people start doing it for you. Believing that you have to be your own worst critic has made him do more than just produce an album, but produce an exceptional one that has secret layers to unfold on each new listening as much for himself as for his fans.

It might have taken longer than five months to define and refine SLUG’s merrily disruptive entry into the world through HiggledyPiggledy, but it is impossible not to appreciate Ian Black’s risky tumble into a musical rabbit hole, where each song veers back and forth between arresting disorder and seamless unity.

SLUG release HiggledyPiggledy on 13th April via Memphis Industries. SLUG play The Cluny, Newcastle on Wednesday 2nd May.


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