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New York guitarist Earl Slick has recently completed the eleven-track, all-instrumental 'Fist Full of Devils,' will be touring the UK in November and has a memoir project ready for publication. Lisa Torem catches up with him to find out the details.
Brooklyn-born guitarist Earl Slick’s imaginative rhythm and virtuosic work has graced multiple recordings by David Bowie, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and too many more acts to list.
Prior to the pandemic, “Slicky” was known for keeping up with a feverish touring schedule, and on our first interview in 2019 Pennyblackmusic found him performing in the UK with former Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock.
In our second interview, Slick talks about coping with the pandemic in a creative way, preparing for his upcoming UK tour in November and how he created the long-awaited instrumental album, ‘Fist Full of Devils.’
PB: Hi Earl. No one signed up for it, but how have you been handling the pandemic?
ES: It’s been weird. That’s the best way I can describe it. It’s just starting to feel now that there’s some movement in the right direction. When it first hit, I was actually in London with Glen Matlock. I went over there in January of 2020 and I had the whole year booked between Glen and some other things and we did our last gig in early March. That was it. And since then I’ve not done one single, live performance, which is a record.
But I have dates booked for the Fall and I’ve got a new record out, and somehow, I thought it was going to be a full-blown disaster across the board, but I’ve done my book, I’ve got the record done and the tour booked. It’s not too bad.
PB: You add sugar and spice to everybody’s records, but with ‘Fist Full of Devils’ you’re the main ingredient. What’s it like to be in the driver’s seat, assigning parts to other musicians?
ES: The opposite of the sideman thing is what you’re talking about. The funny thing is, that the way I approach these things is the way that I was approached, especially by Bowie because we were not assigned specific notes and parts and a script, let’s say.
David would bring in ideas or completely finished songs. He’d ask us to just bring in whatever we had and put it on the table. And I did the same thing. The main thing was getting the right people in there.
When you get the right guys in there, it’s way easier; guys you’ve worked with before, guys that you know well enough that get it. You bring the material in, you just play through it and let them roll with what it is that they come up with.
PB: You’ve described the album as “acrobatics without a net.” Does that descriptor align with the term you just described?
ES: Yeah. When I write something, I’ve got a vision of sorts in my head, but sometimes these little twists and turns, that you don’t expect to happen, make them even better; that “without a net” part is right.
Instead of going in there in full detail with what I want this thing to sound like, we’ll all discuss it and we’ll start to play it. If it falls into place, great. Sometimes it just doesn’t want to do that, so you put that aside for either later or never.
I like working like that because I don’t work well when somebody has basically laid it out by the numbers. Then it doesn’t lend itself to me being really creative. It doesn’t really serve them well, either.
I co-produced the album with Mario J. McNulty. He engineered, co-produced and mixed. I’ve known Mario, since, God, he was an intern at Looking Glass Studios in New York City. When I met him, he was an assistant engineer on some of the Bowie stuff and on my 2003 ‘Zig Zag’ record, and in time, he became a monster. He’s great.
PB: In regards to the album, are the guys you’re touring with in November in the UK, the same guys on the album?
ES: No, things being what they are, there’s only twelve dates that we booked, and to bring over everybody. And this had nothing to do with the guys, it’s about the costs.
We’re doing small venues, which I prefer to do for a number of reasons. One, there’s something magic about being in a smaller room. Especially, with this pandemic, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. I didn’t want to book the same size rooms as I did last time for the fear of ending up with a half-empty place because people may be scared to come out; I don’t know.
PB: I’ve been at the Half Moon in Putney, and really enjoyed the intimacy of the room. Will you be doing a Q & A during any of the sets?
ES: Not all the dates, because that’s a bit much, but on some of the dates I’m going to do a Q&A somewhere mid-afternoon around soundcheck. Or we may sandwich in one or two where we don’t have a gig, but just that.
PB: The drummer on the album was listed as Lee John. The drumming struck me as unusual for this album. I expected more of a “four-to-the-floor” but the approach here was more stark; industrial. It was a really interesting twist.
ES: It’s the way he plays. That’s my son (laughs). He’s thirty-six years old, right? He approached it a lot differently than, let’s say, a more seasoned drummer, even though he’s done a lot with me. The last few Bowie band tours; that’s been him and the ‘Station to Station’ tour I did with Bernard Fowler, was him, but he doesn’t have those thirty years in like those other guys.
His approach is different. He’s less jaded. That’s no reflection on anybody else because I caught myself doing the jaded thing, as well. I slapped myself; no, don’t do that (laughs).
PB: Was ‘J.W.L.’ a tribute to John Lennon?
ES: I don’t know if you’d call that a tribute. I wrote that with (American writer / producer) Mark Hudson. You know Mark?
ES: Mark is the biggest of Beatles freaks. On the Aerosmith stuff he did on ‘Living on the Edge,’ you can hear especially the Lennon part of the Beatles influence in that. It’s just the way Mark writes. When we finished, I said, “This reeks of Lennon, man”. So that’s where I got the title. The song just sounded like that.
PB: When I think of Lennon, I think of those extended outros and altered chords. The song really brought me back to another era. As for ‘Black,’ I noticed that there was a cool conversation happening between the keys and the electric guitar. I described it in a review as “steamy and cavernous.” How would you describe that conversation?
ES: That’s a pretty good description of that. When I went in to do this record, the only thing, as far as concept went that I thought about, was not writing it from strictly guitar up, and not like electronic keyboards but actual piano, which I figured would give me a little bit more to work with and it did.
Al (Marz) was a really good piano player. On that particular track, I was messing around with this sort of feel on this piece; David Lynch’s guy wrote a lot of music for his early films and there’s a scene in a movie called, ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’, this dark, sleazy, just ominous scene shot in this bar (One Eyed Jacks - Cult TV Ed). The lighting is all soaked in red and there’s this band playing in the background and the vibe is very close to that. When we started writing, all of a sudden that thing hit me, and that’s where the inspiration from that came.
PB: I also felt that the music on this album is very cinematic. Now you just need a movie director and a bunch of money.
ES: That’s really nice to hear because you’re not the first one who has said that. That’s a plus for a number of reasons. One, if somebody wants to use this stuff for a film, that would be great. With your describing it like that, it takes away from a standard guitar instrumental record into another area, which was very helpful writing it with the piano.
I didn’t listen to it for years. I was contacted by the label. It came out of the blue. They asked if I had any unreleased stuff and I said that I actually do, but we need to know what to do with it.
Before I agreed to do anything with the label, I had to be sure I still liked the material, and it just felt like a continuous piece where one goes into the other, as opposed to a bunch of separate songs patchworked together.
PB: ‘Vanishing Point’ was built around a riff that you came up with years earlier. Why here? Also, how did you create those other-worldly effects?
ES: Question one: the riff, luckily, had been recorded on a cassette about thirty years ago with a keyboard friend of mine. We were writing. I was going to do another record, and for whatever reason, we just didn’t finish writing. It was this little, tiny chunk, literally. There wasn’t much there.
I played it for Al. We sat with the piano and I said, ‘Al, I’m going to let you hear that and then take it wherever you feel it needs to go,’ so he came up with all of the chord changes for that over that one little piece that I gave him.
It’s funny how that works. You know, you have these chunks laying around, most of which never see the light of day. I told Al, ‘This is kind of cool. Let’s see what we can do.’
As far as the ‘otherworldly effects,’, that’s just a variety of different echoes and delays on the guitars, and then on the piano, Mario took the actual grand piano and put it through some gadget and came up with that.
PB: ‘Dr. Winston O’ Boogie’ (a pseudonym John Lennon used) has an old-timey feel and ‘One Arm Straight Jacket’ would have reigned supreme in an American juke joint. There’s a ton of interaction among the players. Will you play these tunes live or do you consider them studio tracks?
ES: Oh, yeah. I’m not going to play the entire record live. I’m just putting together a setlist now for the gigs in November. I’m going to have a singer with me because there’s a lot of stuff I want to do, more in my bluesy area and my favorite things, so there will be a vocalist as well as some of the instrumentals from the record. I’m still knocking around which ones to do. I’m probably going to do about three or four of those from the new record.
PB: Both ‘Lost’ and ‘Emerald’ find you shifting gears with fingerstyle guitar. Do you imagine performing those pieces in an intimate setting?
ES: We talked about, somewhere during the show, of breaking it down to acoustics. We’re still months away from rehearsing, but it’s a thought.
I’ve done that. When we did the ‘Station to Station’ revisited tour in 2016 with Bernard Fowler, we did a breakdown to acoustic mid-show for a couple of tunes and it worked quite well. It gives the audience an ear break and it gives me an opportunity to do something which I don’t have an opportunity to do too often.
PB: How long did it take to complete ‘Fist Full of Devils’?
ES: I’d have to make an educated guess because we recorded all of those tracks, as well as a dozen other tracks, with a singer named Michael Halton, which are all mixed and in the can as well. That will be coming out on a future date.
The bulk of the basic tracks took no longer than two weeks, and with whatever overdubs, I think, that it was no longer than four work weeks to do all of the recording.
PB: With instrumental music, do you need to develop an internal story line or are you mostly concerned with the sound?
ES: It’s about the sound. It’s a feeling, when I’m writing these, they make me feel a certain way. As far as story goes, not necessarily, no.
PB: I took a peek at your recent line of signature guitars. They look practical and eye-catching.
ES: We finished the last Bowie tour in 2004 and somewhere, a few years later, I found a couple of road cases that hadn’t been opened for a couple of years. I opened them up and found a bunch of black, leather straps. What am I going to do with all of these things?
I had nothing to do so I started messing around with them and sanding them down, painting them and I came up with a feel for these things. And a friend of mine owns Guitar Fetish, a company which manufactures and distributes my guitars.
I visited him one day and said, ‘Can you have a look at these things’ and he said, ‘Wow. We should manufacture these and get them out’ and so we did. They started to pick up speed and we took the same sort of idea and the aesthetics to the guitars and now it’s started to turn into a nice, little side business.
I feel good about it because they’re inexpensive, but they’re not cheap. They don’t fall apart. They sound good. They play good. Not as good as a Les Paul, or anything like that, but not everyone can afford one of those.
PB: Can you update us about your memoir?
ES: It was a lot more of an undertaking than I thought. Us being locked up, I was in London and my co-author was in New York. We started to Skype each other once a week and we’d already done a lot of interviews before the pandemic hit and so he started putting it together and he would send it to me and I’d have to review it, make corrections and see if it flowed well; we did a couple of rewrites.
Being locked up kind of helped it because it took the urgency away. It wasn’t like we had to adhere to a specific delivery date. There wasn’t one anymore because everybody shut down everything. So, it gave us time to look at it, give it a couple of rewrites, which we might not have been able to do had we been on a tight schedule.
PB: What was the first song that made you pick up your guitar?
ES: I never thought of it in terms of the first song. What gave me the idea was watching The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show, like anyone else in my age group. But what made me pick my guitar up was when I saw The Stones and I bought the first Stones record, and that for some reason, really did hit me.
On the first Stones record, I was picking up a lot of Keith’s blues licks and Chuck Berry licks. That’s what really made me want to play.
PB: Best advice you’ve ever gotten from a fan, ex, grandmother…
ES: Follow through. Always follow through.
ES: This is my least favourite thing on the planet; unsolicited advice. We always have a wonderful way for you to do what you do; most of what I pay zero attention to. If it comes up in a conversation, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’—but otherwise, I pay no mind to it.
PB: Earl, the Apocalypse is approaching. You can only grab a few things.
ES: Oh my God. My Telecaster.
PB: Even if you can’t plug it in.
ES: Don’t matter.
PB: Is there anything else you want to say to your fans?
ES: God. Buy records and tickets. I don’t know. No, I just hope that people who do buy this are happy with this piece of work because some people may want it to be like the last record, where I used a number of guest singers and stuff, but it just wasn’t something I wanted to do at the time I recorded it.
I hope that whoever picks this thing up really enjoys it, which is why I wanted vinyl, too. That was a must, as far as releasing the thing, too, instead of just throwing a bunch of things that would be only for Spotify or only for downloads.
Like a book – I’m a big Stephen King fan, right? I like to get the hard cover book. It’s just not as special to me if it’s all electronic. I’m of the mind, the people, before they’re audio, they’re visual. I remember that when I used to get a record before I even put it on the turntable, I was looking at the photos, looking at the credits; the artwork, the way that the artwork hit me and that would leave me into wanting the record even more, which I think is so true of people from a certain age group and mindset.
If you take a twenty-year-old, they’ve known only the electronic world so to them, it’s probably not as important or maybe it is, and I’ve just not seen it, but for people who are more “old school,” they like the whole package.
PB: Thank you.
Photos by Andrew Twambley
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