Jeff Slate: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview

Feature Photo by Bob Gruen

At one time, he was a punk rocker through and through, and maybe, to a degree. he still is. Though, these days, Jeff Slate’s licks are usually reserved for his muse’s deepest desires. Does that sound like a lot to take in? Yeah, maybe it is. Well, the idea of facing one’s muse is, anyway. But thankfully, Jeff Slate’s latest record, The Last Day of Summer, isn’t so much a matter of being too much to digest as it is about serving up the perfect dosage of musical ecstasy.

As it should be, considering Slate has been banging around the punk and indie scene in the ’80s before setting up shop as one of the more respected writers in the game. “I started off in the early-80s punk scene, in a three-piece band, inspired by The Clash and The Jam, but also The Who and The Kinks and Small Faces,” Slate says. “We had some success pretty quickly – it was easier back then, in some ways, certainly to get paid – and in 18 months we’d flamed out.”

He continues, “I thought I’d be able to recapture that magic pretty easier. In fact, it took me more than a decade. Eventually, I met Pete Townshend, who became my patron for a minute, and that opened a lot of doors for me, obviously.”

Townshend being in your corner is pretty nifty, and to Slate’s point—went a long way. But the biz is a slog; no one knows that better than the man himself. “After banging my head against the wall as a solo artist, with some decent success, mind you, I founded The Badge, who did pretty well, especially in the UK. But when the music business changed in the ’00s, I started supplementing my income as a writer, drawing on the friendships I’d made in the music scene over the years.”

As for how the transition from full-time musician to journalist impacted his music, Slate tells us, “It got me back out there, and by 2010, I was ready to give the solo thing a shot again. I made some records I’m proud of, but I also learned how to be a frontman and really embraced playing live.”

“Fortunately,” he continues. “That coincided with live music becoming a really crucial part of the music business for someone at my level. And just as things seemed to be falling into place, the pandemic hit.”

And that brings us to today, an age where temperamental masses, A.I., TikTok-loving kids, and streaming services that don’t give a damn rule the day. You’d think that any, if not all, of those facts might scare someone off or even leave them jaded. But not Slate, who, after the pandemic, despite the challenges, pushed ahead with vigor.

“Like everyone else,” he says. “All my plans went out the window. But I had been planning to make a record, so I started that project, but really took my time to make it as great as I possibly could, calling on many of the friends I’d made along the way over the years, all of whom were just sitting at home, like me, with not much to do. Eventually, that project developed into The Last Day of Summer.”

After over 40 years in the biz and more than 20 spent as a journalist, regardless of the challenges, Jeff Slate has it dialed in. Sure, he’s respected and enjoying his lot in life to the fullest, as he should. But more importantly, the creativity that led to this latest batch of songs has led to what Slate feels is his best record yet. “The fact that I had all the time I wanted to make it certainly helped,” he says.

“There was no deadline. Without going overboard, I could really consider what I was doing, take some time away from it, and then make any edits that felt necessary. That was a luxury that rarely comes along in this business.”

You’ve been around the block a time or three; what have you learned as far as the music business goes, and how is that reflected in The Last Day of Summer

First, you have to be focused. You can’t do everything, and you shouldn’t do everything. So, do the thing you’re best at—for me, that’s songwriting and singing, though obviously I play a bunch of instruments—and get the best people you can find in your universe to do the rest. Second, and this is related to having focus, you can’t really have another job and have any success in the music business.

Sure, I write, but that’s something I can do on my own time, not like working in a music store or whatever. As for songwriting, learn to edit yourself, and don’t be afraid to get rid of something, no matter how great or profound you think it is or how much it means to you. Also, at my age, get yourself sober, if you aren’t. The guys I know who have, as you say, “been around the block” who have any career at all essentially have to manage themselves these days. You can’t do that effectively if you’re fu*ked up.

Finally, don’t try to follow trends. On one hand, I probably could have made this record at any time in my career. But I certainly didn’t know all the other things I just listed besides not following trends—or didn’t actually follow through on them—so, on the other hand, The Last Day of Summer is a record that I could only have made at this point in my career.

You’re a writer, too. And a good one! Does that impact what you do musically?

Thank you. I’ve been very lucky. I think because I speak the language, or artists see me as a kindred spirit, I guess, I believe I get access and answers that other writers might not. But more importantly, I’ve met and become friends with a lot of amazing artists and been exposed to them in a very intimate way, because of my writing.

Some people may see that as cheating, but I’m confident I’ve earned my seat at the table. And those friendships have absolutely had an impact on my career because they’ve opened doors, of course, but they’ve also inspired me in ways that I could not have conceived if I had been on the outside looking in.

It would be easy to be jaded, given you’ve been on both sides of the fence. But that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Music was my first true love, and the thing I wanted to anchor my life, from the time I was very young. I mean, I was the kid who, at 8, was trying to coerce his friends to put down the football or whatever and learn how to play something or to try to write songs.

At the time, and especially in my early teens, nobody could relate to my drive and ambition. But now I regularly hear from people that I grew up with who are like, “Man, I can’t believe you’re doing what you set out to do.”

More importantly, no matter what I’ve seen over the years, and I’ve seen some incredibly crazy shit, both as a writer and a musician, I never lost that love of the musical universe. I understand that my friends or family or whoever may see it as an incredibly fickle world and one with virtually no security, but then I can’t relate to their worlds, either.

Tell me about your songwriting process, like a fly on the wall’s perspective of constructing a song.

Wow, that’s a really hard one to answer because it can happen in so many ways. I know other artists have said this, but it’s true that sometimes the songs just pour out of you, all in one go, like they already exist and are coming from someplace else. Those are rare, and the trick is to learn that even those often need another look and an edit or two or ten. And then there are songs that come because you’ve learned the craft, and you have an idea for something, and you know how to do it.

But for this album, the process was actually a weird mixture. A few of the songs came pretty quickly and almost fully formed. But because I was planning to make a record when the pandemic hit, I had been putting down little bits of ideas in a notebook and on my phone. When lockdown hit, I just kept doing that. Eventually, I set aside time before we started recording to sit at my kitchen table for a few hours every day to go through all the ideas I’d collected and see what inspired me to take it further or maybe even what bits and pieces fit together.

That wouldn’t have been possible without me having the time I had, and it really served the project incredibly well. Because I chipped away and chipped away, and made demos, and figured out which songs worked and which didn’t, and which needed more work. So, by the time we started recording – much of which was done separately, across several continents – I knew what I wanted the songs to sound like, but I also think it was obvious to the musicians, too. That was really crucial, especially since we weren’t in a room looking at each other.

How do you go about coming up with riffs? Is it off-the-cuff or premeditated?

Again, there’s not one way of coming up with them. Sometimes, the riff comes during the song’s writing—either on the guitar or the bass—and that becomes part of the song’s DNA. Other times, the riff only happens when you get to the studio and the song starts to take shape. In those cases, I think my parts come about more like the way George Harrison or Noel Gallagher create them to suit the song.

But probably the best ones on this record, and my last one, too, came from Earl Slick. He’s like Keith Richards: a riff machine. It’s almost visceral. And it’s amazing to watch because most of the time, his first idea—which usually happens the first time he hears the song—is the one that ends up on the record.

There’s a lot of debate about the function of solos in rock music. How do you view them?

Again, I’m of the George/Noel school. I construct solos that further the song; that are either a counterpoint to or elevate the melody. Slick, again, has a more visceral way of seemingly plucking them from the air, even if that’s only because he’s done it a million times under the watchful eye of people like David Bowie and John Lennon, pretty tough critics.

One thing I’m not a fan of, though, is a solo for a solo’s sake, which doesn’t further the song or do anything other than let the guitar player show off his chops. Those often sound great in the studio and can certainly give you a blueprint to work from life, but they always sort of feel like placeholders for something that will come later to me.

What gear are you leaning on most these days? What goes into those choices?

I recently joked Johnny Marr, who has a pretty vast collection, obviously, that maybe we have a bit of an addiction to collecting gear. He said, “Speak for yourself, mate.” So, I have a lot of gear. In fact, most of the gear I have I acquired so long ago I probably couldn’t replace it, because of the prices now. But I’m always on the hunt for something. And I’m always swapping out what I have around the house from my storage.

That’s an emotional choice, like, “What is going to inspire me this month?” But on the album and live, I lean on my Martin OM-28, my Gretsch Duo Jet, a 1960 Gibson 355, a 50s Les Paul Custom with P90s, a ’65 Epiphone Casino with a Bigsby, and a replica of George Harrison’s “Rocky” that a guitar builder made for me about 20 years ago, for slide.

What places do you like to shop for gear, and what tends to catch your eye/ear?

Again, I always have my eyes open. If I’m passing through a town – whether on tour or in my downtime – I always make a stop in the local guitar shop. And in any of the major cities, I have my favorite places to check out and even a few relationships with people who know what I’m looking at at any given time. And then there’s eBay and Reverb. I know lots of people have had bad luck buying online, but I think if you’re patient and pay real attention to the details – or lack – that you can find amazing gear any online seller.

Which of these songs means the most to you, and why?

On the new record? Wow, that’s hard. They’re all my babies. But I suppose “Heartbreak” is because it was written and recorded first, during the darkest days of the pandemic, and it gave me hope and pointed the way forward for the rest of the record.

And what’s the story behind that song?

C’mon! It’s whatever the listener wants it to be. But I did sit down with a very specific feeling I wanted to evoke and story in mind, and I think I captured it because lots of people have told me it’s as though I was writing about something that had happened to them, and of course, someone saying you’ve achieved that relatability is the greatest compliment of all.

Is this your best record? If it’s not, would you even want to make your best record since you’d have nothing left to chase?

I really think it is. You always love your latest record, but this one does feel special. Of course, I have records from earlier points in my career that I love, or have a profound relationship to, but this one is really built on all the lessons I’ve learned over the years, it has songs I’m incredibly proud of, and the cast of players on it is just amazing.

What advice would you have for anyone looking to get into the music business, whether as a writer or musician?

I’m in an enviable place. I’ve been around long enough that people treat me pretty well and seem to respect me. So, I get asked this a lot. “Work really hard, don’t do anything else, and don’t give up if it’s what you truly love,” is generally what I say. But I have absolutely no idea how you’d break in these days. Given the state of rock ‘n’ roll, I’d love to see more young people get out of their bedrooms and off their keyboards and acoustic guitars and laptops and into garages with their friends.

It’s the only way to learn to collaborate and create at the moment, and it makes you a better player, writer, and even thinker, I think. At least musically. Because there’s nothing like playing live, even if that’s just in a garage with like-minded friends or seeing something you’ve written come to life right there in the moment in ways you couldn’t have expected or imagined or certainly created in the confines of your home studio.

Jeff Slate: The ClassicRockHistory.com Interview article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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