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The Slackers bring more than feel-good music to Victoria Ska and Reggae Festival

With 1000s of performances under their belt, the American ska band are still keeping things fresh and political
The Slackers perform at Ska and Reggae 25th Anniversary Festival on June 21, with ska legends The Suicide Machines, The Creepshow and more. (Courtesy Ska and Reggae Festival)

As the Ska and Reggae Festival’s celebrates a milestone in June with their 25th anniversary, The Slacker’s will get the honour of playing at the event for the fourth time.

For a 33-year-old band who are known as true students of old school ska (Edmonton Sun) and hailed as the ska stalwarts who keep on going (Washington Post), they’ve seen thousands of stages in their time. But saxophonist Dave Hillyard has good things to say about Victoria’s festival.

“Victoria is like one of those ends of the earth before you jump into the ocean kind of places, you know? So it’s nice. It’s a really genial vibe. And I think also, too, that they’ve been building an actual community around Ska and Reggae. For a place where there isn’t really that many people to bring in, to make such a large festival, it’s really quite a testament that they create their following.”

The Slackers formed in Manhattan, New York in 1991, and have since released 15 albums and countless singles. Notably, their second album, Redlight (1997), was part of the New York City ska revival and ranked seventh in Billboard editor Carrie Bell’s The Year in Music (1997) list. The album’s track with the same name charted at number 116 that year in CMJ Radio Top 200. Having been around for this long, Hillyard said they are always on the hunt for how to keep things interesting and the content fresh, including trying to play new sets each time they’re on stage.

“We’ve got about like 200 songs. I think some of our fans get excited, but oh, what are they going to do next? But I think at this point, a song doesn’t have to have a certain style. You’re always searching for something new, and that’s what keeps us interested in it.”

Drawing on the vibrant roots of Jamaican ska and reggae, The Slackers have always leaned into their own American influence.

“We’re very aware that we all grew up in the States, and we did things with the New York accent,” Hillyard said. “Vic’s singing in his actual accent, it makes it sound American right off the bat. So, we write stuff that affects our lives. We’re not writing about imaginary stuff that we’ve never lived.”

The group’s most recent track, Kill You, tackles American gun culture.

“We have lots of commentary on contemporary politics,” Hillyard said. “We’ve always had politics in our brain, and our role models, people like Joe Strummer from The Clash, or Bob Marley, saw something, they wrote about it … I think just to say, ‘Oh, it’s just about relaxing and feeling good’ is to take music out of life … I like to think it’s healing, but it can also be news, or it can be storytelling. I don’t want music to be about nothing. It’s part of society.”

The Slackers. (Courtesy Ska and Reggae Festival)

While the band is now a pillar for many up-and-coming musicians, including those who will be playing at Ska Fest, Hillyard recalls how his own influences shaped him.

“I’ve always listened to Reggae since I was a kid because my dad listened to Eclipse and Bob Marley and stuff like that.

“And I guess you learn stuff from the elders. I was lucky that we had people like Glen Adams from the Upsetters, and Roland Alphonso and Tommy McCook from the Skatalites that were around. Larry McDonald, the percussionist, was around. So, as I was learning how to play it, there were people to guide me.”

While he doesn’t know how the genre will evolve, Hillyard knows The Slackers have their own path carved and show no signs of stopping soon with a new single set to come out in September and about 12 other songs in the works.

“All I know is usually when things are popular, it’s bad for me. We’re on our own trajectory,” Hillyard said. “We’ve had so many long-term supporters over the years. That’s the main thing – the ups and downs of the larger world don’t matter as much because we’ve been working on building a community.”

Building up a fan base comes from “a lot of a lot of a lot of touring” and connecting with fans.

“That was one of the things that came out of the pandemic was just being online, being in touch with people … It felt like in some ways I was closer to the fans, maybe just because we had a moment to talk to each other.”

One of the live streams they did was the Ska and Reggae Broadcast System stream in August 2020.

As they gear up for their this time in-person performance at the Ska and Reggae Festival at the Victoria Curling Club on June 21, Hillyard expresses his excitement for reconnecting with fans and immersing himself in the vibrant music scene of Victoria.

“I’m looking forward to seeing you guys. I always enjoy being in Victoria.”

READ ALSO: Music festivals galore in Victoria this summer

Sam Duerksen

About the Author: Sam Duerksen

Since moving to Victoria from Winnipeg in 2020, I’ve worked in communications for non-profits and arts organizations.
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