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Two decades is hardly something for a group referring to itself as the Slackers to overlook. Most bands barely survive a quarter of that time—the Beatles didn't even last a decade—making the accomplishment pretty darn impressive.
What's even more impressive than the New York City-based ska outfit celebrating 20 years in this business is that they've never been above the radar. Not even close. Always underground, eschewing huge popularity even in their own niche. Yet somehow, after thousands of shows around the world and 12 quality, lukewarm-selling studio albums, they are still at it. From the infancy of grunge through the dark era of nü metal and the music industry's current lack of direction, the Slackers have blown their horns behind dub bass lines and buoyant melodies all the while.
"It's kind of funny. . . . We never fit in with that whole third-wave style that was pretty big in the mid-'90s, and we've never really even been on the verge of the mainstream," songwriter/sax man Dave Hillyard says. "We just got lucky that we all clicked musically and found an audience that appreciated what we do."
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Leaning more on the rootsy stylings of Toots and the Maytals and Simmer Down-era Bob Marley, the Slackers play a classic blend of jazz-infused ska that remains timeless while the world circles around them. Heavy on musicianship and arrangement, the band's moniker betrays their ambitions. The Slackers aren't a group of plaid-pants-and-bowling-shirt-wearing irony-mongers laughing at themselves with everyone else; these dudes seriously lay it down.
"I think all the kind of goofy irony behind the third wave shifted a lot of people away from ska when that's not even really what the music is all about," Hillyard says. "I like to think that through all the years of playing together, we have definitely created a sound that is distinctively us."
While the band may have never shared the pop charts with upstarts such as Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris, they have kept a steady level of street cred thanks to their workmanlike touring schedule—100-plus gigs annually since the mid-'90s—and dedication to quality songwriting. As one of the earliest signees to Tim Armstrong of Rancid's pet project, Hellcat, an imprint of Epitaph records, they have played with a long, colorful list of touring mates. And after being on the road since the elder George Bush was in office, the experience of hitting stage after stage after long stints in vans and buses is just as enjoyable as ever, only different.
"At first, we slept on a lot of floors and ate a lot of fast food. . . . We don't do that anymore, so it's a lot more pleasant now," Hillyard says. "After being at it for so long, we've all developed strategies that enable us to survive on the road."
The band recently released Stashbox, an anniversary collection of 20 songs picked by the fans. They are no longer signed to Hellcat, instead releasing albums through different labels on a one-off basis. They are also in the midst of a tour. Still, with their members reaching middle age, it's inevitable to wonder when the last go-round will surface.
"People's lives change, and we all definitely have different things going on now than we did back when we started, so we just take it all day by day," Hillyard says. "The music industry is a tricky business, but as long as we find this interesting, I think we'll keep on going."
This article appeared in print as "The Ska-matics of Longevity: How the Slackers belied their name to blow their horns through two decades."