Interview – Total Slacker: It’s Like Calculated Messiness


Total Slacker totally has the chops to back up any buzz they get as they proved at their last Glasslands show, but Tucker, Emily, and Ross also have smart and creative minds to add to their credibility. Behind all the humor, irony, and rocking, are three real people who have a lot to say. Remember when you were a kid, and it was totally acceptable to finger paint on your wall and fashion a guitar from a Kleenex box, yard stick, and rubber bands and play it like a Flying V? Total Slacker has somehow managed to hold on to that same creative spirit and balance it with open eyes and awareness. Read on and dig in (Image by Faith Chonko).

Kelly Knapp: How do three slackers come together to make one Total Slacker?

Ross Condon: I sit on Tucker’s shoulders, and Tucker holds Emily so we become one person.

Tucker Roundtree: I think it’s more about a way of trying not to live your life. Like everyone in New York is so obsessed with a career path, and for us, this just seems like a nice alternative. Maybe write some songs, play some shows and hang out and not take things too seriously.

KK: But you guys have gotten a lot of buzz and attention from press, radio, and packed shows. What does success mean to you, and how important is it?

RC: You wanna be able to do what you wanna do and somehow survive off it…which is pretty hard with music, but it’s always nice to have good feedback from people. Success is makin’ buddies, and if people enjoy it that’s good too.

Emily Jane: Whoever lets us continue to do this, and spread our…

RC: Spread our gospel.

TR: It feels really good to know that people are paying attention and listening, and reporting us. I think that’s just it – before playing in this band, I played jazz music, and that was the very reason I stopped playing jazz music, because I didn’t feel like I was speaking to anyone in my generation. I remember this one show I was playing in the West Village, and it was just jazz standards, and all of a sudden I looked out and there were like, three people and they were all like 75 years old. And I was like, what am I doing here? There’s something not right about this. I like doing this because it elicits more change that could be possible to happen.

KK: You guys have been grouped with other recent bands, like Yuck, as being 90s revivalists. What’s your take on that?

TR: I think it was like, in the late 80s, there seemed like a renaissance for psychedelia, and so everyone was into bands of the 60s in the late 80s. So I feel like now, it’s that same thing where it’s the 2000s and everyone’s into things from the early 90s, late 80s, but it’s the same shit.

EJ: It’s the 20-year cycle.

KK: Do you think its nostalgia from growing up in the era?

TR: Oh, absolutely.

RC: People are probably using the same equipment that their parents bought them in the 90s, when they were learning how to play guitar, so it’s similar distortion pedals so the sound is similar. But other than that, it’s kind of just a tag.

TR: Yeah, it’s a weird title. It’s funny because if you listen to Yuck, we don’t sound anything like them. There’s definitely some common ground and principle, but I think we’re a lot more poppier, and we’re also noisier sometimes, and just messy sometimes. We like that – it’s like calculated messiness.

KK: What’s the group dynamic like? Do you each have a particular role, or what’s the creative process like?

RC: It’s pretty fluid.

EJ: Tucker’s the dreamer. Ross is the Cookie Monster.

RC: I don’t even like cookies!

TR: I feel like Emily’s the backbone, and the pulse that keeps everything together. Ross and I are really out there, like just really airy people, and we’re trying to stay grounded with ideas. Emily has a great way of lassoing everything in and making it really grounded. I think if we didn’t have her and it was someone else, it would just be so chaotic.

KK: And Emily, you’re classically trained too, right?

EJ: Yeah, in piano and guitar. Piano until I was 13, and guitar all throughout high school.

KK: Did you want to rebel from that and make music more like what you’re making now?

EJ: No, I actually still really like it. I actually really like the discipline of classical music.

TR: See, that’s what I’m talking about, right there.

EJ: I always liked playing it, but I never listened to it. I listened to punk exclusively when I was younger, so I wanted to be able to play both, and play what I was listening to.

KK: On your album, Thrasher, you guys have a song called “These Condos Don’t Belong.” Does that happen to be a reference to Williamsburg (Brooklyn) real estate at all?

TR: Absolutely.

RC: Everywhere real estate. You walk on the weirdest blocks, and all of a sudden there’s a giant condo that looks exactly like one that’s in Greenpoint, because it’s the same developer…it’s just kind of ruining the city’s architecture with this ugly, modern glass façade.

TR: Yeah, and they’re tearing down old Brownstones…but it’s deeper than that, though. It’s about culture, and a lack thereof. Because of that, it symbolizes a whole upper middle class, freshly graduated from an Ivy League school…not that there’s anything wrong with an Ivy League school, but coming to Brooklyn because that’s like the cool area. Instead of like, five years ago. I’ve been here four years, but four years ago to me, Williamsburg and Bushwick was more like a completely edgy place to be, where people were trying out ideas. And now, it’s really not that way. It’s all about these upper middle class people moving in and changing the landscape, the culture, and the nightlife too. It’s really gross actually, and it’s kind of scary.

KK: Do you guys follow news and politics?

TR: Emily is our official politics purveyor who tells us what’s going on. She knows all about that stuff.

EJ: I used to be more into it than I am now, but you know, I want to know what’s going on.

KK: Are you following the Occupy Wall Street movement?

EJ: Yeah.

KK: Does that kind of thing inspire you, or is it more of a creative block to think about how things are?

TR: Well, we went down to Occupy Wall Street, and I’ve only been there once. At first I was really skeptical, because I thought it was just kind of this big, disorganized thing, and I think it kind of is, but the thing that’s really cool is just the whole idea that everyone wants to assemble and say something about it. I felt really inspired by it, and it’s kind of a thing, like Pandora’s Box. Once you start paying attention and thinking about how things are fucked up, it starts to linger in your mind and affect the way you write songs. We got this new song called “Yuppy” that’s going to be on the second album, and it’s mainly just about how weird our middle class is, and how obsessed it is with things like fabric softener, and corporate demographics teams that study 19-24 year olds and then market that shit at Urban Outfitters. That’s really creepy stuff, so we’re writing about that now and it feels really good.

KK: Tell me more about your new album. When is that coming out?

TR: We don’t really have a date, but it’s gonna have a buttload of new songs. We have like, 14 new songs, and they’re all really up that alley, about what we’re talking about. But other ones, too. Like one called “You’re Too Serious.”

RC: You just have to keep a sense of humor, or else you just get grumpy.

KK: Are you still going to have 90s references sprinkled everywhere?

TR: Sure!

RC: We reference everything.

EJ: But I think there’s less in the new songs.

TR: There is less of that in the new songs, yeah.

RC: Less product placement.

KK: Not as much Atari and original Nintendo.

TR: We gotta say Crystal Clear Pepsi three times at least.

KK: Speaking of songs, what do you think is the secret to a really great guitar riff or solo, or bass line or drum fill? Or what just makes a really great song in general?

TR: As far as the riff is concerned, my favorite person that plays like really eloquent riffs that aren’t even full of virtuosity is Neil Young. Neil Young will play these crappy little one-liner riffs, and they’re crappy. They’re just like one or two notes, but his passion and his personality comes through. Same with Beck. Beck isn’t a really good guitar player, but he writes these songs that his personality comes through, so I think it’s all about who the person is that’s writing them. Like if someone else wrote a Bob Dylan song before he wrote it, it wouldn’t be as good.

EJ: I think spontaneity, too. We’re always talking about how our best songs are the ones that just come out all in one go. The ones we work on for a long time are never as good. Except for “Video Store Rental Guy,” which is like our second song. We worked on that for like, months. But I like that one. But most other ones, if we’ve been working on it for a long time, we just let it go.

RC: I just keep it simple.

KK: Aside from your recorded material, I get the impression that you really hit your peak in the live setting.

TR: I think so too.

KK: Have you had a most amazing show that tops all other shows you’ve played?

RC: It’s up to the audience and stuff, really. Depending on the venue too, like a sterile venue where the stage is really high, it’s awkward, and just puts you in a weird place, where you can’t interact with people.

TR: We prefer this (gesturing around Glasslands). This is perfect for us. This size room, the sound system. The stage isn’t too high off the ground so you feel like you can still jump into the crowd if you want to and smash your guitar. When we played Bowery Ballroom, that’s like an amazing thing. We were really proud we got to do that, I want to do it again, but it’s really intimidating.

EJ: I think we’re getting better at it, though. The first few times were really awkward, like the first time we could all hear each other.

RC: Monitor? What’s that?

TR: I think it’s all those things. The best show that came to my mind specifically was this show that we did here – it was one of my favorite ones of all time when we were a brand new band. It was Beach Fossils and Cassie Ramone’s band, Babies. It was here and it was great because everyone was in really new bands and there was a lot of buzz about it, and the venue was just packed. And it was written up in the New Yorker that week, just a little blurb. There was something really neat about that, and ever since then, for me, the venue’s been tinged a certain way. Like, I feel comfortable here because the first couple shows were really good. And that’s the same way with Shea Stadium and Death by Audio. Because we’ve had really good shows there, I feel like we can do it again.

EJ: I feel like all our best shows have been at Shea Stadium. That place just has a crazy vibe. Every time I go there, something insane is going on. People get really wild.

KK: Last question: what is the future and sound of Total Slacker like?

TR: Whooaaaa

RC: We’re going electronic, baby.

EJ: We’re going soft.

TR: I think it’s just what you said in that sentence, what is the future and sound of Total Slacker. I think the word “future”…it’s the future.

RC: It’s gonna be rowdy.

TR: It’s gonna have Marty McFly, Back to the Future kind of sound. More like Emmett Brown, after he just got his nose job in the future, and he has those power laces, but then he tries to play in a garage band and things work out. And the country heals.