An enduringly baffling and amusing paradox in pop music is the frequency with which bands that have demonstrable influence can themselves remain completely unknown outside that circle of obscurant obsessives with which a great many DM readers are surely familiar. Some of them do, over time, get treated to image-lifts; all but one of the Velvet Underground’s studio albums went out of print despite Lou Reed’s solo success, but now you can hardly find a guitar pop band that doesn’t acknowledge a debt to them, or a rock fan who hasn’t heard them. Despite the best efforts of the Ian Curtis death cult, Joy Division were long a connoisseur-only buy, but today, given the astonishing ubiquity of their t-shirts, one could be forgiven for thinking they were arena-sized rock stars.
But of course, those bands were hugely seminal, and few of the obscure strivers who’ve more modestly shaped the way much of the music we hear sounds today eventually get their flowers in such a big way, if at all. One such band, permanently obscure despite serving as key inspiration to some mighty successful artists, is Philadelphia’s Executive Slacks. In the early ‘80s, Ex Slacks (say it out loud and giggle an 8th grade giggle) fused the proto-industrialisms of early Cabaret Voltaire to the archly gloomy funk of Tuxedomoon and the primitive, slashing guitars of No-Wave to hit on a sound that, by decade’s end, would be EVERYWHERE, a sound that served as an influence on electro-industrial and evolved into the genre that made actual rock stars of Ministry and Nine Inch Nails. But when the major labels came sniffing around, the Slacks came apart at the seams (only time I’ll do something like that, I swear), and so they remain a footnote. A second version of the band existed from 1987-1990, but their tribal hard-rock was never as hair-raisingly hectic and unhinged as the original band.
A new compilation called The Complete Recordings 1982-1986, aims to slot the Slacks back into their genre’s history. It contains—like it says on the cover—everything known to exist by the band’s first and best lineup, the self-titled debut E.P. (which JUST got a vinyl reissue last year), assorted singles, live material, and the two LPs, Nausea, which was produced by Youth of Killing Joke, and Fire & Ice. Which all in all ain’t a shabby discography for a band that started as an art-school Dadaist lark. Founder Matt Marello, now a visual artist in NYC, was kind enough to take the time to tell DM about the band’s foundations in an email exchange this week:
All three of us went to the Philadelphia College of Art. I suppose sound was being used by the early bands like a painter would use color and a brush. I know that is how John and I started out. We would use tape loops and found sounds or anything lying around the house that would emit a sound. Even the lyrics of our early songs were found. For instance, “Thirty Years” was taken from an advertisement in a magazine for a window replacement company. They had over 30 years experience. We were very interested in the banal at the time. Kind of like Pop Art I suppose. More sound collage than songs per se, but over time as we began to perform live we structured the songs in a more traditional way, but the spirit of sound collage was always at its heart.
The name Executive Slacks was chosen for several reasons. First - it fell within the realm of the banal and the pop-art aesthetic we were after. The name was taken from a magazine advertisement for mail-order pants: 3 for $9.99 (if memory serves me well). We liked the dichotomy between the idea of the executive and the pathetic cheapness of the product. Secondly, the two words create an internal contradiction - if you read the word “slacks” as meaning “lazy.” And thirdly, we liked the contraction of Executive Slacks to Ex Slacks, the chocolate laxative.
Though the band resolutely will not reunite, The Complete Recordings 1982-1986 may not, despite its title, be the last we’ll hear. Marello again:
We have been asked over and over again to re-form and play live. For many years we were asked to play a festival in Belgium - airfare, hotels, the whole nine yards included- but we gracefully declined each time. They finally gave up a few years ago. The band members are scattered now - John is in Boston, I am in New York, and Albert is in Philly. There is no way we could get together to rehearse let alone travel to Europe. Which is, in a way, too bad because I think our live performances were actually much better than our recorded material. But I recently discovered in an old box a cache of moldy cassette tapes with lots of proto-ExSlacks material and some recordings of band rehearsals. Most of it is pretty bad - either poorly recorded or songs so early in the process of development that they are painful to listen to. But there are several impressive recordings - technically not the Slacks - with various guest musicians including some tracks with killer saxaphone. We are speaking with an unnamed label right now about the possibility of releasing some of this material. Most of it is pretty damn good. I hope it is eventually released.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
Tuxedomoon were postpunk during the punk era
‘The Game is Over’: Previously unreleased Ministry song from 1983