The Return of Slow, Canada's Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band
Homelessness, debauchery, failed record deals and a scene that burst into prominence just as they ended derailed Vancouver band Slow. Thirty years later, they're making an unlikely return
Published Apr 30, 2018Summer, 1986. A bored kid turns on MuchMusic in hopes of seeing something interesting. The best he can hope for lately is R.E.M. or one of those hilarious Neil Young videos. After sitting through some lame CanCon, he's about to change the channel when a guitar riff slashes through the television's shitty mono speaker, temporarily staying the kid's itchy thumb hovering over the remote. The camera pulls back to show five guys who look like they have no business being in a band together, playing in what appears to be a burned-out garage.
But the singer sure looks like he knows what he's doing. He's barefoot, with a mop of blonde curls draped over his eyes, and a T-shirt bearing what looks like an image of Jesus partly visible under a flannel shirt and leather jacket. He defiantly stares down the camera, letting the band build the funky metallic riff behind him — an extra bar or two for good measure. Finding his moment, the singer unleashes a howl of tormented poetry before everything blasts off into the stratosphere with the chorus, "And I have not been the same!" The kid watching this doesn't need to hear any more to know this is the greatest rock'n'roll song ever spawned from the pits of teen angst. From then on, things indeed will not be the same.
The video's ID tells the kid that the band are named Slow, and the song has been released through something called Zulu Records. For at least the next year, he devours any scrap of information he can track down about the band. His local records stores don't sell their music, but a small article in Chart Magazine tells him they are from Vancouver and caused a riot at Expo 86 when the singer stripped naked during a performance.
The next thing the kid learns, not long after, is that it's all over. Slow are no more, leaving behind just an EP, a single and tales of debauched live shows passed among those building Canada's nascent indie-rock underground.
In short order, a wave of bands from Seattle seem to embody everything Slow captured both sonically and visually in "Have Not Been the Same," making it somehow appropriate that the group disappeared before their music could be tagged with such an inelegant descriptor as "grunge."
It was a perfect legacy; the mere thought of Slow ever doing anything again felt not only unnecessary but sacrilegious. Yet, 30 years later, here they are, embarking on the most unlikely of reunions, with hometown shows kicking it off in preparation for a new recording. The thing is, with everything the five members have been through since Slow's big bang, what they do next could in all likelihood be just as awe-inspiring in a much different way.
"It's 18 minutes of music," Slow's vocalist Tom Anselmi says when reflecting upon the band's recorded output: the single "I Broke the Circle" and the Against the Glass EP. The legend surrounding Slow grew, in part, because of Anselmi's resistance toward all reissue offers. Over the years, a track might occasionally slip out on a compilation, but it wasn't until earlier in 2017 that Anselmi agreed to a proposal by Toronto's Artoffact Records — a label he'd worked with on a previous reissue project — to finally bring Slow into the 21st century. You can now get everything they did, in every format, through the group's Bandcamp page, something sure to generate mixed emotions among the many who spent years crate-digging and raiding campus radio station libraries in search of the original vinyl.
Yes, it is just 18 minutes of music, but what Anselmi came to accept was that it's as important now as it was then, perhaps even more so. "What we were doing at the beginning was already out of fashion then," he tells Exclaim! "But when you look at things today, the world is a dead zone when it comes to rock'n'roll. It's like, Iggy Pop couldn't get arrested in '72, and now he can't get arrested at age 72. And as far as Canada goes, it's produced very few great, unhinged rock'n'roll bands. I mean, if you're a 20-year-old nowadays with something to say, are you going to form a rock band? I don't think so. The idea for us became: 'We could put on a real rock show, and we'd be the only ones doing it.'"
It didn't take much more persuasion than that to get the other members back on board. Anselmi and guitarist Christian Thorvaldson have been friends since age 13, and their musical bond remains as telekinetic as ever. Following Slow's late '80s implosion, the pair formed Copyright, which for a brief, glorious period, seemed to fulfill Slow's promise, enough (at least) to earn a deal with the David Geffen Company at the same time as Nirvana.
But their unwavering stance regarding artistic freedom — not to mention some excessive exploits while recording their debut album in L.A. with Smiths producer John Porter — quickly made them pariahs at the label; Geffen personally shunned the group for their insistence on simply using the copyright symbol as their name. (The copyright symbol, for one, can't be copyrighted as a band name.)
Two subsequent albums likewise seemed beyond the scope of major-label marketers used to less challenging fare, forcing Copyright to sadly concede defeat. Thorvaldson, widely regarded by his peers as one of the most innovative guitarists in Canada, would later join the Matthew Good Band. Slow's rhythm section, bassist Stephen Hamm and drummer Terry Russell, continued in a more sludgy direction as the core of Tankhog, eventually reconnecting with Slow's other guitarist David "Ziggy" Sigmund to provide extra muscle. Prior to that, Sigmund helped form the Scramblers, and later joined Econoline Crush, just as they launched into national prominence with their platinum-selling second album The Devil You Know. Hamm went on to create a separate, absurdist performance art persona for himself and joined Nardwuar in the Evaporators, but that's a whole other story.
"The likelihood of this reunion happening was astronomically impossible," Sigmund says. "First of all, the fact that all of us are still alive is pretty amazing. In my case, I'd pretty much forgotten about Slow ten years ago when I was living in L.A. Then I had a serious car accident that really fucked up my spine, although I could still play guitar. My wife brought me back to Vancouver, but we split up soon after that. I was really at the lowest point in my life — homeless, in a lot of pain, thinking about killing myself — when one day Tom calls and says, 'This sounds crazy, but I think we should put Slow back together.'"
Sigmund goes on to describe their first basement jam session in decades as something close to an out-of-body experience, a feeling Thorvaldson shares. "It was a joyful noise, definitely," he says. "At first, there were thoughts that we could get back together, do a few gigs and make a pile of money. But once we started actually playing, we immediately realized that if we did this right, it could be a whole lot more."
Thorvaldson continues, "When you're young and you find the perfect chemistry with something, you assume every experience you have will be like that. It's like finding a nugget on your first day panning for gold. Of course, you soon learn that's not how things happen. So all of us understand that right now is our opportunity to make that chemistry work for us again, and that's our total focus."
For Anselmi, the notion of a Slow reunion was also in line with his efforts to rehabilitate Vancouver's notoriously vanishing live music scene. In recent years, he's spearheaded the revamping of venues such as the Waldorf Hotel, the Fox Cabaret and the Railway Club, putting together unique events that crossed over many artistic boundaries.
Once the decision was made to do the reissue as an aesthetically attractive new package, Anselmi started viewing Slow's artistic value from a different perspective. "I guess I began thinking about how an artist like Nick Cave has evolved," Anselmi says. "I'd seen him in the '80s when he would put on an incredible show, but it was really raw and musically chaotic. Seeing him now, the music is still coming from that same confrontational place, but with so much more control. I've seen grown men weep at his shows. You can't achieve something like that by faking it, and I've never been good at faking it."
On a more practical level, Anselmi adds that plans came more clearly into focus when he received an offer of support from Elliott Lefko, now Vice President of L.A. concert promoters Goldenvoice, but who, in his early days booking shows in Toronto, brought Slow east for the first time, based solely on seeing the video for "Have Not Been The Same."
While official announcements may not be made, there are significant recording and touring offers being discussed. It's all a further testament to Slow's seismic impact at a time when no one was yet paying attention to what was happening just across the border in Seattle.
"It really does feel like we've stepped into a time machine, like those dreams you have of being back in high school," Sigmund says. "I've played in a million bands since Slow, but from the first note of that first jam session back together, it felt like picking up a conversation mid-sentence. What I'm also sensing is that this isn't just something that only I need at this moment; so many other people need this too. Obviously, back then, we didn't think we were important, it was just what we did. So the intense passion from people that we felt as soon as we announced the reunion has been a big part of this too."
Thorvaldson adds, "I never really got wrapped up in the legend, but it's true that all of this happened in the pre-internet era when it seemed like audiences had a much more personal connection to bands. I mean, today it's easy for fans and artists to communicate with each other directly, but there's something to be said about that time when you felt almost possessive about your favourite band. And a lot of people had that kind of relationship with Slow."
Following sold-out shows in early December, the next phase has involved going into Vancouver studio the Warehouse to record new material with producer Dave Ogilvie, who established his reputation in the mid-'80s as well, through his work with Skinny Puppy. These days, Ogilvie might be better known for mixing Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe," but there will be no frills when it comes to recording Slow.
When asked to drop any hints about the new material, Anselmi will only say, "It's amazing, amazing, amazing." But when pushed a little harder, he says that, despite the recording experience all five members have accumulated over the years, there is only one way to capture the band's sound, and that's in its purest form.
"There will be no computers involved. You can't do rock'n'roll with computers. As soon as you put yourself in a position where you can correct mistakes instantaneously, then it's defeating the purpose as far as I'm concerned. I'm a musician, sure, but not in the same way that someone like Christian definitely is. What I do know is that we can't take what we have for granted. There's a single energy when the five of us play together, and to mess around with that would just show a lack of basic understanding of how music is supposed to work."
The guitar players note how locked in the rhythm section is, and Anselmi can't say enough about the sounds the guitar players are getting. It remains to be seen how far the lead singer is prepared to go when he's on stage, but what's certain is that whatever urge he may feel, he will not hesitate to act upon it.
Slow are back. Let us commence rejoicing.
Slow are playing reunion dates including May 9 in Toronto, May 10 in Hamilton, May 11 in London, May 12 in Montreal, during Sled Island in Calgary in late June and Edmonton on June 23.
Jason Schneider is a co-author of Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995 (ECW Press).