Total Slacker is a Brooklyn garage rock band based out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Composed of Tucker Rountree on guitar and vocals, Emily Oppenheimer on bass and vocals and Ross Condon on drums, the group fuses fuzzy alt-rock melodies with humorous lyrics and psychedelic imagery. As one of the best-known acts from Brooklyn’s DIY landscape, the group will serve as scene ambassadors on their upcoming tour of the east coast and Midwest. I caught up with Tucker and Emily last week, as they were getting ready for their trip.
So what is Total Slacker up to? You said you have an added guitarist for your tour. How long is your tour, where are you going and who are the bands you’ll be playing with?
Emily: Yeah, we’ve got a lot going on! We’re gearing up for a two-week tour around the east coast and as far west as Chicago with our friends Night Manager. We can’t wait! Our old friend Greg Timmes is playing guitar with us now and on tour too. I’m most looking forward to playing with White Mystery in Chicago on the 8th (we played with them in New York about a month ago and they were GREAT), our Daytrotter session on the 9th, and playing with our friends Weekends in Baltimore on the 14th. Our kickoff show at Cheap Storage on the 2nd with Turnip King and Heaven’s Gate is going to be a lot of fun too, I’m sure!
We’ll also be releasing two 7″s in June, one on Sixteen Tambourines (Japan) featuring our new single “Brain Slime”, an oldie-but-goodie called “Soft Serve Maybelline”, and an instrumental freak-out called “Todd P’s Weed”. The second is a split with Friends, also on Sixteen Tambourines. We covered “Friend Crush” and they recorded their own version of “Magical Date Night”! We’re such different-sounding bands, but really appreciate each other’s music, so the split was really fun and I think everyone’s gonna get a kick out of it like we did.
Tucker: Just got done mixing 2 Japanese 7″ records I’m pretty excited for!
T: Thanks man, it was a fun challenge to try and see if we could take that song and do our thing around it. It’s something I want to try again in the future.
Speaking of your collaboration with Friends, do you think the Bushwick/Bed Stuy music scene is changing as it gets more scrutiny from the outside world, or has it stayed pretty “neighborhood”? It’s been interesting watching things develop over the last two years, and I’m curious if that affects how people approach things, both inside the scene and outside it.
T: Yeah, it’s changing both for better and for worse. But I’m into change – I think I need it constantly to feel free and alive. In terms of approach, I don’t think it affects me. Emily and I write songs no matter what, because we need to feel happy and feel alive. Although sometimes, I see our audience change or combine with other crowds, and I wonder if people’s perception changes of what we’re doing. But I try not and think about it too much.
Alright, so let’s talk songwriting a little bit. I’ve always found the song “Crystal Necklace” really evocative because it creates a magical scenario and story you can imagine in very few words. How much do you guys try to flesh out what you’ve got in your head, and how much do you just want to leave up to the listener?
T: Thinking back, when we wrote that song in 2009, it was just a pure expression of the things that Emily and I were talking and joking about. Also one of my friends was going to a crystal healer at the time in Chinatown, where she got her aura read. She’s an amazing artist named Jenny Morgan, who has had pieces in the Smithsonian and worked extensively with Marilyn Minter.
E: Most of the time, and with that song in particular, we really do write the song as a coherent, self-contained story. We have a clear idea of what or whom it is about, and express that as well as we can in the lyrics. At the same time, though, we don’t usually obsess about the lyrics. They’re not as important as the overall feel of the song. We try to make them as descriptive/funny/whatever as we can, but we won’t dwell on them for long if they’re not perfect. If someone gets something unintended from a song, that’s cool too! As long as the listener is imagining SOMETHING, we’re happy. So thanks, I’m glad you got that from Crystal Necklace.
Sure. I’ve always seen Total Slacker as a band whose songs are about characters. Probably the best example of this I can think of is “Video Store Rental Guy”. I think all of us have had to deal with vendors like this at some points in our lives, although they’re getting fewer and farther between.
T: Yeah, we’re really into characters that elicit some idea of a true personality. And you can build a whole narrative around that.
E: Very true! A lot of our earlier songs are about specific things that happened to us, or people we knew, and aliens (which category do you think THEY belong in?!) We actually came to know Video Store Rental Guy a while after having written that mean song about him. Turns out he’s very nice and has a good sense of humor about it. We still write songs about people we’ve met. Most of them friendly – but a lot of our newer stuff is completely made up and more open to interpretation.
I also want to talk to you guys about “Magical Date Night”. It’s one of those songs that’s genuinely funny as we watch this narrator preparing for and then going through this date. By the end of the song you have sympathy for the guy, even if he seems like a bit of a mess.
E: Yeah we had a good time with that song. Tuck and I just started humming it on the way to one of our own Magical Date Nights. I think the story came about after swapping stories about failed adolescent dates.
That’s awesome. I think my girlfriend wishes we wrote songs during our dates.
T: Haha, you should!!
E: It’s also based on an urban legend that floated around Tucker’s high school (maybe every high school) about “the kid who asked out the community college teacher.”
T: There was this English teacher in high school, back in Utah, and all the kids talked about how she was dating this one kid who was a junior at the time, she also moonlighted as a community college teacher at SLCC. Eventually she got fired from the school, so something happened, and that song is our version of it.
What are you guys reading right now?
E: I’m reading Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz. It’s great. It’s basically a lot of character portraits of people the author meets in the South while studying contemporary Civil War culture (so, re-enactors or “historical interpreters”, Confederate flag and shot-glass merchandisers, racist hate groups members, etc.) Horwitz writes in a really engaging journalistic style, which is nice but sometimes makes the people he describes seem cartoonish, which would be my only complaint so far. I’m still really into it. I’ve only been through the south once, briefly, on our way to SXSW this year. I loved it but have little idea about what it actually feels like to live there. Horwitz may exaggerate (at least it reads that way at times, or I hope so) but I do feel it gives me a better idea of what I’m missing. And a lot of it’s pretty funny.
I like historical non-fiction in general, and am also a total sucker for 19th cent. Victorian lit. I read pretty widely though, really. A little bit of everything!
T: I’m in the middle of a nonfiction/autobiography that’s way interesting called The Last Mogul about early Hollywood and Broadway in the 1930’s.
How important are the videos for the songs?
E: We work really hard to match the aesthetics of the videos to that of the songs, which usually happens naturally and so is easy. Or, in some upcoming videos, we plan to carefully mismatch them to get a creepy vibe. Tucker is more and more interested in film-making, so he’s been working on some pretty out-there things which I can’t wait to see set to our songs. Expect Jell-O vomiting and Nickelodeon style green slime. I guess the videos are important in that we get to stretch the music to say a lot more than we can just by playing but, of course, we think each song holds its own.
T: I love working with film, it’s something we wanna do more and more. I have a great early 90’s VHS camcorder that I work with a lot. We’ll be working on the video for “Brain Slime” here in the next month! Do you know where to find Nickelodeon Slime?
I don’t, but have you guys ever heard of the show “You Can’t Do That On Television?” It’s a Canadian TV show from the 80’s where every time a contestant said the phrase “I don’t know” they got green slime dumped on them.
T: Whoa! That’s amazing, that’s exactly what we want to do in our next music video!
I wasn’t allowed to watch “secular” television when I was a kid. I grew up in a very conservative/communal environment called “Order of the Lamb”. We shared everything and lived together in 3 separate houses, and nobody owned a television. Sometimes I could watch movies and TV at my grandparents’ house, which was cool.
Do you find that as you get deeper into your career as a band you have to get more inventive? The characters in your first batch of songs come from a certain kind of experience, but as a touring band, your life might be a bit different than it was when you wrote those tunes. Do you have to change your writing process now?
T: I totally see what you’re saying. Yeah the feeling changes, because our living circumstances and friendships are different, but I think the core of who we are is the same, and our desire to express the idea that the world takes itself too seriously is always there.
Our sense of humor is the remedy for how we deal w the world, and how we ‘d like to relate to the chaos, etc. The funny thing is, we’ve never had a writing process. Emily and just riff off one another, we talk about ideas constantly. When we’re at the coin laundry, eating cereal, watching x files, or going to the Salvation Army, we’re always thinking about concepts and story lines.
What’s the best part of playing with Night Manager?
T: Well, first off, they’re like our best friends. We love those guys.
Secondly, they have the same mentality we do, I think, and the same approach to current music. I feel like we’re coming from the same direction and looking for the same intense performance aspect. They have this higher melodic/harmonic thing happening that stems from studying jazz, which I really appreciate because my dad raised me on jazz.
What are your new songs going to be about?
T: Man I don’t even know, it’s more like a feeling I think.
We have this one about nervous energy that causes brain slime to come out of your ear. Then there’s a new one called “WHO KILLED KENNEDY”, that’s about Lee Harvey Oswald being framed by a secret entity who utilizes the powers of Facebook in the future to travel back in time. He creates an event page for Dealey Plaza to organize the shooting.
Then there’s, “Keep The Ships At Bay.” I don’t know about that one, it’s more of a feeling, and the use of words that elicit a feeling. “If you can make it through the day, and keep the ships at bay, you’ll find that all the answers always slip away.” I think it’s about trying to be present in the world, but not in it.
Total Slacker will be on tour with Night Manager from June 2nd to June 16th. Details can be found here. Their album “Thrashin’ “ is available now from Marshall Teller Records.