Saxophonist Dave Hillyard followed a girl to New York City back in 1992 and ended up joining an up and coming ska band called The Slackers. Some two decades later, Hillyard remains in the band as it crisscrosses the country several times a year playing a potent blend of rocksteady, reggae, soul and rock.
Speaking from on the road somewhere along the Arizona/New Mexico state line and in anticipation of Wednesday's performance at Trees, Hillyard spoke with DC9 about the lengthy career of The Slackers and how he feels his band is a dying breed.
The band mixes so many styles and genres. Is there a simple description for what you guys do?
We are the last of the old-fashioned, American road bands. We are like the old jump blues bands or the old rock and roll bands. We give you a show. It's aggressive and it's fun. You can dance to it.
Were you into ska and reggae before you joined the band?
Yes, I am a little bit of an oddball. I was always into reggae. I got into it when I was 13 and I've been into it ever since. My dad used to listen to reggae so I guess he laid the foundation. Jamaican music made me want to play saxophone. It introduced to me the other kinds of music that came out of it: ska, American R&B. It introduced me to the music of the world and really opened my eyes to sounds that I may have never heard.
Does your band have a good following in Dallas?
We come there once every year and a half or so. The fan base is not big, but it's very loyal. The last show we did there was at Trees. It was really fun. We've been a band for a long time. We've been doing it for 23 years. We have a lot of material. It's fun. We usually play for 90 minutes. We are lucky. We don't have a lot of fans anywhere, but we have a few fans everywhere. We like to travel around and visit them.
Is doing 120 to 150 gigs a year simply exhausting?
Yes, but you just have to pace yourself. We try to do two or three week bits. This year, we are going to do about 125 gigs. We try not to stay out on the road the whole time or else we would go crazy. Right now, we are doing Texas, New Orleans and Arkansas, sort of a southwest run that will last two and a half weeks. You just pace yourself and try not to run out of steam. I like traveling. We've been doing it a long time.
How did you end up joining The Slackers?
I moved in New York in 1992 and in 1993 I met the guys. I was in the process of breaking up with that girlfriend I moved to New York for. The guys had heard about me and asked me if I would like to sit in with the band. I ended up staying for the next 21 years. It's cool. I'm doing some things that most guys can only dream about.
You've done a lot of work as a sideman. How did you end up playing with Rancid?
Me and the keyboard player were asked to play a live session with Rancid. Then, we ended up playing on a couple of their albums. They had heard us play in this band called SKAndalous All Stars and that's how we ended up signing with Hellcat Records back in the nineties. They signed us to their label and The Slackers ended up five or six albums.
Does a band like yours exists more to tour than make albums?
We've put out quite a few albums. We put out one in 2011 and then we did one called The Radio. That was a covers album. We recently released the My Bed is a Boat EP. That is our newest thing. I don't even know how many full-lengths we have put out, about a dozen I think.
You released one album only in Japan. Will Slack in Japan see a stateside release?
No, it's been a while. That was a live album we did there. We have our crowds all over the place. The crowds in Japan are very intense. They are very different and they are very into the music. They really take music seriously. Here in the states, it all about partying. It's a casual thing.
Where was the strangest gig you've played?
The Strangest? We played so many different places. We played in Brazil. That was when Festival had just started. We got there really late. All our flights were delayed. We were supposed to land at eleven and play at midnight. It kept getting later and later. We ended up landing at one or two in the morning. I kept asking if there was going to be a show. They said not to worry about it.
We show up and there is a couple thousand people wanting to see a show at three in the morning. We played a Japanese festival on the beach. We played a beach right after a typhoon and I can remember hearing the waves crashing. We played on a Navaho reservation in the back surrounded by a bunch of trailers. That was cool. It was some local kids who got some money together to hire us.
You ever think about writing a memoir?
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Yes, if I could find the time. We got these rides now. I guess I could start. I got lots of time now going miles through the desert.