J. Paul Slavens holds his stoic composure as he takes a seat behind his Casio keyboard for his weekly residency at Dan's Sliverleaf. After taking a nip from his whiskey and water on the rocks, Slavens leans closer to the microphone and starts crunching.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.
The slow, rumbling echo seems to signal Slavens' personality shift; it's like witnessing that moment when Mister Rogers pauses to change his cardigans and sneakers.
"I definitely put on a bit of a persona onstage," Slavens says later about the evening's performance. "And maybe the Paul that appears up onstage is a little more coarse and cantankerous than the real Paul. He has more of a combative mindset and definitely a more coarse sense of humor."
"Onstage" Paul's coarseness of humor—paired with his talent for impromptu songwriting and the audience's hunger for a bawdy tune—gives this weekly Monday night show the feel of an after-hours, adults-only Prairie Home Companion: The audience makes up a song title, writes it on a bar napkin and places the napkin, along with a tip, on Slavens' Casio. The larger the tip, the sooner the song gets played.
But does the band get paid?
"Oh! Hell, no! They don't get paid," Slavens says before launching into his band's famed "Two Rules." "It's simple," he continues. "There's only two rules to be in the band: You don't get paid, and don't piss me off."
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And this is a relationship that's worked every week since 2006 (the actual date is "kinda whiskey-soaked" according to Slavens). He doesn't worry about whether the band will show up on time. He doesn't have to call to remind them. There's never a need to practice. Slavens says it's the fulfillment of a "dream" he had a few years back: "After being in a band [Ten Hands] where there were rehearsals, I wanted a gig where I could play all new material or show up and play it all impromptu, and a band that could do either one with me."
Like any job, Slavens admits that, at times, the gig can be "exhausting." We all have "off" days at work. That works fine for some jobs. But what if Monday night rolls around and Slavens isn't feeling creative—or, maybe worse, funny?
"That's very interesting," he says. "Because, like anybody else, I have my troubles in life and I've showed up for that gig in dire emotional straits. I've even considered canceling gigs before, but I've found that once I get there and get going, it cures me of whatever is ailing. It's a release for me. A stream-of-consciousness release of all the stuff that you didn't even know you had in you."
And you thought he was just making up naughty songs for money.