Life hasn’t been too out-of-control for Eric Slick. The Dr. Dog drummer is typically balancing a wealth of projects simultaneously, but around the time he wrote his latest solo album, Wiseacre, he had the time to fully dedicate himself to it. The writing process began in January 2018 and lasted until Slick headed to the studio in September 2019. The ethos of Wiseacre was throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks, rather than developing a conceptual plan to adhere to throughout the entire creative process. What emerged was a chronological narrative of how he fell in love with songwriter Natalie Prass, his wife.
Prass herself makes an appearance as a vocalist on “Closer to Heaven,” an immediate highlight. Slick also collaborated with The Flaming Lips’ Steven Drozd on the groovy, psych-esque “Over It.” Collaboration was only one of the new changes Slick welcomed as he worked on Wiseacre. With this album, it’s instantly clear that Slick is having an incredible amount of fun. These songs are bouncy and ebullient, contrasting bleaker lyrics and accentuating more cheerful ones all at once.
I had a Zoom call with Slick to discuss his new solo record, which released Friday, nearly plagiarizing Foo Fighters, Bandcamp’s vinyl program, and what’s next for the drummer-songwriter. You can purchase Wiseacre on Bandcamp here, and you can follow Slick on Twitter here.
Well, quarantine is loose because I was in quarantine until May or June, and then my wife and I moved into a new house and we broke quarantine when we had to move. We were pretty strict about it. We really didn’t go out except for a couple of shopping trips here and there. In July, we went on a super long road trip for our dog. Our dog got really sick, but he’s fine, which is crazy. Last week I went to Philadelphia to visit my parents for the first time since January, so that was pretty crazy. I got COVID tested before I went, so I was negative. I didn’t really stop to use the bathroom anywhere. I tried to get gas and not touch anything. I was sanitizing after every PIN pad I pushed.
It wasn’t my intent to release it this year. Rather, I was hoping that I would release it and have some kind of label backing or some kind of help, and Dr. Dog was fairly light this year. So I was like, “Maybe it will come out.” At the top of the year we talked to a couple of labels, and they were like, “Yeah, maybe we’ll put it out, but it wouldn’t be until next year or the year after.” So when COVID hit, I was like, “Well, maybe now is the time to put it out.” I know that seems insane, but we were also just like, “Now, if we wait for any kind of label partnership, it’s not going to be until 2022 or 2023, realistically speaking.” It just seemed like it was the right thing to do. Yeah, it’s a little crazy. Who the hell am I to put out a record right now?
Honestly, it’s been good. I’ve been able to focus a lot of my energy on it. Usually when I’m in the midst of putting something out, I’ve got like 10 other things on the burner, and it’s nice to just have nothing.
I started it in January 2018, and really, the process was to just throw a bunch of stuff at the wall and see what sticks because I didn’t have any concept to root it down. With the last two records, they were a little bit more conceptually driven at first. I was like, “Oh, I’m going to write a record about this specific experience.” With my last EP, Bullfighter, I was writing from the perspective of a matador, so I have something to kind of root it down. But with this one, I was just like, “I want to get better as a songwriter, so if a concept happens along the way, which I’m sure it will, I’ll try to find what that is and latch on to it and create a narrative out of that.”
I ended up doing residencies at different studios. So, I went up to Woodstock, NY, and my friend has a studio up there called the ISOKON, and I was up there for a week, and I just wrote a bunch of songs and walked away with one or two usable ones. I went to Spacebomb Studios in Richmond and wrote there for a week. I wrote at Kobalt, which is a publishing company. It’s weird because you can use the practice rooms for free there. Most of these places were free because I didn’t have a budget to make this record, so I might as well be in isolation somewhere in a place where there’s a lot of gear, so I don’t have to be at home.
When I’m at home, I have a tendency to just drift. When I’m in a place, it feels like the burner’s under me a little bit, and I can be a little less precious and just move along with material. Then I read the Jeff Tweedy memoir where he talks about writing songs every day. It’s not that he doesn’t give much thought to it, but he’s really not precious about it. He’s just like, “I’ll set a timer,” and it’s a very monastic kind of thing. That was really inspiring.
Andy Shauf has a record called The Party. That record, I read, he had written 100 songs for it and whittled it down to 10. He went through the same thing where he was like, “I’m OK at writing songs, but I really want to push myself to get better.” He also really likes to work in isolation.
In January 2019, I was on tour with Natalie, my wife, and I tried to write a song every single day, which was a little bit maddening. I was doing it all in notation software and was just like, “What chord is this one going to start with?” Then I recorded it in September 2019. That’s a long answer, but that’s the entire process of the record, just so you know!
Definitely. Front to back, it’s a chronological exposé of falling in love with Natalie and sort of the trials and tribulations I put myself through. It’s not so much about anything she put me through; it’s more my own questioning of wondering whether or not I’m worthy of being in a relationship and trying to quell those anxieties through song. There’s also some stuff in there that pre-dates our relationship that are sort of flashbacks to moments when I was less than ideal as a partner or less than ideal as a person, or narrative explorations of friendships that I hold near and dear to my heart. There’s lots of coating within the lyrics, and it’s all very chronological. It’s funny; I’m hoping people notice this, but in between the songs there’s a drum fill, and that’s my way of doing a page turn in the record. So it’s like, “Ahh, chapter 4!”
Usually I don’t collaborate with people. I have musicians who play on my records, but it’s unusual for me to let go of the reins a little bit. With Natalie, I didn’t even know she was going to be on that song until someone was like, “Isn’t Natalie going to sing on your record?” I don’t want there to be any nepotism. I don’t want it to feel like, at any time, we’re taking advantage of each other because our relationship is ultimately private and ultimately very special. I just don’t want it to ever come off like, “Oh, he’s a wife guy making a wife song.” I think she feels similarly protective of it even though we play with each other all the time. It’s just something I wasn’t thinking of, and when it happened, I was so happy that it went the way that it did. It does feel more like a collaborative effort than it feels like Natalie is featured on a song. She very much added her own thing to it, as well.
Steven and I have known each other since 2006, but we only became friends a couple of years ago via Dr. Dog opening for The Flaming Lips and playing festivals with them. He didn’t really talk to me ever until he heard me playing the beat from Can’s “Vitamin C” at a soundcheck, and he was like, “How do you play that? I want to know how you play that.” He took his iPhone out and started filming me doing “Vitamin C,” and I was like, “Oh my god; my songwriting/drumming hero is taking a video of me right now. This is insane.”
So I reached out to him for the song “Over It,” and I just expected him to do a harmony vocal, and he sent back a full-blown vocal harmony arrangement. I was like, “Oh my god, dude, you went so above and beyond.” I should have given him songwriting credit because it adds so much. No wonder he is so vital to The Flaming Lips. He is basically The Flaming Lips.
That always changes. At first, my favorite track was “Children,” but now my favorite track is “Over It” because it’s fun and it’s summery. I’m trying also not to be in a pit of despair all the time, and that song definitely helps me not be in a pit of despair, so when I hear it, it makes me smile a little bit even though the song is about being in a pit of despair! It just doesn’t tonally feel like that. The song itself is about various conversations I’ve had over the years with my friends about their failed relationships and not being able to let go of those relationships. It’s a dark lyrical theme, but musically speaking, I wanted it to be kind of joyful in the same way that there are Beatles songs that have absolutely terrifying lyrics but then they’re really sunny.
Wiseacre is the name of the ranch where we got married. There’s this little wedding venue in Virginia Beach called Wiseacre, and when it came time to name the album, I was like, “What best sums up our relationship in a neat, little bow?” Well, our wedding was this big moment, and I was like, “Oh, what if I called the record Wiseacre after the venue of the wedding.” I always liked that name, so I just slapped it on there. I had five other working titles that just weren’t good.
What’s really funny is I had a conference call with my management before the album came out, and I was like, “We should be really careful about how we use Wiseacre because it’s a venue name, and I don’t want to ruin the Google results for the venue because I want people to use the venue.” And they were like, “Well, a wiseacre is not just a venue. It’s a court jester, like a wisecracker, like a wiseass, basically.” I just laughed hysterically for 30 minutes because of course I would name my album “wiseass.” I’m a wiseass, and that is so fitting. They were like, “Yeah, you didn’t know that?” And I was like, “I’m so stupid.” But we all had a really good laugh about it, and it’s like your subconscious knows you better than you do sometimes.
Musically speaking, I was listening to a lot of music from the late 70s and the early 80s because the production style was really dry drums, crude uses of synthesizers, and harmony vocals but also futurist, and then there’s also a symphonic element to a lot of records from that period of time. I had an a-ha moment. We were driving through Texas, and I heard ELO’s “Turn to Stone,” and I was like, “Oh my god. This is my whole musical DNA. Everything I like about music is in this song.” Then I thought back to my youth. I thought back to my parents playing ELO records and records that Jeff Lynne produced, and I was like, “Man, that is all over my songwriting DNA, and I need to honor that because I’ve never really honored that.”
ELO is such an incredibly fun band. They’re also in that same realm I’m talking about, a lot of synthesizers used crudely, harmonies, orchestras used in a very pop way, silly lyrics. Yellow Magic Orchestra was a huge influence. Anything in that universe was really inspiring to me. Also the late-70s Robert Palmer records, Todd Rundgren, but then I was also listening to outsider new-wave music from the 80s, and then of course, the usual bread and butter of … Weezer sometimes. I have to hush that a little bit. I don’t like their cover of Toto’s “Africa.”
But I also think, unfortunately, Weezer is part of my musical DNA whether I want to admit it or not. It’s funny what we deny ourselves as songwriters, too. We’ll be writing a song, and we’re like, “I got this original idea.” And your friend will be like, “Isn’t that the chord change from OMC’s ‘How Bizarre?’” I think it’s funny that we all try to be “serious” artists, but the things that we actually like are usually pretty hilarious. The things that stick with us too are always very surprising.
I was writing a song for Wiseacre, and the entire first verse, I kid you not, were the lyrics from “Breakout” by Foo Fighters. I was like, “These are good lyrics. I’m going to keep these!” Then I was like, “Wait a second. I just plagiarized ‘Breakout’ by Foo Fighters, a song I don’t listen to, like, ever.” Maybe on a deep level I truly enjoy that song. I remember not liking that song when it came out, but I was like “This is poignant.” Foo Fighters’ lyrics are not necessarily known for their poignancy.
I know, I know, I know. But I think, spiritually, there is something about that era of Foo Fighters and Foo Fighters in general that I admire, like the fact that they were able to make so many goofy music videos and not take themselves too seriously when there was immense pressure to be taken seriously after Nirvana. That slapstick, absurdist humor definitely is a through line in my stuff, too. Especially with this record, I’ve been trying to be as playful as possible. A lot of my other stuff is kind of dark with black-and-white photos, and I’m trying to be an artist. That’s the inherent problem: trying.
One A&R told me that there’s two different kinds of artists: people you don’t want to talk to and people you want to hang out with all the time. I think I was in that middle ground for way too long, like I was trying too hard to be someone you didn’t want to talk to. It’s the difference between a Mac DeMarco type, and like, Bowie. There’s not a lot of in between. There’s not just like, “Oh, I’m just a normal guy.” Usually, it’s just like, “That person seems really intriguing and fun,” or it’s like, “Jesus, I do not want to be in a room with that person. They seem a little crazy.”
I think A&R people are reductive in general, too. I think they’re overly reductive and overly generalizing a lot of times, especially when it comes to streaming and Spotify. They’ll be like, “This stuff works really well. You should make that kind of stuff because that’s what people like.” Well, it’s a spectrum. People like all different kinds of stuff. How do they know what they like if they haven’t heard it?
You know, thank god for Bandcamp. I tweet about Bandcamp a lot because I think it is the greatest service not only to musicians, but also to music appreciators. It completely bypasses the algorithm. It’s very old-school. They have their own curators who are looking for the best stuff, but you can just scroll through anything and land on a Bandcamp page and be wowed by what you hear. It could just be like avant-bedroom-pop, but it’ll make you so happy. Ohmme is a band I found through Bandcamp, and I wouldn’t have discovered them via the algorithm.
Exactly. When it came time to put out Wiseacre, and there was no label support, Bandcamp stepped in and they were like, “Hey, we do a vinyl program here,” which blew my mind because, instead of you paying upfront for vinyl, you can run a vinyl campaign, and if you sell out within 30 days, then Bandcamp will press all of those vinyls for you. Anything on top of that, on the Bandcamp page, is money that goes directly to the artists. Or if the artist is running a campaign and they want to donate that money to charity, all of that money goes to charity. It’s a no-brainer.
Because they do that and they’re good samaritans, it ends up paying them in dividends down the line because it ensures that the artist will return to Bandcamp. It builds trust. I don’t hate Spotify per se. I use Spotify every day of my life, but do I think it could be better? Yes. Do I think they could distribute bigger royalties to artists? Absolutely. Do I think there is a certain amount of gatekeeping that goes on with Spotify? Of course there is. There’s also money at stake and there’s also people who have invested via labels and via publishing companies that can funnel artists through the algorithm and expedite them on a playlist that gets them X amount of dollars or X amount of listens. I think that’s just as pernicious as any old-school label system whereas Bandcamp feels punk as hell. I could make a record of fart sounds and put it on Bandcamp today. It would be terrible, but I could do it!
Right now, I’m in the middle of painting a desk for my studio, so when the studio gets set up, I’ll get a little more motivated to go back in there and write. Also, when you’re in the waiting process of your record to come out, you don’t feel totally motivated to write because you’re just like, “I don’t know where I’m at, and I don’t know how this thing is going to be perceived, and I also don’t know where I’m going next.” So right now, I’m just trying to figure that out. Funny enough, I’ve just been wanting to listen to medieval prog rock, like really dorky, dumb prog rock. I made a playlist on Spotify that’s like, half really intense R&B, and then goofy, medieval prog rock, and some new songs I like, such as Perfume Genius. I’m trying to see if there’s a middle ground there. It’s not nearly as focused. I think it’s going to be a minute before I find what’s next.
There’s a couple of projects I’ve always wanted to complete. One of them is a ballet about this town in Pennsylvania that’s been on fire since the 60s. Look it up. It’s called Centralia. I also have a band with my friend Andy Molholt called Napping, and we’ve been texting a lot about potentially reviving Napping for a record. I don’t know what’s next. I also work really slowly. There were three years between my last record and this record, but in actuality it was five years because I started writing my first record, Palisades, in 2013 or 2014. It took a long time for it to come out, and this one took a long time to come out. You’re sensing a pattern here. I’m not going to be able to keep up with Daniel Ek’s four-albums-a-year thing.
One thing that Natalie has really helped me out with is not rushing material out. Being a little bit more protective over your material because, ultimately, it will have more longevity if you do that. Also, the more you whittle it down to something you are actually proud of is super important. I used to be kind of impulsive, like “I just finished a song. Maybe I’ll put it out tomorrow!” Yeah, you could do that, but it doesn’t mean that you should do that, so it was good advice for sure.