The Slate Pacific are something of an anomaly in the Fredericton music scene.
They’ve opted out of the upbeat rock that typically drives our indie music scene for a more atmospheric and moody sound, which doesn’t always go over well with crowds..
“I think it’s just that people don’t really know how to take us here,” lead singer Logan Hawkes said.
“It’s like – we’re playing this show and they’re all just standing there with their arms crossed. And you’re staring at them and you’re thinking, ‘Okay… well, they must not hate it, because they’re not leaving, but come on! Give us something!’”
He pauses, then adds, “But sometimes I feel like maybe we just need to throw the crowd a bone – something gimmicky so we can say, ‘Here, get your rocks off to this so we can get back to what we like.’”
When he sings, he hunches over the microphone, contorting his face as he like he’s in physical pain, while his lyrics suggest the pain goes beyond that.
“I used to think that I’d do better,” he sings in the chorus of the song Thirteen Kinds of Chemicals. “I used to think that I’d get better.”
As for his band, it has gotten better since Hawkes’ first gig at The Capital, back in early 2007, which he describes as “the worst show ever.”
“We just didn’t know what we were doing,” he says. “We didn’t know how to be in a band or what a band should sound like. We were clueless and it showed. It was absolutely awful. After that we took a step back and re-evaluated what the hell we were doing.”
At that time, The Slate Pacific consisted only of Hawkes and his cousin, Corey Knox. The current line up is unrecognizable from the first incarnation after the band went through endless line up changes throughout its first year.
“We had a mishmash of people coming in and out. We were just trying stuff out, figuring out what the hell we were doing, and seeing what worked. A lot of it didn’t. It took a long time to get such a solid group in place.”
That group includes a mix up of Fredericton musicians who are also in other bands.
Bassist Heather Ogilvie and keyboardist Brad Perry are both in The Names and Faces and Datacamp, guitarist Stephen Dunn is in All of Green, Forcefields, and Metropolitan Fire. Zach Atkinson plays drums for both The Slate Pacific and Share, who recently went on a European tour with Grand Theft Bus.
“I’d need a flow chart to explain it properly,” Hawkes jokes. “It’s all a giant balancing act, but I think that’s just the nature of Fredericton; it’s very incestuous that way.”
Even with such a group of established local musicians, The Slate Pacific has had its share of bad gigs.
“Recently we played at Gus’s Pub in Halifax for this crowd that had filtered in from retro night at another bar down the street. And we played after Mardeen, who’s this really upbeat Halifax band. So these disco people were really into their happy vibes then we came on. As soon as they heard how subdued we are, people just started leaving. By the end of [Slate Pacific song] Slow Jams there was literally no one left.”
That’s not the first time that song has caused such a reaction. In fact, during a band rehearsal, Hawkes introduces the song with ironic pride, saying, “This is a song that clears the room every time.”
It’s difficult to say whether that pride is despite the reaction it elicits, or because of it. Hawkes says that he actively avoids songs he deems “crowd pleasers,” so it’s only logical he may actively initiate songs that are crowd displeasers.
Slow Jams certainly fits that description, and it happens to be the band’s favourite song.
They play it more than any other song at that rehearsal, just to make sure it’s perfect, even though history tells them no one will hear straight through until the end.
But Hawkes isn’t concerned about that, just like he wasn’t concerned that night in Halifax, playing to an empty room.
“We didn’t care because we were playing tighter than we’d ever played,” he says. “It was a reaffirming moment for us. We realized we really work as a band, despite the reaction that night. I mean, there will always be new audiences, but the band is the band; there’s no changing it. I’d rather be in a really good band with a shitty audience than the other way around.”
It’s no wonder Hawkes likes the members of his band, since he was their fan long before he was their front man.
“I was a huge fan of The Names and Faces, and wanted to start a band, but I had no idea how to do it. So I basically just stalked The Names and Faces to see how they managed to pull it off.”
Not only did he learn how to be in a band from them, he got half his band from them. But other members didn’t fall into place quite so easily.
Corey Knox quit as lead guitarist and was briefly replaced by a couple others before Stephen Dunn joined the band last April. But that wasn’t as bad as figuring out who would play drums.
“That was the hardest spot to fill – finding a drummer. We tried a few out but it just didn’t work…” He grins. “Let’s be diplomatic; let’s say it wasn’t a good fit.”
In the end, Zach Atkinson filled the spot – something of a surprising addition to the band’s roster. Besides the fact that he’d already been a known drummer in popular bands like On Vinyl and Share, he is also the booking agent for The Capital, and works for Forward Music Group, New Brunswick most successful indie label.
“To this day, I have no idea why Zach even agreed to try us out. I mean, first of all, he’s an amazing drummer, but secondly, and maybe more importantly, no one works harder than him. It’s ridiculous how much work he puts into the band, because really, he’s the only one who knows what’s going on. We wouldn’t be where we are without him.”
Atkinson’s booking experience is an asset for the band. In fact, he’s arranged nearly every break that the band has gotten in its young career. At last year’s ECMAs, he booked The Slate Pacific to open for Halifax bands, Wintersleep and Dog Day and later in the year he signed the band to Forward Music.
“James [Boyle] heard the album for the first time in October,” Hawkes explains.
“He kind of acted as the impartial party, because obviously Zach had heard it every step of the way. But James thought it was pretty good, so they agreed to distribute it.”
He laughs to himself, with the same disbelief that he had when talking about Zach joining the band. “I don’t really get why they signed us. There’s no real benefit for Forward Music, in one sense. I mean, I know it’s not going to sell. I know that. It’s our first album. But I guess they won’t have any real loss from it. And if it does, somehow, happen to do well then it’ll be better for both of us.”
Their album, Safe Passage, took almost a year to record, and another six months to be released.
It wasn’t for lack of trying.
They had five different release dates in the last year, none of which panned out because of delays in recording, getting signed to Forward, and going to the ECMAs.
But finally, last week, Safe Passage was released with a string of release parties around New Brunswick.
Their last show at The Capital before the album came out was opening for Sleepless Nights, an ECMA-nominated rock band from Halifax.
Their opening slot ensured two things – one, they wouldn’t be playing to a crowd of twenty because the headliner had a big draw, and two, there was little chance of people walking out on them, for fear of missing the next act.
But neither fact guaranteed that the crowd would like their performance.
It was up to the band to decide whether they throw its audience a bone, or risk being their uncompromising selves.
They choose the latter, and from the beginning, it pays off.
The crowd seemed pleasantly surprised by this band they’ve never heard of. After the first song ends, someone in the front row said, “Whoa, that was really good, man. You should play that one again.”
Hawkes laughs and said, “Okay, our next song is… that one again!” but then turns to the band and decides on something else to hold on to their large and eerily attentive audience.
Even in moments when Hawkes sings with such a quiet vulnerability that it’s barely audible, still, no one misses a note.
The audience seemed to get it.
Then, as if he needs to make sure they get it, Hawkes introduced their next song – Slow Jams.
“This is our favourite song to play as a band, so please don’t leave,” he said
By the time the song finishes, several minutes later, the crowd is still right there with them. In fact, after the band announces that they’ve finished their set, the crowd begins to chant “One more song! One more song!” trying to spur an encore that never comes.
That would be considered a crowd pleaser.
It’s a testament to the quality of their musicianship and the intrigue of Hawke’s intense and tormented stage persona that The Slate Pacific can please a crowd without even trying, but considering the consistency with which that is not the case, it may be fair to say that luck also played its role.
The band is good, and has the potential to be great, but not until they realize the golden rule that all great bands have to figure out: it is a band’s responsibility to be entertaining in the presence of an audience, not the audience’s responsibility to be entertained in the presence of a band