Jeff Slate and his all-star band – featuring musicians who have played with some of the greatest roots rockers of all time – return to Hill Country Live! with an evening of stellar music, celebrating Bob Dylan's 75th Birthday Bash, this Friday, May 20th. In advance of the show, Slate kindly took the time to talk about his musical journey, his new record and more.
Over your career, you have played in various bands from punk to rock and roll and now weave in an Americana feel in your solo projects. Where does such a diversity originate from?
I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s with older siblings, so my house was always full of music. We listened to anything from Sinatra and Dean Martin to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens to The Clash and Bowie. My brother in law was a session musician so he had to learn the Platters and the Spinners, so we listened to those 45’s as well. So really as a young person growing up, I didn’t discern labels, I just liked what I liked. When I started my first professional band around 1984-1985, the music we played was very influenced by the British invasion: The Who, The Clash, and Small Faces. We also were influenced by the American wordsmiths like Kristofferson and Cash, but when you’re seventeen and in a band you just want to turn it up and play.
I moved to New York for college and in the 90’s had some luck catching the attention of some people; I did some demos for Pete Townsend and opened for Sheryl Crow. I had a moment where everything seemed to be going right but then, like for many people, it didn’t. There were a lot of meetings with labels and it ultimately didn’t happen and part of that was my taste. The thing I wanted to do as an artist wasn’t being Nirvana or Oasis. Then in the 90’s I was in The Badge and we had a pretty successful run in Europe and Japan, but that ran its course and in 2010 I started making solo music. As I’ve gotten older, and so has the audience, there is a more mature sensibility; music is not just about three chords, a guitar, and the truth anymore. You want to say something and reach a broader audience who can identify with what you’re singing about. That led me back to Dylan, Cash, Kristofferson and Haggard as well as The Clash and The Beatles. Those are people who are hugely influential in my life; they have a point of view and something to say. They aren’t afraid to take risks.
Recently, you released your third solo project, Secret Poetry, on which you can hear some of those influences.
It’s my third solo album and my second sort of proper record. It’s funny, in the process of making it in the studio you don’t realize what style you’re creating. A lot of people who played on it had been in different bands with Bowie and so his legacy loomed large sonically. But when we play some of these songs live, we strip them back and get to the core of them. They’re songs with a story and a decent melody and I think that’s what any songwriter aspires to.
You mentioned Bowie, there are two tracks on the record, "Dreamtime" and "Survive," which nod to him. Was it intentional to place them as the opener and closer of the album?
They just fit there. With the first record, I knew exactly the order I wanted the songs in almost the minute I went in the studio. This collection of songs didn’t sit together and it wasn’t until close to the end of the process when I thought that I have to come up with the order. Since these two were a little bit different than the other songs, I couldn’t put them in the middle because stylistically they would have broken up the flow. I put them on the ends and then the middle just fell into place.
Were the songs written for this project or have they been around a bit longer?
Some are really brand new while others have been around. I did the piano for “Exile” at Abbey Road, but I didn’t have the words fleshed out so the song sat there never completely realized. “Dreamtime” was an unfinished idea that has been sitting around for a while “Candlelight” I had drafted for the first record, but it didn’t fit on there, so I didn’t finish it. I have this big folder with lyrics and ideas and an iPhone full of demos and me humming bits and pieces so when the time came to make a record I made note of the ones that caught me at the moment. When you go into the studio with your band you’re constantly writing and rewriting in a constant state of creation. When you get in the studio and develop the songs, it's unpredictable and exciting because a song is never finished, til it’s finished. At a certain point though, I chose the songs I was going to focus on for the record. In fact, I already have six to eight songs in mind for next record which I’m already excited about. But that’s what you do as a songwriter and musician, you’re always wanting to do something new.
Switching gears from the record, on May 20th you will be performing at Hill Country in NYC celebrating Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday. Is this something you have been doing for a while and is it solely Dylan songs?
This is our third year doing a Dylan celebration at Hill Country. We started a couple years ago doing Dylan Obscura where we played songs Dylan never played live or recorded and other rare 1960’s and 1970’s gems. And now it has morphed to include all of his music from the obscure ones to the songs everyone knows. It’s a great combination because people get to hear something they don’t typically get to hear and something they’re familiar with. Dylan looms large for any songwriter or musician really and is somebody who always challenges me, even though I can never those heights. He’s the gold standard.
For this show, we’ll do a mixture of Dylan, the Traveling Wilburys, Petty, Orbison and Harrison tunes and then some of my songs that kind of fit the bill. Some songs I have written, like “A Little Piece of Me” have a direct relationship to Dylan because when I was writing them I was listening to his music and was inspired by him.
Sounds like a great show. Will it be a full band or acoustic show?
We play two sets. The first is from 9-1030pm and is more stripped down and quiet then it progresses to a full band electric second set which is from 11-1230am. Hill Country is an amazing place. They typically have two bands on those nights but we worked out a deal where we do both sets and take a break in between. A lot of people stay for both sets and in between they make requests, and talk to us. It’s a very loose atmosphere while we play too, people may lean in, there’s usually a birthday or people shout things out, even the occasional “Freebird” (laughing), or have an opinion about something. It’s fun that way.
I’ve seen a lot of turnover in music and venues in NYC so I speak with credibility with what a gem of a venue it is. I really can’t say enough good things about Hill Country as a live music venue. To have a venue in NYC that treats both the audience and the musicians so well is rare. They really take care of us and have such a wonderful staff who aren’t pushy with the audience in terms of minimums and that keeps people coming back. It’s a really good experience all around.
Another important thing is that they care about melody and songwriting and musicians who play music. And that’s a testament to the staff, owner, and manager who are just as happy to have us play our music, Bowie, Prince or the Beatles as they are when we play Dylan. Those kind of venues in this day and age are pretty few and far between. Plus, I cannot say enough about their banana pudding and moist brisket, which is the best in a 100-mile radius!
For more information on Jeff Slate visit his official website
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Dylan's 75th Birthday Bash
Hill Country Live! NYC
Friday, May 20th
Make your FREE “club level” reservations at 212-255-4544