To see Sly & The Family Drone live is to temporarily join the band. The Hampshire outfit, who play out on the floor Lightning Bolt style, swell their ranks during a performance by offering various percussion items to audience members who’re then invited to thump, smash and batter along with the already deafening noise as it surrounds the space through myriad enormous speaker stacks.
On the occasions I have had the pleasure to witness Sly & The Family Drone – probably the loudest, most visceral gigs I have ever experienced (and I have been up close and personal with Lightning Bolt) – I’ve never been chosen to take on responsibilities. Honestly, my fear of doing something ridiculous with the drum, or the battered old cymbal, or whatever else the band has to hand that might make a racket, means my hands automatically creep round to my back pockets when the time comes to dole out the duties. “There have been sets recently where it absolutely wouldn’t work to hand drums over to people,” the group’s founder Matt Cargill explains during a recent email discussion. “I do like the concept that anyone can join in – it always feels organic when it happens, and if people are feeling it and the rhythm takes over then that’s fine. But I don’t want to force it or have people come to expect it.”
It all began as a solo venture, roughly around 2007, when Cargill was putting on gigs for the likes of Fuck Buttons and Shield Your Eyes around his hometown of Reading. “I’d booked Ampersand,” he remembers. “They’re something like 3 generations of the same family playing this incredible abstract drone music and they’d loaded in all this scaffolding and the insides of a piano and industrial machinery. They were clanging about in the room when I heard someone whisper “Sly and the Family Drone” as a joke. Obviously I thought this was hilarious – I was looking for a name to perform under and the joke just stuck.”
After a few small shows alone “making collages by re-spooling discarded tapes I found blowing about in the street, thrown from passing cars or snagged in trees,” he was booked to perform at the Woolfire Festival in 2008 alongside such luminaries as Shit! Hot Llamas, Alex & the Ligers, DJ Krissy P and Blisskreig (I know, me neither), where he was joined onstage by his friend Toby Jackson – “rhythms and cassette loops” – and some additional drums for the first time. “We set up in the middle of a field and played there,” Matt says. “Towards the end of the set loads of people just got up with extra drums and bins and bottles and joined in. It didn’t feel like a hippy drum circle, more like an intense climax culminating in this communal release.” Things took off from there, with artist Callum Buckland – better known as KAZLAND – joining for a debut tour in 2010.
Sly & The Family Drone have since expanded to a four-piece, having undergone numerous lineup changes over time. For the past couple of years James Allsop (a former Ronnie Scott jazz Award winner, no less) has brought a baritone sax to proceedings, and he appears on the upcoming album Gentle Persuaders for Love Love Records, due on 26 April. The release follows Molar Wrench, the acclaimed collaboration with Dead Neanderthals but Cargill says the idea of introducing brass was formed before their paths crossed with the Dutch jazz-noisers.
“It was something we’d wanted to do for a while,” Cargill clarifies. “We’ve been playing live with James since New Year’s Eve 2016, and it’s an absolute pleasure and honour to play together. Ed [Dudley – S&TFD’s chief module masher] and James also formed Well Hung Game as a duo of baritone and electronics [in 2017], so it just feels like a natural progression. It’s been pretty fruitful; James is an incredible musician and a good friend. As far as I’m concerned, Sly is the four of us.”
During a tour with Bruxa Maria in early 2018, Cargill was involved in a van wreck and subsequent robbery from which he still feels the effects. Gentle Persuaders, already complete, was necessarily shelved, and Cargill says he doubted whether he would ever return to Sly. “I didn’t want to do music at all after the crash,” he recalls. “I spent three weeks in hospital with some severe injuries; it took me until the summer to even want to think about getting back in a room with the rest of the band, to create music with my best friends. Eventually I decided to buy another mixer and gradually started gathering things together. We had one show booked but rather than try one and see how it went, I ended up booking an entire UK tour. Thankfully it went well and it was incredibly important in reminding me what it means to be in a band and tour, performing with your best friends, travelling and having a shared experience with an audience.”
Now Cargill is keen to make up for lost time. “Physically things are still a little difficult,” he says. “I’m still having physio and psycho therapy; it’ll be a long process but [having had] such a break it feels like I’d like to keep busy this year. Love Love have been incredibly supportive so far and I think it’ll be great to have their crowd exposed to our form of intense music and beneficial for us to reach an entirely new audience. With that hopefully comes more tours and festivals in new places too.”
Love Love Records, it has to be noted, are not well known for releasing the kind of noise Sly & The Family Drone are famous for, but it does pride itself on its support of what it terms “weirdo music.” It’s not like Sly are going to seem out of place joining a roster that already includes a gamut of oddities from the likes of Chevron, Anklepants, and Beastmaster, but Cargill admits it’s a move not many will have seen coming. “[Love Love] come from an entirely different world to ours,” he says, “[but] I’d been sat on the finished product for ages and after talking to them it felt like Gentle Persuaders would be a good fit. I think we’re in a different place now to where we were, but I think of records as being documents of a time and place and the album would sound quite different if we were to attempt a similar thing today.”
Opening with the creeping, dread-filled “Heaven’s Gate Dog Agility,” it is immediately obvious the album is a different beast from anything Sly have released before, and not just for the fact that Allsop’s wailing sax is now front and centre – the quaking scaffolding the other band members can build tentatively around. Slower, less frenetic and more concise than previous outings, Gentle Persuaders is the work of an outfit in total control of their vision, and one that quite obviously loves the process of exploring it together. “The more recent recordings have less of a ‘live’ feel,” Cargill told me before the album was made available to the press. “I don’t think they should be an exact replica of what is performed live [and] for a long time there was this perception that we were ‘only’ a live band. I’d like people to enjoy the records on their own merit.”
It’s true: never before have Sly sounded quite so professional a set-up. As much as I adore their earlier work, and as much as I know I’ll return to releases like Unnecessary Woe when I need a good freak out, or go and catch them live when I just want to stand and smile at the sheer glorious madness of it all, Gentle Persuaders is the first time they’ve felt quite so tight – nothing more required, nothing less. By the time “Jehovah’s Wetness” winds down, having chased its own tail through a tricksy tangle of intangible electronics, the most natural thing to want to do is flick back to the start and retake the entire journey.
As far as the future goes, Cargill remains coy: “I’m never really sure where things are heading with the band,” he offers. “It always feels organic, the way we’ve morphed over time [and] if we keep putting out records, and people keep coming to the gigs, then I can’t see that changing much.” Happily, newly settled and hopefully unimpeded, it seems like this year might be the one in which Sly can really take a run at things. Tantalisingly, Cargill hints at another possible release coming up, although how long it will take to emerge remains to be seen. “We’ve recorded and mixed it,” he finishes. “We’ll hold onto [it] for a while too…” If Gentle Persuaders is anything to go by, it will be well worth waiting for.
Gentle Persuaders will be released by Love Love Records on 26 April. The album is now available to pre-order here.