Interview: Sly & The Family Drone

Interview: Sly & The Family Drone

How does it feel to be part of the “revival” of Supersonic Festival?

Pretty mind-blowing for us. The lineups are always great; they book these incredible touring acts alongside smaller local bands. To be invited is absolutely ace, and playing with bands that we’ve been into for years…I’m massively proud for us. It’s rad that they’re doing it after a short break and it’s a cool lineup.

Great to see that it’s back in The Custard Factory too. Which stage are you playing?

We’re on the main stage. It’s us and then Wolf Eyes straight after. I was expecting that we’d be on at four in the afternoon in the little room or something, but we’re on at eight in the main room. Again, that’s incredible and quite a big surprise. So yeah, either somebody’s keen or it’s a big admin error [laughs]. Either way, it’s pretty amazing for us. But I know there’s this new space as well so I’m keen to check that out.

I went to the edition in 2011, and by that point they’d really got it down in regards to the venues involved (Boxed, Space 2, Old Library, Theatre Space). It’ll be interesting to see how it’s been set up this year.

We played Islington Mill in Manchester a couple of weeks ago, and that seems like a similar vibe: it’s a huge ex-industrial space and they use it in a great way, with loads of stuff going on over various floors. I think it’ll be pretty similar to that.

And you’ll be playing on the floor I’m guessing?

Yeah, that’s the plan. There was a production email that went around and they’re aware of what we want to do. Logistically I don’t really know what will happen, but we seem to manage to make it work every time. They’re up for making it happen, so that should be cool.

I’ve seen you a couple of times now, and how you set up seems to depend largely on the characteristics of the space itself. Is there much pre-planning, or do you just turn up and work it out when you get there?

I do try to be a bit more organised with it now, because I really hate turning up – especially if we’re late – and not getting a chance to set up and check that it’s all working. We don’t necessarily need a sound check as we don’t play through the house PA, but it’s just to check that all our gear’s working and that nothing has broken in transit. But the worst thing for me is to get there and go, “oh, this band have to play now…” So by the time it gets round to us playing, nothing works and it all goes horribly wrong. I much prefer to be a bit more organised now, just so everyone knows what to expect – while it seems a bit chaotic, I prefer to have our technical stuff ready to go.

I think that just comes from my job as a sound man as well; you know, getting technical riders, getting everything organised…everyone knows what to expect, as opposed to the sound guy turning up and being really confused by it all. That used to happen all the time – he’d be like, “ah, you’re a noise band – I’ll just turn the desk down”. So it’d be really quiet on stage, really quite in the house, and it just loses everything in translation – there’s no dynamic and you can hear other people, and it just creates a really shit atmosphere. So that’s why we prefer to play through all our own gear.

From my perspective, seeing you play on the floor is incredibly immersive – you have a drumstick flailing past one ear and a speaker barking in the other. You mentioned there about the dissociation that can occur between yourselves and the audience…did that have a bearing on your decision to move to playing on the floor?

The first time we did it was at Woolfire near Winchester; it’s similar to Supernormal Festival – it’s really small and based on this farmland. I barely knew anyone on the bill, but a lot of friend’s bands went and we just went down for a really cool weekend. I think it was quite early on in 2007 or something, and it was one of those instances of the soundman going “you’re a noise band – keep it out of the red and I’ll just turn it down”, so we decided to play in front of the stage on the grass. There were loads of kids and they got real close, and people just started joining in. It was quite organic really – I don’t know if it was this really hippy idea, but it was really cool to see these kids getting involved and hitting drums and bins and stuff.

I just prefer to have that instant reaction from people; when you’re right in the middle and close to people, they either can choose to leave or be involved. I quite like that instant response. It’s quite a physical thing as well – I like being able to feel bass and air moving from the speakers, which is quite important in the translation of it.

Does that preference for loudness and physicality influence the gear and instruments you use?

Yeah, I think it does. We’re always on the lookout for other amps – I just picked up some new subs in Manchester, and the Islington Mill gig was the first time we used them. It transformed the bass frequencies instantly, and it was like being punched in the stomach – it was amazing. I had this oscillator tone going, and as soon as I plugged in the sub speakers it absolutely transformed it; Kaz and I were just like, “yes! That’s the one!” So yeah, creating our own PA stack to get the sounds we want is really important I think. We’re interested in that physicality of the sound, and being stood next to it with your trousers flapping or whatever…it’s a totally stupid and obnoxious thing, but I think it’s great [laughs].

With the physicality and immediacy in mind, how does the live experience contrast with your approach to recording your recent album, Unnecessary Woe

We try to record most of our live sets, and it was basically just an extension of that: to capture particular movements that we feel work live, and get them down properly. It was all recorded live over two days. We just set up as we would live, and then spent a bit of time getting the mic’s and drumkits set up. There were two full drum kits on the album and I had some set up as well, and then there were four of us doing electronics and processing the drums and things. We had ideas about what we wanted to do but it was still an organic process of playing; we just left the tapes running and got it down.

It’s only come out on vinyl, so the first side is 17 minutes long and two tracks, and the third track is the whole second side of vinyl. I think it works as a record with that in mind. We had graphic scores to get everyone on the same page, and I think we did six takes of the whole thing.

You use graphic scores?

Yeah. Two days ago we did it just to practice for Supersonic, so that we know where we’re going to go. Some parts are completely improvised, but for other bits we’ve got ideas of certain movements or actual tracks that we want to play. Obviously they can be different every time we play them, but it’s always got a particular theme and rhythm – there’s a concept there running through it.

Not to spoil your secrets, but what form does this graphical score take? Lines? Shapes? 

Both! It’s just basically getting a load of sharpies and drawing up patterns. I sort of conduct in a way as well. When we’re doing it live I do simple signals to the drummer, and it works organically; there’s ebb and flow and we listen to eachother playing and respond. The graphic score is there to pick out themes and movements, but it can be totally loose and extend pieces. I really like that; it doesn’t have to be “eight bars of this”, and when you’re improvising live with other people, it’s really nice to have the freedom to do that.

I guess it allows you to respond to the space and the occasion. And when you’re handing out drums to the crowd, perhaps they’ll cotton onto something worth pursuing… 

Yeah. Sometimes people have brought their own sticks and start twatting the drums before anything even happens…I mean, I like encouraging that kind of behaviour, but it’s not a complete free-for-all, you know? I remember seeing when Lightning Bolt played at Tufnell Park Dome. Have we talked about this before?

I was there!

Brian Chippendale was like, punching this guy and stuff. He was like, “if you can’t keep a beat you’re gonna get conked in the head!” And that’s totally right – it’s all about rhythm and this forward projection, and if someone starts fucking around then it loses that. Generally people are really respectful of it, and either they don’t want to get involved or they really want to get involved in such a way that it makes sense. It’s a cool live experience when people do that – some people might totally lose their shit and just enjoy thrashing the shit out of a floor tom.

You seem to get some really intense reactions to your live performances.

When we record our sets, sometimes you can hear other people talking when I’ve left the tape on after we’ve finished playing. You can snippets of their conversation, and some of them are like, “That’s not even fucking music – what the fuck was that?”, while others are saying, “that was totally insane! Do one more!” Other people just come up and give you a massive sweaty hug. That’ll do.

I really like the album reviews, because there isn’t that physical thing that you can latch onto straight away. People can translate it and you can imagine what’s going on. For example, in that Peter Kemp one he was writing about a machine assembling itself and moving around, or in yours, you speak about a haunted house where there’s these creaks and this ebb and flow of this weird machine. It’s amazing that people can visualise these ideas. That’s what music can be – open to interpretation. If people get a certain image from it, that’s amazing; there’s nothing that says that you have to picture this, or that it’s supposed to represent a particular idea.

The first time I listened to your record was on a plane over to Keffalonia actually. I’m sure that review would have turned out entirely differently had the first listen taken place in my own flat or something. 

Yeah, that’s great. I love hearing stuff like that.

So what else is coming up for you?

Well Supersonic is obviously a huge thing, and I haven’t really thought much further than this weekend! I’d like to get a couple of tours in before the end of the year, be that UK or Europe or both. The tour we did in February was really positive – there were some really cool bands and we met some great people. To have a continuation of that would be ace. Hopefully we can get around a bit more and watch it not transpire into record sales. [laughs]


Supersonic Festival website –

Buy/listen to Unnecessary Woe by Sly & The Family Drone –