The new single from Kent duo Slaves is called Cheer Up London. I’m sorry to tell you, long-suffering commuters, that isn’t particularly cheery. Beginning with a vicious cackle from singer/shouter/drummer Isaac Holman, it features a bassline so menacing that you’d cross the street to avoid it on a dark night, and a screamed chorus that goes, “You’re dead already! Dead, dead, already!” It might be the heaviest dose of punk rock sarcasm since the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen.
I tell the pair that I enjoyed the sneering cry of “Mind the gap!” at the end of the song. “Ah, so it did cheer you up a little bit then,” observes guitarist Laurie Vincent, 21. He’s from Maidstone, 23-year-old Holman is from Tunbridge Wells, but both have been living in London since their band started to take off. The new song was inspired by many miserable mornings on the Tube.
“I went through a little phase of shouting, ‘Cheer up London!’ when I was on the Underground, everyone looking like an ant in a colony,” says Holman. “I pretty much wrote the song on the commute. It was a joke song but when we played it to our producer, he said, ‘That’s the one.’”
It’s a fine introduction to the world of this memorable band, who perform side by side with Vincent wrestling his guitar while Holman bashes a basic stand-up drumkit (using the wrong end of the sticks to make it even louder) and shouts. Some songs, especially Cheer Up London with its mere handful of lyrics, sound as if they were written in minutes: a riff, a rhythm and a slogan – job done. But such spontaneity gives them a savage thrill.
Don’t write them off as unthinking noisemakers though. June’s debut album, Are You Satisfied?, offers plenty of surprises, from the two cute dogs on its neon pink cover to (gasp!) an acoustic ballad. “It’s a case of not doing what people expect,” says Holman. “We never said we were punks. People love to categorise things.”
“Can the headline of your article be, ‘It’s Primal’?” asks Vincent, who has decided that that’s the best word for a genre he could be a part of. With his shaved head and more tattoos than a Russian prison inmate, he looks intimidating but turns out to be a sweet-natured hugger and prolific painter who hopes to put on his own exhibition in the autumn. We meet in The Premises, the Hoxton cafe and recording studio where Slaves recorded their album at the end of last year, and the lady owner is delighted to see them again as they take on two veggie breakfasts.
As well as playing in the band Vincent has been working as an apprentice tattooist in a shop in Canterbury, and wants to carve a career in body art as well. About 40 per cent of his skin has been inked so far, beginning when he was 16, though it looks like more. That’s because he hasn’t started on his back yet.
The look, he says, helps to filter any idiots from his life who might judge a book by its cover. “My appearance doesn’t go along with how I am. When people get to know me they realise I’m quite soft and feminine. If people judge me on the way I look, then they might not talk to me, so I’ve instantly cut out a layer of bullshit.”
The day we meet he’s just bought himself a white boiler suit and is showing everyone pictures of himself in it on his phone. Slaves have already moved on from their early look: sweaty Vincent with his top off, Holman in shirt and tie like an unhinged office worker. I tell the singer that his mix of smart attire and pure fury (seek out their unforgettable appearance on Later… With Jools Holland from last autumn) reminded me of the film Falling Down, in which office drone Michael Douglas goes on a violent rampage after a bad day. He says he hasn’t seen it. “Now we dress how we want. We have to keep evolving. We can’t just stick to the one idea. I’m well up for some silly outfits at the festivals,” he says. “I don’t think you should ever live up to expectations in this line of work. It’s good to trample on cliches.”
“We don’t want to be a part of something that already exists,” adds Vincent. “Like the two-piece phenomenon.” Because of their volume and the fact that they’re a pair, Slaves have been likened to the biggest breakthrough rock band of the moment, Royal Blood. But this lot are much more fun, with a sense of humour that tempers the anger and noise. Their early song, Where’s Your Car Debbie?, is two minutes of shouting about being lost in a car park.
It is true, though, that Royal Blood opened the door for heavy music to be on daytime radio again. Radio 1 adores Slaves. “Royal Blood definitely pushed the boundaries for radio. They made loads of people remember that they love rock music,” says Vincent.
“It’s hilarious screaming ‘You’re dead already!’ on Radio 1. It’s so funny,” says his partner. He remembers the toilet circuit all too well. Slaves gigged hard for several years before earning their major label record deal, while Vincent worked in a milkshake shop and Holman split his time between unpacking boxes in the storeroom at TopShop and being a care worker. “We’ve played gigs to literally one person in a room before, and that one person really didn’t enjoy it.” They’ve never felt so loved as they are right now, especially because one of the main reasons they’re a duo is that no one else wanted to be in the band with them. “We’re really lucky that we found each other. We lived 45 minutes apart so our paths never crossed until we were older,” says Vincent.
Now they’re primed for surprising stardom and a summer in which they’ll be the must-see band at the festivals. “The biggest thing we could ever achieve is to make people realise they can do whatever they want,” says Vincent. “When I started this band I was nowhere near as happy as I am now, or as confident. Mine and Isaac’s friendship has made us realise you can do what you want to make you happy, dress how you want, make the music you want. You don’t have to conform to whatever else is happening. If you want to start a new band and it doesn’t sound like everyone else, that’s good.” This pair are the living proof.
May 6-7, Scala, N1 (020 7833 2022, scala-london.co.uk). Cheer Up London is out now on Virgin EMI.