Photo by Wren Werner
Photo by Wren Werner

Spotlight: The Slums

by / May. 13, 2015 8am EST

The Slums practice in a beat-up building with beer cans stacked high on basically every flat surface but the foosball table, which remains open for impromptu games. It’s got all the sleaze of a well-worn frat house minus the bland, privileged pretension of actual fraternity members.

The beer cans bring to mind the cover of the band’s self-titled debut EP, which features guitarist/vocalist Steven Floyd, drummer Ryan Schlia, guitarist Matthew Zych and bassist Jake Strawser toasting the camera behind a table littered with cigarette butts, beef jerky, pizza boxes and a whole lot of empty PBRs and Old Viennas. An American flag hangs in the background and in the foreground someone has stabbed a pocket knife into the table.

I ask Schlia, the band’s drummer, if they drank all of those beers for the photo or if they’d collected them over time. He sighs, telling me that they’d drank everything while trying to brainstorm a different cover photo. The band, he admits, might have a tendency toward “extravagant things.”

A more positive spin: the four members of The Slums are guys who tend to push each other. Proof: the drinking, the fact that Strawser ate a week old oatmeal raisin cookie just to get a rise out of everyone during practice, and the sheer volume at which the band plays. Before they start practicing, Strawser hands me a heavy set of headphones to protect my hearing, and once they start, I’m grateful. But I don’t see a single member opt for earplugs.

Hearing damage aside, the upside outweighs these potential downsides, and the upside is this: when you bring together four musicians who want to impress each other so sincerely, the result is likely to be interesting.

In the beginning, The Slums was four friends who all loved hardcore. That influence is obvious: listen to vocalist/guitarist Steven Floyd’s screams at the beginning of “Hot Skins” off of their self-titled EP if you don’t believe me. But Floyd says that the band never planned to fully give into their affection for heavier music.

“We have in the back of our minds that we don’t want to be a hardcore band,” Floyd says. “It was more like indie music that was super influenced by hardcore… but now it isn’t so black and white. We’ve got a nice gray going on.”

It’s a departure from the members’ past projects. Floyd, for instance, used to front local indie heavyweights The Malones, who had more in common with The Strokes than Every Time I Die.

Combined with the pounding of the rhythm section, the dual guitar heroics of Floyd and Zych contribute quite a bit to the band’s melodic heaviness. Say what you will about the music of The Slums, but it isn’t lazy. There’s always a melody or a shift in the arrangement to hold on to. Floyd and Zych are both active guitarists, and if this leads to a bit of noise and confusion at practice (“We definitely overthink things and fall into a spiral of hell,” admits Zych), it makes the end product that much more intricate and cohesive.

But as much as the band’s je ne sais pas comes from the members’ interplay, it’s also the product of Floyd’s creative energy. Floyd brings parts of songs to practice for the band to work out, and despite the fact that the music they end up with might sound completely different, he’s still The Slums’ creative catalyst.

This fact is made clear when Floyd leaves the room to grab another beer. I ask if anyone has any shit to talk on him while he’s gone, and the band playfully indulges my joke, sarcastically slinging a few faux insults. But it gets quiet pretty fast and Strawser turns to me.

“That kid’s the backbone of this band,” he says. “Everyone’s extremely talented… but he’s a special kind of weird.”

I get the feeling that Floyd might equivocate on that point if he heard it being made. As talented a musician as he is, he’s pretty bashful when you ask him about his music directly. When I ask him what a particular song is about, for instance, he looks down at his feet and says something vague about “feeling shitty and being shitty.” The band, meanwhile, is all ears for his answer, and I infer that Floyd probably hasn’t been all that hot to dissect his lyrics with them, either.

That shyness, however, melts away when The Slums resume playing. Floyd screams his lungs out, Schlia beats his drums, Zych shreds out a melody and Strawser stands in the middle with his bass, holding things together. My ears verge on bleeding and I look around, expecting the volume to shake all the empty beer cans off the tables and onto the ground. But everything stays exactly where it belongs.