When Ian Black, aka SLUG, set about making his third album, he wasn’t thinking about how he could please and impress his fanbase. “I wondered if I could make an album where people who listen to my music ask, ‘are you sure you want to do this?’” he recalls.
Black had been thinking about albums released by revered artists that had largely been rejected by their respective fanbases. Tranquillity Base Hotel And Casino by Arctic Monkeys, Lou Reed’s Berlin and Leonard Cohen’s Death Of A Ladies Man, to be specific. “My friend Lucas Renney said Berlin sounded like Andrew Lloyd Webber on bad drugs having a breakdown. That sounded amazing to me!”
So, the Sunderland native began his mission to make an album that would challenge the listener, without just releasing ‘bad’ music. With his previous records, 2015’s RIPE and 2018’s Higgledypiggledy, Black developed his art school approach to music with an eclectic palette of pop, indie, rock and surf all held together with a healthy dose of groove. With new record, Thy Socialite!, it was time to throw some classic rock into the mix.
“I wondered what would happen if I took the really cheesy bits of my own record collection, the less indie audience friendly stuff: Toto, ZZ Top, Sweet, Def Leppard, and merged it with that SLUG sensibility. I wanted to amuse myself really, and amuse the people who have followed my music so far. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t just want to make music that was bad, but I love that element of risk. If you’re playing it safe, then you’re doing it wrong.”
The result is still very much a SLUG record in a wonderfully weird way, but with added pomp and a cheeky wink to hard rock theatrics. It’s an idea that could have easily become a novelty pastiche, but, as with every musical genre that Black turns his hand to, he weaves it so deftly into the SLUG sound that it seems it’s always belonged there.
Black’s venture into classic rock territory is nowhere more apparent than on opener Insults Sweet Like Treacle and closer Cut Of Your Jib, cleverly bookending the album to take the listener along on this new journey from beginning to end. Glam rock stomper Insults Sweet Like Treacle is dedicated to the dearly missed Dave Harper, drummer in Frankie & The Heartstrings and Pop Recs Ltd.’s founder, while Cut Of Your Jib is pure riff-heavy stadium rock.
“I’d never recommend this to anyone, but my wife was on a night out, so I decided to get some tins in and watch a full ZZ Top gig on YouTube. In that haze of drunkenness, as I walked to the fridge to get another tin, the idea for Cut Of Your Jib popped into my brain and hooked itself in there. I remember finishing it in the studio and thinking maybe I’ve gone a bit too far with this one, but then one of the members of ZZ Top died the day after I finished it, and I thought, well, that has to go on the album now!”
It’s not just the music of Thy Socialite! that revolts against modern trends; lyrically Black decided to experiment with what he refers to as “self-character assassination”. Seeing messages of positivity and inspiration in a lot of current music, he decided to do the complete opposite, or as he bluntly puts it with a knowing laugh, he decided to make himself “sound like a twat.”
“Times at the moment are so gloomy that people want to write music that cheers people up or makes them feel good about themselves – take the Self Esteem album for example – it’s brilliant and I understand why people find it uplifting. I really can’t do anything as good as that inspirationally, so you need people like me to come and write songs, knowingly of course, that go the other way. People say I’ve got quite a dark sense of humour, and that bleeds into a lot of the writing I do.”
Citing John Waters’ films, Brian De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise and the follow-up to The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Shock Treatment, as inspiration for their “campy, acidic humour”, the Ian Black of Thy Socialite! is very much an outlandish, satirical character. He’s the influencer you love-to-hate, the partygoer who always wants to be in the spotlight.
It’s all part of Black’s journey to create something challenging, but it’s all presented with a wink and tongue firmly in cheek. “I like the idea that people can look at the more acidic lyrics and wonder which ones are completely made up and which ones are thoughts I’ve had personally,” he explains. “We all have those thoughts; they can be as fleeting as a couple of seconds and then you check yourself. It’s all part of being human.”