Eric Slick on Ringo, recording Palisades, Jungian dream therapy, and his personal guide to meditation.
By Kari Leigh Ames.
Photo by Shervin Lainez.
We caught up with Eric Slick (Dr. Dog, Lithuania) between a solo in-store appearance at Fond Object Records’ 4th Avenue location and a full-band performance opening for Sinkane at the High Watt in Nashville, Tennessee, at the last show of his recent tour. Eric was kind enough to let us into his world and, even, collaborate on a signature guitar strap for our artist series collection.
Read our interview to catch his take on childhood influences, psychoanalysis of his dreams, and recording his debut solo record. You can find his meditation zine, "A Personal Guide for Meditation," and his new album Palisades, out now via Egghunt Records, on his website or wherever you get your music.
Photo by Kari Leigh Ames.
What’s your favorite press-thing you’ve ever done?
Well, this now.
What’s the most annoying thing about being interviewed?
Nothing. I like doing interviews! The only annoying thing in my life is that I have to be places at times, that’s the only thing. The fact that we’re playing so early is annoying, but I’ll live with that.
I was hoping you could talk some more about your family and how they influenced your music.
My family has influenced me in a huge way. I would say probably the biggest influence on me from the get-go, because we had a record collection growing up. Listening to the Beatles with my dad, my mom putting on Joni Mitchell records, that was my introduction to music. They strongly encouraged me to play music. My sister, Julie Slick (of the Adrian Belew Power Trio), was a little bit slower on the uptake because she was more into things like ballet dancing and softball. When I was eleven, she was twelve, she started playing bass. I had already been playing drums for a while. I started out as a drummer. Yeah, family is a huge part of my musical adventure.
When was the first time that you realized that you were going to play music forever? That you were a musician?
Probably the first time I ever played on a stage. Technically, the first time I was ever on stage was for a daycare performance, which was actually pretty traumatizing, but when I was nine years old, that was my first time on stage. I was pretty introverted as a kid, very shy, and being onstage brought me out of my shell. It was a way for me to be myself and be extroverted. Eventually, I became extroverted in my day-to-day life. I was nine at the Griffin Cafe in Philadelphia, in a super small coffee shop, that’s where I knew. I didn’t really have a doubt in my mind, ever since that moment. My family also pumped me up pretty hard.
I know that you have some experience with a School of Rock.
Yeah, I went to the very first one. This guy, Paul Green, invented [rock] music school, and the first show that I played not in my living room for my parents was at a School of Rock event. Now, it’s kind of mutated into this whole other nationwide phenomenon, but the Philly one is the first one. Actually, Paul Green was playing drums at the very first School of Rock variety show performance, where they were playing a bunch of different classic rock songs. I remember walking in and being like, “This guy’s the worst drummer I’ve ever seen and I should play drums for this.” I had an ego and I was like, “Yeah, I should play drums, surely I’m good.” I was nine, so there’s no way that I was any better, but that’s how I got started. I was very adamant about joining the rock school. I dragged my sister along, and we got started concurrently. I’d been playing drums since I was two, and they didn’t have a drummer. Paul Green was playing drums to fill-in, because he was only teaching guitar students and bass students at that time, so I took it upon myself to be assertive and be the drummer kid.
Do you ever get pissed at your drummer?
No, actually, because I pick drummers that I’m a fan of. Being a drummer makes me very sensitive to other drummers. Being up front, it’s great, because I can tell the drummer what to do without it being this passive aggressive thing. Guitarist-drummer-dynamic is always so rough, and for this band it’s really nice, I know how to talk to [Ricardo], because I talk to him the way I’d want to be talked to.
What do you like in a drummer in your band? Is it the same as your style or different?
Oh, it’s always going to be different. Even if I tried to find somebody who is just like me, it would still be different. With Ricardo, he has that sensibility of being reserved. I like drummers who are generally pretty reserved when they play.
Who are some hallmark drummers for you?
Ringo. Everyone shits on Ringo, and they’re stupid. He’s the best. Jim Keltner, who played with George Harrison, he did all the Phil Spector stuff. Anybody who played on big pop records, who plays tastefully, I’m a fan of. Then on the tech-y side of things, I could go on and on about drummers that I like, but they’re more inspirational from a technique standpoint. They’re not inspirational from a musical standpoint most of the time. There’s only a select few that have blown me away with being really fast and being really musical. A lot of jazz drummers are really fast and really musical. Most of the time when I’m making a reference to drumming, it’s Ringo, John Bonham, Earl Palmer—who played with Little Richard—it’s always the same couple people that play tastefully.
What’s your favorite Beatles’ record that Ringo played on?
I love the way he plays drums on Abbey Road, because the drumming on that record’s insane. There’s all these overdubs on “Something” that doesn’t make any sense, and the beat to “Come Together” makes no sense. Like, who would start a song that way? [mimics the opening of “Come Together” on air drums] That’s totally not a drummer sensibility. He’s also a lefty playing a right-handed kit, he’s fascinating as a drummer. I talk about him all the time. Everyone thinks of Ringo as this soft-hitter, which didn’t happen until later on, he became known for that. Early on, he was beating the fuck out of the drums. I just remember my folks showing me a VHS tape of this Beatles performance, called Ready, Steady, Go!, and ever since that moment, I was like, “I’m gonna play drums.” No doubt in my mind. I even wiggled my head like him as a baby. It was a deep, deep Ringo connection.
Do you want to talk about the Three of Cups?
In 2014, I moved to North Carolina to cleanse my palate. I grew up in Philly and I was like, “I’m done with Philly, fuck Philly.” I moved to Asheville and I got really into… spirituality? [laughs] I was meditating and getting into dream therapy, so I started seeing this dream therapist. I’d go to her once a week, and I’d write down all my dreams after I had them, and she would do a full Carl Jungian psychoanalysis of the dreams. She would tell me, “Okay, if you’re having a dream about being in love with somebody, it doesn’t mean that you’re actually in love with someone; it actually means all this other stuff.” The last time that I went to her, I was sad because I was being kicked out of my situation in North Carolina. They were selling the house that I was renting, and I was really bummed out, but I had this dream that I was on the beach, overlooking the water. I was wearing this gold robe, and I had a scythe, and I was singing to the ocean. This person walked up to me, this formless thing walked up to me and was like, “You should keep singing,” so I wrote that dream down and went to my dream therapist. I didn’t tell her about my dream, but she did my tarot, and the first card that she pulls is the Three of Cups, which is a guy wearing a gold robe, overlooking the ocean, holding a pole. I was like, “That’s the dream that I had. That’s the exact vision in my dream,” and she said, “Of course it is. You know. I’m blowing your mind right now, but this is totally chance. The Three of Cups means whatever was represented in your dream, you were singing, that means that you have to keep doing it. You have to do it until you get the best at it.”
The Three of Cups is the card of transcendence and success and realizing your dreams. It’s not even in the major arcana, it’s in the minor arcana, but she was like, “This is so important.” It was a month before I was gonna go record [Palisades] that I just put out; I’d just finished writing the record, too, and I was super self-conscious about it. She was like, “You have to do it, even if you’re self conscious about it, even if it’s gonna suck for you. Even if you’re going to be embarrassed, you have to do it,” so that’s why I put it on the back of the record, and I have the gold robe on the front. It was all just making sense, having a Side One and a Side Two and having the tarot card be in the middle as the imaginary Side Three. It all just kind of clicked in one moment and I was like, “Oh, I have to put the tarot card on the back.” That was such a kick in my ass to actually record the album. Even after that, it still took me two years to get the guts to finish it because I was so self conscious about it. The album is all songs about your subconscious and the deepest stuff in you. It’s a way of bringing it all together, and now we got to put it on a strap so everyone can wear it and feel good feelings.
Where did you record Palisades?
I recorded in Anacortes, Washington. There’s a guy who lives in Anacortes, named Phil Elverum, who was in a band called The Microphones—that’s now called Mount Eerie—and he has this old church that is now a Croatian club. It’s this massive room, he’s got all this incredible old gear, and it’s super cheap to record there. You’re in the San Juan Islands, so you’re just surrounded by all this natural beauty. Deer are native to the island, so they’re not afraid of you. You’ll be walking down the street, and deer will just come up to you. It’s like being in Twin Peaks, but with deer instead of people. [laughs] There’s a lot of musicians that live out there, Phil Elverum lives out there, a lot of the people who were on K Records in the 90s. A lot of Olympia people moved up there, and there’s an incredible, thriving music scene. I had recorded there with a friend a couple months prior, and I was like, “Okay, if I go back and record, I have to do it here, because this is a spiritual spot.” You can go to the water, and there’s a beautiful overlook. I could show you photos and you’d be like, “Let’s go there tomorrow.” It’s an hour-and-a-half north of Seattle along the Vancouver border.
How long were you there?
We did the album in two days, so it wasn’t a lot of time. We didn’t have a ton of time to do it. It took even longer to finish it. I probably spent eight days on the record and it took two years to make, so… [laughs] It’s ridiculous, but there’s Dr. Dog, there’s other stuff. I have another band called Lithuania, and we did two Lithuania records in the span of trying to finish this record.
Is the guy that’s playing with you tonight from Lithuania?
He is, the drummer, yeah. He’s, like, the only drummer I trust.
Did you write it all in a more condensed time period?
I wrote the Lithuania record and the solo record over the course of a year, but the majority of this record was done in a week. I wrote it in a week when I was deeply meditating. I wasn’t listening to any music. I was just in a house, alone, with my piano and very little. I had all my stuff in Philadelphia, got rid of everything—purged everything. Just started fresh and wrote the songs seemingly out of nowhere. A lot of meditating and then whole songs would just kind of come to me. I’d write them down and that’s what’s on the record. A lot of lyrics, I go back and read them and I’m like, “I have no idea what this means.” The song “Palisades” in particular, I’m still trying to figure out what that song means.
Do you keep up with your meditation practice?
Twice a day.
Is that hard to do on the road?
It is. It’s really hard, but I wake up every morning, even after I’ve had like five hours of sleep, and it just centers me. If there’s a day where I can’t do my two meditations until later in the day, the first half of the day will be complete shit. I will be in the worst mood, or I’ll be super scatterbrained. This morning I did it, and the rest of my day was awesome. It just depends on the day, it depends on your travel schedule, but doing it is always better than waiting to do it, for sure.
How long do you meditate for?
Twenty minutes in the morning, twenty minutes in the afternoon. Sometimes, if I’m on tour, I might only have a 15 minute window, even 15 minutes will get me to the same place. I have a phrase that I repeat to myself. For me, as someone who’s incredibly ADHD, it makes me super mellow and creative. It allows creativity to happen. I feel like they should teach it in school, everyone would benefit.
It came from David Lynch, honestly. I read a book called Catching the Big Fish and it was all about how David Lynch, from the beginning of Eraserhead, has been doing meditation. It blew my mind, because when I watch David Lynch movies, I’m like, “This guy must be suffering so horribly, this is the darkest shit I’ve ever seen.” It just showed me that this guy has a complete access to his subconscious, and he mines it for his art. His normal day-to-day life is actually very peaceful. A lot of people in my life are like, “Why is your record so dark? It sounds so depressing.” I’m just mining the darkness. We all have that. If you don’t think that you have it, you’re lying to yourself. We all have that darkness. We’ve all experienced death. We’ve all experienced pain. We’ve all been broken up with. It’s just that you don’t want to feel those uncomfortable feelings. That’s why we have this [gestures to his phone]. That’s why we have drugs.
A similar example is when the White Album was made, [the Beatles] were all doing transcendental meditation and John Lennon didn’t understand. He was like, “I’m writing ‘I’m so tired’ and ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun,’ these super dark, dirge-y tunes, but I’m blissed out in India, what’s the deal?” And the Maharishi was like, “It’s just you accessing your subconscious. There’s gotta be a lot of stuff down there that you’re not picking up on.”
George Harrison maintained his meditation, and All Things Must Pass was a meditation record. Seinfeld’s been meditating since 1972. You would be shocked at how many people have been doing it for as long as they have and just haven’t talked about it. Every Stevie Wonder record was made under the influence of meditation. He even says it on Innervisions, he has a lyric that says transcendental meditation is the best, and you’re like, “Woah. Fuckin’ nuts.”
Why do you think that darkness comes out in your art? The purpose of it? Is it catharsis?
Yeah, it’s catharsis, and it’s also about understanding who we are. To be a human is to be a suffering entity, right? That’s what buddhists say, you’re born into this world and you’re not really wanting to be born into this world. Why do you think babies cry? They’re so confused about why they exist. That’s the cosmic thing right there; you really didn’t ask to be here. Two people chose to bring you into this world, however it’s done, however you wanna do that—petri dish, or however it’s done—you know, we didn’t ask for it.
To be a human is to suffer and to die is to suffer. We all know that death is this inevitable thing. I feel like a lot of artists have a fascination with death. I think a lot of their art is driven by, “Well, I’ve only got so much time on this planet, and I’m going to die, so I might as well make a ton of shit,” or, “I might as well make something out of this.” I really do feel that way. That’s where the drive comes from, whether we wanna admit that or not. It’s the knowing that death and taxes are inevitable, y’know? I think I was very outwardly goofy and happy, but I had a lot more stuff bubbling up underneath, then I started [meditating] in 2011 after I lost my best friend to leukemia. I didn’t quite know how to deal with death. My family had never given me the tools to deal with death. Meditation is my way of understanding his passing and also understanding the relativity between people and all these things that I wasn’t doing enough, and I started writing songs! I wasn’t able to complete a song until I started meditating.
When you meditate, do you see the words for the music, or do you hear it first?
It depends. Sometimes I’ll have a piece of music that I’m working on that might be in bits and pieces, but then I’ll meditate. I think “Palisades,” the song on my new record, is a perfect example. I was just sitting on my couch, meditating, and the word “palisades” came up and I was like, “What the fuck does that mean?” I got a piece of paper, sat back down, said “Okay, what’s that?” All the words to the chorus came, the song wrote itself. It was one of those things where, looking back on it now, I still don’t know how that happened. It’s just a very wild experience.
But then, the second to last song, [called “Evergreen”], that took three days to write. I was banging my head against the wall, and I would meditate and meditate, “What is this song? What am I doing with this thing?” It was in the wrong key, and then the parts weren’t connecting. Nothing about the song was connecting, and after three days of beating my head against the wall, it was done, but every process is different. As long as I’m using meditation to get there, though, it feels true and it feels real to me.
“The Dirge,” the song I opened with at Fond Object, and the song we sound-checked with, that one I had just meditated when I woke up in the morning, and I just had two chords. If you listen to the demo of it, I haven’t even warmed up my vocals yet, I’m singing the shape of the song. I went and got coffee, came back, and all the lyrics were done. If any idea is worth it’s weight, it’ll stick.
The beauty of creativity is it’s a renewable resource. If you just keep going back to it, it’ll be there. Leonard Cohen took eight years to write “Hallelujah” with sixty-four verses that nobody even knows what they are. He did vipassana, which is where you immerse yourself in silence. And he did that after “Hallelujah,” go figure.
I’m a huge proponent, I want to get into this in my day-to-day life, teaching kids how to meditate, because I feel like we’re at a boiling point with mental illness in the country and so much of it is kids not knowing how to communicate, exist, deal with their pain. That’s why so many kids get into fights, that’s why so many kids judge and bully. In California, they’ve implemented meditation for half the public schools and the grades are skyrocketing. These are public schools; it’s a wide, diverse range of kids, all different backgrounds, deadbeat parents or affluent parents who are negligent. There’s this whole spectrum of kids out there who are severely missing out on their life.
What would you recommend as a starting point to someone who wants to try meditation?
It depends on what kind of brain you have. For me, silent meditation is torture, because I become obsessed with whatever sound is happening around me. I feel like for the ADHD mind, which is the majority of us now, we’re super impulsive. Having something to root you while you’re meditating, a mantra, would really help.
You can look online, there’s all these Sanskrit mantras that represent different things, but the important thing for me is not knowing what the Sanskrit means. For someone with an ADHD mind, you latch onto the meaning of the word, and it takes you out of the conversation. What a mantra does is gets the mind to focus on a word that has no meaning to you, so you’re just hearing sound. That’s why “Om” is such a popular mantra that people get started with. Om doesn’t really have a meaning, it’s just a universal vibration.
Now, it’s become a cultural thing, so it’s important to find a word that means nothing to you and don’t even look into it. Look up a random Sanskrit phrase, and try it. For people who are already a bit more centered and focused, try silent meditation. Just focus on breathing, because it might even be anxiety caused by learning how to breathe wrong or the myriad of ways in which you could learn something wrong. Breathing is something we all learn how to do wrong, in my opinion. I would say, for artists and musicians, because we’re already so tightly wound and scatterbrained, I think it’s hard for them to stay organized. Having a phrase to review is really helpful, so if you go online and start with Sanskrit mantras, start with that.
Give yourself time to get into it, too. Give yourself five minutes to calm your mind, open your eyes, close your eyes. Actually, I’m selling a [mediation zine] out there that I made, it teaches you how to meditate.
What’s the name of it?
It’s “A Personal Guide for Meditation,” and it’s kind of tongue-in-cheek at some points, but, directly in the center of the zine, there’s “Here’s How to Meditate.” If you have any questions, I put my email in the back. Just trying to help my fellow musicians.
Thanks to Eric Slick and Kari Leigh Ames for this thoughtful interview. Have a listen to Eric's new record, Palisades, below.