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Published: 2018/02/20
by Matt Inman

Talking Bullfighting with Dr. Dog’s Eric Slick

Kelly Giarocco

Eric Slick has been the drummer for Dr. Dog since 2010, but recently, he’s struck out on his own while the band took a break from touring and recording together. In 2017, Slick released his first solo effort, Palisades, trying his hand at leading his own project and touring around the record. Soon after, he jumped into a venture that was a long time coming—a string quartet-based EP titled Bullfighter and based on the incredible story of the first American bullfighter.

While Dr. Dog are set for a busy year—the band will release their return-from-hiatus album Critical Equation this April and head out on an extensive tour into the summer—Slick is still getting in some solo time, as he will premiere Bullfighter with the Aster String Quartet tonight (February 20) at Three’s Brewing in Brooklyn. Here, Slick discusses the impetus and inspiration behind Bullfighter, what it’s like being back with his bandmates in Dr. Dog, his strange initial introduction to the band back in 2007 and the time Joe Russo taught him a thing or two about putting stickers on his drum set.

Ahead of the project’s debut in Brooklyn, let’s talk about how Bullfighter came to be.

I started working on this project in May of last year. I’ve always wanted to compose for string quartet, and I started taking composition lessons about 10 years ago as a way to stay fresh while I wasn’t on tour and also as a way to follow this passion of wanting to compose for not only strings but for any instrument that wasn’t drums. So I started studying with this guy in Philadelphia and then it all kind of came into fruition around May of last year and it was just the right time to get started on it. Dr. Dog was in a lull—we were not touring or anything—so I wrote it super quick and recorded it really quick, and now I feel like it’s the right time to start playing it out.

So it’s for string quartet, but you will be playing as well, right?

Yeah, exactly. You know, it’s funny because online it gets written about as a string quartet, but it’s more like a song cycle, where like I’m singing on top of this string quartet. And really this is just the basic, base-level version of the full-blown idea that I eventually want it to be—a contemporary dance piece—but I’m just doing things little by little whenever I have down time.

Where did the inspiration for the piece come from?

Initially, I wanted to write the string quartet about some really personal things, so the idea for Bullfighter was to be a piece about my family history, which is kind of a crazy and long story. But then it started evolving. I read about this bullfighter—the first American bullfighter—a guy named Sidney Franklin. He was from Brooklyn, he was Jewish [nicknamed “El Torero de la Torah,” actually] and he was also closeted. So I was reading all these stories about this guy and, with the family history aspect, there were some interesting parallels there. I thought I could write from the perspective of this character who has absolutely nothing to do with me but had some similarities, you know—coming from a Jewish family, and feeling kind of misplaced in certain situations. I was able to tell the story that I wanted to tell through a character so that it wasn’t just about me. I get kind of bored when I write about myself, so it’s nice to be able to have this narrative going through this other story, and the stories are kind of weaving in and out of each other. I mean, there are definite differences between our personalities, but it was really inspiring.

And then the name Bullfighter just came from the fact that my astrological sign is Taurus, which is the bull. I was like, “Huh, bull, what can I play around with that’s kind of like a bull? Okay, ‘bullfighter,’ that’s kind of a sticky word.” So I was just following these little impulses that I had.

You said he was from Brooklyn, but was he bullfighting in Spain?

Basically, this guy had become obsessed with bullfighting. He moved to Mexico as a way to start training for this crazy dream that he had, ‘cause at the time there were no American bullfighters. Nobody from America was going over to Spain to actually fight on that territory. It was completely unheard of. So he went to Mexico first and he didn’t get taken very seriously there, so he moved back home with his tail between his legs. Then his parents—actually, his mom—gave him $5,000, which at the time was so much money, in the early 1920s. He took that money and moved to Spain and somehow, through the power of confidence and the power of charisma, got to be the first American bullfighter. And then Ernest Hemingway, who was over there writing in Spain, became obsessed with him, because he was like the perfect thing for him to write about. They kind of became each other’s muses.

How did you even hear about that story?

I really wanted to try to make something personal, but then I just kept hitting the same walls when I was trying to get specific about certain things and I was like, “I should do some research into bullfighting.” And I honestly wondered if there were any Jewish bullfighters, because I wanted to write about my mom’s side of the family, which is the Jewish side. Then, of course, I look it up and the first Jewish bullfighter I find is this guy, and I’m like, “Oh my God, what a good story to write about.” It was just an “aha” moment where I was like, “There’s so much here, and I can really get into this story.” I was thinking about it on a larger scale, like it would be so good to write about the story with a full orchestra or with a contemporary dance group. It just keeps going and going the more you dig, like the relationship between him and Hemingway. There’s a book about it, but there’s not a ton of information outside of that—there’s not like a biopic. I felt like lucky to find a story that had so much fertile ground.

And the piece itself, is it an album length or is it just a few songs?

It’s an EP’s length and we’re just finishing the mixing process now. Hopefully that’s the first drop in the bucket with it, just getting it done as an EP first—like a more digestible interpretation of it—and then expanding from there. I’m really excited, because it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve always wanted to write for chamber quartet; it’s just been mulling in my brain forever and I was like, “When is the right time to do it?”

You’re back with Dr. Dog in a big way this year, with a new album and tour. How do you see the hiatus prior to this year—was an intentional break for you and your bandmates to explore other projects?

Exactly. I started writing Palisades in 2014, and that was my first crack at really trying to write solo stuff. I kind of collaborated with people on things before, but that was my first real attempt at that. Dr. Dog recorded Abandoned Mansion and Psychedelic Swamp around 2014/2015, so that project had to be put on the back burner for a while. In 2016, we went on an intentional hiatus, because one of our band members quit and we had all been feeling like it was time to hit a recharge button anyway. I don’t know if you ever looked at our tour schedule, but we’ve been pretty relentless. Laughs.] It just seems like every year from January until April or May, we would be on tour, and then the fall would come around and we’d have to make a record. And we were just kind of grinding it out.

So I just took that time to be like, “Okay, I’m gonna put out a solo record, I’m gonna tour it and I’m gonna finally get around to writing that string quartet.” It just kind of felt like—you ever read those self-help books, when it’s like, “And then, she dropped everything to become an ice skater.” Laughs.] It was really hard. I mean, my friends could tell you, I was going through this phase where I was like, “I really gotta try to do this thing, ‘cause I’m gonna be really upset with myself if I don’t.” So I finished up Palisades and went on tour, and then as soon as I got off tour I wrote this string quartet. It was crazy. I just sat at my computer, every day, for five hours in the morning, and it was just flowing out. This was in me for a while, and it was just ready to burst out. And then I think we recorded it in like two hours or something—it was like, “Go, go, go! If I don’t do it now, it might never get done!” Laughs.] And then as soon as all my stuff started wrapping up, Dr. Dog went back in the studio around October and November, and it was really good. We all had that break and everybody took the time to refresh their batteries.

Do you do any songwriting with Dr. Dog as well?

Not really. There’s been a couple times where I’ll write a riff and it’ll get used. Like with “How Long Must I Wait,” I was just putzing around and I’d programmed that main riff in a sequencer and I played it for Scott [McMicken], our singer, and he was like, “That’s cool.” And I was like, “Let’s play that on guitar,” and then that got used for the riff. That was one of the more fruitful things, but as far as songwriting goes, it’s still pretty much Scott and Toby [Leaman]. And they’ve actually been super understanding of my need to create solo stuff. You know, there are a couple times when it might get in the way where I’ll double-book a gig and be like, “Oh shit, I have to cancel.” Laughs.] But more often than not, I live my own creative life and then come back to the band and feel totally fulfilled. To me, it’s kind of akin to Nels Cline or something, where he’s just constantly playing improvisational jazz shows and then he can go on stage with Wilco and the band’s super supportive of that. So it’s been really amazing. My girlfriend will tell you—I don’t sleep a lot. Laughs.] Like every waking moment I’m either working on solo music or I’m flying to some gig that I booked like six months ago. I do not do well with idle time at all.

Are you the sort of person who can thrive on little sleep, or does it burn you out a bit?

I don’t know what’s up with my brain. I started practicing transcendental meditation a couple years ago via getting really into David Lynch and stuff, and it gives me so much energy that sometimes I feel like a kid who’s had too much candy or something. Sometimes I’ll start shorting out like a robot or something, but I just have this kind of relentless energy. I mean, if I didn’t have certain obligations, I would probably just book like five shows a day. Laughs.] That’s where my head’s at, I’m just like, “Oh cool, you want me to play this basement show in Oklahoma? And then the next day is in New York? Okay, I’ll do it.” My girlfriend’s had to be like, “All right, well sometimes you can’t do that, because you need to sleep and you need to remember to eat and you can’t just like live off fumes and coffee.” Laughs.] I’m really lucky that I have her in my life to be like. I actually remember reading this interview a couple years ago with Trey Anastasio where he said his wife made him turn his ringtone into a bark—like an angry dog barking sound—because he would just say yes to anybody who called him, and she was like, “All right, we need to set up a system so that you stop picking up the phone.” And I kind of feel the same way. It’s like, you know, “Hey man, you wanna play this gig for like five bucks?” I’m like, “Yes. Book it.” Laughs.]

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