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Keep trying: The hopeful nihilism of Greensboro’s Totally Slow

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PHOTO BY JOSH HUFF
@johnradamian

A couple years back, Scott Hicks’ dad asked him when he was going to give up this punk-rock music-making thing. “Why are you still at this? It’s not going anywhere,” his father said. Hicks, the singer/guitarist and main songwriter of Greensboro’s Totally Slow, was probably in his mid-30s at the time, and he answered his father’s question with another question. “Dad, are you ever going to become a professional golfer?” he asked. That’s when Hicks’ father seemed to get it: This wasn’t some kind of delusional quest for stardom; making music, for Hicks, was a gratifying thing to do, a way to spend one’s time, a creative exercise in staying focused, and an end in itself.

Hicks is 43 now. He’s married and has kids. But he remains adamant about the value of making music on one’s own, regardless of commercial success. Totally Slow will release their second full-length record, Bleed Out, on Sept. 16. (They play a Greensboro show with the excellent like-minded band Tenement on Sept. 20; for details visit Totally Slow’s Facebook page.) Totally Slow make muscular punkish rock. It’s powerful and energetic, but not so pumped as to be unapproachable or violent. You can hear hints of Fugazi and Husker Du and the Clash. But punk rock is 40 years old or so, and the urge to undermine and discard tradition isn’t a sustainable mission at this stage. Hicks and Totally Slow seem to be addressing the idea of maturity and long-haul vitality.

The band formed as a trio in 2012. The project took shape after Hicks and longtime friends, bassist Greg Monroy and drummer Andy Foster, did a cover of a local song protesting the effort to ban same-sex marriages. The energy felt right, and so they demoed Hicks’ originals, which turned into their 2013 debut. Earlier this year the band expanded to a four-piece with the addition of guitarist Chuck Johnson.

Hicks got inspired as a 14-year-old by the Dischord Records bands that espoused a near-complete do-it-yourself ethos, turning the making of the music, overseeing the recording and pressing and distribution of albums, the booking of shows and the design of merchandise into part of the whole package.

“It kind of exploded my brain, I was like ‘Oh, those are just some dudes sitting in a house and putting out their own records,”” says Hicks of his reaction to learning about the label and the D.C. independent punk scene. “It really opened up for me. I realized I could do this, I could play music, and I could put out a record. There’s nothing magical about anybody. It’s just people doing shit. It made it accessible and it made it exciting. It was all about the process.”

We live in a culture that often presents music-making as a means of achieving fame, as an activity that’s outside the normal scope of day-to-day life. Hicks chuckles and wonders why many people view activities like scrapbooking or watching sports or going to the bar to be more acceptable and normal than banging out a song on a guitar or a piano or a computer.

For Hicks, making music is just part of being alive and engaged.

“There’s no aspiration to it, and I don’t mean that in a lazy way,” he says. “I mean that I enjoy the whole process. I had put out a 7-inch by the time I was 16 or 17. And I haven’t really stopped. It’s just about building community and documenting, and art.”

But there’s more to what Hicks is doing than the need to be active and creative. This is music that has political energy, with songs fueled by a sense of frustration with regard to how best — as a straight white dude — to conduct oneself in the world, understanding that one is in a position of privilege, not wanting to forget that or take it for granted and not wanting to simply step aside in resignation.

“The music is still angry, but I guess a lot of the anger has been replaced with anxiety,” says Hicks about how his energy is channeled.

Songs like “Everybody Give Up” and “Drug Mask” express a tension between a sense of purpose and unity with people, and an underlying suspicion about the shallowness of everyone’s ultimate motivation.

“It’s a hopeful nihilism,” says Hicks of his outlook.

That might be the best you’ll get from Hicks if you’re looking for a feel-good message. Music and art don’t necessarily solve the great mysteries of life, but it’s almost as if making music gives you something to do with your fidgety hands, with your arms and your voice and your mind, while you’re preoccupied with life’s chasms of potential meaninglessness.

“I wake up with an existential crisis just like everybody else,” says Hicks. “A lot of times I write these songs and it’s a mix between having a vision for what the song’s about and then letting my mind meander.”

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But these songs don’t really wander aimlessly. They’re compressed and distilled. Only two of the 10 tracks clock in at (just barely) over the three-minute mark. It’s not that Totally Slow is gaunt either. There’s just not a lot of excess.

“There’s a watch in my brain,” says Hicks. “There’s a math to it that my brain is stuck on, and that’s just where a song lands.”

If the songs are brief, it might be to maximize enjoyment, if not for the listener, then at least for the band, although Hicks insists he doesn’t think about it. Either way, the feeling of urgency comes through, with the shout-along choruses, the biting guitars and pounding eighth notes.

“I don’t want to ever feel bored while I’m playing,” says Hicks. “I don’t want to play a song that I’m bored with and I don’t want to play a part that I’m bored with. I don’t only enjoy short songs. It’s just that that’s what comes out of me. Honestly, I’m not conscious of it at all. A lot of it’s really cathartic for me, and so I feel like I’m going through a wide range of things as I’m playing it.”

Hicks sometimes does that Nirvana-eque thing of singing a line at the lower end of his register and then repeating it an octave higher, half-screaming, like on “BADBRX,” the album closer. And yet Bleed Out avoids the trap of relentless hyperventilation. It breathes, with two instrumental tracks that shift the gears slightly.

Hicks is interested in honesty and authenticity, but he knows that just bellowing the bare truth can be self-indulgent and annoying, so he’s aware of the pitfall. He doesn’t want to slap anybody in the face with a message, but he doesn’t want to bury his point under a puzzle.

When, at the end of our conversation, I ask him if there’s anything he wants to draw my attention to or clarify, Hicks points out that he’s been sober since February of this year. And many of the songs — which were written and recorded before then — came out of his growing realization that he had to stop drinking.

“The mental process of realizing that I needed to quit figures prominently in maybe a hidden
way,” says Hicks. He’s trying to be upfront about his struggles without being preachy. That tension between being real but not wanting to be self-obsessed or simplistic is at the heart of Totally Slow.

“That’s all I can really hope for, is for it to be a genuine thing,” says Hicks.

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