When you’ve been a songwriter as long as Vic Ruggiero of The Slackers has, you often find yourself looking back at the writers who inspired you, even as you explore genre conventions you’ve spent a career trying to shatter.
“Every once in a while I’ll have a Bob Marley moment where I go back and I listen to his tunes in a different way,” he explained during a recent interview.
“They just made up this new language for what was going to become reggae because everything that had preceded it wasn’t so specific. They made up a vernacular that was really specific to what was going on at that moment. And I’d say that’s really what any good artist does. You make up a language that’s your own to talk through.”
For Ruggiero and The Slackers, who have been recording and touring steadily for nearly 30 years, their particular vernacular has been tough for fans to pin down on occasion. Their ska-reggae hybrid doesn’t conform to genre-centric expectations, with Ruggiero’s songwriting doing what The Beatles did with Southern blues decades ago: twisting it to meet his needs and forming something uniquely theirs.
“I guess the thing is that if you’re stuck in a genre, you can do something really revolutionary within that little world, and it doesn’t have to be really revolutionary outside that world,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know if The Slackers are really captured by genre boundaries, but we talk to a lot of people who are. A lot of people find out about us through Rancid and Hellcat and punk bands. That’s how I came to reggae and ska was through punk.”
Ruggiero takes music seriously. It is, as he’ll tell you, as integrated into his daily routine as eating or breathing. “Playing with The Slackers, playing these songs, it’s really just moment to moment whatever life dictates,” he says. “I think it comes down to being sincere no matter what. If you’re gonna do it, be sincere about it. Don’t make it a put-on. I never wanna be one of those guys who gets up and you feel like this is the same script the guy reads every night. I want it to always be a unique and sincere moment for everybody, you know? And that includes me because I would feel like crap if I wasn’t sincere.”
Ruggiero has played several solo shows over the last several years in Indianapolis but will return to the city on April 11 to play the Melody Inn with The Slackers in tow for what is already a sold-out show online, though a few tickets remain for those who arrive early the night of.
“I started coming through Indianapolis on my own over the past couple years because I felt like the Slackers always ended up playing a few different towns in Indiana that would be too close,” he says.
“But it’s been nice to come back and get reacquainted with the city because it’s a crazy little city. The Midwest is the bread and butter. You’ve really gotta bounce around.” Ruggiero says great art doesn’t always hit you over the head; sometimes you have to work to find it.
“With art or writing or anything, you don’t necessarily like it—or a great record, for that matter. You don’t necessarily put the record on and go like ‘Oh! This is it!’” he says. “Once in a while it happens, but sometimes you hear something and it’s more ‘I don’t get this, but it’s intriguing! There’s something in there but I don’t get it!’ And I guess I feel that way with modern music. I keep my ears open.”
Even after decades as a touring musician, he says there are times when he has to just stop and take a step out of it all to re-evaluate his life experiences.
“It’s like meditation,” he explains. “A lot of these things boil down to the simplicity of it. When I’m going from gig to gig, keeping myself busy, sometimes I’ll have this existential crisis while I’m on a subway in a town across the world, sitting on the London Underground or the Paris Metro lugging my bag around and my guitar. And I’m thinking ‘What the hell am I doing with my life? What is this?’ And it’s one of those moments, like, when you’re running and you just know ‘That’s right, I just have to take the next step. And the next step will deliver me another step closer to where I ought to be.’"