Conversation about how a 12-year-old wannabe wound up landing a “Rock School” appearance, tours with Adrian Belew and Tony Levin and major recording contracts!
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
December 12, 2011
Julie Slick began playing bass at age 11. In 1998, at age 12, she joined the Paul Green School of Rock Music and soon became the school’s first all-star bassist, ultimately leading to an appearance in the award-winning documentary, Rock School, as well as a role in several tracks on the movie’s soundtrack. By age 19, Julie had already performed across America and Europe with Frank Zappa alumni Ike Willis and Napoleon Murphy Brock, Jon Anderson of Yes, Stewart Copeland of the Police, Ann Wilson of Heart, and Alice Cooper. Julie’s big break came in 2006, when she was invited to become part of the Adrian Belew Power Trio. FBPO caught up with Slick in the midst of the “Two of a Perfect Trio” tour, featuring Belew and “Bassist/Stickist” Tony Levin.
FBPO: How would you describe your musical upbringing?
JS: I grew up in an incredibly artistic household in downtown Philly and my parents were always very supportive of my brother and me. My Dad has this amazing guitar and vinyl collection and he always suggested that we pick them up and play them, even at a young age. I shouldn’t mention the crayon masterpiece that I put on his vintage Fender Jazzmaster case!
My parents bought Eric a drum set after he started banging on the crib. The set lived in the living room. Luckily our neighbors didn’t mind too much – I think! I was always jealous of Eric’s musical ability. I tried picking up my Dad’s guitars so I could jam with Eric and his friends, but the instrument just didn’t speak to me. Besides, I was a lazy eleven-year-old and didn’t feel like learning chords, especially ones of the bar variety. One day I looked over at the Gibson Ripper. It only had four strings and I only needed to play one note at a time! It didn’t matter that it didn’t have any frets on it. This was the instrument for me. And my brother finally let me jam with him!
FBPO: Tell me about your experience with School of Rock.
JS: Whew! That’s a long one! I’ll try to be concise. My brother had this guitar-playing friend who spoke so highly of his teacher, Paul Green. One day, he came over and invited us to his show in Olde City. Paul’s friend was moving back from California, so he got all of his students together to put on a show for his friend’s art opening. He taught each of them a set of classic rock songs and they started playing together in rehearsal. Paul immediately realized that, while totally proficient in their lessons, they were unable to gel as a band. This put the idea in his head to start a performance-based music school. My Mom told me that morning that she had signed me up for lessons with Paul. I had previously told her that I never wanted lessons from a stranger. I was really, really shy. After the show, I was convinced this was going to be a great experience for me.
I had a really rough time in middle school. It was hard for me to make friends and I got teased a lot every day. SoR really saved me. It provided an environment for me to meet like-minded kids from other schools and we all shared the same interests. Before there was a brick-and-mortar school, we’d all take lessons at Paul’s during the week, and on Saturdays we would meet in the morning to play football. After that, we’d go home and wash up, then reconvene at the studio space to rehearse for the upcoming show. It was so much fun putting on those shows! Who knew that in just a year, little shy ol’ me would be on stage performing Frank Zappa tunes?!
FBPO: How about the Rock School documentary?
JS: We all knew that Paul was on to something special and that it would eventually get big. After the Zappa show, we started getting a lot of attention and local press. Paul knew that the next step was to expand, to rent out a building that could accommodate lessons and rehearsals so he could take on more students, hire more teachers and, of course, put on more shows.
The attention soon spread further, to a national level. James Iha came down and wrote an article for SPIN in 2001. And my brother and I can proudly say that we bought him his first cheesesteak! Soon after that, filmmaker Don Argott approached Paul about making a documentary. Filming started immediately. I have to admit it was a joy to be surrounded by cameras, knowing that our story might be shared.
I absolutely love the end result and, while it wasn’t the biggest smash hit – that dang Jack Black stole our thunder! – it was so cool that it got picked up and distributed. Plus, we got to make a soundtrack with some legendary musicians, like Ann Wilson, Jon Anderson, Alice Cooper… the list goes on. It’s funny, people around the world still mention this movie to me. It’s kind of a cult classic. I recommend it! [Laughs]
FBPO: How did the whole Adrian Belew gig come about?
JS: I’ll never forget it! Paul called me on a sunny Friday afternoon and asked me how my chops were doing. “Gooood, why?” “Because you and Eric are going to fly down to Nashville next week and audition for Adrian Belew’s band. Don’t screw it up!”
I’m still in shock. We were really fortunate that Adrian was looking to re-form his power trio after he did a tour with the School of Rock all-stars and that he trusted a music teacher who assured him that a 19- and 20-year-old could fill the roles. We had not done the tour with him, but we did sit in on “City of Tiny Lites” on a snowy New York evening. Who knew that Paul had a grand scheme and that months later we’d be in his band?
FBPO: What can you tell me about Tony Levin – working with him, touring with him, hangin’ with him…?
JS: Tony is an amazing, amazing human being! While we were out on the road, we were discussing how low-drama and stress-free the tour had been going and Adrian commented that it had the “Tony Levin Effect.” It was obvious what he meant. Tony just has this air of professionalism that simply calms everyone around him. And who wouldn’t be thrilled to exchange bass lines with a legend?
I also have to laugh because, early on in the tour, we were all sitting around this table having a pre-show meal, and Tony asks me, “So when are you cooking for us, Julie?” “Oh, don’t tempt me, Tony. I’ll be home tomorrow and will pack up my kitchen!” And I did just that. I made mushroom risotto the next week in Boston and a few kinds of soups in some other cities: mushroom bisque with cashew cream, curried carrot and leek with lemon-y pistachios and toasted cumin seeds. Now I’m hungry!
FBPO: Tell me about your new release with the Bahner/Slick Duo, Live at Slick Sound Studios.
JS: Carl Bahner and I started this project in the spring and have been doing some really fun and unique shows around the Philly area. We knew we had to release an album before the “Two of a Perfect Trio” tour, so I could spread the madness across the U.S. and parts of Canada. Our performances are heavily improvised and we wanted to somehow translate that to a recorded medium.
We learned recently that it can be difficult to draw inspiration from the air. There can be a certain lack of focus. Our solution was to come up with song titles before we started playing, so the album is full of these jams, like “Ready, Set, Exercise!” and “Why Is That Man Wearing Nothing But Knickerbockers and a Jetpack?” To take it a step further, we now put out index cards at our shows and request that our audience members suggest song titles. It’s really interactive and I think the crowd enjoys it as well. At the last show, I even had my good friend and artistic director, Chris McElroy, call me from the audience and I sampled his voice through my pickup. Good times!
FBPO: What has been your experience as a female, playing in a role that’s been traditionally dominated by men?
JS: I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love being the girl in the band. I think it sets me apart in this tough, competitive industry. But I also always strive for perfection. I don’t want to be known as “a great girl bassist.” I like hanging with the big boys. Ha! I know nobody is perfect and I know I’ve got plenty of room for improvement, so I just keep trying to be as good as I can be. Now, off to practice! I just saw the Steven Wilson show last night and it really inspired me to pick up my instrument.
FBPO: What’s next for your career? You’re still so young!
JS: Aw, shucks. Thanks! I’m really proud of my resume and all of the things I’ve accomplished, so I just hope to keep going, to keep playing with amazing musicians and seeing the world. I also hope to spread my own music and some of the other projects I’ve been doing, like PAPER CAT, The Bahner/Slick Duo, Springs, and DRGN KING.
FBPO: What would you be if you weren’t a bass player?
JS: A chef! I’d go to Europe and study under some of the greats. Okay, maybe I’ll make some breakfast before I pick up my bass.