“I’m two years sober today,” singer-songwriter Langhorne Slim says over the phone from Kentucky, where he and his band, The Law, are in the home stretch of the first leg of a tour supporting their new record, The Spirit Moves.
“Today’s my 35th birthday,” Slim, born Sean Scolnick, says, looking forward to returning to his newly purchased home in East Nashville for the final few shows before he and the band rest up and do it all over again.
A few nights later, when he introduces his mother and grandmother to a crowd at The Mercy Lounge, he says that now the two of them will be able to see his place fully furnished. Though he’s lived in Nashville for a few years, like so many others here, he says he’s been pretty transient since setting down roots here.
“Being still for me is fucking difficult. I’ve started to meditate since I quit drinking and taking drugs. I’m really working on it, but still it’s really tricky for me. From day one, though, Nashville has treated me incredibly well. I immediately found myself feeling more at home here than I had felt really anywhere else. And I stayed.”
Two years ago on his 33rd birthday, Slim and the band, who’d been together 10-plus years at that point, were in Ham Lake, Minn., to play an Alzheimer’s benefit show. It was a situation already made strange by the setting, a golf course in the middle of nowhere, and an early evening set time with no opener, on top of what Slim had been privately battling.
It wasn’t that his bandmates, who are some of Slim’s closest friends, didn’t know about his drinking. “It was no big secret that it was something I was living in,” he says. “We’ve been through a lot of shit together.” What they likely didn’t realize was that their bandleader was seriously considering sobriety.
“I remember trying to shift my drinking, just drink a certain way,” Slim says. “It was classic addict shit. We’d gotten taken on tour in Europe with The Lumineers, and I told myself, don’t drink some of the shows. But I drank every show.”
During subsequent festivals, beginning with the Newport Folk Festival, Slim says he managed not to drink at all. It was the first time he can recall performing music — or anything, for that matter — sober since he was in high school; taking pills or whatever was around before hitting the stage for plays or, basically, being in front of people in any capacity. “I’d always taken something to be a little bit high.”
Then, while having a go at sobriety during the festival dates, something happened. “Immediately I felt like my heart was stronger,” he says. “That’s really the best way I can put it. My voice was stronger. The feet I was standing and dancing on felt stronger. I got a taste of what that was like, and I felt good and clear and had more energy for the
It came as a surprise, but Slim found that when he started experimenting with not being drunk during the shows, he was reaching a level of intimacy with the audience more often than he had before. “That was a great motivation to keep on going,” he says.
“It had been coming close to the end for a while,” Slim says of the day in Ham Lake. “For years I knew that my love for life, my love for love, my love for music and all was being shaded, and I wasn’t giving it more feeling or more realness. I was pissing on my soul’s fire. And that’s not something to take lightly.”
He stops, then for a second time, says, “I’m not preaching sobriety. If I could do it a way that wasn’t dark, I’d stand by it. People ask, ‘Why did you quit drinking?’ I say, because I drank too much. Most people don’t quit unless they really have to.”
As he and the band loaded into the golf course that evening, he remembers keeping to himself, just staying really quiet. “I didn’t want to tell anyone until it was the real deal,” he says. “I didn’t want to let myself down. I didn’t want to let other people down.”
Immediately after he stopped, which he did completely and all at once, something he says is “really not recommended by doctors,” he had to deal with what he perceived to be “some really dark energy. I felt like there was a darkness trying to hold on to me — that didn’t want me to enter into another phase of my life. But if you feel like some shit is getting you down, and you keep going with it for years, that weighs on a soul.”
After that darkness passed, Slim says, “I felt freer than I had being that I had been a bitch to something for so long. It’s immediately improved my life.”
“We’ve come, and we’re here; we made it home,” Slim tells the Nashville crowd a few days after his birthday. He dances in place at the mic and leans over the dance floor, looking into the audience instead of over the top of it. It’s a loud and tender show, evoking the song, “Wolves,” one of Slim’s personal favorites from The Spirit Moves: “I’m tough enough to run with the bulls / Yet I’m too gentle to live amongst wolves.” This tension between tough and vulnerable speaks to Slim’s whole aesthetic musically, spiritually and otherwise. Even in conversation, he balances between soft and thoughtful listener to direct, well-spoken truth teller.
Early in the set the snare bangs the band into “Put it Together” a swinging, piano-driven song about a repaired heart. Slim pushes his T-shirt sleeves up and sings, “I lost my direction / on the day I was born. / I felt disconnected / since they cut the cord. / If I learn my lesson / I’ll find me some peace. / ’Cause I need protection from this heart on my sleeve.”
Maybe drinking protected Slim from the heart on his sleeve. It seems like it’s solely the music that does now. His sweat-worn Martin acoustic distorts a Fender electric guitar amp. His hat falls off and he tries to kick it back onto his head. It’s all part of the show and he’s giving every part of himself to it.
During one of the final songs, he jumps down off the stage and winds his way through the audience. “It’s nice to see your faces,” he tells everyone. He’s sung himself hoarse, and you can hear his voice break. “I’m going to open up my heart and see what happens,”
Slim grew up with his brother and mother and grandparents in small suburb of Philadelphia and remembers feeling weird, “weird and strange for that place at least,” he says. He recalls being a happy enough kid, but as he got older, he says, “I didn’t feel like I fit the fuck in. I felt like an alien. But I didn’t have a spaceship. Eventually, when my mom picked up a guitar, I started playing that, and then I started buying six packs of Yuengling and drinking those and smoking weed, and then from that you start doing the other things that are around.
“I guess I was trying to get deeper within that feeling. I always wanted to feel the thing. I think that was intriguing to me at the time.”
So, along with improving on the guitar, he “got very good at drinking and other drugs,” acknowledging that even as a kid he knew he would have to quit some day. “I can remember being 15-years-old in my high school sweetheart Becky’s parents’ basement drinking beers and thinking to myself, this is either going to take me down someday, or I’m going to have to stop. I like this too much.”
The Spirit Moves was recorded just a few minutes from Slim’s house at Andrija Tokic’s The Bomb Shelter, which was recommended to him by his good friend, Andrew Katz of the band Clear Plastic Masks. “Plus, The Deslondes recorded there,” he says. “They’re one of the best bands making music right now,” Slim says of the New Orleans-based band.
With Tokic handling engineering duties, Slim’s longtime producer Kenny Siegal flew in from New York to handle, as he terms it, the role of “Rock & Roll Rabbi.”
“Andrija was handling the technical stuff,” Siegal says. “So my mind was free to wander more into the abstract. I was able to concentrate more on the musical ‘feel,’ assessing performances, judging whether the spirit had arrived or the band needed to do another take.”
After a breakup that left Slim single for the first time, as well as the aforementioned kicking booze and relocating, there was plenty of fuel for the record. Every few months, the two got together for songwriting sessions at Old Soul, Siegal’s studio in upstate New York.
“Slim would show up with all of these really strong ideas that were developed, but only to a point,” Siegal says. “So the task at hand was really trying to finish the tunes without ruining them. Sometimes getting from 75 percent of a tune to 100 percent can be really difficult, but it’s the work I love to do.”
Siegal helped untangle and complete a majority of the songs, cowriting eight of the 12 songs, but he downplays his own role, saying, “For this record, I had the distinct honor of helping Slim finish some of the tunes from time to time.”
“I had a lot to prove to myself,” Slim says. “I’d never done a record without the quote/unquote assistance of drinking and drugs.”
As the show winds down The Mercy Lounge, Slim plays an encore, then retreats backstage. People linger with show posters in hand, hoping for autographs or to talk to Slim. He played an amazing set with all the punk rock explosiveness and tender, throat-raw acoustic numbers he’s known for. It’s what’s captured on the new album, the lightning in a bottle Siegal talks about chasing with Slim and the band in the studio. It’s all about that feeling, that love of life that’s been there from beginning with Langhorne Slim. It’s a transcendent place where those brain-off, heart-on moments now arrive, perhaps, by way of the spiritual.
“Some of my spiritual vision is unsayable,” Slim explains. What he does know is through “allowing certain channels to open,” he feels a deeper connection to his spiritual life. “But how the fuck to make sense of that? I don’t know. I feel very much in the spirit,” he adds.
A lot of the crowd sticks around to drink and talk. After a while, Slim comes out of the side door of the club alone. His mother and grandmother have pulled a black sedan to the bottom of the stairs that lead to the club. Slim comes off the stairs and opens the car door, sets his hat on the dash, drops into the passenger’s seat, and the three of them take off for home.