I don’t know how to break this to you, so I’ll just come right out and say it… It looks as though beloved local pop idol Charlie Slick will soon be joining the ranks of those leaving our community. Following is his official exit interview.
MARK: I’m thinking of requiring everyone who wants to leave to first get 100 signatures. Do you feel as though you could get that many people to sign a petition on your behalf, allowing you to leave?
CHARLES: That’s a weird petition… you should be collecting signatures to convince people to stay. And, no, I don’t think that I could collect 100 signatures.
MARK: I was just wondering if you could find 100 people willing to let you go. I mean, on one hand, I know that people want folks that they love to be happy, but there’s also a certain selfishness. We don’t like change. We don’t like our friends moving away from us.
CHARLES: I believe someone wrote a song about that. What’s it called? “Allan“? Oh yeah, I wrote it… Allan told me that moving away is great because then everyone parties when you come back around. Wouldn’t that be nice? [See video of “Allan” being performed below.]
MARK: Where is it that you want to go, and why?
CHARLES: Portland, Oregon. Kate got into Portland State and I’m going to pursue Electrical Engineering via Electrical Engineering Technology at Portland Community College.
MARK: What will Kate be studying? And what made led her to apply at Portland State?
CHARLES: She will be studying urban planning. She applied there and Seattle. She got into both. I favored Portland because I’ve already spent time in the Puget Sound and I’d like to try somewhere else.
MARK: Have you ever lived outside of Michigan?
CHARLES: I was born and raised in Oak Harbor, Washington. It’s a smaller city on an island in the Puget Sound. I was sent to live with my father when I was 12 in Canton, Michigan.
MARK: Was that a move that you wanted to make?
CHARLES: Well, that saga is long and winding, and too long to go into here. I wanted to get away from my mother who had a lot of problems, but it wasn’t my choice. It was “the State” that sent me to live with my father. I don’t think my father really wanted me at that point, which is why I left home when I was 16 and ended up in Ypsilanti, where two incredibly nice lesbos took me in and helped me finish high school, so I didn’t become destitute. Which is why I took personal offense when, a little while ago at Krampus, you referred to me as “so Ann Arbor,” because I know what you meant.
MARK: Sorry about that, Charles. I just think of you as an Ann Arbor institution. I was aware that you’d lived in Ypsi at some point, but I didn’t know the circumstances. At any rate, I’m sorry if my stupid comment upset you, and I’m glad that you brought it up here so that I could properly apologize. (And, for what it’s worth, I was super happy to see you at Krampus.) As for the circumstances that brought you to Michigan, I don’t know what to say, other than that it’s amazing what children are often made to endure. And even more amazing still what they’re able to make of their lives in the wake of such trauma. If you’re comfortable talking about it, I’m curious as to how, if at all, you see your childhood reflected in your creative work, which, at least on the surface, comes across as very happy.
CHARLES: There’s some sad stuff in my music too, if you listen for it. My humor tends to be of a sarcastic nature, but I’m a positive person. My bandmate Micah has called me the most practical absurdist ever. I don’t know exactly what that means, but maybe that has something to do with it. I just want people to be happy when I’m around. My earlier works – Pass the Time Machine (PTTM), and Walter Carlos (WC) – were more self-referential. There’s a hidden track on PTTM, at about the 5-minute mark in “My Time Machine,” that talks about my mother. “You Never Tried to be My Friend” is another song that people are surprised to learn is about my relationship with my father, and they’re even more surprised to learn that the song title comes from something he said to me, and not the other way around.
MARK: It seems that a majority of people that I interview these days, are either going to Portland or Oakland, and it makes me wonder if there might be a market in Ann Arbor for coins that say “Portland” on one side, and “Oakland” on the other, that people who are struggling with the decision could flip… Do you think they’d sell?
CHARLES: I do think they would sell. But, in most cases, it really has to do with having “Anchor” people in those places. Do you ever wonder how so many Polish people ended up in Hamtramck, and things like that? Anchor people? RIGHT?
MARK: OK, here’s a test for you… Sum up Ann Arbor, Oakland and Portland, each in six words? Go!
Ann Arbor: Post hippy revolving Moderate Hotel California
Portland: Inland Bridge bicycle Buritto almost Goonies
Oakland: Taco truck bird sanctuary estuary forest
MARK: Well done. As I read it, “Moderate Hotel California” is kind of devastating. Do you care to elaborate?
CHARLES: That’s mostly in reference to my job at Downtown Home & Garden. I used to sing that song to the store cat (Lewis) as a joke on him. Later I came to see it was really a joke on me, and how I’d become really comfortable with everything, and no longer “hungry” as they say.
MARK: So you would tease Lewis by singing this song about how he could “never leave,” but then it occurred to you that you were actually in the same trap? Is that the moment when you knew that you’d have to leave?
CHARLES: Mark, you keep coming back to this idea that I have to leave, or something brought me to the breaking point. Ann Arbor and I are not getting a divorce. But I am excited about moving. I can’t wait to do different stuff. Go to different thrift stores and eat at different restaurants.
MARK: I totally understand. I was just trying to get some clarity on the moment you decided to go, and what your thought process was. Regardless of why people go, there’s point when they decide that it’s what they want to do, need to do, etc… Let’s try something else, though… What’s your first memory?
CHARLES: I dunno man… like I remember crawling off a weird stairwell thing and falling onto a couch, but it’s more like a dream.
MARK: I remember bright sunlight through a yellow curtain, and a gentle breeze coming from outside, as I lay in a crib in Monticello, Kentucky. My next memory after that is seeing the opening credits of the Dick Van Dyke Show on a small television. I don’t attribute any deep meaning to such things, but I think it’s interesting what we choose to remember… How about this… What was first television show you ever really loved?
CHARLES: Hhmm… I used to love Ducktails, Rescue Rangers, and Tailspin. When I was really young, I had a black and white TV in my room and I used to stay up all night watching Nick at Nite. That’s kinda weird, cuz now I can relate to people who watched that stuff when it was actually on TV. I liked “Mr. Ed” a lot and “I Dream of Genie”… oh and “Dragnet.” “Dragnet” was so cool. I hated “Green Acres.”
MARK: The color of “Green Acres” bothered me. It was too washed out, unnatural, or something… Why did you stick around Ann Arbor this long?
CHARLES: I like Ann Arbor. My friend Kelly once told me, “You don’t have to hate a place to leave it”. But, really, I was comfortable working at Downtown Home & Garden and I was able to pursue the music thing in my own way. The city is full of parks, and I can walk to work. I also happen to pay really cheap rent. A lot of my friends moved out to Detroit, but I must not really be a Detroit kinda guy.
MARK: Is there anything that you’d still like to accomplish in Michigan before leaving?
CHARLES: Me and some of the guys at work have been kinda putting together a bucket list of things I have to do before I leave. Some of them are specific to them, like getting the Bomber breakfast before work on a Sunday, but other stuff is more universal. Like they want me to do stand-up once before I leave. We’re also supposed to build a boat out of garbage and float it down the Huron.
MARK: I’d forgotten that you were contemplating stand-up… Have you put together any material?
CHARLES: I’m always in joke mode, but I have a hard time writing stand-up jokes that I can repeat. I’m better at just riffing with people. But something about being on stage makes that really hard. I haven’t given up on comedy, though.
MARK: What’s the best show you ever played?
CHARLES: Shows have some many different vibes, so it’s hard to say one was the best, but this was my favorite…… We played in an apartment kitchen in KZOO and it was so small that I had to set my equipment up on the counter and put a speaker on the fridge. It got so hot, that midway through the show, I turned around and used the “dish sprayer off thingy” to spray everyone. Someone opened up the cupboard and found a bag of rice and started throwing it around like it was a wedding or something, like we were all getting married to each other, or everyone was marrying me. The floor felt like it was going to cave in.
MARK: Would you consider yourself more of an inventor or a musician, or isn’t the distinction important to you?
CHARLES: I’m just a man, I do things… Socially, I often feel like I don’t fit in with my fellow musicians, like the kid who got invited to the birthday party because his mom called the birthday kid’s mom and asked why he wasn’t invited. I don’t know which one I am… Which one makes more money?
MARK: I’d like to follow up on your comment about not feeling welcome in the local music scene. Do you think that might just be your perception, or do you really feel as though people didn’t want you around? And, if it’s the latter, why do you think that is? Did they just not get what you were trying to do? Or was it more a personality thing? …And, if it’s money you want, invent an iPhone app.
CHARLES: First off, I think it was entirely personal and having more to do with the fact that I don’t really drink or do drugs. Not participating in those ritualistic things can make you unwelcome in some circles, but, even when that is not the case, an experience wall can develop where it becomes hard to communicate with people who are experiencing the events in a different way. I’ve always been hyper sensitive about whether I was welcome somewhere. It probably comes from when I was kid and always staying the night at my friends’ houses – to get away from my mother – always knowing I didn’t really belong there. Then, later, with my father… Second, I’ll never make any money. I’m black licorice.
MARK: As for the inventor/musician divide, I ask that because it seems to me that maybe you’re deriving more pleasure these days from creating electronics than from performing. Would I be right about that?
CHARLES: A few years ago, I started to get kinda bored with performing. I realized that I was never going to get to be a famous rock n roll star on my terms (or probably on anyone’s terms). I also realized it wasn’t really the lifestyle I wanted, or the people I wanted to surround myself with (not the artists, I like artists, the other people). I also realized that no amount of fame (or anything) will ever fill the emptiness inside me – an emptiness that drives me to constantly be working on something or towards something. I decided that I should broaden my view of what I can do with my life and still be happy. You have this idea when you’re younger that there is only one fate for yourself, or at least I did. Like I was going to a famous rock n roll star, or fail at it. Now I’m 30, and I realize that there are still plenty of other things I can fail at too, and have fun doing it. I wasn’t happiest when I was the most popular. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been… I’ve surprised myself with how fast I’ve gotten good with electronics. It seems my brain was made for this. I’m taking some math courses at WCC, and I’m doing really well in those as well.
MARK: I’ve been told that I should ask you about your hair. Are you cool with that?
CHARLES: Ha Ha. That must be because I make lots of jokes about it. It’s one of those things where, you’re like, “I don’t want anyone to think I’m really worried about my hair, so I’m gonna be the first to make jokes about it,” but then you realize, you’re always talking about your hair – how you’re losing it – so everyone knows you must care about it. Of course I don’t want to be losing my hair. It’s one of those things that happens, and you’re like, “Do I really want to be an old musician?” No. I want to be an old artist. Do you want to be old Axel Rose, or old Brian Eno? The answer is obvious.
MARK: At what moment did you know that it was time to move on?
CHARLES: From Ann Arbor? From Michigan? from my hair? Everyone in Michigan has this “sinking boat” mentality. Like, if you leave, it’s because you can’t hack it… have no pride. A true Michigander goes down with his ship. We’ve had this Detroit auto-based economy “we’re all doomed” bullshit crammed down our throats for so long, it’s shaped how everything is phrased. Doomsday pride. The question is not, when did you decide to leave, but, when did you decided to get out of this stinking hell hole. This isn’t just in reference to this question… it’s the attitude I witnessed a lot. Again, you don’t have to hate a place to leave it.
MARK: I see it differently. I don’t think there’s a sense that people leave because they can’t hack it here. Quite often, it’s the most talented people who are leaving (which is the frustrating thing). I think the sense is that people leave because they feel unfulfilled here, or they believe that they could achieve more elsewhere. At least that’s what I think… I certainly don’t look at the people who are leaving and think, “They just aren’t strong enough, or smart enough.” If anything, it’s the opposite. And, for what it’s worth, I don’t see the state as a “stinking hell hole.” While I hate what’s happening in Lansing, there’s a lot to like about his state. And I think that people will come to realize that as the effects of global warming worsen.
CHARLES: I agree. I like Michigan and I like Ann Arbor, though it may be a “yuppie food court.” Allegiance to a city or state can be so strange, like it all changes depending on the circumstances. If two people are racing, and one lives in Ann Arbor, and the other lives in Ypsi, who do you root for? Or if one is from Ann Arbor, but the other lives in Ann Arbor? Would it be worse if the most talent people moved to the moon rather than Portland or Oakland? I dunno. Talented Michiganders are being conceived at this very moment… it’s just too bad that one day they will be forced move to the moon because that’s where they will be appreciated.
MARK: How have you seen Ann Arbor change over the years that you’ve spent here?
CHARLES: I feel like a lot of people interpret changes in their role within a town as a change in the town itself. I don’t think Ann Arbor has really changed that much since I moved here 10 years ago. My role in the town has changed a lot. I don’t play parties anymore. I don’t go to parties. Some people know me and come to my shows. Some people know me from Downtown Home & Garden. I’m not really involved in “youth culture”. I’m just a guy who does stuff, and so the town seems different than when I was younger, but it’s really the same… But, some places closed, I guess.
MARK: At some point, not too long ago, you mentioned to me that you’d prefer, at this stage in your life, to be known as Charles Slick, as opposed to Charlie Slick. I imagine that’s a difficult transformation to make, though, when you’re such a well-known public figure. I don’t want for this to come across the wrong way, as I really appreciate your work, and don’t want to trivialize it, but it’s kind of like you’re going through, at some level, the same kind of thing that people who achieve stardom early in life often do… trying to reinvent yourself as an adult artist. And it’s not an easy thing to accomplish. For every Justin Timberlake, there’s a Dustin Diamond. And I’m just wondering how, if at all, that factors into your decision to move? Was the memory of the young, shirtless Charlie Slick, covered in glitter and his bubbles, playing in front of swooning young women, just too hard to break free from here, in Michigan?
CHARLES: I am very excited to reinvent myself in another city. My best shows these days are out of town shows, where people don’t have any idea who I am, or what I’m about to do, or cover myself with. As far as the name thing goes, I’ve changed my name so many times… I was Charlie up until I was 6. Then I wanted to be called Chucky (which turned into Chunky, because I was kinda a fat kid). When I was 12, I went by Chuck. And, when I was around 23, I started performing as Charlie Slick, and now everyone knows me as Charlie Slick. A name is just something people call you, and you’d be surprised at how easy it is to change. When I started my math class at Washtenaw Community College, I told everyone my name was Charles and that’s what they call me. I’m trying not to think of my life in terms of fame, and so I don’t believe comparing me to Dustin Diamond is relevant.
MARK: Just for the record, I wasn’t comparing you to Dustin Diamond, or, for that matter, Justin Timberlake. I was just noting the fact that some people make the transition well, while others struggle with it… Let’s talk about your recent electronics work, though. What are you working on right now that you’re excited about?
CHARLES: I’m building a Modular Synthesizer. I design and etch Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs). I recently started sneaking pictures of Sigourney Weaver into my PCBs. Just yesterday, I etched a piece of aluminum for a front panel with a picture of Sigourney Weaver on it. I’m basically teaching myself at this point, but it’s been one of the most mentally rewarding endeavors I’ve ever attempted. I don’t think there is a lot of money in Modular Synthesizers but I like the idea of making Boutique modules to sell for fun. You can follow all my progress on my blog.
MARK: Would you say you’re obsessed with Sigourney Weaver? And, if so, what is it about her that you find so compelling?
CHARLES: I like strong women. I also like tall women. I like women who can put me in my place. I like women who don’t take shit from anybody. It’s true that Sigourney Weaver is that kind of a woman, but I have history of name dropping Sigourney Weaver. I’m not sure why I chose her, or if in a strange way, she chose me.
MARK: I think I must have asked you this before, but have you ever seen Quintron’s infomercial for the Drum Buddy? Ever since I first met you, I’ve thought that you’d be great in that format. Will you do me a favor and consider it?
CHARLES: Yeah, I’d actually never seen that before, but it’s pretty awesome. I’m sure I have a future in QVC.
MARK: What’s the ideal career for Charles Slick, and do you think it’s attainable in Portland?
CHARLES: I don’t know what my ideal situation is exactly in Portland and I don’t think it would be terribly different than if I stayed. I’m going to pursue my electronics education full-time, find some people to play music with, perform with my modular, try to sell my electronics, and maybe get job doing something remotely related to electronics.
MARK: How would you like to be remembered by the people of Ann Arbor?
CHARLES: As I am, a self-absorbed jerk who was mostly a good guy.
MARK: Any parting words of wisdom for those of us who remain behind?
CHARLES: Don’t waste your time trying to “build a scene”. Things like that happen organically when people work on stuff and share it with other people – and as soon as you get this magical problem-solving scene, you’ll hate it, because that’s how it is. For 90% of musicians, the idea of selling records/downloads is over… let it go. More than ever, music is just a means of communication, with your peers and your community. That may be strange coming from me, a person who was completely obsessed with trying to make money playing music. That was just another variation on the many ways I tried to quantify what I was doing. How many shows can I play in month? How many plays on Youtube? How many downloads? How much do I matter? Engineering a “scene” will never turn into anything your father (or your girlfriend’s father) will understand. I am proud to have been a part of things that I think make Ann Arbor/Ypsi cool… Totally Awesome Fest, seeing “this must be the place” play on top of Deja Vu, Water Hill Music Festival, Sherwood Bar. This town does cool stuff and I was a part of some of it, and I’m not moving away to a “cooler” place where “better” things happen. I’m certainly not in search of a better “scene.” See ya’ guys later.
MARK: Did you find this at all cathartic?
CHARLES: I like hearing myself talk.
Now, here, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the musical work of Mr. Slick, are a few examples.
[note: The other Ypsi/Arbor Exit Interviews in this series can be found here.]