When I call Langhorne Slim, he’s driving down a rural road in Iowa, trying to make it to his next gig. The 37-year-old singer-songwriter (real name: Sean Scolnick) has been touring the country to promote his latest album, “Lost at Last, Vol. 1,” a melodic paean to disconnecting from superficial pleasures and reconnecting with yourself.
Slim is bringing his particular brand of folksy Americana to Flying Dog on Sunday for the Summer Sessions outdoor concert series. Before the show, we discussed his stage name, hometown, and his experiences with sobriety and mental illness.
To start, tell me about the name Langhorne Slim. Where does that come from?
Slim: I’ve used Langhorne as sort of a nickname/stage name as long as I’ve been Sean. When I was starting to play music, I took that name as a nod to a lot of the old blues music guys I was listening to at the time. Where a guy or gal would often take the place they were from and tack it onto Slim, or something like that. And Langhorne is the name of the town I’m from in Pennsylvania.
Tell me about Langhorne. What was it like growing up there?
Slim: Well, it’s a small town outside Philadelphia. It was, for me, a place where I felt a bit like an outsider. I looked forward to getting out when I was a kid. I didn’t have music quite yet in my life, but I had a deep feeling that I wanted to get out.
Now my mother and my grandmother live there and I go back and I love the place. Growing up there, it had some cool things as far as being a small town with a bunch of kids on the same street. My best friend to this day, we grew up on the same street. But, as far as feeling completely at home — I felt like I didn’t find home until I started playing music and traveling with it.
That’s interesting to hear, because I was going to ask if growing up in such a small town inspired your music at all.
Slim: I would imagine that there’s a sense of boredom, perhaps a sense of alienation, that inspires one, as a kid, to seek out books or guitars or whatever it is that moves you. I know for sure that I asked my mother to fix up this old, broken guitar that sat in the corner for a few years, and it changed my life.
Who knows what it would have been like if I grew up in a big city. But maybe having time to myself and some of those feelings [of boredom] drove me to rock and roll. And using it to release some of what I was feeling, which at that time, was getting me into some trouble.
Do you remember how you got into trouble?
Slim: I remember in elementary school, I was kicked out of normal class and put into a class called ‘learning disabled.’ And to even think there’s a class called ‘learning disabled’ blows my mind and breaks my heart. And then, I had read somewhere that on a multiple-choice type test, if you circle a bunch of “Cs,” you can achieve a very high score. And I thought that sounded like some kind of B.S., but I did that, and through pure cosmic luck, I wound up scoring the best score in the county.
So, they took me out of learning disabled and put me into another class called ‘mentally gifted.’ Equally as troubling a title, in my opinion. And then later they took me out of that class and they said, ‘You don’t belong here, either.’ And I said to them, ‘I think that y’all are crazy. We’re all learning disabled and mentally gifted and you guys should get your s— together.’ And they didn’t find that to be wise or charming and I think called my mother and asked her to pick me up and take me home.
And you were even asked to leave school at one point, right? Why did that happen?
Slim: You’ll have to ask them. I think that they thought I was insubordinate. I learned that word because one of the disciplinarians called me that. My mother came and picked me up and she told them, ‘If you’re going to call my kid something, at least teach him the definition of the word first.’
I think I’ve always had a bit of a rebellious streak that I’m not ashamed of. I think that it was me speaking up to the authority figures, the teachers and principals, and telling them my thoughts on things that weren’t appreciated. I think that’s how a lot of artists are born and made. They don’t fit that mold exactly, and it creates some feelings at a young age of — not to be overly dramatic, but of despair or a little bit of alienation, a little bit of anger. And so, if you’re good at drawing pictures, you start drawing pictures. If you’re good at cooking, you start chopping an onion. If you love rock and roll, you learn Nirvana. And that’s what I did.
Is that how you got into music? Nirvana and a broken-down guitar?
Slim: I think music got into me before I ever learned how to strum a guitar or play a chord. My grandma, she used to listen to Barbra Streisand and she would just start bawling. She would turn to me and say, ‘I hope someday music can touch you in such a way that you feel emotional.’ And I look back on that as very significant, her telling that to a young boy. That’s a lesson in vulnerability, or sensitivity, being a strength as opposed to a weakness.
I think my response to my grandmother at the time was, ‘Music already does that to me but it’s not necessarily this kind of music.’ When Nirvana hit, I think for my generation, that must have been close to The Beatles or something. I learned those chords and started to dissect them with my cousin, who was in a punk rock band in New Jersey. I used to go out there and watch them rehearse and just — there are feelings that we do not have words for in the English language, and I would feel like I was dancing with the spirits or something. When I was taught those chords, it opened up a new dimension for me. A new land where I thought, ‘This is where I belong. This is where I want to stay.’ And I haven’t left since.
You mentioned Nirvana as an influence, but as far as your music now, how would you describe it to someone?
Slim: I would not. I don’t like to. But I can say that Nirvana is still an influence as much as Michael Hurley, as much as Neil Young, as much as Otis Redding. What I love is music. It’s not a particular kind of music or genre. I tend to gravitate towards the beginnings of each form of music, whether it’s jazz, hip-hop, blues. I like the early stuff because I feel that’s where it’s at its most wild and free.
So, when I’m at home and I’m putting on records, it’s early rock and roll, it’s early country music, it’s early folk music. That’s the kind of stuff that, to me, is the most raw. To my heart, it’s the most pure.
In ‘Lost at Last,’ you really focus on taking away distractions and focusing on human connections, and I was wondering why you wanted to make that the focus of the album.
Slim: I think the question should be, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to focus on that?’ There has always been a need for me, with my music, to achieve a connection with my audience. That’s truly what it’s all about. At this particular point, it’s never been as profoundly important for me to feel that connection.
And I think the more connectivity that we can achieve, the better. When you switch on your television or your radio on or whatever it is, there’s an awful lot of fear being spewed, and divisiveness and negativity. And I do not believe that that is a positive way forward for any of us.
You’ve also talked a lot about your decision to get sober a few years ago, and I was hoping you could tell me more about that.
Slim: Well, I don’t think anybody stops drinking or taking drugs because they necessarily want to. I felt like I was killing myself. I had gone about 16 years as hard as I could, and at some point, I felt as though I had reached the pinnacle. My body hurt. My brain hurt. My spirit hurt. It was on my 33rd birthday that I had my last glass of whiskey. And I decided I was done.
It got to a point where it was no longer doable. When you live that way, you pour so much energy into getting messed up and worrying where you’re going to get your next drink or next drug or whatever. So, it finally clicked for me — what a revelation it would be to dedicate a big chunk of time to seeing life with new eyes. Which you can do if you’re not f—ed up all the time.
How do you balance sobriety with the reality of your life, then, which is a lot of touring and performing in bars and clubs?
Slim: Well, I’m fortunate in the sense that I live in bars. I was essentially born in a bar. My father and my grandparents owned a bar. Most likely I’ll die playing in a bar somewhere. So, being around alcohol, or being around people who might be drinking, it doesn’t awaken the creature for me, per se. But there are times when I’m alone, when I’m feeling lonely, maybe I’m writing and I’m in my head but I want to feel more in my heart. Alcohol and drugs, there’s no doubt, have helped to soften and lubricate the heart and soul so you get out of your head. And those are dangerous times, there.
But I’ve opened up to the people who love me. I feel I know what’s at stake, and there’s too much at risk to go back. And you find other ways. I uncovered a form of meditation that helped. Music helps, yoga helps.
If I’ve figured anything out, it’s not how to feel happy all the time, by any means. It’s that happiness doesn’t come from without. It isn’t in a bottle, it isn’t in a bed, it isn’t anything exterior. It’s from within. It’s working on your own crazy ass. And that’s a day-to-day thing.
What was it like to record your first album after you had gotten clean?
Slim: It was terrifying and also very fulfilling and empowering. Most of the people I was hanging out with, I don’t think they realized the extent of what I was up to. But my band did. My girlfriends throughout the years did. My family did. And so, when I quit, I was embraced mightily by my band and my closest friends and family because they had been put through a lot, being around that. They sent me a lot of strength and a lot of love.
I ain’t going to lie. There’s a real fear for any creative person that maybe you won’t create without alcohol, or maybe you won’t be able to go out to a party and feel comfortable. But you just throw yourself into it. And I found that the shows were better. The connection that I felt with the audience was much stronger. The connection I felt with the band was much stronger. I stepped out of the shadow and became more open.
To be honest with you, it had gotten to the point, with me, where I wasn’t going to wake up alive. You can’t do what I was doing every day. Sure, there’s Keith Richards or some of these other people who we love and romanticize, but 99.9 percent of people — they don’t make it. It isn’t this beautiful story of how you’ve been able to live this rock-and-roll lifestyle.
Yeah, and the issue of addiction has become so dominant in the national conversation that maybe people are ready to stop romanticizing it or stop vilifying it.
Slim: I hope we are getting to the point where we stop vilifying it. That we get rid of the stigma and start to try to understand the connection with mental health and mental illness. Anxiety, depression, things that all of us deal with to some extent. Some more than others. And when you’re taking copious amounts of drugs and alcohol, it’s probably to mask something that is deep-rooted within yourself.
Are mental health issues something that you’ve struggled with?
Slim: It is something that I struggle with. I struggle with anxiety. I thought that I was more depressed than I am — we all know that alcohol is a depressant. I was depressed far more when I was drinking. But I still get low. We all get low.
Not to joke about it, but I’m a neurotic Jew from outside of Philly. I definitely deal with my version of anxiety, with my version of depression, which I think is probably very similar to a lot of other people’s. It’s not an unusual or unique battle, but if we keep it in the shadows, if we stigmatize it, if we consider it to be a weakness, it only gets harder. I think my drinking and my drug use was most certainly to cope with my uncomfortability — if that’s a word — with this world or dimension that we’re living in. After I put the drinking and drug use away, I found, to my surprise, that I feel far more comfortable in this world. And far more comfortable just being the freak that I am.
You’ve mentioned yoga and you’ve mentioned meditation, but is there anything else you do to unwind?
Slim: I do enjoy a steam room. I enjoy the company of my friends. I enjoy being out in nature. I enjoy the same things that you and probably everybody else does. I enjoy romantic connections. I enjoy a great song. I enjoy a great meal. I like when I feel where I’m at when I’m there, and that’s something I have trouble with in my life.