Fiona Sly remembers her dad’s playfulness the most.
“He was extremely funny… extremely funny,” she says with a smile and some weight. “I miss having his humor.”
Her father, Tony Sly, was the mellifluous voice of the Californian punk-rock band No Use for a Name. On July 31, it will be 10 years since the world lost an amazing singer-songwriter and a loving father and husband. He was just 41.
“July 31 was incredibly devastating because we grew up together, and he was all I ever knew,” Sly’s wife, Brigitte, says. “It sounds cheesy but it’s true. I don’t think I knew real love and happiness until I met that man.”
Brigitte still recalls first meeting her future husband at a local pizza joint when she was only 12. She wipes her eyes and smiles.
“He was such a beautiful person,” she says. “Just knowing him — or hearing him through his lyrics and music — [you would know] he was truly a humble, loving, sweet man and just a beautiful, beautiful soul.”
No Use was the third band Fat Mike signed to Fat Wreck Chords. Over 30-plus years, the label has become a major creative powerhouse that has consistently released astute, progressive punk rock from evocative songwriters like Sly. When you talk to those who are a part of the label in any way, they tell you it is more familial than professional. This included Sly and his family, who, after his passing, were and are taken care of by the Fat family. Brigitte and their daughters are very close with Fat Mike, Erin, and their daughter.
They were signed after the Fat Wreck Chords co-founders watched them play at Berkeley punk venue 924 Gilman Street when starting to build the foundation of their now-influential label.
“We were actively looking for new bands and trying to figure out what our sound was going to be,” Burkett says. “We saw them and I remember thinking ‘OK, this band’s perfect. They will be a perfect fit with NOFX and Lagwagon.’
“He was just so raw and honest and genuine, and that’s what was so intriguing about his songwriting,” she adds. “Anybody who listens to his music feels like they know him even without knowing him. His music is that honest. He had this way of seeping into your consciousness so that you felt like ‘Oh, I know this man.’ That’s what’s so beautiful about his music, and that takes a lot of fucking guts.”
His lyrics anatomized the human spirit, documenting both the beauty and brutalities of life, from heartbreak (“Dumb Reminders”) and domestic abuse (“Justified Black Eye”) to mental health (“Life Size Mirror”) and fatherhood (“For Fiona” – yes, that Fiona). The label is releasing a career-spanning vinyl box set that includes all of these songs and No Use for a Name’s albums, commemorating the band’s influence and impact.
Vulnerability and relatability permeate the music. His frailty and struggle serve as an inspiration for others, sympathetic scars and all. It’s nearly impossible not to experience a connection with Sly’s words — particularly his severely underrated solo work, which includes two excellent cover albums with Lagwagon singer Joey Cape, who also became a very close friend.
“When he spoke, it mattered, and what he had to say was important — and really clever and funny,” Cape says. “That’s what I remember most – his clever sense of humor, which, at times, was really subtle. You might not catch it right away, and a few minutes later you’d be thinking about what he meant by that. He was really funny.”
Brigitte remembers those exciting days when the band’s song, “Soulmate” (from 1995’s ¡Leche con Carne!) was experiencing radio and video play, becoming one of Fat’s most popular bands. But even when the spotlight intensified, she says Sly remained very humble though it all, never changing and never straying from his loyal post as a loving family man.
Even the band’s name is modest and almost underwhelming, finding new listeners off guard with their catchy, lyric-driven songs. Fat Mike says that ultimately, and somewhat tragically, an ironic lack of hubris never allowed Sly to see his deep, lasting impact on people’s lives.
“It’s a real loss — he was just a really good guy and friend,” Fat Mike says, revealing that he has roughly 150 unfinished Sly demos. “But he never saw how great he was, and that’s what’s so sad about it.”
Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett played in No Use for a Name from 1995 until 1997. He saw how exceptional Sly’s songwriting was and how committed he was to writing deeply personal music, even within the cozy confines of a tour van. When first dipping his apprehensive toes into the intimidating craft, Shiflett says he’ll never forget the selfless support Sly showed him at the time.
“I was so nervous about [songwriting],” Shiflett (now an acclaimed singer-songwriter of his own) says. “I felt like a Johnny-come-lately with songwriting because everyone else was writing songs. But I remember I played those ideas for him, and he just gave me good constructive advice and support. He helped me break through to get the confidence you need to sit down and write songs. Just being in his presence and seeing the way he did it and what mattered to him, that really helped [me].”
Following those many hours and miles on the road with No Use, Shiflett has since toured extensively across the globe with Foo Fighters, performing at much larger venues. But it was in the NUFAN tour van and on those small stages where he learned the fundamentals of touring and playing live as an ensemble of committed musicians.
“I had never been in a band that had any of those things, so it was really my first introduction to the road and being out on tour — and playing night after night after night,” he says. “On a No Use tour, we’d go out for six weeks and would only have a few days off. You were playing every night, so you really become a different kind of player doing that. You just get hardened as a player. There’s something about touring and the repetition that makes you so much fucking better as a player than casually playing a gig. I remember, on those tours, my hands would just be ripped apart and bleeding.”
Fat Mike says that Sly’s first solo record, 12 Song Program, is not only his favorite Sly album but also one of the top records of all time.
“There are not many perfect albums,” he says. “There’s Ziggy Stardust, Walk Among Us, Suffer, and Tony’s album is up there with them. I just loved it so much, and I can’t listen to it anymore.”
Over the past decade, the Fat Wreck Chords family released the incredible The Songs of Tony Sly: A Tribute, with all of the proceeds from its sales going to the Tony Sly Memorial Fund, helping pay for Fiona and her sister’s college expenses down the road. The 26-track compilation is made up of covers of Sly’s music, involving a dizzying range of talent including Bad Religion, Rise Against, Alkaline Trio, Frank Turner, and of course Lagwagon and NOFX. Fat Mike says the only criteria he had for inclusion on the tribute was that they perform a completely novel and unique take on the song — a rule he stubbornly stuck by throughout the album’s evolution.
“I wanted to show how amazing his songwriting was,” he says. “You can tell a great song when it’s done in any style and it’s still great. That’s why I did that record. I sent quite a few bands back to the studio if I thought Tony wouldn’t dig the song. That’s how important it was to me.”
Brigitte says that album helped heal her broken heart a bit, allowing herself to hear his words without listening to his voice.
“That album allowed me to hear his songs without actually hearing him,” she says, looking at Fiona. “It was your dad, but it wasn’t your dad and I could still have a connection with him.”
“You can listen to his words without him telling you,” Fiona jumps in.