Sly Joe & the Smooth Operators Release New Album

Calling Joe Slyzelia “Sly” is almost as big a contradiction as a vegetarian hot dog. So it wasn’t surprising when the 31-year-old frontman of Sly Joe & the Smooth Operators ordered up the dish — with veggie chili on top — at Oshkosh’s New Moon Café recently during an interview.

Slyzelia is more likely to return your lost wallet than steal it from your jacket pocket but the don’t-worry-be-happy-go-lucky married man with two children is completely content with a slightly mischievous-sounding name.

“I love being called Sly,” Slyzelia said. “Just the word sly is kind of ambiguous, there’s so many ways to interpret it. Which is kind of what I like about it, there’s a little aura of mystery to it like, ‘What kind of Sly is this guy?’”

The mystery ends after popping in the group’s freshly released album, “The Straight Goods.” Each of the 14 tracks on Sly Joe’s fourth studio album ignites universally positive imagery: Riding in the car with all the windows down on the first hot summer night or maybe the first day of a new semester at school.

With the help of several other Fox Valley musicians — Kai “Pita” Kotobalavu from the band Unity, vocalist Erin Krebs and Danny and Michelle Jerabek of Copper Box — “The Straight Goods” is hard to turn off without leaving a smile on your face.

Sly Joe & the Smooth Operators is performing tonight at Waterfest as part of the opening lineup for Rusted Root. The performance is also a CD release party for the band.

There are five core members of the group but you’ve been known to perform with many more on stage. How did you decide to increase the size of the band?

Since we started getting more festival bookings … it’s a bigger stage, bigger budget, bigger sound, so we said, ‘Let’s make a bigger band.’ When we played Waterfest last year we had about a dozen people on stage. It feels really good to get a big band on stage. It’s a great sound. If the venue can support it we love doing that. 

Why did you wait three years in between your last album to record “The Straight Goods”?

I probably wrote 100 songs in the last three years, and this one’s definitely a result of filtering down a whole lot of songwriting, whereas the last album was maybe like the first 14 . This one definitely had a lot more consideration, a lot more work with the surgical tools, putting it under the knife.

How did the album come together?

Most of the tunes on here started out as a real simple acoustic demo, me singing and playing the piano or the guitar. And then, similar to how we self-produced the last couple albums, I would just send that demo to Wood so he can get some drums on it right away. We’d mic up his drums at his house where’s he’s really comfortable and record the drums in an hour or two. Move on, go to Dave's house and put the bass on next. It was all track by track, brick by brick.

Why did you choose to collaborate with Pita of Unity on the title track?

The tune was coming together, and it just seemed like there could be a little something to give it more of that Rasta vibration, and Pita was into it. It was something where I just went to his house one day and set up my recording gear. I think he took maybe two or three passes at it and tried different stuff every time. It was very free flowing, stream-of-consciousness kind of thing. We just took what we came up with and cut and pasted a little bit and moved it around. The album definitely came together kind of organically that way.

I think “If I Could Catch You” could play on the radio. Is that something you aspire to? What’s the goal for Sly Joe?

It’s something I think about a lot; I think it changes. We’ve talked about the potential of touring with this band. My attitude on that is different now. …Obviously that changes a lot when you have a family. What it would take is something major like a radio hit; that’s why right now it’s rare for us to play outside of the Fox Valley. Touring is an option; but for right now, I’m happy playing around (Oshkosh). The other thing is, my heart is so much into songwriting. Something I’ve been working on for a while is trying to get more licensing opportunity for our songs, finding places for them in the TV/film realm. That’s something that can certainly add longevity to your career as a songwriter. As much as I love playing live, I can see putting that on the shelf sometimes and focusing on songwriting.

Your voice has a very Jason Mraz-ish quality to it. Do you mind being compared to him?

I have no problem with that. I remember a friend coming up to me around 1998 and saying, ‘There’s this new artist out there and he sounds just like you. His name is Jason Mraz.’ I could hear it. I think it’s fine, obviously we both come from different places but we both have the same real carefree, heartwarming attitude about life and music.

— Erin Ebert writes for the Oshkosh Northwestern.