Interview: Louise Wener
It’s ridiculous to compare myself to my interviewee, Louise Wener. She’s the lead singer of 90’s band Sleeper, journalist, mother, and author of five books including her excellent autobiography ‘Different for Girls’. Yet, as we sit together in a Brighton cafe, I can’t help but try to find similarities between us. Well, you’ve probably never heard of me or my band, and the only books I’ve written are still unpublished (probably because I only want to write coming-of-age novels about female warriors – there’s not much of a market). So…similarities….well, neither of us were much to look at as children.
“Being the fat kid or the ugly kid at school, you have to find something that elevates you. You get a bit of fire I suppose”. For Wener this fire meant ambition, and the desire to be famous, “When I was a kid fame was otherworldly. There was ordinary life in the suburbs and fame was something completely different. With the rise of celebrity culture it’s now almost normalised, while for me it was almost a fantasy”. By 1997, Wener had appeared on countless TV shows, toured with Blur and had ‘Happy Birthday’ sung to her on stage by Michael Stipe. Was the child in her finally “elevated”? “What’s shocking about fame is how quickly it wears off. It was much more sordid and pedestrian than I expected. The desperation, the dishonesty, the level of ambition and backstabbing between other bands and within the industry – the drug-taking and egotism was so huge. And there was always someone tapping you on the shoulder, saying, ‘That’s not enough’. There were very few moments where I was able to step back and think, ‘Wow, this is great’”.
It was great. In 1995 Britain experienced a surge in home-grown talent, in all creative sectors, and from the outside it seemed incredibly exciting. I was 12 when my fascination with Britpop began. I’d watch Top Of The Pops and lust after Doc Martens and a Justine Frischmann haircut, despite the fact the former chafed my ankles and the latter made me look tubby. I was enamoured of the girls with tight T-shirts and chunky boots, sweaty, with a guitar hung low, a fierce grimace as they scowled down the lens into my living room. I could never relate to the pop girls with polish, the pristine princesses singing about waiting around for love. Urgh. Boring. But in the rabble of chart battles and cheeky interviews there was a handful of women who meant hope for girls like me. But how was it to be in the centre of that Union-Jack-wrapped huddle? “There were moments when you felt that things were really taking off.” Wener recalls, “The live scene was flourishing, everyone in Camden was joining a band or getting a record deal, they were falling out of managers’ pockets like sweets. But when you’re in the middle of something it’s very hard to see it. And even though people look back on it as a movement, everyone was very much on their own”. So you weren’t all hanging out in the Good Mixer swapping touring tales? “Generally we were quite competitive of each other. You just wanted to crush the other bands”. So who did she most want to crush? “Echobelly and Elastica. If we all saw each other we’d swap dirty looks. It was very school playground. It felt like there were limited places on the bus, so it was that thing of who are you going to elbow off? And there was extra competition between the female bands because you felt like only a few of you would be allowed.” And how would would you crush Frischmann and Madan? “Oh, I just used to fantasise about having them assassinated”.
After Sleeper’s very first interview Wener was branded mouthy and outspoken, labels that would follow her for the rest of her career. Rather than fight it, she decided to try and take things into her own hands, “I would plan about three things that I thought would be interesting or just make a difference, or would mean that we would get a bigger piece. I think I lost control a bit, I became such a caricature.” Wener was also titled a sex symbol on several occasions by Melody Maker and NME. How did this particular accolade feel? “After being the plain kid at school suddenly I wasn’t any more, but it also felt so reductive. In the first paragraph of anything written about me they would mention it. I didn’t feel comfortable, and then I wondered why I didn’t feel comfortable…I still don’t know how I feel about it even now. We live in a post-feminist world where women have the right to go and be pole dancers and feel great about it, but I feel uncomfortable with the inherent sexualisation in music which is more prevalent now than it’s ever been”.
After years of flailing in indie obscurity Wener and her bandmate Jon Stewart decided to stick two fingers up at the superficiality of the industry they so desperately wanted to be a part of. They sent off demos to record companies, around which they wrapped a copy of their recent NME live review – which they’d written themselves. “It was the first thing I’d ever written. We found this skanky little guy in a basement and we gave him the font and the layout so he could get everything just right. I made a point of saying we weren’t too brilliant, as I thought that would be too exposing. I think I said something like ‘this is a scene that celebrates itself and this band needs celebrating’…something unbearably naff.” The plan went further. They placed an advert for a dancing audition which would take place at their next gig, “I think we had 30 auditionees. People phoned up before because of the advert and I pretended to be an agent, ‘Just dance and look zingy’. There was dancing at the front, it was bizarre – why were people dancing? That never happens at a little indie gig. Afterwards a couple of them rang up and shouted at us. There was a certain level of embarrassment that we’d done that but it paid off a little bit.”
I don’t know what I’m doing with my face in this photo.
Today, fewer and fewer bands seem to be able to make that leap into major label gold. Which is in some ways a good thing – encouraging a worthy “it’s all about the music, man” approach, and inspiring camaraderie and Blitz spirit amongst bands. Though she’s not an avid follower of current music trends, this is something Wener empathises with, “I think there’s less room to make mistakes, but then there are some great ways into it. You don’t have to sign a huge deal”. But for Sleeper, was money a big part of the appeal? Without hestiation Wener nods, “We wanted to make loads of money, although we didn’t [laughs] but that’s where the power was, and I wanted the power to be mine and not theirs. I felt like once you had money you could start saying no to things and dictate it. Fame, power, money. That would be great.”
The end of Britpop coincided with the creation of New Labour – Noel Gallagher and Alan McGee publically supporting Tony Blair and even attending a celebratory party at Number 10. This dismayed many of their peers who saw this introduction of a political party into the Britpop fold as, Wener puts it, “the death of rebellion”. It was undoubtedly lame. “We [as bands] were conformist, but we hoped there was a rebellion instinct, and if there was, that was the point it stopped. It’s the job of people outside the establishment to remain outside the establishment and poke it hard”. Was she invited to Tony’s tea party? A long “no”.
So once again we find ourselves in political and economical turmoil, with a (half) Conservative Government. Will this inspire bands to “poke”? “I think it will. I think there’s been so much complacency, the ‘Coldplay model’. It’s all very sweet and emotional, with no-one kicking, and I think really great music comes from having something to kick against. It might become a bit more angular and powerful and aggressive. More than just overt lyrics like ‘Clegg has gone completely mad’”.
Would Sleeper pick up their instruments to lead the rebellion? “Um…no. It seems appropriate for Blur and Pulp because they were so much bigger than us and they never really stopped doing it, stepping back into it would feel strange.” But she must miss it? “I only miss it when I go to a gig, I get a bit teary because I know what kind of day they’ve had, it’s like going back to your school or something, I have a connection there. But that only lasts for about an hour…”
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN NOTION