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With ‘lost’ LP ‘This Time Tomorrow’ recently released and a tour to celebrate their 1995 debut LP ‘Smart’ this August, Sleeper lead singer Louise Wener chats to Richard Lewis about the new album and upcoming plans
With fifth album ‘This Time Tomorrow’ recently issued, and a delayed tour to take place in August, 2021 is shaping up to be a busy one for Britpop pioneers Sleeper. Throw in a recent appearance on ‘Bad Things’, the new single by Mancunian indie pop outfit The Lottery Winners, and a remotely recorded collaboration with indie icons The Wedding Present, it becomes apparent Sleeper have been busy during lockdown. While ostensibly their fifth LP, ‘This Time Tomorrow’ arrives with an intriguing backstory. Despite being released two years after 2019’s warmly received comeback LP ‘The Modern Age’, the ‘lost’ album appears in sequence prior to that.
Flagged up by poignant new single ‘Tell Me Where You’re Going’, the disc pulls together tracks that were recorded following 1997’s ‘Pleased to Meet You’, the third and final album of Sleeper’s first era. “Four of the tracks on there were for an album that never got finished and the rest are a mixture of things me and Andy have done together,” Louise explains on the phone from the Brighton home she shares with partner, Sleeper drummer Andy McClure. Guitarist Jon Stewart is a close neighbour and lectures at BIMM Brighton alongside Andy. The quartet of tracks, initially intended for a solo album by the singer circa 1999, were recorded at none other than George Michael’s home studio in Highgate, North London. In addition to letting them have free run of the studio during downtime the pop superstar added chorus vocals to new track ‘We Are Cinderella’.
“They sort of span two or three years I think,” Louise says of the collection. “Each of them come from different places but they kind of work tighter hearing them all together, it feels like a body of work. One song Jon had written the entire backing track for when he was living in Los Angeles before he came back over to the UK. We’d listen to the tracks over the years, we’d get them out on a drunk night, give them a listen and go “Oh my God they’re really great, we should do something with these!” Then, we’d promptly forget about it cos it was quite a lot of work to get them finished. We’d say “We must do something, we must do something,” then they’d go back into the computer. This went on for about twenty years I guess!”
With the pandemic ensuring the tour they had announced for 2020 was put on ice, lockdown inspired the group to bring the project to completion. “Yeah, we had time to do it and it seemed like the perfect project to do to take somewhere else,” Louise says. “It’s so involving doing music and it lets you sort of get in your own head and your imagination and go somewhere else. That felt really escapist in its own way. Also, what’s interesting is the songs sort of resonated in a way I wasn’t expecting, especially in the current climate of what we’re going through. They were written at a time when each of us I think were going through a very difficult period. Not just the songs but the subject matter resonated and felt right.”
Like its predecessor the new LP is being released through their own label Gorsky. “It feels exactly right for this type of music, we’re so connected to it, we have such ownership of it,” Louise says of the group handling their own releases. “You get to this stage where it seems like the only way to do it to be honest. You don’t really need anyone else to do this for you. Lots of bands are moving towards having loads more control over what they do. The days of us waiting for a record company to give us permission or to give suggestions would just feel really strange, to be honest. There’s so many different gatekeepers now. Everything’s about streaming and the rewards aren’t what some people imagine them to be. It’s another whole series of complications. It’s changed and it’s democratised on some level but it’s still very difficult to break through I think.”
Scarcely believable in the current era when major labels have shrunk to consist of ‘The Big Three’, in the 1980s and ‘90s, multinationals had their own “indie” divisions to give themselves a veneer of independence. With the Britpop starting gun about to be fired, Sleeper signed to Indolent in 1993, an offshoot of RCA/BMG Records, now part of Sony Music.
In spite of the mega-money financing behind many of these companies, many of the labels’ dalliances with the new breed of guitar groups seemed to be a flying-by-seat-of-their-pants operation. “All of the major labels at that time had some indie complex, it was all about appearing cooler and having that sort of kudos. You had to make the inky press approve of you, all of that nonsense that everybody went through in the Nineties,” Louise recalls. “I didn’t come from that world at all, I didn’t understand why everyone cared so much about it. I really didn’t give a toss!” she laughs. “It was like you walk into this weird ideology where everything must be a certain way. The credibility of gatekeepers that existed at the time I always found nonsensical.”
In an era when the music press was vital, Sleeper quickly became a firm fixture in the pages of ‘NME’ and ‘Melody Maker’. Following several tussles with the self-appointed arbiters of cool in The Smoke, the singer responded with ‘Cunt, London’, a vicious blast that took its title from one of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s notorious ‘Derek and Clive’ routines. Included on the B-side of 1998 single ‘Romeo Me’, the title was briefly considered as the moniker for the album that became 1997’s ‘Pleased to Meet You’. “It was just about music journalists basically. There were a few very specific people who that’s about!” Louise laughs.
“Growing up where I did (the singer hails from Gants Hill in East London) I’d never met anyone who was in a band, I’d never met anyone who was a musician. I didn’t understand any of it, all I knew was that I could write melodies really well and write lyrics really well. I learnt how to play guitar and the whole thing fitted together when I went to university. There was this whole sort of expectation on you with the press back then that you’d come to it in the way that most guys do. I think lots of men come to music differently, they’ve studied the whole indie canon and they’ve played guitar in their bedroom for years. This is a generalisation but at the time I think women came to music slightly differently, cos I grew up on pop music and I didn’t know what a band was essentially. It just wasn’t part of what I’d figured out, I figured it out when I did it.”
1996 proved to be the highwater mark for Sleeper’s opening run, as ‘Sale of the Century’, developing from its almost ‘Clockwork Orange’-style intro into its earworm choruses, and the anthemic if more downbeat ‘What Do I Do Now’, became radio staples. The group also secured the bragging rights of having not one but two cuts on the soundtrack of zeitgeist defining 1996 Britflick ‘Trainspotting’, with ‘Statuesque’ and their cover of Blondie classic ‘Atomic’.
As the Britpop party began to wind down Sleeper understood the way trends were shifting and drew a line under the group. Dissolving the line-up in March 1998 and announcing the split that November, the decision was made swiftly. “It was, it kind of felt like we had no choice,” Louise recalls of the period. “It makes it sound like the decision was very hard, but it kind of happens to you. You can sort of fight against it, but I didn’t want to be swimming around in the shallows for years fighting it. It felt like the plug had been pulled on us. The record company didn’t want to support us anymore, they’d taken away all the funding, it was very harsh. And my thought was ‘I just don’t wanna live with that, I’d rather just go and live a different life and try something else’. That sort of stuff can destroy you and it did destroy a lot of people, I think. There were people who really struggled with it. It’s like how political careers always end in defeat, it’s kind of like that, it always goes. Unless you’re extraordinarily lucky or massive. So, you kind of have to deal with that in some way and look in a slightly different direction.”
An understandable move given her lyrical skills, Louise moved into writing, launching a clutch of acclaimed novels with her 2002 debut ‘Goodnight Steve McQueen’. One of the finest and most evocative accounts of the Britpop era, Louise’s autobiography ‘Just For One Day’ followed in 2010. While some musicians of the era look back on the period with a mixture of bemusement and/or bitterness, the volume is completely free of rancour. “I think it’s because it was written quite a long time afterwards. I remember being asked to write one very soon after we split, and I was like ‘I can’t do it yet’ because I can’t look at it with humour,” the singer responds.
“The book’s hopefully quite humourous about it all, it’s quite comfortable with the whole thing and I think that it took time to get to that point. I tried to do it with it with a sort of lightness and humour which is how I kind of look back on it now. We’ve obviously played with lots of people from the Britpop era since our comeback and it’s really interesting and cool to meet those people again and everyone’s so much more chilled and decent to each other! It was very competitive back in the day. Everyone was obsessed with their Midweeks (chart positions) and their sales and their positioning. Obviously, you had to pretend that wasn’t the case, but everyone was pretty high on it all I think!”
‘Just For One Day’ also tackles the profligate spending of record companies during the pre-Napster 1990s boom. Whereas the music press was vital in the UK for breaking new acts, in the States the medium was undoubtedly radio. “You’d get flown round and what record companies did was they’d take radio stations to lunch. They’d put up a big sign and say, ‘Who wants to come to lunch with Sleeper?’ and you’d turn up at these things and they literally wouldn’t even know who you were! There was a day when there was three lunches!” Louise marvels. “It was bizarre. It was very Nineties, there were huge amounts of money wasted on promotion, just flying you around America taking you to lunch with radio stations who didn’t actually know your name, but were like ‘Hey, free lunch dude! Amazing!’”
With the pandemic forcing tours to be postponed or scrapped, the present band have dates confirmed for August. Scheduled for last September, then bumped back to February, Sleeper head out on the road with fellow Britpop luminaries The Bluetones. Held to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of debut LP ‘Smart’, which was recently given the deluxe reissue treatment, the shows will see the disc played in full. Amongst the logistics of rehearsing the material, are you planning to replicate the album’s running order live? “We’re gonna try to,” Louise says. “It feels so strange, cos that tour was booked so long ago and we had all kinds of plans for it. It’s when you get into the rehearsal studio you start to figure it all out. We haven’t been able to do that yet, to rehearse or do anything. All that stuff happens when you get together and start playing. You can decide exactly how to reinterpret some of the songs, ways of playing them and work out ways to almost re-relate to them, which is enormously interesting and fun and part of the process. I feel like it’s something I can’t reach and it’s constantly on the other side of the fence! It’s not until you start playing as a band again that it starts to cement.”
A record stuffed full of singles, ‘Delicious’, ‘Swallow’, ‘Vegas’, ‘Alice In Vain’ and of course ‘Inbetweener’, ‘Smart’s’ deep cuts yield yet more gems. Recalling one of their principal influences, the Pixies, ‘Hunch’, alternating between almost whispered ‘Jackanory’-style verses and crunching choruses, is possibly Sleeper’s best-ever song. “Oh, that’s really great, no, we never did!” Louise replies when asked if it was considered as a single. “It’s funny going back to those songs and reassessing them, listening to them and remembering why you loved them. That’s been the really lovely thing about getting back together, reforming and playing again, just being able to reach back through time and reconnect with those songs.”
Live favourite and riotous album closer ‘Pyrotechnician’ meanwhile surely stands as the only song ever written about lusting after a stunt coordinator. “I remember I was living in a tiny little studio flat in Kentish Town in London,” Louise states. “It was back in the day when we’d stay up all night and watch ridiculous documentaries on TV. I was watching one about a pyrotechnician and it was just one of those glorious things, ‘I wanna be this person, I wanna burn stuff!’ I think I just went and wrote it after watching a programme about someone whose job it was. What an extraordinary thing to be! Obviously, it’s much larger than that, burning stuff down, changing things, so it becomes a sort of parable for change and rebellion and all of those things that were very much at the heart of Sleeper when we first began.”
Looking beyond the tour a new record is already beginning to take shape. “Yeah, it definitely is, we’ve been writing new stuff. It’s one of the loveliest things you can do I think, being creative when we’re in the current circumstances. When you can’t step outside your door hardly, to be able to go somewhere with music feels like a real luxury. It’s not easy to do as well, everything feels sort of incredibly sludgy at the moment doesn’t it? Sometimes putting yourself above all that is quite hard. But when it happens it feels like a bit of a joy.”
“Just before this last lockdown I was in the centre of Brighton and there was this band busking, you know how some buskers are just phenomenal?” Louise says as the interview wraps up. “They had a drummer and they were a fully formed band. There were all these people stood round them socially distanced, dancing, and it was just extraordinary. I hadn’t seen anything like that for so long. Experiencing it again is going to feel magical I hope.”
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