Waiting to go on stage at a packed Shepherd’s Bush Empire on December 2, 2017, Sleeper’s frontwoman Louise Wener was experiencing something she’d never had before – stagefright.
In the mid-’90s, at the height of Britpop, Sleeper were writing hit singles seemingly at will, playing to thousands of people every night on tour, and in the shape of singer and guitarist Louise they had a music mag editor’s dream – someone articulate, opinionated and one of only a handful of women in the male-dominated scene.
But after a trio of top-10 albums they called it a day and pursued separate careers, vowing never to reform.
However, in 2017, they did come back together. And after a short run with the touring Britpop-revisiting festival, Starshaped, decided to play their own headline show in London.
The band had first tested the waters with a warm-up gig in Brighton, where Louise lives with her partner and band drummer Andy Maclure.
‘We had no idea of what to expect,’ Louise tells The Guide. ‘There was this feeling in the room, not to get all hippy about it, it was just so positive and full of love, we were a bit taken aback by it.
‘Then we did these four gigs with the Starshaped Festival, and then we did our own gig at The Shepherds Bush Empire and it was the first time in my life I’d ever had stagefright.
‘I had this sudden attack that I couldn’t do it. All the time in the ’90s, I had never got it. I was always a bit nervous and a bit excited about going on, but I had never ever had stagefright. I got to the point where I thought there is absolutely no way I can do this, to go out there and be the lead singer of a rock band.
‘Thankfully it went about half an hour before we went on and I was absolutely fine. Since then it’s never happened again. It was a bit of a shock to the system though!’
With the band revitalised by their reception, they decided to start writing again – new album The Modern Age is due out a week today. And as recent single Look at You Now proves, the intervening years have not dulled either their wit or way with a tune.
But after two decades of resisting, what made them finally return to the fray?
‘We had always said we’d never reform. Every so often we’d get these emails asking if we’d do this or that, and we’d always say: “Absolutely not!”
‘It got to the stage where we wouldn’t even open them, but it was a real spur of the moment thing in the end. Someone close to me got really sick in 2017, and part of my reaction to that was to do something that might be life-affirming and very much out of my comfort zone, so we got another one of those emails saying: “Do you want to do these gigs?” And I thought, oh my god, let’s just do it, just out of the blue. The others said: “You’re kidding?” But I said: “No, no, we should actually do it – let’s see if we can”.’
‘It was also something that was quite scary, the idea of getting back on stage and playing those songs. I had no notion that we could actually achieve it.’
The original plan had only been for that first run of shows and that would be it, but the response seemed to merit something more – a further tour was booked for 2018, which included a date at The Wedgewood Rooms, and it sold out.
Since Sleeper split Louise has carved a career as a successful novelist, and wrote a hugely entertaining memoir of the Britpop years, Just For One Day.
‘People were saying you should make an album and we were like, fine, yeah, okay. So I sat and tried to start writing songs. I didn’t even have any notion that I could do that anymore. Yes, I’ve worked with words ever since, so I thought I could probably do the lyrics. But could I pick up a guitar and create a melody? Can I still write tunes? I wasn’t sure. But I did, and I realised I quite liked it, I think it might be alright...’
With no label and expectations, Louise and the band were able to work at it on their own terms.
‘There was no time constraint – we just did it until we thought we had enough.’
Louise has always been the band’s main songwriter, with guitarist Jon Stewart and Andy also contributing. This time around though they adopted a different approach.
‘Back in the 90s, writing the lyrics were the last thing we did. I’d write the tune, and we’d work that up together as a band in the rehearsal room and I’d just sing nonsense lyrics, then work it up from there.
‘I remember being in a recording studio and having to go upstairs to write the lyrics to Inbetweener, I came downstairs and recorded it. I mean, it worked out alright...' she laughs – the song went top 20 in 1995 and became an indie nightclub staple. ‘But this time, because it had been so long, I had this rule that I would write all the lyrics before we did any demos or even took them into the rehearsal room. So I had the songs written before we got together and we worked on them musically.’
With Jon working on a since completed PhD at the time, Louise wrote most of the new album with Andy.
‘He wrote songs on (1996’s platinum-selling) The It Girl and we’d written together over the years, so we did a lot of the writing and recording demos here at the house. I’d write the song on the guitar and the basic structure then Andy would go and put loads of sounds on it and mess around with it – he did lots of keyboard stuff and the more modern sounding direction has come from him. It was really co-writing between the two of us.’
The subject matter of the songs was also important to Louise. ‘I wanted to make sure every song was about something. It wasn’t just going “la-di-da-di-da, I’ve fallen in love”. And with the album being called The Modern Age, it’s a reflection on whether a band can come back after 20 years and have any notion of what is modern? We understand the difficulty of that. But also what is the modern age around us? What’s in my head? What’s troubling me? What am I excited about? All of those things – I wanted to write about things that were important to me.’
While Louise admits it is dark in places, songs like Car Into The Sea, have a ‘basic underlying optimism.’ She adds: ‘That song’s about ageing and asking where is your place in the world now? But it’s about a long-term relationship and that still having something magical about it.’
And the track Dig features the arresting couplet: ‘We don’t have regrets, we only have debts.’
‘Yes,’ she laughs, ‘that’s kind of where we are, a lot of us now!’
Back in the day, Sleeper were signed to major label subsidiary Indolent Records, and enjoyed the budgets and support that entailed. This time they turned to online crowdfunding to help bring the new album to life.
The group used the Pledgemusic platform and were successful in reaching their target.
However, within days of this interview, it emerged that the site had effectively collapsed and failed to pass on fans’ money to acts. It has left bands and solo artists across the globe short of money they had been pledged, often running into the thousands of pounds or dollars – explaining Louise’s reticence on the subject.
‘It was a mixed experience,’ she says of going down the crowdfunding route, ‘The idea that people would put their hands up in advance and give you £20 and say: “We believe in you and we want you to make that record,” is astonishing. And it’s one of the loveliest things.
‘The actual process has been rather more complicated, but I’ll probably talk about that another time.’
They are now releasing the album themselves on their own Gorsky Records.
‘We don’t have any label support, so there’s a massive amount of things to do and to make it happen and shape up in the right way, but that’s like any job – you’ve got to put the time and effort into it.
‘It’s been more of an issue with the way the crowdfunding company are organising it.’
A quick check on the band’s Pledgemusic page reveals they have kept in touch with fans, helping them to get their money back.
Crowdfunding is just one way the music business has changed since the Britpop heyday. And as Louise admits, it wasn’t quite the loved-up scene that it is now often painted as.
‘Everyone had this slightly rose-tinted view that everyone was always hanging out and we were all bezzy mates, and there were a few who were in fairness, but it was super-competitive.
‘It was more about thinking: how can I bring that other band down? Rather than: “Do you want to come round my house for a quick cup of tea?” It wasn’t really like that.’
Louise sees less tribalism in music now too. ‘It’s changed hugely. It’s much less territorial than it used to be – you liked Britpop or you didn’t, you liked dance music or you didn’t.
‘It’s much more democratic now, everyone picks and chooses – there’s no sense that you have to identify as one thing or another with your musical tastes, it’s much more eclectic. I think that’s partly down to how people access music – they stream it, they download it, they don’t rush out to the record shop on the day something comes out to get their copy. It’s much more of a pick and mix thing now.
’Back in that time there were gatekeepers and tastemakers, and I don’t think that holds at all any more. There’s so many ways to hear about it and access it. People are more interested in to going to blogs than a weekly paper to hear about it. And I like that element of it.’
One curious legacy of the band was the concept of the ‘Sleeper bloke’. Such was the interest in Louise that the rest of the all-male band faded into supposed interchangeable obscurity (in reality only the bass player has changed).The term still gets used to represent anonymous backing musicians – you can buy T-shirts with the slogan on even today. It was said at the time that the guys found it funny.
However, as Louise says now: ‘They found it amusing because what else can you do? But I realise in retrospect what that was, and it was kind of a basic sexism – we’ve got a woman at the helm and she’s the main songwriter and if you’re playing behind her, that kind of reduces you in some way.
‘For all their right-on credentials at the music press of the day it was rife with those sort of attitudes, and you don’t get that with an all-male band. Very often you’ve got a very charismatic lead singer who’s a man, but you don’t get them saying something like this of the other musicians – they wouldn’t have been denigrated in the same way.
‘I think it was very much to do with the fact that there was female lead singer and they’re all: “Oh, I don’t know about that – bird at the front, how must the guys feel?” It was a sort of extension of some very old-fashioned thinking is my take on it now.
‘Elastica and Echobelly both had other women in the band which defused this element a little bit, so they didn’t get that notion applied to them.’
So is this the band back for good?
‘I don’t know, and I don’t even know what that means, because we’ve been taking small steps at a time.
‘It feels like a huge achievement to have just made a record together after all this time. I’m ferociously proud of it and I love it, so that means a huge amount. It’s going to be great to go out and play songs from this album and mix it up with the old stuff. But where it goes from here, I don’t know.
‘What I have discovered though, is that I really like writing songs again. While that continues I’d like to find a way to do that – I’d like to carry on doing that, but we’ll see.’
Sleeper are at Engine Rooms, Southampton on Thursday, March 28. Tickets £22.40. Go to bit.ly/SleeperSoton.