Return of The It Girl: talking Sleeper & more with Louise Wener – yesterday, today and This Time Tomorrow

It seems rather apt that a future Britpop star was born on the day of England’s sole World Cup Final triumph in the Summer of ’66. And yet, it’s fair to say Louise Wener was always about far more than just 15 minutes of fame, keen to reach further milestones long after that particular scene was behind her.

A published author as well as a songwriter, singer and guitarist for Sleeper, Louise has gone on to write four novels and an autobiography, as well as co-writing BBC Radio 4 series, Queens of Noise, with Roy Boulter of The Farm, run as part of Woman’s Hour’s drama slot, focusing on the rise of a fictional indie band, a subject both had plenty of insider knowledge on.

Those who properly knew Louise, brought up 20 miles east of the Twin Towers of Wembley in Gants Hill, Ilford, always realised she was far more than the pretty face fronting Sleeper, one of Britpop’s biggest female stars, high in Melody Maker and NME ‘Sexiest Woman’ polls two years running, a regular music press cover star, a Top of the Pops guest presenter, and TFI  Friday regular, whose bandmates played up to the tongue-in-cheek status of ‘Sleeperblokes’, knowing full well media attention would rarely affect them.

And again, few would be too surprised by her career path after the band initially split, Louise often using significant media interest wisely, speaking out on female sexuality, censorship, and other issues from the start. But I had a confession for her regarding 2010’s Different for Girls: My True-life Adventures in Pop. It sat on my shelf for more than a decade before I finally picked it up in advance of this audience with its author, albeit soon absorbed within its pages.

More of that shortly, Louise’s focus right now on the band she co-founded in 1992, having met future bandmate Jon Stewart at Manchester University in 1987, a few forks in the road taken before a Melody Maker advert led to the arrival of bass player Diid Osman and drummer Andy Maclure, the latter – three decades after joining the fold – these days happily based in Brighton with the lead singer and their two teenage children.  

The current focus – the band having reformed in 2017 – is on a pandemic-delayed 25th anniversary tour of Sleeper’s best-selling second album, The It Girl, produced by Stephen Street, the first of three he worked on with the band, released in May 1996, reaching No.5 in the UK – as did debut LP, Smart – and including top-20 singles, ‘What Do I Do Now?’, ‘Sale of The Century’, ‘Nice Guy Eddie’, and ‘Statuesque’.

That long player was their biggest seller, the band now set to perform the album in full. And as Louise put it, “We have such great memories of touring this album in the ‘90s. These songs took us all over the world, soundtracking an incredible period in our lives. It’s an album full of energy and optimism, and we plan on making these gigs something special.”

Time for a potted history to fill in some gaps. Sleeper, initially known as Surrender Dorothy before swapping a line from The Wizard of Oz for a Woody Allen film title, amassed eight UK top-40 hit singles and three UK top-10 albums in their comparatively short-lived but successful first coming, Louise and Jon having met in a political philosophy class, becoming an item and going on to play together in a number of bands as students in Manchester, including jazz outfit the Lime Street Blues Band.

After graduating in 1988, they moved to London, at the time Louise saying they ‘sounded not unlike The Sundays’, but ‘increasingly influenced by US bands such as Hole, Nirvana, and, most especially, the Pixies’. In fact, the music press ad that led to Diid and Andy’s recruitment read, ‘Bass player and drummer wanted. Influences The Pixies and The Partridge Family’, their profile soon raised by a fake Louise Weiner review of their talents in the NME.

Signing to Indolent Records, a subsidiary of RCA, in 1993, they released three EPs and singles before properly breaking through on the back of the wondrous ‘Inbetweener’, previously opening for Blur on their Parklife tour (and Louise’s rather frank observations on that particular outfit made me wince in Different for Girls), their spot on the Britpop bandwagon as good as sealed.

They also recorded three sessions for John Peel, the first two in 1994, when they also made his Festive Fifty with ‘Delicious’ (No.28) and ‘Swallow’ (No.48). While their debut LP was certified gold, selling more than 100,000 copies, its follow-up was certified platinum (more than 300,000 copies), their profile raised higher by the inclusion of their cover of Blondie’s ‘Atomic’ for the film Trainspotting.

But as her autobiography reveals in brutally honest fashion, Sleeper’s moment in the sun wasn’t about to last much longer, October 1997’s rather-rushed third long-playing offering, Pleased to Meet You, also making the UK top 10 and certified silver, but with sales falling, the band splitting in March 1998 after a tour in which shows were either cancelled or downsized due to lower-than-expected ticket sales.

From there, Louise and Andy worked on a new, more mainstream project, which included a guest appearance by George Michael. But that was never completed, Louise instead going on to that writing career.

Meanwhile, Jon – the couple’s relationship issues part of the timeline of the band – had by then moved to Los Angeles, his future credits including session guitar work for k.d. lang and Mel C, before returning, going on to become course leader of a degree course in music business and a lecturer in popular culture and music history at the British and Irish Modern Music (BIMM) Institute in Brighton, where bandmate Andy also lectures.

These days, alongside Sleeper duties, Jon also features with The Wedding Present (having joined in 2019). As for Diid, he was a session player with Dubstar before becoming an artist manager, his role in the band now filled by Kieron Pepper, part of the set-up since that 2017 reunion.

And when I spoke to Louise, she was looking forward to returning to the road, after a series of covid-related postponements and rearrangements. But first, I mentioned her and Jon’s contributions to one of the internet highlights of this very odd last couple of years, The Wedding Present’s August 2020’s ‘Locked Down and Stripped Back’ sessions, my favourite moments including a fresh take on ‘Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm’, with original backing vocalist Amelia Fletcher (Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, The Catenary Wires, Swansea Sound) and co-founding lead guitarist Peter Solowka (long since with The Ukrainians) back in tow, and a cover of Sleeper’s ‘We Should Be Together’, this year out there as part of David Gedge’s outfit’s 24 Songs project. Was that good fun to make?

“Yeah, but strange as well, because we had that song for 20 years! So to see it suddenly out there in two different places, it’s sort of amazing, having life breathed into it after so long. But it’s a lovely thing.”

‘Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm’ was more of a reimagining. Was that the case with your track too?

“Not really, it was very much how it was. Jon’s been playing with The Wedding Present and was playing that song, and doing different versions of it.”

(I should add that their own version of that track has made it out there as a single since. And that’s another winner.)

My personal highlight of that lockdown video version is where David Gedge sings, ‘Casually she walks away …’, and it cuts to you, sat on your rug back at yours, unable to suppress a smile after the first verse and chorus, as if sharing a private joke with Jon, his wry grin suggesting he’s thinking, ‘Where did it all go wrong, Louise?’. I’m guessing it was all edited together later, but it seems as if you remain somewhat mentally in tune all these years down the line.

“It was nice, and yet we all recorded in different places, so no one knew what anyone else’s video was like. Interesting, isn’t it.”

Well, it looks rather seamless, a moment of synchronicity that somehow really works.

“I love it when these things happen.”

And at your side is Jean Shrimpton as Astronaut (Richard Avedon’s classic shot for Harper’s Bazaar, a bit of a nod to the debut Sleeper LP cover, maybe).

“Yeah, absolutely! My lucky astronaut!”

Has it seen you through thick and thin, zero gravity and beyond?

“Definitely … or it’s trying to!”

I’m guessing that apart from sharing Jon as a guitarist, you and David Gedge have Brighton in common.

“Yeah. I’ve been in Brighton 14 years now. A long time! I really love it.”

Was that initially because of Andy’s day-job as a college music lecturer? Or was it a place you were gravitating towards anyway?

“We just couldn’t stay in London anymore. I was pregnant with our second child, we needed more space, and it was like, ‘Bring up our kids by the seaside, that’d be a really cool thing to do’. And Brighton’s a great city … well, it’s a little town really! It’s quite compact, easy, and very relaxed.”

I think a lot of us out-of-towners crave city living at key times in our lives, but not others. When I go back to London for gigs these days, for example, it seems to take even longer to get across town. And I guess you were ready for that move.

“Yeah, it took me a while to settle into it, I suppose. I’d say, ‘’Oh my God, I miss London!’. Now, when I go there to work, I guess I relax when I get on the train going back. I just want to get back. The air’s different, and I think I just love living by the sea.”

Well, we all need a bit of sea air from time to time. As for your Sleeper side-career, my pal Richard Bowes interviewed you a year ago and on the subject of Britpop (saving me from asking some of those questions!) and hinted at – as he put it – a ‘whiff of cash’ about reunions of certain bands from that era. However, he was keen to stress he didn’t see Sleeper among those playing that game. And I too get the impression you’re doing it for the love of it. For one thing, you’ve got your family and your writing, sirely you don’t really need the added aggro.

“Very much! We can’t really tour enough for it to be a big thing. I literally swore that we would never play live again. It was not something that was in our future at all. Six months before we reformed, I said, ‘Andy, you’ve got to sell your drum kit. We need a sofa! Sell your drum kit. You’re never gonna use it. What’s the point? It’s taking up space in the attic. Sell it!’.

“But then, my sister died in 2017, and I just had this mad impulse to do something massively out of my comfort zone. And everyone was really shocked, like, ‘Really?’. They’d occasionally say, ‘Shall we do a gig?’, and I’d say, ‘No, I’m never doing that’.

Incidentally, Louise’s sister was writer Sue Margolis, while brother Geoff Wener managed Sleeper back in the day and was integral to their story. As for that eventual reunion, Louise and Andy had formed a band, Huge Advance, playing around their old Crouch End neighbourhood. And that seemed to be the extent of their need for fulfilment on that front. But then came four shows in Summer 2017 as part of the Star Shaped Festival, the three remaining originals joined by Kieron, an 11-date UK headline tour following in Spring 2018, then a new album, The Modern Age, with Stephen Street again on production duties, released in early 2019, a tie-in tour following. But back to Louise …

“You’re right about it just being about the joy of it. With both me and Andrew in the band, when we do it, childcare’s a nightmare. Making all that stuff work is really hard, so we can’t do a huge amount of it. What we do are these little pop-up gigs when we can. And it has to be for the fun of it, otherwise it doesn’t make any sense.”

That more or less echoes what I was talking to Mickey Bradley from The Undertones about recently. He refuses to use the word gig or tour. He tells us they’re off on ‘jaunts’, and for them it’s mostly long weekends these days, as they all have other commitments and jobs. And it seems that’s how it is with you on this tour – weekend dates.

“Absolutely, and these are our little jaunts! It feels like we step out of our regular lives to do these gigs, because it’s something big, and I think that mirrors what’s happening for people in the audience, and that’s why it works. They’re after escapism, looking for a moment, so you don’t have to think about all the shit that’s going on around us at the moment. And because that’s the same for us, I think that’s why there’s this kind of pretty joyful experience that happens when we do gigs now.”

Well, all power to your elbow on that front. Incidentally, I was speaking recently to Clare Grogan

“Ohhh!”

… and while she’s got a few years on us …

“But not many!”

… well, exactly, because she was so young when Altered Images broke through. But in her case, the spark was the lockdown and nearing 60, having that impulse to get back out there again, performing and recording. In fact, it was conversations with her daughter, talking about things she did when she was her age. And I think we’ve all evaluated and revalued what’s important and what we want to achieve as a consequence of the pandemic.

“Yeah, very much. I think there’s a real sense of trying to grab things, enjoy them, and not overthink it. That’s really important. That’s what’s so different from the ‘90s. There was lots of worrying and analysing, thinking about who else is doing what, trying to be cool, all that stuff. The fact you don’t waste any energy on that anymore is really important.”

Louise and Andy’s children are now 16 and 14. Do they casually throw in a few rock’n’roll anecdotes at the dinner table?

“Yeah, I mean, it’s really interesting to see them, because they’re pretty mortified by what we do! But part of them thinks it’s sort of cool, so when it comes to some of the big gigs … they’re particularly impressed by festivals, and if they get to come to those and bring their mates and suddenly they’re backstage … When they go to festivals on their own as they get older, I think they’re going to be really miffed if they don’t get backstage! ‘Well, when we’re with Mum and Dad …’!”

Not as if Louise and Andy didn’t keep themselves busy during the early lockdown, going on to compile unreleased material from previous recording sessions, including ‘We Are Cinderella’, with those afore mentioned backing vocals from George Michael, with new material as the basis for a new Sleeper album, This Time Tomorrow, which was released in December 2020. Thinking of opening track, ‘Tell Me Where You’re Going’, is that another indication of how you’re enjoying this second crack at it?

“Yeah, although again it’s a very old song. But it’s sort of reinvigorated and reimagined for now, so it’s really interesting to see what meaning they have now. It takes on a whole new meaning from that huge interval between when they were imagined and when they got recorded and played properly.”

That must be odd, rediscovering in a sense how you were thinking back then.

“Yeah, it’s lovely though. Andy would get out the tapes, we’d listen and go, ‘Oh my God, this is such a great song. We should do something with this one day’. Then of course, in lockdown we had that time.”

That sounds like me with writing projects … but then I have to hit the next deadline, and they go back on the shelf a while longer.

“Haha! Totally!”

Meanwhile, I can only apologise it’s taken me so long, but I’m finally reading It’s Different for Girls. And I’m loving it.

“Ah, thank you!”

Incidentally, I finished it a few days later, and it’s recommended for those yet to seek it out. Not just as a memoir of her time in the band – and it’s a somewhat authoritative insight into that whole ‘90s scene, told from the inside – but also growing up with that passion for pop in an era I definitely identify with, the Two Tribes chapter just one fine example, Louise painting a vivid picture of how life was for her on leaving school, clearly ready to move on and make her own way.

There’s a mention early on – seeing as I mentioned him before – of Mickey Bradley’s co-write with Damian O’Neill, ‘My Perfect Cousin’, in the days you were home-taping hits from the radio. In fact, there are lots of parallels for me, and I recall where I was when I first heard or saw many of those cultural highlights and lowlights mentioned. And it’s well written.

I was born just under 15 months after Louise, although we’d have been two school years apart. Also, as the youngest of five, 11 and half years younger than my big sister, I got to appreciate so many variations of musical tastes in my formative years, from rock’n’roll revivalists to The Beatles and the Stones, David Essex, glam, pop, rock and prog, then disco, soul, punk, new wave, post-punk, and onwards, filling in gaps in my knowledge ever since. That made me the music fan I am now. And I guess that’s how it was with you, influenced by older siblings.

“Yeah, very much. My sister was 12 years older, my brother’s almost eight years older. And my parents, when they had me, were quite old. My dad was into all sorts of jazz stuff. He was in his late 40s, a different generation, in the Second World War.”

I recall embarrassment at my parents, both born in 1933, thinking them so old, at least older than those of most classmates. And it sounds like yours had a few years on them.

“Yeah, 1926, I think. Ridiculous, right!”

However, that’s probably the case for the gap to your children (although I’m sure Louise was a far cooler Mum).

“Yeah, definitely. It’s funny though, because you still consider yourself modern. But in the context of what they’re doing, life has moved on. It’s so different, isn’t it.”

And here’s another confession. I kind of regret this now, and already did then, but taking redundancy in 2010 before going back to uni to do a master’s, with a mortgage to find and children growing up, I ended up selling various books and records. And as a late convert to CDs, there were plenty of vinyl LPs from the mid-‘90s that left the house, including (yikes) copies of Smart and The It Girl.

“Haha!”

They were works of art for the covers alone, and in near mint condition. And yet I just looked back and saw I got £4.99 plus postage for each in Autumn 2011.

“Ohhh!”

I really shouldn’t have let them go, but needs must sometimes, like you saying about Andy and his kit.

“Yeah, there are times where you just have to let go of things. You think, my God, why have I let go of that? That really meant something to me. It happens all the time, especially as you get older. And not to get hooked on nostalgia, because that’s also really unhealthy, but it’s important to celebrate things you love.”

As it was, part one of the Sleeper story was done and dusted by the time 1998 was out. But how about (bear in mind, this was before I got to that bit in Different for Girls) those initial half-dozen years between meeting Jon at Manchester Uni in 1987 and the deal with Indolent in 1993 – were you competent songwriters and musicians from the start?

“No, really, really not! I was absolutely learning. Ha! I’d never picked up a guitar until quite late on. I went to university, joined a band, and it was like, ‘If none of you can write songs, I’m gonna learn how to do this. I can do this!’. But I’ve always had that attitude a bit. When I was younger, I felt, ‘I can do that. I’m sure I can do it’. You have that self-confidence at that age.

“Not that I was hugely confident growing up. I wasn’t! But I was like, ‘I’m gonna have a shot,’ y’know? I was, umm … yeah, ambitious, and didn’t worry too much. I wasn’t self-conscious about it at that age. I think that happens as you get older, when you suddenly want to get in the spotlight, a little bit of that actually becomes harder.”

And that’s reminded me of something else from Different for Girls I identified with. Having older siblings,I was mature in my taste, into The Clash, The Jam, Buzzcocks, The Undertones, and so on. But looking back at family photos, this geeky tall lad with glasses, it doesn’t fit in with how I felt I looked, my inner punk rocker and new wave cool kid hidden from view.

“No, I was such a nerd. But that’s fine! I just wish I could have known you could evolve, right?”

Sleeper dates, Spring 2022 (with support from The Lottery Winners, who were among the supports on their initial reunion tour, and with whom Louise has recorded in more recent times): Friday 22nd April – Leeds, O2 Academy; Saturday 23rd April – Glasgow, SWG3; Thursday 28th April – Bristol, O2 Academy; Friday 29th April – Coventry, HMV Empire; Saturday 30th April – Manchester, Albert Hall; Sunday 1st May – Newcastle, Boiler Shop; Friday 6th May – London, Roundhouse; Saturday 7th May – Cambridge, Junction. Tickets available here. And for more on Sleeper, head here and keep in touch via Facebook.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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