Modern Times: The Sleeper Interview
One of the best post-grunge pop bands Britain had to offer, Sleeper were undervalued at the height of Britpop for daring to have a charismatic frontwoman songwriter. Back, after 22 years, with a sparkling new album, singer Louise Wener and drummer Andy MacLure tell John Earls why they refuse to get too cosy after being away for so long.
In just two years, Sleeper scored three Top 10 albums. In some ways, they were the ultimate Britpop band: their singer was a quote magnet, their hits such as Inbetweener and Sale Of The Century were snappy and memorable. But, perhaps because Louise Wener wasn’t male, there was resentment towards Sleeper, too.
“The music press was so leaden and serious back then,” sighs Louise. “It was hard to get any humour across. There was a basic sexism, too; this fake shock of, ‘Oh, it’s a woman at the helm! Writing the songs!’ Because of that, the men in the band had to be diminished in some way.” Most obviously, that was in the term ‘Sleeperbloke’. Coined initially to describe Louise’s bandmates, guitarist Jon Stewart, drummer Andy MacLure and bassist Diid Osman, Sleeperbloke soon became shorthand for any supposedly anonymous man in a female-fronted band.
“The term Sleeperbloke would never have been used about anyone in an all-male band,” says Louise. “Most bands have a charismatic lead singer, it’s the job! The other guys are automatically in the background by comparison. In the 90s, the offers were, ‘We’ll put Sleeper on the cover, but only if it’s a picture of just Louise’. So as a band, we were constantly involved in a lot of horrible bartering.”
It seems cruel that, as soon as Sleeper announced vital comeback album The Modern Age, a quiz from joke site Monkeon went viral asking people to guess the band from the anonymous Sleeperbloke. There was at least one important difference in the 2019 version. “This time, there were all-male bands deemed to include Sleeperblokes,” notes Andy MacLure.
“It didn’t used to be like that: Only female-fronted bands had Sleeperblokes in the 90s. It was a terrible, misogynistic way of operating. I thought that viral quiz was quite funny, though. I scored 10/10 on it – those band members are my people, after all.”
If the reappearance of the dread phrase was a reminder of the dubious side of what Sleeper are re-entering in 2019, most of their return has been an unalloyed triumph. After Sleeper split, Wener wrote four novels and her autobiography, while MacLure became a producer and session musician. Jon Stewart was first to turn to academia, lecturing in music history at Brighton music industry college BIMM.
MacLure now works at BIMM, as well, while Wener has also lectured, in a course on how to write novels: “I was probably more nervous on my first day lecturing to a class of students than I was going out on stage in front of 2,000 people.” Louise and Andy became a couple at the height of Sleeper, and now have a daughter aged 13 and an 11-year-old son. They moved to Brighton when Louise was pregnant with their second child, feeling it was a better place than London to raise a family.
The idea of reforming a band that had ended messily was far from their minds. “If you’d asked me two years ago about a new Sleeper album, I’d have said it was never going to happen,” admits MacLure. Wener eventually deleted any emails asking Sleeper to reform without bothering to read them. “I’d found another creative way to earn a living,” she explains. “I couldn’t see how music could fit with that and bringing up a family. I felt I’d had to turn my back on music completely, because otherwise it’d eat away at me. But I’d occasionally go to a great gig and get emotional, because I did miss it. I missed the colours of the musician’s life: soundcheck, being backstage, rehearsal rooms. I might be the only musician who loves rehearsing.”
At the start of 2017, someone close to Wener fell ill, making the singer think she shouldn’t be so quick to write off the idea of performing again. “Sleeper had ended in a big old mess,” she explains. “The opportunity to redefine that part of our lives, let us make sense of what it all meant, began to appeal. What was happening made me think, ‘Let’s just do it and see how it feels, because we might not have that chance again’. Being in a band was massively outside our comfort zone by then, but that was exactly the appeal.”
Stewart hadn’t picked up a guitar in a decade, but MacLure had continued to play music as well as mentoring students as head of artist development at BIMM. “At the start, I help bands figure out their direction, and if they’re already doing well I’ll help choose a producer and with the marketing side,” he explains. Past students have included James Bay and indie quartet Black Honey, whose eponymous debut album went Top 40 last September. Another, Aimee Smith, is now Sleeper’s live keyboardist. Andy continues: “I’d stayed involved in music, so I didn’t think playing with Sleeper again was going to be that big a deal. But it was. As soon as we were in the room making music again, we were those same people.”
The only missing Sleeperite is Diid Osman, but not because of any lingering animosity. His replacement is Kieron Pepper, a multi-instrumentalist who is The Prodigy’s live drummer and a lecturer at BIMM with MacLure and Stewart. “Diid just doesn’t live anywhere near us,” says Wener. “We’ve all got families and it’s easier to organise childcare with Kieron! The most convenient place to write and record turned out to be our attic.” Andy adds: “Kieron is the most positive person I know. The rest of us don’t trust that, as we’re quite negative in general, whereas Kieron has a boundless energy. We thought we might need that, because of the delicacy of getting a band back together after 20 years.”
Such A Hard Arse
The comeback began with four shows for Britpop festival Star Shaped, where Sleeper played with The Bluetones, Space and Dodgy. “My legs were shaking,” recalls Louise. “Not through fear so much as my body couldn’t compute I was about to do this again.”
The crowds’ delighted responses overwhelmed Sleeper, who soon decided they needed to return properly. “Loud and energetic music is what’s always driven me,” says Louise, now 52. “One of the thrills of standing onstage with the band is when it’s so fricking loud. That rush is addictive, and it hasn’t changed just because we’re older.” That informed The Modern Age, Sleeper’s most consistent and consistently energetic record. “It was born of frustration, anger and a bit of darkness in what I was going through.
“I love loud music, and I didn’t want our return to have any cosy feeling to it. I certainly wasn’t feeling cosy.” The first song to emerge was Blue Like You, a fantastic whirlwind about social media addiction. “A lot of the record was chucking out songs,” laughs Andy, 48. “That was painful for me, as I’d put loads of clever ideas into a song only for Louise to go: ‘Yeah, but it’s not as good as Blue Like You’. It’s been so great working with Louise like this again. She’s such a hard arse about the standard of our songs.”
It was a process that reminded Wener why she’d fallen in love with being in a band. She’s refreshingly honest that, before the reality of the music industry was revealed, she’d primarily wanted to be famous. “I’d thought that, if I got to be famous, it would cure everything,” she admits. “And then I didn’t like being famous very much. I thought the music industry would be an incredible, liberal environment, when it felt conservative and alienating.”
It didn’t help that Sleeper were signed to Indolent, a BMG subsidiary who frustrated the band at every turn. When fourth single Inbetweener was Sleeper’s first hit in 1995, it stalled at No.16 because Indolent’s marketing manager went on holiday and the label were so surprised by its success that they weren’t able to press enough copies. “Sleeper were an experiment for Indolent, and they didn’t run the experiment very well,” notes Louise wryly. “All we could do was write songs we loved, but 20 other people had to do their jobs right for things to work.
Most of the time, they didn’t.” She soon tired of being a go-to quote machine. “It’d be disingenuous if I tried to say I didn’t know I was good at interviews and that I knew that had a currency,” she says. “But we were caught in the crossfire of knowing all that, while at the same time knowing how any humour would look bad at print. Interviews with musicians these days are so often incredibly careful. Back then, we’d just go to pubs, get drunk, chat about all sorts and only afterwards think, ‘God, that’s going to sound bad’. I thought being on magazine covers would be brilliant, and writing songs to get there would be the hard work. The opposite was true.”
Instead, the highs of 90s Sleeper were from the musical side: “Being on a tourbus in America and waking up to find yourself in Texas.” Wener recalls writing Sale Of The Century with MacLure and celebrating by walking on Hampstead Heath as the sun was coming up. “I thought, ‘We’ve written this amazing song together’,” she enthuses. “Moments like that are the things I’ve kept with me.”
That elation from writing a great song is back decades later. It’s certainly a more immediate thrill than writing a novel.
“A book is a year of wrestling with 100,000 words,” says Wener. “You’re stuck in your room for ages in your jogging bottoms trying to finish something, but a song can be done in an afternoon. I’d forgotten that adrenaline rush of something happening fast. Most of the songs on The Modern Age came quickly. That’s always been the case with me, that the songs I labour over are the ones that never make it. It’s a funny subconscious effect, where it brings something forward that works in its entirety.”
MacLure’s students at BIMM, meanwhile, were surprised he was back performing. “Doing this record has been useful for realising what releasing a record involves now,” he chuckles. “I try to help students focus on how to release a record, and I’ve learned quite a lot about that in the past six months. There’s no team around us this time, which is great. We can’t blame anyone else if it doesn’t go to plan.”
If MacLure’s students are surprised at his return to Sleeper, his and Wener’s two children don’t know what to make of it. “Their teachers are asking about it at school,” smiles Wener. “They get a sense of kudos from that, then they come home and go, ‘I can’t believe you’re doing this, it’s so embarrassing!’ They think it’s both cool and mortifying, and that’s exactly the right way to be. Our son is totally uninterested in playing music, while our daughter is slightly more into the idea. We’ve tried everything in our power to get them not to join a band and told them the folly of it.”
One of the few drawbacks of Sleeper 2.0 has been funding the record through PledgeMusic, only to withdraw from the crowdfunding site in December once its financial problems began emerging. “Thousands of people funded our album a year in advance,” says Wener. “Having that faith in us was so touching. PledgeMusic seemed a simple arrangement with no complications. That it’s turned out it’s run in a financially perilous fashion is so disappointing.
“There’s a bit of a feeling of ‘Not again’, because we’d signed up to PledgeMusic specifically because we had the control of not going through a record company.” MacLure adds: “I hope PledgeMusic gets sorted, as it’s a great platform for grassroots acts. Many of my students have worked with them. A lot of acts who can’t afford to press vinyl copies of their album can once they get £1,500 funding via PledgeMusic. That automatically takes their album to the next level, because now it can be stocked in indies such as Resident Music and Rough Trade.”
While MacLure ponders “doing something different next” and Wener vows to carry on making music “in some context”, the couple agree it won’t be another 22 years before the fifth Sleeper album. “We’ve been given the chance to write again,” summarises Wener. “It’d be foolish to waste that.”