Inbetween Days: interview with Louise Wener of Sleeper

Inbetween Days: interview with Louise Wener of Sleeper

After 21 years away Sleeper’s return has turned out a triumph with the release of album The Modern Age. Sarah Lay talks to front-woman Louise Wener about the band’s comeback, writing new material for album The Modern Age, and her newfound enjoyment of performing. This interview was first published in print in issue 19 of Louder Than War magazine. 

Sleeper - with frontwoman Louise Wener

“Working creatively as a band can throw up all kinds of age-old conflict and differences but we’re older and wiser and much more organised about things now. It was much easier than we thought it would be to write new material.”

As front-woman of Sleeper Louise Wener was one of the most recognisable figures of Britpop, heading up a movement to bring women to the front in guitar music. The band’s astute and observational lyrics, and their hook-driven melodies led to three Top 10 albums and a slew of Top 40 singles alongside. Commercial and critical success followed and they toured the US, UK and Japan playing with bands including Blur and Elvis Costello, as well as supporting REM and taking to the main stage at Reading and Leeds Festival. Tracks such as Inbetweener and What Do I Do Now? caught the mood and became synonymous with the sound of the ’90s.

Tagged as outspoken while also held up as a sex symbol Wener challenged the way female musicians were viewed, and despite a knack for kitchen-sink songwriting which captured the suburban sublimely it was her opinions and her look which gained them coverage as much as the music. She said, “I’m always asked about Britpop as a scene and what I think of it, and I’m still not sure I know how to answer. When you’re in a band, at the time, you’re just thinking about your songs and your records and not about the cultural significance of where you sit and what’s around you and how you fit into it all.

“The ’90s music industry was more sexist than I could possibly have anticipated. It held itself up as this bastion of liberalism yet it was fiercely conservative in its view of women musicians. There are people from back then I could still quite happily punch.”

With Britpop waning the band chose to walk away from the limelight in 1998 following the release of third album Pleased To Meet You. Wener carved out a second successful career as a novelist while drummer Andy Maclure and guitarist John Stewart both became music lecturers. It was nearly two decades later before they seriously considered an invite to return to music and play as Sleeper again. Wener said, “We’d get these offers every so often and I’d always ignore them. This time I didn’t. It was a timing thing. I’d just turned fifty, and someone very close to me had just become very sick. I had a powerful sense of time passing; a sudden impulse to step out of my comfort zone. Four gigs and that would be that. I just wanted to know if I could do it.”

The band agreed to reform for Star-Shaped festival in 2017, with a headline set at London’s Sherherd’s Bush Empire and a short run of UK dates to follow. They thought no further ahead than that tour. She said, “We had no plan to get back together. Sometimes life throws you a massive curve ball. You end up jumping off the cliff, just to see what it feels like.”

Prodigy drummer Keith Pepper joined the band for the tour and they found a warm welcome with audiences, their return a celebration of the songs which had soundtracked the days of so many lives. There was, as Wener puts it, a sense of camaraderie between band and audience, a shared moment in the now and a nod back to the collective experiences of two decades ago. But while there was nostalgia there was no room for sickly sentimentality – these songs of youth were anything but faded and sounded more vibrant than ever, the passing of time finding new meaning in them.

Wener said, “I was nervous about whether I could connect to the songs, about being able to relate to them after so long. But your perspective shifts, you interpret the words with hindsight. They adapt and shift and grow with you. A song like Sale Of The Century seems to have more resonance than it did when we first released it. It’s become more than a love song. It feels now like a lament for the best times in your life; for time passing.”

Their back catalogue provided the perfect soundtrack to the comeback and the energy of the crowds and finding fun in playing together again made Sleeper rethink what was intended to be only a temporary return. Wener said, “We started writing at the beginning of 2018. I felt that if we were going to carry on doing gigs as a band we should have new material to throw in the mix. It felt important to do that, to see what we could create after all this time.”

And so The Modern Age, the band’s first album in 21 years, began to take shape. At first they revisited material worked on in the immediate post-split period but Wener quickly realised the album needed to reflect this moment in time, not one long passed: “I knew I wanted to write about the way I was experiencing the the world exactly at this point of my life. So the political landscape was important to write about; the vitriol and hatred that has overcome debate. The surge toward extremism on all sides.

“And I wanted to write about motherhood because few songs do that. Our song The Modern Age is about identity loss in early parenthood. I wanted to be as truthful as I could, about growing older, lost ambitions, relationships and also about the return of optimism after some difficult times. The year before the album was written was a particularly hard one for me.”

Working with producer Stephen Street, as they had on The IT Girl and Pleased To Meet You, the songs across the album showcase the classic Sleeper sound and the knack for the sort of hook which feels all at once familiar yet freshened by the broader-influenced detail which surrounds it. There’s the intricacies of ’80s synth laden sound married to an undertow of menace, biting guitars meet baggy bounce, and the squawk of a dial-up modem harks back to days past more than any song on the album.

Wener said, “All of us have different influences and we’ve probably moved much further apart musically over the years. We wanted the album to sound recognisably us, but with some newness sonically. A lot of the keyboard stuff that Andy brought into the mix was down to the stuff he was listening to. And there are bass riffs and beats that Kieron added that come from a very different background.”

Lyrically Wener has only honed her voice as a songwriter and has no fear of capturing life’s most visceral moments – relationship breakdowns, loss, regret – as well as modern times in a way which feels immediate and intimate, owning vulnerability without becoming fragile. She said, “I’ve always thought the role of an artist is to ask questions, to probe. I don’t want to be lectured to in a song – I want it to illuminate or underline some truths.

Blue Like You was one of the first ones I wrote. It just sprang fully formed out of the ether. I played it to Andy down the phone. I think we both thought we had the start of something at that point. And I wanted to encapsulate a moment in Look At You Now; the absence of reason. The feeling that so many of us feel politically homeless right now. Initially it seems like it’s referencing our comeback, but it’s a howl for the politically homeless, in a landscape where reasoned debate has given way to vitriol.”

Having spent time away from music as a novelist and scriptwriter then returning to lyricist she reflects on the difference in the disciplines. She said, “Writing lyrics or writing novels – it’s so different but I love working with words. When you find a line that’s concise and meaningful and sings well, it’s a huge buzz. And I still like telling stories in songs, creating characters.

“I think writing books has taught me to edit. I’m much better at junking stuff that isn’t meaningful or direct. I’m tougher on myself than I was and I don’t write lyrics at the last minute like I used to. I remember running upstairs at the studio to finish the Inbetweener lyrics five minuted before I had to record them. They turned out okay though!”

The band chose to release the album on their own imprint Gorsky. Wener said, “The goal was to have control of the release, for the process to belong to us. We had a shit time with record companies in the ’90s and felt extraordinarily disillusioned with the industry. We started with a Pledge Music campaign this time but, as everyone will now know, that ended up being more of a rip off than the record companies. They literally spent the money that our fans raised. They stole all that incredible generosity and good will. They are a wretched bunch of people.

“I honestly don’t know what the role of a record company is now. Do people still need them? I think bands generally need direction within the business. It’s still cutthroat and competitive and you need people with nous to make a record succeed. It’s just that bands these days are much more clued up themselves. The more control they have the better.”

Having found such a warm welcome on their live dates Sleeper has found their album has also been well received, with a Top 20 chart placing and glowing reviews. More live dates are to follow and the enthusiasm of fans is carrying the band forward into an era where their renewed passion for music and the joy of creating together is the order of the day.

Wener said, “I’m enjoying it much more than I did. It feels powerful to be a woman in her fifties fronting a noisy rock band and I’m much less bothered about how people see or think of me. We’ve loved writing music again. It was something I’d turned my back on and I didn’t know how much I’d missed it.

“The whole process of performing and recording together again has been quite emotional for all of us. None of us feel the pressure to make music of fill a release schedule or anything like that. So we’ll make music for the joy of it. Which is how you make the best stuff, I think.”

Find Sleeper:


This interview was carried out by Sarah Lay and first published in Louder Than War magazine.

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Sarah Lay

Sarah Lay is editor of Popoptica.
A long-standing music journalist she's also co-founder of independent record label Reckless Yes, an author of novels, and when not messing around with words and music, a digital strategist.
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