Talking Music: Louise Wener of Sleeper Discusses Songwriting and Touring in The Modern Age

ANDY HOWELLS chats to Louise Wener, singer, songwriter and guitarist of Sleeper, who play a sold-out gig at Cardiff’s Globe on April 5, 2019.

On the eve of Sleeper’s latest UK tour since reforming in 2017 and the release of their fourth album, The Modern Age (their first in over 21 years) Louise Wener can’t quite believe she’s experiencing the excitement and prospect of a new chapter commencing in Sleeper’s creative process.

“We got back together in the summer of 2017 and did four gigs,” Louise tells me, “That was as much as we expected to do, to see if we could get back on stage and get the band working together again. It was just so enjoyable, we did a little tour at the end of 2018 and this is our third!”

Sleeper enjoyed huge critical and commercial success in the mid-1990s: achieving 8 Top 40 singles across 3 Top 10 albums Smart, The It Girl and Pleased to Meet You released between 1995 and 1998 with well over 1,000,000 sales.  Sleeper’s music was characterized by astute, observational lyrics and big, hook driven melodies and contributed towards an evolving soundtrack of exciting new music in the British charts at the time.

“It was intense for a few years in the middle of the 90s,” recalls Louise, “At that time record companies wanted you to produce albums very quickly and capitalise on everything so there was a lot of pressure to keep fulfilling.

Louise with the reformed Sleeper are playing a UK tour in support of the band’s fourth album, The Modern Age, their first new LP in 21 years.Louise with the reformed Sleeper are playing a UK tour in support of the band’s fourth album, The Modern Age, their first new LP in 21 years.

Louise with the reformed Sleeper are playing a UK tour in support of the band’s fourth album, The Modern Age, their first new LP in 21 years.

Had the constant pressure to produce Brit-Pop era hits like Inbetweener, Sale of the Century and What Do I Do Now? resulted in Sleeper’s eventual demise in 1998?

“Possibly, it was a combination of things,” says Louise, “The whole genre of music was kind of receding, relationships weren’t great within the band, the third album didn’t sell well, and I think I’d come to the end of my love affair with the music industry.”

The beginning of Louise’s love affair with the music industry was completely self-initiated as she goes on to reveal.

“I think it was all about escapism for me as I grew up in a dowdy, suburban little area and I just wanted to be a pop star. I didn’t know anyone who had ever been in a band or another human being who owned or even played a guitar. It just wasn’t part of my upbringing, I didn’t understand how it worked. I loved all kinds of music, I just found it myself and through having an older brother so that was kind of it for me.”

Louise wouldn’t get involved with the process of creating her own music until she went to university and then it was quite out of a creative necessity.

Louise remembers “You couldn’t walk through a corridor without meeting someone who wasn’t in a band. I was in a terrible band. I didn’t play an instrument when I joined, I was singing all these songs the other members of the band were writing and I thought “I’m sure I can do better than this,” So I taught myself guitar and what do you know? I was kind of better at it than they were!”

The Modern Age is Sleeper’s fourth album release and their first in over 21 years.The Modern Age is Sleeper’s fourth album release and their first in over 21 years.

The Modern Age is Sleeper’s fourth album release and their first in over 21 years.

Sleeper were formed in 1993 and although creating their own distinctive sound, quickly got categorised along with bands such as Oasis, Blur and Pulp as one of the new evolving Brit-Pop bands of the era. Louise’s take on Brit-Pop has a much clearer perspective.

“it’s just a way to define a movement. Like all the bands I liked from the 80s were the New Romantics. I think of it as “I don’t really care, I just like the songs.” That’s the beginning and end of it for me.”

Louise, later found success as an author of books such as Just For One Day and Goodnight Steve McQueen after the initial demise of Sleeper, but explains the story-telling process always existed, particularly in the songs she wrote for Sleeper.

“My lyrics are often very observational,” explains Louise, “Some lyricists are great at putting out their feelings, their rawness and their personal energy. Because I find that quite hard, I have always filtered my truth through a character.

“I think that’s why I went on to write books because I enjoy that. Like most female singer/songwriters there’s almost an expectation on you that you open your heart and talk about your emotional rawness.  I feel like I’m more like an observational writer and pick and choose what’s going on around me as well as what I’m experiencing.”

Such observational writing exists in Sleeper’s early hits, which has contributed to the music’s freshness which still exists over two decades later. I nominate Inbetweener to Louise as a strong example for the case.

“There’s still a feeling that whatever happens to you, you can feel a little bit trapped,” responds Louise, “People find themselves in unhappy marriages and wanting to escape from that. A song I’ve always been in love with is Once in a Lifetime by Talking Heads. It has that vibe about it, “How Did I get here?”, you find yourself asking” how did I get in this place when it isn’t what I dreamed about.”

“I’ve been lucky making a living through doing creative things. Writing books was brilliant while I was bringing up young children, because it fitted in around that and that was amazing, I like doing that because I can lose myself a bit, I like writing, I like creating things, it’s quite therapeutic for me, it suits my personality”

Louise Wener and Sleeper will play both Cardiff and Bristol during their Spring 2019 tour.Louise Wener and Sleeper will play both Cardiff and Bristol during their Spring 2019 tour.

Louise Wener and Sleeper will play both Cardiff and Bristol during their Spring 2019 tour.

After been away from the music industry for so long, what prompted Louise to return with Sleeper in 2017?

“I hadn’t picked up a guitar in 15 years and I hadn’t written any songs at all. It was a completely new thing, it happened spur of the moment. My sister got very ill, and part of my reaction to her illness was to do something life-affirming. My confidence then was a bit of a huge reaction to that.

“It was a kind of a need to do something that scared me a bit I think because very difficult things were happening within my family.”

The positive response from fans of Sleeper’s return took Louise and the band, consisting of drummer Andy Maclure and guitarist John Stewart (who had both became lecturers in music studies after the band’s initial split) by surprise.

“It shocked me. The interesting thing is, you don’t know it’s out there because when we were successful there was no social media. You didn’t really engage with fans or know how people felt. You didn’t know how important the music was to people that really liked it. You’d go on stage and do your gig and do some magazine article, but it was always filtered through someone else’s perspective.

“Now we announce we’re doing some gigs and hundreds of people are contacting us on Facebook and Twitter. I know social media has got a difficult reputation and there’s lots of negatives about it but its positive in the fact we finally got to talk to the people who were part of our musical community right at the beginning.”

Did Louise and the band find any major differences in creating the new album, The Modern Age, since their last long play outing over two decades ago?

“We fitted it in and around our lives,” says Louise, “Back in the 80s that was our jobs, our career, that was the thing we did. Now we have our children, work and all kinds of other things, but it’s the same. At some stage you have to sit down with a guitar and find a melody from somewhere. That’s how it begins! I think that’s a really satisfying process.”

So, armed with their new album, and accompanied by former Prodigy bassist Kieron Pepper, Sleeper are out on the road again. I ask Louise what can fans expect from upcoming shows?

“It’s going to be a mixture of things, reveals Louise, “We’re going to be playing all the songs that we love from The It Girl and that era because we love playing them. We love the atmosphere and the sense of comradery in the crowd when we play those songs and we will play some new stuff mixed into that. So far the reaction to the new material has been amazing.”

Are there are favourites Louise enjoys performing live?

“It changes. From the old stuff I love playing Sale of The Century because it seems to have developed a life of its own. It has some strange resonance now that it didn’t have back in the day. “It’s still you, taking me up there…”  seems to have that connection!

 “Out of the new ones I really like playing is Look at You Now, the new single we’ve put out with this album, which I think is relevant, a political song.

“It’s really nice playing songs that are super loud and quite powerful and to be standing on stage at this time of my life with very loud rock guitars by me. I find it really energising! I love it!”