Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

The eponymous British photographer’s new book provides a nostalgic snapshot of 90s club culture

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

Conjure up an image of a club goer – the type who sways, dances, gropes, kisses and sleeps without a care in the world – and it will most likely be one of Ewen Spencer’s. Synonymous with exposing the antics of British nightlife, the photographer and filmmaker has carved a reputable name for his work documenting (and revealing) youth, fashion, music and subculture, particularly that which depicts a time when smoking in clubs was allowed and people were a lot less tied to their phones. In fact, phones weren’t really a thing back then. Could anything be more nostalgic?

While studying at Brighton School of Art in the 90s, Ewen began photographing topics in tune with society – snapping people having a 20-minute break at a service station on the M4, for example. This is where his interest in subcultures arose and, having attended Northern Soul all-nighters at the time, he decided to start bringing his camera in tow. It was the perfect subject matter. Then, upon graduating in 1997, Ewen took his imagery to Shoreditch-based Sleazenation magazine and launched his career capturing nightclub moments for the publication. He proceeded to document the UK’s garage and grime scenes and worked with NME, The Face, Dazed, Nike, Apple among others – he also took the inner liner photographs for The Streets’ album Original Pirate Material, and has released a handful of books including Open Mic, UKG, Open Mic Vol.2 and Young Love.

A flourishing career so far, it seems only right for the photographer to look back at his archive. Doing just that in his new publication titled While You Were Sleeping, these very pictures – featuring those previously unseen – are an enjoyable reminder of a bygone era, a time when clubbing and clubbers were oblivious to the photographer’s lens. Will nightlife and club photography ever be the same again? Below, Ewen tells me about these prolific pictures. 

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

What inspired you to start photographing nightlife, and why make this book now?

I began making pictures around youth scenes out of my own interests. I was involved in the northern soul scene and the many off-shoots from that: modern soul, rare groove, house and garage throughout the late 80s and 90s. I just began to apply what I’d been researching and testing out while studying photography in those places that I loved. It blossomed into a visual language that made sense to me and discussed a myriad of social and perhaps political concerns and considerations at a time, when that was still conceivable in a club or around a dance floor.

Who caught your eye back then?

If you have an interest in people I think you probably gravitate towards interesting characters. In the late 90s, I was going into spaces that would hold no more than 200 people in some instances – in a basement in Brixton, let’s say. I’d look for characters interacting together, begin working around them and at times integrate myself with them to the extent where we’d have a drink and become friendly. I might stay with these people for a while and then work around the room; I might stay a couple of hours and shoot 10 rolls of film, and then move onto the next place. Unless it was a bigger club, or somewhere I was particularly interested in hearing a DJ or a particular sound, I’d stay and work all night and maybe know a few people in there. Sonic Mook Experiment was a place where I knew folks who were working in fashion, music and art. I photographed Jerry Dammers, DJ-ing here for Sleazenation in 1998.

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

The photos are an incredible record of the past, where smoking in clubs was legal, people wouldn’t be glued to their phones; everyone seems less aware of themselves. How does it feel looking back on a time like this through your imagery? And has your process changed now that people are more self-conscious?

I think it all depends on where you go. I was at Guttering last weekend in Bermondsey and the folks were really up for the evening, dancing hard, mixing it up with one another. I love to see it; there were some real faces in there. 

I’m always surprised by kids approaching me who know my pictures and are maybe more sussed to the dynamic, and that is in someway making the act of shooting around scenes a little more performative, in that the consent seems quite immediate. I had a few acknowledgments of satisfaction from people I’d photographed and a few kids came up and shared their pictures they’d been working on… Photography is obviously far more accessible and democratic now. However I’m not encouraging people to come and show me your pictures at parties, thanks x

Ewen Spencer’s While You Were Sleeping is published by Damiani at £40

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

Ewen Spencer: While You Were Sleeping

The Revival of Slowdive

From being dropped by their label in 1995 to finding a new following two decades later, Slowdive bassist Nick Chaplin speaks about the band’s unexpected comeback

Slowdive photographed by Ingrid Pop

The first time that I heard ‘Alison’, the soul-stirring first track from Slowdive’s career-defining album Souvlaki, was as a YouTube recommendation. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was listening to the song a decade and a half after the English rock band, formed in 1989, were dropped by Creation Records in 1995.

For me, like so many others who were getting into indie music in the late noughties, the genre of ‘shoegaze’ – with its distorted guitars, drowsy vocals and chilled out vibes – provided the ideal soundscape for the sixteen-year-old condition. Indeed, in the noughties a new generation were beginning to discover Slowdive for themselves. 

“We kept getting told from people in the industry, who we knew from the 90s, that there was a whole new audience for us out there,” explains bassist Nick Chaplin. “People who, like you, discovered us via the internet, or who listened to bands that had been influenced by bands like Slowdive, and went back and listened to the older bands as well.”

To understand the significance of this is to understand that Slowdive, and the genre of shoegaze more generally, was widely ridiculed at the time Souvlaki came out. With Britpop on the rise and the winds of fashion well and truly changing, they became infamously uncool. One journalist famously wrote that he would “rather drown choking in a bath full of porridge than ever listen to again.”

“It happened at a time when bands needed to have sound-bites and political statement to make and that wasn’t us,” ,’ says Chaplin. “We were, admittedly, five middle-class kids from the Thames Valley, and a lot was made of that; like we these over-privileged rich kids, which just wasn’t true.’ Once they’d fallen out of favour with the all-powerful music press of their day, the band all but disappeared for 20 years. 

And yet, in the years that followed, a crop of new bands began to emerge who incorporated the short-lived Slowdive sound into their own. From Deerhunter, Tame Impala and Beach House to Rush of Blood To The Head-era Coldplay, the influence of the band stretches from the early noughties well into the present day.

After being pressed repeatedly for at least ten years to get Slowdive back together, the band decided in 2013, after various side-projects, full-time jobs and children, that it was finally time to give it a go. The 2014 Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona was prepared to book them (“on the condition that we put the original line-up back together”), and they were introduced on stage to a sea of fans both new and old.  

“Neil was pretty clear that he didn’t want to do this as a legacy reunion act,” notes Chaplin of the group’s primary songwriter, Neil Halstead. “He was happy to play a couple of shows but if we were to be doing it for more than a couple of months then he wanted to write new tunes.” With more and more live dates piling up, however, and the chance to “pay off the mortgage” while playing music around the world, it’s taken three whole years for a comeback album to surface.   

“I think it’s just a bit more grown up than before,” Chaplin explains of the new record. “We’re talking about people who are in their mid-40s now, and when we recorded Souvlaki we were 22/23 years old.’ 

The term ‘shoegaze’ was coined to describe the way that bands like Slowdive would stand still on stage, looking down at the guitar pedals beside their feet. But Slowdive stood out from others in the scene with their unashamedly classic song structures and lofty pop melodies. The new self-titled album, it’s safe to say, stays true to these roots, but trades the hazy melancholy of Souvlaki for a more upbeat charge. The result is shoegaze for the 21st century. 

“We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive experience getting the band back together over the last three years, which I think is reflected in the songs as well,” Chaplin tells me. “I think a few people have been disappointed that we don’t sound exactly the same, but I think, well, how can you?” 

Slowdive by Slowdive is out now on Dead Oceans