“There was a sense of optimism”: how ’00s indie sleaze made a massive comeback

Sleazy does it! The era that gave us chillwave and extraordinarily tight jeans is back back back, thanks to a zeitgeisty Instagram account and a post-pandemic lust for partying. El Hunt reports

Main image: The Strokes at the NME Awards in 2006 (credit: Dave Hogan/Getty Images)

If you were a teenager back in the early ‘00s, so-called ‘indie
sleaze’ is an aesthetic that might well send a shiver down your spine, immediately bringing to mind dodgy self-portraits taken in grubby mirrors, gaudy, block-colour American Apparel hoodies with the drawstrings tied up into a tight bow, and a procession of water-marked club photographs filled with wide-eyed revellers.

When we weren’t lovingly inscribing Late of the Pier lyrics onto pairs of cheap white gym plimsolls, we were perusing the halls of Hipster Runoff – the satirical indie music blog that coined the term ‘chillwave’ – or frequenting staple hang-outs like London’s Madame Jojos, Leicester and Derby’s Mosh and Glasgow’s ABC. There is surely an entire subset of young-ish millennials with tiny moustaches tattooed onto their index fingers – or at least enough people to form a Polyphonic Spree tribute act.

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According to the 20-year-rule – the fashion industry idea that culture tends to repeat itself every two decades – the early ‘00s are due a revival. The wheels are already in motion. Since the beginning of last year, Instagram account @indiesleaze has been celebrating the sheer ridiculousness of the era that, according to its bio, ran from the “mid-late aughts” and “died in 2012”. Cue blurry photographs of a One Direction-era Harry Styles partying with Florence + The Machine (at Alexa Chung’s birthday party, no less) along with countless cuttings from this very publication.

Then, later in the year, the trend analyst Mandy Lee went viral with a TikTok video breaking down the account key components: “Amateur style flash photography, opulent displays of clubbing and rise in outdated technology”.

Toronto-based video producer Olivia (who asked to go only by her first name for this article) runs the @indiesleaze instagram account and first began to notice a resurgence in early-’00s culture at the start of 2021. Growing up in Canada, Olivia was a full-blown indie sleazer the first time around on Toronto’s own DIY scene (she once paid just $5 to see Grimes live). “There was so much cheap fun to be had,” she tells NME.

Though Olivia originally brought together the North American scene with UK indie when she dreamt up the account name, running the @indiesleaze account has convinced her that the scene made ripples globally: she’s had photo submissions from fans all over the world. She explains: “Around 2015 I was guessing that Y2K was going to come back… During the pandemic, I started the account because I wanted to see if this was going to come back, too. I had a feeling that it would, based on where style and music was going.

“I kind of just landed on Indie Sleaze [as a name], but I had no idea that it would be chosen as the official moniker for this aesthetic or style. It was so surprising when I went on TikTok one day and [Mandy Lee’s] video came up. I was so shocked. I feel like indie sleaze was a lot more community-driven than everything that happened on the internet afterwards. I think it ties in with the pandemic, which has brought a lot of interest to this style and put it under the spotlight.”

Interestingly, Lee has also highlighted the in-person community aspect of a subculture that originally popped up before the steep rise of social media. “We’ve been in lockdown for essentially two years and people are really craving community and creativity,” the Tiktokker told Vogue. “I feel like with the indie sleaze subculture, 15 years ago, community, art, and music were so powerful – that’s what brought people together.”

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It certainly seems that the era’s genre-blurring chaos and chance meetings tie in with the presence of physical scenes gradually returning. Marcus Harris organises the long-running London indie club staple White Heat – which is now held at the city’s new music destination The Lexington, its former central London home Madame JoJo’s having closed in 2014 – and says that the night is particularly busy right now: “People have been really up for going to club nights, maybe even more so than gigs – they’ve missed that hedonistic, ‘lose yourself’ vibe.”

Former Maccabee Felix White, who now runs the indie label Yala! Music – which he launched in 2016 and is home to the likes of indie-poppers Egyptian Blue – agrees that there’s a hunger for these kinds of spaces: “All those [small indie venues] that had really informed what The Maccabees were, and the seven-inch spirit of putting out records, had been a bit eroded away. [By founding Yala!], it felt like, ‘Ah, maybe we could do that now?’ Our [Yala launch] nights started happening at [south London venue] Bermondsey Social Club, and naturally it began to feel like people were meeting there – much like in the early days of The Maccabees.

“I like the idea of Yala! being a label that’s about a collection of people. Pre-pandemic, you’d be like, ‘Oh, Graham Coxon is here watching a band’. When Yak headlined the [2017] Yala! Christmas party, Yannis from Foals ended up on stage and played with them.”

Invariably, there’s been chatter about the multiple fashion disasters of the early ‘00s, but the best thing about indie sleaze was the music. Though things kicked off with the breakthrough of The Strokes at the turn of the millennium, followed by a slew of other guitar bands, it wasn’t solely about men in extraordinarily tight jeans brandishing huge riffs. Much of the era’s most exciting music was brash, spiky, and had an electronic undercurrent.

Shaking up traditional guitar music with belching synthesisers, Klaxons, Late of The Pier and MGMT all felt like a jolt of newness. Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Peaches and LCD Soundsystem – who all played at legendary central London indie night Trash at some point – were among the era’s most exciting acts.

As Marcus Harris says: “The Indie Sleaze aspect for me is about the point where electronic music intersects and becomes electro-rock, or electroclash with more of an indie leaning.”

Olivia adds: “To me, this time in music is represented by electroclash, the return of rock’n’roll, the rise of R&B, garage rock and the post-punk revival and its scenester punk spawn – and mash-ups. It’s when celebrity DJs blew up and were blasting Simian Mobile Disco. It’s dancing in disco shorts or studded denim cut-offs to MGMT in dingy bars, clubs, parties, and DIY venues with monosyllabic names.”

“People have been really up for club nights… They’ve missed that hedonistic, ‘lose yourself’ vibe” – White Heat’s Marcus Harris

It feels like current bands are increasingly drawing on aspects of early-’00s music “and picking up synthesisers and putting more emphasis on that than the guitars,” Harris says, highlighting Jockstrap as a recent example. You could easily say the same of hardcore group Turnstile’s latest synth-tapping record ‘GLOW ON’ or the strutting dance-punk undercurrent of Isle of Wight duo Wet Leg’s ‘Wet Dream’. It might not be a nostalgic rehashing of early ’00s indie, but the DNA is certainly similar.

“Being locked away has really accelerated a move towards synths and drum machines,” Harris points out. Olivia adds: “I’ve been seeing connections [between indie sleaze] and the current hyper-pop movement; I can hear similarities between acts like 100 gecs and someone like Uffie’s music.”

At times Alice Glass’ debut solo record ‘PREY//IV’ – her first since leaving indie sleaze duo Crystal Castles – recalls the macabre electronic echo of Purity Ring and early Grimes, while TikTok is bringing back the art of the mash-up with a fervour not seen since DJ collective 2manydjs blended Salt’n’Pepa’s ‘Push It’ with The Stooges’ ‘No Fun’ in the ’00s. Earlier this month, Beabadoobee hinted that her new record would sound “very 2006”. Her label Dirty Hit has become a trusted destination to discover new music in the same way that ’00s Kitsuné Maison Compilations were a dependable place to find then-new acts such as Two Door Cinema Club, Phoenix and La Roux.

And just last week, Foals’ Yannis Philippakis told NME that the band’s new, rave-embracing record ‘Life Is Yours’ draws on the fast-paced physicality of their 2008 album ‘Antidotes’, combined with the “the wild abandon” of nights out. It feels uncannily similar to the approach adopted by The Maccabees as they emerged onto the early-’00s indie scene.

Wet Leg
Wet Leg: keeping the indie sleaze dream alive. Credit: Hollie Fernando

Looking back on his band’s formation in 2004, Felix White tells NME: “It was such an exciting time because we were right at that age where we were starting to go out, and a lot of our friends were into drum’n’bass music. We thought maybe if our band played really fast, people wouldn’t be let down by a guitar band. That’s how The Maccabees formed. I remember that lightbulb moment of realising that a few instruments put together in a certain way could make you feel so differently about life.”

Faris Badwan of ‘00s indie stalwarts The Horrors, who are due to play London festival Wide Awake this spring, also views spaces like White Heat – and the chance meetings that came with them – as being formative back in the early days of the band.

“I do remember the first gig I went to there,” he says. “I was 17, having just moved to London. Death From Above [1979] were playing… it [was] so packed I could barely get into the main room. There was a weird guy with eyeliner caked on and a blonde streak in his hair, stood by the DJ booth – I later found out that was Josh [Hayward], who would later join the Horrors.”

These unexpected happenings were commonplace at White Heat: according to Marcus Harris, M.I.A ended up signing a record deal backstage and “Adele played a really early gig at White Heat, and wrote a song about Madame JoJo’s and punching her boyfriend in the face there.” Harris can’t recall the specific track, but Adele has given interviews that suggest it was her 2008 breakthrough ‘Chasing Pavements’.

“‘It was pre-2008 recession: we didn’t know how bad the housing crisis would get or how things would unfold in politics” – @indiesleaze’s Olivia

“It felt chaotic,”@indiesleaze’s Olivia says of the era, “and it also felt like people from different scenes were coming together. There were a lot of different cliques hanging together, and not really caring about just sticking with your scene… A lot of it was about being spontaneous and meeting new people, and trying to have new experiences. It was pre-2008 recession, and we didn’t know how bad the housing crisis was going to get or how certain things would unfold in politics. There was a sense of optimism.

“Some people say it was nihilistic, but I don’t actually agree. There was this debauchery and decadence, but people still cared. Here in Toronto, I felt like a lot of space was carved out for women and LGBTQ+ communities. You had artists like Karen O, M.I.A, Emily Haines, Santigold, Natasha Khan [aka Bat For Lashes]… All these people who were doing it for themselves, and giving inspiration to people who felt like they weren’t really represented.“

The sense of “chaotic spontaneity” that defined indie sleaze continues to influence Faris Badwan in his collaborations with US musician and performance artist Dorian Electra (on their glitching track ‘Iron Fist’) and his link-up with the late producer SOPHIE for tracks on Let’s Eat Grandma’s second album, 2018’s ‘I’m All Ears’.

“Generally, the projects I like working on have a kind of chaotic spontaneity to them,” he says, “and a punk ethos in the sense of making music with the means available to you. I find that kind of approach more natural than meticulous planning, and that type of chaos is at the cutting-edge of the most exciting scenes. I like working with people who are larger-than-life in a lot of ways; people who are comfortable with their own eccentricities.”

Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O performing in 2006. Credit: Getty

Olivia reiterates the theory that a sense of hope – and making up for lost time after the pandemic – is pulling people back towards both physical scenes and makeshift DIY-style fashion: “We just got out of a lockdown here, and everything’s been closed, and I think people are really going to want to have the experiences they feel they’ve missed out on. It feels like people are lamenting that lost time, and just being able to go out with your friends.”

Going out to concerts and gigs now gives her “something to look forward to, and something to be inspired by”. She adds: “I hope there’ll be this resurgence in people investing in experiences with their friends or family. People might be broke – I’ve certainly been affected by the pandemic – and I don’t think everyone’s going to have the money for 10-step skincare routines and buying into all these fashion trends.” In the original indie sleaze era, “you could pull off a leather jacket, tights and a skirt and you’re good to go – those elements really tie into a post-pandemic world, whenever that will take place.”

Felix White agrees that there was a spontaneity to indie sleaze fashion. “Before gigs I used to go charity shopping for shirts near the venue,” he laughs, “and cut the collar off. My brother [fellow Maccabee Hugo White] or someone else in the band would tie the collar around their wrist. It was this weird, strange ritual that evolved. I don’t know what that was about!”

Fast-forward to the present and the likes of Lorde and Grimes – who both played early shows at at Madame Jojo’s – are now some of music’s biggest stars. Christine and The Queens star Héloïse Adélaïde Letissier, meanwhile, has spoken of being pushed into making music by a persuasive crew of drag queens at the Soho venue’s near-legendary cabaret nights.

And while nobody – especially not Felix White – is planning on hacking off their shirt collars again any time soon, you can’t deny that the slightly unexpected musical pairings that defined the decade also feel to be creeping back. This time we’ve got Wet Leg covering Ronan Keating at a recent show, Machine Gun Kelly and actor Megan Fox as the power couple of the moment, Adele pole-dancing at London LGBTQ+ club G-A-Y after the BRIT Awards and Dua Lipa hanging out with indie band Hotel Lux while attending an early live show from the much-hyped NME 100 alumni Pink Pantheress.

Still unconvinced about the second coming of indie sleaze? Consider this: if chart-topping US pop star Olivia Rodrigo rocking up at Four Quarters – a titchy arcade bar in Peckham –  for Sam Fender’s BRIT Awards 2022 afterparty doesn’t embody the sheer mayhem of the mid-to-late’00s, then what on Earth does? That sweet, sweet sense of unbridled chaos, at the very least, is back.

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