Like punk, the New Romantic movement and Britpop, the British indie scene of the mid-2000s is a part of British musical history. That’s why, in August, VICE published a rundown of the greatest landfill indie tracks from the era, praising everyone from the Mystery Jets to the band that wrote The Inbetweeners theme song. We defined the songs as “landfill indie”, because that’s just what it’s come to be known as – but also what a lot of it was.
Back then, in the years after The Libertines became the biggest band since Oasis, record labels began to pump money into countless groups with trousers, hair and shoes, seemingly without much thought. These acts were left scrambling, competing with one another to increasingly diminishing returns, or changing lane completely. So how did it feel, living through it?
Sam Preston – known as Preston from the Ordinary Boys – would know. One of the faces of the time, his gobby, ska-tinged tune “Boys Will Be Boys” (which he describes today as “an incel anthem”) came in at Number 11 on our list. The same goes for Jon Windle, frontman of sell-out-a-venue indie band Little Man Tate, and James New, frontman for dulcet indie group Mumm-Ra, both of whom also appeared on our landfill indie rundown.
Because it’s important to document history, VICE brought the three of them together for a good old roundtable, to discuss the beginning of the “scene”, the record label gold rush and how they feel about the term “landfill indie”.
VICE: Thanks Sam, Jon and James for joining us. A couple weeks back VICE published a list about The 50 Greatest Landfill Indie Songs of All Time, which included a song by each of you. We saw the list as a love letter of sorts to many of our staff members’ teenage years. It was a time when British indie bands ruled the roost – some good, some bad, but all now a part of our musical history. What was the impetus for starting a band in the mid-2000s? How influenced were you by the so-called “indie rock revival” of bands like The Strokes and The Libertines, which have often been cited as the starting point for the British indie boom?
Sam: For me, we were in a band since we were 12 years old. We were a hardcore band one week, then we’d be a shoegaze band and whatever – we were more into punk and stuff. It just happened that, one week, we were like, “Let’s try a Britpop band for the week and see what happens,” then everything sort of aligned. I remember being at the NME Awards, and I was on the train on the way back and slagging off Pete Doherty a bit – I thought he was being quite annoying and pretentious at the awards. Then I hear, from the seat behind me, some bloke go, “Uh – that’s my bandmate that you’re slagging off,” and it was Carl from The Libertines. I was like, “Fuck – I’m really sorry,” then not long after sent them an Ordinary Boys cassette, and that’s how we got on our first tour. It was us, The Libertines and The Cribs. I guess that was my “in” to the scene.
Jon: For us it was a strange one because a lot of the focus was on Sheffield, where we were based. It was a really thriving music scene at the time. You had all the bands peddling around venues like The Boardwalk, The Grapes and what have ya. Then obviously you had Arctic Monkeys, Milburn, Reverend and The Makers, Bromheads Jacket and us. There were a lot of bands all in that thing and for us, this was a double edged sword. We were lucky there was an industry focus on the city because there was only one label that got the Arctic Monkeys and everyone wanted to sign them, so they were looking for something else of a similar ilk. But it were always going to be like “Well, you’re just another band from Sheffield.”
James: It’s hard when you’ve got the Arctic Monkeys to follow up.
Jon: You can’t really follow it, can you?
How about you, James – do you feel the scene is attached somewhat to the indie rock revival?
James: I think it was the year 2000, and I remember reading the NME – as loads of kids were then – and it was bands like Badly Drawn Boy, Turin Brakes, Travis, Coldplay. It was the acoustic revolution, and a really dull time for guitar music. I wasn’t that passionate about music at that point, so as cliche as it is to say, The Strokes coming out in 2001 was a huge game changer. Music at that moment went ballistic. As far as I’m concerned, it sparked everything from The Libertines to the Arctic Monkeys, and everything else great that we’re talking about.
I get the sense that it’s a bit more difficult for bands to get signed these days – whether that’s because guitar music isn’t as en vogue as before, or there isn’t enough money – but back then, it felt like there was a gold rush to sign British guitar bands off the back of The Strokes. Jon, you mentioned how the Arctic Monkeys contributed to a smash and grab atmosphere up in Sheffield. How was the record label rush for the rest of you? Was it real?
Sam: I do feel like it was easier to get signed back then. I would sort of argue that my band was quite shit, and we got signed so easily. If I’m honest, I don’t feel much of an attachment to that scene at all. I kind of think it was one of the worst periods of music of all time [laughs] – and I know I’m probably responsible for some of it, so I probably shouldn’t say that. I think the first album from my band was quite good – but whatever. The first record was us just making a record that lived in a vacuum, then we did an NME photoshoot with Paul Weller – it was for the Heroes issue – and we kind of tried to fit in, like, “Oh yeah, we’re part of this.” I think it was a homogenised scene of so many bands getting signed, but quite a lot of them being shit. Therefore, everyone tried to blend in and do an impression of all the other bands. Everyone was sort of copying each other’s homework.
Jon: It got completely oversaturated, like. A lot of it was music for music’s sake. I don’t know what much of it was saying. Obviously we were included in that. It all happened really quickly – we didn’t know what we were doing, what we were trying to achieve. We ended up getting signed with five songs, then it was like, “Flipping heck, we need to bang out some more songs.” Speaking from a local view in Sheffield up north, there were a lot of good bands that didn’t make it. I sometimes feel a bit embarrassed we got to where we got to, when I know for a fact there were a lot of others that were a lot better and probably a lot more deserving. We filled a little hole for – dare I say – that kind of laddy fanbase who want to go to gigs and jump about and sing daft songs. We were just a bit fun. Then, when the labels got involved, it felt like we went from what we were about to trying to be serious, to keep up with all the other bands. By the time we were on the second album we had someone saying, “You’re not connecting with the South enough.” How do we write songs to connect with the South [laughs] ?
Sam: It sounds like you had the same experience as me – which is that being invited into that club felt a little bit throttling?
Sam: I can really relate to that. That’s how I felt. My instinctual response to that was…. obviously I went on Big Brother and did a pop album and did things that removed me from the scene. Which is probably quite a self-destructive move [laughs]. It’s interesting seeing you had a similar experience.
Jon: It is. It’s so strange, you feel like you’ve lost control.
Sam: If either of our bands came out now, we’d be lucky to get a gig at The Fiddle and Firkin, do you know what I mean?
Sam: My life is built so much on what happened before – I wouldn’t be in the situation I am in now, had [the landfill indie scene] not happened. And yet that happening was so unlikely for me for so many reasons. I guess that’s the cool thing about life, more than anything. Imagine if the labels hadn’t been signing everyone, imagine we were a hardcore band forever… you feel so lucky to have had that opportunity. It was like a weird glitch in the matrix [when our band got big].
Jon: When we finished in 2009, I went into music management and managed a band called RedFaces. They were like 15 when they signed. The difference I found going in from the business point of view, into a label like Sony/RCA, which is massive and corporate – us as a band would have never survived in that, in this day and age.
Sam: You know how people who have mod haircuts will always exist? There are bands that will always be doing this. Bands like The Enemy are still doing the landfill indie thing and making a career of it, and pork pie hats off to them.
Sam, you brought up the landfill indie term. When we put out our list, some people took umbrage at us categorising them as that. Others took it in good nature. What were your guys’ thoughts on it?
James: That NME guy didn’t take it too well, did he. I thought that was quite funny.
Jon: Within ten seconds of you putting it out, I’d been sent it about 40 times. First one to actually do it was Boothy [of “House Party at Boothy’s” fame]. He’s the one who the song was about. I said to him: “We made you, Booth, we made you who you are today,” which is no better than he was. He sends that through with, “Yeah, you’ve made me.” But it is what it is, isn’t it? Everybody has opinions. I look back on that song now and I cringe. We’ve actually changed some of the lyrics for the live show because there are stupid throwaway lyrics in there that don’t sit.
Sam: For me, “Boys Will Be Boys” is like an incel anthem. Obviously not my intention!
Jon: It don’t bother me. It’s like when Jarvis Cocker says we were the worst thing ever to come out of Sheffield. I grew up being obsessed with Pulp, so I were like, ‘At least he knows who I am.’ I never thought I’d be so honoured to be slagged off by such a legend [laughs]. He had a point, to be fair.
James: It wasn’t a brilliant scene, was it? Beside a few great bands scattered among it. It’s interesting, because would people take the good bands seriously, if there’s a term like “landfill indie”? But I thought it was funny. Most people were laughing their heads off.
That’s good to know. There were a lot of egos among that scene, so I imagine a tendency for there to now be a lot of bruised egos. But, for us, we were having a laugh and looking back on songs we grew up with. Do you guys look back on the landfill indie era fondly as well? You all had festival slots, there was a lot of money going around.
James: Yeah. It was amazing. At the time, the political landscape was so different. Things have been written now, saying it was a load of white boys, which it was. But nobody knew that should be questioned at the time. Certainly the media around it didn’t question it.
Sam: We had a number one album in Japan. I went to Japan like 15 times. I was on Top of the Pops like five times. It was mad, mad stuff. I remember talking to a friend in a band, and he was complaining, like, “Being in a band isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It’s a lot of sitting in hotel lobbies and airports and stuff.” And I’m like, “Yeah, but with your best mates, just fucking sitting in a hotel lobby – everyone else has to go and graft.” I feel like when you’re in a band in general, you’re managing the decline. Unless you’re Coldplay or fucking Arctic Monkeys, it’s just inevitable. I knew I would jump ship at some point. But touring is really tiring and there are a lot of drinks and drugs and stuff.
Sam: Which is brilliant! But it’s a bit of a young man’s game. You know the Oasis documentary, Supersonic? The way they portray success is exactly what it’s like, where you go to Top of the Pops without questioning it. There’s no mindfulness about it. Is it Glastonbury and we’re doing the big stage, is it? Oh, alright. Then you just show up. It builds around you without you having a part in it.
James: Do you feel like you appreciated it at the time, though? Like, for me, it’s strange looking back on playing shows in Japan and going around Europe, and thinking, ‘Why wasn’t I more excited?’
Sam: Definitely. Even just playing shows… think how fucking joyous it was to play a gig when you were younger, then after you do it for a little while you’re like, “I don’t wanna fucking…”
James: It’s fun – it’s the stuff around it I didn’t want to do.
Sam: There were bits on the set where I’d jump off the bass drum, and after a few shows it would be like, “Oh… I’ve got to jump off the bass drum again.”
James: Yeah, I did that as well [laughs].
Sam: But in life in general, as you get older you realise lots of stuff you complained about when you were younger was actually fucking sick. But that’s just growing up, isn’t it.
Jon: Our gigs just got in the way of a good night, to be honest [laughs]. We ended up putting ourselves on a three pint rule before playing. Did you have a three pint rule?
James: Yeah, we never kept it.
Sam: I don’t think a three pint rule would have gone too well with my lads [laughs].
Jon: There’d always be someone getting ready, and they’d just nip to shops and you’d find them in the pub three hours later.
How did you look back on that time, Jon?
Jon: I didn’t look back on that time for years and years. I love that, what Preston said, about managing the decline – that is exactly what it felt like when I was in Little Man Tate. Everything we’d dreamt about since kids, like getting a record deal and all that, the partying and everything else, all of a sudden you can feel it [declining…]
Sam: The landfill indie thing, more than any other type of music, it’s similar to The X Factor or something like that. Like, “Oh, here’s success.” [motions teasing a treat] “Oop, yep, no.” [snatches the treat away] It’s that kind of thing. There were so many bands thinking, ‘Oh, are we going to be the next Arctic Monkeys, is it?’
James: And told that as well.
It’s crazy how many bands were primed to become the next big thing, only to disappear overnight.
Sam: There were so many managers and label people giving me loads of coke and stuff, and I remember thinking, for other people, this would be quite a dark thing. Some of these kids were really young. But if you’re The Others and you’re on the front cover of the NME, you’re thinking, like, ‘I’m gonna become a cool rockstar.’ Then, the next week, that was a joke – like, “sike”.
Was there a scene in the sense that everyone who was making music back then knew each other, or were things more disparate and just painted across music magazines? Did you feel a part of something, or was it a load of bands thrown together at the same time?
James: I think it was a bit of both. The bands were quite diverse. A lot was connected by the NME, though, wasn’t it. From that time period of 2004 to 2009, I read the NME quite religiously, and a lot of those bands were aspiring to be a part of that, whether or not the sound was the same.
Jon: For us it was a strange one. Especially with the NME, I guess. Because we were from Sheffield, we were always Little Man Tate from Sheffield. Then we’d have to do an interview on whether we knew Alex Turner, basically. I think the other bands suffered a little from that as well. When I listen to those Sheffield bands that got labelled in our New Yorkshire thing, or what have ya, the only thing that makes any of the bands sound alike is that we’re all from Sheffield and wrote songs. The bands deserved more than being a band from Sheffield – but it was always stated. If the Arctic Monkeys weren’t flying about, we’d all have had a bit more credibility, to an extent.
Bands then – and still now – weren’t given the time to grow either. There surely would have been a lot more breathing room to do your own thing if the Arctic Monkeys weren’t around. It seemed as if bands became a part of the machine, almost as soon as they arrived. That thing of record labels descending upon a town and asking for the next big thing – there’s no time to do what you want.
Jon: You’ve hit nail on the head there. That’s exactly it. You’re always chasing something. I look at the record deal we signed – how we would have ever been successful was impossible. The advance at that time – to owe such a big advance – we were never going to recoup it.
So it was still a time of big record label advances in those days?
James: Yeah. I bought a flat, so that was good.
I guess streaming didn’t exist back then, so to make a sale and eventually recoup on your advance, you were going to have to shift physical album units. Yet, by then, the internet had become a place where you could download pretty much anything you wanted for free.
James: It’s funny, because we all came about at the time the music industry was really terrified. They had no idea how things were going to work out. Everything was getting downloaded for free.
Jon: What really made us suffer was ultimately the thing that made us. Bands used to sell demos at the gigs for two, three quid a pop. Around 2004/5/6, everyone started giving music away online, on MySpace and what have ya. By the time the label came around, everyone had already got our music. We were putting an album or single out of the demo version that had already been given away and just polishing it up a bit. So the gigs were busy, because we gave so much away, but the record sales never reflected the live side.
It was the time where every album consisted of a few polished demo tracks that you’d already heard earlier on MySpace.
James: The Arctic Monkeys were the classic example. There was a five track demo. I remember getting my hands on one and driving home and bashing my head against the steering wheel, knowing I would never write anything as good.
Everything seemed to end really quickly by the end of the decade, with bands breaking up, disappearing or moving on.
James: For us all, the bubble maybe burst at the same time, and that’s what makes the scene feel unique. Sometime around 2009, everyone one went, “No, this is fucked, nobody likes this anymore.” We all quit in 2009, I think. We all changed to do really different things. I went into a weird new-wave band, because it felt so saturated seeing the same bands with kids in skinny jeans.
Sam: That’s how the world works. The world moves in scenes and music, and that’s how you get new stuff. I just feel like this had such little impact [laughs]. Britpop came back 20 years later. I don’t think we’re going to have that with this.