Translated and adapted by Valentina Ajello
About a decade ago the rock music scene seemed quite dead. I couldn’t find anything particularly interesting among the records released in that period. I clearly remember that one day, by chance, I stumbled upon a video on YouTube of a live exhibition by a group called Fat White Family. I was totally flabbergasted. I had a closer look and my first feeling was confirmed: finally after so many years I was before a musically unclassifiable band, endowed with a deadly mix of desecrating anti conformism.
I eagerly looked up everything I could find about them on video. I noticed that almost all their videos were by a Lou Smith. I made some research and found out that Lou Smith had made the live recordings of other interesting groups and that, almost always, these recordings came from a venue in London, more specifically in Brixton, called the Windmill. I was surprised by the freshness and the quality of these bands. Besides Fat White Family, I was impressed by many others such as “Meatraffle”, “Warmduscher”, “Pregoblin”, “Goat Girl”, “Madonnatron”. I also found that those bands were not only all from London, but from the southern part of the city: a music scene so rich of styles and genres that had developed just in a few neighbouring districts.
Years later, while I was still eagerly following Lou Smith’s new recordings, I went to London and entered the Windmill in Brixton for the first time. I remember I was really thrilled. The same thrill you feel when you know that one of your dreams is about to be fulfilled. I entered and was immediately taken aback by the kindness of the staff and by the fact that the place was anything but glittering and fashionable: a cozy local pub with a stage at the end bar with a colourful curtain and the logo placed in foreground. I thought it was amazing and beautiful that all those bands had been on that small and plain stage. But that night something else that had a strong impact on me happened; I caught a glimpse of someone who looked familiar. I walked near and realized I was before the person thanks to whom I was there in that moment: Lou Smith! I introduced myself and greeted him. We became good friends and met-up each time I was in London for a gig. Always at the Windmill obviously.
Due to Coronavirus the Windmill is at risk of closure. It would be something sad and terrible. Here is the link for those who want to take part in the crowdfunding and save this historic venue.
Here is my interview with Lou in which he will tell us about his life, his relationship with the Windmill and the Fat White Family and how and why this incredible music scene started specifically in the South of London.
Can you tell us something about yourself and your many projects?
I was born in Leeds, the son of a geologist father and a creative, artistic mother. We moved to Uxbridge, a west-London suburb when I was 14. It was 1976 the long, hot summer when punk hit the streets of London and the airwaves. I got my first camera during this period, but never took it to any of those early gigs which were perilous affairs with warring factions such as Teds, Rockers, Punx, Skinz etc. I would not have felt safe carrying my camera on the tube back then. I mostly took landscapes, some people and animal shots and documented some of my early travel experiences. I became interested in the alternative music that was played on John Peel’s 10-12pm slot every night listening to the likes of the Clash, The Fall, The Cure, The Ruts, Undertones and countless others including Ska and Reggae artists, setting me apart from the mainstream tastes of my school which were generally heavy rock and later heavy metal. Live, among others, I saw Joy division, The Jam, The Clash, The Cure, The Smiths and even Kate Bush.
After finishing school and being invalided out of my Biochemistry degree at Imperial College, I found a squat in Brixton in 1983 at the age of 21. I have lived and worked in South London ever since then, moving to Camberwell and later East Dulwich where I still live. I have worked as a video engineer, as a set builder/designer/Assistant Art Director/ Art director on countless music promo videos including Prodigy’s Firestarter and Breathe and Nick Cave/ Kylie Minogue’s where the wild Roses Grow and as a freelance photographer, videographer, director and editor of music videos. I have taught myself photography, metalwork including welding and silversmithing, carpentry and more recently screen-printing which has earned me a living in recent years, throwing screen-printing parties for children and making band merchandise for the South London music scene artists.
When and why did you start filming and keeping track of what was happening at the Windmill and other venues in South London?
I first started filming some of the regular musicians playing at Hank Dog’s Easycome Acoustic night then hosted by The Old Nun’s Head pub in Nunhead. It became a regular Wednesday night social event for me during the early years of my daughter Iris’s life, a vital safety valve and artistic endeavour away from the domesticity of family life. I uploaded footage to my YouTube channel of artists such as Lewis Floyd Henry, Boycott Coca-Cola Experience (now Flameproof Moth) Andy (Hank Dogs) Allen himself, Ben Folke Thomas and sister & brother Misty and Rufus (Popskull) Miller.
Onto this relatively tranquil but musically and socially excellent scene burst the then named Champagne Holocaust who first appeared there on the 9th February 2011 where they played a cover of The Monk’s I hate You and handful of their own songs including Borderline and Wild American Prairie. The lineup was the Brothers Saoudi, Saul Adamczewski and backing singers Anna Mcdowell and Georgia Keeling. There was a drummer too that could’ve been Chris OC. Lias (Saoudi) was on guitar and Saul on vocals and tambourine. I did record this show, but somehow managed to lose the original files except for the I Hate You song that I had uploaded to my channel.
They played several more acoustic gigs at Easycome during February and March. From here, I followed the band to their first full line-up gig at The Windmill around the 11th April 2011.
Joining Saul, Lias and Nathan were Dan Lyons on drums and Jak Payne (Metros) on Bass. I had a camera and by using some crack software called Magic Lantern I was able to record at least decent sound as well which made the documenting of live music events from a single source in high quality HD possible for really the first time.
When did you first set foot in the Windmill? Which was the most the most unforgettable night?
That’d be the 11th April 2011 as outlined above, though I do have some distant memory of being dragged there years previously as I had been living in Brixton since the eighties. There were so many great nights there, but the truly transcendental nights for me were always those including FWF or Warmduscher in the line-up. Jack Medley’s big send-off and fundraiser was a spiritually intense affair; the love was so thick you could spread it, and it featured both Warmduscher and Fat White Family. I loved the anarchic feel of the early Fat White gigs and the intense feelings of belonging to a family, of something bigger than the sum of its parts. I’ve had some great time there on Meatraffle nights too and their sister band Scud Fm as well as Shame, Sleaze, Amyl and the Sniffers and Goat Girl.
How important was the Windmill to the “creation” of the South London scene? Can you tell us something about your relation with that fantastic venue?
I don’t think it is hyperbole to suggest that the SLS as we know it would not have been what it is without the Windmill. It’s hard to put your finger exactly on why this is, but the single biggest reason would be Tim Perry the venue’s booker, who’s mixture of great musical taste, avuncular championing of the talented underdog (and over dog) and also his well-honed bullshit detector which inherently weeded out wankers and pseuds. The venue has always attracted the best of sound engineers and the sound quality has always been a key component of the greatness of the whole experience.
Bands are truly supportive of each other here with none of the cool, aloof rivalry I have experienced in many of the North London venues. Once The Windmill’s output and reputation reached a critical mass it of course formed its own gravity which meant a convergence of talent to its doors in order to get some of the magic to rub off. I am proud to have contributed to this process in a small way by the growing archive of my YouTube channel which has helped share some of the amazing roster of talent on display with a growing global audience.
Were you the first to document the Fat White Family’s gigs? Did you understand their potential immediately? Can you tell us what you think of the band?
I can confidently state that I was the first and the most dedicated of their documenters. I did feel from the outset that they were capturing the zeitgeist of the growing feelings of nihilism, of the disgust and utter contempt for the treatment meted out to the commoners by the tide of gentrifiers and of cynical neo lib politicians and global financiers. It reminded me of the spirit of ’76 and reignited the passion I felt for those pioneering punk bands. The word around them grew organically in ripples and the family grew, not yet in a hyped way, but in what felt like an authentic extension of the excitement of their live shows. Something about the seedy and abusive interrelations between the core members, notably Saul and Lias, and the readiness if not glee with which they tackled taboo and degenerate subject matter with a sort of humour and even sickness bordering on certifiable and definitely questionable and unsavoury made them compelling to watch. The tribal, totemic lyrics that nobody thought to question set to sexy, dirty, lo-fi country psyche grooves made for an intoxicating whole, with Lias honing his Gollomesque shrieking and unpredictable falsetto persona whipping up audiences into a frenzy whilst Saul, like some demonic angel stoking the sonic encouragement with his gap toothed grimace and genius guitar licks. The rest of the members were by necessity required to be degenerate / genius by degree.
In your opinion, how is it possible that so many interesting bands come from that part of London?
My take on this was that the insidious wave of gentrification, which to my eyes started when the heart was ripped out of Covent Garden in the late seventies. Then great swathes of first the north and by degrees the west and then south west of London fell to ruthless and homogenous ranks of ‘yuppies. Brixton, with its strong cultural identity and mixture of hippy squatters and large, no-nonsense Afro-Carribean population resisted, at least temporarily. Rents were still affordable, studios and crusty techno culture squats proliferated and the output of Camberwell and Goldsmiths colleges found community and expression in its streets.
Musicians congregated in the few places they could still subsist, explore and thrive, which were the handful of venues in these locales of which the Windmill is definitely the lynchpin, but including the Grosvenor, The Amersham, The new Cross Inn, The Queen’s Head, The Montague Arms, The Five Bells …
Which are your favourite bands in the recent years?
I rarely rave about bands outside of the ones I get to witness first-hand as to me live music is where it is at and where I find what I’m looking for. Without that influence I may well be still mostly listening to the bands I used to love back in the day, reliving past glory as is the case with most men of my age. I have been so fortunate to live just down the road from the Windmill and to have forged a relationship with its keepers and musicians.
Could you say something about the most interesting and promising young bands?
It is refreshing to see that the cycle of upcoming bands is still turning strongly and Corona Virus notwithstanding they continue to come and delight. In no particular order I have much fondness for the following: Paddywak, STV, Deadletter, PVA, Muckspreader, Misty Miller.
Photo Credits: Lou Smith