When we think about the legacy of early 00’s indie subculture in London, style is an invaluable facet. How members of a musical subcultural group relate to music, and each other, on the fringes of popular culture, is as bound to its visual aesthetic as the art produced by those on the inside. Gregory Nolan was there, snapping photos from the inner circle of the scene which he has brought to his native Dublin City for the stunning This Was Our Scene exhibition. HeadStuff music editor Andrea Cleary had a chat with Gregory about subculture, style, and the darker side of the indie scene…
HEADSTUFF: When we think of the Indie Scene in the early 00’s, we tend to think of the music right away. Why was it important for you to go beyond traditional concert / gig photography?
GREGORY NOLAN: It wasn’t like I get up one morning and packed my bag and said I’m off to London to document this scene I have read about in NME or because the siren call of The Libertines was calling me like so many other indie souls at the time. Honestly speaking I was totally oblivious to it all. I’m from Dublin, but we moved around a good bit for my dad’s business and by the mid-00’s I had washed up in London and started studying a graphic design course trying to figure out what I wanted to do.
I literally bumped into the scene on a night out and spilt a drink over it.
At the time I didn’t know I wanted to photograph music, but I was very intrigued by it. It was 2004 and I had just seen a little band called The Killers opening for some other band, and that night I knew I had seen something special. I wanted in. I began hanging out in the scene and was introduced to more of it. After a while I started photographing the people I was with who just happened to be artists, musicians, DJ and promoters doing amazing stuff. I never wanted to be a musician myself, and this was my way in.
I didn’t set out to document the scene–my original goal was to get to see all the concerts I wanted to, then it was to get photos that my friends would love. That makes it all sound kind of spur of the moment, and that’s because it was.
Maybe that’s why I’ve always thought about using photography to tell a bigger story, where the whole room is present and part of the subject of the photo. I wanted more than three songs. And I didn’t want to put my camera down for any of it.
HS: Music is just one way that we present ourselves as part of either culture / counter culture. Given that yours is a visual document of this particular moment in time, was capturing individual and group style important to you?
GN: As I’ve gone back through these photos, I’ve realized just how much there was an aesthetic and attitude as part of the scene. I think that in some ways all ‘scenes’ are rejecting some other scene–we’re the people who are into this, but not this. And that makes for some really fascinating ways of dressing, acting, and all of that. People chain-smoking in the venues, wearing skinny jeans right after the era of baggy pants, the converse shoes, the phones before they were smart, and the pre-flannel plaid shirts. The tattoos and the hair and the makeup. And I love remembering how it felt to be in the middle of it all–like we totally belonged to ourselves and forget the rest.
HS: Looking back on your time spent photographing these nights, do you think that you have represented the scene as it was – for better or worse? How did you navigate the darker parts of the scene (drinking, drug abuse etc)
GN: This is interesting because when I was taking these photos I wasn’t at all objective. I was young and completely absorbed with what I was capturing. There is an energy that hedonism brings to art and music and youth culture. For good or for bad, drugs, alcohol, and rock and roll go together. It was a powerful environment to be part of, and that enthusiasm comes through in the photos for sure, and is a truth of how I experienced those days.
I do have photos of people absolutely wreaked from drugs and drink, sometimes after the high is gone and the world starts looking bleak. That was part of it. Something that is very dark and real is that I have photos of people who have died in the past ten years, including drug-related deaths.
On the other hand, a good few people in these photos now have spouses and houses and kids, and are businessmen or bakers or successful producers and the whole range of life. While present time isn’t shown in this collection, it is something I think of a lot as a possible next project–what a difference ten years can make. I’ve followed some of the artists since those days, but I think a lot about the audience members and what has changed (or stayed the same) for them.
HS: What do these images evoke in you now?
GN: For me there is an intense sense of nostalgia. I narrowed the collection from an original 100,000 photos, and I’ve kept about 3,000 (don’t panic, the gallery on show is less than 100, I won’t force everyone down memory lane with me). But what’s been interesting is how specific my memory for most of these nights is. I can remember just what happened before and after many of these shots. I remember who was dating who and which band was about to break up right after the show.
I also think a lot about how much the concert experience, and music consumption in general, has changed. Not that that’s all bad, but there was an immediacy that was special right before the tech took off. People were burning CDs and sharing music and news online, but there wasn’t the sense of online communities in the same way. In many ways it was a last hurrah of scenes before there was social media to organize, to give access to musicians, and to shape our lives. To be with people who loved the music we loved, we had to go out and find those nights and those people. The all-encompassing nature of that meant that the scene was energized in a way that feels different to music consumption now.
HS: Was there a sense, for you at the time, that this was a cultural moment that needed to be documented? Did those around you know that it was an important time for music?
GN: A kind of tagline for this collection is that “It was a time when we thought we were the absolute center of the universe.” It really did seem like London was the center of everything for the kind of music we loved. Turns out that many of the bands that made a more sustained success were coming out of the parallel scene in New York at that time (check out the book Meet Me in the Bathroom -it does an incredible job of mapping the bands and people that made that scene).
There were a lot of bands I thought would take over the world that faded out instead, but even for them I’m glad I was there, capturing the moment as we lived it, in all its grit and glory.
HS: For you, when did the scene end? When did you stop documenting and start thinking about it as something that had already happened?
GN: Frank Turner was kind enough to write a foreword to my photo book that’s accompanying the gallery, and he says that the scene burned out rather than faded away–Nambucca was one of the key venues at the centre of it all, and it burned in 2008. There was a lot of natural transition at around that same time, changes in bands, changes in venues (closing down, the smoking ban, all that), and changes in the scene. Also, believe it or not there’s not much of a living to be made in obsessively documenting an indie music scene. I convinced Frank to take me on the road as a tour photographer and so it’s been a long time since I’ve been embedded in any local scene like I was in those London days.
HS: What do you hope to evoke in audiences when your exhibition opens in Dublin?
GN: One thing I’m really hoping for is that no matter people’s backgrounds or what kind of music they like, that there’s something universal to documenting a live music experience and the joy and exuberance there.
Dublin also had its own thing going on in these days. I know because back in the day a friend and I tried to start a night in Dublin, bringing bands over from London. We ran the night out of the basement of Kennedy’s on Westland Row, not realizing that Crawdaddy had a massive weekly night called Antics that was already doing just fine without our help (plus there’s no competing with 2 Euro shots).
I guess I’m hoping for a bit of what everyone wants when they bring a project home–that it’s going to speak to the people in the place I’m from.