The videos and photographs of Lou Smith have been tearing up YouTube and Instagram in recent years, launching the careers of many young rock ‘n’ roll artists out of the U.K.—his epicenter being The Windmill Brixton, a grotty but loveable club where Amyl and the Sniffers, Black Midi, and Fat White Family roam the stage. During a semester abroad in England, our star reporter Ingrid Jensen caught up with Lou Smith for a conversation about his career highlights.
As the unofficial documentarian-in-chief of the South London music scene, Lou Smith has braved mosh pits, airborne waves of Guinness, and sweaty, writhing performers, all in the name of the perfect shot. His name is synonymous with the Windmill Brixton, the hallowed music venue and “…interstellar nursery for all manner of burgeoning talent or any nutter with a mad idea,” (to quote Dave Thompson’s 2020 book Woo! Strange Happenings at the Windmill and Other Tangential Rants.)
The Windmill is small and generally packed to capacity; keeping a camera steady and in focus under such conditions is no mean feat, but Lou Smith has done it with style. His videos rack up hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube and have helped launch the careers of many artists. He’s filmed and photographed Australian punk marauders Amyl and the Sniffers, Brit youth sensations Black Country, New Road, and prog rock headliners Black Midi, to name just a few. The morning after a gig, there’s an invariable Instagram deluge of Lou’s images of the night before; scenes seemingly designed to make the eyes of any music lover swim with regretful tears at having missed what always looks like the roiling, red-hot, epicenter of modern musical culture.
I discovered his work through the videos he’d posted of one of my favorite bands–Goat Girl–on his YouTube channel. He’d filmed close enough to the stage that I felt like I was in the room. For a few minutes, I felt like a normal 19-year-old on a night out, instead of a girl trapped in her room during the onset of a pandemic. His images define the pre-pandemic era which the present generation looks back upon with a weary mixture of tears, awe, and longing, because when will they get to mosh again without having to get lateral flow testing immediately afterwards?
A cult favorite Instagram account recently paid homage to Lou with a meme in which a woman pleads with her boyfriend to have sex with her, and he ignores her, eyes fixed on his computer, saying: “Lou Smith just uploaded a new set from the Windmill…” But Lou is decidedly uninterested in fame. He holds unfolding potential above corporate dollar power–who’s got the most followers and the highest chart rankings, doesn’t concern him in the slightest. A devoted dad of four, he’s also become somewhat of a father figure to the subjects he photographs, nurturing their talent and potential by giving them a priceless publicity boost via his photography.
Lou got his first camera when he was 15, a gift from his dad: “That was 1978. My dad was interested in photography; he was a geologist. He used to take a lot of photos of rocks and stuff. All our family holidays, he would choose somewhere that was geographically significant rather than fun for kids,” he remembers.
“I sometimes took photos of bands in those days but really, not very often. Going to gigs in the ‘70s was pretty violent, a dangerous kind of place. You weren’t necessarily going to get out alive, let alone with a lot of pictures and an expensive camera in your hands. So, I used to take these rather self-indulgent lonely pictures of landscapes and things like that. I always took a photograph of the girl behind the counter in the chemist. It was always my first shot when I put the film in the camera.”
In 1989, Lou started working on a TV show, filmed at the Brixton Academy, called Big World Café. “It was like a world music program,” he recalls. “Being at the Academy was quite good because I had this weird extended role where I was helping to build their studio, but also taking photos behind the scenes. There were quite a few bands that came in, so I was photographing quite a lot of them. I had a friendly camera shop in Brixton, and Edward, the proprietor, would just front me film, because I was so skint in those days…”
Legendary musicians such as Salif Keita and Hugh Masekala came through to film sets for the show, and Lou found his musical tastes being broadened in every direction. “I was kind of introduced to that whole side of South and West African music and South American and Asian music. There were some English bands on there as well…New Order, and the Pogues, and Elvis Costello. I got to photograph some of those guys at close quarters. Then I got a job with a record label as their sort of courier/in-house photographer. It was Rhythm King Records, which was a dance label, releasing a lot of the first acid house. Their sister company was Mute Records, which was in the same building. That was Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, Erasure, and all these bands.”
“I preferred Mute’s roster to Rhythm King’s, if I’m honest. With the exception of Les Negresses Vertes, a French-Algerian punk/rai sort of band. I think they were like a nine-piece band. They were great. Parisian-based. Loads of brass and accordions, with a really punky singer, who sadly overdosed about two or three years into their career, just as they were beginning to get quite successful. They were on license to Rhythm King, so I used to be their fixer, I’d score weed for them, drive them around, take photos at their gigs, and that kind of thing. I got some really great photos, some of which appear in a book that was just published.”
In the years between working at Rhythm King and his present work of documenting the South London music scene, Lou worked art department jobs for music videos. Besides Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue’s doom-laden duet Where the Wild Roses Grow, and the Prodigy’s Firestarter and Breathe, he wasn’t exactly entranced by the music in the videos he was helping to shoot. It took the appearance of Fat White Family, at the tail end of the Noughties, to pique his interest in live music photography again.
Lou first spotted the young punks playing at local London legend Andy Hank Dog’s Easycome acoustic nights: “One day Fat White Family just turned up, out the blue. They were called Champagne Holocaust at the time. It was Nathan and Saul and Lias, and they did this set which kind of blew the doors off, opening their set with a cover of the Monks’ I Hate You…Within a month of that gig, they played their first Windmill gig. That was the first time I ever went to the Windmill, which was, I think, April of 2011.”
According to Lou, Tim Perry, the Windmill’s booker, has been the chief guiding hand in giving young talent both “crucial first exposure,” and a place to hone their skills. “Geographically…everything about the Windmill shouldn’t work. It’s a grotty little building. It used to smell terrible. It had this smell of blancmange vomit. Weird shit had gone on. Bit by bit they’ve sorted that out. They never go for tooth and nail refurbs, they just do the least possible to get it on to the next stage, which keeps it retaining its character without obliterating its past…Tim has steadfastly resisted any attempt at the commercialism or ‘CBGBism’ of the venue or indeed anything that would undermine its fundamental ethos of being a music-driven space.”
From 2011 to 2020, the Windmill’s playbills were generally filled with the musical progeny of local label Trashmouth Records (whom Iggy Pop recently dubbed, “a loose amalgam of England’s most troublesome, wayward and wanton musicians…”) For Trashmouth signings such as Warmduscher, Madonnatron, Meatraffle, and Fat White Family, Lou’s support and photography have proved essential to their growth, in bringing their art to the attention of a wider audience via his YouTube channel.
The purchase of a new camera in 2008 had enabled him to begin filming gigs as well as photographing them. “I got it because in 2008, my youngest daughter Iris was born. She’s quite something, that one. I got a camera to document her childhood. So now I had this really great camera, and I could flex it. It was capable of shooting video in a way that hadn’t been available before. I try for a cinematic approach to my gig filming using a one-shot ethos to capture as well as I can the feeling of actually being there. I just got massively into Fat White Family. I was following them to all their gigs.”
Alongside Robert Rubbish, he co-directed Fat White Family’s debut music video, the stomach-churning Cream of the Young, which helped catapult the band into the public eye. There’s an ocean of whipped cream, a lot of lascivious finger-licking, and a disturbing display of chopped up bits from the butcher shop strewn across a banquet table. YouTube comments tend to focus on the amazing fact that no-one contracted salmonella from the shoot. Lias’s agonized screams fill the air as Saul “…French-kisses a dead goat,” probing its limp, slimy tongue with his own. The drummer gets “thrashed in the face with an octopus,” and the lace-stockinged legs of a male stripper (Chris, the bar manager of the pub the band was then living above) waver across the frame. If provocation is an art form, the video should end up in the Louvre.
“We had fun doing that. It smelled pretty bad, as you can imagine. Six feral guys and all that octopus. It all just went in these horrible bin bags at the end of the day. God knows, the foxes would have dined well that night,” Lou remembers, laughing. He also directed and shot the video for Special Ape, which features the band grey-faced and gurning, in a low-lit basement, with wild angles to match the wild rhythm. The video ends with a shot of keyboardist Nathan in leather underpants on the end of a leash, being thrashed with a whip. (Hey, at least it’s not an octopus.)
Lou’s effect on the now-legendary band’s development is undeniable. In a 2014 interview with i-d magazine, Saul Adamczewski said: “Many people have been hugely influential on us for various different reasons. To name a few: Pat Lyons, Dan Lyons, Dave Mankind, Lou Smith, Hank Dog and Gerry Adams.”
More recently, Lou has been photographing up-and-coming bands such as Fat Dog, MADE, Binti Red, and Brian Destiny. He’s constantly on the hunt for undiscovered talent, for the diamonds in the rough. He still regularly visits the Windmill, but his more frequent haunts are the recently opened AMP Studios and Venue MOT. “I’ve got a tendency in my life to love the raw potential of things when they first start, and once things get complicated…even with record labels and licensing deals and all this other sort of stuff, I kind of begin to lose focus. Then I go and find the next new thing. It’s like when I plant things. I plant them and they’re all fine for a bit and then they get eaten by slugs…” he says wryly.
“Certainly, a lot of people have come to (know) a lot of bands by watching my videos. Increasingly I hear that, when I’m out, people come and they know who I am, and they pat me on the back or whatever…That’s great for me…I’m a little bit socially awkward, and that, to a large extent, has been mitigated by the fact that I’ve got this amazing musical family of people that I really love.”
My conversation with Lou was held a day before the death of Mick Rock. I’d asked Lou if any particular photographers had helped nudge him onto the path; besides an admiration for Vivian Maier, he hadn’t been able to name any specific idols. The night Rock’s death was announced, I got an email from Lou: “At a loss to think of a photographer who inspired me—until he died.” A poignant one-liner from the man who has arguably taken his place as the third eye on the front lines of unfolding rock n’ roll talent.
In 50 years, once the long arm of nostalgia has reached round again, Lou’s photos will very likely be hanging up in the Tate. And so, dear reader, I suggest you invest in some prints. A good photograph is a portal, and COVID-19 has kept us all indoors far too long to suffer windowless houses with only one point of view.