The South London scene’s unofficial documentarian on Fat White Family’s first ever gig and why he is never leaving London’s grassroots venues.
Spending a good chunk of day time editing gig footage in a garden shed in East Dulwich could be a chilly endeavour in December, but Lou Smith has a solid metre-high stack of timber to stay warm. “They’re from Saul’s dad, actually,” he says, flicking a thin log into the iron stove’s flames. “He’s got wood down in Sussex and gets a friend of ours to turn it into planks. I get the offcuts.”
Saul Adamczewski, lead guitarist of the cult post-punk constellation Fat White Family, is the reason Lou is in this shed, in front of his window-sized iMac monitor, to begin with. At least, that’s where Lou starts his story: “I’ve been doing this since I first saw Fat White Family. It re-converted me to gigs.’’
It was not really something Lou had planned, but in the twelve years since he accidentally witnessed Fat White Family’s first ever gig, he has become the main photojournalist documenting the rise of South London’s eclectic post punk sound. His footage is so pivotal it has (allegedly) been cloned and used as part of the curriculum at some Chinese universities.
His YouTube channel contains some of the earliest public appearances of Fat White Family, Black Midi and Black Country, New Road, footage that was crucial to the bands garnering interest from the wider industry and whose audio is still swapped between fans in Reddit threads.
“Lou Smith filmed The Dinner Party’s fourth ever gig, at Bermondsey’s Venue MOT. When he uploaded the video of our set the next day, we all realised what kind of company we were in, but we had no idea of the impact it was about to have on our career,” says bassist Georgia Davies.
“In the caption of this video, Lou wrote that he had been ‘wanting to see this hot new band since [he] heard they were a thing’. It still mystifies me where and how he had heard that we were ‘a thing’, before most of our own friends and family even had. My friend Charlie text me congratulating us on being championed by Lou Smith, like it was some kind of holy blessing. As it turned out, it was.”
Over the next few weeks, inbox of The Dinner Party [recently renamed The Last Dinner Party] flooded with messages from labels, managers, agents and lawyers, all referencing a certain video which had made its way to them in a music industry chain-mail. Within a few months of that gig in Bermondsey, the band had signed a major record deal.
According to Spela Cedilnik, founder of the independent label Isolar Records, Lou Smith has been instrumental in the development and global reach of south London’s sound.
“He has brought the scene to screens across the world. There are people who have never even seen bands like Fat White Family, Black Midi or Black Country, New Road live – because the bands never played where they live – but have seen all of Lou’s videos. There are probably hundreds of other bands Lou has shot that have not yet reached that level of success but there are people all over the world now fans of these emerging artists from London. And now they too are in on our secret,” says Spela Cedilnik, adding that a band on her label, Bishopskin, got a donation towards their album recording because of one of Lou’s videos.
“They looked like spare parts”
Of course, Lou was never really a stranger to gigs nor photography.
He got his first camera when he was 15, but back then, he wouldn’t really bring it to gigs; gigs in the late 70s could become rather violent. Instead, he took “rather self-indulgent lonely pictures of landscapes” and enrolled in a biochemistry degree at Imperial College. Sometimes, Lou would traipse over to the art school hallways, thinking to himself the people there seemed more like his tribe. That nagging thought wasn’t enough for him to switch paths; a severe, unexplained illness was. After spending a month in an isolation ward without solid foods, he deferred for a year to recover. The year passed, changing Lou in the process. He did not return to university. Instead, he grabbed his camera and headed for the Brixton Academy, where he would start taking photos behind the scenes of the music show Big World Café. Similar stints followed: he became the courier slash fixer slash in-house photographer for the acid house slanted dance label Rhythm King Records and its sister company Mute Records, and would later work in art department jobs for music videos such as the Prodigy’s Firestarter.
But Lou doesn’t tell me most of this. I looked it up online after our interview. Lou just tells me about how he went to the acoustic event Easycome in Peckham one Wednesday night in April 2011 and accidentally recorded Fat White Family’s first ever gig – known back then as Champagne Holocaust, and consisting of just Lias Saoudi and Saul Adamczewski in cowboy hats with Nathan Saoudi in a Gestapo looking trenchcoat somewhere in the audience, and Anna and Georgia on backing vocals.
“My first impression of them was like, oh my God, they look like some kind of desperate hillbilly outlaws, or redneck bandits that had just swarmed in… it was just a demeanour that they had. They looked like spare parts. Derelict,” says Lou.
“But they sounded good, right?”
“Lias was playing guitar… and he’s getting decent now, but back in the day, it wasn’t particularly nice,” Lou responds. “Saul is quite controlling, and you can see that dynamic between them played out on stage at that first gig… Even then, Saul is turning Lias’ guitar down and silencing his strings. So it was fucking shambles, I suppose. But they still had something… exciting.”
They played Borderline, Wild American Prairie, and a cover of The Monks’s I Hate You. The latter, while being the least relevant to the group, is the only one that remains on film today. Somehow, the footage was lost – “to my eternal chagrin,” Lou adds. “That would have been the first ever rendition of Borderline, now one of their most famous songs.”
Luckily, there would be more gigs. Fat White Family started playing at the Brixton Windmill; Lou Smith followed. Two years after that first Monks cover, Fat White Family signed the record deal with Trashmouth that would raise them from pub venue obscurity to post punk poster boys. The initial connection with Trashmouth Records – which was a dance label at the time – happened, according to Lou, after the label executives spotted his gig footage.
In hindsight, it all seems like a master plan; Lou, documenting the emergence of South London’s post-punk scene. But according to him, it was hardly even a decision: “I just wanted to tell the world how great Fat White Family was.”
A form of validation
That philosophy has continued to rule Lou Smith’s YouTube channel in its expansion. Soon after their record deal, Fat White Family’s sound started spawning right before Lou’s camera, producing gene pool spin-offs such as Meatraffle and Warmduscher. Lou Smith’s YouTube channel quickly became one of few online spaces that could provide access to the emergence of 21st Century post-punk, although he never really saw it that way: “I didn’t consider it a genre, but obviously, that’s what it is. I just concentrated on music that I liked.”
To this day, Lou only films bands he likes. “I don’t just film one random band and then leave it at that. If I’m not into them, I won’t film at all. I don’t want to get involved when people ask me to film or offer to pay me and stuff like that. If I’m into them, I want to film them and watch them grow, so people can watch the progression.”
According to Isolar Record’s Spela Cedilnik, being featured on Lou Smith’s channel is “a great privilege,” and not just because it means having high quality footage to send gig venues or record labels:
“It means being included in the company of the best bands that have come from this scene, the bands that they’re fans of themselves. It means that at least a few hundred people who weren’t at the show will hear about them for the first time, and they can also look back at their performance and see how they can improve,” says Spela. “I’m sure many of the bands that now have record deals and are touring the world have achieved that with the help of Lou’s videos of their early performances.”
To Loz Harper, who plays saxophone for House Arrest amongst other bands, being featured on Lou’s YouTube channel is a form of validation: “It’s nice that Lou selects what interests him, rather than what’s successful. It’s a selection of bands of all different stages in their careers, from DIY to signed or touring bands, which allows fans of the bigger bands to be exposed to up-and-coming acts. Seeing the eclectic mix of bands on the channel was actually a big part of what influenced me to get involved in the scene.”
These days, Lou averages around three gigs a week, often more, despite it being draining at times – “filming a whole set is like holding a baby at arm’s length for an hour.” Without any free hands to protect himself, Lou regularly gets knocked over – despite his tai chi experience – and emerged from Fat White Family’s Wide Awake set last June with a broken rib.
He spends hours editing footage, selecting thumbnails, uploading video after video, on top of his day-to-day jobs of running screen printing birthday parties for children and designing and selling band merchandise. Despite his YouTube channel playing a key role in sustaining the music scene’s economy – driving music nerds to independent venues and label executives to emerging acts – Lou receives little to no revenue from his work.
“Obviously, I can’t monetize anything that is signed. I used to have no issues with copyright claims, but they’re coming in thick and fast now. Anything anyone’s ever heard of has a copyright claim against it.
“I had a record label representative explaining copyright to me on Zoom once. I mean, quite possibly, they signed this band because they saw them on my channel. It’d be good if they could just whitelist me – some of them do. Some put advertising on them, which is kind of annoying. In some cases, labels do revenue sharing. But I really don’t know how much of that I get, if any,” says Lou.
Additionally, his merchandise has occasionally rubbed label executives the wrong way: once a band has been signed, the label tends to want to control the image, and the merch by extension.
That’s another thing about Lou: while some of the bands featured on his channel eventually get signed and outgrow Venue MOT, the Brixton Windmill and George Tavern, Lou stays.
“Going to big venues or festivals is not good for what I do. You’re always too far away from the bands for it to be intimate and there’s security issues and people being assholes, telling me I can’t put my bag there and can’t do this, can’t do that. I hate it. I like feeling like I’m welcomed, feeling like I’m at home. I don’t have to pay or be put on the guestlist to get into a lot of the smaller venues, which is amazing. Why would I go somewhere where people just don’t let me in?” says Lou.
“Small venues and nascent bands is where it’s at for me, trying to catch bands when they’re still just playing for their friends. It’s part of the joy, [when bands haven’t yet released anything online], there’s something about the unfurling of potential.”