Capturing the wild days of early-2000s indie rock

If you were a teen at the turn of the millennium, chances are your musical taste fell into one of two camps: You were either a pop kid, with the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, *NSYNC or Destiny’s Child on your Sony Discman, or you were a “new indie rock” kid with posters of Pete Doherty or The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas on your bedroom walls.

The latter genre was loosely defined. Indie rock acts ranged in style and sound. The Libertines, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Modest Mouse and Amy Winehouse might all be considered part of the movement, albeit in very different ways. What they shared, though, was an aura of cool — one that Los Angeles-based photographer Piper Ferguson spent much of her early career capturing.

Ferguson’s debut book “Indie, Seen” offers a raw and nostalgic look at the early-2000s, with behind-the-scenes portraits depicting artists from Interpol to Kasabian, Peaches to PJ Harvey. Together they form what she described as “a collection of ‘moments’ that really capture what indie was all about back then.”

“I have so much footage from those days,” she said over Zoom. “To me, it was such a fantastic, creative era for the music industry.”

Wild, laidback and fun

Comprising some 350 images, many of which spent years languishing in filing cabinets, “Indie, Seen” features live shots and party pictures, candid snapshots and editorial portraits, all shot using film. Many were taken at Ferguson’s own LA club Cafe Bleu, which she opened with best friend Shalyce Benfell in the late 1990s, while later pictures were captured as she traveled the world to photograph festivals for magazines.

“I have always been into music — so much so that I originally wanted to direct music videos. Photography didn’t really seem like a career option. Then I bought a small Pentax (camera) and began shooting all the bands that played at Cafe Bleu,” Ferguson said, explaining that she learned her craft from photography books purchased at a yard sale. “I started taking the camera with me everywhere I went, just snapping gigs, the crowds, the backstage. And I fell in love with it.”

In 1999, Ferguson had a picture — a close-up shot of Rage Against the Machine performing at the very first edition of Coachella — published in a major music publication, Spin, for the first time. More magazine work, from features to covers, followed. Over the next decade, she established herself as a respected name in the indie circuit and, at the time, one of its very few female photographers.

“It was obviously a bit different being a woman in a very male-dominated field,” Ferguson said. “But overall, there were way more people who were supportive than weren’t. I think that’s one of the things that made the indie movement particularly great: There was a collective sense of wanting to do something really cool and help others doing the same. I was treated like a peer, an equal. Everybody was just striving to make something good.”

This camaraderie is evident throughout “Indie, Seen,” which sees Ferguson weave together photos with personal, first-hand accounts and vignettes of her experience shooting them.

The Yeah Yeah Yeahs caught performing at the NY Parking Lot show in Williamsburg, New York, in 2002. - Piper Ferguson
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs caught performing at the NY Parking Lot show in Williamsburg, New York, in 2002. - Piper Ferguson

There’s Joe Strummer of The Clash telling her “You can’t rush art, baby” as she apologizes for a shoot taking too long (“one of the greatest moments of my career,” Ferguson said of the playful comment); The Verve front man Richard Ashcroft driving her through a London park in search of the perfect backdrop for a picture; and The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr (who wrote the foreword to her book) becoming a good friend of hers after working on several shoots together.

“Mostly, everyone was just really laidback and fun,” Ferguson said. “And a bit wild, of course.”

Sections of the book are dedicated to episodes that felt like particularly meaningful cultural moments — The Strokes playing at West Hollywood’s Troubadour in 2001, the year the band’s debut album “Is This It” sealed indie rock as the next chapter of rock ‘n’ roll; or Coldplay performing at LA’s Chateau Marmont in 2002 shortly after the release of “A Rush of Blood to the Head.”

“I realized I was witnessing history and tried to take in each and every shoot,” she said.

Ferguson also delves into quieter moments with seminal bands like The Killers, Pavement, Interpol and The Libertines. While she said all the shoots felt special, her favorites include a raw on-stage image of the late Amy Winehouse putting on a ballet slipper while balancing on the other foot.

“She looked so nervous and was shaking, as if she had no idea why the crowd was going crazy for her,” Ferguson recalled, adding that the late singer looked “so vulnerable.”

Then there’s the photo of Beck in a bright green jumper and floral tie, umbrella in hand, looking directly down Ferguson’s lens outside a taco joint in Hollywood. The image, from a Mojo magazine shoot marking the release of his 2005 album “Guero,” graces the cover of Ferguson’s book.

“He’s the coolest, most down-to-earth creative kid in town,” she said, “and the epitome of indie rock.”

Celebrating the indie spirit

As well as capturing era-defining bands, “Indie, Seen” spotlights some of the 2000s’ lesser-known — but nonetheless influential — bands like The Datsuns, Foxygen and The Bangs. For Ferguson, illustrating the breadth of the movement was key to curating the book.

“When I think of indie music from the early aughts, I think of something inherently different, artistic and creative,” she said. “So many bands were part of that, and I thought it was important to show them all. The scene was so wide-ranging.”

Greg Lee of Hepcat, captured in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz in 1998. - Piper Ferguson
Greg Lee of Hepcat, captured in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Los Feliz in 1998. - Piper Ferguson

This might be one of the reasons why the genre thrived in the 2000s, despite being considered “alternative.” Eschewing strict categorizations, indie rock ranged from the catchy and high-energy tunes of The Cribs to the deeply intimate and introspective songs of Cat Power, from Death Cab for Cutie’s atmospheric albums to the folksy vibes of Iron & Wine, all artists Ferguson had the opportunity to photograph. Indie music had what Ferguson called an “almost DIY approach” that, she noted, made it feel authentic and open to experimentation.

The genre became the decade’s soundtrack for a generation of millennials – and some Gen X-ers, too. Still, Ferguson hopes the appeal of “Indie, Seen” extends beyond those who grew up in the 2000s.

“I’d love for younger generations to pick up the book and go, ‘Let me go find this or that band on Spotify,’” she said. “Indie rock marks a pretty influential period of our music history, so I’d really like for it to continue to reverberate. I want ‘Indie, Seen’ to be a celebration. An invitation to be inspired by those cool kids from back then. Try things. Don’t be afraid. Get out there. That’s the indie spirit.”

“Indie, Seen,” published by Insight Editions, is available now.

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