Guitar music might have had it tough recently in other parts of the world, but in California the band scene is thriving. Its nerve centres are located across the state, in house parties, underage venues such as the Smell in downtown LA and at Burger Records in Fullerton, near Disneyland. Burger is at once a record shop, gig venue, hangout and the headquarters of an extraordinarily prolific, high-quality record label. The music is a joyous mix of surf, punk and psychedelic rock. It’s a scene that has almost entirely escaped the attention of the mainstream.
One of the few people to document it extensively is the creative director of Saint Laurent, designer Hedi Slimane. The photographer and indie-rock obsessive moved from Paris to LA in 2007 and immersed himself in the local underground. Though many fashion houses court pop stars, few have developed such long-standing and reciprocal relationships with rock musicians as Slimane. For more than a decade, in magazines, exhibitions and books, such as 2005’s London: Birth of a Cult (a photographic record of the rise of Pete Doherty), he has shot bands ranging from megastars to the completely obscure, but all united in their charisma, creativity and appetite for chaos. He has captured the elements of nascent rock scenes in New York, London and California: the sweaty fans, spilt drinks and crumbling venues. This fascination with music’s wild side has been catalogued in a new exhibition – Sonic – which opens next week at Paris’s Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent.
This love of rock ’n’ roll has had an impact on Slimane’s parallel career as a designer. As well as sending his spin on grunge, punk and rockabilly down the Saint Laurent catwalk, Slimane shoots all the label’s advertising campaigns and unveiled Saint Laurent’s new beginning under his direction with images of Christopher Owens, a classic rock lost boy with a back catalogue of wracked, emotional songs and an action-packed past.
Slimane has also worked with the Garden, twins Wyatt and Fletcher Shears, who have rock in their DNA – their father was in Orange County punk bands like Final Conflict and Shattered Faith. They starred in a menswear campaign and have stalked Slimane’s catwalk.
Slimane has commissioned California bands to write 15-minute pieces to soundtrack his shows: the Mystic Braves did the honours for the recent psych rock-inspired collection. There is a Saint Laurent Music Project, where musicians from Marilyn Manson to BB King are shot by Slimane in their favourite clothes from the collections, styled by themselves. There are collaborations with young musicians, such as Grimes and Seth Bogart from Hunx and his Punx, who co-design T-shirts, shirts, bags and shoes. Young band members sit crosslegged at the feet of editors and buyers in the front row at Saint Laurent shows, cheering on their friends and peers.
Sonic shuffles the pack of rock history and traces an alternative lineage from the 50s to now, taking in Elvis’s front room, Kurt Cobain’s monkey toys and Jerry Lee Lewis’s ranch, and capturing guitar music’s latest mutation: the new wave of psych rockers who are reinventing the acid-drenched template of late-60s pop. There’s an imperious portrait of James Edward Bagshaw, singer with Kettering psychedelicists Temples, and thrilling live shots of Froth, Tame Impala and the Mystic Braves. The show juxtaposes images of young musicians like indie soul man Curtis Harding and woozy chanteuse Clementine Creevy of Cherry Glazerr with more formal portraits of music legends including David Byrne, Keith Richards, Chuck Berry and, in his last sitting, Lou Reed. It’s vivid and extremely personal.
Capturing musicians moshing, performing and just hanging out in their bedroom, Sonic is an expression of Slimane’s love of rock ’n’ roll at its most visceral, teenage and raw. It captures young fans in that golden period when the band they love is still a secret to the wider world, and a concert is a shared celebration between performers and audience. “That’s just rock’n’roll – forever teenage,” says Burger Records co-founder Lee Rickard. “There will always be disenfranchised youths trying to find their friends, trying to find their place.” Slimane’s images capture those youths on the perpetual quest for teenage kicks.
Sonic opens on 18 September at Fondation Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent. For details, go to fondation-pb-ysl.net
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010