360°Sound caught up with Seattle-based photographer Mike Hipple, author of the book Lived Through That: ‘90s Musicians Today (out now on Girl Friday Books). The 144-page book features portraits of dozens of artists who were popular in the ‘90s, among them Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, Belly’s Tanya Donelly, Arrested Development’s Speech, and Cracker’s David Lowery. Along with the photos are interviews in which the artists reveal what they’ve been up to lately.
“I’m really excited to share with people some of these artists that they may not have heard of,” Hipple told 360°. “There are some gems that I think are definitely worthy of people’s time. The people who participated in this book all opened up their doors and their hearts and were really fun to work with.”
Hipple has been a freelance photographer for over two decades. His past clients include Fast Company, National Geographic, and Microsoft. Hipple’s first book, 80s Redux: Your Favorite Musicians Today, was released in 2018.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: What do you love about ‘90s music?
Mike Hipple: It was a huge diversity. I was a teenager in the ‘80s and I was listening to a lot of what could be considered college radio or alternative radio. I just feel like in the ‘90s, as I was in my twenties, all the music that I listened to actually suddenly became the mainstream stuff. All that weird, offbeat stuff that I loved was now everywhere. When you’re in your twenties, you’re kind of discovering the world and feeling your way through things. There’s a lot of freedom involved in that. The music provided a really great soundtrack to my own personal journey and becoming who I am.
Some people ask, ‘Is your next book gonna be a 2000s book?’ I don’t have such a connection to that music as I do from the music of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Music is such a powerful tool in bringing up memories. Obviously, I have memories of when I was in my thirties, but they weren’t as big or seemingly dramatic as they were in the ‘90s. There definitely is a certain vibe of music of the ‘80s and the ‘90s, and the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s as well. You can bring up these decades and you have an automatic sense of what the music was. But when it comes to the 2000s, I kind of feel like I’m drawing a blank.
What are some examples of ‘90s music that resonated with you then and continue to today?
The jumping-off point for the book was it had to be artists that fit that mold, people that I was invested in and still feel a similar fondness for. I think the first one is [Belly singer] Tanya Donelly. I’ve always been a big fan of the work that she’s done from the Throwing Muses back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s and then the Breeders and Belly. I feel like those songs really hold up to this day, and even some of the newer music that she does is really strong.
Another good one would be That Dog. They’re a little bit under the radar. I still remember picking up their third record, Retreat from the Sun, at Tower Records. It was on sale for like $6. This was before Spotify. There was no real way to discover any music. It immediately became a favorite and I went back and got their first two records before that. I think they’re a band that should have been a lot bigger than they actually were. They definitely have a niche following. They did come up with a new record just before the pandemic, and they did a couple of secret shows, which sold out in minutes.
The third one would be Lush. They were a band I absolutely loved in the ‘90s, and I continue to go back to the music. I think it still stands up. I think that they are kind of an architect for a certain type of music. I don’t want to use the word ‘shoegaze,’ but they definitely have a vibe. They are still very, very popular amongst their fanbase. They came out with a reunion record a couple years ago, then they broke up again. [Singer] Miki [Berenyi] is doing that band Piroshka, which is really good stuff.
I thought it was cool how you provided hits and deep cuts for each of the musicians. Talk about that, and did you have fun revisiting the catalogs of the artists?
Yes indeed, and I found new favorites as I was doing that. One of the main reasons I wanted to do that is because with the ‘80s book, I had a lot of people say, ‘I don’t know these artists.’ I would rattle off a couple of song titles and then they’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that song.’ I kind of regretted that I didn’t put little playlists in the ‘80s book, so I really wanted to do that for the ‘90s book. If there’s a band you think you might be interested in, here’s a good place to check it out, a good starting point. Then the reader can delve deeper if they’re really into it.
I also wanted to evangelize for these bands. I want readers to go back and discover some of the great stuff they may have missed the first time around. It was really great relistening to a lot of these catalogs and being like, ‘Oh my god, I totally forgot about that stuff, that is such a great song’ [laughs].
Who were some musicians who took you by surprise by what they were doing today?
Going back to Tanya Donnelly again, she went to school to work as a doula, which I thought was interesting and I wouldn’t have expected that. John Hall from King Missile went back to school to become a lawyer. There’s a little bit of a common thread in some of these artists because they went back and started doing rock ‘n roll children’s music, which I think is great. I was going to see these bands with my kids, like [vocalist/bassist of Presidents of the United States of America] Chris Ballew became Caspar Babypants. Sarah Shannon from Velocity Girl went on to do The Non-Its!. These kid bands that I would go with my kids to, and be like, ‘Oh my god, this is kind of surreal.’
Another interesting story was Danbert [Nobacon] from Chumbawumba. I think some people consider them a one-hit wonder, but they’re also a band that has a deeper catalog that I think people could rediscover and might be surprised by. I was surprised because I assumed he lived in Britain, but he actually lives in this small town a couple hours north of me here in Washington state. It was an unexpected place to find him.
The thesis of the ‘80s book and the ‘90s book is that I feel like people think you can only be creative when you’re between the ages of 22 and 26. That’s not true. These are people who are still vital and creative and interesting and doing good work today, whether it be music still, which a lot of them are doing, or channeling that into doing something different. These are still some pretty amazing people, and that was what I wanted to get across.
What was it like photographing all these musicians? And what are the qualities of a good photo subject?
I do a lot of editorial and commercial work and sometimes that’s not super creative or fulfilling because you’re shooting a businessperson and they’re not really necessarily willing to play with you as much. Photographing these people, the vast majority of them were super excited, super willing participants, willing to play with me. I consider a great portrait to be a collaborative effort between myself and the subject. They were all willing to have fun. Everyone was super willing to go with it and bring their ideas to the table.
Most of the time when we go to shoot, I’m going to their home or their studio, so I don’t really have a lot of time beforehand to scout it out and come up with ideas. So, I’m kind of working on the fly, which is how I like to work anyway because you never know what to expect. I feel like when I pre-plan an idea too tightly in my head, the image ends up coming out looking really forced. I definitely like to use the aspect of spontaneity to make some of these things work. Ninety-nine percent of the time we had such a good workflow on all these things, and the pictures would just flow, which is great and unusual because you don’t have that all the time.