Wild party photos of peak 00s alt-culture, captured by the Cobrasnake
Rachel Rabbit White talks indie sleaze, how to become 'scene famous' and photographing Myspace era Kanye with the legendary Mark Hunter.
Mark Hunter appeared at the right time in all the right places in the early 00s. His legendary party photography blog “the cobrasnake” has been referred to as “Instagram before Instagram”, but back in the day it was known as the place to get a feel for the pulse of “the scene”. His photography documented a certain underground culture now longed for, spanning New York, Los Angeles, Paris, Miami, Chicago, Tokyo, Melbourne and cities the world over.
The Cobrasnake: Y2K Archives, a new book from Rizzoli, is a compilation of Mark’s photos of celebrities, scenesters, DJs and musicians hanging out in an era before social media and influencers, a time just before the 2008 stock market crash, when no one had GPS on their phones and “selfies” were taken with a point and shoot camera.
Before “indie sleaze” was known as “indie sleaze”, The Cobrasnake was there. He was there when Justice first broke in Paris. He was with Mickey Avalon in the black sedan. He was in Williamsburg when Space Invader installed the first mosaic by the L train. He was at the event where Katy Perry met Jeremy Scott and charmed him into making her a dress before the One Of The Boys release. But mostly, he was present to the energy of the culture, back when your band sold their guitars and bought turntables, and again when your band sold their turntables and bought guitars.
To celebrate the release of his new photo book, we spoke with the Cobrasnake about “the scene”, and what it was really all about.
You grew up in Cali, Santa Monica, and started the first party photography blog in 2003 fresh out of high school. Or if not the first, definitely the most lit.
Everyone else was going to college, doing the traditional route. I was working at a Chinese food restaurant and I had to clean the bathrooms, take out the trash. I remember throwing the trash bag over the fence and it rips and I'm covered in Chinese noodles. I always say I was swimming upstream.
**[Laughs] Stop it. That’s like a scene in a movie.
**Yeah. I was going to these indie shows in my free time, just paying for tickets like a normal fan and sneaking my camera in. I was taking photos of the band and what naturally happened was the documentation of the crowd. I shot the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and then ended up in the same photo gallery as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. There was no importance put on any single image, so you could feel just as special as they might.
That was the secret potion. You’d see a single epic rock shot on the front of Spin or Rolling Stone or something, but they didn’t have room to print the fans. With the internet there was endless bandwidth and the photos could travel. That became my calling card. The bands would see the photos and be like, “Holy shit, he wasn't there with permission, and he got great shots. What if we give him a backstage pass?” It literally was like that Almost Famous moment where I was going to a handful of shows until I ended up being friends with the band, following them on tour and evolving with them as their careers evolved.
**I love that moment of you photographing the bands and then turning around and photographing the crowd. It makes sense that it worked well for a Yeah Yeah Yeahs show in 2003 or 2004, where the kids were coming from a dance punk or electroclash scene… mixed with indie. It’s a clubbier crowd, people were there to be seen. Where you kinda blew up, though, was when French electro and bloghouse came in 2005-2007, where in a nightclub setting everything goes until 5 or 6 am and everyone there is there to have a fun, sexy, wild night. In that early Justice/Ed Banger Records era, turning the camera on the crowd was magic.
**I was on a big European tour with Mickey Avalon in 2006. We were at shows all over London, Paris, Germany. There was a festival outside of Paris where Justice performed, the Klaxons and other Ed Banger Records acts. I’d heard about those guys, but they were at their beginnings too. I ended up on the train back to Paris them. I was in the right place, right time, like so much of my life, because they were like, “Oh, we have a gig on Tuesday, come”. I was in Paris right when things were bubbling for them. It’s always that way, finding things through word of mouth — the party hotline, I like to call it.
**That was truly how it all worked.
**Yeah. You could splash into a city and just like, go to American Apparel. I’d go in Chicago and those twin girls were working there. I'd be like, "What's going on tonight?" Then they'd bring me to some party; I'd run around, take photos with them. It was that true, organic discovery. I also had, before GPS and stuff, one of my old flyers with handwritten instructions for how to get to Williamsburg by train if you’d never been.
All you might have needed was the $10 to get into the club, possibly a fake ID and an outfit that you stole from American Apparel because everyone knew they didn’t prosecute shoplifters.
And then you bump into somebody there and they say, “Come to this thing”.
**And the scene was so small.
**The scene was so small. And so connected the world over, which is why it was exciting. A certain attitude or feeling had built through electroclash and disco punk. I remember in 2006, I gave away my whole book of CDs. These boys from this other school were flipping through my CDs, and they were impressed by like, the Neva-Dinova Bright Eyes split, and I was like, “Actually you guys just keep that whole CD collection. I’m done with it now. Except those DFA comps”.
**[Laughs.] But then! This is what was really cool, because I befriended all the Ed Banger guys they were like, “We are coming to America”. I was there. That was the year of the anniversary Daft Punk tour for Alive, so then I was on a lot of those shows shooting Daft Punk. It was everybody's grail, to see Daft Punk. But then when it was Justice and Kavinsky and all the whole crew, they were such rock stars.
**That American takeover was huge. You could catch a Justice DJ set at a nightclub! That excitement changed the energy of the entire scene. In every city it was suddenly like, DJ duos, two boys, all lined up like Noah’s Ark. Honestly though, very cute.
**What I also loved was how it would cross pollinate. There would be a remix of a Klaxons’ song by Justice. It was all from those interactions, music festivals and stuff. That's how everyone would network and get to meet in real life.
Right. The club parties after the festivals — cause if you’re a vampire, who wants to be at a festival — then the VIP afters in the club basement. Then you had the blogs: Bloghouse putting out those remixes as soon as they dropped. You’d catch the track drop on Hype Machine before getting ready, later you’d go out and someone's playing it.
**So, when the kids talk about “indie sleaze”, obviously that wasn’t a term then… which era are they talking about? I guess it’s thought of more as an “aesthetic” — messy hair and runny mascara, when really the mascara was running because you'd been dancing all night and poured a water bottle over your head.
**Yeah and well… there just wasn't as much of what it evolved into, it wasn’t yet a bottle-service culture or the clubbing scene like 1Oak. Plus, a lot of the events actually were in small bars, where there wasn’t even a cover, it was just a Tuesday.
Clubs on weekends were booking house music, maybe techno, more established DJs… The scene was rowdy, but it was coming from this more punk DIY ethos. You didn’t need a lot of money; it was thrifting and shoplifting. I guess that’s part of “indie sleaze”, the idea of “not needing to be perfect”. You know, you wake up, find a bunch of packs of free Camel no. 9’s in your purse because Camel no. 9 was sponsoring the party the night before.
Come home smelling like the club, back when people smoked in clubs. I didn’t but anytime I’d come home reeking of cigarettes with my shoes sticky, it was a good night.
**Exactly, wake up in some loft you have the feeling you’ve been at before. Someone has a Sparks hook-up, there’s a bottle of champagne so you make Sparksmosas. Wait, we haven’t talked about MySpace.
**You know, I didn’t even have a MySpace.
You didn’t even have to be on it! A lot of what we’re talking about, the scene being both small and global, was because blogs and MySpace made it easier to access. It was all coming from a culture of message boards and Soulseek.
If you’re new to the scene, you look at the ‘Top 8’ of the coolest person you know, see what music they list in their ‘fave music’ section — see there’s a Cobrasnake watermarked photo, then another and another. You start going to those parties. If you were shot by a party photographer, it might show up in VICE or some other little music magazine. Now your photo is in print, so you feel like the scene is famous. So, by default, you’re famous, almost famous.
And you didn't have an Instagram feed. Everyone will recount to me like, “I kept refreshing the browser waiting until the Cobrasnake gallery was up”. I was always trying to do it before going to bed.
I got linked on Kanye's website back in the day. I was the top link on all these blogs I’d never seen. Now, Kanye's so big… but back then his website was so rudimental, it had a links page and I don't know what else… I have a screenshot somewhere. I really wish I was more organized because I need to be posting more of this stuff.
But… there was totally this global hipster hotline. I could go to the UK, I'd be in London and I'd hang with the right people there. Like a young Alexa Chung and Dev Hynes, the Arctic Monkeys or the Klaxons. In Australia, it was modular records and Bang Gang. Cut Copy. Just anywhere you went you could find the scene.
**I’m curious how style differed in various cities. I know you were really into thrifting.
**In the early Art Basel years, like 2007, I would stay an extra day or two and go to the outskirts of Florida and get the most insane Disney stuff. It was cool because everything had a time or a location stamp on it. If you hit Florida, you’re going to get Disney stuff. If you end up in the Midwest — Western clothes, obscure beer shirts and Harley Davidson.
I blame Macklemore for blowing thrifting up for everybody. Back then, it was almost looked down on, kinda like it still is to take the bus… You could find such treasures. I got burnt out on shopping for men’s T-shirts, so I started collecting crazy clothes in Vegas. I ended up with two trash bags there.
**God, trash bags when they sold the clothes by the weight, that was later widely labeled “hipster”, what started as this punk or indie DIY broke culture. Like, skinny jeans started because they were 80s thrift store jeans. Broke culture was do-able. Even if you didn’t have the internet, you could go check your MySpace at the library, see what events people were posting on the little RSS feed.
**Yeah and that ethos shifted. Maybe due to celebrity culture, the Kardashians or just influencer culture being about having the latest, next best thing. That's never been my vibe; I've always just done my thing. Keeping up with the Joneses is too expensive. But still, there was a sort of alternative unofficial influencer culture. You brought up Sparks — these marketing companies would send just cases of Sparks to people, or Converse or whatever it was, in hopes they would wear them out. That's what fueled parties in those days. Because Toyota Scion or T-Mobile were hosting and they could afford to have The Strokes play, no cover, like what seemed like once in a lifetime opportunities.
**Yeah, I think it also has to do with shooting the celebs, the DJs or bands and the scene stars all together. Some people would become “influencers”, but a lot weren’t interested in that; some people were famous or they were models; most everyone was creative and it could be hard to tell who was who in the photos. Once Instagram became obligatory, things became more corporate. It's buttoned up. It's associated with your job. You know what I mean?
**People know their good side. They’re like, "I don't want to look messy." But with Euphoria being the top show and this new celebration of indie sleaze, I feel we are going to get back to where it's cool to be messy, it's sexy to look a little bit unhinged. Anybody can look great if they’re really posed… but can you look really cool, unhinged?