Suede interview: 'We felt bulletproof – we felt we could do anything... but we couldn't'
Age may gouge at him, sobriety steal his impetuous wild side and fatherhood keep him from the bawdy haunts of youth, but Brett Anderson will never lose his poise – that vulpine posture and glint-eyed impudence.
He has it now, as he sits in a white armchair in his immaculate Scandi-styled Notting Hill apartment (he lives with his family near Wells in Somerset, but keeps a W11 address for work appointments), wrists curled, eyes steely, bohemian insouciance dripping from every pore. Though he probably hasn’t visited since 1996, he’s still the coolest man in Camden.
During our interview, his composure drops only once, when the conversation strays from the regular Suede topics of gritty drama, sex, drugs, paranoia, romantic squalor and heroic rock ambition, and takes a sudden and unexpected left turn into the realm of masturbating Beatles.
He almost spills the tea from his Sex Pistols mug. “Hang on, what was that?”
I explain that Paul McCartney recently confessed in an interview that, pre-Beatles, he, John Lennon and some family friends once enjoyed a masturbatory free-for-all, shouting out names of sex symbols like Brigitte Bardot and, um, Winston Churchill as encouragement.
“His quote is, ‘I masturbated in front of John Lennon once, maybe twice’,” Suede’s bassist (and brother of Pointless co-host Richard) Mat Osman says, laughing. “He’s got to be the only person in the world who doesn’t know how many times he’s wanked in front of John Lennon.”
A spot of light relief in a morbid hour-and-a-half. After reforming from a seven-year hiatus in 2010 and releasing two new albums that wiped the slate clean of disappointing post-peak albums Head Music (1999) and A New Morning (2002) and restored their reputation as rock’s finest crafters of grandiose pop opulence, Britpop originators (and disowners) Suede are about to release their darkest and most deviant album yet.
If 2013’s Bloodsports recaptured their original sordid thrill and 2016’s Night Thoughts (accompanied by an album-length film following the dying flashbacks of a drowning victim) emulated the billowing scope of their 1994 masterpiece Dog Man Star, the final part of their reunion triptych, The Blue Hour, is grander – and more gruesome – still.
Couching some of the most chandelier-shattering ballads and catchiest trash-pop escape anthems of their career in monk chants, The Omen choirs, sinister poetry about dead birds and spoken-word interludes about midnight burials and hunts for missing children, The Blue Hour is as chilling as any British horror flick and as nasty as a Nordic noir. Imagine Hereditary if its grisly car scene had featured a stupendous chorus or 12.
“There’s an English gothic-ness to it,” Anderson agrees, “almost like an Edgar Allan Poe tinge. I wanted it to have the feeling of some dark poetry that I like, things like Ted Hughes, that wintry rural feel, painting the countryside as a brutal, unpleasant place in the same way that Seamus Heaney does. You’ve got to choose a mood and try and make it as extreme as possible.”
We demand spoilers. What’s the significance of the dead bird? What’s being buried? “I don’t want to answer any questions,” Anderson says. “It’s the artist’s job to deepen the mystery, as Francis Bacon once so perfectly put it. There is a sort of narrative thread in the back of my mind, but as soon as I disclose what that narrative thread is, the album becomes a concept album and it’s not a concept album. It’s more like painting a picture and creating a series of colours, in an impressionistic way you’re throwing things together and this imagery is coming out.”
“It’s like those late David Lynch films where there might be a story behind it, you’re never quite sure,” says Osman.
“In most art, as soon as you know too much what’s happening, that’s when you start switching off,” Anderson continues. “It’s like in drama and thrillers – it’s finding it out, it’s the journey that’s the exciting bit. You start switching off as soon as it starts falling into place. It’s one of the beautiful things about pop music, that there are as many meanings to a song as there are listeners.”
Much of Suede’s motivation for making new records was to avoid becoming part of the current wave of Butlins Britpop revival acts. “Our whole attitude since reforming was not to be some sort of nostalgic revivalist band that reminded people of dancing round to ‘Animal Nitrate’,” Anderson says, “I feel those old songs of ours have got a primal energy that doesn’t feel nostalgic. When we play “Killing of A Flash Boy”, it’s brutal, [but] I want the band to have a second creative wind beyond the Nineties.”
They are, however, looking back. Their long-term filmmaker friend Mike Christie has produced a Sky Arts documentary on the band, Suede: The Insatiable Ones, which screens this November, using reams of archive footage shot by Christie and drummer Simon Gilbert. It promises to be a revelation.
“It’s a warts and all documentary,” says Osman. “It’s about 60 per cent warts.”
“I wanted it to be a brutally frank thing, so hopefully it’ll be revealing,” Anderson says. “The hardest bit to talk about is Head Music and A New Morning, when everything started falling apart. It’s easy to sit there and talk about how great it was for the first three albums, but when you talk about disintegration in a band and to be really honest about those things, especially when at the time we probably didn’t talk about it, young men don’t talk about things, they just happen. It’s not until you get older you’ve got the emotional tools to talk about those things. We were talking about things together for the first time.”
“When a band like us falls apart you just pretend everything’s fine,” Osman says. “So you have five people pretending this it’s fine and privately going ‘what the f*** is happening to my life?’”
“We were all, privately, completely in pieces,” Anderson admits.
With their frontman famously addicted to heroin and crack at the time, to what degree were drugs responsible for Suede’s disintegration?
“It’s part of the cause and part of the effect,” Osman says. “I think we could’ve managed to really f*** up without drugs. I think we would. They helped. But at the same time we probably have that seed of self-destruction in us. If you’re interested in the extremes then you’re at the danger of excess finishing you. That’s what happened to the band. We felt bulletproof, we felt we could do anything we wanted and we couldn’t. It’s a hard thing to come up against. From The Drowners to Head Music coming out – the harder we pushed the better it got. But we burnt ourselves out.”
“It’s self-sabotage,” Anderson adds. “As soon as things become too safe, we wriggle. We always need something to fight against, a point to prove. The first album was this struggle of being a band and trying to be heard and doing something that’s against the grain, the second album Bernard was x-ed and the third album we were trying to form a new identity. When it got to the fourth album we’d become quite accepted by the music industry and we almost self-detonated because of that.”
The classic story, then: fun drugs on the way up, until heroin spoils the party. “It’s so formulaic isn’t it?” Anderson sighs. “The story of every band is exactly the same. Struggle, success, excess, disintegration.”
“It’s basically the fall of Rome,” Osman says of the documentary’s portrayal of Suede’s legendary decadence.
Anderson grins. “With me cast as Nero.”
Osman cites “poverty” as a factor in cleaning up, while Anderson attributes it to the “huge wakeup call” that was A New Morning: “When we realised we were in danger of betraying our audience, that’s when we really started to say ‘OK, we’ve got to do things differently’. That’s what’s been so exciting about coming back, trying to rewrite our own history. To say we made a couple of mistakes towards the end, but that wasn’t how it was supposed to be.”
Both have fonder memories, too. Though Anderson claims to still have “psychological scars” about how his public persona became cartoonish and out of his control – “like the ventriloquist dummy in the horror film that has its own life” – he recalls the first flush of success as a once-in-a-lifetime rush. “That cusp of going from being on the dole to being on the cover of the NME, that’s unrepeatable,” he says.
“There’s an amazing side to it of finding a world of people like you,” Osman says. “With Suede there was this sense of people coming out of the cracks between things. Playing those gigs where you saw these quite strange, kooky, individual people become a mob was always really exciting.”
Did setting themselves (rather cattily) apart from the Britpop herd cause issues when they were forced to mingle at festivals and the like? “I can remember coming to breakfast at a festival in Sweden and you forget that every f***ing band’s gonna be in the same hotel,” Osman says, chuckling. “You sit there and go ‘s***, the [number of] people I’ve slagged off here. Only pick on people smaller than you from now on’. We were fairly rude and there was a sense at the time of it being quite competitive, these little turf wars were being played out in the national press, people who lived on the same street as us in Camden.”
Some of Anderson’s more embarrassing Nineties pronouncements have come of age, however. His notorious claim to be “a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience” raised mocking eyebrows in 1993; in today’s discussions on gender and sexuality he might be applauded for such a self-aware attitude.
“You can be very bleak about the future but the sense of liberal, fluid attitude towards sexuality is a wonderful thing,” he says. “The fact that young people can question their sexuality and not feel imprisoned by it. I’m proud to have been part of that dialogue early on.”
Dig into The Blue Hour and the script finds a little – terrifying – autobiographical focus. It’s set in a rural wasteland much like Brett’s childhood home on the dark edge of Haywards Heath: “It was literally on the edge of civilisation,” Osman recalls, “the town just runs out, [his] is the last house and then it’s just the woods – if you were to move 20 yards further you were off the map”.
It’s told from a child’s perspective – losing themselves in the ring-road no-man’s-land on the classic Suede glam blast “Wastelands”, watching their father have an affair on the plaintive “Mistress” and fleeing for the big smoke with the “small town dreamers” of “Beyond the Outskirts”, a bombastic beauty destined to start a million avalanches – and is loosely linked to Anderson’s recent coming-of-age autobiography Coal Black Mornings. So are we to assume that all of this, including the story of the lonely runaway being willingly abducted in opener “As One” and the ensuing search party, is based in fact?
“No, it’s based in fear,” Anderson replies. “I wouldn’t be simplistic and say I had a lonely, bad childhood. If I was going to generalise, I had quite a sunny childhood. But I was quite neurotic and there are always shadows in the corner, I was that kind of child.”
“Everything was lurking, the shadows in the room,” he continues. “Having a child unlocks memories of your own childhood, so when I’m talking about a child in The Blue Hour, of course that child is me. It’s my ruminations on childhood, the terror, the fear, the sense of disquiet and unease, but through the eyes of the character.
“It’s an extension of the idea of Night Thoughts, these moments of terror in the middle of the night when you worry about your future, and your child’s future. It’s more a projection of your own fear.” He smirks. “I’ve been watching too many thrillers on Netflix, probably.”
A towering second-era achievement to rank alongside their finest early albums – a rare, rejuvenating accomplishment for a ‘reunion’ band – The Blue Hour is the result of Suede, along with most guitar bands, being streamed clean out of the mainstream.
“To be honest I didn’t even know there still was a singles chart,” Anderson says, ruefully. “When we made Bloodsports we thought we still had a foothold in the mainstream, and we learnt that we didn’t. That was a really freeing thing, when we realised that we didn’t have to jump through those hoops – it means you can make music for quite pure reasons. I do worry for young leftfield bands, what their platform is, it’s more nebulous than it used to be. But it was a really exciting realisation that we didn’t have to manufacture these slightly artificial pop hits.”
“The minute that we thought to ourselves, especially after Bloodsports, that we’re not going to be a sensation on Radio 1 ever again, there’s this incredible freedom,” Osman adds. “‘What can we do that no one else can do better than us?’”
The answer? To “expand” rock music, and indulge the lost art of the “album” album. “You’re always being told that the album is dead and people are only listening to singles,” Anderson argues, “but I really believe – and I might be this King Canute figure – that the album has got a place, it takes you somewhere. There are an army of people out there that love the discipline of an album, want to be challenged by listening to a record. They don’t want to just flip between songs, they want to be taken to a world for 45 minutes, they want to be transported somewhere. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Suede acknowledge that guitar music is shrinking back into its underground niche – “It’s cyclical,” says Osman. “Neil Tennant said it’s basically the 1950s all over again. You have hit songwriters and managers and gatekeepers and the artists have become their singers. It’s the music biz in retreat and trying to control everything. But there will be a generation who say ‘this is too formulaic’”. But as they plan a “grittier, black-and-white band record” next time, these terminal outsiders, as always, relish the challenges of the underdog.
“We have to work hard for it,” Anderson says. “I never get the sense that we can ever rest on our laurels. There’s certain artists that get to that point where the media simply can’t be objective about them anymore. They release a new album and everything you read about it is ‘it’s absolutely brilliant, five stars’ and you listen to it and think ‘really?’ Suede never got to that point, we were never allowed to cruise, we always have to be at the top of our game. We’ve scrapped really hard to get where we are but we’re always clinging on a bit, and that’s what makes it exciting.”
He strikes a pose, grins. “The margins have always been the most exciting and relevant place.”
Suede are lurking in the darkness on the edge of town. Hunt them down.
The Blue Hour, the new album from Suede, is out on 21 September via Rhino Entertainment