How Suede Came Back From Creative Oblivion to Find Redemption
Their latest album, 'The Blue Hour', is their best in more than 20 years. Here, frontman Brett Anderson tells us where he's at in life.
Image via PR
“What’s the opposite of prickly?” asks Suede’s lead singer Brett Anderson at the tail end of our interview. “I hope I wasn't quite as prickly as last time.”
Brett has been a convivial host over the last hour, sat in the front room of his posh west London townhouse. It’s not that he’s been on a charm offensive or anything, it’s just that the last time I interviewed Suede in 2003 they broke up before my eyes. I’d been speaking to Anderson, and bassist Mat Osman, in their dressing room in ITV Towers before their appearance on The Graham Norton Show. Given the singer’s frostiness in our interview, I’d unusually requested that they return to the dressing room after they’d mimed the single “Obsessions”, to get something - anything - from Brett worth printing.
Back they came for a second interview session, though Mat later told me Brett had leaned over on the way to the TV studio and declared: “Let’s not do this anymore.” As we traversed the 70s carpets with Des Lynam and Des O’Connor looming from picture frames hung on faded wallpaper, they split up with a simple, furtive whisper.
Back in that dressing room, I was perhaps the only journalist in history to interview Suede in a paradoxical state of being and not being at the same time. Mat attempted to maintain the illusion that everything was fine, while Brett rolled his eyes and looked as though he might cut me with one of his illustrious cheekbones. “It was strange you were there at that moment,” Brett says now with a chuckle. “And it seems like such a strange thing that we split up backstage at The Graham Norton Show. There's something bathetic about that, isn't there?”
Fifteen years later, Suede have returned with their third album since that split. To recap: they came back in 2013 with Blood Sports – a return that evoked the energy of their debut; 2016’s Night Thoughts was somehow even better, and now they’ve completed the triptych with The Blue Hour – a sweepingly majestic album that, in spite of its dark content, challenging pace and at times delightfully pretentious presentation, is a feast for the ears; a record that savours the danger of the wilderness and takes you on a journey seen through the eyes of a child. In an age of eclecticism and choice, it flips the bird at Spotify with its interconnected, cohesive and conceptually-minded tracklisting. It’s an album that demands to be listened to as a whole, and what’s more it’s Suede’s best offering in, ooh, 24 years.
It’s not just an album for the band this year, either. They’re also the subject of a two-hour documentary, The Insatiable Ones. It premiered on Sky Arts last Saturday 24 November and features talking heads from Elastica’s Justine Frischmann, The Smiths’ Mike Joyce, comedian Ricky Gervais, designer Peter Saville and blue rinse favourite Richard Osman.
The documentary covers the highs (winning the Mercury Prize with their debut, and the phenomenal commercial success of 1996’s Coming Up), the chemical highs (Head Music), and the lows (A New Morning). Plus there’s the feuding and subterfuge that underpinned arguably their finest creative moment (Dog Man Star) as well as that time they recruited a 17-year-old schoolboy called Richard Oakes from Dorset to play guitar. Director Mike Christie has an embarrassment of riches to work with here, but it’s still a well put together film with a moving and redemptive conclusion.
Brett Anderson now lives in Somerset, which is perhaps why his place in London isn’t strewn with the toys of his six-year-old son, Lucian, the “muse” of The Blue Hour. It should also be noted that Anderson has written two memoirs. The first, Coal Black Mornings, was published this year and recounts his early life up to the point where Suede threaten to become successful (what’s more, it features some deliciously catty subtweeting at Damon Albarn without ever mentioning him by name). The second memoir, Afternoons With The Blinds Drawn, will be published next year, and covers the band’s experiences within the music industry up to their break-up in 2003.
Noisey: Coal Black Mornings was compulsive reading and I particularly enjoyed the portrait of your father, with all the flaws and the complexities and contradictions that make us human.
Brett Anderson: It was very important for me to get him right because he was a really quite eccentric character, my dad. He had lots of flaws, but he was extraordinary in a lot of ways, and I wanted him to come across as a real person. There were times when I thought, "Am I being too hard on him?" and I hope the sense of love came through. I don't think I could have written it if he was still alive to be honest.
So will you be writing about the ups and downs of being in a band with the second memoir?
When I wrote Coal Black Mornings that was exactly what I didn't want to write about. But I sort of found a way of getting into it. It's more about my experiences and looking at the mechanics of what happened to me psychologically.
In the first one you write about a certain person you never deign to name. You’ll not be able to do that in the next one, surely?
Well you'll have to read it to find out [laughs]. I think you can write about anything you want to write about really. There are no rules. There were things I didn't want to write about – drugs and all these unsavoury episodes – and then I thought, well that's the beauty of writing a memoir, because you have total control. I'm comfortable with everything I wrote in the new one but it's still very explicit. It's very honest.
You're very honest about drugs in the documentary. In it you say you don’t even like to say the word “drugs” because it’s difficult for you...
Not really, no. And it just takes up so much media space as soon as you mention that word, doesn't it?
What I liked in the film that doesn't get discussed enough is the madness that comes after you stop using. People assume everything is suddenly fine when you stop, but at that point you have no idea who you are or what to do next. The film captures that well.
It's interesting you should say that, because when you give up, that's just the start of it, and the whole Suede disintegration, demise and lack of ideas came about when I was clean. It came during the making of A New Morning which was the worst album we ever made and we shouldn't have made it. Psychically – I always describe it as a psychic imbalance – I'd shifted to this place of not knowing where I was. Suddenly you're bereft of an identity that you used to have, a persona, and suddenly you don't know where you are and you're all at sea.
What’s the secret to coming back and making good music again? Because with guitar bands there’s no blueprint is there?
I'm very proud of the last three albums we’ve made. I think the secret is making such a bad last album! When we split up in 2003 nobody minded. We didn't go out on a high. We weren't particularly mourned, and going into that next decade we were culturally sidelined. Whenever I read about the 90s we were left out of the whole discussion, and I thought history is being rewritten because that's not how I remember it. A lot of the motivation for making these three records and carrying on writing has been that really. I've been sort of re-rewriting history [laughs]. Just something little like that.
When you play live, you do some extraordinary things with a mic cable. Did you ever practice lassoing in a field to get it right?
I didn't, I just sort of got better at it over the years. When I first started doing it I hit Richard in the head. It was the early days of him being in the band, and we opened in Milan with "This Hollywood Life." I remember swinging the mic and he's playing this riff, and suddenly the guitar cuts out and I hear this thump and I turn around and Richard's just lying there [laughs]. There's always the danger of it going wrong. The whole mic whipping thing, it seems really… there's something sort of sinister and sexual about it. There's a sort of S&M thing about it isn't there? Probably, if you analysed it, it's got something to do with the dominatrix cracking the whip.
It’s often been said that Suede aren't Suede without Bernard Butler, and yet something seems to have shifted of late, where people are starting to appreciate Richard for how good he is.
Well that's a really big thing. I think the last three albums have been brilliant for Richard especially, and for [keyboardist and arranger] Neil Codling as well – and I think they're both finally getting respect as musicians. Richard was in Bernard's shadow and every review when we first got back always mentioned Bernard. I don't really read Bernard's name linked to Suede anymore. I'm not disowning anything we did with Bernard – I love those first two records and the songs on them, but this is a different band and Richard and Neil have really earned that respect from the fanbase.
The Blue Hour is my favourite Suede record since Dog Man Star. A lot of people have compared it to Dog Man Star but I would say it’s the anti-Coming Up.
It's as far away from Coming Up as you can get, isn't it? And I suppose the whole point of Coming Up was that it was as far from Dog Man Star as you could get. I think we've been drifting further left field with each of the last three records actually, and The Blue Hour is definitely the furthest so far. Where we're going with the next one I'm not sure yet. I have a sense that we shouldn't go further left field because I don't want to drift off into obscurity.
Suede has always been a very urban, metropolitan experience, seen through the eyes of interlopers from a commuter town. Now you’ve moved to the country, that’s changed slightly...
The last thing you want to become is a self-parody. Being this bloke tiredly chasing some version of himself that was relevant 20 years ago... It's important to evolve with your life. It's an interesting dance between these two – doing things that work within your world, but pushing the limits of that world. The Blue Hour isn’t a record about the countryside, it's about vulnerability and fear and all those things. I didn't want to portray the countryside as a sort of John Constable, nice watercolour Hay Wain world; I wanted it to be a bit more Ted Hughes.
As a new father, I can certainly attest that you capture the anxiety of parenting on the new record.
I wanted to write about being a parent, but not write about the normal things people write about when they're parents – the silly, saccharine, ‘ooh aren't I a great dad’ and all that crap. I wanted to catch some of the FEAR of parenthood! And there's so much drama about parent paranoia, A Child In Time, etc etc, but I can't think of any records about the absolutely devastating fear – the cold, cold animal fear – you have as a parent at the thought of something going wrong when it comes to your kids. On the last couple of records my muse has become my son, and he provokes extreme emotions in me, as you know as a father. The paranoia side is one side of it, and the "Life Is Golden" side of it is another side – a more optimistic view of parenthood. But yeah, it's looking for these things that excite you as a writer.
So thanks for coming back and not being crap, a state of affairs that’s surprisingly unusual.
I'm very proud of it actually. I can't think of many historical precedents. I remember when we were making Blood Sports, it was a really deceptively hard record to make. It was finding that sweet spot between familiarity and freshness. Is it Suede? Is it too Suede? Is it not Suede enough? But that was the starting point. I feel like we've earned the right to go where we want to go with this now.
You can find Jeremy on Twitter.