Cheating The "Living Death": Suede Interviewed
, March 1st, 2013 07:01
They triumphed with their live return, and now they're about to release killer new album Bloodsports. Luke Turner speaks to Brett Anderson and Mat Osman about the fears around returning to the studio, giving up bad habits, and why Suede will always be a girls' band
I was recently looking through a set of old copies of Select magazine, which I bought religiously and regularly as a teenager. A few issues escaped my poster-hunting scalpel, and one of them was an edition from 1997, with a cover featuring Suede's Brett Anderson and Neil Codling. "I've tried everything" screamed the headline quote, and the picture of Brett seemed to prove it. Short-haired, pale and slightly stubbly, there's a worn toughness in his expression that suggests the ingestion of vast quantities of the wrong kind of drugs. Six months or so later, the band would head to Sarm studios in West London to begin recording their fourth album, Head Music the record that, according to most, marked the moment of their inexorable decline.
What a difference a decade and a half makes. Today, in their press officer's palatial Earl's Court office, Brett Anderson wears a smart leather bomber jacket and looks fiendishly healthy. He and Matt Osman, his old schoolfriend and Suede bassist, cut a raffish air, eyes slightly lined by years of misbehaviour, but possessing a rather defiant twinkle.
Twinkle as well they might, for Suede have avoided what Anderson will go on to describe as the "living death" of being a revived band wearily plodding around the world and playing The Hits as a kind of travelling indie disco a la Pixies. Instead, they've made Bloodsports, an album that's very Suede (lots of shagging, tricksy romance, histrionic guitar pop) and then something rather new, more focussed than anything they've done in years.
Osman says the band wanted to make an album that went some way towards capturing what it felt like to be back together to "make a fucking racket onstage" for their triumphant reunion gigs three years ago. The bassist says he assumed Suede would come back and make something more mature and reflective - "thank God we didn't," is Brett's retort. There's a tough ferocity here that Suede haven't had before, largely because the album was written for two guitarists (a first for Suede since their earliest days when Justine Frischmann was in the band). Rather than the instrument-swapping approach of their previous two albums, Anderson, Osman, guitarist Richard Oakes, drummer Simon Gilbert and keyboard player and second guitarist Neil Codling were back in defined roles, rather than contributing here and there. Bloodsports is a fantastic record by England's most contradictory band - loved by some, derided by many, still "the best British punk, rock n roll, sex-pop-glam band of the past 20 years" as I described them in NME a couple of years back. Yet how close did we perhaps come to there never being any more new Suede material?
Was there an element of fear going into this? When did the moment click when you thought 'let's do an album'? Was it because you didn't want to be playing old material?
Brett Anderson: We definitely didn't want to be doing greatest hits round and round, that's just a living death. We definitely wanted the band to have a contemporary currency, for want of a better word.
Mat Osman: I think there was a completely different point between 'let's start writing again' and 'let's make an album'. We started writing in the knowledge that it might not work, in the same way as we did the Albert Hall gig with a huge question mark hanging over it: will this work? You can't assume. We wrote and threw away a lot, and we soul-searched before we were sure it was something that we were going to do.
BA: We still weren't sure until quite late whether we were going to release it. Even after we'd written a few really good things we still only had half a record, and we thought 'this is quite hard', as every album is. It wasn't until we wrote 'Barriers', for some reason that song glued everything into place. There are often songs that are tipping points when you make a record, and for some reason that song happened at the right point. Then suddenly we had a record.
'Barriers is a classic Suede song, a 'Trash' or a 'Drowners'... did you go into the studio thinking 'that's what we want to do, that classic Suede pop music'?
BA: That's why 'Barriers' is a key track for me, it sounded like Suede but it sort of didn't sound like Suede, and it sounded like we'd moved on and it was a nice point between those two extremes. That was the whole trick of this record, coming back after ten years of not making an album. It needed to sound like a band, but it couldn't possibly sound like self-parody. That's why we discarded so many songs, it was like a new band starting over - you don't hear half their new songs when they first get together. We needed to have this brutal sense of what or wasn't good enough.
MO: There was a lot of stuff that got almost up to being a song and then disappeared the next week. It was a fairly brutal system... here's another one you won't be seeing again. It was The Somme for songs.
I think in the Q interview Mat you said it was like writing a debut album all over again.
MO: It is. I don't know if we're different from other bands, but I look at a lot who have come back after time away and they generally come back with something moribund and dead. I think it's partly because you think you can pick up where you left off, and perhaps some bands can. But we just couldn't.
You talk about it being hard work and throwing stuff away, is this the most self-critical you've been as songwriters?
MO: And not just self-critical, because we had Ed [Buller] there as another level of blistering criticism.
BA: Ed was brilliant because he was really brutal about it, very very honest, but exactly what we needed. This is what Ed does really well, he marshals the troops really well. He's a brilliant people person, and he's an especially brilliant people person with Suede. For some reason it just works, he inspires us and knows how to get the best out of us by a mixture of the carrot and the stick.
MO: Quite a lot of stick.
How about going back to Sarm Studios where you did Head Music, was there a bit of trepidation going back there as it didn't always work for you as a place?
BA: There was actually, because I'm quite a superstitious person, so doing things like that - I don't like it. But I also have this double superstition that I can beat it, it happened with the Albert Hall, because the first time I played the Albert Hall I didn't really enjoy it, but the second was the best gig we ever did. I'm aware of a sense of battling against these superstitions, so yes you're absolutely right. Do you remember Richard had his birthday there last year, and he said the last time he was there had his birthday there was 1998...
MO: An awful, awful day...
BA: There was a very different mood in the band then. Neil was suffering, he was probably at home in bed with ME.
MO: No-one was there, that was the thing.
BA: I was there in a sense, but not really there in another sense. Dark days when we were making that album, the darkest period of the band in a funny way. Being back there did have a double edge to it, but it felt good as well. And it's round the corner from my house...
MO: ...let's be honest, that sealed the deal...
BA: ...I had to get back to fix the dinner.
Although the record is really fierce and has a load of energy, it doesn't feel as if you're trying to recapture past glories. It sounds like it should do for a bunch of people who are where you're at in life. Not wanting to say wisdom of age....
BA: ...definitely not wisdom...
MO: I think some of the music sounds youthful and brash, but there's a nice change in the lyrics, they've grown up a bit.
BA: I was very conscious of what I learned with Head Music about self-parody in lyrics. That was a huge mistake. By using phrases that I'd used before I was trying to take attention away from the lyrics and put it on the music. I was using the lyrics as these blank things to create song structures, but of course people focussed on them instead, the weakness of the lyrics as a stick to beat me with. That was a huge learning curve, I still read about the 'house' and 'mouse' line as confirmation of me being a shit lyricist, as if I wasn't aware of the stupidity of rhyming like that. It was stupid to use it, perhaps. You live and learn. I realised that the music can reference Suede, but the lyrics must not. Definitely no using any of my "skyline", "hired car" lexicon.
MO: I think that's a real shame, because personally I love it when artists and filmmakers tie their work together, someone like The Hold Steady where over eight albums this cast of characters and these phrases recur. I think it's a shame that you have to be aware of that, but we're not making these records for ourselves, they're for for the rest of the world.
It's nice to hear someone say that
MO: I've always thought that the strangest thing I've ever heard is that 'we're making music for ourselves and if anyone else likes it it's a bonus'. Why did you fucking release it then?
BA: It's bullshit
MO: The whole point is to become part of people's lives. The records that I love are so tied up with moments in my life and people in my life because they're there to hook into you, and talk to you. We're making music for other people, and if we like it it's a bonus.
BA: ...which we often don't.
When it came to writing lyrics again after your solo albums, was there a difference in how you were doing it?
BA: I specifically didn't want to write any of the music for this album. The band wrote the music and I wrote the vocal melodies and the lyrics because I wanted it to be a band album rather than me writing a couple of piano songs and wedging it in there. I wanted a strong band identity. That was the whole point of reforming the band and making an album. I respond differently to the music that Suede make than I do to me sitting at the piano and writing a song, so immediately there's a tension, a sleaziness, a deviance and a transgressiveness to it which i possible don't have when I'm writing solo stuff.
Why do you think Suede brings that out in you?
BA: I dunno... Suede songs are hard to sing. I respond to the energy and sing at the top of my range. It brings out a different demon in me. When you're making solo records, I was always very conscious of drifting away from the Suede thing and writing about a different side of life. But writing for Suede again means I can quite happily write about all these murky little corners of life. I don't know why, but Suede presses these buttons in me. All the songs are about aspects of relationships. The album was conceived as a journey from the start to the end of a relationship, taking on all the points in between - suspicion, obsession, infatuation, co-dependency.
The album title, Bloodsports, was a good title considering that Suede write songs about shagging and relationships...
BA: It's a wry look at the endless game of love, the fact that it's got blood and sports in there together, it sums it up, a slightly cynical look at romance.
There was one particular line "I'll take you through the male mistake" that struck, felt very honest and a very direct analysis of masculinity that you don't often get in pop.
BA: It's pointing out the weakness of the man. I've always considered women to be much more evolved than men, and looked at most men I know, including myself, and think 'God we really are an inferior breed, sitting talking about cars while they're sitting talking about love and relationships. Can't I be at that end of the table?' The whole androgynous aspect of Suede in the early days wasn't a sexual thing, it was an aspirational thing, I'd like to be more like a woman emotionally, so I'm going to wear a blouse... and by doing that getting it completely wrong in a linear, male way.
MO: Very early on there was a Britpop club on Oxford Street, and the fliers had all the bands who were played, Oasis and stuff, and at the bottom it had this little thing saying 'sorry girls, no Suede'. I always remember that with real pride, and I always liked the idea that that we might be a girls' band.
Are you still a girls' band?
MO: I hope so, I really do, because when I think of the opposite, the lad's band, you don't want to be that, the theme to Top Gear.
Did you feel that, like with the gigs, you had a point to prove?
BA: Absolutely. We didn't want A New Morning to be the last Suede album. We wanted to say 'we can actually do this well'. It's always been like that with Suede, we've always had a point to prove. It's never a thing where we can coast, and when we have coasted it's gone wrong. I see other bands and they just seem to coast and for some reason they manage to stay together and people don't kick them to death. For some reason, Suede always have to be at the top of their game to work.
I wanted to ask about this. Right from the beginning, people have had it in for you. Everyone wants you to fail yet nobody has emulated Suede, which is quite exciting - you wind people up and nobody has managed to rip you off, which seems like a sign of success. Why do people find you annoying?
BA: The only reason I can think of why we polarise people so much is the press hysteria we had at first. It was a phenomenon.
MO: For a lot of people who love Suede we're their favourite band. If people really love you, then it means that if other people don't like us, they hate us. It's as simple as that.
BA: We never made comfortable music. Listen to them musically, they're always awkward. The softest thing we've ever done is something like 'She's In Fashion', but all the hits are [adopts high-pitched tone] MNNEEEEEE WRRRRRR, they're all melodic but the vocals... it's mainly to do with my singing. I'm a massive Sex Pistols fan and I've always loved the edge that we had, and I suppose I'm always trying to put that into the music. I think that's the way Suede songs work best, where it's not too comfortable in the vocal. I'm an ambitious writer but I'm not technically the world's greatest singer, so trying to achieve these vocal ranges grates on people, but that's the way it is. It's got its own personality and I'm proud of that.
There's an element in the indie realm in your peers or what's come since where it's very casual, you can turn up, drink loads of beer, hug your mates, fall over, but you don't have to have much engagement...
BA: I've never liked that whole attitude, I've always felt very separate, always felt that this is something that should be taken very seriously and it's not just a social event.
MO: When we started off, because we were pushed into this position very early on we were doing things that other people weren't getting to do. We were a kind of band that wasn't really around at the time, there's not a lot of bands who sound like us, but after we happened there was a nice kind of template and career path for a whole load of bands who came from that Melody Maker, NME world... you can be in the charts, you can be on Radio One. For us we had no idea what we were doing, and were pushing it as far as we could go, and I think that kind of ambition is quite annoying, especially if you don't like the sound of us. It's frustrating if you're anybody else. It's the way we've always been, we're quite contrary, we've always tried to do things our own way.
BA: We've never really networked. Half the bands out there are mates with each other, and we've never done that. We've never really gone to music business parties or hung out with guys at festivals.
MO: People are always asking 'do you know so-and-so', but I don't fucking know anyone.
The music is quite hermetically sealed too... it's the Suede universe
MO: For a long time every other musician seemed to fucking hate us. I find it really strange when you do festivals and stuff, and because it's not competitive in the same way you get bands coming up and saying 'I really love your band, I've got all your records'. It sounds really weird but I thought it was just real people who liked us. It's difficult to conceive now just how vitriolically small the pool of people who made up that scene was. Million selling records, and everyone living within four miles of each other and going to the same pubs. It's very strange to me now, because I was incredibly mistrustful of all other musicians, because for a lot of other people we represented... there was a very comfortable way of being in a band that got destroyed when we came along and said 'you can have a number one record without being meaningless. You should expect to be ambitious, and passionate and dramatic and still be on Top Of The Pops. That was an uncomfortable thing for a very neat little scene.
You killed indie...
MO: We killed a certain kind of indie, without a doubt.
You two have known each other for years now, what do you think has changed most about each other?
BA: What's changed about Matt? He used to wander around in his dressing gown and eat Big Soup, and now he goes on skiing holidays and drives a sports car.
MO: God, what a sellout... Brett's obviously been through about six different lives, but whatever he's done, he's always done it to the extreme. You did go through that weird thing where you went from being a drug addict to being a family man over a week, and threw yourself into it as this new phase, which I am quite envious of.
BA: I got utterly obsessed with my family instead of being obsessed with crack.
MO: So much as I'd like to say you'd changed entirely, you've not really changed at all.