Keeping It Physical: Suede Interviewed

As Suede release new album Autofiction, Luke Turner speaks to Brett Anderson and Mat Osman about being reborn as a brand new band. and the complex transactional relationship between artist and audience. Suede portrait – Dean Chalkley, live – Paul Khera

I wonder what Brett Anderson told the cabby on the way back home after Suede’s intimate gig at London’s 300-capacity Moth Club on Monday 5 September, performed at short notice under the name Crushed Kid (taxis being significant in Suede-world, after all). Did he keep up the pretence, that he was the frontman of a new group just starting out, with eleven songs that make up a debut album, called Autofiction?

Suede had planned to perform under an assumed name a couple of years ago, even anonymously joining battle of the bands competitions, as a means of firing the engines to record the follow-up to 2018 record The Blue Hour. Covid-19 obviously put paid to that idea, but the spirit endured into fruitful sessions with just the five band members hammering it out in a cheap rehearsal studio, just as they did three decades ago. The resulting record – the Suede album, that is – has been described as their “punk album”, but that’s not really all the story. If anything, it’s more of a post punk record, with all sorts of sonic nods to The Psychedelic Furs, The Cure and so on. Live, though, in that packed, sweaty venue with a PA that popped with static at the start, there was something else at play too. As I wrote in this review of how Suede lifted a Sunday night run-of-the-mill venue with Brett Anderson’s sheer grit and hard work, they’re a band with a curiously feral energy, even (with all due apologies) at their age. Post punk perhaps implies something restrained, even slightly dour, but that wasn’t the case at the Moth Club, where Anderson’s shirt was see-through with sweat after three songs, and where he spent most of the time when he wasn’t singing lurching around the stage with tongue hanging out of a lurid grin.

I was at the gig with an old school pal and lifelong Suede fan who pointed out that in many ways Suede have more in common with the rawness and balladeering of Def Leppard than the Britpop indie of The Bluetones or Shed Seven (as someone pointed out when I mentioned this on Twitter, listen to Suede’s ‘Moving’ next to Guns N’ Roses ‘You Could Be Mine’ – they’re not as far apart as you might think). This sort of glam-metal, post-punk hybrid is all over Autofiction, an album that goes deep and dissects, in tracks like ‘What Am I Without You’ and ‘That Boy On The Stage’, the complex relationship between artist and fan. And not just any old artist, but the sort of frontman Brett Anderson was in Suede’s pomp, very much fulfilling a slightly sordid, arch, snarling, lascivious role that nevertheless was never either alpha or beta male, but what we would now call gender fluid. This ambiguity is why he inspired such devotion in the legion of Suede fans who packed out the Moth Club, but also why they remain in such a unique position, always on the edge of what’s happening in the increasingly diminished world of mainstream British guitar music, yet utterly beloved by those who get it.

The performance of ‘What Am I Without You?’ at the Moth was grand and gorgeous, histrionic in the best possible way. Perhaps it’s only now, in his 50s, that Brett Anderson can almost destroy by possessing the character of Brett Anderson that he created, accidentally or otherwise, in the 1990s, the character that, with the pernicious influence of drug addiction, came close to destroying his essential self. It’s perhaps that that makes him so willing and able to delve deep into the complex transactional relationship with his audience, and to acknowledge that the creation of the character onstage is in some way an expression of the singer’s ego, even narcissistic tendencies, but also reflects that aspect of the audience-as-voyeur too. In an age of false humility and online (for which often read ‘American’) banality via memes and earnest self-expression, the honest seediness of it all is glorious. “It’s a long way to the top of the ladder but we’re going to make it,” shouted Brett Anderson of Crushed Kid towards the end of the gig. My pal turned to me and said, “Look at him! He’s so happy! He looks about 20! It’s fucking nuts!” Brett Anderson is dead. Long live Brett Anderson.

A few months prior to this remarkable night, Anderson is sat in the living room of his West London flat, making a cup of tea for myself and Mat Osman, his lifelong friend, Suede’s urbane bassist and writer of increasing repute. It’s worth noting the Anderson makes the best tea of any artist I’ve interviewed, bags of Yorkshire properly mashed, giving a sustained caffeine buzz with no astringent stewiness. Osman likes his so much that he goes back in for a second cup even before the recorder is switched on. The plan for Suede to perform under a false name came along in the early days of writing for Autofiction as the band looked to freshen things up. What was the thinking behind it?

Brett Anderson: I like the idea of being a different band, inhabiting different personas, getting into that idea of not being you and destroying the ego. It’s interesting to see what happens when you’re free from baggage and expectations. There’s a comfort zone of being in a studio, ‘Oh let’s lay the drums down, what do we do next? Oh lay the bass down,’ everyone’s sort of sitting there going ‘is it dinner time yet?’ and there’s layering and layering. It’s studio world. After three decades of doing that you get into this very comfortable way of working and we wanted to try and jolt ourselves out of that and become a new band again.

Why did you feel you had to?

BA: We didn’t want to make increasingly cerebral music. I always have criticisms of every record, I feel that The Blue Hour is a little more willfully obscure, which is brilliant as it gives you somewhere to come back from, but I didn’t want to do a Talk Talk thing where they’re just going further and further out and you get to Laughing Stock and it’s just abstract expressionism.

I’ve always wondered what would happen if Suede did that, and sort of hope you might one day…

BA: That’s going to be the next one, the complete opposite of this. We’ve already written most of it. It’s going to be the most abstract record we’ve made, with much less form to it, so not conventional song structures. Songs that are just woven together, there are lots of instrumental sections and things like that. The way I look at is if you’re in this game for the long term you’ve got to keep moving to places in order to come back from them. Making Autofiction gives us the right to make something odder which then gives us the right to swing backwards and forwards. At the end of the day we’re a working band and we’ve got to make a living out of it, and you can’t go too far leftfield. I don’t know why, I don’t think Suede are allowed to go leftfield, we’re not like Radiohead, the press won’t give us that license.

Do you worry about those dynamics and Suede’s place in the wider cultural landscape?

Mat Osman: Those experiences, your first loves in music, whether it’s pop, alternative, whatever, you want it made by people who are going through the same things as you. The only thing that’s sadder than fading away is trying to make records for 20-year-olds.

Suede have sort of created their own genre and very few groups do that – perhaps The Fall, Sea Power – there is a definable sound that the band operate within and nobody else really sounds like. Does that in a way relate to the idea that you’ve talked about before of there being a Suede palette from which you work?

BA: It’s tricky getting that right, you have to keep discovering things that are new but within your world. That’s where I got it wrong with Head Music, because I got lazy with the lyrics and that’s why it was a fuck up, it was me drifting into self-parody and thinking that the lyrics didn’t matter. It’s a really interesting thing having a lexicon but keeping that lexicon fresh. It’s a tricky balancing act.

On Autofiction, was keeping the lexicon fresh part of the idea of playing live under an assumed name?

BA: I suppose so. I’m always conscious of over-using things, and I know that more instinctively now, I know if I’m talking about "hired cars" it’s a Suede cliché. But it’s still important to stay within Suede world, there’s a Suede world that feels right. We could never ape a genre or anything like that, it wouldn’t be right would it? We wouldn’t be able to. That was always a good think about how we weren’t very good musicians at first. When we first started it was the time of indie dance and if we’d been better musicians we’d have sounded like The Soup Dragons…

MO: Become the Mock Turtles…

BA: And the fact is we didn’t get signed for ages because we were crap and so we were able to go away and become Suede, so our ineptitude was pretty useful in the end. All these other bands were getting signed and we were getting pissed off.

MO: You can hear so many bands from that era who had a single or two that were slightly Manchester and then they went back to what they were doing…

BA: It’s quite good that we were pretty shit.

But you did come up with ‘The Drowners’ when everyone else was trying to write a baggy record, and that was the creation of the Suede world, in that one song. It’s interesting that you’re going back to basics, as it were, 30 years after it was released.

BA: I’m still very proud of that song, that EP and appearing with it in 1992. It was the start of Britpop, I think, whether we’re proud of that or not it’s a fact, it lit the touch paper.

MO: The odd thing is I think that ‘To The Birds’ would fit really nicely onto Autofiction. It’s got so much of a slightly different side of Suede, the non-glam side to it, the more driving, post-punk side, it would fit as the last track on it. We’re making it sound clever how we do these things, but really it’s that every few years you want that thrill of making an up-beat, rock & roll record. When we came back and did that first gig [after Covid-19 lockdowns], there were lots of things that I’d missed about the life of being a musician, but I’d forgotten the physical sensation of being on stage and having massive fucking speakers blasting out something that’s going 100 miles per hour, it’s a genuinely odd physical sensation that everyone should have at some point.

BA: This is why you get bands that go into their 70s and 80s still playing music, there’s nowhere else you can get that. It’s odd because I always assumed that as we got older as a band we’d become more studio-based and the opposite has happened. Although when we first started playing live it was exciting I didn’t used to love it like I do now. I know what buttons to press now, in the early days it was much more volatile and I suppose that’s what made it exciting – sometimes it was fucking brilliant and sometimes it was shit, really shit, we didn’t know what the fuck we were doing. There are certain things about experience that are good, and with live shows if it falls a bit flat you know how to get into some sort of zone, you know how to make it exciting. I love playing live now, and it’s a weird experience because it’s simultaneously utterly exhausting and utterly thrilling and amazing and quite prosaic and all of those things.

MO: It’s slightly ridiculous until you start doing it and then it’s just magical.

BA: The physicality of it is something that is easy to forget when we’re sitting here talking about it because it’s much easier to conceptualise records like Night Thoughts, but we really wanted to make a physical record.

MO: There are records that you understand in the body.

It’s interesting in that the record makes me think of the first gig I saw in the reformation era, at the 100 Club, and then the Cambridge Corn Exchange in 2019, and in both it was the energy that carried it, like when you say a ‘working band’ that’s what it was, you were flogging your guts out to raise the room and it worked. Where does that energy come from?

BA: It’s fear of the night being a failure, I always want it to be exciting and I always want the gig to be memorable. The idea of standing there and looking like you don’t give a shit and you might as well be in a rehearsal room I find very insulting. It’s a heightened state, being onstage, and I do go into a persona, and I do want to make it extraordinary, and the thought of one person going away saying, ‘yeah they were alright, a bit crap’, that would keep me awake at night. I ant everyone to go away thinking ‘fuck, they were fucking brilliant’. Why not have that be the motivation?

Does this feed into a song like ‘That Boy On The Stage’?

BA: That’s an autobiographical song really, about the Brett Anderson persona, that should have been the title of my memoir.

Did having written two works of memoir make engaging with the Brett Anderson persona easier or something you were more comfortable with?

BA: Yes, and especially with Afternoons With The Blinds Drawn, that was very much about exploring the Brett Anderson persona, and recognising it. I found it fascinating to write, because I was delving into a lot of the things that I hadn’t confronted at the time. The persona element is a really interesting thing, because I wasn’t aware of there being a Brett Anderson persona until I could look back on it and recognise that there absolutely was one. It didn’t come about in a kind of David Bowie, ‘let’s create a Ziggy Stardust’ way, you just become this different person, and then you step away from the stage, but you keep inhabiting them. It feels like more of a persona now because my lifestyle is very different from the starting point of that persona, if that makes sense.

Would you have reacted negatively in the past if people had thought there was a Brett Anderson persona?

BA: I think so. The 90s was our era, and it was all about authenticity wasn’t it? The 80s was all about facade and the 90s was all about authenticity and bands in t-shirts. Obviously, we opposed that a bit but still at the same time being accused of being inauthentic…

MO: …would have been an insult.

BA: My point in Afternoons With The Blinds Drawn was that every band creates a persona, whether it’s a non-persona or not. It’s impossible to escape, even the grunge bands did it. The idea that anyone can escape a persona is ridiculous.

MO: When you do a gig you’re saying ‘I’m going to behave as the most extreme version of myself so that you can do the same’, so that people who spend all week being buttoned up and polite and going through society can throw themselves around and kiss strangers and sweat and bark like dogs, that’s the deal that we make. It’s a weird deal because neither of you can do it without the other – the audience can’t do it without the band being great and making a noise that moves you, and we can’t do it without the audience.

BA: ‘What Am I Without You’ is a love song to the crowd, not a song to a conventional lover. A band is nothing without an audience because then you’re just someone in a room singing a song. The artist is a boat and the audience is the sea, and without the audience the boat can’t float, it’s just on the floor, it needs that support. The song is a recognition of that symbiotic relationship, the contract that you both enter into. It’s something that you take for granted when you’re young and successful and part of the mainstream, ‘fuck you, I’m brilliant, everyone listens to me, I’m on the radio constantly’, but as you get older and your audience dwindles and becomes more hardcore, you’re much more aware of them and that relationship, that contract…

MO: …that you’re holding each other up. I still find it incredible, there’s that moment, like some kind of occult ceremony. There’s a writer called Zoë Howe who writes about music and witchcraft, and she talks about songs being spells, that you say words in a certain order and they change people, and that’s exactly what happens at a gig, it’s a ceremony. There’s always a moment isn’t there, we’ll come offstage and say ‘it all turned around at ‘Can’t Get Enough’’, you never know when it’s going to be, but there’s a moment when you see everyone go ‘oh fuck it, I’m going down the front’.

BA: There’s always that moment of connection, and it can happen with a big singalong or even in between songs where something funny will happen and the audience goes from being half there and a bit distracted, and you’ve got them. It’s an unpredictable, magical thing.

MO: We always know between us when it was, it’s really odd.

There was the moment at the Royal Albert Hall comeback gig…

BA: It was after ‘Metal Mickey’ when the crowd wouldn’t stop cheering. We were just bathing in this amazing feeling. I’ve seen pictures of my face during that moment, and I’ve got his ridiculous, dazed grin on my face.

The role is reversed, you’re not the conjuror any more?

BA: Exactly, it’s suddenly that the crowd is the performer and I love that flip, there’s this exchange of energy, and that’s something I try and play with quite a bit. I’ve always loved that, even with those early club gigs getting my clothes ripped off. It’s always been there.

I wanted to ask about Suede’s audience being so devoted when you started and how they are now, compared to the 90s when you were huge?

MO: There were those early tours where it was the same 40 people whizzing around the front rows.

BA: There’s definitely parallels there and I suppose it’s interesting because you can link it into the 30th anniversary of ‘The Drowners’, because it does feel a bit like that again. You could look at it as being on a downwards trajectory, but it doesn’t feel like that, it feels exciting in the same way.

Is it not more special to be a band who has created their own genre rather than some massive, generic indie band?

BA: There’s a hardcore, then there’s a whole load of people who aren’t really visible but are still our fans. In the mid 90s…

MO: That felt like a blip, when we were young and crossed into the mainstream at exactly the right angle. It’s quite odd that we were pop stars.

You never really fitted in, despite accidentally kick-starting Britpop

BA: We have a very strange relationship with Britpop because we did start it but we were always strangely excluded from it. At the height of it I don’t think I’ve ever felt less part of anything.

MO: It was literally when we took ourselves off to Europe and Asia.

BA: We did a tour with the Manics didn’t we? I remember feeling like deposed medieval kings, this whole Britpop nonsense was going on in England and the two miserable, grouch bands had gone to Europe. We were never part of that social world, I suppose because of the connections with Elastica and Justine people rewrite that history but I certainly was personally very isolated from it on.

Twenty years ago Suede would never have had TV documentaries made about you, but now you’ve had two big ones. Is there a feeling that with the first three records coming back you had to fight to get your dues, and is there a freedom now where you can say ‘we are Suede, this is what we do, we don’t have to prove ourselves any more’?

MO: There was this weird period because of lockdown and the documentaries where we wanted to come back with something that felt really fresh and a new start that wasn’t just a legacy record. So many records I hear from bands of our contemporaries, they’re like souvenirs, a tour programme, something nice to have along when you go and see them live. We spent nearly a year looking back and there was a mindset among all of us that we wanted to do something that felt like a break. I think that naturally we get easily bored and we like to burn things down and start again, it’s always been really good for us, with Coming Up, Bloodsports, there’s been almost an innocence to it, let’s start again and see what happens – like getting a 17-year-old guitarist in. We’ve always trusted our instincts that things will turn out alright if we don’t get comfortable and we don’t sit back on it but take people with us. It’s lovely having the documentaries, but I’m pretty sick of Suede in the 90s. I can’t wait for the record to come out.

Suede’s new studio album Autofiction is released September 16th. The band have announced a string of live dates, including a co-headlining tour with the Manic Street Preachers in the USA next year, visit the Suede website for more info

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today