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January 2020

Strong Words, issue 16




Submitted by: Samantha Hand


Suede vocalist Brett Anderson tells Strong Words how he avoided the pitfalls of the lurid rock bio to write two critically acclaimed memoirs.

You say that one of your earliest memories is of your mother reading Beowulf to you - that's quite a high

step to start a small child on. What was going on there, do you think?

I vaguely remember it. It probably wasn't the old English version, more of a child's one. I don't think she used to read to me in Anglo-Saxon. I suppose I was hinting at the slightly off-centre childhood I had. Not that The Gruffalo or whatever existed then, but I wasn't read the conventional children's books. Our house was characterised by stuff like Aubrey

Beardsley, Franz Liszt and Beowulf, an odd collection of things, juxtaposed with it being a council house. It wasn't a conventional middle-class house on

Hampstead Heath, it was a council house in Haywards Heath, so I was trying to depict a slightly skewed childhood.

You mention the "huge influence of your sister Blandine, and how "her love of literature must have bled through as... my appetite for books now borders on the rapacious." What did she expose you to, and could you give a picture of your current rapacious consumption?

It was this brilliant deal where she used to pay me so she could read to me. I'd sit in her bedroom in the endless summer holidays, in the middle of August when we were thoroughly sick of having too much time on our hands, and she'd read me Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. She would pay me 2p an hour

to read to me. I think I got a pretty good deal there.

Would you have done it for nothing?

Probably. This is a fascinating pre-internet thing that I think about a lot with respect to my own kids, that we were bored in those days and you had to find things to do, and reading the whole of The Lord of the Rings at that kind of age is quite a big ask for kids now. What do I read these days? Classic literature, classic modern literature, Ian McEwan, Sebastian Faulks, those sort of things.

More novels than non-fiction?

Yes, but having said that, in the last few years I have started to read non-fiction like everyone else in the world. I have read Sapiens about five times just to get

that knowledge in my head, and things like Alain de Botton and the School of Life books are amazing, I find them really helpful. I tend to read non-fiction in the morning and fiction at night. I find my brain works really well in the morning and I can take in these ideas and then at night my brain needs to relax so I like to slip into a nice piece of make-believe. But as we all know, novels are also non-fiction in lots of ways because you are learning about the human condition and getting inside people's heads.

There's a paragraph in the second book in which you are describing the writing of some lyrics, and say "I remember sitting outside on the balcony in Moorhouse Road smoking and hammering away on my old, portable typewriter.” Did you always fancy yourself as a potential writer?

I probably had some sort of schoolboy fantasy, a romantic image of myself sitting there with a cigarette dangling out of my mouth with a manual typewriter. But no, not really. I don't think I ever wanted to be one of those writers, in fact I deliberately didn't read for a while to make myself deliberately... less literary?

Less literate? I didn't want to be put in that little Morrissey-esque niche. I wanted to be free of that and tried to avoid it for a while, and make the lyrics a bit more primal and teenage. I didn't read a book for many years.

I am thinking of the way teenagers fetishise writers like Jack Kerouac or Hunter Thompson. The urge to imitate that kind of archetype can be quite powerful...

That's a kind of trope, isn't it? The romantic, dissolute, damaged writer. There are parallels with the artist, the Van Goghs, the Frida Kahlos, these kind of damaged geniuses. People need to believe there is some sort of danger to creativity and I think it is pretty much complete romantic nonsense, to be honest.

You write of how "For anyone who grows up on a diet of rock biographics... the iconography of recording studios assumes a thrillingly familiar lustre."

Who was in your diet of rock biography?

That's slightly misleading. I never liked rock biographies that much. Some have filtered through that I liked, the Julian Cope book, and the Lydon books are great because I love him. But I find it

very predictable as a genre. One of the motivations was to write a different kind of rock biography and subvert the genre a little bit in my own quiet kind of way. At the point where most rock biographies

start, I decided to finish Coal Black Mornings. That was quite bloody-minded and amused me a lot. I didn't write about the stuff people wanted to hear about,

and then when it came to the second book I did the same kind of thing, but in a different way. Of course, it covers the period that everyone knows me for, but I

tried not to write a gossipy, clichéd kind of book. I tried to write about myself as a cog in a wheel, a laboratory experiment in a way - "look what happened to me."

And I am not aware of other people who have done that. There are books that are written by outsiders, by cultural commentators about these processes that happen to people within the machinery, but I am not aware of books written by the actors themselves, and I thought that was quite a fresh way to look at it.

You describe the urge to write a lurid rock confessional as a "garish impulse." 

Were you driven more by a therapeutic motivation? Was it important to hear yourself say it or write it out loud?

It was. I genuinely found these two books really helpful. I am really glad I did them now. There was a point with both of them where I had finished a version and thought, “Do you know what? I don't want to do this or deal with all the shit that comes with it." And there was a real pivotal moment where various people

had to convince me to do it, and I am really glad that they did. I've learnt a lot about myself and without sounding like I am in some therapy session, it

has been very helpful for my personal development. So just by looking at yourself and your family you learn things by filing them. It is that thing where you

are reading a book and think, "I know this”, but it is great that someone else has said it because it makes it real. You can kind of order these things in your head by putting them down on paper sometimes.

How do you dodge the twin whirlpools of an obliterated memory and self pity when writing about drug addiction?

The dangers of self-pity are exactly what I wanted to avoid. I wanted to avoid the misery memoir, but at the same time make it real. It was a tricky path to navigate and hopefully I have done it in an interesting way. One thing I didn't do was mention any proper nouns with respect to drugs because as soon as you do that, you allow it to be taken out of context and it is going to become clickbait, be put somewhere else and suddenly take on a life of its own. I wanted it to remain in context and then people would be able to judge it fairly for what it was. So it is a tricky thing to write

and talk about with originality, without it becoming some sort of salacious story of destruction and dissolution.

When the band is starting out and you are comparing yourself to other groups you say, “I just know we can do better than this.” Did this confidence in your

ability also help you along in writing the books?

I think every artist has to believe that. That is what gets them through every project. There has to be a certain amount of blind faith and hubris involved in it. You've got to believe that what you are doing is good, and that sometimes becomes magnified into arrogance, but it is the same kind of principle. You want to make your mark and do something interesting, original and vital that people respond to. It is what every artist does - seek validation on some level.

You mention two books that contributed to lyrics for particular songs: Martin Amis's London Fields, and Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square. Why did these two books do such a job on you?

Me and Justine (Frischmann, former girlfriend) read London Fields a lot and it became quite a central book in our lives. I suppose lots of the worlds I was writing about in the early nineties were influenced by both of those books, looking at London as quite a seedy, salty

sort of place, full of that sort of grubby underworld and celebrating it to a certain extent. Like the world of Dickens very brilliantly captures all the love and poison of London, that whole thing of looking at London as this complex, cauldron of paradoxes with success and

failure, and everything that life has to offer condensed in one huge melting pot.

One of the inescapable themes of both books is the unrelenting meteorological and environmental grimness - it rains so much it's as though you have a personal microclimate of terrible weather...

Yes, I have a black cloud following me above my head...

At the beginning of the second book you mention “The peeling walls ... crumbling... damp... mildew... fungus”, and that's just the first sentence. Why this fixation on things being wet and mouldering?

It establishes a tone. You can look at a room and say, “Look at this beautiful cornicing, look at the lovely south west aspect," or you can look at it

microscopically and see the mildew and realize the wallpaper hasn't been changed. It depends what tone you decide to use. It is the colour you decide to use in your painting. Are you going to paint it predominantly orange or blue? I decided to paint it rainy grey. That was my backdrop to the worlds I was talking about. And let's go deeper. I didn't want the tone to be celebratory. The first sentence of Coal Black Mornings is, “This is a book about failure," and I wanted to continue that tone into the second book even though it was set ironically against a backdrop of success. I didn't want to talk about the clichés of success because I can't think of anything more boring than a rock star talking about how many drugs they have taken or how many people they have slept with. I wanted it to feel more real and for the reader to imagine themselves there, even if they haven't been privy to those things. And I don't find that with most rock biographies. I find them quite elitist. And the raininess and dreariness was a tone I wanted to adopt in order to get that message across and make them more relatable.

You mention writing in such a way so as not to become clickbait or Mail Online headlines, but how has the permanently embittered social media reacted?

I have a healthy distance from the "permanently embittered" social media, so things just filter through. The response has been pretty good, I think. But my favourite review - I think it was about Coal Black Mornings - said, "What a load of rubbish. It's all about him! One star.” It made me laugh out loud. IT'S A

MEMOIR FOR GOD'S SAKE! What do you want it to be about? I wish we could put it on the back as a strap line.

Will there be more?

I don't think so, no. I feel I have explored enough of that period in my life. A tiny bit of me wonders whether it would have been better not to have published the last book. I have found out a lot about myself, blah blah, but I think it might have been cooler to leave it with Coal Black Mornings and finish when the band got signed. I tried writing a bit of literature and was quite pleased with it, and then parked it for a bit and revisited it and thought, no, you're not a novelist. So maybe that is best for everyone involved.

You've made you position on music books quite clear, but is there one that stands out for you as above all others?

No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs - that's my favourite. I love Lydon and everything about him. Also Patti Smith's, Just Kids. I thought it had an interesting, askance

view of everything, and I liked the way she didn't give people what they wanted. Just a couple of paragraphs about making me Horses, and then some other stuff.

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