"God, I used to be a complete animal"
3-9 November 1999
Submitted by: Hagar Itzikson
‘GOD, I USED TO BE A COMPLETE ANIMAL’
Out on the road, we discover the truth behind the Curse Of SUEDE, Neil’s illness and, erm, swimming
Mark Beaumont (Words)
Tom Sheehan & Steve Hall (Pictures)
You’re handed your cache of compulsory hard drugs, strapped into a surgical smock and face mask and led into the dressing chamber. To your left, in an alcove of velvet drapes and burning torches, Neil Codling is resting in a water tank sarcophagus, metal probes in his brain, tended by scantily clad sexgoth nurses. To your right, Mat Osman, Richard Oakes and Simon Gilbert feast on crack-flavoured pasties, not talking to each other.
And ahead, seated expectantly in a throne made of pure cocaine, Brett Anderson pulls a hypodermic from his eyeball and extends a weak, trembling, malnourished hand to be kissed.
"So you're our new plaything," he warbles, licking his lips with a three-foot-long tongue. "Off to the dungeon with you. I will deal with you later."
And as a dozen greased transsexual gladiators in chain mail lead you away, chanting, “’Ere we f***in' go!" in bad cockney, you think, "Ah, this is exactly what I thought it'd be like on tour with Suede..."
Except it isn't, obviously. Instead, in a dressing room in Brighton containing nothing more sinister than a jar of runny honey (for Brett's "throat"), Mat Osman stops talking to his mam long enough to show us his trouser trick.
"They're the first trousers I've ever found that actually fit me," he grins, "but I had to turn them down. Look."
He fumbles with some straps at his ankles and, within seconds, has his kecks neatly hoisted almost to his knees, swinging a foot above his heavy boots as if about to go paddling in a bucket of anthrax.
"It's a new look," he says, modelling for his band-mates, "I thought we'd try it out onstage. You will all do it, won't you?"
"Oh yes," says a besuited Simon. "we'll do it tonight."
"Except," jokes a very healthy-looking, actually-walking-about-and-everything Neil, "we'll be doing it at the very last minute."
They laugh. Yes, actually laugh. And they don't even stop when the door creaks open and Brett strides in, friendly and shamelessly displaying the symptoms of his newest addiction. Toned biceps. Healthy sparkle in the eyes. The tell-tale damp towels dotted around the room. The rumours are all true, then. Brett Anderson is hooked on chlorine.
"I've been swimming a lot," he admits brazenly. "I've been on a health kick for about the last nine months or something."
"It's a pain in the arse," Mat interjects. "He keeps waking me up at eight in the morning with: `You coming swimming?'"
Brett tuts: "They're a bunch of f***ing wasters, they really are. A couple of gin and tonics the night before and they sleep in until nine."
Mat nudges him: "He says he can give up the swimming at any time..."
Brett suddenly scratches feverishly at his arms, a worryingly convincing impression of the strung-out junkie of legend. "Just a couple of lengths, Mat!" he yelps, face scrunched with wild laughter. "Just a couple of lengths!"
High spirits, high jinks, not particularly "high". An amazing state of affairs for a band so recently returned from one of the most harrowing tours of Asia in living memory, which Brett claims was "brilliant", despite a formidable catalogue of catastrophes. After Suede's 1999 tour of Asia, neither Suede, nor indeed Asia, will ever be the same again...
It was late July, in Indonesia, that the Curse Of Suede first struck.
"It started off in Jakarta," Brett recalls, ticking off the disasters on the tips of his fingers, "when there was all this stuff happening in East Timor, so we had to cancel Jakarta before we even went there. We went to Japan and I was packing my things to go to Taiwan and our tour manager knocks on the door and says there's been this huge earthquake. So we stayed in Japan for a couple of days..."
"Then we left there and the hurricane hit Okinawa," Mat continues. "And we couldn't fly to Hong Kong because…"
“No, hang on," Brett interrupts. "What about before that? As we were taking off for Bangkok, there was that plane that came off the runway."
Mat: "That was when we landed at Bangkok."
Brett: "And we actually saw it - a plane literally off the runway when we were landing. There was nobody hurt, but it was quite a big deal."
Mat nods: "You fly in and suddenly there's a hundred fire engines on the runway. So the hurricane hit Okinawa and we couldn't fly to Hong Kong because of the hurricane. And what else was there?"
He ponders for a second: "Oh yeah, there was that nuclear disaster in Tokyo just as we left."
"It's strange," Brett muses. "Literally every part of the world we went to, something would happen either where we'd just been or where we were going to. It's the eye of the storm phenomenon. The eye of the storm doesn't get affected, but everything around it does."
You're bad luck, aren't you?
"Basically," says Mat, "if I was in charge of a country, I wouldn't invite us in."
Brett laughs: "I wouldn't want any of my neighbours to invite us!"
Mat: "We could be used as a weapon of mass destruction."
And while they laugh, they know where their story is due to end. At the point, one day in Australia, where all the flak of human misery flying around their periphery finally hit them head-on.
On October 2, Suede flew into Brisbane to play the Livid Festival. The next day, as the band were preparing to fly to Vietnam, Neil Codling, recently diagnosed as suffering with ME, fell ill. Sufferers of this potentially debilitating illness may be able to work for substantial periods or they might be set off by the slightest exertion and need lengthy periods of rest to recover. Hence Neil, on the advice of doctors, was forced to tell the band that he couldn't complete the final two dates of the tour.
"He just got absolutely exhausted," Mat explains. "He was literally white and he had to go home. We talked about what we could do, if we could continue, but it was more important that we got him home so he could get some rest. It was a really full-on tour, we were travelling every day, getting on a plane in 100 degree heat and by the end we'd started playing hour-and-a-half-long shows."
"One hour 55 in Hong Kong," Brett giggles. "It's practically Bruce Springsteen! We're gonna start having a mock doctor come on and pick us up again! Neil just has to watch it. He has to allocate his time properly and we just pushed it a bit too much, which happens on tour because you live out of a bin and your life goes upside down. He's fragile at the moment and needs to look after himself."
Were there any warning signs?
"It's happened to him before at the end of a tour," says Mat, "but what's happened before is we've pushed it and got away with it. He's gone home and rested for three or four weeks. This time it didn't work out that way. We've just got to be a bit careful - it's down to us as much as him. He works really hard and always wants to do it. It is just touring that sets him off. He's getting medical help and we've just got to see how it goes."
Brett sits up, bolstered: "All I can say is we're well over the worst of it. He's been ill for a long time. He's virtually back to normal now - he just has the occasional slip-up, like in Asia. I don't think it's a huge worry to him.
"We've a lot more resilience now, as a band. We've been through quite a bit and there's not much that really gets to me any more. We used to be quite fragile, but now crises appear and disappear and it's par for the course. You just get on with it."
No other band on Earth "get on with it" as spectacularly as Suede. Beneath shimmering alien spacepods with luminous tails, Brett bounds and shimmies the Brighton Centre to its knees. As masters of their craft and benefactors of an officially prescribed Suede Sound (to add to the list of Suede People, Suede Drugs and Suede Sexual Acts), it's the sheer breadth of their "musical tapestry" (copyright your dad) that dazzles.
It's the Quo stomp of "Elephant Man" next to the billowing fragility of "Wild Ones" and "Saturday Night" next to the classic glitter'n'amyl-rush panache of "Beautiful Ones" or "Electricity" or "Animal Nitrate". It's a blinding retort to the critics who took one listen to "Head Music" and wrote Suede off as the back end of a one-trick pantomime pony.
"It was quite disappointing that certain elements of the press decided to pick on one side of the songs," Brett agrees, at a backstage aftershow populated by friends and family (including Brett's dad!), "in that there was probably a bit of an over-use of my lexicon. The album was a lot more than that. You know how opinions become fashionable about things? Well, all of a sudden the fashionable opinion about `Head Music' was that it was over-repetitious and that got really boring after a while."
One track that was particularly singled out by the Self-Plagiarism Police was new single "Can't Get Enough", largely because Brett blatantly reprises the "A-wooo-hoooo!” yodelly bit from "She". A self-parody?
"You'd just call it a trademark," Mat argues. "Michael Jackson goes 'Oooh' in every f***ing song, that's a trademark. It depends whether someone wants a stick to beat you with."
And what about this line that goes, "I feel real now/Walking like a woman/And talking like a stone-age man"? Is this a veiled attack on Barry Humphries or what?
"Yes," Brett deadpans. "Who's Barry Humphries?"
Never mind. It's an "I can't bleedin' cope with my drugs/lifestyle/crippling swimming habit" song, isn't it?
Brett nods. "Yeah, that's exactly what it is. I'm in a position where I can write a song looking back thinking, `God, I used to be a complete animal.' There's a lot of drugs stuff in there, but it's about everything as well, about being insatiable. I suppose the subtext is that it's a sort of rewrite of 'Lust For Life'."
Only with a hell of a lot more desperation.
"Yeah." Brett grins. "That's a pretty good summary of Suede."
Mat sinks back in his seat, considers his 10 years of riding the dips and peaks of the Best Old Band In Britain.
"Yeah," he chuckles eventually. "'Lust For Life' with desperation."
ME has forced a rather nocturnal lifestyle upon Neil Codling. During the day, when not travelling or posing for photo shoots, he dodges interview duty to conserve his energy for that evening's fop-pop blitzkrieg. However, after a blistering second-night show in Newport - Brett fired up to near spontaneous combustion - Neil settles into a chair in the corridor outside history's most sparsely populated aftershow to guide us tentatively through his medical records.
"I didn't collapse," he explains. "I just got the bad end of a bug and it laid me out. Any time that I haven't played it's just been damage limitation really, looking after my health, and that was what happened in Australia. I had to come home and have a rest to stop it getting any worse."
Were you sad to come home?
"Yeah, for a number of reasons, not least there were new places to play and we didn't want to disappoint the fans. There was the sense that I wanted to go on and do it, but it had to be done, the decision was sort of made for us, really."
How long have you known you have ME?
"A while, and these things take a bit of a while to diagnose, so you get a bit worried about what it is. Then you get all these reasons flying around on the Internet, that I'm out of my face or I can't be bothered to play. That pisses you off. But when you find out what it is, it's a bit of a weight off your shoulders."
Have you thought much about your long-term future? It can be quite a serious illness.
Neil stammers. "There's degrees of... of... of it. And some people can be completely incapacitated by it, it depends how bad you've got it. Sometimes these things happen; you get a bug and you have to rest up to prevent it getting worse. And sometimes you can live with it and hopefully... y'know… it's finding a balance between work and rest and once you can do that you can just get better. There's no paramedics standing by. It's nothing more than something that I have to go through and I'm gonna do exactly what I can and not what I can't. It's just a personal thing and I'm glad that it's out now. I don't have to surreptitiously drop in these clues."
How might this affect your role in Suede?
"I dunno. We'll just see how it goes. I can't be prescriptive about it, really. But once we get to the other side of Christmas, then we'll be writing the next record so we'll see what happens then."
Mat and Brett wander over to lend their support, Mat supping a final celebratory beer. Neil was just talking about the future. Has much new stuff been written?
"Yes and it's all awful," grins Mat. "But there's a lot of it."
Brett nods confirmation. "We've got 100 bad songs."
"We're gonna do another album quickly," says Mat. "Two years is far too long."
Brett: "A lot of it is my fault for wasting so much f***ing time. I wasn't focused enough. The way I work is very hot and cold - I work incredibly intensely for short periods of time and then waste a lot of time. From now on I'm going to work intensely for long periods of time."
And the eye of the storm, having wreaked its devastation upon South Wales, moves on. Brett and Mat say their goodbyes. And Neil Codling - no brain probes, no floatation tanks - heads off to bed, looking forward to a long career poking a keyboard for the best band in the world. The Curse Of Suede is foiled once again.
‘EVERY NIGHT WAS A PARTY’
Suede on those early shambolic tours
Brett: “We were so unprepared. I remember getting woken up by our tour manager saying. ‘You’ve got to go on an American tour’ and I’m going, ‘Oh, I forgot about that.’ I’d have to just quickly chuck a couple of socks in a plastic bag.”
Mat: “The used to send me round to your house. They knew that if the tour manager turned up, you’d just slam the door on him. There’d be 15 people crashed out on your floor.”
Brett: “Every night was a party. But, after a couple of months, you realise you can’t do it any more. Now, I don’t ever drink the night before a gig. It’s the only way I can put on a good show, to be totally straight.”