“I couldn't hear music anymore, I couldn't understand what it was”
22 December 1999
Submitted by: Hagar Itzikson
MAKER SHAKERS: THE PEOPLE WHO ROCKED THE WORLD IN 1999
MARK BEAUMONT (WORDS) & TOM SHEEHAN (PICS)
“I COULN’T HEAR MUSIC ANYMORE, I COULDN’T UNDERSTAND WHAT IT WAS”
TRIUMPHANT V99 APPEARANCES, TRAUMATIC FAR-EASTERN TOURS. . . OH, AND SEEING 'HEAD MUSIC' VOTED THE MAKER'S ALBUM OF THE YEAR. 1999 WAS NEVER UNEVENTFUL FOR SUEDE, AS BRETT ANDERSON TELLS US
All washed up, they said. Crippled by debilitating illness, stricken with drug addiction, pursued around the globe by disaster. They pointed at disappointing album sales, at an ageing and dissolving fanbase, at an album bordering on self-parody, and they saw a thundering pop juggernaut run off the highway, direction lost, rust setting in. In the secret Masonic ceremonies of the Grand Order Of Indie Cognoscenti, the Suede file was brought forth, presented to the High Chieftains Of Cool and stamped: "Yesterday's Heroes".
Uh-errrrr! Just as Suede were settling in for a dour Christmas after a year of decapitated tours, ME revelations and dodging the critical brickbats, the Melody Maker Albums Of The Year results saunter in and declare "Head Music" as the best album of 1999 by a length of several Stereophonics. Vindication, Mr Anderson, is thine.
Brett shrugs, smiling. "It's difficult to view an album you've made so recently with any sort of objectivity…"
"I actually like it more and more," adds Mat Osman. "We've been playing live so much and things have changed so much that I put it on — because I haven't played it that much — and it's like hearing a completely different album."
"I think it could have been a better album if we'd recorded it after we'd toured it, to be honest," Brett admits. "It was deliberately not approached as a live album, and it was approached like that so we didn't make the same album we've made before — that was a conscious decision. Things like 'Can't Get Enough' could have been more live sounding, less mechanical. It's really good live. Songs like `Everything Will Flow' and `Savoir Faire'... I wouldn't record them again, but I think they're both great."
"I'm really proud of it," says Mat. "I came back to it after touring and that can sometimes be a bit of a blow, because you're used to playing stuff really fast and loud and you hear the album and it sounds really weak. But I didn't find that, it's got a bit more depth. And I'm really proud of the range of it as well. There's not many bands who would have an 'Everything Will Flow' and an `Elephant Man' next to each other."
Brett: "It doesn't suit every mood you're in. You can kinda dip into it."
Were you frustrated by the lukewarm-bordering-on-Arctic critical reception?
"As a musician, I was quite frustrated," Mat says, "because I thought the music was really interesting. I always forget that when most people hear music they hear Brett singing and a noise in the background. You'd play it to someone going, 'Listen to this! We've never done something like this before!' and they go, 'It sounds exactly the same!'"
"Most of you is just proud of it," Brett continues. "A lot of reviews picked up on the lyrics, the over-use of my lexicon. But the lyrics on the songs weren't supposed to be the be-all and end-all of what the songs were about. That's why I didn't print them on the album sleeve, they were just written in scrawly handwriting. That was a deliberate thing, because I didn't start the songs from a lyrical perspective, they were written around sonics, and that was the big leap for me, personally. But as people saw me as fundamentally a lyricist or whatever, I was disappointed in lots of people's interpretations."
Perhaps if the meta-Suede stomp of "Can't Get Enough" had been the first single, the critics might not have been deafened by the sound of a dead buttock being flogged?
"I originally thought that 'Can't Get Enough' should've been the first single off the album," Brett admits through gritted teeth. "I didn't think 'Electricity' was the right choice for the first single. It wasn't my favourite song on the album, to be honest. But there's a million other things you have to think about when you're making these decisions, and sometimes you have to leave them up to other people. When it came to choosing the first single, I'd literally been in the studio far too long, I didn't trust myself. We let someone else decide, because it was as though I was deaf. I couldn't hear music any more, I couldn't understand what it was."
Mat: "And after the massive success of us choosing 'We Are The Pigs' as a single..."
"Exactly!" Brett guffaws. "What happened there, right, we put our feet down big time. That was a big stand — we said, `"We Are The Pigs" has got to be the first single!' I was visited by all these suits going, `Please, Brett, no! Let's have "New Generation", pleeeease!'"
Plagued by critical animosity and tip-toeing around the news that Neil Codling had ME, it seemed like Suede spent 1999 on the run. No sooner was the album on the shelves than they sped off to play every long-haired European rock festival, consolidating their continental fanbase, while sending long-distance mortar singles into the Top 30. There was no British tour until October. Scared of us, were you?
"Nah, not at all," Brett says firmly. "That's the last thing we were. We were chomping at the bit to play here. We couldn't wait for V99. Every gig we've done in the UK this year has been exciting. V99 was ridiculous. It was purely to do with contracts. It's been quite frustrating because people have assumed that we were ignoring the UK, but it's been nothing like that. Our hands were tied by contracts.”
Mat: "It was a bit unfair, to be honest, because by the time we'd done about six or seven festivals, everything was sounding really good, and we just wanted to get back to England."
Brett: "It was purely a business thing. It had nothing to do with anything else, except that we had already agreed to do V99. When you do big festivals like that, there are restrictions on your own tour dates."
Forced into contractual exile, then, Suede took refuge among the mysterious pleasures and dubious smells of the tour bus. They chased hurricanes around the Far East, dodged nuclear disasters in Japan, skipped over war zones and met Australians, but they truly felt at home while crowded around Michael Stipe's four-track.
“We toured with REM and they were brilliant," Mat enthuses. "They were playing 30 songs a night and changing the set each time, playing stuff they'd never played before. Then they were writing new stuff in the soundchecks. And they had a little studio set up in the dressing room."
"They were a really open band," Brett grins, "really friendly, inviting us to pop in and contribute stuff to their four-track recordings. It was a spirit of invention, being constantly creative and constantly inspired. That's how I want to approach the next Suede album."
And so it comes to pass that, after one of the most tumultuous years of their career, Suede emerge stronger, cleaner, more appreciated and intent on "doing an Ian Brown".
"I've been taking singing lessons," Brett admits. "I don't want to get to that point ever in my career where you think you know it all. I always wanna be at that point where you think that the more you learn, the more you don't know. You can always get better at things and you can never get jaded. With that in mind, I've started taking piano, guitar and singing lessons. Not necessarily to improve myself in those fields, but to keep thinking about things. There isn't a tangible end result, it's just to stimulate yourself."
That's Suede in a nutshell right there. Album of the year. Band of the decade. Stimulation aid of the century.