The MOJO Interview - Brett Anderson
Submitted by: Hagar Itzikson
THE MOJO INTERVIEW
With Suede he blazed a trail for Britpop before hard drugs and callow HR set in. But now band and singer have put "preening" aside to tackle life's big questions. "I have stuff to explore," declares Brett Anderson.
Interview by DANNY ECCLESTON • Portrait by MATTIA ZOPPELLARO
BRETT ANDERSON GLIDES INTO THE WEST London offices of his PR looking immaculate: perfectly pressed black trousers, shiny black pointy boots, slate-grey shirt and 48-year-old hair that, if it has been dyed, has been rendered expensively, unobtrusively. Some people are described as sharp-featured; with its pointy nose and razor cheekbones, the Suede singer's face looks like it could still do you a mischief.
His group are enjoying an unlikely renaissance. Shelved after 2002's malformed A New Morning album advised the jig was up for the former Britpop pacemakers, the quintet have been slowly clawing back their reputation, a 2010 reunion tour spawning a fine comeback album, 2013's Bloodsports. The latest, Night Thoughts, is better still: a satisfying, episodic set that recalls a time when Anderson's vampiric flamboyance drew comparisons with Bryan Ferry and his group's intense, dramatic rock marked them out as a more alert and glamorous alternative to US grunge and UK shoegaze, before the disaffection of gifted guitarist Bernard Butler during the creation of 1994's epic Dog Man Star album knocked them down but not quite out.
At a time when British indie was its own soap opera, Suede played their part, with one member — Anderson's girlfriend Justine Frischmann — having already stolen a scene, jilting the cabbie's son from Lindfield, Sussex to take up with Damon Albarn from rivals Blur. By contrast with his heartier proto-Britpop peers, Anderson's combination of coyness and vainglory made him a polarising presence in the mid-'90s music press — drawing flak for lyrics and interviews that played games with sexual politics in an era that was beginning to prefer these things in black or white. Others he alienated with merely a pout or a flick of his floppy fringe ("There was a lot of preening," he now concedes).
The Anderson sitting down with MOJO today claims to be much changed: humbler, more thoughtful. The father of two sons (one three, another, a stepson, 11), he certainly seems more inclined to mock himself or admit fault, in dry M25 tones that make you think of comic Jack Dee until the flash of a wolfish smile reasserts the naughty rockstarness. The boyish quality that faded in the later '90s as an enthusiasm for narcotics led him into addiction to smack and crack and seemed to kill something in his eyes has made a comeback along with his band. Clarity has been restored.
"The reunion shows were really educational for us," reflects Anderson as we settle down to talk. "We had forgotten what we were. It's kind of odd being in a band. It seems so obvious to the fans and to casual observers where you're going wrong. But when you're in the thick of it..."
Night Thoughts embraces a later life stage. That always looked likely to be a problem for Suede, because your songs were so dazzled by youth and what it meant to be young...
Yes. A song like So Young [from Suede, 1993] is about the joyous ride, the arrogance of youth, and When You Are Young [from Night Thoughts) is coming from someone who isn't young any more. Then I Don't Know How To Reach You is almost from my own father's perspective, addressing this fear of losing contact with his son. Parenthood gave me something to access that wasn't this over-Xeroxed version of what Suede songs should be about. It's awakened all these memories, things I haven't thought about for 30, 40 years. Just lifting your kid up under his arms, I felt this ghost doing the same to me.
What kind of relationship did you have with your own father?
That's a pretty huge question (loughs). My father was quite an eccentric man. He was a classical music obsessive. He used to drive to Franz Liszt's birthplace every year - Raiding in what's now Austria - pick up a piece of soil and wear it around his neck in a phial. Drove there in his Morris Traveller. It used to rattle the whole time, had mushrooms growing in the woodwork. How he got there and back I have no idea.
When I was little we were close, spent a lot of time together. He was possibly reliving the childhood he never had; his father was a military man, very strict, quite aggressive. But when I became a teenager we clashed. He'd play Wagner, the Ring Cycle, or Hungarian Rhapsody really loud downstairs. Upstairs in my bedroom it would be Crass, Do They Owe Us A Living? If you stood on the stairs there would be this mad hybrid of the two.
Do you remember what the first music was that really entranced you?
The first song I can remember thinking was really beautiful and amazing was Wuthering Heights, Kate Bush. My sister bought the single. I can see the label now: the big red EMI on the orange background. After that it was the Sex Pistols - which felt like my own thing. Growing up in the suburbs, these things take longer to filter through, and by the time I'd actually heard them they'd been and gone. It's like receiving the light from a dead star.
Why the Pistols?
The songs are great - it's a simple as that. The iconoclasm of the Pistols was important of course, but they've survived because the songs are fucking brilliant. John Lydon's a genius. He sounds like a Dalek, it shouldn't work, but it does. They're still probably the greatest band ever. Later, The Smiths were massively, hugely important, and still are, for me. I loved that the songs were about weakness as a strength. It was an inversion of rock cliché. It could be attractive and sexy to be poor and weak.
The ad you eventually placed for a guitarist that Bernard Butler answered mentioned The Smiths, Lloyd Cole And The Commotions...
...Pet Shop Boys and Bowie. And we said something like "no musos, no beginners". Because we knew we'd end up with a bunch of guys in sleeveless T-shirts - the Denmark Street brigade. We wanted to imply that we weren't that sort of band. Bernard said he'd been scouring the music press for years and that was the first time he'd wanted to reply to anything. Lucky he did. He was heaven sent.
What were your first impressions of him?
Very quiet. Very young. He was either late teens or very early twenties. From a very different background. I had a flat in Highlever Road, North Kensington, where we'd rehearse, if you could call it that - me and Justine [Frischmann] and Mat [Osman]. We used to call ourselves The Perfect. It was a bit Lilac Time-y - all part of the development! We were quite confident, university backgrounds, and even though I was from a council house, I suppose you could call me aspirational middle-class. Then there was Justine's wealthy background. Bernard was very London. Catholic working-class, a different sort of kid. But obviously incredibly talented. A wonderkid.
Bernard's playing freed Suede. The arpeggios, the flighty stuff... It wasn't earthbound. No one else sounded like that.
No one else could sound like that. No one could really play like Bernard. The complexity of what he could do - sometimes I struggled to get my head around it. It would frustrate me even, but I suppose in turn he learned to simplify what he did a little bit. But where he would go with the chords would be extraordinary.
What turned Suede from one of a million bedroom bands into a group that could achieve something?
The key thing was Justine leaving the band - that was the 'before and after' moment. Even though a lot of those early songs came towards the end of her time in the band - like To The Birds and The Drowners - her leaving allowed everything to fall into place. She was very influential on us as a tastemaker - it was almost her main job in the band - but she wasn't exactly essential as a musician, although she went on to do something amazing with Elastica. Mainly, she didn't like a lot of the songs I loved. Bernard and I wrote Moving and Pantomime Horse on the same day, and we played both to her, and she loved Moving and hated Pantomime Horse, and l’m like, "But this is the kind of song I want to write! If you don't like this, maybe you shouldn't be in the band." "Well, maybe I shouldn't..."
You'd split as a couple before she left the band. Were a lot of those early Suede songs about that?
Absolutely, yes. There are many, many songs about Justine. Possibly all of them (laughs). Well, the first album especially, and the B-sides. When you're in a relationship you're... not numbed exactly, but life's easy, isn't it? Splitting up with her gave me an edge as a writer because I suddenly felt I was back in the shit again. I'd come from the shit and I was plonked back in it. But it gave me something to write about - the loss of something. Romantic loss - when you're in your twenties there's no greater loss; there's little sense yet that there are other, possibly worse ways to lose people.
Writing about sex was part of what was unique about Suede and was inevitably one of the things that were picked up on... Did it occur to you that your lyrics would be pulled apart like that?
No, I don't suppose it did. I was taken aback by the response, which was quite prudish in some quarters: '0o-er! He's singing about sex!' Did I just wander into a WI meeting or something? One of the things I was doing as a writer, which was where people decided to mistrust me, was inhabiting different personas. So when I sang about "he", it was possibly me singing as a woman singing about me - which is what My Insatiable One is. For me that's what created the frisson, that was exciting for me. But it got me in trouble later...
The line that's always quoted back at you is “I’m a bisexual who's never had a homosexual experience..."
Yeah, the line that will be written on my tombstone. Oh, God...
Losing your mother in 1989 must have been very upsetting, but do you think it freed you to write about things that you would have thought twice about before?
That's a point I have ruminated on. 'One's mother' is always a presence, isn't she? The fact that she wasn't around, I did feel that I didn't have any boundaries about what I could talk about, what I could write about, how far I could push these things.
The first album was a big success - Mercury Prize winner, fastest-selling album by a British band to that date - but Suede quickly appeared to want to go further, and Dog Man Star seemed to be all about that. It was extraordinary, but also cataclysmic in terms of the story of the band. How soon was the rift with Bernard visible?
It was clear from the start that he was a different breed. The potential for schism was always there and perhaps the fault line had been papered over. As the band developed and the camaraderie in the group developed, I kind of ignored that schism. But success, money, drugs, touring, they test you, test you in the extreme. Touring America was a big thing - a big test. We were partying every night. No idea how to tour without virtually killing ourselves. It was on that tour that Bernard started to drift away. The rest of us were enjoying being in America, enjoying being in a band. But it was very painful for Bernard, at a time when he had a lot of personal stuff to deal with - his father was dying - and by the time we got back to start making Dog Man Star, he was travelling separately. We cancelled a load of dates at the end of the tour because frankly it was a fucking nightmare. We had to go home or the band was going to explode.
Could it have been salvaged?
Yes. I think it could have been. It's probably my biggest regret in life that I didn't try harder to salvage it. It's the stupidest thing that I will ever do, because the relationship between me and him was something special, and with all due respect to everyone I've worked with since it was a special partnership and we made some pretty special music. But at the time I didn't know how to fucking do it. I didn't know how to reach him. And I was sick of it, I was fucking sick of it. The whole experience was unpleasant and part of me just couldn't be bothered any more. It was like, For fuck's sake, if you don't want to be in this band then don't be in this band.
The day after he was gone, how scared were you is about the future?
Bizarrely enough, I didn't have that panic. There was even a bit of relief. I was glad that this dark, dark time was over. I think we were very confident - a confidence bordering on arrogance that I've had throughout my life. Looking back, it's completely misplaced. Just like the whole idea of becoming a musician in the first place. It's sort of ridiculous, I know, but I thought we'd find a way.
Are you just not someone who doubts himself?
I am now. But in my twenties, no, I wasn't. There's been a lot of self-reflection since then; I am a very different person now. I look back on that person... It's like, in your twenties you think you're going to live forever, don't you? There's this concept of death, but it's like, that's what happens to other people.
Finding Richard Oakes saved the band, but it can't have been easy for him. In early interviews he seemed quite nervous about what he'd let himself in for...
...And I don't blame him. I'm amazed that he dealt with it in the way that he did.
Was that transition well managed?
Yeah, I think so. Looking back it was a very brave, possibly stupid decision to choose someone so young, but at the time it didn't seem important. His musicianship was all that mattered, but he was rather thrown into the fire. Recently he said that joining Suede was simultaneously the best thing and the worst thing that ever happened to him. It was perfectly put. It's not an opportunity you could turn down, but at the same time it tore his life apart. I'm amazed he's not a more unbalanced human being after going through that.
Between Dog Man Star and Coming Up you missed out 1995: Britpop's cash-in year. It must have been frustrating, but in hindsight. not a bad year to be hunkered down?
I agree. I didn't want to be part of all that. I thought it was very ugly and I think hardly any of the music made that year has any worth. There's a lot of awful, awful, quite cynical music that was made that year. I remember we toured Europe and took Manic Street Preachers with us as a support band, and we felt like deposed kings (laughs) living in exile, in Cologne...
Coming Up was a powerful vindication. Were you making a conscious attempt to reclaim lost ground?
Oh God, absolutely. I was very conscious that having a new guitarist playing Bernard's lines wasn't a comeback gesture. It was a struggling-on gesture. So it was essential that we wrote a new album and I wanted it to be a bright pop record.
Dog Man Star was such a dank, overwhelming experience - I don't think I could possibly have made another record like that straight away - and for everything I've said about Britpop I'd be a liar if I said the Zeitgeistwasn't somehow seeping into me. It was an exciting time and [multi-instrumentalist] Neil [Codling] joined and the dynamics changed and it felt like a very different band, and obviously that band is still around today.
After Coming Up the drug use spiralled, and you got into the hard stuff - heroin and crack cocaine. You've said in the past that you almost saw it as part of the mission - to explore the far reaches and open up some doors... Did it?
I don't know. I often wonder if Suede's music would have been better or worse without drug-taking. It's a massive question. The father in me says that it would have been much better if I hadn't taken drugs. But a little bit of me... I sort of viewed my life as an experiment - an experiment in order to write songs. I'd go through any emotional situation to sort of drag that out of myself. So it didn't matter to me whether I was happy or well or in love or healthy or any of those things.
But the experiment went too far...
...It went too far, and turned into something that wasn't recreational. It was... a drift into hell. And it massively affected the records. Head Music directly - because 1998, when I was writing it, was the darkest time for me as a drug user, when I was very, very at the edge - and A New Morning, in that I'd given up drugs by that point but I was still in that place where my judgment was really skewed. I was confused about what record we were making. I wanted it to be heartfelt, unpretentious, but it ended up sounding like a bunch of demos.
How much did you endanger yourself? How close did you come to clocking off?
Very, very close. I'm lucky to be here I think. And I'm still worried about the consequences - what it's done to my body. There's a voice in the back of your head saying, You shouldn't be doing this. But it's a small voice, and you silence it. Then it gets louder and louder and louder and louder and suddenly you have a moment when you wake up and you're at a crossroads.
What was your moment?
(Pained) Oh God... It's horrific. Look, I don't want to talk about that actually. Sorry. I can't go there.
OK. But can I say that as a fan it was disappointing to see the bands of that scene fall into that trap? Heroin nearly destroyed Suede, Pulp, Elastica... It was like a kind of plague.
It’s funny how [hard drugs] grow and establish themselves. When the whole Britpop thing started you'd have never thought that it was going to become druggy. It felt ideologically opposed to those kinds of rock'n’roll clichés, but it's like the clichés just... bled through. But you're right, it did kind of kill the whole thing. But maybe the whole thing needed to be killed.
How much was Neil Codling's illness [myalgic encephalomyelitis] a part of Suede's late-'90s malaise?
A big part of that downward spiral. Neil had been so much part of Coming Up, his persona as much as his musicianship, and Head Music was supposed to be a keyboardy record - that had the consequence of making Richard feel sidelined, which I also regret. But suddenly Neil announced that he was very ill and couldn't really engage with the record. That threw another element in with the drugs. A cocktail of bad... luck.
You struggled to sympathise, initially...
I did. It was a strange thing. ME is a complex condition. There's a discussion as to how much of it is psychosomatic. But when you're in a band there's a lot of pulling your socks up and just doing it. There's a lot of dull grind and there's a bit of me, the bandleader, who just wanted him to get on with it, and yeah, I suppose I wasn't as sympathetic as I could have been. I probably didn't deal with it right. But Neil leaving the band was a very, very hard thing to happen. I remember when he left, it felt very bleak, and the loss of that band identity carried over into A New Morning and how we fell apart.
You called time on Suede after A New Morning. Did you think that that was it?
Yes. I really did. I couldn't see a way back into Suede at all and I kinda didn't want to go there. There was no long-term plan to reform the band. A New Morning was such a disappointment to me on so many levels, especially as a writer. How had I got myself into a position where I allowed myself to release this? How has this happened?
You went back to Bernard Butler to do The Tears record...
At the end of that period with Suede I was unhappy, watching it fall apart, and looking back to the time with Bernard thinking, "Fuck, that's what I should be doing." It sounds disrespectful to Suede, I know. It's like a relationship, isn't it? I'd expected Suede to come to an end for a while, but I hadn't sat down with the band and told them until quite late on. I'd already gone through my period of mourning. So calling Bernard wasn't me immediately jumping into bed with an old flame.
What had to be said between the two of you to make that possible? Did you rake over the old ground?
No. I didn't want to do that. I didn't want to start this process of apologising for things I'd said in interviews - where do you end with all that? So we drew an imaginary line and said, That's in the past. We both acted like dicks, let's see what we can do now. And that whole period was really lovely - we were mates again. It was 2004 and I'd go up to Bernard's house and sit and write and hang out, go out for sandwiches and wander around Crouch End. It was lovely. A bit like being in early Suede. All the bullshit was put over there.
Did you hope that would carry on?
I did at the time. I'm not sure what didn't work out about it. I think there are some good songs on that record, but I don't think I quite stepped up. Some of the lyrics are a bit lazy. I was slightly over-deliberately not writing about the kinds of things I was writing about in early Suede.
You were de-Suedeing...
A little bit. I was avoiding the murky side, still a bit in the New Morning phase. There are some good melodies. Autograph is a good song. Apollo 13 is a good song. Bernard's playing was great and his ideas were really cool. I don't really know what happened. We started writing another couple of things but I don't really feel like he wanted to make another record...
Didn't you schedule some shows, then cancel them?
(Slyly amused) Yeah, we did.
Was that about somebody not wanting to play those shows?
Yeah. It was about somebody not wanting to play those shows.
Kind of. We didn't do the dates and it kind of fizzled out. Not that we were very clear on where to take the second album... I think to an extent we were still chasing the chart, and chasing the media on that record. I suppose I was still living a bit in the '90s. The Tears was trying to be too poppy, not pushing it left-field enough.
Between 2007 and 2011 you made four solo albums. Is it fanciful to suggest you couldn't have made Bloodsports and Night Thoughts without going through that process?
I'm actually really proud of the solo albums. There's a massive development. The first one (Brett Anderson] is kind of flawed, actually very flawed, maybe two good moments. I like what we did with Wilderness, really stripping it back. And Slow Attack is a fine record, I think. That was me saying I could make good records again, and that led to Black Rainbows. Both of those I made with Leo Abrahams, who's an amazing musician. The plan was to make five solo albums - not sure what happened to that.
What needed to happen between the members of Suede for you to make Bloodsports?
Just the touring and playing together. Going into the studio without that would have been a disaster. We needed to play all those old songs and let them seep back into us. Breathe in and breathe out, and remember what we were good at. I wanted to be in rock band again. I'd missed that. It was nice making the solo records, but it was quite lonely. I didn't really like being the boss on the tour bus. Maybe that doesn't fit with the clichéd persona or whatever but I don't particularly like being the alpha male. I like the equality of bands.
What do you think your clichéd persona is?
Well I know what it is, because there was a Twitter impersonator [@reallybanderson] who kind of nailed it: this vain, preening twat... which is probably what most people think I am.
Is it utterly without foundation?
Well they say there's no smoke without flames (laughs).
Where do Suede go next?
I'd like to make another record. I think I have stuff to explore, which is exciting at this stage in my life. Night Thoughts feels like a point on the path - the path to somewhere. I have no fucking idea where.
WE’RE NOT WORTHY
Mike Joyce nearly joined Suede. He’s still a fan.
“I saw their ad for a drummer – ‘Smiths-influenced’ – and called their manager. I said I sounded like Mike Joyce, but better! I played a bit with them, but said they didn’t need The Smiths thing hanging over them. Bernard was an extraordinary guitarist and Brett had this great intensity and desire. I just knew they were going to be successful.”
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
Three faces of Anderson, by Danny Eccleston
THE DAY JOB
Suede, Dog Man Star, NUDE, 1994 ****
Suede's finest, most ambitious album indulged their epic instincts, but it didn't go far enough for guitarist Bernard Butler, whose Eddie Hazel reprise on The Asphalt World shows where his whims may have led, while the more succinct melancholy of The Wild Ones is Suede at their very best. Butler didn't make it to the end of recording, leaving the rest of the group to soldier on.
BACK TO BERNARD
The Tears, Here Come The Tears, INDEPENDIENTE, 2005 ***
You can't go home again? Flying into the arms of Bernard Butler after the demise of Suede, Anderson argued otherwise via the soaring pop of Autograph. Butler's Spectorian surges and melodic abandon take regular flight but Anderson often sounds like he's holding back. "When we're together, the world smiles," he sings on Co-star. However, stayingtogether again proved much harder.
THE SOLO SELECTION
Brett Anderson, Slow Attack, BA SONGS, 2009 ****
Eno mucker Leo Abrahams provides sparse, modal arrangements (lots of piano and wind instruments) on Anderson's third (and best) solo album, a self-conscious trip into a zone once inhabited by Mark Hollis of Talk Talk. On songs inspired by environments as much as events, and pushing his voice to the place where beauty and sadness cosy up Anderson delivers what amounts to a great winter album.