Saturday Night Fever
18 January 1997
Submitted by: Jane Marshall
Interview. SIMON PRICE
Photos: TOM SHEEHAN
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER
Last year's resurrection of SUEDE was almost as impressive a Lazarus job as the Manics' - a Number One album, two hit singles, and the return of BRETT ANDERSON to claim his Britpop crown. Here, Mr A talks Class As, second comings, trash aesthetics and ... moving to Hawaii.
THE KILLING OF A FLASH BOY
Oh, it very nearly didn't turn out this way..."I went through a huge period of being completely down. I tend to be quite optimistic about stuff and drag the rest of the band through, but most of 1995 was a terrible low point that I wouldn't want to go back to."
Brett Anderson spins on a swivel chair somewhere in north London and fixes me in the eye.
"It was never a case of jacking it in but there were a lot of doubts in my mind about whether we could make a decent album. Cos you know, Bernard left the band and I couldn't be sure we could just pick it up again. I know that with Bernard, it was a really special band. That's something you can't just dismiss and say, 'Oh, it'll be all right.' I may be confident, but I'm not that confident. Losing a key member like that, there's a chemistry that's been destroyed."
Regardless of whether Suede were capable of coming up with the goods, an equally pertinent question was whether anyone was listening.
"I was completely aware that we'd been swept away for a while. No one was interested. It was quite annoying, really - we'd made two great albums, and people forgot about it! It felt quite unjust. I suppose that period did kick us up the arse. I've always been a believer in the power of the song, and that good music will carry you through. It's not completely true, I mean, pop success isn't just based around songs, but I know how to play the pop game, and I knew that if the writing was there, getting people interested wouldn't be a problem. And these things go in cycles, don't they? There had been this three-year period where everyone was so interested, dissecting us and hailing us, and you can't go through that without experiencing the downside. Someone left the band, and people felt they could kick us around.
"And I completely lost respect for the music business. I began to see it in its true colours, a gang of sheep who were too afraid to contradict popular opinion. In 1995, the fashionable opinion about Suede was that they're over and they're not very good. It's like, suddenly, everyone says they like the Manics: 'Ooh, my favourite album of the year.
Two years ago, they wouldn't have dared. And you're not allowed to criticise Oasis, cos they're too big. Everyone's scared, running in packs."
Well, not everyone.
HERE THEY COME...
SHE-rockers and chic thugs, bad, bored, bony, barking mad kids, electric shock bogbrush hair, glitter in their luvverly eyes, skyline swine on the circuit, Streatham trash, capital flash, drag acts, drug acts and suicides, high on diesel and gasoline, cracked up, stacked up, 22, psycho for sex and glue, skinny boys being one of the girls, the style of a woman and the kiss of a man, sticking like sick on the stars ...the beautiful ones.
These are Suede's people. Not just Suede's fans, but their absolute essence: literally what Suede are about.
"I think we've always been the outsider band. It's partly because we are a strange band: all different ages, and heights, and sizes, we didn't all grow up together at school, it's more like a collection of ... freaks, forced together under the name 'Suede'. And it's partly down to me feeling like an outsider, which I have done all my life. And I think people who feel like outsiders empathise with the songs."
Maybe because, unlike certain lyricists we could both mention, you never appear to be sneering, or even pitying, but celebrating them.
"Totally. I hate it when you see these writers being incredibly knowing, patronising... I've never wanted to patronise anyone. I never want to take a whimsical little look at someone's humorous little life. One thing Britpop did was start this trend in smug observation, and I hate that, this clever sort of middle-class take on someone else's life."
You once said that you were intent on "avenging your social class." What did you mean?
"I do feel my family has been kicked in the teeth. I do feel these generations of failure, of hardship, and what I'm doing is karma for that, maybe."
The pigs, the swine, the trash, the litter that populate Suede songs all seem to be looking for escape. But they never get very far the seaside, or the motorway.
"That's what 'Trash' is about: a sense of not being able to escape it. No matter what you do, you're always the same sort of person. You've always got odd socks, you'll always end up in front of the television eating a pack of crisps. And that song's coming to terms with it, seeing something beautiful in it, rather than saying, 'Oh, I've got to improve myself.""
There's often a very specific kind of heroic romanticism at work two lovers against the world, 'Two hearts under the skyscrapers', running away together, 'The wild ones, running with the dogs', etc. Does life ever match up to that ideal?
"Yeah. In its headier moments it does. When you're zooming around the world having fun, life is like a film. And the 'lovers against the world' element is also about the band. 'Trash' was about Suede as much as anything. It's romantic about my friends."
But the romance at play in the new single, 'Saturday Night' is of a subtly tragic kind. He's doing "Whatever makes her happy, on a Saturday night", but you can't escape the feeling it isn't making him happy. If I've read it correctly...
"Um, no. That's one of the few songs I've ever written that is quite straight. I tried to latch onto a really common emotion, taking your girlfriend out. The intention is purely optimistic. Maybe there's a sadness and a depth to the music which colours what you hear, Maybe if it sounded like Chas'n'Dave..."
"AT the start, it must have been f***ing horrible for Richard, really frustrating. His job was to imitate someone else. He finds writing and performing his own stuff really stimulating, so, for him, the main thing is gradually eradicating all the old songs from the set. In a couple of years, there'll probably be about two songs from the previous incarnation of Suede."
Richard Oakes, for his part, claims he wasn't too bothered by the karaoke aspect of the task of replacing Bernard Butler.
"If I hadn't been able to deal with that, I'd have been stupid to join."
But he's visibly more confident now. Even his hair, a henna'd bob framing little round specs, is more open. When he first appeared, he was literally hiding behind a curtain fringe.
"Well, yeah. It was petrifying! I'd never played in front of that many people before, and it's quite disconcerting to know that if they're not staring at Brett, they're staring at you. I didn't have a clue how to perform. You're supposed to learn by standing in front of a mirror. I'd never stood in front of a mirror, ever. But nowadays I like to make the gigs into this kind of intense physical experience. If I don't jump about and virtually kill myself, I don't feel that I've given enough. I probably look really stupid, but... I don't give a shit."
Any danger he poses to himself isn't half as great as that of being decapitated by a swinging microphone.
As Brett guiltily recalls...
"I hit Richard on the head. We were in this big venue in Milan with plenty of space, so l was swinging it round in quite a big arc, and I just heard this clunk, and felt the tension on the lead slacken, and Richard was lying on the floor. He had this huge bump, you know, like in cartoons? You could see it from a distance."
Like Brett, Richard is only too aware of how close Suede came to extinction.
"We were obviously teetering on the edge. If this album hadn't been as good as it is, we might have been out for good. But right from the off, we were on a mission. One or two people had it in for us, and it was good to be able to rub their noses in it. Without sounding bitter..."
Oakes is intensely proud of "Coming Up" (when he received the finished DAT, he rushed straight home and played it four times, beginning to end). But if there is a criticism to be made of the album, it's that it sounds like a Suede record. In other words, it's consolidating, rather than breaking new ground.
"I think we're breaking a lot of new ground. The difference between this record and the last one is bigger than the difference between the first two. The way it was written was revolutionary for us: chuck'em all in a room and see what happens. There were all these stories about how 'Dog Man Star' was written by post. Fine, if you want to do it like that, but for this one we had our feet under each other's desks, and on each others' sofas. A band has to work on more than the level of turning up and rehearsing and going away again. There has to be a telepathy."
Bassist Mat Osman and drummer Simon Gilbert, too, speak glowingly of a new "togetherness" in the studio.
"With Bernard, we worked separately from the rest of the band. Which is why huge bits of 'Dog Man Star' sound like a solo album. This time, I didn't want any soloism or any individual performances. It felt like a band playing it. You can't fake that."
"WE'RE not people who'll often grace the gossip columns. We don't mix with people in the biz. They're not the sort of people that we can mix with. Because we're strange, probably!"
Richard's right. You don't see Suede out and about that much around London. They're a close unit, a gang, reclusive and exclusive.
"There is this reputation that precedes us," Brett agrees, "of being arrogant, difficult, head- up our-arses kind of people. Which we're not. We probably were at one time. I am quite an unfriendly person. I need to know someone quite well but, in the music business, which is based around handshakes and saying, 'Hello, I really like your album' at parties and crap like that, all this arselicking that goes on, I really don't go in for that. I never bullshit and pretend to like someone's record if I don't. I just don't play that social game."
Richard confirms this.
"The really sad thing is, we do all hang out together! Last night, everyone was at the same pub. Other bands don't do that, it's quite unheard of. People ask, 'Don't you find it disconcerting, hanging around with older people?' No, I don't! I prefer this to being surrounded by a bunch of teenagers. Ever since I came along -probably before as well, but I don't know it's very much been a gang."
Simon is equally comfortable avoiding the spotlight.
"There's nothing worse than someone recognising you when you're walking the dog in Hyde Park, looking like shit."
He's only made the news pages on two occasions: lending his support to the campaign to raise the homosexual age of consent, and as the victim of a sickening attack when leaving a gay pub in Stratford in October, 1995. He's still trying not to let it affect the way he views humanity.
"When you're in a band, you think you're under some protective bubble. But it proved I was wrong."
Mat, meanwhile, always seems quietly amused by the trappings of stardom.
"I'm probably shallow enough to have enjoyed it for about a year. But I'd quite happily never do another interview or photo session again. We could just get another tall guy in and I could stay at home. No one'd care!! I'm the least popular member of Suede, if you read our fanzines. The weird thing is, everyone knows what fame's like now. It's not a magical thing, this late on in the century. Everyone's seen 'In Bed With Madonna', and she's properly famous. I think it should happen to everybody. Just because people treat you properly, they listen to what you have to say. There should be a rota system. The Andy Warhol thing should be made a legal requirement."
It's all very well for him. His 15 minutes were as part of "The Best New Band In Britain".
Richard had to settle for being Brett's Little Dick...
"Remember that? It was really big at one time, an orchestrated campaign against me! I thought it was great. I don't give a flying toss about what's written. I'm only in this for the music. If there's little known about me, I prefer that to people wanting to know whether I'm a Thatcherite, or whatever. Who cares what The Spice Girls think? Who cares what I think?"
OH, CLASS A, CLASS B...
ANYWAY, drugs. Given the countless dragon-chasing, pill-popping references in their songs, no Suede interview would be complete without an inquisition on the subject. Brett is wary of making a direct connection between narcosis and creativity, but believes they can create a state of mind which seeps into his work. Examples?
"Well, I think a lot of the celebratory feeling of a song like 'Trash' is the feeling you get off Ecstasy. But in a more real sense, I spend a lot of time writing after I've been on a binge, and I'm feeling quite down the next day. I leave my dictaphone by the side of the bed, because I often write some of my best stuff when I'm just waking up, so you let half a dream into the song, let your subconscious take over. And my brain would probably be very different if I hadn't taken a lot of drugs over the years. I'd probably be a lot more boring, A lot of the scattered imagery in 'Killing Of A Flash Boy', or the stream-of-consciousness stuff in 'The Beautiful Ones' - a string of words that don't have any coherent meaning that don't belong in any neat little story that starts with an introduction and ends with a punchline - come from this fidgety, uneasy feeling that drugs create."
So you're not strictly speaking, in the opium poet tradition (from Coleridge and Blake through to Morrison and Bowie)?
"No. People keep saying, 'Oh, he uses drugs to write songs.' It isn't like that. I take drugs for purely recreational reasons, because I really enjoy them. What's that film with Elizabeth Taylor? 'Cat On A Hot Tin Roof'? Where Paul Newman's trying to explain why he's an alcoholic, it flicks a switch, your brain just turns off. And that's why I take drugs, because I'm thinking all the time otherwise, and I need to let off steam."
Can you control your own intake? Are you master of your own habit?
"No. Not at all. I've got a really addictive personality. I find it really difficult to control. Because once l start doing stuff, I can't stop. I can't do stuff by halves. With drink or drugs, I'll either abstain completely, or drink myself into the ground. I don't take so much any more, but the whole of 1995 was pretty much a blur."
At the expense of your health?
"Definitely. And definitely at the expense of my looks, yeah! It's weird, looking back, because I really didn't care. I'd spent so long in front of cameras playing the image game, l just wanted to stop worrying and completely let all that go and revert into an animal."
I saw you on "The O Zone" around that time. You did look pretty f***ed...
"I think I was, actually. Looking back at TV stuff, I really had lost it But only physically. I was still really focused on what I was doing."
You've been remarkably open about your drug use...
"There's a lot of liars around. Rock'n'roll is such a conservative business, it might as well be chartered accountancy. It's full of people telling you not to talk about drugs because it's not good for your career, and people won't have confidence in you. Then in the next breath they'll say, 'l used to do it! Like, 'l used to be cool once, back in the Seventies.' But you know they're disappearing off to the toilets for a quick fix. Just be honest about it!"
...but people are still strangely keen to pin the big H on you.
Why is it such a taboo?
"Yes. I dunno, like you say, heroin's still taboo. It's still not seen as a recreational drug. The one bastion of evilness in the drugs world is heroin. I know coke and E have got evil connotations, but only in the tabloid press. Anyone who's got half a brain sees through all that. The whole Ecstasy panic really wound me up. All this misinformation, and all these people in suburbia who've never touched a drug in their lives believing it all. But the papers are allowed to tell these absolute lies, because it's for some 'moral' crusade to stop people killing themselves."
In David Bowie's "Cracked Actor" documentary, there's a scene which lasts five seconds, but says it all. In the back of a speeding limo, Bowie asks the chauffeur, "Is there anything behind us?", twitches, then sniffs loudly. How close have you been to that state?
"Drugs paranoia? Fame paranoia? Your brain can slip into the wrong gear. Being in the public eye does warp your mind quite a lot. When you're out and about, you start wondering, 'Is that person looking at me? And if not, why not?' Then you catch yourself and think, 'God, what are you doing? You're going completely mad!"
EVER TRIED IT THAT WAY...
DOES England still "drive you nuts"?
"Yeah, it does. England is somewhere I don't think I'd ever leave. It's a double-edged sword. It's like being a really bad smack addict, isn't it? You're addicted, but that doesn't mean you like it. On the first album, I almost created the Suede world, a manifesto of what Suede was gonna be. Which later became a blueprint for Britpop. I saw all these people starting to using these clichés that I invented myself, picking up on the original ideas Suede had, and turning them into this cartoon English world that I completely objected to. So I decided that I was gonna write about absolutely anything other than that Little England I'd created.
On 'Dog Man Star, I was gonna go onto a different plane, let my mind just shoot up into the sky, and write about a dream, or a Hollywood star. But a lot of it people couldn't connect with. So this time I chose just to write about the mundane world around me, and make it beautiful."
What about your other (in)famous remark: "I'm a bisexual man who's never had a homosexual experience"?
"I feel totally justified about it. It's true to say that I was very confused sexually. Even though I wasn't a practising homosexual, there were a lot of things going on in my mind, and I wasn't sure what I was. I do feel annoyed that a lot of things were taken out of context, and used as a way to get at me and say I was a fake, or whatever. That remark became the main fact everyone knew about me, and reduced me to a cartoon. But I totally know what I meant."
SEE YOU, IN THE NEXT LIFE...
IN 1997, you'll turn 30. How does the prospect grab you?
"I am, yeah. I dunno, you'll have to ask me on my birthday in September. I think everyone's scared of not being in their twenties any more. But I think the band will sort of mature with our age. I don't think we'll be one of these bands who are trying to be eternally youthful, because there's a lot of range in what we do. When I'm 35, I won't be writing songs like 'Animal Nitrate'. I'll be writing songs like 'The 2 Of Us'. But things like 'So Young' have never literally been about being young, but feeling young. You can feel like that when you're 99. I feel like I'm doing a Time's Arrow' (Martin Amis novel), and living my life backwards. When I was 14, I was a miserable old man, and now I feel much younger."
Is Suede your shot at immortality?
"I do have that feeling that the point of my life is to make records. But if thought I already had this glorious body of work that cannot be touched, I'd go and live in Hawaii or something. I've got a very strong demon inside, pushing me to go one step further. If you didn't have that sort of brain, you wouldn't make those records in the first place. When all your worldly possessions are gathered up in black binliners, and you've faded away to some nursing home... having inspired people, and made people fall in love with songs you've written, is a really worthwhile thing to do."
'Saturday Night' is out now on Nude
"THERE'S A SONG PLAYING ON THE RADIO..."
Long-serving rhythm section MAT OSMAN and SIMON GILBERT on Suede's dirty dozen (with Interventions from Young Oakes and the Brettmeister himself)
(May 1992, No. 49)
MO. "It was supposed to sound really drunken, woozy, and messy. Everyone wanted us to release something fast and vicious as a first single, but we wanted something with a bit of poise. Drunken poise."
SG: "I'm still really proud of it. And I get to start it of course, with the drum roll. I remember hearing the chorus for the first time, and thinking. 'God, I've never heard anything like it. It only got to Number 49 or something but we were really excited. 'Wow! 49!' We got sick of playing it eventually, though. We might do it one day for the fan club. Or the 25th Anniversary Tour."
(September 1992. No.17)
MO: "We recorded it really quickly, all in one night and l just remember being slumped on the sofa, 6am, listening to different mixes, and not having a clue what's good or bad any more. It's a weird thing knowing that any tiny change you make is a huge decision: it'll be there forever, on pub jukeboxes."
SG: "It reminds me of the first time we did Top Of The Pops', and it felt like we were taking off. We got really drunk before we did it because Polygram sent us loads of Jack Daniel's - rock'n'roll - and l couldn't understand afterwards why everyone was saying, Wow, did you see Suede on Top Of The Pops? Outrageous!' All my mum's friends thought Brett was a woman."
(February 1993, No 7)
SG: "Our first video and it got banned, because of the two fat people! Which turned into 'Two Gay Men Making Love', which it wasn't at all. It was quite a thrill getting those words, 'Animal Nitrate', into the charts. I remember playing The Brit Awards, and Mat throwing his bass down, which he used to do at every gig anyway, and seeing the audience's faces: What the f*** was that?!"
MO: "That was one of the funniest days of my life. Complete incomprehension. I didn't realise people could be so easily offended any more. I thought we'd reached this stage where people could assimilate anything. You could come onstage and sing about murdering children, and the executives would go (claps hands) we can sell that..."
(May 1993, No 22)
SG: This reminds me of when we first met Derek Jarman's lot. They made the video, and I really liked it, me sprawled on the piano, Bernard caressing his guitar...It didn't get very high in the charts, though, but it still gets the crowd going, even now."
MO. "It's definitely our favourite from the album, and it was a real step forward in songwriting terms. I think it's a better single than 'Animal Nitrate', but it kind of got lost."
(February 1994, No.3)
BA: The one point in our career I can actually agree it was hype that made it successful. Hype based around the excellent quality of the first album, but "Stay Together didn't deserve it."
SG: "I have no nice feelings at all about this song. Probably because it was at the time that things were going off. In this very room, in fact. I can't say much more, in case someone is still listening, lawyers at the ready. Once I'd got my drums done, I walked out of the studio and didn't come back. Things were turning a bit...sour"
MO: "It's just an all right song that got overdone. A prime example of taking a good idea and swamping it. It's a very impressive record, but there comes a point in life where you have to stop trying to impress people."
WE ARE THE PIGS
(September 1994, No. 18)
MO. "Literally no one wanted us to release this. They begged us. We should have released 'The Wild Ones', but it was bloody mindedness on our part. It was probably commercial suicide but seemed to fit the times. We were in a very strange situation, and to put out a single that sounded so dark, and was called 'We Are The Pigs' seemed cool, very apt. 'Dog Man Star' in general wasn't the most pop of records. Maybe with time it might turn into some sort of cult classic..."
THE WILD ONES
(November 1994, No. 10)
SG: "Filming the video was the worst day of my life. We did it on f***ing Dartmoor, blowing a gale, raining. In this Winnebago..."
MO: "... four of us, and six models, sitting in a Volkswagen Camper Van for 15 hours, shivering to death. Then the rain would stop and I had to go outside, pull these silly poses (holds arms aloft, mouth wide open, as if celebrating a goal) and stand completely still. I drew the short straw. It's still one of my favourite songs. If we released it now, it'd be huge, but it kind of died on the vine."
(January 1995, No.21)
SG: "The third or fourth single off an album always feels pointless. You don't even bother to ask where it's charted."
MO: "We were already writing new stuff with Richard, which we knew was great, but we didn't go round saying it, because everyone does that: 'Our next album's really amazing, it'll blow you away.' It's become meaningless. Actually, I wish we'd done interviews saying, "We're f***ed. Honestly. We just can't write. It's shit. I mean, listen to it give it a spin, but don't expect to get excited."
(July 1996, No.3)
RO: "It was just a really fizzy, exciting pop record to jump around to, To brush your hair to,' as I believe the phrase is, before you're going out."
MO: "We had no idea how it was going to be received. I knew we had a lot of fans, but the whole musical scene had changed. In the two years that we were off, we went from being the biggest cult band to being part of the mainstream, without actually doing anything. The mainstream moved, we didn't."
SG: "It was on daytime radio all the time. Capital picked up on it, and they'd never played us before. We've got a whole new audience now who recognise Brett, but haven't got a clue who the rest of us are."
THE BEAUTIFUL ONES
(October 1996, No.8)
SG: "The audience go f***ing mad for it. You can see them waiting for the chorus: 'Here they come..."
MO: "It's one of those songs that's for everyone. It's about the band, and the fans, and everyone around us. Our records have always had a balance between joy and darkness, and that shifted a bit on this album, just because we were happier. People see it as a career move, as if we sat down and drew a graph: right, 75 per cent happiness...."
(January 1997, No.7)
SG: "A slowie! So it's not ideal for things like 'TFI Friday'...'
MO: "It's quite a mature, accepting record. It's one of those records that sounds like you've always known it. (Some maintain we always have: Nicky Wire reckons it's ripped off Elton John, while Mansun say Eric Clapton.) Well, obviously! They're two of our all-time heroes. We're going for the ancient market."
(March 1997, No.7)
BA: "It was Incredibly simple when I started it, but Richard breathed life into it with this amazing guitar line..."
MO: "Brett's original demo is worth hearing, actually. Very trippy. very slow, it kind of wanders off... But when we do it Iive, it rocks. There's no feeling like it, when you just lose it. That's why people got sex and drugs and rock'n'roll mixed up: they're supposed to be the times you just act naturally, you don't think you're not in control."
SG: "The audience reaction really surprises me. We think of it as a relatively slow one, but they start pogoing! We were in this club the other night, and the DJ played it and everyone danced, so I think we'll be all right..."
Send your design for Suede's 12th single sleeve to: Paul Lester, c/o MM, at the usual address, and the best one, as judged by Suede's PR team. Savidge & Best, will win a special prize!