SUEDE born to be wild
Submitted by: Becky d'Ugo
We're in a photographer's studio, hidden away behind the Old Street roundabout in that kind of tacky light-industrial London immortalised on the cover of “Ziggy Stardust”. Outside, sodden card-board boxes lie decaying gently on the pavement; inside, Brett Anderson I lounging on the sofa. This is something he does very well. Indeed, when Suede choose to make their massive-crossover-in-the-States album, it will not be called “Born To Run” or “Born In The USA” – nor even “Born In Hayward's Heath”. It will be called “Born To Lounge”. Elsewhere in the studio, amongst the usual trays of half-eaten sandwiches and out-of-date glossy magazines, is a Jones carrier bag filled with Brett's personal possessions - booty picked up during a whistle-stop promotional tour in Europe and the States - including a box labelled The Simpsons 3D Chess.
Behind the sofa stand the rhythm section. Inez, the photographer, wants Richard Oakes - Suede's new guitarist, the replacement for Bernard Butler, and the 17-year-old with most pressure on him in the country at the moment - to move slightly; but she can't remember which one he is.
“Er... Simon... if you could just..."
"He's not Simon," says Simon.
"He's the new one,” says Brett; and then he offers a helpful mnemonic:
"It's easy," he says, "new one, old one, tall one, cool one."
“Ah, but which is which?" asks Mat, as if he didn't know.
Brett sighs. “He's the new one,” he says, pointing to Richard, “he's the old one," pointing to Simon, “and he's the tall one," pointing to Mat. So that would leave... um... ah, yes, of course.
SUEDE HAVE A NEW ALBUM to promote. Not just any album. Suede's new album is the second most difficult “difficult second album" ever (the Stone Roses retain pole position in that particular event). And just when the band had got their sophomore effort neatly on to tape, and could feel quietly confident that it was strong enough to hold off the backlash, then guitarist, co-songwriter and man-most-closely-associated-with-the-Suede-sound Bernard Butler upped and left. And, as a football commentator would say, that leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
But before we start answering (or perhaps avoiding) those questions, let's just remind ourselves of The Things We Already Know About Suede... Let's see now: Brett and bassist Mat Osman get together in dismal post-suburban Hayward's Heath (it's in the middle of Sussex, nestled halfway between the charmingly-named villages of Cuckfield and Uckfield). Brett's friend Justine (soon-to-be-in-Elastica) joins. Bernard answers an ad in the music press. After initial flirtations with a drum machine, Simon Gilbert joins on real drums. Justine leaves.
Suede are, at this time, pretty dismal. However, ignored by the media, they work at their songs until, magically, they are transformed into the Best Band In Britain. We know this because the Melody Maker tells us so in an April 1992 cover story - before they've released any product whatsoever. Cautious as ever, the NME waits until the band have releases one whole single before slapping them all over its cover.
Next... Brett smacks his botty with the microphone on Top Of The Pops while promoting, oh, one of their first three singles, which are about as amazing as the first three singles released by The Sex Pistols, or indeed The Beatles – or anyone else who's well known for having released three great singles in a row. Suede's eponymously-titled debut debuts at number one, and goes gold on the second day of release.
As the inevitable backlash looms, Suede release “Stay Together". Both NME and MM make it Single Of The Week, and so the we-made-'em-and- we-can-break-'em contingent have to content themselves with giggling over the fact that The Cranberries were doing better business than Suede on their joint American tour.
So what else do we know about Suede? We know that Brett favours the androgynous non-gender-specific lyric, as patented by Bowie, and honed down the years by Morrissey, Neil Tennant and Michael Stipe. His most cited quote is “I feel like a bisexual man who's never had a homosexual relationship”; however, a more revealing comment on his sex life might be another quote: “When you're actually involved in sex, when you're going through the motions, you're thinking, 'What am I doing?"" Uh-huh.
And we can bring ourselves bang up to date by mentioning Bernard's departure (acrimonious, of course; creative differences, certainly; legal constraints slapped on all parties, inevitably) and rumours of serious drug use by Brett (who, apparently, has graduated from dope to cocaine).
So, where are we? Sex... drugs... musical differences... and rock'n'roll. Yup, all present and correct. In fact, maybe – just as Primal Scream have got the classic rock sound down a bit too well – so Suede may just have got the classic rock image down a little too perfectly. This nagging feeling that they know all the right buttons to press, and exactly what order to press them in, would make it quite easy to dislike the band, except that they will keep on writing great songs. They're especially good at that chord change that says: OK guys, the verse is over, here comes the chorus. (And, hey, I'm busy, you're busy, it does no harm at all for a band to make it absolutely clear when the bit that we can sing along to is coming up.)
Suede's second album, “Dog Man Star”, contains even more great song than their debut; they should be able to pull at least four or five singles off it, so you'll be able to judge for yourselves. Brett's voice has improved too - more “Lady Grinning Soul” than “Hang Onto Yourself".
A COUPLE OF DAYS AFTER the photo shoot, Brett arrives for our interview at his record company's offices. It's the morning after his 27th birthday. He's late, he's tired, he's carrying the suit he bought for himself as a birthday present because it needs altering, and he's sniffing furiously and noisily. Obviously there is one pressing question that I must ask on your behalf.
.So, Brett, where did you get the Simpsons chess game from?
“Oh, I picked that up in Sweden when we were over there doing press." he says. “I had a game the other night, actually, and I won - which is the first chess game I've ever bloody won."
Sadly, it turns out that the phrase “3D chess" is misleading; this is not a version of Mr Spock's favourite game; the "3D" merely alludes to the fact that the Simpsons figures are three-dimensional (like, what else would they be?). So... um... how are the Swedes?
"They're all very quiet,” says Brett. “I did this press conference where there were 40 people jammed into this room and about one question was asked. They were all too scared. I'm just sitting there: Well? Come on. They were just completely scared. A nice lot, though, the Swedes.
"In Germany they always go on about the politics. They always ask: what are the politics of your band? I suppose 'cause you get all these European bands who haven't got any talent but are strongly political – song titles like “Smash The System'. I always say, 'It's the politics of life, maaaan."
With the American press, Brett has noticed a healthy change of emphasis. "When the first album came out they were really wary of us: 'So you guys are the English fags, right? So you guys are all gay? That's your angle?' No, that's not our fucking angle.
“But now with the second album there's much more respect for us. I think a lot of people have lost their barriers towards us now, probably because we've been able to physically make it to the second album, let alone the fact that it's quite good. People assume when you get a lot of press that you don't really exist outside the land of press. So with the first album it was like we didn't really exist. What's happening now is quite a nice breakthrough really - something I've been waiting for for quite a long time. I feel quite robust, quite different from the first phase.
" The new album, unsurprisingly, deals with the shock of sudden stardom (the title “Dog Man Star" alludes to the rapid rise from media jokes to rock gods), with special attention paid to the downside of fame. I wondered, on a scale of one to ten, how well Brett thinks he's handling being famous.
“Er... ten," he decides after the merest moment's hesitation. "Yeah, if handling it is being comfortable with it and it not fucking you up, then ten. I don't feel as though I'm particularly famous anyway. I'm not Rod Stewart or something like that. That's famous. I'm not Madonna.
“Sometimes it gets to me, if I feel, like, people are intimidating me, which I did get quite early on, where people got quite aggressive, and it was quite... horrible. I actually got physically threatened once by someone. They actually told me to move out of the area or they were going to come round and... It was actually a member of another band, a band I can't be bothered to name. They were just jealous."
One track on “Dog Man Star”, “Daddy's Speeding", concerns a dream in which Brett encourages teen icon James Dean to kill himself. Since Brett is a bit of a teen hero himself right now, this seems a little disturbing. Some kind of identification, perhaps? Some kind of death wish?
"Nah, not at all. I just had some strange dream," Brett says. “I don't even know who the fuck he was, but he seems to have been quite an interesting bloke - there's something there beyond the Athena posters."
OK, but given the rock star's limited options -a) burn out, b) fade away -- which is Brett going to do?
"Oh, I'll burn brighter as the days go by," he says, laughing. “I think I'm going to get better. I'd like to be consistent. I've got no dream of being The Sex Pistols and exploding in a blaze of glory. Doesn't really interest me, that. I love music, that's the problem. I haven't really got a manifesto about what I want to be or what I don't want to be. I write songs. That's all I want to do."
Not quite all. If Brett is driven to write songs he is equally driven to perform, to communicate, to... well... show off. It goes way back.
“When I was quite young I had a sense of kind of wanting to be... wanting to be a sort of... a kind of... I don't know... not wanting to be a star, wanting to make myself noticed. I used to make myself look different. I did things like cut my own hair and make myself look really stupid. I tried to cut my hair really short once, and 'cause I cut it myself there were loads of holes in the back of it. I looked in this mirror and I actually had gaps in my head, like I was the victim of some disease. I looked utterly ridiculous. But I quite liked it because people would say, 'What the fuck's that???'"
And, from looking utterly ridiculous, it is but a short step to being the lead singer in a rock band. No?
"I actually started my musical career as a guitarist," he says. “I wanted to be the quiet one with the fringe, the quiet guitar genius, but I was never quite good enough at the guitar. When Suede first started there was Bernard, Justine and me on guitar- a complete wall of noise, a mess. We used to have a drum machine. Weird set-up. In fact, only two of the original five people who started Suede are in it. The drum machine left."
I hear there was a big row.
"Yeah, there was a big row. Astrological differences - that was the reason. There's only me and Mat left from the original line-up. I expect Mat'll be off soon - off to pursue a solo career in the world of bass. He's got plans for a solo album. Bass players' solo albums are just the same as other albums, except with the bass turned up in the mix: pom, pom, pom"
These days, Brett would have us believe, he's no longer driven to stand out from the crowd, simply to write great rock songs. “100 per cent is about making great music," he says. “I know that's very boring for FACE readers who want me to talk about how I want to be the next creature from space who's only interested in global sex. I'm not interested in that. I just love the idea of making a classic album."
Hmm. You'd be forgiven for thinking that out of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, rock'n'roll was the only one Brett wasn't preoccupied with.
"That's because that's what people ask me about, 'cause they know I'll be honest about it. Yeah, I love sex and drugs. So what? Who doesn't? But they're not what my life is about. They're like... my hobbies. It's like collecting stamps." Brett imagines how that would look on his CV: "I have an interest in sex and drugs. But I'm most interested in music. Interviewers can get what they want out of you. They can cut out the stuff about what chord sequences I like, and print the stuff about smack.”
Oh. OK, Mr Anderson, for all the wannabe Brett-and-Bernards out there, what are your favourite chord sequences? (Non-musos please rejoin the piece after the next paragraph.)
"I like G-Em-C-Am. That's a classic one. Some great songs have been written on that. "That's Entertainment', 'Metal Guru', 'Cosmic Dancer', 'Panic'. I like A-C sharp-D-E. I'll tell you what I really like... when a song starts in A minor and then the chorus is in A major. 'Perfect Day' by Lou Reed does that.
"I spend a lot of my time at the piano playing other people's songs. Classic stuff. Frank Sinatra. "My Way' is a brilliantly written song. The way it ebbs and flows. I bought the sheet music to Prince's 'Around The World In A Day'. Fucking difficult. Ridiculous chords, he plays."
But one thing Brett does like about Prince is his ability to turn out a few duff songs. "His whole body of work is like a document of his life. He doesn't try and make everything perfect. So some of his songs are the equivalent of him having a shit and some of the songs are the equivalent of him falling in love. You'll be listening to 'Pop Life' or 'Condition Of The Heart' and then the next song is some crap like "America' or 'Temptation'. Oh, fuck off. But he's completely brilliant. I do love him."
You get the feeling that Brett would like to have the freedom to turn out some crap now and then. "Yeah, but it's difficult for us now, 'cause there's so many knives out waiting for us to make mistakes that we simply can't," he says. "But I'd like to make a shit album. That'd be quite good fun. Get it out of the way. Have a shit. Nothing wrong with a few shit albums." Of course, Nirvana avoided the pressure of following up "Nevermind" by releasing "Insecticide", a scrappy mix of old songs, outtakes and other pop detritus. Did Brett ever consider doing something like that?
"Nah, I think it was important for us to come up with a really good second album. I was thinking of doing that for the third album, but that was before Bernard left. Now, I think it's very important for us to come up with a really good third album." Brett sighs. “It goes on and on and on and it never fucking stops. There's always another reason for people to get their knives out. I've got knives over me like this."
Brett does a pretty good impression of someone totally surrounded by knives, before continuing: “We always have this really high quality-control thing about everything we do. We have this perfection kick. In some ways it's to our detriment because it can make the music quite unrelaxed.
When you're striving for excellence, it does make the music quite uptight, and I'd really like to relax a bit, just ease off and make some groovy, relaxed things. I think the next album will be quite simple, actually. I'd really like to write a straightforward pop album. Just eleven hits."
"I've written a couple of good pop songs already for the next album. I've written four songs altogether. Two of them are pop songs, one of them's like Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the other one's like... er... Suede.”
AND WHAT ARE SUEDE LIKE these days? Not bad. Not bad at all. At their final rehearsal before their first gig with the new guitarist, the Suede sound is there in all its glory. The band are pretty relaxed, especially given the fact that all of Europe's rock press will be present at their gig in Paris the next day, and they will have brought their knives with them. Wandering around the south London rehearsal studio, Mat asks one of the crew to fit new strings on one of his basses, “because the ones that are on it sound...” he ponders exactly the right musical term to describe how his strings sound for some time, before settling on "crap".
"Where's new boy?" asks Brett.
"He's in the toilet," someone replies.
"Urry up, new boy," says Brett.
Richard does indeed hurry up, and the band are quickly into "Heroine", which - if there is any justice in the world - will be one of the singles off "Dog Man Star”. When Richard isn't playing he looks like a lost sheep; but as soon as he's got his Les Paul strapped on, his head down, and his hair in his face, he looks exactly like the quiet guitar hero that Brett wanted to be. Plays well too.
Richard, Simon and Mat wig out on "Asphalt World" - or "Arse-felt World", as Brett introduces it. As the song finishes, the singer looks them up and down and says, with his best Kenneth Williams intonation, “Ooh, you lot are good." And, actually, yes they are.
Later on, Mat and Simon disappear. “Where's the old men, then?" Richard asks. Brett decides they're not needed anyway - he and Richard will do "Still Life", the final track on the new album. Richard begins strumming an acoustic guitar aimlessly. "Ey up, Dick," says Brett. "Give it some welly.” Richard starts playing like he means it, and the song is gorgeous - far more affecting as a duet than with all the Scott Walker treatment it gets on the album.
As the rehearsal draws to a close, Mat has to dash off to get a passport for the trip to France. In time-honoured rock'n'roll fashion, he has to borrow the tube money from one of the crew. Simon, meanwhile, wonders whether to go looking for some new DMs.
They clearly have a problem with shoes, this band. Brett's are falling off his feet. "I have this real problem with shoes," he says. "Shoes don't like my feet. Every single pair I get rebels against them and falls apart."
Perhaps, I suggest, he needs to pop down to Clarks and get his feet measured properly. Talk of Clarks leads us naturally on to Clarks Commandos, and then to "those kind of brown shoes that looked like the sort of thing that the Hobbit would wear. Weird shapes, and always brown, and geography teachers would wear them.
"Geography teachers always smelt horrible, didn't they? Didn't teachers always have bad breath?" Brett asks. "They'd stink. Like an unbelievably bad sense of personal hygiene. They'd speak to you and - aaauuuugghh! - it took most of your skin off your face."
Once started on the theme of what sad and inadequate beings teachers are, Brett is unstoppable: “We had the guy with the saddest name - Mr Cunliffe. 'Oy! Mr Cunt-lips! 'What did you call me?' This bloke was a nervous wreck, and his only weapon was to suspend people. Every single lesson would just be him going, 'Don't come to my class tomorrow. You're suspended.''Sorry, Mr Cunt-lips.''What did you call me?'
"We had a bloke we called Wolfman who looked like a werewolf. It was a famous thing about him that he cut three of his toes off with a lawnmower; and because of that physical deformity, kids used to terrorise him. Some kids actually turned his car upside down in the teachers' car park. Just because he didn't fit in.
"I did technical drawing with this guy called Pikey Powell and he had a hunched back. God, what a hellish existence, to spend your life in front of loads of kids with a pointed back. And they're always so fucking dirty. Our woodwork teacher was this huge bloke with egg stains on his shirt... and he had a missing finger. He must have caught it in a lathe.”
So, he wasn't in the same lawnmower accident with the Wolfman, then?
"Nah, he wasn't... but, yeah... thinking about it, my teachers were a bunch of absolute physical mutants. They'd just fucking escaped from a circus or something.
"I actually went back to the school,” Brett continues, "We did this TV documentary, and we drove back there, and all of a sudden there was my old headmaster, I was 11 again, and I was shitting myself. I was really scared of this guy. Nobby Horne."
Nobby Horne? Just as I'm wondering aloud whether these were really
Brett's schooldays or whether it wasn't all just some Joe Orton play he saw once, Saul from Nude records walks in. He's got good news and bad news.
The good news is that they've found a tailor who'll alter Brett's suit that afternoon; the bad news is that Bon Jovi's "Greatest Hits” is shipping 250,000 in the first week, which will prevent “Dog Man Star” from debuting at number one.
"I didn't want to get your hopes up,” says Saul.
As for you lot: yeah, go on, get your hopes up. I said there were some questions that need answering, and here are the answers to two of them. Is “Dog Man Star” as good as the first album? No. It's better. Can they cut it live without Bernard? Yes, definitely. As for the third question - can they write a great third album without Bernard? - well, we'll just have to wait and see. Oh, and that sound you hear in the distance is the sound of knives being sharpened all over again Suede's new single, "The Wild Ones", is out on November 7. They are touring the UK again from Dec 13 through to Christmas.