"I'm Stronger Than Ever, I'm Afraid"
27 July 1996
Submitted by: Inge Klinkers
“I’m stronger than ever, I’m afraid”
Look to your finest weaponry, oh exponents of dour indie blobbiness and hey, Britpoppers, make yours a large double-barrelled affair, 'cos SUEDE are back, touting new single 'Trash', and packing more punches than Gigglethorpe puppet wholesalers. TED KESSLER gets the goss on Damon, Bernard, drug-taking (or not) and bottom-wiggling. Oh, and some other stuff to do with music an' that. Debris at last: STEFAN DE BATSELIER
His Lordship checks the address of the Camden Town mews and wiggles on up to its arched gateway. As he peers through the iron gate for the right buzzer, a tune wafts over from the enemy stronghold of the pub opposite.
“Sheeeee's electric, she's got a family full of eccentrics…”
Hmmm, considers his Lordship, adjusting his shades and popping a leather-clad shoulder. Not a bad song as such, but…
He presses the buzzer. Click! The gate pops open and his Lordship sweeps into the courtyard.
No, not a bad song as such, but. his Lordship allows himself a quick smirk. Well, this is how guerrilla revolutionaries must feel just before overthrowing a complacent and lumpen dictatorship. Just when you thought you'd trodden the freaks into the dirt, the limp-wristed geeks had been assassinated and even their own General has mutinied and deserted, Suede have risen from the ranks of the damned. Hello, hello, thinks his Lordship, it's good to be back.
Why, though, does he feel that the time is nigh for his Lordship's mimsy army to reclaim their patch? Maybe it's the clothes they wear. Maybe it’s their nothing places and Cellophane sounds. Maybe it's the words they've heard and the music they play. Maybe it's their kookiness. "Whatever," ponders his Lordship, sniffing the breeze, "the time is ripe for insurrection. Good job I've written the perfect anthem for the new alienated nation."
A hand runs swiftly through lank hair as, with another superb arse-propelled wiggle, his Lordship's straightened spine shoots him out of the Sunday sunshine, into the glass office block and up its lift shaft.
And there he is, strolling purposely out of the lift with a PR aide by his side: the avenging weirdo. The fey lord of Ladbroke Grove. The opiated lizard king of W11 . His Lordship. Back with a hell of wiggle in his stride and not much flesh on his bones. Brett Anderson, pop star. You thought they'd killed him off in the last episode of Suede? No way, guy! Chop him down and the boy bounces back bigger, badder and deffer than ever! Tcha! He's the litter on the breeze, the lovers on the street, motherf--ing trash! Yo, whassup Brett Anderson?!?
"Alright?" he asks extending a hand and winking ever so slightly. "I'm a bit f—ed actually because I got back from playing this festival in Denmark with a sore throat. So I gulped down all this cough medicine I found in my cupboard and then I read the label and it said 'can cause drowsiness'. Great. So I'm not feeling very dynamic or together. Just a bit… bleeugh!"
Ah, but look at those eyes. They're not saying, "I'm shagged out and unfocused, man." They're saying, "C'mon then, you bastards! You wrote us off. You mocked us and kicked us hard when we were down. You said we were finished without the songwriting genius of Bernard Butler, that we'd just roped in a child lookalike in his place because we couldn’t face the loss. That we tried to seal a huge, mortal, gaping wound with a plaster. That we'd been left behind by the sleek pop of Britpop, had sand kicked in our face by the bludgeoning, unforgiving Noelrock Mafia, and had our pride mugged by McAlmont & Butler's brief but exalted partnership. That's what you all said. Now it's payback time because we're back and we’re stronger and we're gonna have you."
"Should we, er..." he says, thumbing his chin in the direction of the static meeting room at the back of his PR's office. "Should we, er... get on with it?"
Prepare to die, then, all you hounds basking in the warm glow of Suede-related Schadenfreude. Brett Anderson is about to bury you alive in trash.
SO THE scaremongers were wrong. Brett Anderson is the creative force behind Suede. Here's the proof: this week sees the release of their first post-Bernard Butler single and nobody can really admit that they thought it would sound half as good as it does.
'Trash', for that is the single, kicks into touch the dark introspection of their last output, the 'Dog Man Star' album, with a flamboyant explosion of space-pop guitars and high-octane Brettswail that flutters the senses, quickens the pulse and gladdens the heart like a cheap night out on expensive drugs - but with none of the grisly comedown. That was reserved for Dog Man Star'.
'Trash', instead, sounds like an anthemic rallying call to everyone who felt left out by recent trends, both musical and social, a joyous affirmation of who Suede and their admirers are. "We're traaaaash, you and me/We're the litter on the breeze," runs the addictive chorus. "We're the lovers on the street/Just traaaash, me and you/it's in everything we do... "
"It doesn't have, lyrically, the intellectual nuances of some of the things I've written," admits Brett, "and yet it's managed to distil all the things I've been trying to say since I started writing songs in Suede. It's the whole thing about looking at the stars from the gutter that I've always talked about. We're trash, what people would call nobodies. You may be poor, you may have to dress cheaply, you may not own a suit or look like Cindy Crawford but... you don't have to look like Cindy Crawford to be beautiful.
"I like the way it's got a double meaning. It could be almost a history of people's opinions about Suede, but at the same time it's about just two lovers - me and someone else. I’ve got to say that I'm very proud of it.”
There's more gloriously wired stuff to be found on their new and third album. 'Coming Up', pencilled in for a September release date - and seldom can a title be as well-conceived.
Where the songs on 'Dog Man Star' sulked around murderously in dusty corners, fed by the prosaic rock star paranoia of its singer and the self-absorbed, self-admiring and downright flash adornments of its guitarist. `Coming Up' breezes into view with a new and fresh agenda.
Gone is the epic melancholia, replaced by shiny, fat-pupiled pop. Gone too, of course, is the writing partnership of Anderson/Butler, replaced largely by a new songwriting alliance of Anderson and Butler's young replacement, Richard Oakes - although two of the songs are written by Brett and new keyboardist/singer Neil Codling (including the album's seven-minute centrepiece, 'The Chemistry Between Us', which swoons with Edwyn Collins-ish jangle (!), and is as close to an advisory drugs lyric as Brett's written: "Class A, Class B/is that the only chemistry between us?”).
The songwriting process went something along these lines: Brett would think of melodies and song outlines in his maisonette off Ladbroke Grove in west London and then shoot off to Richard's place around the corner where Oakes would flesh out these ideas on his guitar, often drastically changing the structure of the song in the process.
"It’s a very sunny flat where I live," says Brett, "and I don't feel cut off from people around there, like I did when I wrote 'Dog Man Star' in Highgate, because there's a strong sense of community on the street. I think that's reflected on the album. It's bright, communicative and quite urban - less dreamy and more sussed than the last record. And that's my mood at the moment too."
The sense of relief for Oakes at finally being able to let his talents defend him is massive. The strain and difficulty of his position when he joined Suede is unimaginable. He was an unknown 17- year-old fan of the band from Dorset - no more than a bedroom dreamer - when he successfully auditioned to replace the irreplaceable Bernard Butler, widely regarded as one of the best guitarists and tunesmiths of his generation. But not only was Oakes asked to plug that massive gap (and nobody outside Suede rated his chances at that alone), his first task was to tour the country playing Bernard's guitar parts from 'Dog Man Star'.
"It was hectic and pretty intense," he says. "At first just playing gigs to that many people was a real buzz, but after a week I was thinking, 'I want to play my own stuff now!' I was getting really agitated that I couldn't write, I was itching to contribute something more than somebody else's guitar parts, but I couldn't start for months. But everything had to happen naturally and it's fantastic to feel part of a band now. I can't wait to play these new songs live because it'll be like now you're coming to see the right band."
But his problems didn't end there. Derided by critics as 'little Dickie', he was seen by many as the potential fall guy should it all fall apart on the 'Dog Man Star' tour. It seemed irresponsible of Brett and the band to replace a massive talent like Bernard Butler with a schoolboy. His chances of success can't have been helped by a Q magazine interview with Bernard Butler which poured scorn on the ability of his replacement and suggested that Butler had received fan mail from the youngster.
"I don't know what he said!" claims Oakes.
He said you wrote him letters.
"No, I've never sent him letters. Load of rubbish! He can say what he wants and I'll just have to take it, I suppose. Whatever. The bloke doesn't feature much in our thoughts, nor yours, let's face it!"
People were scathing, though, about your similarity. What would you say are your differences in style?
"I don't know. I can't remember Bernard's style, to be honest, except that we're both pretty full. The way the songs are written now is that each instrument is working towards making the song better, instead of doing their own little thing. I've always thought the guitar parts are less important than the song. Who wants to turn into Eric Clapton?"
NEIL CODLING, meanwhile, is a 21- year-old former drama and English student (he scored a 2:1 at Hull University) from Stratford-Upon-Avon and is drummer Simon Gilbert's cousin. A big fan of the band - favourite Suede song: 'The Wild Ones' - he came down to Dave Stewart's north London studio one day last year and started tinkling around on the keyboards.
"We just happened to be looking for a keyboard player," explains Brett. "There was no nepotism involved. He started playing the piano and we asked him to play along to a couple of songs and it was brilliant. But he can play loads of instruments. Bass, guitar, drums, the lot. The only thing he can't play is the f-ing French horn or something."
Codling, well-spoken and dry, but so nervous that his cigarette shakes throughout his first ever - albeit brief - British interview, is more modest about his enrolment.
"I arrived at the right time at the right place and we looked at each other and said, 'Well, maybe...'. "I hope that I bring something not too tangential to what Suede is. I hope I just add another filter. I want to be more than just some bloke who sings 'la la la' every three minutes. I'd like to think that I'm not the fifth expendable member of Suede who gets sent home when he hits a wrong note.
"I do feel part of Suede, though. I've been with them for seven months now, through the recording of the album, and I've played two gigs. One was that fanclub gig last year, and the other was last night in Denmark. It's a very weird experience, looking out at a Suede gig and not recognising anybody. Normally at Suede gigs I'm watching the band, so now I look out and think, 'Who the f—'s that? Mat's shrunk!’"
"What does Neil do for Suede?" repeats Brett. "Makes the tea... No, his ear gives us another dimension, so do his keyboards, and he's a very Suede person. He's got that thing that a pop star should have, as opposed to a musician: on one hand to have real ability but be able to marry that to a sense of perspective about what you're doing. Pop stars should have vision, like politicians or something, and he's got that sense of something that comes from music but that means more than just the music. And he's one of us. We feel like a gang again and we haven't since 1993."
And what does Neil think of his new mentor, Brett Anderson?
"He's an evil dictator," he laughs. "You must know that by now."
SO COME on in, pull up a seat and join Brett Anderson, the evil dictator, as he mulls over Suede's recent past and future prospects on a sticky afternoon in a north London office. Settle into your stiff-backed swivel chair as his Lordship studiously avoids eye contact and quietly blows his own trumpet in a glass room surrounded by rooftops. Prepare your notes across the conference table as the acid-tongued fop rolls and unrolls - and rolls and unrolls and rolls and unrolls - his mauve shirt sleeve and gently sticks it to his enemies.
The Brett Anderson we meet today is far removed from the prickly, defensive and paranoid Brett Anderson you'll recognise from his ‘Dog Man Star' promotional duties. The man we met then was reeling from losing his right-hand man amid much acrimony and weirdness, was battered by allegations of heroin abuse he says were spread by Damon Albarn of Blur (and current boyfriend, of course, of Brett's ex, Justine Frischmann of Elastica), and had to contend with the very real prospect of losing his professional foothold as the pomp of ‘Dog Man Star' was blown commercially out of the water by Oasis and Blur and the attendant Loaded-sponsored follow-through. The Zeitgeist was holding a huge rave on the other side of town and Suede's name wasn't on the list.
All those circumstances remain today, of course. But Brett's now got the correct ammunition, both mentally and musically, with which to defend himself. He no longer has to keep assuring everybody that everything will be alright in the end. Everything is alright now.
So, with 'Trash' primed to kick a few sneering teeth in, does Brett now have a sense of perspective about Bernard Butler leaving the band?
"I don't really think about it that much. I was quite sad about it for a while, of course. Sad about this little unfair thing that had happened in life.
"I felt Suede were moving on to... kind of... at one point during the first incarnation of Suede with Bernard I thought Suede were the best band in the world. I thought we were untouchable. I thought we were on a trajectory that was heading towards the f—ing stars. Maybe that's why 'Dog Man Star' is such an extreme album because we wanted to do something really extreme, something really out there. We were going (points upwards and whistles) all the way up and then suddenly (whistles and points down) we were shooting back down again. It was like, 'Oh great'!
"It's not a personal thing for the guy because that's beside the point. It's more of a personal thing for Suede because our climb had been halted and shunted backwards. I think it was a sigh of relief for most people because a lot of people were scared of what we could actually do. There was no limits for Suede and there never has been and there never will be."
Were you hurt by anything he said in the press altar leaving the band?
Brett grimaces and exhales loudly.
"Pffffffff... um, I expected a load of old nonsense, but I wasn't hurt. I did sit there for about a year quite annoyed about people's perception of things, though. I was hurt that people would say Bernard was the powerhouse of the band and that without him we were nothing. Got on my wick because it wasn't true at all. I just bit my lip and wrote a f—ing good record. I did it! It wasn't what he said, because people get bitter and wound up and say a lot of nasty things because the music business is full of people slagging each other, it was the conclusions that others drew that pissed me off."
Do you miss him personally?
"I don't want to talk about him personally. I'll talk about him professionally to a degree, but personally is another thing. Really."
What does Richard give Suede that Bernard didn't'?
"A sense of being in a band. Richard is a disciplined musician who understands what being in a band is about. And that's important when you're making pop music because you don't want to drift off into 15-hour guitar solos. It was very difficult for him to just step in. People said that all he had to do was play a few guitars and, yeah, anybody can do that. You can go down Denmark Street and pick up any poodle-haired old muso to play the guitars off 'The Asphalt World'. That's not where skilled musicianship comes from, that's technical ability.
"All of us got down about that whole scene. It was very odd to finish the album and then the guy who'd co-wrote it leaves the band, and you're just left in no-man's-land. What can you do in that situation? You've got two, no, three choices: you split the band up. You go away and write a completely new album because the old one is irrelevant to the band line-up. Or you tour the f--er and all the time you're thinking about the next album.
"I chose the latter option. I didn't want to split the band up because Suede seems too important to allow it to be sullied by one person. I think Suede has always had a strength to it beyond the people in it. There were changes before Bernard arrived but there's always been a spirit, a heart... and I suppose the heart's me."
Did Bernard's absence improve the mood of the band whilst making 'Coming Up', and is that why it's so upbeat?
"I can't remember our mood during the making of 'Dog Man Star', except we were all trying to make something massive. I know the mood's much happier now, though. Everything went so askew and astray last time around, especially promoting something which had such a specific mood and we kept being asked about period pains and what colour our handbags were. Or something. That album was quite sad, and our own feelings really mirrored that when it came out. "It was obvious we were going to get our teeth kicked in from various circles because a chink in our armour had been lost. I maintain, however, that people should only kick you in the teeth when you've made a bad record and I don't think we've done that. It was a shame that it had to happen to us just because we lost a member. But what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and there's been plenty sent to kill me and they haven't yet. I'm stronger than ever, I'm afraid."
BRETT ALSO maintains that even though domestic events in the pop world - Britpop, Noelrock, etc - have overtaken Suede, he's never felt that Suede's position has been threatened. He reckons there'll always be a Suede-shaped slot because there isn't another group out there that speaks so fluently or tunefully the language of the chemically mangled, sexually-bombed British youth.
These are the people he speaks for and of on 'Trash', and on two new songs that, along with 'Trash' and 'The Chemistry Between Us', form the album's spine: the trashy, brilliantly rousing 'Beautiful Ones' is a roll call of the people on society's fringes with whom Brett feels particular kinship ("Cracked up, stacked up, 22; psycho for sex and glue/Lost it to Bostic, yeah/Shaved heads, rave heads, on the pill got too much time to kill/Get into bands and gangs... Here they come, the beautiful ones”).
And 'She', which is Suede at their cinematic best, tying in James Bond strings with thunderous drums and grinding metallic guitars ("Nowhere places, nowhere faces, no-one wants to see/No education, it's the arse of the nation/She is bad, she is bored, she is bony, she is she').
"'She' is set in some grim place like Willesden and it's about how the government only look after 30 per cent and the rest can take a running jump. These are the people I feel the most compassion for, the people who've been left behind politically, just like my parents were in the '60s. The people trying to etch out a life against all the odds, and the song's about someone trying to maintain some power and poise in all the confusion. Like most of the songs on the record, really.
"And `Beautiful Ones' is about my friends. It's a song sticking up for them. I know a lot of people that society would consider bizarre, people who don't have any money, who are on the dole, that are drug addicts, on the game, whatever. A procession of freaks, basically. And they're f—ing beautiful.
"That's why people have a hard time with me, because I don't fit into what an accepted pop star is. There are two types. There's the kooky freak, like Björk, who gets away with it because she is a kooky freak. Then there's the honest rock type, and I've never allowed myself to be either. I've never wanted to live as a social stereotype, I've always lived on the fringes of different kinds of people - but not the f—ing music business - and that comes out in my music.
"I don't make (almost hisses) indie music. When I write a song I imagine that Mariah Carey or Tina Turner could sing it. I always think this is a potential global f—ing hit. I write mainstream melodies, but I appear to normal people to be odd. But I don't make avant-garde music because that's reserved for, pffff, 35-year-olds who think about music too hard, read quality newspapers and put shelves up at the weekend. I write pop songs with an edge."
What do you think of the music scene that you're re-entering?
"It's better than it was a year ago when we were in the midst of all this Britpop nonsense. A year ago if we'd been in Camden everyone would've been really excited about silly little bands singing about rolling out the barrel. Now you're getting bands with musical worth beyond just fashion. I like the Kula Shaker and Space singles, really good songs. And I thought that Gabrielle single was excellent. But the music scene went through such doldrums for so long. We were the first band to write a song for five years when we came along. Between The Stone Roses and Suede there was nothing. We turned things in the right direction."
Well, ironically, you may have kick-started Britpop.
"Very much so. It's very easy for bands now to follow our blueprint, but when we started we were trying to play songs about little twisted English lives to rooms full of people obsessed with Pearl Jam. We kicked the f—ing door in! I wouldn't say we started Britpop because The Beatles, Bowie, The Kinks, etc, did that. But I think we were crucial in opening people's ears to British music again."
You never get namechecked though.
"Strange that, isn't it? We're outcasts in the musical world. There's been this huge renaissance in British music, quite specifically in the kind of music that we make, but no-one's replaced us. They may've nicked our fanbase, but that shouldn't be too much of a problem. Most of them aren't capable of writing the same songs."
What do you think of the Noelrock phenomenon?
"It's a bit cliquey, isn't it? At least they're into the idea of writing songs, which is healthy. I think there are some good bands that've come out of it. One or two..."
Given that your drummer is gay, that you're a "bisexual who's never had a homosexual experience", and that you claim to live life in the margins, what was your opinion of Noel Gallagher's wish that Damon Albarn and Alex James "both die of Aids"?
"I think his words were misplaced."
"I think a lot of things come out in the heat of the moment. It's remarkable that it doesn't happen more often when you're blabbing your mouth off all day, actually. We've all heard people talking in pubs. The guy's just gone off on one. I don't know the bloke, so..."
One person you do know, though, is Damon Albarn. How much did his allegations of heroin use really affect you?
"It was a boring sidetrack. Like reading some piece of fiction. I don't give a flying f— about whether people use drugs or not, but I do give a f— about people trying to assassinate my character. That's what I care about. I don't give a f— if anyone thinks I've got my head down a toilet with a needle up my arse, as long as I make good records. I happen not to have a needle up my arse, but I object to people attacking me, especially if when I go abroad I find that that same person is ruthlessly and relentlessly trying to assassinate my character all over the f—ing world, too. I find that objectionable. Especially when made by a talentless public schoolboy who's made a career out of being patronising to the working classes."
Why do you think he said those things?
"Because he's got a big mouth and he thinks he knows about things but he doesn't know very much at all. He's a silly little boy. I don't know why he said those things because I don't know the bloke. I know a few things about him, though..."
So even though you're nearly neighbours you don't pop around the corner for a pop star pint and a game of dominos that often then?
"Not very often, no."
TIME, PERHAPS, to draw a dignified veil across proceedings. Brett's got to wiggle off to Richard's place anyway, and phew! What a wiggle that is! There aren't many pop stars with the same calibre of stride as Brett Anderson, and while it mightn't be that great an idea to attempt to imitate it yourself he did once divulge how to give your tush a similarly rotar-motor push. Just stop smoking dope, he said, and you'll get a wiggle in your walk...
"Ah, well, yes... I've actually started smoking dope again because I've stopped drinking. I've still got the wiggle though! I've given up cocaine, that's why probably."
What prompted that?
"I wanted to start thinking again. I went through a long phase of knocking myself out every night and waking up in the morning wondering what had happened the night before. But I'm not doing that now, and my brain's started working again... which is nice. When you spend all your time drinking and doing stuff it's like pouring cement into your head and your brain becomes this solid lump that doesn't move. I can think now.
"The initial thing that coke gives you when you first start taking it is great. But then you get this incredible tolerance to it. You start spending all of your time in your head and becoming paranoid, and… it's just a personal decision, not a manifesto for anybody else. People must do what they want. I just don't need it at the moment."
And then, with a few farewells, he's off. As he strides off out of the courtyard, the pub opposite is still grinding out wall-to-wall Oasis songs, the fluffy piano intro of 'Don't Look Back In Anger' now blowing down Parkway towards the Tube. Some singers could be forgiven for imagining that the Dublin Castle is needling them unnecessarily.
But Brett Anderson doesn't flinch. He just pushes his shades up his nose, sticks an arm out and hails a cab westward. Back to W11 to prepare for victory.