Through The Arch Window
Submitted by: Hagar Itzikson
Through the Arch Window
Never have a group been so hermetically sealed from the outside world as Suede. Their true origins, relationships and drug habits have always remained hidden beneath a shield of wry cool – until now. Welcome to the private life of the band under glass...
Story by: Roy Wilkinson
"She's shaking obscene like a fucking machine..." Amid the racks of flickering LEDs at West London's Townhouse recording studios, Brett Anderson's effects-lacquered vocal leaps suggestively from the speakers. The track's called 'Savoir Faire' and it's bumping along in twitchingly lascivious style. The five members of Suede sit around listening intently as their new album is tweaked and EQ'd at this final pre-manufacturing cut. The song of the moment sluttishly wends its way, oblivious to the dustless, pristine environment that it's currently contaminating.
"She cooking crack/ Giving us 'eart attack," it goes, in a winning combination of gurning drug fun, questionable grammar and pro-am West Indian patois. As Suede listen for the desired mix of the bottom-end woof and upper-mid bite, the speakers keep up a steady flow of narcotic allusions: "She make love and swallowed a dove..." Then, in a moment of euphoria, it seems to reach some kind of epiphany. "I believe in ecstasy, yeah, yeah, yeah!" coos Brett in a tone that suggests he's considering this notion for the first time ever.
Drugs, cities, "shaking obscene" - as in "shaking obscene like a killing machine" on 1994 B-side 'Killing of a Flashboy' - anyone familiar with the Suede lexicon will be unsurprised by this frame of reference. Brett has, of course, long since secured this particular niche - an enticingly blighted land of cocaine, council estates and a chic carnality.
And now Suede return, different but the same. 'Head Music', their fourth album, brings a new machine-drilled sound, but the heart of the band is fixed eternally. 'Head Music' is Suede but more so. Swamped in cold, futuristic processed noise, the album moves still further into the tensed, claustrophobic heart of the millennial citadel.
This time, the band's self-declared reference points are A Clockwork Orange, cocaine, Prince, the Sex Pistols and the London Underground. Beyond this, compared with the usual serial reinvention of British pop culture, Suede stand as unchanging as granite. Not for them the recently vogue-ish ways of avant-garde introspection or the inviting quick-fix of remix culture. Round here, wardrobes remain untroubled by ballooning combat pants and strange new space-age footwear.
In a medium normally riven by cultural cross-pollination, Suede cannibalise only themselves, So, 'Head Music' is stocked with 'gasoline', 'teenage toughs', 'violent homes' and some brutish androgyne "walking like a woman, and talking like a stone age man". As ever, Suede want to blow their own trumpet because everybody else's has got spit on it.
"I think this new album is both alien and familiar," says Suede bassman Mat Osman after the cut has been successfully negotiated. "You'll certainly recognise things, but it sounds new. This time we took these songs into the studio, and they just seemed to come out taller."
Come the autumn of 1998 it was time for Simon Gilbert, urbane Suede rhythmatist, to begin thinking about taking George away for a spell in the country. George is Simon's Labrador, and whenever Suede activity gets intense, this valued canine is driven out to the Berkshire kennels he shares with the celebrity hounds of Shane Richie and Terry Wogan.
"I know it's ridiculous," Simon smiles, "but George does get looked after in some style. I think all the dogs have their own TV set."
George's evacuation was pressing because Suede were about to enter the studio for a week's trial production with Steve Osborne, a man best known for his work on Happy Mondays' 'Pills'N'Thrills and Bellyaches', and alongside Paul Oakenfold in the Perfecto team. The week went well and, by the end of August, band and producer had moved into Notting Hill's Sarm West studio to begin work in earnest.
Suede came to the studio with around a dozen songs, the oldest of which was 'He's Gone', a piece originally destined for the B-side for the 'Lazy' single but put aside when its quality became apparent. With a chord progression similar to 'My Way', it had been stockpiled alongside the new songs Suede had begun demo-ing after their 1997 headline performance at Reading.
As work progressed, the first song that began to realise the blueprint the band had in their head was 'Savoir Faire'. Recorded at Fulham's Mayfair studio and riding in on the immortal opening couplet "She live in a house/She stupid as a mouse", it developed into a piece of clipped, FX-laden machine funk, like Prince somehow being persuaded to produce Placebo.
"It was a new version of Suede," Brett now recalls, sitting in a secluded bolthole in Master Rock Studios off Kilburn High Road.
"It was an evolution, but not a wholesale reinvention. There's always been a lot of emotion, a lot of heart in our songs, and I like that. 'Savoir Faire' pushes Suede forward, but it still keeps what Suede were about."
The new model Suede placed a novel emphasis on groove and tight two-chord structures, looking for inspiration to the late-'80s Prince of 'Alphabet Street' and "Girls and Boys' as well as the David Bowie of 'TVC15' (from 1976's 'Station to Station'). The lyrics were designed as naturalistic snapshots, often dictated more by their sounds than their meaning. It was intended to be, in Brett's words, "taut and pretty funky".
Sitting on the sofa, alongside a blank TV screen, today's Brett is lucid, attentive, courteous, sips coffee and smokes the occasional B&H. Clad in silver army-issue parka, slinky Carhartt top, nondescript jeans and Reef trainers, he glows with health (he's just back from a fortnight in Barbados - he goes there every year). He also litters his conversation with a library of deeply Suede-esque words and phrases: "loonies", "proper drug fiends", "heavy metal". In a '70s Grange Hill-style, he refers to deodorant as "BO basher".
In conversation, Brett's sentences habitually end with a strange, warbling, Mick Jagger-esque modulation and a quick "D'y'know what I mean?" And, as with Jagger, he can also discuss his art with a wilful glibness, talking about new songs like a man off-handedly hailing a cab: "Funny one, that... A bit of a singalong, that one..."
Gone, however, are the series of theatrical sniffs that punctuated his last major interview with Select, in November 1997. Such furious sniffing might have indicated a troublesome head cold or troublesome drug habit, depending on your disposition. The inference, of course, was the latter. But there's no sniffing today. Brett has discovered other interests.
"I'm really into food at the moment. Food's great," he declares with the deliriously bewildered tone of Paul Whitehouse's 'Brilliant!' character. "I've been very healthy recently and I've been reading loads, which I never used to do. I've just realised that books are excellent. I'm not doing any drugs at the moment, and I'm doing a lot of exercise - sit-ups, press-ups, anything to keep me in shape."
Right now, Brett might be a shining advert for better living through biology, but Suede's new album does bring with it some sign of opiated tomfoolery. The album's title was, initially, announced one letter at a time. With the first two letters being 'H' and 'E', there is a theory that this was Suede playing on their previous heroin infamy. Was Brett, a man who told Select in 1997 that he had "tried everything", really toying with some smack-o-gram teaser?
"Oh, no," he frowns resignedly, brow creasing in concern. "I really wish it hadn't gone like that. What actually happened was that I was playing pool, right here in this studio with Saul Galpern [Nude Records boss] and he was nagging me for the album title. Just to piss about with him I said, 'Saul, I'm going to tell you the name in a letter at a time. On Monday morning, I'll fax you the first letter.' From there it went to the fanclub and then into the press. It really wasn't meant to be this big highly questionable scam, with us maybe spelling out the word 'heroin'. It was a joke that got out of hand. That is God's honest truth."
Brett may be drug-free at the moment, but 'Head Music' strikes a different tone. Pharmacological reportage is, of course, a longstanding tradition with Suede. The first album includes gurning nods to amyl nitrate alongside invocations to "chase the dragon". Second album 'Dog Man Star' featured the impenetrable double entendre of 'Heroine' and a girl whom the narrator would "supply with ecstasy". Then 1996's 'Coming Up' escalated into a cavalcade of Class A's, injectable mari-joo-arna and doved-up, sex-and-Bostik aficionados.
Predictably enough, it's a tradition now revisited on 'Head Music'. Alongside 'Savoir Faire' and its E, crack and speed, the album also sings heartily of blown minds and "Love from the white, white line". What exactly is going on here?
"Well." Brett volunteers, quite convincingly, "I'm not doing anything at the moment, but that doesn't mean drugs don't exist. When i was writing the album, I was doing loads of brap. We've been writing the album for a year and a half now, and for the first half of that I was flying on the ceiling. Lots of the people I know are proper fiends, you know what I mean? Serious fiends. This album was a combination of either no drugs or a lot of drugs."
It sounds like a variety-packed regime. But, as Brett tucks his legs up on the chair and flicks his lighter, he puts his current lifestyle in perspective.
"Gnnnnn," he says by way of introduction. "The thing is, the first two albums were constant, full-on drugs. All of the albums were framed in a lot of narcotics really, but 'Dog Man Star' really stands out. With that one, I was just out of it pretty much all the time. I did lose perspective there, and if anyone is put off that album, that's probably why. Too many drugs. Cocaine psychosis. I became really put off by the way cocaine is such a horrible extension of the music industry. I don't go to industry events, it's not my scene. If I'm going to snort cocaine, I'd rather not do it in toilets, which is always the abiding memory of those events. I'd rather do it at home."
Swivelling animatedly in his seat, he continues. "I've now found that being completely abstinent can be just as much of a high as taking shitloads of drugs. Most of the songs on the new album were written when I was suddenly clean and getting a real high off that - "Savoir Faire', 'Crack in the Union Jack', 'Can't Get Enough' were like that. 'Can't Get Enough' was about having given it up and seeing the monster I'd been - this snarling, greedy, grabbing character. In fact, it's almost a celebration of that, but I was able to write it because I was removed from that scenario."
Sitting back, he scrunches his face into a contented grin.
"Real life can be great. It really can, which is something you can't really see when you're scurrying from house to house worrying where you're going to get your next hit. Being here today and not needing anything more than a cup of coffee really is wonderful."
"Hmm, yes, 'Goodie Goodie Yum Yum', 'Funky Gibbon', and not forgetting 'Black Pudding Bertha', All the greats."
In an Islington pub, senatorial Suede bassist Mat Osman reflects on The Goodies, the '70s comedic TV trio responsible for the suggestion that we "Do, do, do, the funky gibbon" - as well as a host of other equally irremovable novelty hit singles. Mat's brother Richard, as well as producing recent boy-band TV spoof Boyz Unlinited, is the man behind BBC2 quiz show If I Ruled the World. Consequently, Mat has been able to consort with Graeme Garden, one of the team captains on the quiz and formerly one third of The Goodies.
"It was good to meet Graeme Garden," says Mat over his lager and fags. "All my mates were much more impressed by that than by my meeting any musician. You say 'Oh, I met David Bowie at the weekend', and they're like, 'Oh, yeah...' Tell them that you've met Graeme Garden and they all go, 'No! Blimey, go on, what's he really like?'"
Truth be told, Suede don't meet a lot of musicians. Of all the big league bands in Britain today, they're probably the most self-sealed. With all five band members living amid the quietly bohemian streets of West London's boroughs of Westbourne Park, Notting Hill and White City, their social circle is restricted to the group and the three or four close friends that they each maintain.
"We don't really go out," says Mat. "It's not a pose, but I don't go to many showbiz parties. I went to Eddie Izzard's thing at the London Planetarium, that's the only one I can remember. I don't want to be part of today's music industry and compare what we're doing with contemporary bands. I want to compare what we do with Prince and David Bowie and Kate Bush.
"Plus, I don't do drugs. I take less drugs than virtually any human being I know. If taking drugs was an Olympic event, I wouldn't get in the team. I've got to an age where I realise my favourite drug is booze. I like Irish whiskey and I like gin, but I'll drink any fucking thing. I do love a drink, but the thing that people might not realise about us is that there is a puritan streak to us sometimes. I would never have a drink before playing a gig, or in the studio."
The band's two newer members have now also taken up residence in the West London environs of Suede World - a place where the attentive observer will be able to spot Brett sitting eating a curry with the hood of his parka pulled fully up. Such onlookers will also be able to observe keyboardist Neil Codling shopping for records 'incognito' in four-inch-diameter shades.
Striding precisely across the bare boards of an East London photo studio, flares flapping, ectomorph rib-cage thrust out, Neil now seems an intrinsic part of the Suede landscape. Without any apparent hint of self-consciousness, he removes Underworld's 'Beaucoup Fish' from the studio CD machine and keys up one of his instrumental happy-house demos.
His current listening includes Mercury Rev, the Super Furries, Serge Gainsbourg's imperious 'Histoire De Melody Nelson' album, Belle & Sebastian's 'Seymour Stein' and "various banging techno". To complement this, the current Suede fanclub magazine includes an ebullient handwritten greeting from Codling.
"Sell your television," it goes. "Secure all removable objects and lock up Fluffy. Suede are back. Love, Neil X."
Neil's initial interviews included reports of nervousness. It's difficult to imagine this today. Almost comically self-assured, he talks very earnestly of his distrust of television, treats silly questions with quiet disdain and outlines his chemical regimes during the recording of 'Head Music': "No drugs at all, just salt and pepper." The album not only features such Anderson/Codling credits as 'Elephant Man', but also an image of Neil (alongside Brett's girlfriend, Sam) on the album's front cover. Comeback single 'Electricity' features a further example of Codling expansionism - his hesitant lead vocals feature on the self-written B-side 'Waterloo'.
"'Waterloo' is part of our covert Abba theme," he explains. "The other B-side on the CD is called 'See That Girl', which is a line from 'Dancing Queen'. For the album, all my demos were named after the London Underground. 'Waterloo' was one that stuck. It's a good song, because people say to me, 'Is that Abba's 'Waterloo'?' and I say, 'No, it's my Waterloo' - as in my Waterloo, my final battle."
Taking his seat at the table, Richard Oakes returns his round John Lennon glasses to his nose. "Can't be wearing those in photos now," he explains with mild self-deprecation.
Currently in his 23rd year, Richard is now some way from the novelty teen role he was assigned when he joined Suede - he was nicknamed 'Little Dick' and 'Mad Dog' by media and bandmates respectively. Radiating an understated, sober solidity, he still looks slightly like he's been dressed by Suede Central Casting, but these days he's taking no shit.
"Yeah, right," he snarls when it's suggested that a proposed domestic move to North London will take him deep into the homeland of his predecessor in Suede, Bernard Bulter. "I'm sure a few other people might live there as well."
Denying interest in any exotic gunk ("I don't take any drugs. I do like a drink, but I once played a show in Canada drunk and never again"), he's recently been listening to Audioweb, Sneaker Pimps and a Prince tape that Brett made for him. According to Mat, of all the Suede players, Richard is the only one he can see getting married. Seemingly deeply comfortable with both himself and his role in the band, he genuinely doesn't appear to have a problem with a writing role that's diminished compared with his input in 'Coming Up'.
"The thing is," he points out, "as soon as Brett and Neil started to bring in demos I could see that this was the stuff I wanted to work on. The standard of songwriting has gone up on this album to an amazing extent. In terms of songs written on his own, people probably know Brett best for stuff like 'Lazy' and 'By the Sea'. The stuff he's done on this new album is streets ahead of that. "Indian Strings', 'Down', "Savoir Faire' - they're all Brett's and they're fantastic songs."
"The walk can be prolonged to the Caburn, the conical hill which is crowned with a double entrenched hill-town, first occupied on the threshold of the Christmas era..."
This excerpt from Walter H Godfrey's A History of Lewes strikes an archaeological tone a long way removed from the cosmopolitan Brett Anderson of 'Head Music'. But Mount Caburn, a chunk of East Sussex sitting serenely above the Ouse valley has special significance to Brett.
"My mum's ashes are up on Mount Caburn," he says. "She came from around Lewes. I've been down there quite a lot on my own since. I just go up and sit up on Mount Caburn for a bit. It was one of the places from her childhood, a beautiful place, I think..."
The image of Brett sat in contemplation with nature clearly jars next to the frenetic, concrete moods of 'Head Music'. But the gap between Brett's origins and where he is today only emphasises the enthusiasm with which Suede have rushed to depict the urban experience.
With his Dad a Lizst-worshipping taxi driver, and his Mum equal parts housewife and frustrated painter, Brett's childhood seems to have been one of undiluted pleasantness. As a child, apparently, he would dress up in the proto-glam stylings of Roman legionnaires, while family holidays were occupied with a pastime slightly alien to Suede 1999: fossil collecting.
"Ammonites, belmnites, those were the days," he recalls, back at Master Rock. "Our family holidays were like something out of Nuts in May [an early Mike Leigh play]. Down to Dorset and collecting rocks and fossilised gastropods. A kid's world is pretty strange, really. You're like an animal, with no sense of the outside world and full of strange desires. I played football for the county and I'd go running all the time. Get up at six, run three miles, then do a paper round. My Dad was a total card. He worships Franz Lizst and Horatio Nelson. I'm sure he organised my conception so i would share my birthday with Nelson - which I do."
Delve back into Brett's childhood and you'll find other equally interesting tales. You'll also find a writing style some way removed from the tarmac hysterics of 'Head Music'.
"I like living in Lindfield because it has lots of trees," reads the piece that won a pre-teen Brett second prize in a competition hosted by the Society for the Preservation of Lindfield. "I like Lindfield very much because it has lots of farms and on one of them there are some goats. I think some people should be put in prison because they break down tress and it is all done by teenagers because they thing they are so great."
This excerpt of Anderson juvenilia was printed by the Brighton Argus in a 1993 'exposé' of Brett's allegedly hidden rural roots. And while it's easy to get carried away, there is a striking contrast between Brett's origins and the metropolitan blade of today. Lindfield - as opposed to adjoining town of Haywards Heath that Suede are identified with - is a world of duck ponds and Tudor beams. It's a place pretty enough to have made itself "The best kept village in all of Sussex 1993-95".
Not that we should seek to infer eternal shame with this contrast - after all, it took London-born Rod Stewart to become the ultimate professional Scotsman. Whatever, in keeping with such rock manifestations of Eddie Murphy's Trading Places, Suede are about to release an album that takes Brett even further from the scenic delights of his past. There seems little danger that he'll soon be returning to the tree-lined expanses of East Sussex - whether those trees are being attended to by great teenagers or not.
"I can't see myself ever going back to live in Lindfield," Brett affirms back at Master Rock. "It is a bit greener than Hayward Heath, but all I can remember from living there is wanting to leave. I go back once a year at Christmas and stay with my Dad and we have an argument about what's best, pop or classical music."
Taking acid in the park, vainly attempting to get high by smoking banana skins... Brett's pre-pubescent eco-warrior bent would soon be replaced by more nefarious activities. Then first Town and Country Planning and then Architecture in UCL. It was here that he first met Justine Frischmann.
There is one particular bridge between this period and the Suede of today. 'Implement Yeah!' was written with Justine when she was a member of the nascent Suede. It's both a Fall pastiche and a tribute to Mark E Smith, and goes "That boy Smith's got lard for a tongue/He looks like a gun or a bun or a bung/He's a basket-case/He's siren fodder/His face is odd and his voice is odder." It's now being released as a B-side to 'Electricity' - its only previous public airing was at the Reading 1997 appearance which led to rumours of a rekindled romance between Brett and Justine. These rumours have persisted ever since, refusing to die down in spite of Brett's long-term relationship with Sam Cunningham.
"It does feel strange to have a record coming out recorded with Justine after all these years," smiles Brett. "It was originally recorded as a B-side for 'Filmstar' and then we were thinking about putting it on the new album. I mean, I'm good friends with Justine, so it's good fun. We spend a lot of time together, she's a good laugh. I've heard most of the Elastica album - including the track she's done with Mark E Smith, which is great. It has Mark spelling out Elastica's name [slips into barking Smith impression]: 'E-L... break down the class barriers...'
"I do listen to Justine's opinion when I play her my music, but I listen to everyone's opinion, so I probably don't listen to her any more than I do to my friend Alan who works in a chip shop. Justine likes the more electronic stuff on the album - 'Hi-fi' is her favourite, that and 'Elephant Man'. 'Hi-fi' is this long thing based around a drum loop and a filtered keyboard. It's a good one."
Justine's departure from Brett and her taking up with Damon Albarn was documented on Suede's debut album - particularly 'Animal Lover'. Now, of course, Blur's new album deals with Justine's split with Damon. Has Brett heard it?
"Hmm," he pauses, for the first time becoming guarded. "I've heard the single on the radio. I do keep my ears open to what people are doing. Apart from that, I don't have a huge opinion about it. It sounds alright, a nice enough record."
What about the themes of the album?
"I don't really know what the themes of the album are. Oh, it's about Justine, is it? Yeah, I read a bit about that. That's a personal thing, isn't it? Nothing to do with me, really. It's something between two people, so it's irrelevant to me."
He's clearly happier talking about his own single. 'Electricity' began to take its fully formed shape around Christmas last year, in the process shaking off its working title 'Stompy'. A clinical yet exultant burst of future-glam, it sounds like T-Rex thrown naked onto the set of Bladerunner. Brett sees it in more prosaic terms.
"Yeah, just a simple singalong," he demurs, slipping into hilariously blasé Jagger/barrowboy mode. "Funny one, really," he then decides, like a man dinging a pound coin down the back of the sofa. "Nothing clever. Simple metaphor. Equates love and electricity."
Then he relents, entering a more considered analysis. "There is a bit of a karmic theme to the album," he says, "It deals with the connection between the flow of things between people, so electricity is a metaphor for that. The original idea of the album sleeve, which got a bit distorted, was to have two people sitting cross-legged looking at each other with headphones on. The headphones are connected to each other, so they're listening to each other's brains. 'Electricity', yeah, it's alright. You can shake a hip to it."
Do you ever shake a hip yourself? When was the last time you went out dancing?
"I go to clubs a hell of a lot, actually. I go to Heaven quite a bit. Yeah, I do dance. I like old school hip hop, Run DMC, that sort of stuff. I do dance, but I don't jump up and down like a dickhead. I can't really move to hardcore rave, cos you've either got to go insane or not bother at all. I go clubbing and E it, but I've never found it makes me want to jump around in a cage somewhere. I can't remember how many E's I've done in my life, but I've never combined them with painting my face purple and waving my arms about on the podium."
'Head Music' was completed on 26 February this year, the concluding mix being completed at the Mayfair studio. The final cut was made a week later, leaving Suede to then divide their time between promotional engagements and their beloved West London. Sipping his pint, Mat considers the view.
"I just love London," he exhales. "The Westway has to be the most beautiful road in Britain. I do think that is the best thing, just driving over the Westway at three in the morning. You have all those blocks of houses that border onto it where you can see into all the rooms you zoom by. As very Suede-esque vista. Fulfils all the clichés."
And from there it's out for a series of fan-club shows, from London to Oslo. A long way from Lindfield. Or maybe not.
"Adulation of stage stars is nothing new," ventured Brett's dad in the Brighton Argus all those years ago. "It goes back to Franz Liszt. He had people taking his used cigar butts. That's no different from girls ripping the shirt off Brett's back."
Well put, Mr Anderson. History is plainly on Suede's side.