Toilet Ducks

Mark Sutherland

15 July 1995

NME

Publication:

Date:

Writer

Submitted by: Inge Klinkers

TOILET DUCKS

Wayhaaay!!! What’s happened to BRETT ANDERSON? That chubby, sickly singer of six months ago has been transformed, superhero style, into SUEDE’s own Captain Invincible. MARK SUTHERLAND wears his pants outside his trousers to meet the man and his three mighty pals. U-bend framed: STEVE DOUBLE


The moment that Brett Anderson's detractors have fantasised about for the last three years has finally arrived: Suede are, in a very real sense, down the toilet.

An all too real sense, actually. For this is an all-too-real toilet: a shabby-looking Victorian public convenience tucked away in London's East End. For reasons perhaps best known to themselves, Suede have chosen this humble facility as the location for their NME photo session.

At which point the words "tempting" and "fate" spring, slightly unreasonably, to mind. Because for many people, Suede spiralled down pop's U-bend the day they decided that, yes, jettisoning their guitar genius Bernard Butler in favour of an unknown 17-year-old schoolboy was a very good idea indeed, actually.

And, if you gave up on them then, there's probably not been much to change your mind since. Each Suede single has fared less well than its predecessor. There's been an ominous lack of new material. And Brett Anderson, once the dandiest frontman in all of indie, has looked progressively more haggard with each passing month.

But it is not a dumper-bound Suede we are dealing with in this toilet today. Indeed, they seem in finer fettle than for a very long time. They look great! They crack gags! They even take the piss out of themselves, suggesting Bog Man Star or Killing Of A Flush Boy for the headline to this piece! Now if someone could only take the (stench of) pin out of this toilet...

"IT SMELLS like someone just died in here," grimaces Brett, sniffing the air warily.

"Oh I don't know," smiles Simon mischievously. "There's always a certain something about four men in make-up hanging round a public toilet."

Indeed. Certainly, what tiny minds the locals possess are running riot. Your correspondent is greeted at the top of the stairs by a bewildered Cockney Neanderthal who slurs: “Watch out mate, there's a bunch of poofters taking pictures down there." Furthermore, Mr Neanderthal is wearing the current ubiquitous indie hard lad fashion item: the Fred Perry shirt. Could there possibly be a better metaphor to illustrate how Suede's nouveau glamour and sexual ambiguity have been supplanted in the public's affections by good, old-fashioned laddery?

Well, yes there could, actually. For the most visible sign of the rebirth we are here to witness is Mr Anderson's scarcely visible waistline and extremely prominent biceps. Gone is the pasty, pudgy androgynous fop of yesteryear. Gone still further is the double-chinned slob of his last NMEcover in January 1995. In his place is a tanned, lithe-looking figure with arm muscles that wouldn’t disgrace a prizefighter. Bad news for pie manufacturers and chiffon blouse makers everywhere, but he is Effete Anderson NO MORE!

Not that this will actually be news to anyone who saw Suede on their last batch of British dates. Those astonishing shows — special events like Sound City and the Royal Albert Hall — were the culmination of the long, hard campaign to sway the doubters: triumphant occasions that served notice to mouthy Mancs and cocky Cockneys alike that Suede, who looked dead and buried nine months ago and like the living dead three months later, were back. And this time it's with a personal fitness trainer.

They're tougher mentally too. In a world of Sleeperblokes and expendable drummers, Suede still exude a real sense of gangdom. That us-against-the-world spirit stood them in such good stead while the world actually was against them that they now resemble a crack unit from the pages of a Boys' Own Adventure Story.

So, loitering louchely by the latrine door is Simon “Ginger" Gilbert, trusty drummer and all-round good sort. Smoking shiftily by the washbasins is bassist Matt "Lofty" Osman, precisely the hearty, hail-fellow-well-met type you'd want beside you in the trenches. Or the urinals, for that matter.

Skulking by the steps, meanwhile, is teenage wunderkind Richard "Mad Dog" Oakes. While already clearly one of the, erm, lads, he remains a somewhat awkward figure in the company of strangers. Hence the others emanate big brotherly vibes whenever he is nearby (ie, they tease him something rotten).

Finally, striking crucifix poses against the tiles is Captain Brett "Butch" Anderson, master strategist of the great Suede fightback. For all the sturdy back-up provided by his doughty cohorts, and the element of surprise contributed by Oakes, it's his shoulders that Suede's fortunes rest upon, and he knows it. Perhaps that's why he's chosen to make those shoulders a little broader of late...

"I bloody well have not!" he protests. "I've done exercises every day since I was 14 — I've not made any special effort lately. To this day I still hold my school's record for the 800m!”

Brett Anderson a middle distance running champion? A year ago, it would have seemed as likely as that nice Hugh Grant paying a prostitute for a blowjob. But hey, it's a topsy-turvy old world and no mistake and the Brett before us today does, indeed, resemble a natural athlete. He's certainly looking better than the last time he spoke to NME...

"I was looking like a piece of shit then, wasn't I?" he says sheepishly.

And why might that have been?

"It was nothing to do with drugs," he spits angrily. "That piece was horribly misleading. To imply I was a heroin addict simply because there's a Suede song called 'Heroine' and I had a bit of a cold was like a dagger in the back."

Give over. That NME piece was actually stage one of your fightback: it gave you the chance to quash the rumours sweeping the industry at the time.

"There were no industry whispers," seethes Brett. "What happened was some tosspot from another band (he's talking about Damon Albarn, kids) got it into his head that he knew anything about my life and decided to comment on it. But true, I did look like a right fat arse. Here, is there any way we can get that cover deleted? You know, do a 1984on it and make it an un-cover? Let's rewrite history!"

In effect, rewriting history is what we are doing today. Aware that a lengthy period away from the public eye is imminent, Brett will spend the interview deliberately laying the various ghosts that have haunted the last, least satisfactory stages of his career.

The others clearly regard today as a bit of a jolly: a nice break from the hectic round of rehearsals, even if they do spend it in a toilet. Brett, however, takes no part in their boyish larks, remaining aloof and serious at all times.

He won't actually say as much, of course, but it's as if he feels the band's entire future rests upon how he — and he alone — performs, so he wants the decks cleared of excess baggage now. Starting with his physical transformation. He certainly looks like a pop star again. In fact, he looks almost... macho.

"REALLY?" he gasps, pretending to be horrified, but actually sounding quite chuffed. “I certainly don't WANT to look macho. I'm not about to turn into a new lad just to fit in with some spurious scene.

Aha. You obviously know people will look at you and think you're taking on less effeminate rivals like Blur and Oasis in the most fundamental way possible.

"That's a load of crap," he spits. "Yeah, I go down the pub, play pool, watch football and read the sports pages. Always have. But I certainly don't get my fashion tips from a bunch of clowns.”

OK, SO he's in denial over new lad, but Brett does admit that, live at least, Suede have embraced the New Loud, Yes, where once they spanked arse, they now kick it. Or, as he puts it: "We'd been fey for a while and it was time to change."

"I was very worried about self-parody. That's why I stopped spanking my bum – well, that and because I had an enormous bruise on my buttock. But I really liked that move: it was a way of being violent without looking like I was in a heavy metal band."

Does violence appeal then?

"Oh yes. I went to see ID (British film about football hooliganism) the other night and thought it was f—ing brilliant. That whole culture is fascinating - it will definitely crop up in my next batch of lyrics."

So the "shitter with the pout who won't be putting it about" (from 'Killing Of A Flash Boy') now fancies himself as a bit tasty in a street fight?

"Well, I'm not getting my rolled up newspaper out quite yet," he smirks. ."And my Stanley knife will remain firmly in my drawer. But there's always been a lot of violence in Suede. There's a very real animalism in playing live - I love that sense of the teenage fist in the face, that guttural stomp. Our next album will be very violent, full of slang and swearing."

This fascination with thuggery (see also: Brett's manic onstage persona, the ultraviolent clip for 'Flash Boy' on the 'Introducing The Band' video) begs the question: are you ever violent outside of music?

"I can be. I've hit people before. I'm the sort of pop star who gets shouted at in the street, and I always hurl abuse right back. I feel pretty untouchable"

When did you last have a fight?

"I used to have a lot of fights with my ex-girlfriend.”

What, physical ones?

"Well, I used to have to lock her in the bathroom. She used to go mad and put bricks through my window and stuff, she was a right tearaway. But the last proper fisticuffs fight I had was at school. I was bloody awful at scrapping then."

He's still a loafer not a fighter, then. But this new found "physicality" should ensure a tour de force performance at the upcoming Phoenix Festival. Before, their fragile craft seemed ill-suited to the all-mates-together-in-the-mud "vibe". Now Faith No More will have to work their flabby arses off to be the hardest rockin' combo on the bill.

"We've a lot in common with Faith No More, actually," grins Brett "We did a festival with them last month, playing to several thousand completely pissed rock fiends. And the disconcerting thing was, they knew all the words to our songs!

"I used to hate festivals. I always think of the Suede world as like a private club: not everyone's invited. But Phoenix is one last chance to show people what's what. Given the right conditions, I can convince anyone Suede are a great band. Even Bob Dylan fans..."

Ah. As you may have realised, after the billing farrago that at one point threatened Suede's involvement in the festival, Mr Dylan is not exactly Brett's favourite rock'n'roll legend right now.

"Ironically, I was a big Dylan fan when I was a kid," chuckles Brett. "I used to draw murals on my bedroom wall - I had one of Bob, one of The Beatles and one of Dennis The Menace. That's why I was happy to have him (that's Bob, not Dennis) on the bill. But suddenly there was a problem, either with his ego or his manager's ego.

"I mean, obviously he is a legend, but I don't reckon kids in DMs have ever even heard of him.

Do you think he's heard if you?

“Probably not, no. That's half the problem. But that'll make it even funnier when our fans boo him off."

On a similar tack, a discussion ensues about Robson and Jerome and how great it is that someone, somewhere had to explain to Michael Jackson A) who the hell Robson and Jerome are, and B) why they're selling three times as many records as him. “Yeah," titters Brett. "But actually, that Jackson statue made me really angry. It's almost totalitarian."

Don't you hanker after immortality?

"Nah. I once said there should be a commemorative plaque on my dad's council house saying Brett Anderson Lived Here. It was a Joke, but the Mid-Sussex Times took me totally seriously and printed this big article about why I didn’t deserve one. I tell you, I moan about the NME but that paper's really got it in for me.”

HIS SUSPICION of the press is about the only aspect of the old Brett firmly in place today. And such is his burgeoning optimism, even that is wavering. He agrees to take a mini-personality test to check his New Lad credentials, telling us of the time he took a 'What kind of lover are you?' quiz in a women's magazine.

"If you answered mostly Cs the panel said 'You are Brett Anderson' - but I turned out to be someone else. I was some politician!"

Proof positive, surely, that we're dealing with a new Brett Anderson. Certainty, he's more relaxed than in recent times. The arduous touring, with its highs ("Thailand - everyone is beautiful, you can live like a lord on £5 and they love Suede. Perfect!") and lows ("Providence, USA. We deliberately did a terrible gig. They had it coming") is behind them. Sure, there’s pressure attached to headlining Phoenix but with their current field-storming live form, it shouldn't present too many problems.

"Yeah, we won't play a lot of these songs again so Phoenix is a full stop for Suede," murmurs Matt.

"That sounds a bit final," muses Brett. "How about an exclamation mark?"

"Semi-colon?" barters Matt.

"Oh God," sighs a passing Richard. "We're going to be the first band to split up over punctuation differences.”

Despite this grammar orientated jollity, the entire band knows it's AFTER Phoenix that the real work begins. That's when Suede will have to come up with songs to out-dazzle the spectacular 'Dog Man Star'. That's when the untried, untested songwriting partnership ("Butch" Anderson and the Sundance Kid?) will undergo the critical equivalent of being staked out naked in the desert while buzzards circle overhead. That's when, in short, the gloves come off in the great Suede fightback.

Brett admits as much himself. He describes playing live as "the easy bit. After a while it's just regurgitation, like eating your own shit". Instead, he's looking forward to locking himself away in a rented room and becoming just a brain and a set of vocal cords in a robot's body". But he stops short of relishing the challenge of topping 'Dog Man Star'.

In fact, he seems determined to duck it. judging by the songs he and Oakes have written so far, Suede's grandiose introspection left the building in Bernard Butler's guitar case.

"It'll sound smaller than the last one," he says. "A lot less grand, a lot less histrionic and a lot more down to earth. I'm trying to write more colloquially."

That sounds like an admission ‘Dog Man Star' went over people's heads.

"Well, it did, didn't it?" he shrugs. "It was a great album - too great really. Those songs were so far removed from the usual T-shirt indie shit that people lust couldn't cope."

And is the little feller up to the task?

"Richard has been a revelation," he states, unequivocally. "With the last album, there was so much shit going down it was virtually written by post. But working with Richard is very democratic: quite often he comes to me with something and I completely change it around."

Doesn't he mind?

"Oh no," grins Brett "He's very flexible. He's my flexible friend."

Hmm. What about your inflexible ex-friend? How do you feel about Bernard these days?

A dark cloud of anger crosses Brett's face.

"I don't really have any feelings about himanymore,” he lies. "The bloke's doing something different now, good luck to him "

What did you think of his record with McAlmont?

"It was alright," he says, through gritted teeth.

Did it grate that he had a bigger hit than Suede have enjoyed recently?

"I didn't know he had," he glowers.

What if you saw him down the Good Mixer? Would you buy him a pint?

"Firstly, I wouldn't be seen dead in the Good f—ing Mixer," he growls. "And secondly, you just over-stepped the mark."

OOPS. LOOKS like one ghost isn't quite ready for its nap just yet. Perhaps we'd better whisk young Richard away from the protective custody of his bandmates (and, more importantly, away from the toilets) to a grassy knoll and discover how nine months in Suede has changed him.

The short answer is that it hasn't. Ask the others if they've corrupted him and they'll sigh “We've tried. Lord knows we've tried. We've even forced things down his throat at times. But basically, he's incorruptible."

Ask Richard how he's changed and he'll frown in his Adrian Mole-esque manner and blurt: "I haven't. It's not a dream come true or a fairy tale, whatever people say. Me being in Suede is just a fact of life."

Do you think you've won the fans over?

"I hope so. No-one's come up to me and told me to go back to school. But what's more important to me is I've definitely proved myself as good a guitarist as Bernard Butler."

Steady on, old chap. Bernard was acclaimed as a genius, you know.

"Yeah? By who?" he snorts, before realising how arrogant he sounds. "Nah, I know I've got to prove myself as a songwriter but this time next year I will have. To be honest, it still annoys me that his name crops up in reviews. People should've realised we're a completely different band by now. I remember Suede live being ever so dark and moody. Now we all jump about and have fun.”

Yes indeed, the notion of "fun" is finally sneaking back onto the Suede agenda. As far as they're concerned, they spent the last nine months marooned on the hard shoulder of pop's lost highway while everyone from Shed Seven to Elastica sped by in the fast lane. Now, with a lengthy period of writing, recording and reinvention on the horizon, they can at last see the flashing lights of the AA repair man.

Consequently, Brett's fearsome rivalry with his contemporaries is the last bugbear he must slay today. The old Brett always kept his own counsel while suffering jibes from all quarters - but the new one is hellbent on ensuring he doesn't turn up at Phoenix with enough chips on his shoulders to start his own food stall. He's rough. He's tough. And he's damn well had enough.

"It's a total myth that Suede are out of step with the current scene," he spits. “We're actually responsible for most things going on at the moment. The reason we stood out when we started was we were the first alternative band to write a f—ing tune for four years. Now EVERYONE writes pop songs.

"We got teenage girls interested in guitar bands again. We made bands think about image again. We reintroduced lyrics about everyday life. Even vocal affectations: every record you hear now has one, but when I sang The Drowners' everyone was totally shocked. And we invented the wheel..."

Alright, so I made the last one up. But it's a fair point: the current Britpop revolution undoubtedly began with Suede. And if Brett has his way, it's going to end there too.

"I love it when clowns from other bands - you know who I mean - slag us off," he smiles. "'Cos it means they're obsessed with us. And they're obsessed with us either because they're jealous of our music or they've nicked ideas from us.”

Are you paranoid, by any chance?

"Very. I think I'm developing agoraphobia. The other night in Soho I just completely freaked out. I get really worried people are staring at me."

They probably ARE. And they'll stare even more if you don't walk it like you rant it.

What if your next album flops?

"Maybe I'll move to China," he smiles. "But it won't happen. I'm feeling pretty invincible, actually. i am Superman!"

And as he strides out of the toilet (in both literal and metaphorical senses) there is a touch of the Man of Steel about the figure you have either loved or loathed for the past three years. Is it a berk? Is it a pain? No! It's SuperBrett!

And his New Adventures start now.

_________________________

SO, NEW Lad - or the same old ponce? Brett Anderson takes the Are You A "Real" Man test. (NB, 'A' answers are for chiffon-wearing bum spankers, 'C' for full-on rock hardmen, 'B' somewhere in between.)

1. Which of the following are you most likely to listen to?

A. Heavenly

B. East 17

C. Oasis

Brett: "East 17 - they're miles better than the other two."

2. Which of the following are you most likely to drink?

A. Taboo and grapefruit

B. Vodka and coke

C. Lager

Brett: "Lager, definitely. But there have been times when I'd have killed for a Taboo and grapefruit."

3. Your girlfriend gives you a cuddly jumper with a fluffy kitten design. Do you:

A. Wear it down the pub

B. Wear it round the house

C. Burn it

Brett: "I'd probably wear it down the pub. Only 'cos I like cats, mind."

4. You have a quiet night in with a video. Do you rent:

A. Bambi

B. Sleepless In Seattle

C. Die Hard

Brett: "I wouldn't. I'd go and see ID again."

5. Someone spills your pint. Do you:

A. Ignore it and buy yourself another one

B. Point it out but not make a big fuss

C. Threaten to beat him to a pulp

Brett: "I wouldn't let him get away with it. I'd either get Matt to beat him up - or I'd call the police."

The verdict: It's official! Namby-pamby cat fetish aside, Brett Anderson is now a fully-fledged, no-holds-barred Yob Man Star. Yikes!