Welcome Back to Suedeworld
Submitted by: Amanda Blazier
WELCOME BACK TO SUEDEWORLD
PHOTOGRAPHS: ALEX LAKE
Much of the time, Brett Anderson is a family man, now living peacefully and somewhat mundanely in Somerset. But when he needs to create magic with his colleagues in Suede, he opens the door back into an imaginary urban landscape. Victoria Segal step through the curtain into Suedeworld with him...
Sometimes, at home with his family in Somerset, Brett Anderson buries dead animals in his garden.
A bird, maybe, a little representative of the roadkill he sees littering the hedgerows and verges. "Try driving along the A3," he says darkly. "Lots of badgers and foxes. All the animals in children's storybooks, basically. 'Dad, what's that thing over there?' Nothing - look the other way."' When enough time has passed and the flesh has rotted from the bones, he takes out his shovel again and digs them up. He traces a thigh bone or cranium in the air with his hands: "It's interesting and beautiful, looking at the skeletons."
As he sits on a sofa in his high-ceilinged West London flat, it's hard to imagine Suede's singer exhuming carcasses. In understated neutrals, a thin gold chain around his neck, his feet bare, he's the ideal of the modern urban pop star, drinking green tea from a Never Mind The Bollocks mug. Yet there's a lot of disturbed earth around Suede's eighth album, The Blue Hour, a record unlike anything the band have created before, yet one deeply rooted in what Anderson calls - knowingly, but with deadly serious intent - "Suedeworld".
"It's not a light, carefree place, Suedeworld," he explains. "It's quite troubled, but it seems to work so I keep everything within Suedeworld when I'm writing. When you make your first few records, you're just sitting there and the songs pour out of you. You go into your imperial phase - if you're lucky - and everything you write is gold dust. It's not until much later when the need to reinvent yourself comes about. I don't know which stage we're at now, 29 years later, but I find it helpful to have this idea of Suedeworld to make sure I'm not veering off somewhere pleasant."
He gives a quick grin. Now 50, married with a teenage stepson and a five-year-old son, Anderson also understands the value of compartmentalising: having pushed himself to the point of destruction in the late '90s, he is understandably wary of the tortured-artist myth.
"I won't let the darkness encroach on my real life. Life is potentially so dark and when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong. I can't see my life as an experiment in songwriting like I used to be able to. I have to be aware that I've got a family to protect in every way; from the outside and from my head."
In the decade before their 2003 break-up, Suede achieved a great deal: the best debut of a generation with 1993's Suede; a '90s high-watermark in Dog Man Star; the psycho-for-sex-and-glue hit-making of Coming Up. They also lost a great deal too, from original guitarist Bernard Butler to their creative convictions, a decline that started with 1999's entertainingly patchy Head Music, partly hamstrung by Anderson's spiralling drug use. The final crash came with the artistic and commercial misfire of fifth album A New Morning - a record that was, conversely, too clean. They felt themselves pass into history, unmourned, unlamented. "Because we fucked up, it almost felt justified," says bassist Mat Osman. "People had said, 'Well, we gave you our money and you didn't pay us back with a good record."' Any debt has been abundantly repaid with the three albums since their 2010 re-formation: the whiplash romance of 2013's Bloodsports, 2015's Night Thoughts, a beautiful exploration of family and its legacies, and now, The Blue Hour. With its ominous choir and orchestra and its Penda's Fen shadows, it's an unmistakable escalation, the exhilarating sound of a band operating at full creative throttle. They were so keen to push the boundaries that spoken-word track Roadkill - Anderson eulogising a dead bird over a soundscape inspired by Crass's anti-religion sound collage Reality Asylum and Penderecki's Threnody To The Victims Of Hiroshima - even made the band pause.
"I know Mat too well," recalls Anderson. "He's not ‘that's fucking shit!' - we're not that sort of band - but him chewing the side of his face means he doesn't like it. But we heavily processed the vocal and he eventually became comfortable with it once it felt a bit weirder."'
"We really wanted to push it," says Osman, no longer chewing his face. "If it's going to have strings, let's have an orchestra; if it's going to sound like a thousand monks, let's get a thousand voices on it."
"I'm aware that lots of people will think it's pretentious but that's the point of it," says Anderson. "Lots of people think Dog Man Star is pretentious, but that is the point of lots of it. You have to sometimes aim too high to hit the target. You've got to get things wrong to get them right".
The Blue Hour's destination is the uneasy edgelands of England, an ancient rural landscape that bears the grimy traces of human habitation - fly-tipped rubbish, breezeblock steps, chainlink fences, a nettle-clogged underpass. As night falls, a child is missing, possibly abducted. There's a shadowy figure, a terrible act of retribution, burials of things that may or may not be animals. All the terrors that plagued Night Thoughts are here, run through an uncanny folk-horror filter - there's an awareness of all the terrible things that could go wrong, things, says Anderson, that he "doesn't even want to vocalise". Since the release of their debut 25 years ago, Suede have been associated with twisted urban glamour and suburban desperation, yet moving to rural Somerset with his family hasn't dampened Anderson's ability to find the darkness in the margins. The countryside, he says, is not the "pretty chocolate-box world" city-dwellers imagine. He used to think a cow mooing was a pleasant sound, until he was told it was the sound of a mother pining for the calf taken from her. "There's lots of scruffy, ugly parts to it as well, these funny little bits of the countryside that reminded me very much of where I came from."
This is also the childhood he beautifully captured in his memoir Coal Black Mornings, an upbringing by bohemian parents in a council estate on the outskirts of a Sussex village. "These thoughts were playing in my mind when I was writing the book and making this album - this sense of not fitting in, with the countryside being this strange, potentially quite threatening place."
It was to this rural hinterland that he lured guitarist Richard Oakes and keyboardist Neil Codling to write The Blue Hour, inviting them down to his Somerset home. "I didn't feel as though we had to imbibe some kind of mysticism from Glastonbury Tor," he says archly. "What I did hope we'd achieve though, was a kind of camaraderie. Not just work - but sitting and eating and chatting. As you get older as a band it's much harder to socialise with each other because you spend so much dead time with each other - sitting around airports or dressing rooms - that the last thing you want to do is socialise."
It was in these sessions, says Anderson, that he hit upon the album's central idea: that the murky, unsettling narrative would be seen through the eyes of a child, inspired by Anderson's young son, who appears on spoken-word interlude Dead Bird. To make it seem natural, the singer started digging a hole in the garden, knowing his son would come and ask what he was doing, to unforced, sinister effect.
The singer is understandably wary of talking about fatherhood - not just because it's private, but because it's not part of "Suedeworld". He seems acutely aware of the charming disconnect between being Brett Anderson, eternal outsider, and somebody who might have found himself, say, running a tombola at a school fete, or singing The Wheels On The Bus.
"I don't want to talk about it because I'll end up turning my life into some sort of comedy, but of course," he sighs, "there are lots of things you find yourself doing as a parent. I'll tell you the thing I was never prepared for - I was prepared for children but I was never prepared for other children's parents. You're sort of thrown into these relationships with people just because your kids are friends at school. Which can be great, of course, but you know..." he laughs. "I've had to grow up quite a bit in the last few years, I suppose. But, of course, there are lots of bizarre things that happen." (He later admits to finding kids' birthday parties a challenge: "I write on the invitations, three until five': please, five o'clock come around soon.")
After 25 years of press attention, though, he is committed to "trying to maintain what I think is important about the band Suede - and what's important about the band Suede isn't some glimpse into my life as a father and as a husband doing school runs and having fun and sitting round the garden drinking Pimm's. It's like, 'What do you decide to paint? Why did Cezanne decide to paint that landscape in Provence? Why didn't he paint his toilet?' That is just as much a part of his life as the landscape was. But there's only so much time in the world."
Mat Osman is holding his hand to his head like an elderly aunt with a migraine. "When Brett first said to me, 'I want to do this record from the point of view of a child, specifically my son's point of view,' I was like, ‘God, that's such a bad idea."' He smiles. "But the record before he said, 'I want to make a record about families and being a father and at the time, I said..." - the pained hand flies up to his forehead again - "’...that's such a bad idea.' There are no good records about being a new father, they're all terrible. But he managed to find that place - that sense of fear and paranoia about being a father - that everybody else tries to avoid. So when he had this idea about making a record through the eyes of a child I thought, ‘OK, maybe this won't be terrible."'
Osman is sitting in his sunny studio at the top of his house in a pleasant bit of north-west London. His cats - three strays, very Suede - skitter in and out. He's just returned from China where he was producing two new bands and was perturbed to find shoegazing was big in Beijing - "I was like, 'I heard this in [now closed Camden pub and former live music institution] The Falcon."' Going to Somerset, though, is an adventure too far.
"I'm not very good with the countryside," he says. ("He breaks out in a rash when he leaves the outskirts of London," says Anderson affectionately.)
Yet while making a documentary, he and Anderson did recently venture back to Haywards Heath, the Sussex town where they met at school. "I knew of Brett because he was this guy who was a really good footballer who wore a lemon-coloured suit to parties, and could play the guitar," says Osman. "In a small town, that's enough to be Johnny Rotten."
This trip, Anderson says, was probably the first time the two of them have spent time alone for "many years" and their first time "home" together since the '90s "when my dad was still alive and Mat used to occasionally pop over at Christmas."
Does Anderson miss it?
"Yeah, I do. I'm very fond of Mat. He's a funny chap. He makes me laugh."
Osman sees a lot of Codling and Oakes - they are on a largely unsuccessful pub quiz team together - yet he jokes he wouldn't look to his bandmates for "emotional support".
"Every time we go back to the studio, especially after a long time, my wife says to me, ‘So what's everyone's news?"' says Osman. "'I don't know.' Has Richard moved?' I don't know, we didn't talk about it.' But what did you talk about for a week in the studio?' Snare sounds.' It's rare in life to find something that you do well, that you do perhaps better than other people, so that's what we do when we're together. We try and do the one thing that the five of us do better than everyone else, and that's make a certain kind of record. Everything else is pretty much froth and fluff."
Years ago, when Osman used to catch the train back to London after visiting Haywards Heath, he often seemed to be the only passenger on the platform. "Every time I'd have this sense that all the trains were going to be cancelled forever. And I could never shake it. I thought, ‘I'm never getting out of here. They'll just close it down and say, "Right, you just stay where you belong"."'
Suede escaped of course, dramatically and brilliantly, but it feels sometimes as if they have never stopped making that escape, over and over. At a time when they seem to be in a stable position - creatively and personally - does Anderson feel he's come through the past 25 years unscathed? He looks bewildered. "No, I don't feel unscathed by the journey. Pretty bruised, psychologically. I often wonder if I hadn't experienced all of this, what kind of a person I would be. I have to be happy with it because what's the point regretting something you can't change? I certainly don't feel unscathed, but the scars are part of it. They're kind of the interesting part."
Yet there's no doubt 2018 sees Suede in a fortunate place, playing a second act that has become a main attraction on its own terms. "It certainly doesn't feel like we're at the end of our career," Anderson says. "I feel like there's more interesting things for us to be doing."
After 29 years, all roads still lead to Suedeworld. There's a dead badger by the hedgerow and maybe, something bigger and darker just next to it - it's nothing, look the other way - but inside, Suede are still digging deep, cutting closer and closer to the bone.
"High on diesel and gasoline..." Suede: Album By Album
Suede (1993) Not the Britpop blueprint of myth but a complete world of its own. Dark, erotic drama from England's edges.
Dog Man Star (1994) Guitarist Bernard Butler quit during recording, but here's Suede's early vision in excelsis, a grand statement of outsider imagination.
Coming Up (1996) Shaking their bits to the hits (five tracks were Top 10 singles), this was Suede in their pop pomp. Brash, flash, features Trash.
Head Music (1999) Wonky experimentalism and heavy drugs generated an erratic fourth album. "I feel schizo, ever so psycho", as Can't Get Enough says.
A New Morning (2002) Nobody goes to Suede for clean rock songs called Positivity, hence this album's unloved status - not least among the band.
Bloodsports (2013) The comeback. Fiercely exorcising A New Morning's disappointments, here were people rediscovering the thrill of the musical chase.
Night Thoughts (2016) Devastating concept album about family and other damages that showed the band finding new ways to be Suede.
The Blue Hour (2018) Prowling the geographical and emotional outskirts, Suede map some of the most disturbing - and powerful - territory of their career.