Back in black: Brett Anderson on Britpop blow-ups, going solo and the triumphant return of Suede
Brett Anderson released four solo albums between 2007 and 2011. The Suede singer once cut a daring swathe through a staid music scene with records that were pop landmarks and some seminal live performances: he was one of the few British rock stars who could look threatening in a big girl's blouse.
But the solo albums were largely ignored (the first failed to dent the Top 50, the other three the Top 100). This seems, Morrissey, Paul Weller and a few others aside, an all-too common fate for singers of once-big bands. Some are philosophical about this, others less so.
"Actually, I enjoyed my solo career," Anderson says. "Very much so. But, no, the records didn't quite capture the public's imagination. I'm disappointed they didn't connect. I suppose people never quite got their head around Brett Anderson as a solo artist."
People had long since stopped getting their heads around Suede records, too. In many ways, they peaked early. When the band released their eponymous debut in 1993, they were hailed as the most exciting new band in a generation, Anderson cast as the new David Bowie. If he was playing a role, he played it well. "I see myself as a bisexual man who has never had a homosexual experience," he famously uttered.
In that same year, Suede performed at the Brit Awards, playing their new single "Animal Nitrate", a song about the thrills of inhaling poppers, to a largely shocked, sometimes appalled, audience. "I've never felt more out of place; it was so ridiculously corporate," he said afterwards, thereby effortlessly establishing his role as pop's new androgynous anti-hero.
But by the time they released their 2002 album, A New Morning, Suede had long since lost that initial threat, and with it much of their appeal. It was poorly received, and didn't sell well. The band split shortly after. Anderson seemed already resolved to this, and the drugs he once took to help him open the doors of perception now had a noticeably more destructive effect. Not even he could inject glamour into his crack addiction.
The solo career was his attempt to rid himself of his earlier lipstick-smeared flamboyance and play instead at being a different kind of artist altogether: low-key, subdued and, musically, almost mournful.
"Those albums were a willing retreat away from that whole world," he suggests. "I became so sickened by it in the 1990s that I just wanted to step away completely, and make music in a much more personal way. Without wishing to sound like I'm in group therapy, I learnt a lot about myself: my limits, my capabilities. I needed to unlearn certain things, and I needed time away from it all if I was ever going to come back at some point with any hope of integrity."
As perhaps he always knew he would, Anderson did eventually return to Suede. In 2010, the band was invited to play a Teenage Cancer Trust charity concert. He quickly agreed, and began the process of rallying around the other members. Bassist Mat Osman, by now working as a delivery-van driver (having spent all his band royalties a little too carelessly), was thrilled to be asked. Drummer Simon Gilbert, who had emigrated to Bangkok, where he learnt the language, opened shops and played in various local acts, was also keen to return.
Keyboardist Neil Codling, who had spent the intervening decade touring with Natalie Imbruglia and battling with ME, was more wary, but felt the band had unfinished business. Hardest to tempt back was guitarist Richard Oakes. Back in 1994, Oakes was the mercurial 17-year-old drafted in to replace the band's original mercurial guitarist, Bernard Butler, who quit after one too many arguments with Anderson. Oakes was reclusive, and contentedly so. But Anderson proved persuasive.
The charity gig, held at London's Royal Albert Hall, exceeded all expectations. "It was the best show we had ever done," Gilbert says now. "We came off stage afterwards and thought, we can't possibly stop now, not after that." Simon Price, this newspaper's rock reviewer, agreed: "Suede's five men in black have pulled it out of the fire with fearless hands," he wrote at the time.
Reviving a previously spent force, however, was not without its difficulties, and the group were wary of doing so purely for the sake of nostalgia. "That would have been a living death," Anderson says. "The trick was to make new music that stood up to our best work without sounding like a parody of it." He pauses. "It wasn't easy, but we discovered we could still make exciting music together. Not every band that comes back after a 10-year gap can do that. A lot of bands wouldn't even dare try. We did."
I meet three members of Suede on an early March afternoon in their management offices in west London. Osman and Oakes are elsewhere, leaving Anderson, Gilbert k and Codling to face me and reminisce, sometimes reluctantly, about the old days. Codling is all but silent, a preternaturally youthful 39-year-old hiding behind Clark Kent glasses, while Gilbert, who once matched the singer's narcotic appetite, today exudes an almost yogic serenity. "We've all become a bit more centred and relaxed with ourselves," he says, smiling. "We've grown up."
Anderson, meanwhile, looks unaccountably good for someone once seemingly intent on narcotic oblivion. At 45, he is fit and healthy, and remains whippet-thin. He still has that just-blowdried hairstyle, still with its shampooed sheen, and his cheekbones continue to frame his face in a Quentin Crisp pout that so perfectly complements his manner, and which suggests the questions he is forced to endure are, frankly, beneath him.
Bloodsports, Suede's latest album, which entered the charts at number 10, has successfully bucked comeback convention by sounding both fresh and new, yet still recognisably like the Suede of old, right down to Anderson's theatrical warble and his occasionally preposterous lyrical declarations. "Your lips are like sabotage," he sings at one point. "Her touch is like a raven's shadow."
"It was as hard a record as I, personally, have ever made," he says. "But I'm proud of it. It was a difficult thing to achieve, but we did it. We found the sweet spot."
Crossing one pipecleaner leg over the other, and resting his wrists on a perched knee, his pout melts, unambiguously, into a smile.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact Suede made on music back in the early 1990s without resorting to hyperbole. They arrived at a time when the British charts were still submerged in the offcuts of American grunge. Madchester, once dominated by the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, was waning, and in its place arrived another "new" scene, shoegazing, populated by Home Counties guitar nerds overfond of their effects pedals, who rarely dared peak out from beneath their fringes. Suede were different. They were brash and beautiful, and their frontman, the product of a dull suburban upbringing, was wantonly reinventing himself as a squalid bohemian.
"It was an incredibly exciting thing to be in Suede in 1992, 1993," Anderson says. "What we were doing was right at the vanguard of something that hadn't been set in stone yet. We were coming out of a lot of really bad music and doing something at last worth listening to. There was something noble in that."
What they, and others in their wake, were doing became known as Britpop. "Yes, but I can't be bothered going all over that again," he sighs. "We all know what happened." He's right, we do. Suede may have been Britpop's initial torchbearers, but they were soon eclipsed by more commercial propositions such as Blur and Oasis. Anderson failed to disguise his disgust. "It became horribly twisted, a musical Carry on… film, and we did our utmost to distance ourselves from it," he told this paper in 2003.
He also found himself, not always unwittingly, embroiled in the more soap-opera elements of it all. His former girlfriend, Elastica's Justine Frischmann, had begun dating Blur's Damon Albarn, prompting what appeared to be real enmity between the two acts, while his withering putdowns of Oasis's mainstream dominance ("They make real music, made of wood," he once quipped), elevated him to ringmaster status, mocking the puppets he felt he had helped create.
But today, this is a subject he is loath to revisit. "This is where questions like this become annoying," he says. "These 'rivalries' that were formed 20 years ago weren't even particularly relevant to me then, let alone now. It's a fictional world that my persona inhabits only according to the press. The real me doesn't live in those places at all."
But, I try to point out, I wasn't asking him to revisit supposed rivalries. I was merely asking whether he remained competitive (his answer: "worryingly so"), and what he made of Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher's musical efforts these days. "I've not heard them," he says. "OK, I might accidentally have overheard something, but not consciously." Why not? "I just wouldn't seek something like that out, to be honest," is his reply.
We talk instead about Suede's trajectory. I ask whether he has many regrets, and he smiles and says, "How much time have you got?" He regrets allowing his relationship with Bernard Butler to sour so spectacularly (though they did later reconcile), and that the band came to such an ignominious end in 2002. "We deserved better." His experiences with drugs, however, he feels less regret over.
"I'm happy that I experienced real highs and real lows, and that it wasn't just a safe time in which we plodded along the usual path," he says. "I'm glad we had a rollercoaster ride of it. It's impossible not to have some regrets – everybody does – but it's how you use them that counts. If you're going to let yourself get eaten up by them, then you've lost. You need to learn from them, and accept that you are happy with where you've ended up. The extremities I went through, the mistakes I made, are what have led me to where I am now."
Which is where, exactly? It is never easy, after all, for a rock star on the comeback trail, attempting to reconcile the debauched hedonist he once was to, in this case, a happily married man with two children, but one who still makes exciting music.
"It is such an oversimplification to suggest that, as you get older, you lose your hunger," he complains. "Nonsense. OK, yes, I am 45 years old now, and I no longer live on the cliff face, but that doesn't mean that everything in my life is comfortable, or that if it was it would somehow invalidate me as an artist. There is always tension in life, and there are still enough things wrong with my mind that enable me to want to collect them in art."
Back in the day, he says, he would seek out friction from wherever he could, careening from one self-designed crisis to another. "I still know where to find that friction now; I just seek it from different places." He smiles. "And I know where to look."
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