Brett Anderson: 'I was a very strange human being indeed'

He invented Britpop, and dated its most glamorous star. But then Brett Anderson lost (almost) everything to heroin, crack and cocaine
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The Independent Culture

The Brett Anderson who greets me in the doorway of his west-London home today looks fit, healthy and alive. Not quite radiant - the perpetually pale Anderson has never looked radiant - but there is blood in his cheeks, and his eyes are no longer the dull orbs they once were. This comes as something of a relief, because the last time I encountered him, in the local Waterstones a few years earlier, he resembled a haunted figure, his flesh pasty, his skin sallow, teeth bared. Dressed in an unclean raincoat, he was nervously shuffling down the aisles of books as if lost and bewildered.

It was painful to see him like this, one of the early Nineties' most belligerent stars now resembling a kind of Withnail character, having apparently resorted to living out his days in the gritty, narcotic-fuelled reality he'd documented in song all along. But then this was 1999, perhaps Anderson's darkest year. He'd been experimenting with drugs at this point for more than half his life, but his band Suede's latest album, Head Music, was purportedly about his recent further descent into heroin and crack. A rather ugly record, it sold poorly. A decade earlier, Suede had been hailed as the most important musical force in a generation, Anderson as the new David Bowie. The intervening years, however, proved not so kind. Bowie himself, ever the king of reinvention, went on to become the new David Bowie instead, while Suede slid from zeitgeist into a smaller, pocket-sized cult band.

"It seemed as if we were being increasingly written out of history," the singer says now, inviting me to sink into a collapsed armchair in a living room that is more Camden Market tat than Notting Hill chic. "And I suppose I was quite frustrated by that. By 1999, my drug habit was becoming a very serious problem indeed. Anyway," he says, brightening, "can I get you something to drink?"

It was an ignominious decline. Suede never became the country's favourite band, and people stopped hanging off every word the singer said. But as the imminent release of their singles collection so ably attests over 21 flash, flamboyant, occasionally fantastic songs, Suede were nevertheless one of that decade's better bands, and quite possibly the most influential.

"It's not in my nature to be bitter," he says when he returns from the kitchen, a tall glass of Perrier in either hand. "We may have been overlooked somewhat, but all you need to do is listen to the music. Our legacy speaks for itself."

Suede formed at the very end of the 1980s in a London that, back then, was very much the UK's second musical city. Madchester - spearheaded by the druggy funk of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays - reigned supreme, and so Suede's angular, anxiety-wracked indie songs sounded decidedly out of step. But it was clear, early on, that they were something special. First single "The Drowners" was furious and fantastic, their eponymously titled début album nothing less than a musical intoxicant, filled with dirty, fetishistic songs. They had a way of making music that sounded incriminating and, consequently, quite thrilling. Between the years 1992 and 1994, they were everywhere, dominating not only the music press but broadsheet opinion pages as well, Anderson elevating himself into a latterday Oscar Wilde. The - to quote one of his more famous pronouncements at the time - "bisexual who has yet to have a homosexual experience" revelled in the controversy he sparked.

"We wrote about drama and sex, poverty and passion," he says, "subjects that hadn't been touched in pop music for years and years. I wanted as many people as possible to hear it and, fortunately, I just happened to be a larger-than-life figure, which undoubtedly helped the process. I'm sure a lot of our detractors were convinced it was all contrived, but it was never a mask. I wasn't able to switch between caricatures. This was me. Basically, I was a very strange human being."

The obvious Bowie influence aside, Suede sounded quite unlike anybody else around at the time, and in singing the songs they did, in proudly British accents that pronounced "over" as "ovahh" and "lover" as "luvahh", they happened upon what critics quickly deemed was a new movement. Somebody anointed it Britpop, hailing Suede its unwitting inventors.

"We absolutely didn't want to celebrate Jimi Hendrix or The Beach Boys or any American," Anderson says. "Instead, we wanted to pick over the minutiae of British life, and celebrate it. I don't think anybody could deny that we pretty much kicked off what became Britpop, and for a very limited time we were proud of that."

But then Britpop became dominated by other musical forces. Blur, Oasis and Pulp arrived on the scene. A sneering Anderson wasn't impressed. "Everybody started singing about having a lovely bunch of coconuts, and running up the apples and pears. It became horribly twisted, a musical Carry On film, and we did our utmost to distance ourselves from it."

It's not surprising that Anderson failed to appreciate Blur, and the reason isn't entirely musical. One of Britpop's foremost bands was Elastica, whose angular frontwoman Justine Frischmann was once part of the early Suede line-up. She was also Anderson's girlfriend, but Damon Albarn stole her away from him. Until the Blur v Oasis feud in 1995, this was Britpop's most enduring soap opera storyline. The very mention of Blur's continued success still rankles considerably.

"There's no accounting for taste," he says, primly. "But anyway, when we came to record our second album, we wanted to tap into something entirely different."

The 1994 Dog Man Star was the result, a darkly soulful album that, in places, was lush and magnificent. It was also the most pompous, overblown British rock record of the decade, a factor Anderson now puts down to his drug use. "I was doing an awful lot of acid at the time, and I think it was this that gave us the confidence to push boundaries." He purses his tight mouth into a grin. "It kind of shows, doesn't it?"

By now, Suede were an indomitable force in British music, as culturally important to the Nineties as the Smiths were to the Eighties. The future, surely, was theirs.

Instead, they promptly haemorrhaged. On the eve of Dog Man Star's release, the band's guitarist and co-songwriter Bernard Butler quit. The music world - always a fertile ground for hyperbole - likened the split to the end of the world as we knew it. Nothing would ever f be the same again. Fans were devastated, then switched allegiance to Manic Street Preachers. The broadsheets were philosophical, while the tabloids lapped up the ensuing acrimony.

Anderson sighs, and tries to smile. "I'm sure even Bernard would agree now that we both said things we wished we hadn't. But at the time it was very messy, very bitchy. At first I was desperate to make light of it. Our guitarist has left, so what? But the truth was that he was a very creative force in the band, and so his leaving changed everything - the dynamic, the chemistry, the tension ..." The quality? "Yes, I suppose so," he says. "And the quality."

He claims now he had always known Butler would leave sooner or later. Their working relationship, although furiously productive, was rarely harmonious.

"He's that kind of artist, Bernard. He has to experience tension and strife in order to do what he does. And I guess that's fine, because it makes him what he is. But I do think that it was a tragedy, him leaving, because there was still a lot of gas left in the tank. I have no doubt we could have gone on to achieve something quite extraordinary if he'd hung around."

Instead, Butler joined forces with soul singer David McAlmont. Within a year, he'd managed to fall out with him as well, and so, perhaps wisely, he then decided to become a solo artist, releasing two albums that failed to capture the public's imagination. He is now working as a producer and, as befits those in a supervising role, he is perfectly entitled to act the wilful bastard.

Suede, meanwhile, replaced him with 17-year-old Butler fanatic Richard Oakes, and although their next album, 1996's Coming Up, was their most commercially successful to date, Suede were no longer the force they once were. Successive albums - the aforementioned Head Music and last year's disappointing A New Morning - sounded like new Suede trying to ape old Suede, and failing. They no longer thrilled, no longer shocked, they barely even mattered. In the real world, S Club 7 were the country's biggest band.

And so the singer drew into himself, mourning the passing of the status he'd once held so proudly, that of almost-icon.

Brett Anderson was born 35 years ago in Haywards Heath, a very un-rock'n'roll commuter town on the line from London to Brighton. His father was a taxi driver attempting to sustain a wife and two kids on £30 a week.

"We were very poor in everything but taste," he says. "Although we had no money and very few means, my family was hugely into the arts and music, which kind of set us apart from the neighbours."

While his school peers idolised the likes of Kevin Keegan and a succession of Dr Who's female assistants, Anderson devoured the works of David Bowie and Albert Camus. As a teenager, the ingestion of magic mushrooms showed him an altogether different kind of reality to the one he was living. He liked it. Four years later he was on the dole in London, convinced that the band he'd formed was bound for greatness. At 22, this intelligent, articulate, but slightly creepy young man found himself as one of the leading voices of his generation.

"It was a very peculiar time, but we had an awful lot of fun," Anderson recalls of Suede's early days. "The fuss we sparked was really quite astonishing. I had to stop reading all my press after a while because it was doing some funny things to my head. Life took on all manner of extra dimensions."

But what about at the end of the day, when he closed his door on the watching world? For the only time this afternoon, Brett Anderson laughs out loud. "I didn't close the door. It stayed open all night, 24 hours a day. During those years, I was never on my own. I just lived through this bizarre procession of endless lunacy. I absolutely loved it, and I was determined to push my boundaries as far as they could go."

He began reading up on William Blake, fascinated by how narcotics could help test one's subconscious. Drugs effectively completed his blossoming megalomania.

"I never took drugs simply for hedonistic reasons," he says, "although, sure, it did eventually mutate into that. But at first I simply wanted to discover what I was capable of, and that could only come through the taking of a hell of a lot of drugs. I became quite fascinated by the concept."

Descending a slippery slope that would bring a glow of justification to Daily Mail columnists, Anderson progressed from soft drugs to hard, from marijuana to cocaine, acid to heroin and, finally, to crack.

"Anyone who has ever tried [crack] will know exactly why I took it," he says confidently. "It's the scariest drug in the world because the hit you get from it is so, so seductive. I wanted to experience that, and I did - repeatedly."

He was hooked on the drug for two and a half years, but stopped in late 1999 when somebody very close to him became ill. "It's not something I particularly want to talk about," he says, "but it did make me stop." He's been clean since. "Do I miss them? No, I don't. And I certainly don't miss the person I had become towards the end - this selfish, weak individual. That was horrible. But I refuse to have regrets about it, because that's the way I decided to live my life. It created a lot of good things in our music, and I'm convinced that without them, we would have sounded much more conservative." The eyes flash. "And who wants to sound conservative?"

Anderson has, he insists, very few regrets, and prides himself on his reluctance to give into envy, hatred or frustration. True, he would have been more satisfied had Suede built on that early promise, had Bernard Butler remained, had the cuddly Travis not sold a great many more albums than they. But, he says, "I'm not going to spill any tears over it. If I started complaining about our lack of recognition, I would end up sounding like every other band in England, and I'm not about to do that. Fate dealt us this card, and I don't think we've done particularly badly with it. Music today seems so very worthy, so very dull. Nobody wants to stick their neck out any more, and I think that is a great pity. We did, and we left our mark."

He leans back on his sofa - a sofa, incidentally, that looks as if it has recently suffered from a crippling disease - and turns to look out of the window on to the quiet Notting Hill street where one posh yapping dog is attacking another. When he turns back round, he is smiling.

"I'm very proud of my achievements in life," he says. "I was born into a sad commuter town in the middle of nowhere, and I didn't want to live my life out like some little grey man. I wanted to experience something that my relations and the kids I went to school with never would. I've done just that - and I'm glad for it. I've lived a very fulfilling, interesting and fascinating life. If I died tomorrow, I'd die happy."

'Singles' is released on Tuesday on Epic. Tour dates: 7 Dec, Glasgow Academy; 8 Dec, Manchester Academy; 9 Dec, Bristol Academy; 11 Dec, Birmingham Academy; 12 Dec, Brixton Academy