Suede - A stylish return for the wild ones
Suede's comeback gig last year was supposed to be a one-off. Now they're re-releasing their hits and headlining festivals. Elisa Bray chatted at Brett Anderson's house
Friday 10 June 2011
It's been an impressive 15 months for Suede. In March last year they reformed for a one-off charity gig – their first in seven years – at the Royal Albert Hall, although without their famed guitarist Bernard Butler. Little did they know it would lead to their biggest ever non-festival show, at the O2 Arena in December, and a European tour. And they certainly didn't expect to be around a year later, re-releasing their studio albums, with three sold-out Brixton shows last month, and looking forward to a headline slot at Latitude festival.
"We had a vision of, 'right we're just going to do this one amazing show, and never do it again,' and have this beauty of the transience of the thing," says singer Brett Anderson. "And then we got mired in reality and did a show that was amazing, that we absolutely loved, and couldn't leave it alone."
I meet Anderson and bassist Mat Osman to talk about Suede's comeback over a cup of tea in the spacious kitchen of Anderson's pristine Notting Hill home. The salubrious surroundings are far removed from his working-class upbringing in Haywards Heath, where his taxi-driver father had just £30 a week to spend on his wife and two children. These days Anderson even has the designer miniature dog (curled up on the immaculate sofa). It's clear that Suede are not an act in need of the urgent cash injection a comeback provides.
What's more, when they split in 2003, they weren't a band you would have pictured reforming. When they emerged in the early 1990s, they were the darlings of the music press, and went on to achieve the UK's fastest-selling debut album in eight years, win the Mercury Prize and score a further three Top Three albums. They were credited with pioneering Britpop – although the connection was something they actively discouraged – but then Blur and Oasis came along, and Suede were pushed out into the realm of "cult" band. Their final album, A New Morning, was a commercial flop, and a descent into obscurity followed. Years later, they want to prove something.
"We finished on quite a downturn," explains Anderson. "If we'd have finished after Coming Up I think the legend of Suede would have been much stronger. I think the whole process of reforming was about reminding people what we did well back in the day. And possibly airbrushing over the moments that weren't as good."
Aside from their initial vision of a one-off show, there were some genuine concerns when the band discussed a comeback. For a start, there was chemistry to consider; it had been seven years since the five members last toured together. "It's all about the chemistry and you just don't know if it's still going to be there," says Osman. "One of the reasons we ended up splitting up is that we got into a comfortable rut. I think we were all very nervous about slipping back into that."
They have carefully tried to avoid falling back into a routine of touring, record labels and managers. They have, they say, turned down "a million" money-spinning enterprises including adverts for soft drinks. "We said we were going to do this for the right reasons," Osman insists. "There are a million ways to reform really badly. You can outstay your welcome, you can be ordinary, you can be a shadow of your former self."
Plenty of bands have made comebacks, providing a trip down nostalgia lane for fans rather than adding to the current music scene. One thing that cropped up time and again across the reviews of Suede's comeback gig was praise for how raw and contemporary their songs still sounded.
"We kept it quite stripped-down just to make it feel like being in a contemporary band," explains Osman. "We were really conscious that there's a certain kind of comeback which involves loads of extra musicians, orchestras and samples, a show that you just go along to for the nostalgia and to hear something recreated exactly as it was. Very quickly we decided to get it back to feeling like a five-men-in-the-room rock'n'roll show, because it's what we do best and also because it keeps the edge. It still feels edgy and possible that it will all fall apart at all times."
There's little likelihood of that. By the late 1990s, Anderson's long-time experimentation with drugs had descended into crack and heroin addiction, which coloured the themes of 1999's Head Music. Now 43, Anderson, though still wiry, his hollow cheeks accentuated by a sharp black shirt, looks healthy and at ease. Between solo albums, he spends his time in his cottage in the Ibiza countryside where his wife used to live.
"Because we're not on the treadmill anymore we take it more seriously," says Osman, who has spent the past few years in New York, writing for television, editing the website lecool.com, and "just lying around mainly, drinking tea".
"When it's your life and you're touring six months, there's no way you can be absolutely focused, healthy and together for every show because you'd go mad. You have to live a little. Now we're incredibly healthy, focused and prepared in a way that, God, we never were."
This month, all five of Suede's studio albums are being re-released as remastered editions with B-sides and rarities, compiled by the band themselves. Anderson enlisted the help of former member Butler, with whom he fell out before Dog Man Star was released. How was that? "It was great," says Anderson. "It wasn't sadly nostalgic or bitter. Bernard's come to a period in his life where he's got a good relationship with the Suede back-catalogue. And I do, too. I think there's enough water under the bridge for it not to be too emotional." Would Butler have wanted to rejoin? "No. The last thing he wants in his life is to be in a touring band."
Butler apparently brought a huge cardboard box full of stuff to the studio for them to sift through. Looking through them, what did they discover? "That we threw a lot of stuff away," offers Anderson. "That the albums could have been stronger if we'd been more ruthless. It was very important to us to have very strong B-sides, but looking back, it was ridiculous that the first album didn't include "My Insatiable One" and "To the Birds". It was just a crazy thing to do. No one really remembers the B-sides – you're just left with the album 20 years later. That's probably the biggest mistake we made."
You might have expected him to mention their last album, A New Morning, as Suede's biggest mistake. So poor was its commercial performance that Anderson has said that the band should have split up before it was released. Now it too is being re-released alongside their other studio albums.
"I've made it clear to people that it's not my favourite Suede album," says Anderson, "but by doing this you're able to rewrite history a little bit. It was an opportunity to show a different side to it. I don't hate that album. I regret the reaction to it, but I think lots of the songs were beautiful. It just wasn't the sort of thing that people wanted out of Suede. I think people wanted a certain Suede; they wanted their Suede to be kind of dank and morbid and tortured, and that wasn't it."
A foppish, flamboyant frontman, Anderson's poetic lyrics discussed anxieties of urban isolation, poverty and sex – offering an alternative, aesthetic indie to the laddish veriety. Now that they are no longer the tortured souls they once were, it must be difficult reconnecting with those songs 20 years later. But not at all, says Anderson. "You feel morbid and tortured when you're in the middle of them. A song has its own motivation built in – a good song does."
In the past few years, the band have been dispersed in both location and profession. Drummer Simon Gilbert has been in Bangkok where he has played in a succession of punk bands; keyboardist Neil Codling has played for the Penguin Café Orchestra and Natalie Imbruglia; and guitarist Richard Oakes, who went from school to a world-touring rock band at the age of 17, took time out, as Osman puts it, "to become a normal human being again and not spend his entire life with a tour manager poking him with a stick every morning". Suede's comeback last year was his first gig since 2003.
As to whether they missed being in a band, Anderson admits he did; their reunion was prompted by him going to see The Horrors a couple of years ago. "I got there a bit early and we were watching the roadies and it made me think and remember what it was like being in Suede. I did miss that kind of energy. Though I've obviously been playing a lot, it's very different music. I did miss the raw teenage thing of being in a rock band."
For all the talk of being contemporary, though, the band need to put out some new music to maintain the feeling. "We'll definitely give it a go," says Anderson. "I think that if we made a record it would be quite rock-based. When Suede went a bit off the rails, it was because we were over-thinking it. When Suede worked the best it was always instinctive.
"There's no one else that does what we do. We got lumped into the Britpop scene, but I've always had a really healthy disrespect for those scenes. I think that there is a real place for Suede and that the incredibly positive reaction has been partly because there's been a resurgence of respect for the band. Maybe people have realised that the band were quite special in their own odd little way."
'Coming Up – Deluxe' is released on Monday; 'Head Music – Deluxe' is out on 20 June; 'A New Morning – Deluxe' is out on 27 June. The Deluxe versions of 'Suede' and 'Dog Man Star' are out now. Suede headline Latitude Festival on 17 July
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