Suede's frontman was into British pop (that's Kate Bush, not The Beatles) long before Brit pop. So where's he been for 18 months?
the interview BRETT ANDERSON TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON photograph by david sandison
Sunday 21 July 1996
A lot of people are bustling around self-importantly in the hope of concealing what a scandalous racket video-making is. While a passing make-up woman worries about Brett's flyaway hair, the rest of the band pore over a copy of Melody Maker which proclaims "Trash" "single of the week" a fortnight prior to release. "If they don't stop reading that review," their press officer observes indulgently, "they are going to go blind." Anderson's fellow band-members chatter like children. Two of them - new keyboard player Neil Codling and guitarist Richard Oakes, recruited on the brink of his A-levels after the acrimonious 1994 departure of founder-eminence Bernard Butler - actually are children.
The shoot breaks for lunch. The man from the catering company asks everybody in the band what they want. Anderson - his speaking voice pitched firmly in the Anthony Newley, Alfie-era Michael Caine camp - asks for no pudding. Shortly afterwards, a tray materialises with two desserts on it. Genial but disgruntled, Anderson rolls his eyes. "You spend nine months making a record and then all of a sudden you start having to do all these things, and you forget how bloody boring they are."
Presumably sitting in a giant darkened room miming the lyrics a thousand times is a good way of divesting a song of its mystery? "It's quite a good test really - seeing if you can still enjoy it by the end rather than thinking 'not this bloody song again'." Which side of this divide does "Trash" fall on at the moment? "I quite like it. It's just two kids snogging on the streets, running through the subways - that whole kind of romantic cheapness thing," Anderson smiles. "It's pretty much a distillation of the same ideas I've been having for years."
In early 1992, when Suede first burst fully-formed into a moribund domestic chart-scape, they exuded an irresistibly unfashionable belief in the power of British pop music to transform and transcend. Four years later, it is hard to find anyone - politician, pundit or postman - who does not believe in those things. In this context, a certain amount of bullishness is requisite. "We started a lot of the things which have since become Brit-pop," Anderson asserts, apparently without fear of being held responsible by a people's tribunal for the subsequent infamies perpetrated by Sleeper and Shed Seven. "The sense of being in a band and writing songs was something that kind of needed to be reintroduced in this country."
It must have been very exciting to be doing something which seemed perfectly natural but which for whatever reason - grunge, techno, video games - everyone else seemed to have given up on. "It was incredibly exciting, but it was also very difficult. It's very easy now for bands to sing in English accents and play all the games we were playing early on, because that ground has been broken. But you want to try playing songs like [glitzily dissolute Suede breakthrough anthems] 'The Drowners' or 'Animal Nitrate' to people whose musical grammar is limited to [neanderthal US grunge leftovers] The Stone Temple Pilots."
Was he surprised when Suede's live shows first started to get what was then an unprecedentedly big reaction - callow young men ripping Anderson's shirt from his back, Japanese girls crying, that sort of thing? "It was what I expected: we'd been going since 1989, writing songs which I thought were great, and nobody had really paid any attention. So when that response did start to come, I just thought it was an appropriate reaction to what were very romantic, heart-tugging songs."
Anderson is a great believer in the power of songs. "It's not just the words or the tune," he insists. "It's something far more magical than that, which is the balance between the two." He wrote his first one with the help of a borrowed Beatles chord progression when he was 12. It was "a pile of rubbish, some dreadful morbid tale about nothing". Undeterred, Anderson spent five years learning to be a guitarist until - at the ripe old age of 16 - he realised that he "probably wasn't good enough" and resolved to become Hayward's Heath's answer to Edith Piaf instead.
Suede's most obvious source of inspiration - the razor's edge androgyny of David Bowie at his most decadent - was not the music they had grown up with. The works of Wham and Frankie Goes To Hollywood weren't really put there for future generations to build on were they? "No, not at all. But our influences weren't nearly as straightforward as people tended to make out. The first kind of music I was really into was Crass - I suppose it was because of the violence in it - but then later on in the Eighties there was the Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys as well."
Anderson is far from happy with what he regards as the snobbish homogeneity of current pop discourse. "There's this set of records which are the so- called classics of rock and roll, and whenever a new band will come out you can predict exactly which influences they will chose to go on about: a Beatles record, Sly and the Family Stone, Patti Smith. All those things are great, but I've always been a fan of things that people would laugh at as well." Pressed as to what these things might be exactly, Anderson admits - uncontroversially enough - to having "always loved" Kate Bush. "And one of my favourite records at the moment is that Gabrielle single, but you can't say that because [assumes engagingly bitter and twisted comedy scouse accent] - 'it's not the Beatles, la'."
If there's one thing that gets his goat more than closed-minded classicism, it's self-conscious modernity. "What I find really crass is people who say 'Oh, I'll talk about the lottery because it's contemporary'." Brett is not naming any names here, but if he was, Damon Albarn's would probably be one of them. Given that the Blur singer not only walks out with his ex-girlfriend (Elastica's Justine Frischmann) but also once accused him of being a heroin addict in a magazine interview, it's not surprising there's no love lost in that direction. "The work they produce has no poetic resonance of any kind. It is possible to write about contemporary things and still be timeless - that's what I've always tried to do. Write about [thoughtful pause] a train, or contraception ... something that will have some meaning beyond July 1996".
There are a couple of great songs on the b-side of "Trash": an uplifting get-up-and-face-the-day number called "Every Morning Comes", and a seductive inter-rail anthem called "Europe Is Our Playground". The comparison with Berlin-period David Bowie is more worthwhile here than it might initially seem. Where Bowie's great gift has been the ability to uproot himself at will, one of the most intriguing things about Suede is that they could fly to the moon and invisible elastic would still ping them back to the Gatwick branch-line. "I'm nailed to the floor when it comes to roots," Anderson admits ruefully. "I can pretend to escape them, but they're always there." Why should that be the case? "I don't know [melodramatically], I'm just a poor white kid brought up in a load of shit."
There was a song on Suede's last album about being "enslaved in a pebble dash grave, with a kid on the way". At times over the past couple of years, rumours have suggested that their singer's determination to escape such scary suburban demons might bring him perilously close to a different kind of oblivion. While Anderson will never be one for what he smilingly terms "the little house on the prairie look", he seems to be in much better shape than his enemies would hope. And Suede's current schedule does not allow time for drug-crazed debauchery. The band will not be joining their peers on the open-air festival circuit this summer either. Brett laughs: "It plays f--king havoc with your hair."
"If I found out next week that I had a terminal illness," he continues cheerfully, "I wouldn't be jetting off to Barbados, I'd be going into the studio to make another record. What else is going to matter when you're pushing up the daisies and all of your possessions have been put into black plastic bags and carted off to charity shops?" The Terminal Illness EP has quite a nice ring to it. Anderson's metallic blue eyes catch the light: "It depends on the length of the illness ... it might be a terminal illness double album."
6 "Trash" is out on 29 July. Suede's third album, Coming Up, follows in September.
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