Brett Anderson – Suede
Photography: Clare Shilland This interview originally appeared in BEAT Issue #2
Growing up in the nineties, Suede opened my ears to guitar music. Suede were the first indie band I remember kids talking about at school, maybe because their records were teaching us what chasing the dragon and amyl nitrate were. The first time I ever went for a coffee I’d just bought Dog Man Star, the day it came out and needed to talk about it and smoke the French cigarettes I’d bought to really get into the mood. I had my first pop star crush aged 19, when keyboardist Neil Codling joined the band and the first night I saw Suede perform at the launch of Head Music, was also the first night I had sex.
At the interview Brett looks exactly how you’d imagine an early-forties version of Brett Anderson to look, in a suit, side parted full head of hair and super skinny. He’s also super polite and mostly un-starry, although there’s definitely an unspoken air of professional pop star distance.
Suede were this huge pop band, we were fourteen and the kids in my class who weren’t even that into music were talking about your first few records.
Brett Anderson: We were always very ambitious – that’s where the pop comes in. I never wanted to be part of the indie ghetto. We were keen to almost subvert the mainstream, not just be some weird indie band that the indie kids are into and not just be some obvious pop band. We wanted to say interesting things to real people and reflect the murkier corners of life. But to do it to an interesting tune. I love indie music and I love obscure music, but I always thought indie was quite smug and ambition-less in lots of ways, especially when I was in my twenties, I was very, very arrogant and very ambitious and wanted to break out of that world.
We wanted to say interesting things to real people and reflect the murkier corners of life. But to do it to an interesting tune
I’m sort of obsessed with class. Do you think that is a function of coming from a council estate?
Brett Anderson: I don’t think you can be English and not be obsessed with class can you? I’ve never ever fitted into any stereotype. I’m an educated, artistic kid from a working class background, and I wasn’t part of an art school clique, I studied architecture at University, but that’s very different from going to Goldsmiths. You know, my dad was a taxi driver, I’m from a very working class background, but not a conventional working class background. I always felt sort of beautiful in-between, stateless, nation-less. That’s where the constant references in songs to these sort of nowhere places, comes from, because I never really felt that I belonged anywhere. Suede was partly a real desire to form an identity and sort of virtual family and sort of place to belong, I never really felt I belonged anywhere, growing up, even our sense of family wasn’t particularly strong. I’ve always felt this constant search in life to belong to something and Suede is the closest thing that I found until I was in my late thirties, to actually belonging anywhere.
What the later parts of Brit-pop lacked, which you and maybe early Verve had, was this extraordinary vision of beauty. Where did that come from?
Brett Anderson: Yeah, well I’m glad you picked up on that, it’s an element to Suede that people tend to, not ignore, it’s easy to focus on the sort of brasher side, it’s very seductive to talk about the Brits performance and Animal Nitrate and all those references to drugs and sex and stuff like that, for me they were almost like an entry point for people. But beauty and songs like: Sleeping Pills, Wild Ones and Asphalt World, they were the message of Suede. A song like Metal Mickey was a great song and has an amazing energy of it’s own but that was never the song I really wanted to write. It was always the darker more atmospheric moodier murkier things that I wanted to write, songs that really dragged people into some sort of emotional landscape. There was always the duality seeing the world as an intensely beautiful place but also an incredibly threatening place at the same time, where you could find the murky corners of life too.
A lot of your songs seem to have this sense of tribalism.
Brett Anderson: As a teenager in the early eighties it was an incredibly tribal time, everyone at school was either a mod or a punk or a skinhead or a headbanger. Which gang you belonged to said who you were as a person. This was when I was thirteen or fourteen, when I first started buying records and I suppose that influences the sort of band I wanted Suede to be, I wanted them to be the sort of band people would get tattooed. I just wasn’t particularly interested in Suede just being liked; I was only really interested in Suede being loved. Suede was about the intense passion of being loved as a band and constructing a universe for people to dive into and that was all part of the iconography of the sleeves and the worlds I sang about and possibly the over use of lots of the imagery was all part of it. Maybe it was all part of my need to belong somewhere. We established a Suede landscape, and I always loved those bands that did that. Maybe its a very much over used reference point but I did grow up loving The Smiths records and loving what they did and the kind of tribalism they created.
I wanted them to be the sort of band people would get tattooed. I just wasn’t particularly interested in Suede just being liked; I was only really interested in Suede being loved
You were never as miserable though.
Brett Anderson: No definitely not, I never wanted to be The Smiths, emulating people shouldn’t be about wanting to sound like them. I was talking to Jamie from Klaxons and he said he was a huge Suede fan when he was growing up and that Suede were the reason he wanted to be in a band. You listen to Klaxons, and they don’t sound anything like Suede and that’s the biggest compliment. That they took something of the spirit of Suede, they didn’t rip off the cord sequences, they didn’t rip off the words and they didn’t dress like Suede. They just took something of the spirit and sense of aiming to achieve something that was meant to be a little bit unachievable. And they created this incredible very original band. I’m really proud of that sort of influence. It’s the same with Bloc Party. There’s all these bands, that have told me that Suede have been incredibly influential, but they don’t sound like Suede, that’s almost like a double compliment for me.
There’s a huge difference between Suede’s second album Dog Man Star and Coming Up.
Brett Anderson: Yeah, it was our attempt to make a pop record. When Richard Oakes and Neil Codling joined the band, it was essentially a different band. We just happened to have an old name, so it was bound to sound different. But also the whole experience of making the second Suede album was incredibly intense, you can feel it in the music it’s a very dark, tortured, and almost psychotic record. I almost had a mental breakdown making that record. I suppose I didn’t want to go that extreme again, Dog Man Star was as far out as I could go in those terms. For my own sanity I wanted to make something that was a little bit less pretentious I suppose. Hopefully it’s the right side of the line, good and not bad pretentious but it is definitely ambitious and all of those kind of things.
And you know, making Coming Up was much more communicative, for want of a better word, it was a fun process, but I’m incredibly proud of that album as well, it’s a lot less introspective than the first two albums, but it’s still got some great pop songs. My stepson absolutely loves Filmstar, he’s like 6 years old and just dances around, it somehow communicates something primal. Songs like Beautiful Ones and She and all of those songs, they’re just very, sort of, simple songs.
My one beef with Suede was that maybe you were a bit retro. If you weren’t a dance act could you really be a nineties band?
Brett Anderson: Every band of the nineties has to accept that dance music was the defining genre of the nineties. Even though, to be honest, most people with taste look back at guitar music as being defining, guitar music in the nineties wasn’t a new form of music and I think you have to accept that. It was the last defining music of any decade. Suede weren’t part of that definitely not, because we were a guitar band, it wasn’t so much about being retro, just about being honest to the music we played.
There’s a struggle between wanting to be as super modern as possible and wanting to be beautiful, no?
Brett Anderson: I know what you mean, beauty for its own sake maybe isn’t very deep. All I know is that a lot of music is about instinct and less about theory. The dominant force for me was always, ‘is this a great song, does this move me emotionally?’ Rather than ‘does this move me mentally?’ It’s like when you look at art you know, when you look at paintings, like the impressionists people like Gauguin and Manet, people like that, great artists. I’m very conscious that I’m just looking at a pretty picture, but it doesn’t mean I’m any less emotionally engaged with it.
Let’s talk about being a massive popstar as well. You were really good, really good, at manipulating the media.
Brett Anderson: It’s incredibly easy to manipulate the media, I always found it strange that the media were so shocked about Suede, the sex and drugs were just references to everyday life. Obviously I did want to get Suede noticed and looking back, I don’t think I was that good at talking to the press. I think I could have been cleverer and I fell into lots of traps. I over-did it and I created a bit of a hate figure in myself, the legacy of which I’m still paying for. All that was an entry point for lots of people but I also put people off the band. I do regret that.
What’s your favourite Suede song?
Brett Anderson: The Wild Ones. It’s just instinctive really, it’s just a great song, the dominant force for me is trying to be a great songwriter, rather than trying to be some sort of artist/musician. The melody has a very captivating emotional beauty, the words are not the best words I’ve ever written but they work in the context of the song, your quest half the time as a song writer is trying to make the words work with the music. Writing a lyric for a song isn’t writing poetry. You’re very much trying to make the melody do something to the power of the words. It’s like sometimes the glibbest, stupidest pop lyrics can acquire a real power with a certain melody.
I learnt what chasing the dragon was and what amyl nitrate was from your songs. I don’t think you’d get away with that now.
Brett Anderson: We did get away with it quite a lot, to have the song Animal Nitrate to be a radio hit and to be a top ten song. The biggest achievement wasn’t charting at number seven but sticking at number seven the next week, meaning it had reached a completely different class of record buyer. It was a very risqué song, you know, sex and violence in its most ugly form. It was a real personal victory for me that song, one of the points of my personal manifesto and Suede’s manifesto was to get a song in the top ten that was basically an homage to deviancy. And we’d always wanted to write a song that irresistibly worked as a pop song and pulled you in emotionally and then (click of fingers) threw this lyric at you and we did that with So Young and the chasing the dragon lyric, it’s there and you can’t do anything about it.
You’re one of those bands that taught me how to ‘be’, in a way. If I sit next to a boy, I’ll forever feel like a Pet Shop Boy and if I sit in the back of a black cab, I’ll forever feel like I’m in the Asphalt World and remember that line “drive to the end of the city”.
Brett Anderson: I always wanted to create a world, all the best bands do. A lot of it is idealised, the reason I created such a specific world is probably because I felt excluded from that world. I grew up in a council house in Haywards Heath, but it wasn’t like a sprawling council estate, it was just little matchbox houses, you know the kind of thing, suburban hell. It wasn’t a dark, oppressive environment it was much more subtle than that. There was drugs, alcoholism and deviancy but it was all hidden. Suede was very much my paean to the London that I had felt excluded from when I was younger. I used to go to Haywards Heath railway station and look up the railway tracks to London and dream. I think there’s a sense in suburbia and outside London that you fail if you stay in these places. There’s a sense of achievement just being here and living here [in London]. It’s the only place where I sense life means something.
What about the whole heroin thing? How useful was it for a songwriter?
Brett Anderson: Interestingly enough I was never taking a lot of that drug during the early nineties. Cocaine was much more… To be honest, the most influential drug during peak Suede was probably ecstasy, lots of the androgyny and all the questioning of my sexuality was all born from ecstasy culture. Growing up in the late eighties and going to parties and raves, ecstasy broke down the sexual barriers and made who you are sexually, less important and who you are emotionally, more important and confused all of those barriers. My whole desire to sort of be androgynous and all of those things was all a response to ecstasy more than anything else.
Growing up in the late eighties and going to parties and raves, ecstasy broke down the sexual barriers and made who you are sexually, less important and who you are emotionally, more important and confused all of those barriers
Why was everyone so fussed about you being androgynous? In the eighties loads of pop stars were.
Brett Anderson: Exactly, it’s not like I was Boy George! I don’t know why it was so outrageous, I think because we were from an indie background and so that made it iconoclastic, because the indie world was and still is about guys staring at their feet in grey t-shirts playing their Rickenbackers, it’s very conservative.
When you said you were a bisexual who has never slept with a man was it more about empathy with your fellow man?
Brett Anderson: That’s exactly what it’s about. In fact that statement – which has come to haunt me, was taken completely out of context and I was actually talking about songwriting and how I use my imagination to go within other people’s bodies. I’m basically a writer, but people always think songs are written in the first person and I’m a writer of fiction sometimes.
So this empathy, is it, you know, a spiritual thing?
Brett Anderson: It was very much about empathy for the human race rather than just specific narrow constrictive things, that sounds very general and slightly meaningless, but like I said, I was talking from an emotional point of view so it’s difficult to talk about empathy without it sounding empty, you know? But yeah of course, that’s what you plug into when writing songs, that’s what playing in front of 10,000 people is about. Partly the will to power, wanting to belong to something that’s bigger than and more powerful than yourself, that’s partly what empathy is, isn’t it?
How important was Justine?
Brett Anderson: Meeting Justine was an incredibly pivotal thing for me. Justine is incredibly creative, urban and urbane, and introduced me to art. Though not so much music, because I was always the one in our relationship that was sort of like introducing her to music. When I first met Justine she was listening to Joni Mitchell and Astrid Gilberto and I said, ‘we’re not listening to that, this is the Happy Mondays and this is what we’re listening too.’ In the band she was very much the tastemaker, when Bernard and I played Pantomime Horse for Justine, she said that she hated it. If Justine had stayed in the band, Suede probably wouldn’t have been able to write the Asphalt World, because she wanted to write the sort of songs she started to write for Elastica that were spiky and unpretentious and all of those adjectives you’d apply to Elastica. And she didn’t like the epic, tragic tortured side to Suede.
How into Goth were you?
Brett Anderson: I loved some things that were technically called Goth, though I hated the whole image to do with Goth. This morning I was listening to The Cure’s Pornography. I just love it. I was thinking of doing something like that for my next record. I wasn’t into it at the time because Goth came with a whole package that I thought was clichéd and hackneyed and kind of a bit rubbish, but I always loved bits of The Cult and The Cure.
Didn’t Justine have something to do with M.I.A?
Brett Anderson: Hang on, she didn’t just have something to do with M.I.A, it was her and Mia working on the project. In fact to be honest when I first met Mia it was Justine’s project that Mia was a part of. I remember being on holiday with Mia and Justine in 2001 in the Caribbean and this is when Justine and Mia where both sort of working together. This abiding memory I have is of Mia, coming into the kitchen with her groove-box and me and Justine would be smoking dope or something and she’d play something and we’d be like, “yeah, yeah that’s really nice Mia run along” sort of thing. Justine was the dominant force in their relationship at the time and suddenly I didn’t see Mia for a year or so and suddenly she’s becoming massive and gone from strength to strength and it’s amazing what she’s done, really hats off to her. Amazing…
What’s your take on Bernard Butler?
Brett Anderson: If you’ve got a spare few days I’ll tell you. What’s my take on it? I wrote an essay about it the other day that took me two days to write.
Wow, who for?
Brett Anderson: Myself. It’s a huge question, it’s huge.
What did you write in the essay?
Brett Anderson: (Phewwssssh) A lot of the breakdown – it’s not the right word but I was disintegrating as a human being. Partly because of fame and all the things that come with it. As a pop star, you simultaneously are more able to communicate but become more isolated. I was increasingly less able to connect with people and one of those people was Bernard, and that’s partly why the relationship broke down, but it’s such an incredibly huge question it really is, and one that needs a huge forum to do it justice. Basically I was incredibly lucky to meet him. It was one of those things that just came from the Gods. I actually put an advert in the NME, that’s how I met Bernard. It read, “Must like Pet Shop Boys, The Smiths, David Bowie and Lloyd Cole and The Commotions. No musos, no beginners, some things are more important than ability”. Like any great writing partnership you’re the day to their night. We kind of completed each other and somehow in a strange little ball of energy we came up with these songs. I always responded to Bernard’s very intricate musicality. He always did very interesting things with the music that enabled me to put detail into songs and always had a very strong head for big choruses but was also good at the very simple pop gestures. He was always able to master both sides and that’s a mark of a great songwriter.
Why the Pet Shop Boys?
Brett Anderson: I think it was the reference to The Smiths and the Pet Shop Boys that made Bernard answer the advert, because he loved them as well. There’s something very real about them and their almost risqué lyrical landscapes. The Pet Shop Boys were documenting specifically gay London urban life but doing it very stylishly. I think because of that they just seemed real. It was a great combination of being modern and incredibly detailed, they were quite classic in a way. The words to West End Girls are just genius. Amazing words. I just thought it was brilliant and very individual.
What’s your function?
Brett Anderson: I certainly don’t see any point trying to be this controversial figure that I possibly was in the early 90’s, because it would show a remarkable lack of intelligence or personal growth for me to want to do that again. Boringly enough it comes down to honing my craft and the purity of the music. Every time I get up on stage I still feel like this is my last hour and a half on earth, I still burn with that kind of energy.
Every time I get up on stage I still feel like this is my last hour and a half on earth, I still burn with that kind of energy
I mean who doesn’t like Bowie, but does being compared piss you off?
Brett Anderson: Like you say, you can’t be a music lover of any taste and not be influenced and I guess we shared a sci-fi sensibility…
Yeah and a similar nose!