Suede: ‘Reforming was one of the best things we ever did’
The London band, back with a new album, still see themselves as outsiders among their contemporaries. ‘We’re the anti-Elbow’
Suede called time on the band in 2003, only to return in 2010.
Since the early 1990s, when Oasis and Blur were battling it out to be top of the pops and Suede were all androgyne and wiry pop, through to the early noughties when Suede’s answer to prevailing punk of The Vines, Idlewild and Queens of the Stone Age was the overly-pleasant A New Morning, the London band have never been ones for running with the pack. That’s perhaps why, 28 years since they first graced a stage, they still see themselves as outsiders among their contemporaries.
“We’re the least popular band among other bands,” says singer Brett Anderson, fresh off this summer’s festival circuit. “You know how there’s the award for the footballer’s footballer of the year? If there was an award for the least popular band voted for by other bands, it’d be us.”
“We’re the anti-Elbow,” chimes in bassist Mat Osman.
“And we’re fine with that. It’s our place in the scheme of things,” says Anderson.
If peer popularity eludes them, time has centrifuged a strong and loyal following that’s still in force today. It’s helped that absence made the heart grow fonder. After Anderson descended into drug addiction that affected the band’s output and internal relationships, then a poor reception to A New Morning, they called time on Suede in 2003, only to return in 2010.
Suede 2.0 feels different. Musically, there’s introspection where there once was extroversion, finesse where there were once broad strokes. The band – also comprising of guitarist Richard Oakes, drummer Simon Gilbert and keyboardist Neil Codling – appear older and wiser. Clean since 1999, Anderson has settled in rural Somerset with his family, and this year, he turned author with his memoir of Suede’s early days. Even Oakes, who’ll forever be known for joining the band aged 17 to take on the unenviable job of filling Bernard Butler’s shoes, is now in his forties.
Meeting Osman and Anderson in their maze of a rehearsal studio in London, this stage of their life appears to suit them; they carry the self-assured air of successful artists and intelligence their background suggests: Osman studied Economics at LSE and Anderson, while growing up in council estates of Haywards Heath, was brought up listening to Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Mahler. But they’ve also a humility that’s aided by seven years as civilians. They’re not here to bang their own drum, pardon the pun. A back catalogue of the Mercury Award-winning Suede, the masterpiece of Dog Man Star and the stylish Coming Up does the talking for them. But they do happen to be releasing The Blue Hour, their third album since reuniting.
“Reforming was one of the best things we ever did,” reflects Anderson. “I did [think] though about it a lot beforehand: is it the right thing to do, are we going to be able to make a success of it, are we going to be able to do it with dignity and grace?”
“I generally hate reformations,” adds Osman.
“I didn’t have any intention of reforming Suede but things happen, shit happens, and you can’t be held hostage to the decision of your past self,” says Anderson. “In lots of ways, it let us settle artistic scores. The last two albums that we ended on before we split were sub-standard, and that was a real shame. Part of the motivation with reforming has been to say, actually, that’s not us, this is us, and there’s been a groundswell of respect back for the band because of that.”
Did they view those albums as sub-standard at the time?
“You never think that at the time of release, because in order to get up on stage and usher your work out into the public, you have to have this slightly hubristic sense of self belief,” explains Anderson. “You can’t see anything at the time. When people ask what do I think of this record, well, ask me in a year’s time.
“I think we’re much more brutal in terms of quality control now than we ever were,” says Osman. “We discard a lot of ideas because we’ve done it before or it doesn’t feel like the band, and we never used to.
“Half of Head Music is great. If we had any kind of quality control then, I think we could have made great record. Though I’ve no idea what would have happened to us if a band that dysfunctional had made a really good record.”
What’s clear is that the split and return has freed the band up of the constraints they faced in their first round. As Osman explains: “It was pressured because we had people working for us, and their job was to sell our records and to help with our tours, so if we’re f***ing around you feel almost that you’re slipping behind. And then you see the other bands. It was quite competitive in the ’90s.”
Anderson: “When we released Blood Sports [their first album after reuniting], we were unsure about our place in the scheme of things. We learned that we’re not going to ever be part of the musical mainstream anymore with new music, regardless of how good what we do is. It gave us a real freedom with [its follow-up] Night Thoughts. Now, we worked on the premise that we’re not selling as many records as we used to but so fucking what? We’re making really interesting music, we’re doing stuff that we love doing and we’re doing it for the right reasons. Those sound like glib platitudes but they’re all totally true.”
That’s certainly heard in The Blue Hour. While Wastelands picks up right where Trash left off, the second half in particular is almost menacing in its tone, evolving the sense of drama present in Suede’s work. While they refute that the album is “about” the countryside (Anderson: “It’s like a butterfly in a case: if you want to label it, that means you’ve stuck a pin through it and killed it”), it is a recurring theme.
“I’m trying to pick out some of the unpleasant elements of being in the countryside,” says Anderson, who spends a little time in his Notting Hill flat too. “City dwellers often imagine the countryside to be this Arcadian Claude Lorrain-type painting of beautiful landscapes, and the reality of the countryside is kind of dead badgers, silos, and factory farming and stuff. There’s a lot of ugliness.”
Standing out on its own is Mistress, a stripped back interlude of a song, with the lyrics: “He doesn’t love you like her, he doesn’t need you like her, you’re not all that he’s got, but you’re all that he wants”.
Explains Anderson: “Mistress was written through the eyes of a child. Using a child’s perspectives was one of the things that I wanted to do on this album. You can do that in a metaphorical sense: you can use the perspective of a child to reveal your own vulnerability. Mistress was one of those songs about a child discovering that his father is having an affair, and if you look at the lyrics, it works within that thread.”
How much of that is drawn from personal experience?
“Well, how broad do you want to sort of go? What defines personal experience? Was I a child that discovered my father was having an affair? No. But, I can sort of . . . you know, all art is fiction. Don’t believe any of this bullshit that you’re fed by music journalists through the decades, saying great art is torn from the pages of a diary. All performers have personas, all art is fiction. Bruce Springsteen in jeans and a T-shirt is no less a fiction than Duran Duran in suits. It can be an authentic fiction, but they’re creating a persona.”
From the end of this month, they’ll be touring the album across Europe, and for the first time, they’re down for the Bord Gais Energy Theatre when they come to Dublin.
“We’re actually playing somewhere different, finally,” says Mat. “We’ve played The Olympia so many times and it’s always so good. There’s something quite theatrical about a Suede show, and it just fits in there. The combination that you get in Dublin – loving the venue and being quite drunk – it’s a sweet spot for us. But this is going to be great.”
The Blue Hour is released on September 21st