The Suede front man gives Dazed an in-depth interview, focusing on his musical origins, the beginning of the band and how his writing has changed throughout his career
Hype is a strange concept. For those who have endured it, the outcome can have perversely alienating effects – while popular among swathes of people, it also isolates those who are consciously suspicious of anything remotely resembling faddishness. Suede is one band that endured this process. After forming in 1989 the band was making music that was like nothing going on around them – the time was filled with mostly Shoegaze and the preliminary days of Grunge – and consequently they were passed over by numerous A&R record men. Fast forward three years of writing, rehearsing and playing to empty rooms and Suede are on the cover of Melody Maker, proclaimed ‘The Best New Band In Britain’. They hadn’t even released a single.
Fast forward again to 2011 and Dazed is sitting with Anderson over a drink in Soho. His new solo album, Black Rainbows, is out on 26 September. From an objective, and with all the benefits of hindsight, perspective, what’s interesting with Anderson is that throughout his, and Suede’s, career the maintenance of an unwavering autonomy has kept him on a rollercoaster trajectory with the zeitgeist ever since 1989. For Anderson though, it is his artistic impulses, rather than careerist profiteering, that have formed the basis of his releases. A refreshing stance in a time where more and more artists are in it for the wrong reasons. We spoke to the front man about forming Suede, his musical upbringing and how his writing has changed – right up to the making of Black Rainbows.
Dazed Digital: What made you first want to be in band?
Brett Anderson: My father was quite obsessed with music, so it stems from my upbringing. He was an obsessive classical music fan and used to go on pilgrimages to Hungary to visit Franz Liszt’s birthplace in his Morris Traveller. My mother was an artist, a painter, so I suppose I come from quite a creative background – a working class background: it was a council house but not a clichéd estate. It was on the edge of a wood. We didn’t have any money but there was quite a lot of culture in the house, and a lot of music, and like any self-respecting teenager, you decide that your parents’ music is crap – my dad would force feed me Liszt, Berlioz and Chopin and I’d tell him it was a load of shit and look for my own badge of identity, which I found in punk and post-punk with bands like Crass and Discharge.
DD: Have you always written?
Brett Anderson: I’ve always written songs, I haven’t ever just ‘written’ and I’d never consider myself a poet or anything like that. I’ve always loved the power of the simplicity that a really good pop song has and the way it can move you. I love that sense that you can sit down with an acoustic guitar and write some words with a melody and if you do it right it can be life changing. It’s the same kind of thing that I guess you can sit down in front of a typewriter with 26 letters and from that; the only limits are your imagination. There’s something very exciting about having limits but at the same time having absolutely none and it’s the same with song writing.
DD: When did you start writing with Bernard Butler?
Brett Anderson: In 1989 as soon as I met him – the year we formed Suede. I was still finishing my degree and at the time it was me, Justine (Frischmann) and Matt (Osman) playing together in bedrooms. We knew that to start taking the whole thing seriously we needed a guitar player. I could play but I was never a ‘guitar player’, I was more of a writer. So we put an advert in the NME, and Bernard Butler answered. That was the day Suede formed – September 1989 – 22 years ago now. Writing together was what we always planned to do – as soon as I met him and realised he was the type of person I wanted to write with. There was always a Morrissey and Marr relationship that we wanted to use as a template that and I think he very much wanted to have that kind of counter-figure to work with.
DD: It’s an incredibly intimate relationship to have with someone isn’t it?
Brett Anderson: I think it is, yeah. You have to know someone very well - you have to be part of their life. You can’t do it by post – there must be a foundation to the relationship. It can be very personal and your writing partner is the only person you’re willing to play songs to. You trust them and you’re also inspired by them – it’s a happy rivalry where you’re challenging each other but it’s a very positive experience: I’ve done this, where are you going to take it? And that’s what it was like when we were writing for the first Suede album with songs like ‘Sleeping Pills’ – it felt we were really taking it somewhere.
DD: When you started, do you feel that you benefited from the space you were given by the industry because you weren’t ‘like’ anything else going on at the time?
Brett Anderson: Definitely. We learned how to play, how to write, that kind of thing. It’s very important. A lot of record companies have a gambling attitude on a band and they might have a hit record and they might not. If they don’t, then they’re out the door; if they do, then they make another record. We were lucky enough to be out of that whole process because nobody wanted to know us, which was great, but very frustrating. The second you’re up on stage you want everybody to listen to you but it’s not necessarily the best thing for you. It’s very hard playing to one person in the audience – the humiliation of that process is very frustrating - but it’s also very necessary.
DD: The transition from struggling to generate interest in Suede to having every label wanting to sign you must have been huge. Especially with Melody Maker putting you on the cover as the best new band in the UK?
Brett Anderson: They put us on the cover the week before we even had a single out. They were very excited about what we were doing, which was original and interesting and it went against the grain. It very much had its own clearly defined personality and they put their faith in it, but looking back, was it a good thing for Suede to have that much press early on? Probably not
Brett Anderson: It put as many people off as it attracted but that’s the nature of it. We were used as guinea pigs by the media a little bit. Unwillingly but what’s the alternative? Last week you’re in the dole queue and this week you’re being asked if you want to be on the cover of magazines. But you don’t have that avuncular arm around your shoulder saying maybe you should just calm down a bit. You just go for it. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll is all about – extremity, taking a huge bite out of the fucking cherry and spitting out the pip. You just go with it and it’s only with hindsight that you can evaluate whether things have been good for your band. But no, I don’t think that the huge deluge of press was 100 per cent good for Suede. I think it distorted the world a lot for us, and the colossal weight of the expectation wasn’t good for the band – it raised the stakes and made it interesting - but probably not that good for us.
DD: Do you think that the ‘distorted’ image put off people who hadn’t even heard you?
Brett Anderson: Yeah - for me personally, if I hear anything overly glowing about a band or anything really fashionable – in the sense that it has this white heat around it - then I’ll leave it and let it filter through to me. I’m very like that. If it’s still good in six months time then I’ll pick up on it. I hate faddishness – I’m automatically very suspicious of it and Suede were at the vanguard of all that. If I’d been sitting there watching us from the perspective of objectivity then I probably wouldn’t have liked us.
DD: As a writer do you prefer working on your own or collaboratively?
Brett Anderson: I always feel that I need someone else to challenge me. I can write on my own but I like the feeling of not being in total control as a writer. That’s what I’ve done with the new album – I didn’t want to have the role of being in ultimate control. There had to be an element of the unknown so we went into the studio with a band and just jammed for three days and I didn’t know how it was going to turn out but that gave me that sense of the unknown. It could have been a fucking disaster but I had enough faith in the guy I was working with, Leo Abrahams, to know that together we could steer it in the right direction. I took the jams away and wrote these songs on top of them but there was definitely this element of not being in total control and I like that. I like not being the man who decides absolutely everything. I get my best work when doing that – I need a foil.
DD: How would you say that you’ve changed as a writer over the 22 years?
Brett Anderson: I’ve gone through phases. I went through a stage of wanting my writing to be simpler; my early songs were very veiled and murky in their meaning. With a lot of them it’s only been recently that I’ve worked out what they’ve been about. That’s quite interesting – that you can write a song twenty years ago, in this fog of confusion and only work out later what it’s about. It’s a very interesting concept. In the late nineties, I wanted to write simpler songs like ‘She’s in Fashion’ and ‘Film Star’, which I liked because they had an honesty of being about something concrete.
With the new album I’ve gone back to falling in love with the beauty of the obscure – I love shadows - in art and photography - because you don’t know what’s there, it could be anything and that sense of the viewer’s mind joining the dots is what I love. The cliché of a song having a different interpretation for whoever listens to it is a powerful concept. With Black Rainbows I’ve written in a more veiled way because pop music for me is about pushing emotional buttons where you don’t know what the answer is going to be – you’re just deepening the mystery.
DD: I read in a recent interview that you wanted to apologise for everything that took place during the making of Head Music. Was that quite a dark time?
Brett Anderson: It was the darkest time. There were a lot of drugs around, it’s well documented, but it was a point where I personally was losing the plot a bit and the band was disintegrating. It was a strange record. We were trying to do something very different musically as well: going from rock to a more electronic style, which was quite interesting. It was all part of the madness of making that record. It’s a strange album because half of it is amazing and half of it suffers with the confusion of the time. I think looking back at Suede, the nineties would have been a lot different without us….probably a lot better.
DD: What’s next for you?
Brett Anderson: After we’ve toured this album I’m going to start writing with Suede again. We’ll see where it takes us – it could be to a new Suede album, it may not, depending on results. I’m not going to promise anything but we’ll see how it goes.
Brett Anderson: I’m always excited for what the next thing is. It’s always the most important thing in my life at the time. I’d love to make a new Suede album and I’d love it to be brilliant but it won’t exist unless it is brilliant. It’s not going to be made to flog a tour on the back of.
Black Rainbows is out 26 September