April 15th, 2011 | Interviews

Illustration by Amber Halford

Suede fell out of bed into Britpop and Britpop controversy about Blur and bisexuality and who was doing what to who in what direction, but between episodes of public drama was glammy rock ‘n’ roll in the most classic English tradition. After years off duty, Suede is substantially re-united (without Bernard) and active and playing their first stateside gig at Coachella. This interview by Chris Ziegler.

How did Suede and Metallica ever get together for all-night rock sessions?
Brett Anderson (vocals): Our press agent sorta said, ‘Hey, Kirk Hammett is a big fan— should we get you together?’ So we went out to San Francisco to Kirk’s place and spent a lot of time being a bit naughty and playing songs in his basement. He had a studio—a little bit of a jamming room. I remember running through ‘Metal Mickey,’ we did a bit of T. Rex—we were off our faces, anyway. He’s a nice chap!
Kirk said he was struck by how normal you were and how you didn’t spank your buttocks once.
I should have spanked my buttocks. He was probably very disappointed. ‘This can’t be the real Brett Anderson. He’s not spanking his buttocks.’
What Crass lyric is so close to the front of your mind at all times that you can sing it to me right this second?
‘Do they owe us a living? Of course they fucking do!’ I love Crass. Feeding of the 5,000 was one of my favorite records growing up. I love that record. I love all the artwork. Talking about bands that draw you into a world—Crass really created their world, and it was a really confrontational, intelligent, political world. I really responded to it as a young teenager.
What part of the Crass ethos do you hold most dear?
I don’t live on a commune in Essex. But it opened my eyes—if it’s done right—how powerful political music can be. I never wrote overtly political music, but I did write music that dealt with not like party politics, but themes of poverty and alienation and I used that in songs—that was possibly inspired by Crass.
How was Suede a political band?
Dealing with the politics of life. Setting our songs in a real social context. I never wanted to be a writer who waved flags for a political party, but listening to the songs you can tell I was brought up as a member of the working-class, and you can tell the songs have a very strong left-wing bias.
You said you felt there hasn’t been a definitive genre of music invented in the U.K. in the last decade, and that you feel music is meant more to placate than provoke now. Why?
I do very much feel that’s the state of things. I can’t see that the last decade has created its own genre, which is a terrible shame for that generation. Not to say there hasn’t been great music. There’s amazing music! I love discovering new bands and there’s a great wave of new bands. But the biggest cultural development of the last like ten years was computer technology. It wasn’t anything to do with art and music, and that’s a shame. Even in the 90s, we had dance music—definitely a 90s genre. Maybe people have become too knowing. There’s too much of a structured sense of what’s cool and what isn’t, and that comes from magazines constantly publishing lists which contain the same five Beatles albums and this kind of thing. There’s this constant pressure to comply with this very sort of rigid set of accepted rock albums. So bands are too afraid to go outside those reference points. I sense this real fear in the music industry. A lot of it is because the industry has become a lot more corporate. People won’t take risks anymore. In the early 90s—that’s the only time I can talk about because that’s when I started—magazines were putting unusual bands on the cover. Magazines put Suede on covers before anyone had ever heard of us. Commercially, that was very ill-advised—but at least it suggested they had a sense of purpose. Now I get the sense people only back who they think are gonna win, regardless of if they actually think it’s any good or not. They will back who they think are the winners, and they will write good reviews for the bands they think are gonna sell lots of records whether they like them or not, and I think that’s a fucking terrible way to be. People are too afraid of not being cool? Or getting it wrong? No one’s willing to get it wrong. No one’s willing to stick their neck out and become a hated figure. No one’s got that kind of confidence. Everyone’s too willing to comply. It’s a terrible thing. But things go in cycles, don’t they? Maybe it’ll move into another period where people are taking chances.
When is the last time you suffered Stendhal syndrome?
At the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. I was looking at the Toulouse-Lautrecs, which were absolutely amazing. I’ve never been a huge fan of Toulouse-Lautrec before, but seeing the paintings in the flesh—as it were—is just so amazingly powerful. They’re so beautifully observed. I’m not sure if I actually experienced Stendhal syndrome, but I’ve read about it and it’s an extreme reaction to beauty—that’s the closest I can imagine it to be.
What’s it actually feel like?
Like drinking too much coffee. Slightly restless euphoria. Or maybe I’m getting it confused with actually drinking too much coffee. I’m a huge fan of art . I spend a lot of time in galleries and that’s my favorite period of art as well—the post-Impressionists. Paul Gauguin and those artists. I love all the medieval painters as well. People like Bruegel and Cranach and Holbein. There’s something incredibly primitive about it—Bruegel’s ‘Return of the Hunters’ is so atmospheric. What I really like about Holbein is he’s such an amazing draftsman and a great observer of human features. He could completely capture a person. You’re looking at someone who lived 500 years ago but it could be someone passing you on the street. They’re so real. I love that about Holbein’s paintings.
Did you want to try and observe things that carefully in Suede songs?
It’s difficult in the framework of pop music. It isn’t a very subtle medium. It doesn’t have as much as fiction or fine art. You’re in a very rigid structure—melody and rhyme and rhythm and those things are constricting you. I don’t think pop writers can ever take it to that depth of observation. But what pop writers can do is engage at an emotional level that other artists can’t do. The pop song, when done right, is incredibly powerful. That’s partly to do with the simplicity as well. Truth in music is incredibly important, but artifice can be incred- ibly important as well—that’s something I’ve done quite consciously. Lots of the songs I’ve written for Suede have been deliberately superficial but perversely enough there’s a kind of truth in that. A sketch is powerful because you fill in the missing pieces. You fill in the framework yourself. If it’s too full, there’s no space for you to interpret it.
Francis Bacon said, ‘The job of the artist is to deepen the mystery.’
Absolutely. One of the most important quotes ever about creativity. Something I’ve learned through mistakes over the years is it shouldn’t be too clear what you’re doing. Sometimes the sketch is so powerful because of the room for interpretation. As soon as you know what something is about, it somehow kills the mystery. And mystery is so important in music. That allows the song to have life beyond what it was intended for. When a writer’s writing, they have a very specific thing in mind, but they don’t know about the life of the listener. The listener applies his life to the music and there’s a new interpretation. That’s why a good song has so much power. It reaches into people’s lives. But to do that, there needs to be a sense of mystery. I’ve always tried to do that with detail. There’s this whole thing with great songwriters saying songs should be universal, but I actually think songs should be opposite—strangely specific and set in a place to make them real. I mean, still allow space for interpretation.
You said once that Suede writes about the used condom, not the beautiful bed. That kind of detail?
That’s not my favorite quote I ever said—but it keeps coming back. It must resonate with people’s vision of what the band is about. It’s quite a crass way of saying it, but I suppose it’s got some sort of truth. I always wanted to document the sort of grubby side of life. I didn’t want to talk in rock cliché. ‘Baby, I love you!’ clichés. I wanted to sing about the world I saw around me, and the world I saw around me was the used condom. It was the dusty street, the flickering TV. It was that use of detail and the fact I was born in the U.K. that made me write about the U.K. in detail, and it became distorted into the cliché of what became Britpop later—but it was never this nationalistic, jingoistic intention. It was just a desire to write about the world I saw around me.
Did you have to feel like you were living a Suede song to write a Suede song?
I don’t feel I deliberately changed my lifestyle. But I didn’t rein myself in. I felt justified in writing what I was writing—the right thing to do for my artistic vision was live the lifestyle I was singing about, but it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing. I was living that, obviously. But you can’t live that lifestyle forever and wanna remain alive. Things have to change. I championed—well, I documented it, and then you realize that what you’re documenting is quite harmful.
Did you think you were going to end up on a prison ship like Dan Treacy?
Well, toward the end of the 90s, things started getting quite dark. Life was definitely changing. I thought, ‘Well, maybe we need to veer away from something.’ I always feel I’m slightly on dodgy ground when people talk about this whole concept of the artist as a damaged character—it’s such a powerful cliché that people really wanna believe in, and I think there’s so much great art made through clarity and sobriety. The damaged artist casts a huge shadow people sometimes can’t see beyond. Me personally, as an artist now I feel much more in control of my art. Much more driven. Certainly more than I did ten years ago. But people need to believe in that sort of figure.
Jason Pierce said he started Spacemen 3 because of people like Roky Erickson and Alex Chilton—that he felt he could do what they did because they were flawed and not professional and perfect.
It’s the ultimate DIY ethic, isn’t it? The ultimate punk thing? Saying it doesn’t matter how incapable or damaged or all these pejorative adjectives you wanna apply—not you can still create art, but it almost makes your art more interesting or valid or gives it an edge you wouldn’t have if you weren’t damaged? Someone like Ian Dury—the ‘cripple as artist.’ It gives the audience a fascination, I think.
You said you were making music to find community in a fucked-up world. Did you ever find that community?
It’s always a search for some sort of community, isn’t it? There’s a line from one of the old songs, ‘New Generation.’ ‘We take the pills to find each other.’ A search for human … ownership or whatever. I don’t know. It’s strange to say because I’ve always conducted my career and Suede’s career almost as outsiders. I’ve never felt accepted by the music industry. I still don’t. I’ve never felt part of any sort of gang, and I never really wanted to be part of any gang. The only gang I’m part of is this weird disparate group of non-members—the ‘others’—and I’m quite happy in that role as well. I don’t jealously look at other people’s lives and wish I could be like that. I don’t have that search for community I used to have— maybe I realized the reality of things.
Does that mean it’s not out there? That it was never there? Can bands create these communities anymore?
That’s the definition of a decent band. They create a community. When I answered your question, it was in a personal sense. Whether I’ve found a community. But hopefully Suede as a band created a community. That was one of our real intentions—I loved bands like the Smiths who had this world you went into, with the sleeves and the reference points. You very much immersed yourself. I wanted Suede to have that sense as well. Almost a strong Suede way of being. The Suede army, as someone once said.
If you didn’t find community, what did you find?
It made my life. It gave me all those things we were talking about earlier. It gave me everything. Gave me purpose in life. I wouldn’t ever advise anyone to do what I did! I’ve been incredibly lucky in my career. 99 percent of people who go into music won’t be as lucky. It is a lot to do with luck! The fact I’ve met Bernard Butler—little things! I might never have met him, and we never would have written those songs and Suede would have been a very different band. I never just say, ‘This is what you should do!’ I was just confident and stupid enough to do what I did, and it just sort of worked! But some of the decisions I made—they were pretty rash!
Is it necessary to commit totally to being creative to be good at being creative? To jump in with no safety net?
Absolutely. You’ve gotta let yourself out there. I didn’t even have an instrument to fall back on! ‘I believe I got enough of a voice to say something interesting, and I’m gonna do it.’ Confidence verging on stupidity that happened to pay off!
Does pop music defend the brave and stupid?
I think so. You have to push it as far as it’ll go. Part of the reason the public loves pop music so much is the drama of the story. You have people who have no idea about the drama and just wanna listen to Phil Collins records and that’s fine, but there’s a whole other group of people that love the back story—how it’s made and why people fall out and fall in love. It’s almost treating the world of music like you’re watching a soap opera and people love that.
Why do people fall in love?
Probably some sort of chemical function. I don’t wanna be unromantic about it but it fulfills a necessary function for the human race.