Back in fashion
Brett Anderson is anxious to set the record straight. "I never felt part of the whole Britpop thing," says Suede's furrow-browed frontman. "As soon as I was aware of what it was becoming, I tried to distance myself from it."
But not before appearing with a Union Jack on the April 1993 cover of (long defunct) UK music magazine Select, with an accompanying headline urging the 'Yanks' -- that would be Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Pixies and Pearl Jam -- to go home. Did he regret being party to such naked jingoism?
"That was nothing to do with me. Select didn't come to me and say, 'we want to do a photograph of you in front of a Union Jack'. If they had of done, I'd have probably told them to fuck off. I had no desire to become a nationalist pin-up. You could do a lot with Photoshop, even in 1993."
As Anderson looks forward to Suede's first tour since the rockers drifted apart in 2003, it is fair to state he has complicated views about their place in UK music history. On the one hand, he sees the band, whose hits include Animal Nitrate and The Drowners, as among chief instigators of Britpop, part of the triumvirate that would eventually include Blur and Oasis. And yet, he has little time for the reactionary caricature -- all zipped-up trackies and bovver-boy cries of 'oi!' -- the movement soon became.
"Historically, you can see the first Suede album as also the first Britpop album. We initiated it. And I was kind of offered this thing -- 'do you want to wave a Union Jack and pretend to be this boring Carry On figure, going on about corduroy trousers and fish and chips and stuff like that?' But that never appealed to me."
Their sensually charged, sexually ambivalent music set Suede apart from the fuddy Britpop mainstream.
"I was writing about my life. And my life happened to be led as a poor white person in London," says Anderson. "I was brought up on Haywards Heath in a council house. I wrote about the world I saw around me. That world happened to British. It was never a celebration of British culture, it was a criticism if anything. I wasn't a privileged member of the middle class pretending to be poorer than I was."
Suede never officially split, but the critical thrashing inflicted upon 2002's drippy post-rehab album A New Morning rang a gentle death knell for the outfit. In the years since, Anderson has focused on a solo career, determined to put Suede behind him. Interviewed by this journalist as recently as December 2009, he refused to discuss his old group. Six months later, Suede were playing a sold-out Albert Hall and talking up the possibility of a new LP. What happened?
"The Teenage Cancer Trust called up my manager and asked would we be interested in doing a show? I sort of thought about it for a while and concluded, well, it might be quite fun. I rang the rest of the band and we all decided enough time has passed. The original decision was to do a one-off. We thought it would be a beautiful transient statement. Do the show and not do any more. But we did the Albert Hall and enjoyed it so much we decided to play some more. And here we are talking about coming to Dublin."
Even by the drug-fuelled, back-biting standards of Britpop, few acts were as riddled with melodrama as Suede. From the start, they were an outfit that lived and breathed controversy. In 1992, Melody Maker infamously hailed them 'best new band in Britain' before they had even released a record. Nine months later, with grunge still at its height, their debut LP Suede went straight to the top of the UK charts, the first 'indie' album to achieve that feat. Calculatingly provocative, the cover appeared to show two young ladies in a romantic clench; within, Anderson's sexually ambivalent lyrics combined debauched theatricality and Ziggy Stardust androgyny.
Suede's notoriety was further ratcheted up after Anderson told a journalist he was a gay man who had "never had a homosexual experience". In fact, he was screamingly straight -- according to bassist Mat Osman, Suede were out "getting laid" every night. "The [homosexual] comment was something that was completely taken out of context," says Anderson. "It was about the mental approach to songwriting, being inclusive and trying to write from different perspectives. It did assume a life of its own, I suppose."
In late 1993, they undertook their debut tour of the US, taking little-known indie wallflowers The Cranberries along as support. Initially, all the hype was about Suede, with the Limerick group propping up the bill. However, it rapidly became apparent that skinny-jeaned Londoners with tambourines weren't exactly Middle America's thing. The Cranberries went on to shift 25 million albums. Suede returned to London, tails between legs.
"I've always enjoyed playing America," Anderson says today. "But the biggest problem we had was we had to change our name on our second album [to London Suede]. It was fine on the first record, we did very well, 150,000 copies. Unfortunately, there was another artist called Suede. I didn't really want to go back under a different name, that was a big problem for me."
The darker side of success informed their next LP, the extravagantly baroque Dog Man Star. Regarded today as their masterpiece, the 1994 album was recorded against a backdrop of deepening tension between guitarist Bernard Butler and the rest of the group. Grieving for his recently dead father and drained by the intense Dog Man Star sessions, Butler eventually had a nasty falling out with Anderson. He quit the line-up shortly after the LP was finished.
Anderson and Butler have since mended their differences and actually recorded together as The Tears in 2005. Still, you sense that the singer never quite got over the trauma of their original parting (a successful producer, the guitarist has opted out of the current reunion). Certainly, Suede's third long-player, 1996's Coming Up, was a very calculated backlash against all those only too happy to write them off as a spent force without Butler.
"At the time most people in the world had decided Suede were done for," says Anderson. "The only five people who thought otherwise were in the band. It was a magical time. There was a real gang mentality, which was really nice. It was us against the world. We did work incredibly hard. We knew that if we got it wrong it could be really bad. We got it right and it was a great record for us."
Throughout Suede's glory years, Anderson lived an unapologetically debauched lifestyle, the highs and lows of hedonism an ongoing trope of his songwriting (the line "let's chase the dragon" from So Young is widely read as referring to heroin use). That he cleaned up shortly before recording the flop A New Morning was widely seized upon as evidence that, for Suede to be Suede, they needed to embrace the degenerate rock-star cliché. Married and clean living, can 43-year-old Anderson really do justice to material he authored as a dissolute rake?
"It doesn't feel to me like a parody or pastiche or anything like that. Yes, we've got more stable lives now. It's misleading to think stability makes you less hungry as an artist. If anything, the opposite is true. It's one of those myths that is so powerful that it is quite misleading -- the myth of the tortured artist. Okay, there are countless examples of tortured artists from the past, Van Gogh-type figures. But just as much great art can be created through harmony. I don't need to get in character before I go on stage. If the music is good enough, nothing else matters."
Suede perform their first three albums at the Olympia, Dublin, Tuesday to Thursday
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