Suede’s frontman discusses why he’s definitely not a collector, why it can be hard to be enthused about reissues and why the band’s future has more clarity than ever. John Earls puts the questions for SDE
In the second volume of his memoirs, Afternoons With The Blinds Drawn, Brett Anderson writes of “Suede’s graceful final act” since they reformed in 2010.
It’s true that Suede’s three albums Bloodsports (2013), Night Thoughts (2016) and The Blue Hour (2018) could fit the term “graceful” to varying degrees. But Suede’s new album Autofiction is anything but graceful, dignified or any of the regular slightly barbed terms usually associated with artists who have survived as long as Suede have since incendiary debut single ‘The Drowners’ was released 30 years ago.
“The longer you survive as an artist, the more you want to become primitive”Brett Anderson
A primal, punky battering ram, Suede’s ninth album is as musically electric as their early work, while having an emotional weight befitting their age. It really is a late-period masterpiece.
Brett Anderson spoke to SDE to discuss getting the balance right between punk and emotion, as well as revealing his thoughts on Suede’s reissues, his own collector status…and why he’s failed to match bassist Mat Osman as a novelist.
Hi Brett. Congratulations on the new album. Autofiction is the opposite of a cosy, middle-aged album. What inspired going so primal?
Brett Anderson: To some extent, you always react to your last record. The Blue Hour took Night Thoughts’ theme to the next level, and it meant we’d gone as far down the leftfield art-rock route as we wanted. It’s always an option to disappear down that path, and maybe in a couple of albums we’ll go really fucking obscure. That’d be interesting, but this felt the right moment to burn it down, rip it up, start again; all of those phrases.
I don’t want to relive my twenties, as that’s be ridiculousBrett Anderson
The longer you survive as an artist, the more you want to become primitive. I don’t want to relive my twenties, as that’d be ridiculous, so we weren’t trying to go back to our early days in a nostalgic way. But there’s something about the urgency of five people in a room hitting bits of wood that’s so exciting.
It’s timeless as well. What fascinates me about great rock music is the timelessness of it. ‘My Generation’, ‘You Really Got Me’: the really great rock records just sound so alive. Rock music can sound dated but, if you get it right, its timelessness is so exciting. I’m very proud of Autofiction, but it took a long time to make. It comes across as carefree, but it took a long time to sound so nonchalant. It always does.
Just how long did it take?
We started writing before The Blue Hour came out, so it was about four years. But, in the first six months of writing, one half-idea usually emerges. Me, Neil and Richard really put the hours in on this album.
I like working hard on songs now. Hard work can define you and become a solace. When you’re in your twenties, hard work bores you to death. You just want to have fun. But, as you get older, there’s something comforting about sitting down and working. There’s something beautiful about the craftsmanship of songwriting.
Despite the record’s energy, there are some songs – like ‘She Still Leads Me On’, about how your late mother still inspires you – that you just couldn’t have written when you were younger. How do you get that balance between the punky side of the music and the emotion of the lyrics?
It’s a tricky balance to get right. I wanted a raw, primal sounding rock record, but at the same time for it to have a lyrical vulnerability. There’s a paradox there, but it’s what makes the record interesting.
It couldn’t be a pastiche of how a young man would think about the world. It’d be easy to try to make ‘Animal Nitrate 2’, but we’d fall flat on our faces if we did that. Everyone would laugh at us, because what would be the point? We’ve already made ‘Animal Nitrate’, and it worked pretty well. Autofiction has a vulnerability you can only really have in middle age. The album doesn’t have the arrogance of youth, it’s much more questioning than that. Fuse that with a primal rock sound and it’s an interesting combination.
Richard’s guitars are particularly exciting on the album. It feels a very “Richard Oakes” album.
That’s absolutely right. In lots of ways, this is Richard’s record. In a funny way, this is the first time you’re really hearing Richard. To be frank about it, he was brought in as Bernard’s replacement. Consciously or subconsciously, Richard was always trying to fit into that role. This is the first record where he’s shrugged that spectre off and become himself.
Richard has always been into John McGeoch and Siouxsie And The Banshees. That was always Richard’s world, but possibly he didn’t feel he could stamp that identity onto Suede early on. But he’s grown in confidence, and his work on Autofiction is so brilliant. It’s why the record sounds so fresh.
It’s interesting you mention The Banshees, as I had in my notes that Black Ice sounds “very Banshees, very different for Suede.”
It’s good you’ve picked up on that, as ‘Black Ice’ is probably my favourite song on the album. ‘She Still Leads Me On’ is more emotional, but I love ‘Black Ice’ musically. It’s an odd song, as it’s so upfront and I think it’s the first song we’ve ever done with the bass as a lead instrument. The song doesn’t quite work without it.
In terms of new ideas, ‘Personality Disorder’s almost spoken-word vocal is very different too.
I’ve wanted to try that style of singing for a while. I’ve always loved The Fall and Mark E Smith was the master of that style of singing. A lot of new bands are doing it well: Dry Cleaning, Working Men’s Club and I suppose Fontaines DC do that spoken style too. I like Yard Act and Shame as well. I wanted to do it in my own way, not as a homage to Mark E Smith. I wanted to try to make it my own. That’s what you have to do: take influences from other music and make your own crappy version of it. Because it’s your own crappy version, it has much more worth than an efficient copy. I’ve never seen the point of artists who can sing exactly like George Michael or who have “the perfect voice,” because the point of music is personality. The point is to inject some of yourself into it, not ape someone else.
I increasingly hate over-produced music and I can’t listen to modern pop, as it’s too perfect.Brett Anderson
Character is so important in music and, as I go deeper into my career, it’s all about the character and personality in my music. I increasingly hate over-produced music and I just can’t listen to modern pop, as it’s too perfect. I want to hear character, personality, flaws. On the production of this album, we tried to make it rawer and much less produced than previous albums. I’m into songs, when you feel there’s a person behind the music, and sometimes flaws can be part of the personality.
It doesn’t sound like you’d be interested in Dolby Atmos mixes of old Suede albums, in that case?
I don’t have an interest in that at all, no. I grew up with a broken stereo and crappy transistor radios. For me, it’s about top-lines and melody. The intricacies of music are lost on me. I know it’s important that they’re there, but those details just don’t interest me as an entry point into someone’s music. It might interest me on a subconscious level, but it’s just not why I listen to music.
Speaking of production, Autofiction is Suede’s seventh album with Ed Buller. What is it about Ed that works so well as a producer for the band?
Ed is like an older brother, or maybe our dad. We argue with him a lot, but the arguments are always constructive. We know which buttons we can and can’t push with each other.
Ed can be brutally frank about the songs. We’d been writing this record for about a year before Ed heard any of the demos. When we sat down to go through them, he went: “This is great, this is shit, this is shit, let’s change the verse in that.” We get a real objectivity from Ed. That’s hard to take sometimes but, if you employ Ed, that’s what he does.
‘The Only Way I Can Love You’ was interesting, as it had a completely different, much darker, verse. Ed told us: “No. You’ve got half a song there. The chorus is brilliant, but the verse is shit. Go away and rewrite it.” We became a bunch of schoolkids at that point: “Urgh? What? Urgh!”
But you just told me you enjoy hard work as a songwriter now!
You’re right, but you still instinctively go: “But I don’t want to do any hard work! God, how boring!” But Ed was totally right. We rewrote the verse, and suddenly the song made sense. Because Ed isn’t attached emotionally, he’s able to look at songs objectively. At the same time, he really cares. Ed defined us and we defined him. Suede isn’t just another job for Ed, it’s more important than that.
The song that seems to hark back to early Suede the most is ‘Shadow Self’, about a woman who doesn’t need anybody else because she’s happy “dancing with my shadow self.” Who inspired it?
I don’t really know what ‘Shadow Self’ is about, or ‘Personality Disorder’. Sometimes I don’t know what a song is about, and I make no apologies for that (laughs). I don’t think I should always know what my songs are about. What’s ‘Music For Airports’ about? Music isn’t always about something. When I write, it’s sometimes in abstract, expressionistic way. I’m throwing paint at the wall and seeing what patterns that makes. That’s in the lyrics and how I use my voice.
“Shadow self” is simply a Jungian phrase I really like. It’s a comment on your dark side, and I suppose the song is about embracing your dark side. There are different versions of yourself and you don’t necessarily need anybody else, because you can be happy with your alter-ego. I realise that sounds a bit Batman. (Christian Bale-as-Batman impression): “I’m so dark and deep.” I know that sounds ridiculous, but sometimes you really can be happy like that. I think about my former selves in the same way, as there are so many different versions of who I was: the 15-year-old boy is still in me, as is the 26-year-old manchild and the 40-year-old man. All of them are me, and it’s sometimes nice to find a place at the table for them.
How does that fit in with your onstage persona? How has that changed over the years?
I don’t think your stage persona changes. Your stage persona is set in your early days and is essentially The Picture Of Dorian Gray. I might become better as a performer, but that’s a matter of subtlety, as your persona is set as one identity.
The process that generates that persona is very complicated: it’s partly you, partly the media’s portrayal of you. Lots of forces act to develop it. As a person, you evolve and go off to live your life. I have a family now, and it’d be ridiculous if I still tried to have that onstage persona when I’m not on stage. But, when I am on stage, that persona is a necessary mask to wear. It’s well documented that musicians wear masks on stage – some literally. But I think everyone does it, and I think you have to, because it’s too terrifying not to. Standing in front of 10,000 people and being judged by them is too terrifying not to do it without your persona as a buffer.
Did you miss not having an outlet for that persona during lockdown? Did you start slapping your arse in Tesco?
Ha! I did find myself missing it much more than I thought I would. I used to think I’d be fine with not going on stage, that it wouldn’t bother me. It wasn’t a big deal and I’m not looking for any victim points, but I had a kind of identity crisis during lockdown.
Even though it’s only a small part of your life in terms of time, your persona takes up a lot of space. A performer needs to be allowed to inhabit that persona. Hence why, in lockdown, you had so many musicians doing gigs on Zoom: it was musicians trying to inhabit their persona in a way they were allowed. Suede didn’t bother, as I don’t like doing the things everyone else is, so we just left it alone for a couple of years. But I did miss it.
How fitting is it that Autofiction is coming out 30 years after ‘The Drowners’?
I’m very aware it’s 30 years since ‘The Drowners’. I’m super-proud of that record, which changed a lot of things for a lot of people. If you want to look at it historically, I think it was the first Britpop single. ‘The Drowners’ lit the touch paper for what became Britpop, which defined music for a generation. In that sense, ‘The Drowners’ is a very important record. And it’s a great single, as the B-sides are even better than the A-side. ‘To The Birds’ is still one of my favourite Suede songs. Maybe subconsciously there’s some of that on this album. I’m aware of this album’s links to the past, but it doesn’t feel that we’re trying to inhabit the same world.
It was 11 years between ‘The Drowners’ and A New Morning, and it’s now 12 years since Suede reformed. Does it feel like Suede Mark 2 has lasted longer than the original incarnation?
It’s weird how time passes. Whenever I’m reminded it’s 12 years since we got back together, I’m shocked. We went through so many changes between 1992-1994. That was a lot, but now two years feels the blink of an eye. Time passes differently when you get older.
How much did writing your memoirs Coal Black Mornings and Afternoons With The Blinds Drawn inspire the lyrics on this album?
The idea of person versus persona was key from Afternoons With The Blinds Drawn. That was the most interesting aspect for me of writing that book. With Coal Black Mornings, I learned a lot about myself. It was nice to revisit my younger selves, and I allowed myself to feel emotions I hadn’t felt for many, many decades. That first book was a time machine.
Mat Osman has written two novels. Do you have a novel in you?
I actually wrote a short novel, The Dog Walker, a couple of years ago. But I read it back recently and I didn’t think it was good enough. Dog walkers are characters who live in the hinterland of other people’s lives. You see them in Hyde Park, with five dogs on leads. The dog walker is someone who comes to service posh people, who have a minor interaction with their dog walker but never really know about their life. That mystery of the lives they really lead was interesting.
I regret the decisions we made about early B-sides. There’s plenty of good Suede B-sides that would have strengthened the albums, and it’s a shame they didn’tBrett Anderson
So yes, I’ve written a novel, but I don’t know if I’ll ever publish it. Part of my reticence is that I don’t want to become a jack-of-all-trades. It’s like when you see actors in bands. I always think: “Stick to what you’re good at.”
Does Suede fulfil all your creative desires now? Your last solo album, Black Rainbows, was 11 years ago.
While I’m enjoying Suede and I think we’re making great Suede records, I don’t feel the need to make solo records. The reason I made the solo records is because I thought Suede had run out of steam. I thought I needed to shake it up in a different way. But we’ve done that on Autofiction with Suede. You’re always trying to jolt yourself out of complacency. As soon as I feel complacent, we’ll have to change things around. But, while we’re feeling artistically vital, we’ll carry on.
You mentioned the B-sides of ‘The Drowners’. How much do you miss B-sides? Or is it a relief you don’t have to fill ‘CD2’ anymore?
In lots of ways, I regret the decisions we made about those early B-sides. The early albums would have been better had we included ‘To The Birds’, ‘The Big Time’, ‘Europe Is Our Playground’, ‘My Insatiable One’, ‘Killing Of A Flash Boy’, ‘My Dark Star’… the list goes on and on. There are plenty of good Suede B-sides that would have strengthened the albums, and it’s a shame they didn’t. So no, I don’t really miss B-sides.
But didn’t those B-sides make the singles even better and were room for great experimentation? Some people’s favourite Suede album is [B-side compilation] Sci-Fi Lullabies.
It is, but it’s Suede fans’ favourite Suede album. What I’m saying is that normal people might have listened to Suede albums and liked them more. Saying that is a cult thing, and you’re preaching to the choir if you say that’s your favourite.
How much of a collector are you?
I have my old vinyl collection and I love it in a nostalgic way, but I’m not a collector. I listen to music for the music and don’t need to have the physical artefact. I know that might not chime with what your readers want, but that’s the truth.
How closely involved are you with Suede’s reissues?
I was very closely involved with the early ones. With the first reissues in 2011, I was hugely involved and wanted to make sure they were right. They felt like an important testament to the band.
Otherwise, it’s hard to have enthusiasm when it becomes reissue after reissue. I’m always enthusiastic about the first reissue, but if something is coming out just because it’s the 25th or 30th anniversary, it’s difficult to know where to go. There are only so many old demos you can dig up. I tend to leave it to everyone else these days, to be honest, as I’m always trying to look forward, not back.
How did you feel going through those demos on the first reissues?
Looking back can be useful. You learn a lot about yourself, so it’s essential to assess what you’ve done in the past. You learn what the good stuff and the shit stuff is and try not to make the same mistakes.
One of the great things about Bloodsports was that we’d listened to a lot of past Suede stuff with objectivity and clarity, which we hadn’t had in the late ‘90s. In the late ‘90s, there was a constant pressure to reinvent ourselves, which veered into… well, we got it completely wrong. We should have carried on making Suede records, as there’s nothing wrong with that, so long as you make records that somehow still have that spark. It’s a weird paradox, that you can and can’t repeat yourself, but you know when you get it right and it still has that magic.
If you’re enthusiastic about the first reissue, would you be interested in The Tears’ album Here Come The Tears coming back out? Bernard told SDE that he’s done a fresh mix of it.
I haven’t listened to that record for a long time, so it’d be difficult for me to say. It had some good songs on it. I love ‘Autograph’, that’s a great song. What else is good on The Tears’ record? ‘The Ghost Of You’ is really good. A reissue? Who knows? I might be interested in theory.
Have you started to think about what’s next for Suede?
We’ve started writing a new album for about a year now. I want to do something unexpected next, I don’t want to make Autofiction 2. For our next record, we originally wanted to make something very leftfield and not very song-based. But I’m not sure if that’ll work, as Suede are about songs. I don’t know how much we can deconstruct what we do. But I would like to make something different. I’d maybe like the next record not to be Suede’s tenth album, but Suede nine-and-a-half: to drop it out of nowhere, so that people go: “Oh my God, Suede have got a new album out?” I’d also like it to be a collaboration.
Not another musician, a collaboration in another art form. It could be in dance, maybe a soundtrack. I don’t want to discuss it with whoever it could be with until I know what the music will be like, but I’d like it to be “Suede With…”, not another Suede record. We’ve got four songs so far.
How are those songs sounding?
They’re pretty strange and they don’t follow the normal conventions of songwriting. They’re quite atmospheric and interesting, but it’s really early days. We have three modes in Suede: heartfelt, emotional torture ballads like ‘Still Life’, pounding rock/pop like ‘She Still Leads Me On’ and the experimental side like ‘Roadkill’, where it’s quite out there, less formed and more spectral. It’s that kind of territory where I’d like to go next.
You’ve just announced a new tour. How important is it that Suede still attract new fans?
I’d like to think we have a young audience, and I think that’s confirmed by who comes to our shows. There seems to be a healthy amount of young-looking people. It’s not all middle-aged people, but I’m aware we’re not mainstream now and that we’re not on Radio 1.
It seems like you’re in a good place generally, overall…
Once you push through a certain point in your career, there’s a point of clarity, where you can use all your experience – your successes and your failures – and drive through them. I’ve got an extreme clarity on where we can go, musically, and that’s really exciting.
We’re making some of the best music of our career and we have a different audience. It’s a shame we’re not part of the mainstream now, but it’s led to this point, where anyone who is still listening loves what they’re listening to. They love this journey, and so do we.
Thanks to Brett Anderson, who was talking to John Earls for SDE. Autofiction is released today via BMG. Vinyl and CD options below and there’s also a deluxe box set available.
Suede tour the UK from March 3-25, 2023. Tickets are available here.
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