Three eras. Three Suedes. Ten years apart. Three different bands. “There’s definitely an ‘every ten years something happens’ isn’t there?”, says Brett Anderson, Suede's singer - still handsome, snake hipped and tiny bit waspish, but very definitely not the bum-slapping brat that kicked off British indie-rock’s golden era. “1993 was sort of the big bang moment for Suede, 2003 was the implosion and 2013 is the reignition.”
By now you know Suede are back. Not just back to the live stage, not just pushing reissues and greatest hits, but BACK. Bloodsports, the band’s first new album in a decade, their sixth in total, though only the third to feature the Anderson/Matt Osman/Simon Gilbert/Richard Oakes/Neil Codling line up, has been out for nearly two months, garnering some of the best reviews the band has ever had and a collective sigh of relief from Suede fans at just how brilliantly Suedey the whole thing sounds. This week they release ‘Hit Me’, probably the most Suedey song on the record. It’s a song that even without Anderson’s distinctive vocal is unmistakably Suede, but this is a 'grown up' Suede. Not the pompous lions of the early 90s. Not the shattered, awkward millennial Suede that forced themselves into hibernation for their own good. This is Suede in 2013. The confident older brothers of Britpop, existing in an untouchable niche of their own.
The first thing that comes to mind about the record is its confidence
Yeah, I think it does sound confident. I think we wanted to make a real big, bouncy rock record. Confident is a good word. We were very confident about our writing and our playing and I think I’m a better singer than I’ve ever been. I’ve reached a point where I know how to use my voice now. Even in our, inverted commas, ‘heyday’ I’d write and then I’d try and sing the song after I’d written it. Now I know to write to my own voice.
And they were harder songs to sing...
When I wrote, I’d write theoretically. Now I know how to write and make my voice work. They are hard songs to sing - I regret it now! It’s quite hard work to do them live.
The other word that comes to mind is ‘bright’ - even the sad songs are bright. Did you go in knowing you wanted to make something that sounded bright and almost bolshy?
I don’t know. I don’t think we want it to sound ‘bolshy’. I didn’t want to make an album to irritate people. I think it’s got an exuberance - I don’t think it’s aggressive in the same way even something like Coming Up is aggressive. Coming Up is a little bit niggley; all the melodies are so hooky and it’s like someone pointing at you very close. Something like ‘Beautiful Ones’ with the vocal delivery - that sounds bolshier to me. It feels a bit warmer than that.
And it just sounds like Suede... I wasn’t sure that was going to happen, because in the past, despite whatever rivalries the music press seemed to force you into, Suede albums always seemed to react only against the last Suede album...
Yeah, you’ve hit the nail on the head there. We’ve always been quite bloody minded about how people perceived us, and if we made a certain sort of record like Dog Man Star and people wanted us to make it again, the last thing we wanted to do was that. It was a ‘whatever you say I’m not mentality’. Which was fine, but that ended with the last Suede album, which was exactly like looking at everything Suede did and saying ‘let’s do the opposite’, regardless of whether it’s any good or not. You can get unstuck with the mentality. You’re absolutely right though, a lot of it was reacting against what people expected of us. There’s a real bloody-mindedness with Suede... it’s probably me really. There’s a thing where we don’t like being out in this pigeon hole and we don’t like people thinking that they have us in a box. I think it’s a strange relationship we’ve had with ourselves and the world we’re in, in a funny sort of way, the whole sort of indie world.
I don’t think we’ve ever accepted that we’re an ‘indie band’. I don’t know what we think we are. We always thought we were something outside that box, but we’re not. We ARE an indie band, we’re a band with guitars and I think with this record we’ve just accepted that. We’ve accepted what we are, and I don’t think that has to be a depressing concept. I think you know you can work within your limitations, and that’s the reality of the situation. Sometimes we were trying to be something that we weren’t and stretching too far, and that can go wrong. With the last two Suede albums we were stretching the wrong way to make something that didn’t fit us. We did that at the start with this record as well. Not trying to reinvent ourselves, but definitely trying to evolve our sound. When we decided to go right with this album is when we realised that was the wrong thing to do - when we got comfortable with writing Suede songs. We wrote ‘For The Strangers’ and it sounded like Suede. We turned round and looked at each other and said ‘this sounds like Suede, and it sounds great. Why don’t we try to write Suede songs”?
What did the earlier attempts sound like? Was it in the Head Music electronic mould?
Not really. A little bit more... not exactly post-punk, but less melodic. More brutal. We actually did a gig in Russia, it’s probably all on YouTube, playing various songs that didn’t make the cut, It was us just trying them. We worked out we didn’t really like them very much. It’s interesting playing songs live, because you can see so much playing them to a live audience that you can’t find out in a rehearsal room. It’s a really strange dynamic; as soon as you’re playing it to people you’re hearing it in a different way. It’s a real learning process about your own work. It’s not so much about the feedback or the response, you can just feel whether it worked or not. It wasn’t like we went online and found out what people thought of them, it wasn’t that sort of filtering process. It’s really interesting.
Between Suede records, you’ve done more albums without the band that you’ve done with. When you came back to the band did you put your ‘Suede’ head back on? Or is that just the way you write? Do you have a special way of approaching Suede?
I think I do. That’s the first thing to note, that there’s a natural dynamic and natural chemistry between the members of the band. It’s not just me bringing a song in and telling the others what to do, and I was always very respectful of that, of not imposing my solo work onto them. I didn’t want this to be a Brett Anderson record played by the members of Suede at all. That would have been stupid. In fact I had a policy that I wouldn’t write any of the music on Bloodsports. It all came from other people. Of course I wrote the melodies and the toplines and stuff like that, because that’s what I do, but all the backing tracks were written mostly by Neil and Richard. I didn’t want to bring in my piano ballad, I wanted it to have a real Suede feel to it.
What about the lyrics? Is there a way you write ‘Suede’ words?
Yeah, I was aware of that. I think making solo records I deliberately veered away from the Suede touchstones. Suede is very much about urban alienation isn’t it? With my solo work I tried to very much not reference that world. If anything I was referencing a rural alienation. I suppose when making Bloodsports I was happy to put it in a different space, while being very conscious that the one thing you can’t reference is yourself, lyrically. Because very very quickly you drift into self parody. I’m happy to reference other Suede tracks musically, though not slavishly, in terms of relaxing into sounding like Suede. But I couldn’t start singing about Skyscrapers and hired cars and stuff like that, that would have self parody. And I think in the past I drifted a little bit too close to that. It all went wrong with Head Music when I started to be lazy with the lyrics. That was the whole point, to let the music speak a bit more, but I wasn’t on the ball enough to realise that by being lazy with the lyrics I was giving people something to criticise. It was a chink in the armour. I didn’t want that to happen again.
Before 'Barriers' came out, the little teasers of lyrics were very much obviously Suede lyrics. I found that quite satisfying.
But hopefully quite fresh at the same time? I think it’s important as a writer to have a style. I’ve worked hard at establishing a style, and I won’t apologise for that at all. I think it’s a strength.
What was your approach as a band? Did you slot back into how things were before, or did you all work in a different way?
We did work in a different way at first. Literally everyone was writing. I think after ten years away we thought ‘let’s approach this in a democratic sort of way, let’s all pull together and try and write a record’. It just didn’t work. Instead we fine tuned it, and pretty much me and Richard and Neil wrote the record in long, hard slogs in each others' houses. Churning out bits and pieces, 90% of which weren’t used. It’s a long hard process, writing a record. We fine tuned it and essentially it was how we worked before. Although maybe before, with this line up, it was a bit more Richard or Neil would go away and write something and give it to me and I’d turn it into a song, and this time it was much more us three sitting in a room rather than working separately.
You said all records are difficult, was this one especially difficult?
This was the hardest. I think being away for ten years and just trying to get it right. It’s so easy to get it wrong, to hit the wrong note, especially when you’ve been away for such a long time. Reaching that sweet spot between it sounding fresh but still sounding like you, not to drift into self-parody, just to sound recognisably like the band, it’s hard. There’s the shadow of your back catalogue, like a spectre, hanging there prodding you saying ‘you’ve got to make these as good as us’.
So I could say “this is the hardest album we’ve ever made” as a headline?
This is the hardest album we’ve ever made. There you go, I said it. We really did sweat bullets over this one, but I think records should be hard to make. It’s too important to not take seriously. If you’re not taking it seriously go and do something else. I love taking it seriously, I love that it was torture. I love the fact that because of that, it was worth it. Nothing worth doing is easy. That goes for anything in life, I’ll always come back to it. If you want anything worthwhile you’ve got to work for it.
It does sound quite effortless?
Well, that’s the trick...
Some of your older records don’t sound as effortless though, Head Music certainly doesn’t?
I know what you mean, it flows really beautifully. But that’s because when we get it right we get it really right. It’s not like every song took months to write, some songs came together really quickly. ‘Full of Strangers’ came together really quickly. I don’t really know how to answer that - it sounds like it sounds because it sounds like that...
I felt like that about the Tears record [The album Brett made with Bernard Butler after Suede split] as well. It sounded like a record made for the joy of making music, and this has some of that...
I know what you mean. The Tears record was actually quite an enjoyable record to make. When me and Bernard were writing together again we were really enjoying writing together - there wasn’t that weight of the back catalogue. Obviously we had a reputation, but it wasn’t the same sort of thing, so that was actually a very very enjoyable record to make. More enjoyable than this one. But that’s misleading, because even though it was tough I loved doing it. It was never a case of ‘let’s not do this, it’s awful’, it was more ‘let’s get this right’. It was like a puzzle or a game of scrabble or something, you stare at the letters for hours and suddenly see it. It makes it all worth doing.
Did you ever worry it wouldn’t work?
I did, yeah. In my darkest moments, possibly a year ago. But then I realised that a lot of the time spent making this record was about re-establishing our bonds as writers and getting on to each others' wavelengths.
If it hadn’t worked could you have carried on as a band?
I don’t know. That’s why we had to make it work, really. We definitely said we wanted to carry on playing with Suede, I suppose I could have carried on making solo records, that’s always an option for me. I very much enjoyed making solo records, no-one was really listening to them, but that’s another matter...
Is the solo experience very different? Do you miss the more personal connection?
What I really enjoyed was that point where I had enough material to just play solo stuff. Obviously for the first couple of albums I had to play Suede songs, I simply didn’t have enough solo songs. It was really nice when I got to Slow Attack and Black Rainbows and I could just play songs from my solo career. It felt really pure. By the time Black Rainbows was out I had to not play Suede songs because I had Suede as well, and I didn’t want it to get confusing.
Suede are fractured. Neil Codling has departed due to ill health, their latest record A New Morning has been re-recorded twice over before a final version with Stephen Street seems to wring the life out of the songs. For the first time a Suede album doesn’t go to number one. The band play Glastonbury, it should have been glorious but it’s a bit limp. Suede go to ground.
Let’s go back ten years to 2003 - what’s your main memory of that time?
Not good. It’s not a particularly pleasant memory. People say ‘they split up because their last record flopped’ and that’s true, but it flopped because it wasn’t good enough. And it was wasn’t good enough because we’d run out of steam. We weren’t waiting for the chart position before we made a decision, it was all part of it. We’d ran out of ideas and people didn’t want to buy into it. And that’s absolutely fine - more bands should split up, I think. It was very hard for me personally because I’d decided at least a year before we announced it that I didn’t want to do it anymore, and it was a long and quite tortuous year for me where I was trying to find the right moment to tell the band I didn’t want to do it...maybe longer, maybe a year and half, two years of being really unhappy. But feeling a lot of responsibility to them, because that’s what a band is, it’s a family you have responsibilities to and I’ve always thought of myself as a team player, and they’re my friends. I didn’t want to suddenly fuck off. I wanted to do right by them, it was a very hard period for me.
What do you remember of those final shows?
I felt very emotional at those shows actually. I think I cried a bit during ‘Saturday Night’, because I knew the band was going to split up. I remember shedding a tear during that song. It’s a very sentimental, heart wrenching song for me, it’s a very beautiful song and it reminded me of all the good things about the band that I suppose I’d forgotten. I suddenly saw it as this very precious thing that I was going to say goodbye to.
You said at the time that there would be another Suede record - did you mean it?
I didn’t have a specific plan for it, but yeah I thought eventually there would be. I never think beyond the next record. I suppose it was quite prophetic in a way, I’m not sure how much I really believed it when I said it, but it turned out to be true.
I suppose at the time people would have assumed that it was as likely as you doing an album with Bernard...
Exactly, I think you never say never in your life.
Everything is happening for Suede. A debut album that went into number one, tours that verge on Beatlemania, utter adoration from the music press and all the drugs they can eat. What’s more they know things are getting better. Anderson and Butler are writing Dog Man Star , their most ambitious and grandiose work yet. Tensions in the band only make them more exciting. It’s Suede’s world, we’re just living in it.
So going back ten years before that, when you were Kings of everything... what was it like to have that moment?
It’s amazing. That whole period... I was very privileged to experienced it. Not that many people, even out of successful acts in the music industry, people arrive at success through various routes, but the way Suede were plunged into success was thrilling in lots of ways. Looking back it was obviously very damaging to the band, but at the time it was amazing. I felt like we were doing something really exciting. People always say stuff like ‘they were hyped’, and that sort of nonsense, but the simple fact of the matter is that we were doing something exciting and interesting that went completely against the grain and that people got very excited about. They wrote about us. That’s what happened.
You were a surprisingly aggressive live band at the time...
Yeah, we always have been. I’ve always liked the idea that good bands have different personas on record and live.
Do you recognise the band you are now in that time?
Oh god yeah. Much more than in 2003 actually. I see myself much more now. I’d love to write those songs again. In 2003 I’d rejected everything about Suede; all the cliches of Suede, everything that meant something to Suede fans I didn’t want to mean to them. I don’t know what I wanted to be, all I knew is that I didn’t want to be the person who wrote those songs in 1993 and 1992. I felt too claustrophobic and I wanted to break free of it. But now... god, I’d love to write a ‘Pantomime Horse’ again, I’d love to write a ‘She’s Dead’ again. I love those songs, and I’ve got a lot of respect for the person that wrote them.
Do you find it easier to connect to them live now?
Definitely, like I said, they’re very very strong songs, there’s something quite magical about them. I do really feel them when I play them live now.
The Next Phase
So what happens next, what about 2023?
The thing about me is that what I do is make records, I’d like to make a new Suede record. Really the most exciting thing about Bloodsports for me personally, apart from the fact I think it’s a fantastic record, is that it’s proof we can make new music, and that’s a huge, huge thing. It’s proof that there’s an artistic future for the band. I’d like to try and make another record.
Now you’ve made an album that sounds so much like Suede, will your instinct be to make the next one sound nothing like Suede?
I think what we’ve learnt is that you can do it subtly. It doesn’t have to be a volte face, bloody mindedly, you can just do something that has a sense of evolution. And I don’t think if we make a new Suede album it will be radically, radically different to Bloodsports but I do think it will be a step in the right direction. I don’t quite know where.
Bloodsports is out now. The new single 'Hit Me' is released on 27th May 2013.