November 8, 2013
Suede: the art of handling a reunion
Brett Anderson called time on Suede 10 years ago this week, in rather ignoble fashion. But their reunion sets an example for other Britpop bands, writes Jeremy Allen
Suede … older, wiser, better
It was 10 years ago this very week that Suede, a band that had meant more to me than any other during the 1990s, split up. I'd bought the records; I'd seen them live on numerous occasions; I'd even attempted the "brown rice diet" – singer Brett Anderson's secret to keeping painfully thin, which he divulged to a journalist from Select magazine. (He neglected to share a key ingredient to his staying thin, which was certainly brown but probably not rice.) Then, by happenstance, I conducted the band's final UK press interview, for some defunct magazine or other – though I didn't know at the time that the curtains were to fall imminently on the band. And I do mean imminently.
Sitting in an ITV dressing room ahead of a pained performance on V Graham Norton, Anderson was mostly surly and evasive, while bassist Mat Osman tried his best to keep his pecker up even though you could tell these were end days. Suede's fifth longplayer – A New Morning – wasn't very good and their fans, a relatively devoted bunch in the fickle world of pop, had voted with their feet. A split seemed on the cards, but even I couldn't have foretold, as I followed them to the stage to watch from the wings, that they'd decided to break up while walking along the corridor. At the afterparty following their final show at the London Astoria, Osman revealed that Anderson had leaned into his ear as they walked to the studio set and whispered: "Let's not do this anymore."
It was an ignoble end – right in the light-entertainment heartland – for a group of such passion and high drama, who had meant so much to so many. But they were clearly a spent force. A few days later a statement was issued. "I need to do whatever it takes to get my demons back," Anderson said memorably.
This is a happy story, and one which we won't have to call Suede: My Part in Their Downfall. Speaking to me a decade later from Toulouse, where the reformed and resurgent five-piece are playing, Mat Osman is buoyant and clearly delighted with how things have gone.
"What happens is you have this incredibly privileged, surreal, beautiful way of living, where all you think about is music and all you do is write and fly around the world playing to people who care about you, and because you've never done anything else it becomes mundane and boring," he says. "It took 10 years off to appreciate that."
Osman has observed other bands who have re-formed, and says that they either tend to "rest on their laurels or have an air of defeat about them". As comebacks go, Suede's looks like a watertight example of how to do things correctly – by not only returning to the live arena better than ever, but also bringing out new material that actually adds something to the canon. Osman says the band had toiled for 10 months with little to show for it in the way of songs, and they wondered if the reason that re-formed bands don't usually make new records is because "they simply can't". Little by little, though, with disciplined quality control, they forged forward. Hard work and plenty of self-doubt are the watchwords now, according to Osman, who adds: "If we'd had a bit more self-doubt and higher standards back at the end of the 90s, we might never have split up."
So what of those other 90s bands who have returned to rock's fray? The Pixies were the first this century to show us how pant-wettingly exciting a comeback could be, when they got back together in 2004. But it has taken nine years of diminishing nostalgic returns and the loss of Kim Deal to prompt them into recording some (admittedly excellent) new material to add to Bam Thwok, the single new song from the first phase of their return.
And what of Suede's British contemporaries? Pulp, another band who limped off wounded after their final album We Love Life failed to ignite their fans' imagination, returned to the live arena in glorious style (though whether there'll be any new material remains to be seen).
Blur returned to play shows on a bigger scale than any other re-formed 90s act, and none of their records ever stiffed. They've tossed out the odd crumb to a hungry and expectant fanbase – including Under the Westway – though if William Orbit is to be believed the making of the long-awaited eighth studio album has been thus far tumultuous, and not even a placatory mountain of Alex James's cheese is likely to sway the producer.
"Oh don't start me on Blur," Orbit recently told the NME. "Put it this way, I'm not going to work with them again. Damon was really awful … I wouldn't care to go back. I wouldn't be hurrying back to do that album. I didn't get paid!"
North London's Menswe@r (a band who clearly didn't know what an "@" was when they formed in 1993) performed a charity gig this summer in aid of a mental health charity, though none of the original members were in attendance aside from singer Johnny Dean. Apparently Damon Albarn passed by that very night, and must have thought he was having a flashback from his Camden days, double-taking at a sign inscribed "Menswe@r Live Tonight" outside the venue. The band remain tight-lipped on whether there'll be more shows or material, though new guitarist Steve Horry enigmatically offered the date 26 March 2014 as one for their fans to look out for.
Kula Shaker got back together to little fanfare in 2004, perhaps tarnished forever by Swastikagate; and as for Supergrass and the Bluetones, it's surely too early to contemplate returns. Their mistake, you could argue, was to go at it for too long. Oasis? Liam talks a good fight but you sense that you'll just be hearing his Scrappy Doo impression for a while yet.
Suede would probably not consider themselves a Britpop band, though their success facilitated what would follow: "I think, in a weird way, that will probably be our biggest legacy, that bursting of the dam," Osman says. "Because suddenly there was almost an expectation with the Britpop bands that came after us that you'd want to be No 1 and you'd want to play big gigs and you'd want to sell records."
If breaking up is hard to do, then getting back together again these days seems almost inevitable – the only obstacle to biting the bullet is pride, and that has its price. As for getting your demons back, well that seems to involve mostly a lot of hard work.
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