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Brett on Bowie
Ahead of Suede’s Galway Arts Festival headliner, Brett Anderson, reflects on fatherhood, ageing, mortality, his first-ever meeting with David Bowie, and why he’ll never write his autobiography.
Olaf Tyaransen, 22 Jul 2016
“I’m terrified of absolutely everything,” declares Brett Anderson. “I can’t go out my front door without being terrified.”
How times change. Back in the early ‘90s, when Anderson was rarely off the front covers of the UK music weeklies, the porcelain-skinned, rake-thin and eminently quotable Suede singer used to be the fearless poster boy for druggy decadence and sexual daring (“I’m a bisexual who has never had a homosexual experience”).
Today, at the ripe old age of 48, the still angular frontman is clean and sober, a married father of two, and a very different sort of rock star. “I think as you become older you become less carefree about life and about your future,” he muses. “When you’re younger you don’t really entertain it as a concept because you think you’re immortal or whatever. I’m not actually sure what you think, if you even have a sense of the future. I certainly didn’t when I was in my twenties and now it’s a different thing. I’ve a family and having a family changes your perspective on things, your own mortality especially, and I think lots of it is fear of death being at the heart of it. That’s probably what a psychologist would say.”
This somewhat fearful worldview is at the black heart of Suede’s darkly poetic, thrillingly orchestral seventh studio album, Night Thoughts. Anderson’s awareness of his own mortality is also reflected on its rather bleak-looking sleeve, which depicts a scantily clad woman floating in an ink-black sea. “Yeah, the sleeve of the album was supposed to be a comment on that,” he says. “You know, the tiny figure lost in the vast indifferent sea, and that’s sometimes how I view life. You are a flicker of light against a huge, consuming, empty universe… and that’s what I wanted to reflect with the sleeve.”
For the most part, despite some exuberantly trashy musical flourishes, the songs are just as dark and gloomy. Not that Anderson is apologising for them. “Well, that’s what I’m here for!” he laughs. “I’m not interested in making jolly music or putting across jolly sentiments. I don’t care. I’ll leave that to other bands, it doesn’t interest me. For me it’s about accessing these primal things that matter, the big questions of life and death and birth and mortality, and those are the things I want to talk about in my music. I don’t feel as though I’ve always done that and there’s been moments in my career where I think I’ve been more flippant, and that’s fine because I think you need that complexity to have a real career, to have a body of work, it can’t be one dimensional, but I think now I want to get to the heart of things.”
The title, Night Thoughts, refers more to this gnawing sense of existential dread than to his preferred time to concentrate on writing song lyrics. “It doesn’t really refer to my writing process, it’s more supposed to be those moments at four o’clock in the morning when the walls seem to be caving in on your life, that primal fear of the night that you have. I don’t kind of get up in the middle of the night. Occasionally I’ll get ideas and scribble them down, but I’m not an insomniac.”
The follow-up to 2013’s excellent comeback Bloodsports (their first since 2002’s poorly received A New Morning, the album that preceded their lengthy hiatus), Suede tried a different approach when writing and recording Night Thoughts. Rather than staying put in London, Anderson and his bandmates – the current line-up comprises Richard Oakes, Neil Codling, Mat Osman and Simon Gilbert – instead decamped to Belgium with absolutely nothing prepared in advance.
“We did, yeah,” he says. “We took a bit of a leap of faith and went into a studio in Brussels and basically just recorded a whole load of music that hadn’t been turned into songs. Doing something like that is quite a risk because it means you might end up with a whole lot of things you don’t use – or can’t use because not every bit of music I’m presented with turns into a Suede song.”It was more important to us just to have a different mindset going into this and from very early on we wanted it to be a coherent record rather than a collection of good songs, which basically Bloodsports was,” he continues. “We wanted it to have some unity as an album and we thought that was a good way to do it, go in there and record some music, let it breathe and then I’d sort of go in and arrange the songs around the music, the music would flow. So that was basically the backbone of the album recorded like that. Once I’d written some of the things, and lots of them had worked and some of them hadn’t, we had to go and tinker with it a bit, but that was how the backbone of the record was made.”Were they up against the clock with this? “Not really, no, I’m never against the clock. It’s always ready when it’s ready, to be honest.”Despite having an orchestra playing on most of the songs...“Oh no! We did the orchestration later,” he explains. “It was just us in the studio. But that’s an interesting idea. Doing something like that would be even more a leap of faith – to hire an orchestra and then have to work around that. “You have to make yourself less comfortable with what you’re doing. As soon as you start repeating yourself and doing the same things over and over that’s when the music gets boring. You have to always be a little bit concerned about it. You gotta almost always feel that it might not work to keep it exciting.” On the song ‘What I’m Trying To Tell You’, which written for his young son, Anderson admits that he doesn’t “know the price of anything.” So is he still a pampered popstar? Does he know what a pint of milk costs?“I know exactly what it costs, yeah,” he laughs, “but it depends on what you want. Organic? Semi-skimmed? Ha! No, I don’t have a pampered popstar existence. When Suede broke up, I went through a period of making solo albums and that was very interesting because instead of being in this big machine, a successful band where everything is done for you, you’re out on your own and that was a great learning curve. I did things I’d never done.”Such as? “I learned to drive and all these sorts of things, and I felt like I was standing on my own two feet,” he explains. “It was such an essential period for me about 10 years ago when I was making solo albums. They weren’t the most successful for me financially, but they were incredibly successful for me personally and I learned a lot about my limits. The pampered popstar thing, you can’t do that when you’ve a family. Suddenly, when there’s kids around, you’re not the most important person in the room and that’s a big lesson you learn from having kids.”When Anderson and Suede first became famous in the early ‘90s, his most obvious influence was David Bowie. So much so that the NME put them together for a memorable cover shoot modelled on one that Bowie had done with Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs years earlier. “Well, a couple of times after that, we’d get together and hang out.” Where was he when news of Bowie’s death broke?
“I was at home,” he replies. “What can I say? I don’t know if I can really add anything else to it, there’s been so much discussion of his death. It’s a terrible tragedy, it’s a terrible tragedy for music. One of the greatest artists ever. I don’t think we’ll see his type again, I really don’t. Those times have passed and when he died, a type of artist died as well, and that’s very sad. I can’t see how we’d ever find another one of him. It’s impossible.”British photographer Roger Sargent, who’s best-known for his work with The Libertines, made a feature film to accompany Night Thoughts. When the band toured earlier this year following its launch, they performed from behind a screen on which the movie was projected during the first half of their set. “I sat down with Roger and explained the themes of the record to him – basically birth and death and decaying and ageing,” he explains. “He felt as though he could do something with that. He really wanted to do it because he had been experiencing those things. Bereavement, having a kid… so these big life and death issues were happening to him as well. “So he thought, ‘I’ve got to do this project, I need to get some of this out of my system’. And the reason we chose him is because it seemed like it was more important to him than just a job. What I wanted to do was let him run with those things, and to express and interpret them in his own way. What I didn’t want to do was sit down over his shoulder and say, ‘No, you’ve got this wrong, this isn’t about this it’s about this or something else.’ “I wanted him to interpret them purely in his own way so sometimes the film runs in parallel to what I’m talking about and at times it drifts off. It’s the story of a man and a terrible tragedy that happens in his life and the consequences of that tragedy. It’s not a literal interpretation of the lyrics of the album but it kind of touches on some of the things.” Surprisingly for a band with such a cinematic sound, Suede haven’t done much in the way of movie soundtracks. “Well, we did a couple of years ago,” he recalls. “We did the title song for a film called Far From China, which was a bit of a one-off. I’d love to do something like that again, but I’m not sure if we’re seen as the sort of band that do that sort of thing. I always find it confusing how people perceive us but I’d love to do that. “Cinema was one of the big influences of the album,” he continues. “We’re all big fans of cinema, as is Ed [Buller] the producer. He’s in LA at the moment working on film scores and he’s done stuff with Hans Zimmer, so he’s sort of drifting into that field more. There’s always been that sense to Suede’s music that we wanted it to have some sort of cinematic size.” Buller produced all of Suede’s most successful albums. “He’s kind of an invisible member, in lots of ways. We’ve made our best records with Ed and hopefully we’ll carry on. He always does a really good job.”Looking back on Suede’s career, can he identify one moment that was the biggest?“There was a really lovely moment in the Royal Albert Hall in 2010 when we reformed, and we played ‘Metal Mickey’ and there was this standing ovation. It was lovely to see all that love after all those years. It was a really wonderful way to come back. That standing ovation was a feeling that I’d be happy to take to the grave.”When they reformed to play that Albert Hall show, there were no initial plans to carry on. “We were just gonna take it as it came, play the gig, see what happens, how we feel, but it was wonderful and I’m really glad that we did because it’s gone from a band playing all the old hits – which is easy to do, to be honest – to a band that’s been reborn creatively… which isn’t easy to do. The last two records are right up there with what we’ve done in the past, and I’m so pleased because that’s what it’s all about for me, creating new music and not playing the old songs. It’s about evolving as an artist and I think people are interested in what we’re gonna do next; I know I am. I don’t know what path we’re going to go on, or where it’s going to lead us, but I know we’ll do something interesting with the new record.”
Has he ever had a lengthy creative dry spell?“Yeah, doesn’t every writer?” he says. “I don’t really believe in ‘writer’s block’, it’s just a meaningless term. You have to shake yourself up and do something else and come back to it reinvigorated. Writer’s block sounds so permanent and it’s just a temporary state of mind but of course you go through different stages of creativity and every time I start a new record I always think, ‘I don’t know if I can do this again’. “You always have these crises of confidence but that’s almost half the process. All these bad things that you feel, you know, these weird uncertainties, sense of doubt, it’s part of it because, when you overcome it, you get this sense of achievement. It’s very much part of the process, you can’t have the good side of it without the bad side.”Would Brett Lewis Anderson ever consider writing his autobiography?“No, I don’t think anyone needs to read about me in the ‘90s,” he sighs. “It’s kind of boring, it doesn’t really interest me. If I wrote anything like that it would be short novels or something like that. Bizarrely enough, I’m not particularly self-centred which I’m sure a whole load of people will laugh at or find hard to believe, given my public persona, but I don’t particularly want to write about myself. Maybe I’ll change my mind in 20 years but not now. “The world doesn’t need another bloke from a band writing about himself taking drugs years ago,” he continues. “It’s boring. Such a cliché. I did have a bloody minded idea about writing an autobiography about my early life that ended the day we got signed. I thought that would be an interesting way to do it and leave people hanging a bit thinking, ‘Come on, we want the interesting stuff!’ But me talking about my life as a child and struggling as an adolescent… and stopping just at the part everyone wants. Maybe I’ll do that.” Suede headline the Festival Big Top at the Galway Arts Festival on Saturday, July 23 with The Frank and Walters supporting.