Thursday August 04 2022, 6.00pm BST, The Times
Brett Anderson, Britpop’s great survivor, on how to stay cool in your fifties
As they release a superb new album, Suede’s Brett Anderson and Mat Osman talk to Will Hodgkinson about the benefits of ageing and their biggest regrets
In the early 1990s, any provincial kid who felt like they didn’t belong had their own band in Suede. The singer Brett Anderson’s Bowie-esque androgyny and theatrical vocals, coupled with lyrics that combined dingy bedsit realism with us-against-the-world defiance on anthems like Trash and So Young, made Suede the indie heroes of choice for teenage misfits everywhere. Nobody, however, not even rock stars, stays young for ever. Thirty years on, these figureheads of cheap glamour and parochial dreaming, whose England-focused approach essentially launched Britpop (much to Anderson’s displeasure), are middle-aged family men. And it is hard to belt out lines like, “We’re trash, you and me, we’re the litter on the breeze,” when you’re doing the school run.
“The new album, Autofiction, is an attempt to capture what it is like to be 54 years old, but without becoming a grumpy old man singing about my aching back,” says a rangy, clean-cut Anderson, the billowing shirts and eyeliner of Suede’s glory days consigned to history. “When you’re young you write songs about the beginning or the end of relationships, but there’s a lot of drama in the middle of them, and that’s what I’ve tried to explore. Also, as we get older and drift further from the mainstream, we become increasingly aware of our fanbase. They have grown up with us. Actually it is the longest relationship any of us have had.”
We’re in Anderson’s Notting Hill flat, a grown-up vision of large white sofas, immaculate coffee tables and airy spaciousness, which you feel would not have been the case in Suede’s mid-1990s height, when he embraced the role of the druggy, dissolute rock star a little too enthusiastically. Suede’s bassist and fellow founder member Mat Osman is here too to talk about the superb Autofiction, their fourth album since the band’s return in 2010.
Recorded for the most part live, mistakes and all, it combines a raw immediacy with reflections on what it is to be no longer young, not yet old, and still trying to work it all out. She Still Leads Me On is about the moral compass provided by Anderson’s mother, who died when he was 21. That Boy on the Stage takes an outside look at the persona he adopts for Suede. What Am I Without You is a love song to the audience that has stayed loyal for three decades. There is a lot of soul-searching going on throughout.
“You get to an age where you look back at yourself with a bit of clarity,” says Osman, friends with Anderson since they were teenagers in Haywards Heath and the older brother of the TV presenter and author Richard Osman. “I listen to a song on the new album like 15 Again and think: when we started, we were babies.” What were they like back then? “Probably quite annoying. We came across as arrogant, but it was all a front because we were excited but also full of terror. And we didn’t do a great deal. If we came up with a name for our imaginary band that was a good day’s work.”
Suede - 15 Again (Official Audio)
Anderson, Osman and Anderson’s girlfriend at the time, Justine Frischmann, later of fellow Britpop mainstays Elastica, started out in a sort-of band while students in London called the Perfect. “It consisted of us strumming guitars and sitting around,” Anderson says. But once Frischmann left — leaving Anderson for the dreaded Damon Albarn of Blur — it seemed as if Suede went from being student unknowns to jumping about on Top of the Pops almost overnight. The magazine Melody Maker proclaimed them to be the best new band in Britain before they had released a note of music.
“You missed the three years in between,” points out Anderson. “You missed the bit where there were more people on stage than there were in the audience. We were blessed by being really shit, so while all the other bands in 1989, 1990 were good enough to copy the Stones Roses, we just couldn’t do it. For that reason, we had no choice but to go away and become Suede. It was frustrating at the time, but it made us be us.”
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“You aim for greatness and end up in a more interesting place,” adds Osman. “We grew up with only three TV stations and a few radio stations. We were catching glimpses of Mike Leigh films, and Performance, and Kate Bush, and putting all these fragments together. We wanted to be the kind of band that you could live in.”
Both agree that success happened too fast. Growing up in provincial Sussex, where they were close enough to London to feel its pull but too far to be in on the action, Anderson and Osman never felt like part of a scene. By Suede’s second album, 1994’s experimental Dog Man Star, they were pushing against their own status as the originators of Britpop and all that went with it.
“Actually, Dog Man Star was a pre-rejection of Britpop,” says Anderson, saying the term with dismissive irony. “It hadn’t been invented yet. On the first album we were writing about provincial themes alongside an imaginary, London glam thing, which is why it is seen as the first Britpop album and why the bands that came along afterwards were entering a field that had already been ploughed and irrigated. By the second album our horizons had opened up so much, we couldn’t do songs like that again. Nor did we want to.”
“You have to remember that back then most people still didn’t go on foreign holidays. Before Suede took off I had been abroad once — to Spain,” Osman interjects. “When we went to America for the first time, we didn’t even have suitcases. We had plastic bags with no socks in them. And we really didn’t know much. Brett wrote about the romance of London, the love and poison of the city, because he was excluded from it. People said we were influenced by Scott Walker, so we went out and bought Scott Walker records. We had never heard of him before then.”
The album Coming Up in 1996 established Suede as a singles band, spawning hits such as Trash and Beautiful Ones, but the last two albums before the split in 2002 were a case of diminishing returns, something that bothers Anderson to this day. In his memoir Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn, which documents his gradual disillusion with fame and all that goes with it, Anderson compares success with having your face pressed up to the sweet shop window, only to be welcomed in and discovering that being allowed to eat as many sweets as you like will actually leave you feeling rather sick and disgusted with yourself.
“I really regret Head Music and A New Morning,” he says of albums four and five. “They were the weakest of our career, and we let it slide at a point when we were still in the mainstream. Now, it doesn’t matter how good a record we make. We’ll never have that privilege again.”
Osman points out that even achieving the childhood dream of being in a successful band becomes tedious after a year or two. “You end up on a weirdly glamorous treadmill. You tour all over the world, everything is going on, and because it is so regimented the magic disappears. I remember waking up and thinking, ‘Oh, bloody hell, we have to go to Japan again.’ Imagine telling your 15-year-old self that one day you’ll be bored of going to Japan!”
The challenge Suede have faced since reuniting in 2010, after a one-off benefit for Teenage Cancer Trust went so well that everybody wanted to get back on the tour bus once more, is: how do you develop while remaining true to the band? The answer, it seems, is by still feeling like you don’t belong. “It keeps us fresh,” Anderson says. “To this day we’ll go to an awards ceremony and think we’re gatecrashing.”
“We have career impostor syndrome,” Osman surmises. “The strange thing is, the one place we have always felt at home is the stage. You step on there and you know what to do. It is entirely magical.”
“It’s what That Boy on the Stage is about,” Anderson concludes, before his wife and son return from a shopping trip and dad duties, as opposed to rock star ones, take over. “I can’t pick up my kids from school and be Brett Anderson from Suede. It would just be stupid, especially if I have to start chatting about cars and traffic routes to the other parents. As soon as I get on stage, though, he takes me over. It’s a lifelong thing.”
Suede’s new album, Autofiction, is out on September 16 via BMG. Their new single, 15 Again, is out now
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