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All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Brett Anderson
Scott Timberg interviews Brett Anderson
FEBRUARY 15, 2019
OF ALL THE MAJOR frontmen in the Britpop movement of the 1990s, Brett Anderson seemed perhaps the least likely to write an important book. Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker was known as the louche intellectual, Blur’s Damon Albarn as the social critic. Only Oasis’s Gallagher Brothers — known for their lager consumption and gift for Beatlesque hooks — seemed less suited to the literary life than Anderson, who sold himself as a wild, decadent, sexually ambiguous figure. With their mix of The Smiths and glam-rock-era David Bowie, Suede seemed smart, but not obviously literary.
Anderson has written not only an eloquent book, but also an unlikely one: a rock-star memoir about the years before he became a rock star. The distilled, lyrical Coal Black Mornings is set mostly in the dreary West Sussex village where he grew up, part of an eccentric, borderline-poor family. The book does not have a US release scheduled yet, but the British rock magazine MOJO elected it 2018’s Book of the Year. (A second installment, about the price of fame and the band’s breakout, comes out in the United Kingdom in the fall.) And while Suede has not toured the United States for decades, the group released a good new album, The Blue Hour, in September.
I spoke to Anderson from his home in London.
SCOTT TIMBERG: Well, I love the book, it reads like it’s written by someone who spent his life writing … I want to come back to the book after a while, but let’s talk about your reading a little bit first. You have references early on to, I think, Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, people like that. Were those the first writers who really hit you?
BRETT ANDERSON: It’s sort of like when you’re a kid you read kids’ books, you know what I mean? One of the first things I ever remember was my mom reading me Beowulf, you know …
That happens more often over there than here. [Laughs.]
And it doesn’t happen very often here.
Your parents were kind of old school, weren’t they?
Very much so. Very much 20th-century people. The first book I ever really loved on my own, when I was becoming aware of the power of literature, was Nineteen Eighty-Four, and that is the book that I return to and reread every five years or so. Something I love.
Well, yeah, that one stays relevant … How old do you think you were when you first read it?
Probably about 15 or something — I wasn’t really a voracious reader as a kid. I really started reading quite voraciously quite late, I suppose.
I always had this sort of thing when I was writing with Suede in the early days. I didn’t want to be a literary writer. I felt as though that was a bit of a dead end, being one of those songwriters that was over-literary; I didn’t want to be that sort of a writer. I don’t know, I wanted to express something a bit freer than that. So it wasn’t until I got older that I was a bit obsessive about books. Now I always have to have something to read; I’m always reading about four things at the same time.
Did that seem kind of old-fashioned — like a ’60s or ’70s thing — to be a “literary” type?
It did a bit, yeah. There was that kind of, you know, tradition in British indie music, Morrissey and Lloyd Cole and those sorts of people that I really liked; I just didn’t want to be like them, you know? I wanted to carve my own path, and Suede in the early days felt very animalistic and quite free and quite teenage. I felt kind of trapped by this over-literary world of referencing other people and that sort of thing — I wanted it to be a bit more primal than that, I suppose.
Right, I love Lloyd Cole too, I interviewed him for this same series and we all remember that first record where he name-drops Norman Mailer —
Yeah, it’s funny, you know, the early attention that Suede got was exactly how you described it — the guitar sound and the sort-of decadent stance and this reference to glam rock and the fuzzy production. I didn’t really think about the lyrics that much, but I was trying to play the song “Trash” on guitar and some later stuff — “Love Is Dead” on the first solo record, the later Suede song “It Starts and Ends with You.” I thought, “Wow, why weren’t people talking about these lyrics more?” They are polished and crisp and there isn’t any way to improve that line, and I think that is the ultimate sign of good songwriting. You can’t put a word in that would be better.
I never wanted the lyrics to stand on their own. People often ask about what the difference is between writing songs and writing prose or poetry or whatever, and writing songs has a musical dimension — the melody and the musical dimension is everything. Like that whole kind of phenomenon of sitting in the back of a taxi and hearing a pop song that’s got the most trite platitude of a hook, but the way it’s sung and the way it’s delivered gives it a kind of Keats-ian truth and beauty that it wouldn’t have if it was just spoken: “Baby I will always love you” — kind of meaningless trash like that if it’s sung with the right melody. So I was always very aware of that as a writer. About the power of the words with the melody.
Yeah, you listen to those early Beatles songs and they are totally persuasive and they kind of put you in the soul of the singer, but if you look at the lyrics of, say, “It Won’t Be Long” or those really simple songs, the lyrics, as you say, are sort of childish.
There’s something about melody that just takes it somewhere else, you know?
It sounds like you’re not the kind of songwriter who’s going to put out a collected volume of his lyrics the way Dylan or Leonard Cohen or people like that do.
Well, actually I think there has been one of mine, but it wasn’t something that I was — it was just something that was put out. Taking the words away from the music feels like taking them out of context; it doesn’t work for me, the sort of writer I am.
So, you’ve mentioned Nineteen Eighty-Four. That sort of grim dystopian book often appeals to a teenager; that tone always works if you’re a confused adolescent. Did you read a lot of books like that? What drew you and keeps you connected to that novel?
I think the love story, that’s the central core of it, for me. You know, the whole political world and obviously the contemporary echoes were fascinating. But it was always the love story, and that’s something I was quite aware of when I first started writing.
You know, I saw writing about the human consequences of things being the most important thing, and you can kind of use that to reveal the truths. People often say about Suede, “Is your music political?” Well, not in the sense that you mean it, but that doesn’t mean you don’t reveal truths about the world. I think the most political records always have a kind of emotional and a human dimension because that’s the point of art — you’re relating to something emotional. Do you know what I mean? Journalists or politicians talk about the dry facts. The artist has a different role, I think.
And good journalism should at least go part way there. What you’re saying is absolutely true, that the human dimension — the individual human being, makes a novel work or makes a film work no matter what else is happening.
Yeah, exactly, and it can reveal things that the politician or the journalist simply can’t. As a writer, you’re creating a fiction, and you can go to places you couldn’t possibly go with a news report or something like that, and that’s really interesting. How powerful that can be, I think. And that’s the thing about Nineteen Eighty-Four — the incredible love story and the tragedy of the love story. The fact that they end up betraying each other and become sort of dead husks of people. There is something wonderfully bleak about that, you know?
You mentioned in the book, a couple of times, Philip Larkin and Edward Lear. Did poetry ever matter to you, either as a young man or as a grown-up?
My dad used to read us Edward Lear a lot, so I was very aware of those books. He used to stand there reciting Edward Lear; these were the days before 24-hour TV and the internet, when we had a lot of time on our hands to read Edward Lear.
And blast Franz Liszt over the stereo. [Laughs.]
Yes, I grew up with Franz Liszt blasting and my dad reading us Edward Lear.
You’re about my age, but the book almost reads like the record of a previous generation because of the way Britain sort of lags the US in terms of television and stuff like that … You almost have the experience of somebody, if you were American, 20 years older. This sort of old-fashioned literary/classical music … It’s a funny time warp.
It does seem like a bygone age when I think about my childhood, which was 45 years ago or whatever. That doesn’t sound that long ago, but I compare it to my kids’ childhood and the world they live in — it almost feels like a completely different … like Victorian times or something like that. Not the deprivation — I don’t want to come across like we were living in a shoebox in the middle of the motorway; you know it’s not like the [Monty Python sketch] Four Yorkshiremen. But it’s sort of like the things that we didn’t have as a child. The numbing world of plenty that my children have inherited, it’s very, very different.
Yeah, absolutely. It sort of hung on in parts of England at least longer than it did in the States. So you were saying you had a lot of time, there was poetry your dad would read you — is there something besides Lear and Beowulf you heard a lot of and developed some kind of taste for?
I suppose people like Emily Dickinson and bits and pieces, you know, but not really. I didn’t really get into poetry until quite recently, actually. It’s something I’ve discovered for myself, I suppose.
What did you pick up that turned you on?
Larkin was the first thing I really liked. I do still really love Larkin; there’s something that really resonates with me. He feels like a kindred spirit in terms of what I want to try and portray. I love his depictions of banality, but the way he slightly romanticizes them and, within the framework of banality, sort of weaves in these bigger motifs of life and death and all these things. I love that about him — that it’s about the small things but simultaneously about the big things as well. And that’s something I’d like to be able to take from my writing also.
I love Ted Hughes and people like that, you know? I love Ted Hughes’s depictions, I love the way he writes about the countryside as kind of a brutal, unforgiving place. Because most city-dwellers see the countryside as this sort of like arcadian paradise, and it really isn’t; it’s rusty barbed wire and dead sheep, you know.
Yeah, that’s right, if you really grew up in the countryside, you see all the death and the kind of darkness of it, not that vacationer’s fantasy. There’s something very brutal about Hughes’s stuff. Larkin is a natural poet for songwriters, I think. I’ve never spoken to Morrissey, but I think of there being a lot of Larkin in the Smiths. Johnny Marr was a huge poetry fan as a young man. He read a lot of Auden especially.
Yeah, I quite like Auden.
Marr said he was going to bookstores at, like, 11 and 12 and just buying stuff he found there, you know, thinking into it. He ends up being the literary member of that band.
Yeah, that’s quite strange, isn’t it? I’ve spent a lot of time with Johnny, he’s a lovely guy. And continues to be a very inspiring artist, I think.
You mentioned in passing a Martin Amis novel — did you go through a phase where you were reading a lot of him?
Yeah, London Fields … Justine, Justine Frischmann, and I fell in love with it when it was released [in 1989]. His sort of fantasy portrayal of West London, because that’s where we were living as well.
I think you were in Notting Hill at the time.
Well, exactly. I mean Notting Hill in those days was a really interesting place. It’s not so much now — everyone who lives here works in finance and it’s sort of become like Knightsbridge. But in the ’90s, it was a kind of no-go area.
It was much more Caribbean then, I think.
It was just a mixture of cultures. Much less now, less diverse. I suppose it’s become whiter, sort of become white middle class. The ethnic diversity has been taken out of there, which is an absolute tragedy because that’s what gave it — it was the heartbeat of the area. And I suppose there was a mixture of different people who lived in the area at the time, and I think London Fields kind of touched on that.
You didn’t become a Martin Amis obsessive or read a lot of that generation of writers or anything?
I really like [Amis’s] Time’s Arrow, actually.
That’s a weird one; I’ve read that twice.
It’s not really his normal style, is it? It’s one of those weird books that, when you start reading, you are like, “What the fuck is this?” And as you continue, your mind is able to process. It’s this whole backward thing — it takes a while to get it, but it’s quite addictive in a strange way.
Of his generation, to name my favorite author, it would probably be Ian McEwan. His amazing, incredible prose. Just such an inspiring writer. Something like Atonement, I regularly reread that book. And Enduring Love.
Yeah, and people like Sebastian Faulks as well. I mean, Birdsong is possibly my favorite book ever. And things like The Girl at the Lion d’Or and the sort of French trilogy he did. Yeah, they’re amazing books.
Birdsong has been recommended to me for 20 years now. I’ve got to finally fucking read the thing.
Yeah, it’s incredible. I reread it regularly.
So you’ve obviously written — what do we call it — a memoir, a rock bio, whatever it is. Do you read those? The Keith Richards book … books about rock history, that sort of thing?
I should be honest — the rock bio or the rock autobiography is such a tired art form. One motivation for writing the book I did was I didn’t want to write another “we took loads of drugs and had sex with loads of girls” kind of book. Who cares? We’ve read it a million times before.
And my motivation for writing a memoir, when I first thought about it, was, I am going to finish the book exactly when people want to start reading it. My career gets started and I finish the book. I love the idea that it finishes when most rock biographies start. There’s something bloody-minded that really appeals to me about that.
Rock biographies are kind of boring, everyone’s on tour being idiots. I mean, every band follows the same trajectory, doesn’t it? You have struggle, success, then you have excess, then you have disintegration, and then you have, if you are lucky, acceptance or redemption, whatever you want to call it. It’s a very well-trodden path; that’s unavoidable. Writing about these predictable stages in your career, I can’t think of reading another book about these things. So I’m not a big fan of the genre.
Yeah, apparently not — the way you did it is a lot fresher. I think for a lot of bands it would be interesting to get this side of it. You know, I just read that 900-page book about the Beatles’s childhood, Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In, and it ends, like yours does, when they get their first studio date. And it’s fascinating to see how all these early things — like the history of Liverpool — shape them. Was it difficult getting attention and response for a project about the period before you guys were famous?
The tale’s in the telling, the devil’s in the details. I think some people thought, “Oh God, we don’t want to read about some bloke in a band’s childhood.” But it’s about how you sell it.
My inspiration for it was Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee, not because I in any way compare our writing, you can’t compare anyone’s writing to Laurie Lee’s because it’s kind of amazing. But I love the way he told an ordinary tale in an extraordinary way. You know, I look at my childhood, and I grew up in a crappy house and commuted to town like a million other people; it’s not in any way interesting, but it’s how you tell it. It’s not for me to say whether I’ve told it well or not, but that was my intention — to bring out some of the poetry and bring out some of the romance in that situation. Trying to reveal things you necessarily don’t normally see in that. So, yeah, I think if you read and like it, great; if you don’t, I don’t really care!
But it sounds like, once you got it done, you didn’t have to struggle to get a publisher to get the thing rolling.
No, quite the opposite, lots of people were interested. The critical response in the UK was pretty amazing, actually; I’m very pleased with how it landed.
Does having been through this, having the wave of expectation and delay and acclaim and all the things that go into publishing a book, make you want to do another one and pick up where this one stops?
Yes, well, I’ve already started writing it. I’ve started writing exactly the book I wouldn’t write. To contradict myself — I don’t care, though. But it’s finding an entry point. I’m never going to write the cliché rock book at all, focusing on the machinery of fame and success and excess and how all these things affected me psychologically, stuff like that. The distortion of truth. I’m looking at these things in an objective way. It’s got a different tone than Coal Black Mornings. You have to wait and see, it’s not quite ready yet.
There’s freedom to writing that I really like — I love writing songs, but it can become claustrophobic. Writing songs, you are kind of imprisoned within the rules of rhyme and rhythm and music. I love that, with prose, you can literally go anywhere you want to, you can just disappear on a tangent. The only rules are that it sort of has a form and a logic.
And I take it that Coal Black Mornings didn’t change that much from what you originally wrote — idly and wondering if it would go anywhere. I mean it didn’t transform in a radical way to what we see in the finished product.
I always decided it was going to finish where it did, and I took it to a couple of publishers and they were, like, “Yeah, this is great but where’s the rest of it?” And, I mean, if you’re not interested in this, then I’m not interested … you know what I mean? It was shorter, and I had to kind of fill it out, but it was always going to finish at the point I did.
So what you set out to do is pretty much what you delivered here.
I’m not sure you ever do that as an artist. I mean, it deviated a bit, but I was very clear that I wanted to finish at that point. That was quite a key thing. It’s very symbolic, the moment a band gets signed is a very symbolic moment — it’s the start of success, I suppose. It’s the first time they are recognized in a public way, it’s the first time anyone gives them a break. And what happens after that is really up to them. But it’s quite a symbolic moment, I think; that’s why I wanted to finish the book there.
Yeah, it’s also got an emphasis on failure and the way that getting to success comes after a round of failures which is a) fascinating and b) totally true about the way the artistic process works. If everybody really told their story, that’s the way it would be shaped, you know? Like, look how many times Bowie led terrible or forgettable bands before Hunky Dory or Ziggy Stardust broke him out.
You don’t focus on those things because they are kind of embarrassing, but they are all part of the creative process. If you can sort of write about them in an interesting enough way. It’s all part of that: picking yourself up and getting it wrong is a huge part of getting it right. You fuck up and you try again; you pick yourself up, and you do it better, and you keep going until you get it right.
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.
For all your discussions about Brett's solo career.
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