The Times, September 25 2019, 5:00pm
Brett Anderson: ‘I was never a great musician. My talent is that I never give up’
The man who formed Britpop band Suede made himself a rock star to escape childhood poverty, but as he tells Michael Odell and in his new book, it came with a price
There is a book that the rock star Brett Anderson promised he would never write. A book that would recount the scabrous feuding, narcotic gluttony and sexual betrayal of Suede, the band he formed in the late 1980s and played a significant role in 1990s Britpop.
Today I am standing in the kitchen of Anderson’s west London flat. I am holding a copy of that book in my hand. You broke the promise, I say as he pours two cups of tea (he gives himself a Sex Pistols mug and hands me one with a bear on it). “I suppose I have, but I really wanted to see if I could subvert the clichés that inform so many rock-star lives,” he says.
As if to undermine this intention immediately, a man called Dids enters the room. Anderson describes him as his “security goon”, although I think this must be some sort of joke because Dids didn’t even check who I was at the door. This plus factors relating to his physiognomy suggest that Dids might not be that great at security.
Anderson ejects him and we settle on a comfy sofa. The gesture is heartening because more often than not in rock-star interviews the goon stays in the room. Anderson is different. He is thoughtful, articulate and open. He feels constrained by what he calls the “manufactured rock-star persona” and wants to get beneath it. “I despise the smug, bullshit rock’n’roll narcissist curating his own legend. Ask away,” he says.
Anderson began dismantling the mythology around him last year in a memoir called Coal Black Mornings that was lauded for its craft and honesty. It avoided buccaneering tales of Suede’s pomp altogether, focusing instead on Anderson’s upbringing near Haywards Heath in West Sussex. We encountered his deeply eccentric window-cleaner/ice-cream seller/taxi-driver father, Peter, and mother, Sandra, scraping an existence in a council house next to the municipal tip. His father in particular stood out; by turns tyrannical, controlling and kind, he was a devotee of Liszt and named his daughter Blandine after the composer’s eldest daughter. He also wore round his neck a phial of earth that he dug up while on one of his biannual pilgrimages to Liszt’s birthplace. “Oh we were thought weirdos at a time when no child wants to be thought weird,” Anderson says.
Poverty haunted the family: his mother made him wear purple nylon underpants bought from charity shops and cooked soup from nettles harvested in the local wood.
Anderson drew on this astringent suburban angst for Suede’s music, and his new book, Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn, describes their rise and fall. Lauded as the best new band in Britain by a weekly music press that in the early 1990s still wielded huge influence, Suede graced 19 magazine covers and appeared on Top of the Pops before even signing a record deal. Anderson was part acerbic Morrissey, part preening Bowie and, in the aftermath of American grunge, their Englishness became totemic of a movement soon dubbed Britpop.
However, Blur and Oasis came to dominate the movement. And although Anderson writes with self-recrimination about his career mistakes and amused hauteur when a Scottish spectator dismisses Suede as “effete Southern wankers”, he completely loses his composure when writing about Blur. He rails against “witless, opportunist mockneys — middle class ‘media geezers’ who had learned to drop their aitches and flatten their vowels . . . a cheap, beery, graceless cartoon bereft of passion or rage who cravenly hid feeling behind a brittle mask of irony”.
Hearing this invective read back to him, he gives a tight little cough. “I wanted to make the point that our debut album [Suede] was the first Britpop album and it set the tone. I was writing as a poor suburban wannabe, alienated and marginalised by the city. Suede’s music wasn’t celebration, it was documentation. It wasn’t ‘Carry on Cockney’, it was a Mike Leigh film. Then these other bands turned Britpop into a patronising celebration with ugly hints of nationalism and misogyny. By that I mean Loaded [the men’s magazine] and Men Behaving Badly [the sitcom] were in the ascendant and these bands got into bed with that. I am very proud that Suede were already writing about gender fluidity and sexual politics, which still feels very contemporary. I’m amazed these other bands are still taken seriously, they are such an anachronism.”
Many will feel the bile is partly because the co-founder of Suede — and Anderson’s ex-girlfriend — Justine Frischmann left him for the Blur frontman Damon Albarn (she found success with her band, Elastica, and works as an artist in the US). So much of Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn is written in a spirit of generous, forgiving retrospection, it seems incredible that he still cannot mention Albarn or Blur by name. “I choose not to. I don’t want to give it air time. It’s my memoir, not anyone else’s, and I stand by my right.”
Does he hate everything about Britpop? “Not Supergrass,” he says curtly. “I Should Coco was a very good record.”
Anderson now divides his time between London and the West Country
Through writing and with the help of psychotherapy, Anderson has come to see that his relationship disasters were rooted in his upbringing. His songwriting partnership with Bernard Butler, a 19-year-old guitar prodigy when he answered a small ad placed by Anderson in the NME, drove Suede’s early success. He now sees the disintegration of their relationship mirrored in his struggles with his father. “I projected a lot on to Bernard,” he says. “I avoided him at times when I should’ve reached out to help.”
Similarly, Frischmann leaving Anderson (on missing out on Suede’s success, she later remarked: “I thought it better to be Pete Best rather than Linda McCartney”) echoes the moment when his mother walked out on his father. Moody, controlling and marching around the house dressed up as TE Lawrence, Peter Anderson hadn’t noticed how unhappy his wife was. When she left, he was devastated.
“Yeah, that probably was a pattern,” Anderson says. “For a while I became the tragic figure my father became. It’s awful to see yourself repeat mistakes, but that is what writing can reveal. That and therapy. I’ve done a bit in the past. Holding up a mirror to your life through writing or talking can be painful, but ultimately liberating.”
In the way it lays bare the tortured emotions underpinning momentous cultural days, Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn bears some comparison to David Cameron’s new memoir. I say this as Anderson takes a mouthful of tea and he looks ready to spray it around the room. But I elaborate: a man rises, admits to some drug use, gets stabbed in the back, makes an ignominious exit and retires to put his side of the story from a shepherd’s hut (Anderson lives in Somerset, but, he concedes, there would have been livestock near by).
“I hate the idea of coming across as a whinger and blaming others. I don’t want clichés and I don’t want to be compared to Cameron. I hope mine is a book about striving to escape from the suburbs to the city, which, however hard you try to maintain integrity, involves assuming damaging personas.”
He bought this flat two years ago as a pied-à-terre after his family — he is married to Jodie, a naturopath, and has two children, Lucian, 7, and Jack, 15 — relocated to the West Country. There are children’s books neatly arranged in a pile, toys and a tasteful nude on the wall, although a little family of painted human skulls on the mantelpiece strike a macabre note.
This area of London looms like a character across the two books. Down the road is the flat where he lived with Frischmann. Close by is the section of pavement where a disaffected fan scrawled his exact address, appending the instruction: “Go and kill his cat.” And then there is the flat where Anderson was forced to give his girlfriend at the time, Sam, CPR on the bathroom floor after an overdose.
“I make it clear my drug use was the suburban romantic quest for the outré. It was a clichéd indulging of a bestial gluttony. Even now I dread thinking about having wasted so much time. And if Sam had died, it would have been an irretrievable disaster. For me it was a real turning point.”
Anderson has come to despise his drug addiction, partly because it robbed him of his ambition. And that ambition, he says, was rooted in a fear of poverty. In Coal Black Mornings he recalls the humiliation of lining up for free school-meal tokens and wearing charity shop clothes. In the new book he recalls his first trip to America, where big labels were preparing to court Suede with multimillion-dollar record deals. Anderson went to Heathrow with a homemade cheese-and-pickle sandwich in a carrier bag.
“I was never a great musician or a great artist. I’m inept, but I am proud of my ineptitude because my talent is: I never f***ing give up. I will not go back to that life. For ages my fear of going back [to poverty] drove me. And as soon as we got our first obscene pay cheque I lost that fear and started taking loads of drugs. I thought I was invincible. Without fear, the danger is you lapse into self-parody.”
There was certainly a little of that when Anderson decided to record an album about the English countryside as a dark dystopia. Looking for inspiration, he made a Withnail-like foray into the leafy Surrey stockbroker village of Chipstead. Booking himself into a rented granny flat, he went for long walks during which he spotted rusty old fridges and broken children’s car seats in a wooded glade. He compares this adventure to Orwell researching Down and Out In Paris and London before he ran out of food and asked his chauffeur, John, to come and get him.
The Chipstead album, A New Morning, hastened Suede’s split in 2003, but they reformed in 2010 and are unusual in having recorded some of their best music during this second coming. This is quite an achievement because Anderson must be short of crepuscular vignettes, the tellingly bleak details of life he once characterised as “the used condom under the bed”. Aside from being happily married, he has mended many of those broken relationships (Butler and Frischmann emailed to say they liked Coal Black Mornings). And he is officially history; occasionally a fan-club walking tour of key Suede landmarks will shuffle along the streets near his flat, a guide expounding on Anderson’s adventures while in persona. Meanwhile, he is a tanned, wealthy family man. Before he moved west he used to chat amiably to the former Oasis singer Liam Gallagher at the school gate (despite once denouncing Liam and Noel Gallagher as “the singing plumbers”). Can he really still be an outsider?
“Oh I can be civil to other musicians, but I’ll always feel a gatecrasher. I don’t really do red carpets and in terms of inspiration I am still prone to night terrors. I have great fears.”
I ask him to name some. “I fret about my life insurance premiums,” he says with a sly smile. “And I am very aware that maintaining a relationship isn’t magic. It’s like keeping a band going. You need new ideas and fresh inspiration. Too many hissy fits about emptying the dishwasher are not good. My great fear is losing my family.”
Against the odds, Anderson made it. Then he lost it all and won it back again. However, much of the world he describes in Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn has vanished. The weekly music press has gone. Indie fans hailing new messiahs in bosky venues through word of mouth are no more. Anderson’s 15-year-old son, Jack, never listens to rock music. He nods along to drill, trap and grime.
“Rock feels almost extinct, which is very sad,” Anderson says with a sigh. “With my kids it’s like Dad telling them how he was once a decent blacksmith.”
Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn by Brett Anderson is published by Little, Brown on Thursday, £18.99
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