Brett Anderson on Suede, Britpop, and more (Part 1)
12 Jan 2020
The UK was starkly different in the ‘90s, not least because of Britpop, then the country’s prime cultural export. Less a music genre per se and more a movement in and of itself, Britpop was one aspect of Cool Britannia, a resurgence of pride in everything British – especially its music. Suede was at its forefront, and widely recognised as Britpop’s herald. The band’s namesake debut record is considered to be among the first Britpop albums ever released, well before contemporaries like Blur or Oasis made waves of their own.
Suede owed much of its popularity to frontman Brett Anderson. The lanky singer wasn’t just handsome, but also emanated a raw sexual energy on stage that few could match, thanks to his androgynous image. With a vocal performance that carried hints of ’70s Bowie, Anderson anchored the brand’s sound and helped to define the decade of music that followed.
Fast forward almost 30 years, and Suede is still making music. Their latest record, 2018’s The Blue Hour, is widely lauded as a late-career masterpiece. Meanwhile, Anderson has branched out into writing and published two very well-received memoirs. Gone is his gender fluidity. The man’s magnetic charm remains though. It’s in his mannerisms as he poses for the camera, in the way he effortlessly talks about absolutely anything from his past to Hieronymus Bosch, and in that je ne sais quoi that’s simply impossible to pin down.
Suede has released three successful albums since its return in 2010, and each was better than the previous. How has the band sustained itself creatively?
The final album that we released before splitting up, A New Morning, was our worst. Much of the motivation for our last three records came from wanting to correct that. You’ll be motivated when you realise what an incredible privilege it is to be a musician, with people coming to see you and paying for your records. So, you make sure that your shows are amazing and your records are the best possible that you can make.
We write about 60 songs for every album that we make these days – I’m not exaggerating – then we choose 10 or 11. It’s a very disheartening process. I’m willing to do this because it matters. I don’t want to put a weak record out and have people go, “It’s not as good as it used to be.” The bar is quite high, because we’ve done some good work in the past, and I’m trying to match that. It’s important to me to feel like we’re still a creative force.
The band returned to a very different scene in 2010. Things have changed even further since, and guitar-based rock seems almost archaic now. How has Suede managed to stay relevant through it all?
I think you remain relevant if you stay good – it’s as simple as that. I’ve never chased the zeitgeist. It’s a fool’s game, because once you start chasing it, you’re going to be behind it. I’m not one of those people who try to anticipate what the next trend is going to be. It’s quite the opposite, actually – if I see something happening, I go the other way because I don’t want to be a part of it. When Britpop first happened, we made Dog Man Star, the most un-Britpop record ever. You stay relevant if you make good music, if you make something that speaks about the human condition, and if you make it in an original way that’s slightly different than everyone else.
Is the way Suede writes, records and performs any different now, whether because of age, technology, or something else?
People are always interested in this. They think that we write differently now because we live in the 21st century, but it’s still the same struggle against your own imagination. After we finish this conversation, I’ll cycle over to visit Richard [Oakes, Suede’s guitarist]. He’ll sit there and come up with some chords and I’ll try to create a melody and some words to it. It’s exactly the same as what we were doing in 1990. Obviously, computer technology means you can record it in more sophisticated ways, but the essential core of the process is the same, and I think it always will be.
How do you approach live performances of old songs now, especially those that captured the zeitgeist then? Can anyone really disconnect or escape today, like how you sing it in ‘By The Sea’? Does an old song take on a new meaning after all these years?
I think it does. If you’re playing it now, there’s always going to be a slightly different feel, and obviously a sense of nostalgia, because they are songs from the past. But good songs evolve. I’m not talking about the music here – because that’s a different thing – but rather the lyrics, which says something about the human condition.
The thing is, a point you make about the human condition is going to be as true in 2020 as it was in 1991. Isolation, fear, sadness, loss, infatuation: these are not things that are confined to a decade, and they’re always going to be relevant.
Speaking of the human condition, fear has always felt like an important theme in your lyrics, and while the common refrain is to conquer your fears, it almost feels like you want to treasure yours.
As an artist – of any sort – the interesting things are the uncomfortable ones and you need to embrace them, especially as a songwriter. Life has moments of happiness, of joy, of niceness and harmony, but they’re brief, and there’s a whole lot of shit between these moments. Once you accept this, you won’t be so disappointed, because it will always be a struggle, and that’s the point of it. To ignore that in art feels duplicitous to me.
In the second part of this exclusive interview, Suede frontman Brett Anderson shares more about the future of his band Suede and how his career had impacted him personally. Read part one here.
What’s next for the band?
I’m always thinking about the next record. The last couple that we’ve made have been expansive, ambitious, and at times slightly florid. I want the next one to be a nasty, live-sounding rock record – something dirtier, punk-ier sounding. It’s tricky, since I’m 52 years old. I’m very aware that men my age have to be careful when making this type of music, because rock has the element of youthful danger, and was originally young people’s music. If you handle it wrong, you can come across as being socially touristic. But there’s a raw, punk-like energy that Suede accesses live, which I want to capture.
What do you think of the 1990s now? Do you think that decade’s musical output will have the same impact as the previous decades’?
It’s difficult for me to say. Even though quite some time has passed, I’m still too close to judge it properly because I was part of it. If I were going to be really objective about it, I’d say that ’90s music won’t have the same resonance in 50 years’ time because the songs were basically copies of things that had gone on previously. Then again, a good song is a good song.
It’s fascinating how these perceptions change over time.
Yes it is. Culturally, the ’90s look quite archaic to me now. Things like Cool Britannia and Britpop look very laddish and jingoistic, with a hint of misogyny in there. I don’t think that resonates very well with 2020, to be honest.
The conversations around sexuality and gender were indeed very different then. In some ways, you were a pioneer in, for lack of a better term, “gender fluidity”.
The phrase didn’t exist then, but it was what I was aiming for with some aspects of my image and statements I made. I famously described myself as a bisexual man who had never had a homosexual experience. It was very clunky – I was trying not to position myself anywhere sexually, but ended up being put into this entire “bisexual” camp. The whole point of it was to avoid these categories altogether. I had misunderstood the way the media works – there are no subtleties, and you can’t speak with nuance.
A sense of sexual fluidity was definitely something I was trying to capture and, retrospectively, it does feel like our message then is incredibly current. I’m quite proud of that, especially if you look at the context: the ’90s were very misogynistic, with lad magazines like Loaded. Yet we were in the middle of it all talking about gender fluidity. It’s like what I said earlier about deliberately avoiding the zeitgeist. We were determined not to join in, and I’m so proud that we didn’t.
Were you already sceptical of Cool Britannia and Britpop back then, when it was happening?
Yeah. I’m sceptical of any movement that becomes big. Let’s look at Britpop. It started off with really good intentions in 1993, with Suede’s debut record. That was an album that looked at and documented the world around us, which happened to be Britain, down to the guy who lives on the dole in rented rooms in London.
Then Britpop became a movement, and it was exciting because it was a rejection of American cultural imperialism. For decades, the world bought into American culture, and every kid from Oslo to Madagascar was wearing baseball caps backwards and speaking with an American accent. Britpop, in its purest from, was a rejection of that. It was saying, “No, we don’t live in California, or any part of America. We live in London and we’ll sing about that.” That was something really exciting.
But of course, when something becomes popular, the high street moves in and the money moves in, and it becomes devalued. Then, you get the hangers-on and it turns into an ugly cartoon. Britpop became a nationalistic cartoon and a parody of itself, and that’s the point you go, “See you later.” Every single youth movement starts with something very exciting, and then becomes a victim of its own success. Britpop was no exception.
You grew up in a small town in Sussex, not too far from Brighton. How did that shape you, lyrical matter aside?
It makes you very frustrated, but also ambitious. I think that all great rock music was made in the suburbs. There’s a yearning to it, a sense that you’re excluded. It’s what gives you the drive and ambition, and that was how I felt when I was growing up just outside of London, but essentially in the middle of nowhere. I just wanted to escape from the lives that my parents had. The world that I was in felt parochial, small-minded and limiting. But I think everyone views where they grew up as unromantic. It’s part of what defines you.
You’ve come a long way from that. Has fatherhood been the great equaliser for you, coming from the world of rock ‘n roll?
I think that when you become a parent, you’re forced to dismantle your ego. You’re not the most important person in the world any more, and that experience levels you out. But it’s also an age thing, because I don’t think I’d have made a great parent in my late 20s. I became a stepfather at 40 and a father at 45, and it was good timing – I didn’t find it hard to cast my ego aside, and I can kind of go in and out of it. You need to have an ego when you go on stage – you can’t shuffle up and be apologetic about it. You’re selling something to the audience, maybe a lie and a truth at the same time, and it’s absolutely necessary.
You’re selling a dream.
You’re selling an image. But I can take the ego off and leave it in the cupboard for a while when I need to.
https://www.augustman.com/sg/culture/br ... ew-part-1/
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