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.
All images: Charlie Gray; Styling: Gareth Scorfield; Grooming: Tania Smith and production: Cool Hunt Inc.
Continue with part two here.