Brett Anderson exclusive!
By Mark Russell
Sitting down with the relaxed, 40-something Brett Anderson on the morning of a recent Berlin show, it’s easy to forget that this is a man whose band, Suede, helped set a blueprint for British rock at the start of the Nineties and whose stratospheric ups, downs and falling-outs were an obsession of the music press for most of that decade. It’s fair to say that he’s covered a lot of ground in the past 20 years and he looks envy-inducingly good for it, particularly as he’s also currently working like a man possessed – this week releasing his fourth solo album, Black Rainbows, as well as playing with Suede again. Here he talks about his new work, his prodigious work rate and reuniting with former bandmate Bernard Butler – as well as setting the record straight about that new Suede album…
GQ: You’re the hardest-working man in show business at the moment. How did that happen?
Brett Anderson: I know, from opiated fop to the other extreme! How did that happen? I’ve been working, but quietly, for the past five years. This is my fourth solo album; I’ve released four solo albums in five years, which is quite a good rate. I had this plan to release one every year – but the Suede [reunion] got in the way. As I’ve gotten older, I don’t know how to not work; I don’t know how to sit there and just socialise and relax. The thought of days doing nothing slightly terrifies me. I love the thought of building up a back catalogue of my work; I love the fact this is my tenth album. I’m proud of the fact I’ve made lots of records, and for me this solo album is a real improvement on the last one. The solo work is where my creative head is right now. We did some Suede shows and that was absolutely fantastic in its own right, but we’re playing songs from 15 years ago.
How does Suede fit in with your solo work, in terms of time and creativity?
Up until now it’s been very easy to separate them in the sense that with Black Rainbows, it’s a new album that I’m writing, but with Suede it’s old songs that I’m touring. There’s not a blurring of the boundaries. I’ve been very careful with my solo album. When I toured the last album I very carefully – and it was quite a struggle at times – didn’t play any Suede songs. I really wanted to separate it. There was a lot of pressure on me. I got this festival out in Spain and they booked me as a headline act. They obviously thought I was a solo artist and they were going to get Suede songs on the cheap, but I said, “I’m not playing Suede songs, you booked me as a solo artist. If you want Suede, you have to pay for Suede.” So I stood there and I played songs that literally four people in the audience knew. It would have been easy to say, “OK, let’s knock out ‘Animal Nitrate’,” but you’ve got to have discipline. It’s not fair on me, it’s not fair on my solo band because they’d always be playing someone else’s work and it’s not fair on Suede either because it implies Suede are just replaceable parts. Getting Suede back together really reminded me of how someone can play the guitar and it can sound totally different to someone else playing the same line. There’s so much personality in a good guitar player’s playing, or a good musician.
Bernard Butler obviously always had a lot of personality in his playing.
He did. He’s an amazing musician and obviously we had to confront that whole thing when Bernard left the band and Richard [Oakes] came in. That was a very thorny issue. Obviously we’ve been over it lots and lots of times.
What fuels your songwriting inspiration?
I don’t think it ever gets easier. This album wasn’t written in my sleep – it was a lot of hard work. It was a strange record to make, as I made it in like a three-day jam session that we did in January last year. Basically we jammed for three days, came up with 26 things we were happy with. Then we took them away and edited them, and then I wrote songs on top of that. There was a point when I first started when I thought it wasn’t going to work. Then I finally got my head around it.
Do you go back and listen to Suede much?
I think you have to. It’s really important. You have got to be looking forward all the time – if you’re not looking forward to your next project then forget it – but we recently did a lot of Suede reissues and it was really interesting.
There’s a lot of talk of a new Suede album. Is that definitely going to happen?
No, it’s not definitely going to happen. It’s something that I’m going to try to do. I recently made the mistake of saying that Suede are going to make a new album. What I meant was, and it’s no different from what we’ve all been saying for months, that we’re sort of doing some writing together and seeing how it goes. Instead of answering the question in the same way as we have before I used slightly different words and there was a big story that Suede are making a new album. I don’t know yet. It will happen when we get to start writing again, if the magic is there. But that’s a big “if”. I’d love for there to be a new Suede album. For me, the thought that A New Morning is the last Suede album… It’s a poor record that I regret releasing, I regret the response to it and it was very instrumental in the fact we split up. We had run out of ideas. We should have just gone away and done things like solo records to get stuff out of systems. We didn’t, we just ploughed on with it and it was kind of a mistake. It had some great moments on it, but as a document it wasn’t strong enough. I’d love there to be a new record that plays on Suede’s strengths.
You must have been pleased with the reception the Suede reunion received?
The last thing I wanted was for it to be some sort of nostalgic thing for people who went to university and bought the first album. My favourite thing about the gigs, apart from the fact I loved actually playing them, was that there was a lot of young people there. There was a lot of word-of-mouth that had spread to the next generation, it wasn’t just thirty- or forty-somethings, and that was wonderful. We made some great records; those records don’t just suddenly stop existing because at the end of Suede we were unfashionable, or because we f***ed up with our last album. The first three albums are really great records.
Is it nice to have a lighter weight of expectation?
I respect the fact that the solo thing is a different level. That’s almost the hardest thing, in a way, to get your head around. The fact that the new album is just my name and it’s not Suede’s name: there are doors that don’t open to you because it’s Brett Anderson rather than Suede. Which can be frustrating because I think it’s a very strong record, and I’d like those doors to open and for people to hear it.
Do you buy a lot of new music?
I’m not a record-collecting obsessive but I’ve always got my ears open. I try to go and see bands as much as possible. I love live music and the way it makes you hear music in a different way. Last time it happened with me was with Foals. I got Total Life Forever and I thought, “I quite like that.” Then we went to see them in Brixton and I thought they were an amazing band in a weird way. There was something about it all, so I went back and listened to the album again and I really loved it. The same thing happened with the Horrors as well. I love them. I’m really excited about what they’ll do next. I think the new album is definitely a massive step in the right direction, and I love Primary Colours. They get criticised for being derivative, but that doesn’t bother me. I don’t find it a pastiche – I think they do it really well. There’s enough personality there.
There’s a song “Actors” on the new album and films have been a constant Suede reference point. Ever fancied having a go?
In a parallel universe I like to think I could have been a film director. Film for me is the second art form. Music is No.1, but film can move you almost as powerfully. I find myself looking forward to new films more than new records. I’m so excited about We Need To Talk About Kevin. It’s an incredible art form.
Never had a crack at acting, then?
I’d be terrible. I’m too vain. To be an actor I think you’ve got to have no vanity and not care about how you look on screen because it’s not about that, it’s about adopting a role. [I’ve had] years of being in front of the camera, that silly pop star vanity.
You’ve always had a real aesthetic – do you work at that?
First of all, you have to be careful about not mistaking vanity for insecurity. People always assume that when I look in the mirror I go, “Wow look at that.” It’s probably my least favourite trait about myself: I have an unhealthy relationship with my image because I don’t think I ever look quite right. I’m, sort of, nearly good-looking; sometimes I’m presentable but I’m not the sort of person who can jump out of bed and look good. Which is probably why there has always been the thing about the look of Suede and all that – because the only way I can look good is by dressing well. I’m not the sort of person who can just look good in a T-shirt.
You’re in a new campaign for Spencer Hart. Are you interested in tailoring?
I do like beautiful clothes. I’m lucky enough to have my suits made for me by Spencer Hart, and Nick Hart has made some beautiful suits for me. I met him years ago when I was doing some modelling for Aquascutum and he was doing a line with them, and we just got on really well. He’s a very sweet man. I have a real hatred of materialism but I do like beautiful things. I am aware of the contradiction.
Ever been tempted to have a dabble at a fashion line?
What? To open a Pretty Green, you mean? Nah, I don’t think so…
Who are your style icons?
Someone like John Lydon in the early days. When Lydon was a young man, he just looked absolutely amazing. Those pictures from early ’76 of him at the 100 Club dressed in the weirdest… you know, this ripped crap everywhere. And yet he still looked amazing. He’s been a huge inspiration in lots of ways. Obviously I don’t dress like him – that’d be ridiculous, it’d be parody – but you’ve got to admire the ability to look cool dressed in a plastic bin liner.
Are there any outfits or photo shoots you regret seeing yourself in?
It’s a tricky one because lots of the things I wore in the early days of Suede were fairly unusual. The “Suede look” – whatever you want to call it – was brought about by necessity. We didn’t have any money, I was on the dole, so I couldn’t afford to go to Marks & Spencer to buy a pair of trousers. So I’d go to Oxfam and buy a suit for 50p. I was always aware that I was unique. I never liked the idea of buying something that somebody else could wear, I always wanted to look different, but it was kind of win/win: it was cheap and it was going to look different to everyone else. There was no three-line whip about what we should do; we just started emulating each other and borrowing each other’s clothes and wearing fur coats and stuff. I do think we had our own thing, a very important thing for young bands to achieve. It’s tricky territory because people think if you’re too obsessed with your look then there’s not enough musical content but you look at lots of bands and they have a look.
Do you look back on those days, when you had no money, with a fondness?
I look back on them with a real fondness. They were amazing days. Back when me and Bernard were good friends – I mean, we’re good friends now, but back then, we were really good friends when we were writing together and we went through a lot. They were amazing days because, apart from the friendship and the gang mentality, I knew we were doing something really special, and I knew that no one else was doing it. I remember when me and Bernard wrote “The Drowners”: we just looked at each other and said, “This is f***ing good, isn’t it?”
Have you ever thought about writing it all down, like Keith Richards has done?
I’d love to write a book, but I’d really not like to write a book about the music business in the Nineties. I find it quite sad really. I’ve got this kind of bloody-minded idea to write a book about my life that stops when I meet Bernard. All the juicy stuff is literally the next day.
You’re very much into health and fitness. Is that because you feel in debt to your body from when you were younger?
Well, that’s part of being in your twenties, isn’t it? You don’t have any respect for yourself, but as you get old you start to have a little bit more. You can either keep going on this collision course and die, or you can do something about it. I want to live at the moment, so that’s my decision.
Do you remember the moment when you thought, “This – the drugs – has got to stop”?
Yeah, of course. I can remember it, but it’s pretty bleak. Suffice to say that I came out of it and I’m glad I did. I love my life and I love my work at the moment. I have that energy for my work now because I feel that… I don’t know. It’s tricky because a lot of people think that they need their artists to be damaged.
Do you feel like that as well?
I felt the need to lead quite an extreme life, and I felt the need to use myself as an experiment. I didn’t have any respect for my own happiness. It was all about how I could use my life to inform my art, and that’s really dodgy ground because you can get some great songs out of it, but you end up a sort of husk of a person, with no foundation in life, and I don’t want to live like that. It’s a romantic and charming way to live in your twenties but in your forties it’s not.
So what’s the Brett Anderson fitness regime then?
My wife’s a naturopath and practises herbal medicine so we’re very conscious of what we eat. We’re not obsessive and only eat wind-fallen fruit and stuff like that. Also I cycle everywhere. It’s the only way to get around London.
You’re very much an advocate for London.
I love London. I find it constantly inspiring; it’s a beautiful, place. I once wrote a Suede line – “all the love and poison of London” – and that really resonates with me still. It’s such a poisonous and beautiful place.
Do you get shouted at in the street?
Sometimes, but it’s quite nice, because nowadays it’s just people who like my work. Whereas in the Nineties it was people shouting, “Oi, you! You’re that w***er from Suede!”
Would you ever advise your children to go into music?
Never, never. Absolutely not. I’ve been incredibly lucky with my career, relatively, but 99 per cent of musicians live quite tough lives.
It’s good that you appreciate your luck, isn’t it?
Yeah. Of course, you create your own luck but if I hadn’t met Bernard… If I hadn’t met Justine [Frischmann, early Suede member and Brett’s ex-girlfriend who went on to form Elastica], because she was very influential as well… I’ve been lucky in lots of ways.
Finally, if you could take one song out of this life with you, what would it be?
“Wild Ones”. I think it stands up against anything from my record collection. It’s a beautiful song.