A HUGE thanks to ‘ awesome bunny‘ from the Brett forum for posting this interview up!
It’s a fascinating and stimulating interview from both a Brett view and your own answers and feelings towards the questions.
Highly recommended, and don’t forget the SOME/THINGS publication this is taken from is available to buy now!
Monica Bielskyte: Last time in London, when we were talking about your lyrics, you told me you feel like going to the wild side again.
Brett Anderson: I suppose after a few years happily documenting the beauty of the everyday, the power of simplicity, I was keen to return to a darker, more abstract, primal style. I constantly return to a quote by Francis Bacon where he talks about it being the job of the artist to ‘deepen the mystery’. I love the sense that sometimes it’s incredibly exciting not to know what the artist is intending, that meaning can sometimes neuter the beast and that there is no absolute meaning, that meaning is at best fluid, shifting concept. When people ask me what a song is about, I often think of butterflies that have been put in chloroform and pinned and mounted, neatly filed but bereft of life, sad parodies of the living, breathing miracles they once were. The lyrics to ‘Slow Attack’ were an abstract attempt to document a brutal, unpleasant twist on the bucolic idyll, inspired by the poetry of Ted Hughes & Seamus Heaney. Writing for my currently untitled record is less spatially descriptive but more of an investigation of emotional conflict. The endlessly fascinating story of how human beings relate to each other; the reason why yet another love song can move you to the point of tears. Musically it’s far more brutal; live band dynamics taking over from carefully constructed studio subtlety.
MB: What does ’going wild’ mean for you today?
BA: I don’t really know. I’ve never been into ’theme-park’ rock antics. The clichés of throwing TVs out of windows are beyond tired & transparently a homage to a different generation when the gesture might have held some genuine note of rebellion. I suppose for me ‘going wild’ is about being brave – having the courage to follow your muse wherever it might lead you, not taking the safe road. The last two albums I made have been self funded & complete commercial suicide. The first of these featured just myself and a cello player, but I made it because I had to. I was driven and poked and nagged by something to do it despite all logical misgivings. That, for me, is the true spirit of rock & roll, not dressing up like John Lennon & pretending it’s you.
MB: What is the emotional conflict you want to explore now?
BA: I love the way that exploration of human relationships never seems to get boring. I suppose it’s because being in those relationships is never boring. I mean, when you fall in love it always feels like it’s the first time, you never intellectualise it and feel bothered by the fact that it’s not an original experience. I suppose emotional conflict is similarly compelling but possibly more complex. I’m interested in exploring the myriad tiny emotional engagements that go up to making a relationship, portraying them through my own twisted, musical language; hinting at them with imagery rather than exploring them scientifically like a sociologist would and sometimes being responsible for creating more questions.
MB: How hard is it not to become obvious in (song)writing?
BA: Well, I think every artist has their comfort zone; an area where they feel their work resonates best with who they are. I suppose pursuing this too much can make you veer into self parody but I think it’s important to develop a style as an artist and if that means sometimes revisiting old ground then I think that’s valid. Sometimes microscopic exploration of a subject is more important than just exploring new areas for the sake of change. Look at the work of someone like Scorsese who has basically made the same film for the last 30 years but manages each time to keep it fresh & relevant & uncover more truths in his particular universe. It probably doesn’t really sound like I’m answering the question but being ‘obvious’ is for me very much tied into the concept of repetition. I’m fascinated by how re-covering the same ground can be fresh & new just like exploring the atom could reveal more than exploring space. Recently I’ve found poetry to be a key medium for me to keep my work fresh. The current record I’m working on was basically created as completely improvised sessions in a studio with no songs written beforehand. This was a very exciting and very terrifying way to work for me and, to prepare for it, I read and wrote a lot of poetry as a way to initiate melodic and lyrical ideas. The different forms and word patterns inherent in poetry as opposed to lyric writing made me approach the songs from another angle. I think it’s always quite a good idea to try something that scares you.
MB: How different is it writing lyrics from writing poetry?
BA: Completely different. Poetry allows a wider freedom in the use of words whereas lyric writing is bound within the laws of music, of rhythm & rhyme… It’s even a mistake to draw parallels between the two. I think they’re so vastly different, it really bothers me when people pluck out lyrics away from the context of the song since, for me, a song isn’t just some words placed on top of some music but the interplay between the two. Exactly the same sentence can acquire a completely different meaning if sung with a different melody. It’s this fascinating counterbalance between words & melody which, for me, embodies the essence of songwriting & something which I’ve spent most of my life obsessing about. I love the way that even the dumbest words can acquire a profound power when sung properly – just think of the thousands of amazing pop songs which have the power to move you despite their use of tired platitude. Constructing what might seem the simplest pop song can in fact be a task of scientific precision. Ironically, it’s often the stuff that comes across as the most carefree that in fact has been poured over the most. The suede song ‘So Young’ was a perfect example of that. Those lyrics are simple almost to the point of being throw-away but took me literally months to write; I threw idea after idea at the song until I felt I‘d found the note. I know and understand less about poetry but still find it an interesting medium. Because of its minimal nature, it feels to me that each word is given much more weight so allows for more subtlety.
MB: Who are the artists that have influenced you as a person?
BA: A huge question. An enormous portion of my life is spent buried in literature and art. I’m fond of the Existentialists. Writers like Camus & Michel Houellebecq. I love Orwell and Primo Levi. Great modern storytellers like Ian McEwan, Gerard Woodward, John Banville and Sebastian Faulks seem to dissect the corpse of human and historical relationships beautifully and intelligently time & time again. And more flowery romantic writers like Du Maurier are great to loose yourself in. If I had to pick one movement in art history that particularly moved me it would be Post-Impressionism, Gauguin especially, although I adore Manet, Hans Holbein, Vermeer, early Picasso, Hockney & a million others who I will be kicking myself for not including. More conceptual artists like Michael Landy also do something for me, although I tend to be suspicious of the hype & lack of craft that inevitably surrounds them and their work tends to move me in a less visceral way.
MB: What is it that captured you in Paul Celan’s work?
BA: I’m only really familiar with ‘death fugue’ which I found to be an intensely powerful poem. I don’t really feel qualified to comment on something which interprets one of history’s darkest chapters from a first-hand perspective, but the poem’s dark seductive nightmare imagery is intoxicating & terrifying in equal measures & ultimately incredibly moving.
MB: Do you think that the most beautiful art or music comes from extreme emotional experience?
BA: This question always reminds me of its brother, the ’does taking drugs create great art’ question and I’m suspicious of it on the same grounds, that it’s a powerful romantic myth perpetuated by those who don’t really understand the often prosaic mechanics of creativity. Of course, beauty has often been created through pain … the list is endless, but the cliché of the tortured artist, probably best personified by Van Gogh or Frida Kahlo is such a powerful, totemic presence in the human psyche as to almost blot out the possibility of something less romantic. In reality much creative energy is a product of a war of attrition against one’s muse – a workmanlike scattergun approach, trying out idea after failed idea until something eventually resonates. A long, long way from the Hackneyed ideal of the tortured romantic visionary blithely recording precious moments of divine inspiration before slipping into an opiated stupor … Every artist knows about the fear of the blank page & every artist has their own practical way of filling the space.
MB: I do believe that to create something really beautiful, one has to be really personal, really honest … which inevitably renders you vulnerable.
BA: At the risk of sounding deliberately contrary, first of all, I’d like to say I don’t necessarily agree. Again, I think there is a lot of romanticism involved in people’s understanding of the creative process. People almost need to believe that their artists are seers and visionaries, when in fact much art is created in a far more prosaic and even a somewhat cynical fashion. Not every piece of art is a pilgrim-like journey into the winter of one’s soul. There are countless songs & poems that people have just blithely dashed off but have somehow resonated. Although I’m not a fan of his work personally, wasn’t that the whole point of Claude Monet’s approach, to capture the spirit & the essence without labouring over the detail? I suppose he did access a real truth in this approach, but my point is that I think it’s important to accept that as well as being the product of the truth & vulnerability, great art can also be born from fluke & artifice & dishonesty. But to get back to the question, often when I’m writing I’m not consciously accessing a ‘truth’ but tilting with fragments of a reality which may or may not end up coming together to form a truth. To do this, I evoke my instinct & subconscious. I’ve learned over the years that the best songs are those which hint at, rather than specifically document, a truth. I’ve written deeply personal, honest, vulnerable songs before and almost always looked back on them as being mawkish and over-sentimental … Maybe that says more about me than about my abilities as a songwriter and maybe it’s not the same for all artists but I can only call into witness my own experiences. Probably the most directly personal song I’ve ever written was called ‘Song for my Father’ – a kind of musical eulogy to my dad. But even with this I didn’t have the freedom to write down ‘diary truth’ about our relationship; it was more a sad lament than an emotional quest. I did, however, feel that the song captured a ‘truth’ and it did leave me emotionally fragile … probably because it felt like a genuine note of sadness documenting a seismic event in my life and therefore had a depth beyond the posturing grief of much of what I pass off as writing. I think the issue of being personal, even in my answers here, is an interesting subject in itself. How much detail of one’s private life does it take to validate one’s answers with the hallmark of reality & truth? The point which I consider ‘too much’ is getting closer and closer with age, as I have less and less interest in interpreting my life in anything except my work.
MB: From all of your works, which pieces seem most personal to you now?
BA: There are so many moments in my career of which I am very proud but only a few where I think I really touched something quite special. That was almost central to my core. The suede song ‘The Wild Ones’ is something of which I am inestimably proud of. For me, it seemed to capture something perfect, containing that holy grail for songwriters, the right bitter/sweet equilibrium. The lyrics to the suede song ‘Trash’ were also another such moment for me. I wrote the song about the band and therefore, by extension, about the fans. I was happy with the picture it painted of our twisted, shabby little universe. The words to my first solo offering, ‘Love is Dead’ also still resonate with me. I love its unrepentant bleakness. For me, it says something about life’s inevitable but embraceable loneliness. Other stuff I’d be happy to represent my legacy would be ‘Pantomime Horse’, ‘The Asphalt World’, ‘The Next Life’, ‘Europe is our Playground’, ‘She’, ‘The Drowners’, ‘Everything Will Flow’, ‘Can’t Get Enough’, ‘Cheap’, ‘Hymn’, ‘A Different Place’, ‘Apollo 13’ and probably more which I’ll regret not mentioning …
MB: How important is memory for you?
BA: It’s a question I often ask myself, especially when someone close to me dies. The question of what we are when our physical presence is no more. I suppose we exist in memory only. I’m reminded of the Orwellian rumination on memory, of how the party in 1984 was so controlling of records and memory as a way to actually change and control the past. The fascinating concept being that there is no absolute truth, that the boundaries and definitions are shifting and open to drift & interpretation & the fallibility of human memory. I always think that the religious concept of ‘the afterlife’ is just a metaphorical interpretation of memory. I read somewhere an interesting comment on death being that one dies twice; once when we physically die and a second time when the last person who remembers us dies.
MB: At some point in our lives we all have to find our own way to overcome the physical presence of the people we love being no more, but nobody really talks about how one deals with loss.
BA: Well, I don’t think you ever really deal with it … the pain just slowly fades. I suppose there is a purpose in believing in the traditional concept of the afterlife as a kind of mental device to allow those you have lost to ‘be somewhere’ rather than just ashes on a hillside. It must help some people in an amazing way as it is an incredibly powerful and seductive concept. Unfortunately, I can’t insult my intelligence with such indulgence which makes facing up to the truth of mortality much harder. As I said, one’s memory is the real realm of the afterlife.
MB: Is just living enough for you, or was it necessary to ‘make something’ of yourself? And is seeing and experiencing something beautiful enough in itself or is there a necessity to encapsulate it somehow, to create something of it, to preserve it from being forgotten?
BA: A few years ago I seriously thought about retiring into a life of personal happiness. The idea of rejecting creativity did seduce me for a while. I think there’s a simple, naturalistic part of me that wishes living was enough, but I think, unfortunately, my ego and the need to express myself dictate that I create, too. I’m aware that the need to leave a legacy is quite an infantile concept but I also think that doing something with your life gives it some meaning and adds colour & depth to its other corners. It’s too easy just to intellectualise yourself into nothingness. Without wishing to sound glib, I guess I find life, nature & art so stimulating that I need to kind of emulate those visions with my own twisted language. I suppose it’s the competitive, obsessive 13 year old in me that can’t just leave it alone when he senses the possibility of making something that might matter, to others, yes, but ultimately to myself.
MB: What does madness mean for you? Did you ever feel you were close to losing reason? What does it feel like to really try to communicate with a mad person?
BA: For me, madness is defined as the inability to communicate. I’ve experienced inchoate madness in friends in the form of hypomania, depression psychosis and it’s always a condition characterized by the inability to communicate. It’s always deeply disturbing and always something that shocked me and made me realise just how fragile everyone’s grasp of ‘normality’ is. Madness, like cancer, is something that could be waiting around everyone’s next corner. I’m always aware of its shadowy presence.
MB: What is real attraction or desire for you? There is so much sex in pop/contemporary culture but it’s often very ‘safe’ & simplified, or a vulgarised form of sexuality.
BA: It’s an interesting question and one which I find difficult to answer because it’s so personal. It’s a shame I suppose that I’ll never be mentally free enough to answer this properly. You can blame the repressed Englishman in me I suppose. Without wishing to sound like some agony aunt columnist, I think, on a purely superficial level, it’s probably true that men tend to have a more simplistic, basic, unrefined attitude to sexual attraction and I am probably one of the herd in this respect. However, the whole range of true attraction is a fascinating subject as it brings into play so many other elements, it’s fascinating the way sexual attraction can hinge on minute but pivotal elements; that someone who at first seemed unattractive can sometimes reverse so completely through the unveiling of nuances of their character.
MB: Is it difficult to communicate, loneliness or isolation something you still have to deal with today?
BA: I’m naturally not a very sociable person so I suppose I have a tendency to willingly isolate myself. I prefer the company of books to most people but do passionately love being with my family & close friends for whom I would happily die. Years of being in a successful band turns people into socially retarded, emotionally crippled fools. I saw this happening to myself and predicted the lonely life that was waiting to claim me and managed to wrestle myself away from this inevitability like a dreamer struggling to wake himself from a nightmare. I still can’t do small-talk but now have the capacity not to want to go and shoot myself in the toilet in the middle of dinner parties.
MB: What is the most beautiful thing that you have experienced?
BA: Falling in love again at the age of 39 …
MB: What seems most important for you in life now?
BA: Being a good husband & step-dad, learning more about the vast, beautiful power of words & music, making great albums again. /end