15 Sep 2002: After the booze, coke, crack and smack, Suede’s Brett Anderson is back in the land of the living with renewed optimism and a new album.
Brett Anderson grew up hanging around car parks, drinking lukewarm cans of Special Brew and taking acid. Occasionally, he caught the train from Hayward’s Heath to Brighton, less than half an hour away, but still a world away. He would buy punk records and, perhaps, a Nagasaki Nightmare patch to sew on to his red ski jacket.
His mother, who died in 1989, was an aspiring artist; his father was mostly unemployed and obsessed with classical music. He wanted his son to be a classical pianist, but Brett had other ideas. Lost in suburban adolescence, he was drawn to the Smiths, to Morrissey’s melancholic lyrics, his eccentric persona. He wanted to be a pop star; he would be a pop star. He had no doubt.
Anderson moved to London in the late 1980s, living in a small flat in Notting Hill. He studied architecture at the London School of Economics, but only while he got a band together. Here he met Justine Frischmann and, with old school friend Mat Osman, formed Suede in the early Nineties as an antidote to grunge and anodyne pop.
Anderson borrowed Bowie’s Seventies glamour and a little of his Anthony Newley-style vocals. He looked to the Walker Brothers’s extravagant, string-laden productions and appropriated Mick Jagger’s sexual flamboyance for his stage show. Yet Suede were totally original, unlike anything else at the time. Dressed in secondhand suits and with casually held cigarettes as a prop, Anderson wanted to write pop songs with an edge; sleazy, druggy, urban vignettes which would sit uncomfortably in the saccharine-tinged charts.
Like his lyrics, Anderson was brash, cocky, confident. He talked of being ‘a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience’, realising it was an interesting quote, even if he knew he would probably always lose his heart to the prettiest of girls.
When I first met him, in the spring of 1993, Suede were enjoying their second year of press hysteria, of being endlessly hailed as the best new band in Britain. Fiddling with his Bryan Ferry fringe, Anderson asserted: ‘I am a ridiculous fan of Suede. I do sit at home and listen to us. I do enjoy our music.’
He talked about performing ‘Metal Mickey’, the band’s second single, on Top of the Pops. ‘When I was growing up, Top of the Pops was the greatest thing, after tea on a Thursday night… brilliant! You get a ridiculous sense of history doing it. It was a milestone in my life; it somehow validated my life, which is pathetic really.’
By rights, Suede should have been not only the best band in Britain but also the biggest. Yet it did not happen that way. During the recording of the second album, the brilliant Dog Man Star, guitarist Bernard Butler walked out. It was as though Johnny Marr had left the Smiths before completing Meat Is Murder. The band could have given up, but they did not; they went on to make Coming Up, which went straight to the top of the album charts. Then, three years ago, disaster struck during the recording of Suede’s fourth album, Head Music. Anderson was in trouble: the pale adolescent who had swigged Special Brew in desolate car parks was now a pop star addicted to crack.
Brett Anderson sits in a battered leather Sixties chair in the living-room of his four- storey west London home sipping a mug of black coffee. He has lived here for three or four years, moving into the street just as Peter Mandelson was moving out. The living-room is immaculate: books, CDs and records are neatly stacked on shelves, probably in alphabetical order.
Anderson’s 6ft frame is as angular as ever but more toned than before, the detail of his muscles showing through a tight black T-shirt. Gone is the jumble-sale chic of the early Nineties; he now pops into Harvey Nichols.
He appears to have lost none of his self-assurance but, a decade on from his bold entrance into the world of pop, Anderson has mellowed, grown-up. By his own admission, he is still highly strung and admits he is probably as skinny as a 17-year-old at almost 35 because of nervous energy. But he no longer refuses to listen to new bands in case they are better than Suede; he praises the Streets, the Vines and the Flaming Lips.
This healthy, relaxed person who enjoys the odd mug of strong black coffee is a recent incarnation. At some point in the late Nineties, Anderson lost himself. He became part of one his songs and ended up a drug addict.
He talks about his new regime: swimming, eating well, hardly touching alcohol. No drugs. Did he give everything up at once? ‘It was kind of gradual… giving up drugs is a strange thing, because you can’t just do it straight away. You stop for a bit then it bleeds into your life again. It takes great willpower to stop suddenly.’
He sighs and looks into the distance. ‘I got sick of it really. I felt as though I’d outgrown it. It wasn’t something I kept wanting to put myself through and I was turning into an absolute tit. Incapable of having a relationship, incapable of going out and behaving like a normal human being. Constantly paranoid…’
The drug odyssey started with cocaine, but soon it was not enough. ‘Cocaine is child’s play. After a while, it didn’t give me enough of a buzz, so I got into crack. I was a crack addict for ages, I was a smack addict for ages…’
Another deep sigh. ‘It’s part of my past, really. I’m not far enough away to be talking about it. It’s only recently I’ve been able to say the word “crack”.’
When Head Music was being recorded, he says he wasn’t really there. He would turn up but his mind was not focused. The album went to number one but it was not up to Suede’s standards; as Anderson acknowledges, it was ‘flashy, bombastic; an extreme version of the band’.
He laughs, happier to talk about the good times. ‘Last year, when I decided not to destroy myself any more, I kind of disappeared off to the countryside with a huge amount of books, a guitar and a typewriter… and wondered what the outcome would be.’
He spent six months alone. It was a revelation to discover that he could spend time by himself. ‘I think a lot of people are shit scared of being on their own. Me too. From the age of 14 to 30, I jumped from bed to bed in fear of being alone. Being in the cottage in the middle in Surrey, I learned that if one day everything fucks up, I could actually go and live on my own. It’s a total option.’
For a long time, Anderson had avoided reading books, worried that his lyric writing would be affected by other people’s use of language. Last year, he decided it was time to fill his head with some new information. Although he had been told for years that his imagery was reminiscent of J.G. Ballard, he read the author for the first time in the cottage – and was flattered. He read Ian McEwan’s back catalogue and challenging books such as Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised.
Despite his self-imposed exile, it still took Anderson a long time to perfect Suede’s fifth album, the self-consciously celebratory A New Morning. The band tried to make an ‘electronic folk’ album by working with producer Tony Hoffer, who had impressed with his work on Beck’s Midnight Vultures. However, unable to make an understated album, they eventually called in their old friend Stephen Street, the Smiths producer.
Yet more trouble was ahead. Anderson says Suede have faced many ‘big dramas’ over the past decade – Frischmann left the band early on to form Elastica and soon after ended her relationship with Anderson, moving in with Britpop’s golden boy, Damon Albarn; Bernard Butler walked out with little warning; the drugs took control – but still the band were not prepared for keyboard player Neil Codling’s exit. He was forced to leave in the middle of recording A New Morning suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome.
Anderson says he was furious when Codling left.’He couldn’t help it, I know, but I did feel aggrieved. I felt let down. But more at the universe than at Neil. I tend not to show how I feel about these things in public. It’s like when Bernard first left, I was devastated. I felt as though that original line-up was really special. And we will never know what might have been.’
At times, Anderson sounds as though he has had an epiphany in the past year. He smiles. ‘Well, you only need to listen to A New Morning to realise that. The title is very much a metaphor. It’s a very optimistic record; the first single is called “Positivity”, for God’s sake. It’s a talismanic song for the album. It’s a good pop single, but we’ve haven’t gone for a Disney kitsch, happy, clappy, neon thing.’
He looks serious for a moment. ‘For me, the album is about the sense that you can only experience real happiness if you’ve experienced real sadness.’
Has he had therapy? His whole body shakes with a strange, high-pitched laughter. ‘No! No! But I am happier now. I feel more comfortable with myself. I feel as though I’m due some happiness. I’ve just started going out with someone I really like. I’ve made an album which is intimate and warm. I don’t any more have the need to be talked about constantly, that adolescent need for constant pampering…’
A swig of the lukewarm coffee and a wry smile. ‘And, best of all, I don’t feel like a troubled, paranoid tit any more.’
A New Morning is released on 30 September