Born on the cusp of the '90s, The London Suede would become one of the bands that defined that decade, pioneering a Britpop scene that would soon take over the U.K. music charts. Surrounded by a flurry of hype, their self-titled debut, telling of disaffection and grimy urban life, was the fastest-selling debut album in eight years in the U.K., and earned them the 1993 Mercury Prize.
Then came Oasis and Blur. And The London Suede, despite three chart-topping albums, found themselves pushed from the spotlight. With their foppish singer Brett Anderson battling drug addiction, their final album A New Morning was a commercial flop, and the group descended into obscurity. When they split in 2003, they hardly seemed likely candidates for a reunion.
But when they were asked to perform a comeback gig for charity last year, they did it minus original guitarist and co-founder Bernard Butler (with whom Anderson fell out and then, later, reconciled to form The Tears). With their days of excess behind them, the fevered reaction to their handful of reunion dates prove The London Suede's flame never really died, and that their music, rather than being a nostalgia trip, sounds as vital as ever. Invigorated by the reception, they are releasing re-mastered and expanded versions of their five studio albums.
Elisa Bray talked to frontman Brett Anderson and bassist Mat Osman about their unlikely comeback.
When you reformed for the Teenage Cancer Trust gig in London last year, did you expect to be performing gigs and re-releasing your albums today?
Brett Anderson: We intended to reform for one gig actually. That was the idea. We had this vision of, "Right, we're just going to come back, do this one amazing show, and never do it again." And we'd almost have this beauty of the transience of the thing. And then we got mired in reality and did this show that was amazing, that we absolutely loved, and kind of couldn't leave it alone. It's feeling really great, strangely contemporary, and strangely not nostalgic — which is nice.
Did you think hard about the way you'd make your comeback?
Mat Osman: There are a million ways to reform really badly. You can outstay your welcome, you can be ordinary, you can be a shadow of your former self, and we did look at that and one of the reasons we kept it quite stripped down is to make it feel like being in a contemporary band. We were really conscious that there's a certain kind of comeback which involves loads of extra musicians, orchestras, samples and backing tapes and these shows that you just go along to for the nostalgia and to hear something recreated exactly as it was. Very quickly once we got back into the rehearsal room we decided to go exactly the other way, to get it back to it feeling like a five-men-in-the-room rock 'n' roll show because it's what we do best and also because it keeps the edge there. It still feels possible that it will all fall apart at all times, which is useful.
So why did you come back?
Osman: There's just something that Suede does that the other things don't. There was a certain kind of chemistry from Suede that I never got with other musicians. It happens sometimes — things click into place.
Anderson: There's no one else that does what we do. We got lumped into the Britpop scene, but I've always had a really healthy disrespect for those scenes. And I think there is a real place for Suede and that the incredibly positive reaction has been partly because there's been a resurgence of respect for the band; maybe people have realized that the band were quite special in their own odd little way.
Did you want to prove anything?
Anderson: The reason I was so comfortable with the reunion in the first place was because when Suede finished, we finished on quite a downturn. If we'd finished after Coming Up, the legend of Suede would have been much stronger than if we'd finished after A New Morning. It was our weakest album, and it was a feeling of, "Ok, everyone's a bit sick of us now." The whole process of reforming was quite a lot about reminding people what we did well back in the day. And possibly airbrushing over the moments that weren't as good.
Osman: It's basically a reworking of history.
But you didn't airbrush out A New Morning. How do you feel about re-releasing that album?
Anderson: It's not my favorite Suede album, but by doing this you're able to rewrite history a little bit and say, "Well, actually, there are elements to that period which are worthwhile." It was an opportunity to show a different side of it. I regret the reaction to it, but I think lots of the songs were beautiful. The demos for that album were really beautiful, there was a real spontaneity.
You did the re-mastering with Bernard Butler. How was that?
Anderson: It wasn't sadly nostalgic or bitter. Bernard's come to a period in his life where he's got a good relationship with the Suede back catalogue. And me, too. There's enough water under the bridge for it not to be too emotional when we're looking back at old stuff and to just enjoy the good things about it. There was one day that we had this mastering session and Bernard brought this huge cardboard box full of stuff I hadn't seen for years.
What did you discover from the box of stuff?
Anderson: That we threw a lot of stuff away, and that the albums could have been stronger if we'd been more ruthless about it. It was very important to us to have very strong b-sides because we didn't want to let our fan base down. It was ridiculous that the first album didn't include "My Insatiable One" and "To the Birds." They're great songs. It was just a crazy thing to do because no one really remembers the b-sides — you're just left with the album 20 years later. That's probably the biggest mistake we made.
Did you miss Suede?
Osman: There's a certain feeling playing a gig to 10,000 people who know and love your songs. There are a million things about the process of being in a band that I don't miss at all, but the actual feeling of you and 10,000 people just being lit up by something you're playing is something that hopefully I'll want to do for all my life.
Anderson: I did miss being in a rock band, actually. I remember going to see The Horrors a couple of years ago and I got there a bit early and was watching the roadies and it made me remember what it was like being in Suede. I did miss that kind of energy. Even though I've obviously been playing on stage a lot, it's very different music, and I did miss the raw teenage thing of being in a rock band.
Brett, you've been making solo albums. What's everyone else been up to?
Osman: Simon's [Gilbert] been off in Bangkok where he's been in a succession of gay punk bands. The last one was made up of a Thai soap star and the greatest bass player I've ever seen. She's about 3-foot-2, basically like an Asian-female version of all The Ramones.
Anderson: What a terrifying thought.
Osman: I know! Neil [Codling] has played with loads of people: Penguin Caf#&233; Orchestra, Natalie Imbruglia. Richard [Oakes] is the one who most had enough of music after what happened. He was in a weird situation of being injected into a slightly dissolute world-touring rock band at 17. It's incredible he's still sane actually, and he's the one who took a couple of years off to become a normal human being again, and not spend his entire life with a tour manager poking him with a stick every morning.
And you've been doing normal human being stuff, Mat.
Osman: I did do some normal human being stuff, yes. I've been doing some TV writing, travel stuff. But just lying around mainly, drinking tea.
Are you writing any new Suede music?
Osman: We're thinking about it. If we write something we think is absolutely great and stands head and shoulders with what we've done before then that would be brilliant.
Anderson: We'll definitely give it a go. I think if we made a record it would be quite rock-based. When Suede went a bit off the rails, it was because we were over-thinking it. When Suede worked the best, it was instinctive.