Suede: 'In a weird way these are truly adult themes'
Autofiction, it seems, is a “punky” corrective for a band now entering their fourth decade.
“As a band we’ve been forced to re-set a few times,” says Mat Osman, who has been at the core of the group with Brett Anderson since 1989. He mentions the loss of guitarist Bernard Butler in 1994 (to be replaced by a then 17-year-old Richard Oakes), but could also cite keyboardist Neil Codling’s temporary departure seven years later or their long hiatus between 2003 and 2010. “It’s always been really good for us,” he says, “it’s forced us to go back and look at the spirit of the band and why we started doing it in the first place.”
This time, “rather than wait for the inevitable crisis”, they decided to shake things up themselves. “Some of my favourite moments have been making the first record and Coming Up and Bloodsports because there’s just that sense of capturing the feeling of the five of us together, the chemistry of that, which is an amazing thing,” Osman says. “I love The Blue Hour, it went places we’ve not been before, but I think all of us wanted to get back to the sound of us just playing together.”
Keen to do the record “semi-live”, Suede even toyed with the idea of inviting fans into the studio to watch the process. “The first time you play a song live to an audience it changes and you understand it in a completely different way,” says Osman. “We’ve never really captured the savageness of the Suede live sound and we thought with an audience there maybe we could do that, it would scrape off some of the polish.”
But when lockdown happened the idea became unfeasible, so the band “had to kind of fake it”, covening instead in a low-key London rehearsal room where the record “grew organically”. “We couldn’t do any overdubs or anything fancy, there were no string players, so the idea that we started was I think exacerbated by the situation. We never got to do the live thing, though it may still happen.”
Any thought of making a record about lockdown itself, however, was purposefully avoided. “Lots of it, like the last record, was born from Brett becoming a father,” Osman says. “It’s so strange, when people talk about adult themes on a record you assume it’s going to be about sex and drugs, but in a weird way these are truly adult themes. It’s about the fear as you grow older and the tensions of family life and all of those things that rock ’n’ roll isn’t supposed to speak about.
“Because rock ’n’ roll is quite a young thing, I think there’s this sense that it’s trapped in a perpetual adolescence, but at the same time when you hear something like the record Leonard Cohen made before he died that his son finished (You Want It Darker), then you suddenly think ‘OK, rock music can deal with these things’, it’s just taken a bit of time.”
In combining energetic music akin to “if we were a brand new band if we were 19 again” with themes that “are much more middle-aged”, Osman believes Suede have found an intriguing middle ground. “Something really works about it,” he says. “There’s a kind of assumption that once you reach middle age that you become kind of settled and you know what’s going on, you assume that your parents knew what was going on, but it’s all the confusions and worries of being 16 with just a whole loads more worries on top. So it’s walking a tightrope between those two things; hopefully it does it successfully.”
There’s an ambiguity at play in several of the tracks, which is explored further in an accompanying short film by Katie Lambert. She Still Leads Me On and What Am I Without You? both appear on the surface to be “traditional” love songs but are respectively about the death of Anderson’s mother and the band’s enduring relationship with their fans. “As we get older we’ve become interested in how all the power that a band has comes from the audience – if they’re not there or they’re not involving themselves in it, then we’re nothing,” Osman says. “Every now and again you get caught in some kind of festival where people just aren’t interested and it destroys you, it becomes a rehearsal. I love that idea that someone you love gives you power, that you can make something out of nothing, just you and them make this electricity, it’s true of relationships but it’s also true of bands and crowds. It’s a love song from five people to 10,000 people.”
Of the film, Osman says the band were interested in investigating the relationship they have with their audience. “One of the things that fascinates me is the kind of ritual around gig-going,” he says. “We have this very compassionate set of fans that follow us around and come to every gig, and the actual gigs for them are only one part of the whole experience. It’s a massive community and they meet up beforehand and in the bar afterwards, and that sense of a gig as this ritual thing that’s totemic in your life I find really fascinating.
"I love speaking to people who met at Suede gigs, who will tell you ‘our first date was this gig’, it’s fascinating to me. We wanted to do something that played on that idea. Very deliberately the band are almost an afterthought in the film; the idea is that you see them in the background, and the arena at the gig is what’s important.
"We knew we wanted the film to be about a couple, we wanted to be able to see them going to a gig and we wanted it to be intertwined but as soon as we spoke to Katie, she understood Suede and our obsessions and we really left it to her. The characters and what happens are very much from her. It’s always good to have someone else’s filter over what you do, to see how someone else sees the band, because they always bring something personal and new to it.”
In between the last two albums, Anderson has had two memoirs published, Coal Black Mornings and Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn, which Osman believes “definitely” informed Autofiction. “A song Like 15 Again comes about from thinking about yourself in your teenage bedroom and thinking about that extreme form of self-confidence and extreme self-doubt at the same time, and trying to capture some of the energy of that,” he says.
Last year the bassist ventured into the literary world himself, with his first novel The Ruins. He says of the experience: “As we get older, all five of us have a sense of urgency about trying new things. I think there’s a choice you make for lots of reformed bands which is: are you going to look forward or are you going to look back? We’re quite happy to do the Coming Up (25th anniversary) tours and stuff like that as long as the band is moving forward.
"But also as people, we all have side projects now because Suede works on a certain timetable, you can’t rush stuff out. There’s just a sense with all of us of trying to make as much good new stuff as we can all the time. I certainly feel more creative than I ever did and I think that runs through the whole band.
“It’s always a struggle making a new record but one of the great things about having done a lot of stuff is that you recognise that there's always a point where it seems impossible, where you think we should just abandon that, but if you trust your music you just get through it. It doesn’t make it any easier, it just means that you know that you’ve been there before and you’ve got through it.
"For a little while I taught a novel writing course and the biggest problem that people had was not lack of talent, it was that halfway through it just seemed too much. They were like ‘I can’t believe I’ve got to write 70,000 more words’.
"One of the great things of being in your 50s is it was hard doing your first album, it was hard doing Coming Up. To be good, it’s going to be hard work and you’re going to have doubts but at least I know I can do it. I don’t think Brett would have written that memoir or Richard would have done solo records without that behind us.”
During the writing process Osman found his brother Richard, presenter of of the TV quiz Pointless and author of the best-selling Thursday Murder Club novels, highly supportive. “It was so random because neither of us had told the other that we were writing a novel, and we started I think within about a month of each other,” Osman says. “I got a text from him and we were just talking about something else and he said, ‘By the way, I’ve written a novel and it’s finished’ and I had to text him back and say ‘Oh, me too’.
"He’s been amazing, to be honest. One of the things about writing is it’s an incredibly lonely business and it makes you doubt yourself a lot, and I didn’t know many writers. I’ve spent most of my life with musicians so I had no-one to say, ‘Is this normal? Should I be this worried at this point?’ and 90 per cent of what he’s done is just be there going ‘Yeah’. To be honest now he does give me advice but the advice you get from someone who’s sold two million books a lot of it doesn’t really apply. But he’s incredibly supportive and I think he’s a really talented writer and it’s been fantastic having him there.”
Earlier this year saw the 30th anniversary of Suede’s first single, The Drowners. Of such an event, Osman says: “Nostalgic is such a weird word. I didn’t want to go back to those days, but enough time has passed that I look back quite fondly. It’s difficult when only ten years have passed, then you’re constantly thinking ‘My God, we were such a phenomenon at that point, we were in the tabloids and everything’. So it’s quite hard in the first decade after you’re obviously competing with your younger self. Then after we came back there’s something incredibly freeing about not being in the mainstream, about being in this little place and having people who will listen to you but at the same time not having to chase number ones and stuff like that.
"Now I can look back on The Drowners with pride. I still love the song, it’s got a certain swagger. We still play it all the time. It was a little touchstone when we were making this record. Like I say, it's really important to us that we’re always looking forward, and we have this rule that every time we do something backward-looking we have to do something forward-looking. We started writing when that 30th anniversary was and the last time we played anything from this new record we did the last night of the Coming Up tour, all finished in Belgium, then came back on and did She Still Leads Me On. Every now and then it’s good for us to go back to The Drowners or Coming Up and re-imbibe that spirit, the joie de vivre in those records. It’s that sense of just being heard, of growing up and suddenly you have a platform. Nowadays I find it easy to go back to those days and take the good things from them and the spirit from them and try to use it now.”
Autofiction is out on September 16. Suede play at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on September 17; they are also doing a signing at Bear Tree Records in Sheffield on September 20. Their 2023 tour will take them to Sheffield O2 Academy on March 11, and York Barbican on March 15. www.suede.co.uk