The godfathers of Britpop consolidate their renaissance with an epic, brooding new record complete with its own feature film. Just don’t call Night Thoughts a concept album
“It was the best thing we ever did.”
On the phone from London, Suede bass player Mat Osman is not talking about the UK five-piece’s sweeping and dramatic new album, Night Thoughts. Nor is he referring to their miraculous 2013 comeback album, Bloodsports. He’s actually talking about the band’s decision to break up.
In 1992, Suede had catapulted to stardom in the breathing space between the death of shoegazing and the birth of Britpop. The London-based outfit melded the vocal stylings of Bowie, the glam guitars of T-Rex and the council-estate poetry of the Smiths. Soaring songs, along with lead singer Brett Anderson’s studied androgyny, involving self-flagellation with microphones and provocative comments in the press such as being “a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience”, made them for a while – at least before the arrival of Blur and Oasis – the only band in town.
Three UK number one albums followed and a raft of hit singles: ‘Metal Mickey’, ‘Animal Nitrate’, ‘Trash’, ‘The Beautiful Ones’, ‘Electricity’. It was a dream run that not even the embittered departure of lead guitarist and songwriter Bernard Butler in 1994 could halt; nor the retirement of keyboardist Neil Codling, suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, in 2001; nor (for that matter) a well-documented history of drug abuse.
Suede did run out of steam creatively in 2002 with a lacklustre album A New Morning. They had failed to conquer the world – America and Australia never really got them – but it had been a good innings and no one was surprised when they announced their indefinite hiatus. For Osman, who first met Anderson at school in West Sussex in 1984 and had known little else but the music biz, it was a shock. “I didn’t realise that these things could break,” he says.
So when Suede’s 1995-2001 line-up reconvened in 2010, they were determined not to coast on nostalgia but to write new material living up to their best work. Bloodsports, an album of both catchy pop highs and dark impassioned ballads, returned Suede to the UK top ten in 2013 and earned some of the best reviews of their career.
“Nowadays when we play live or are in the studio I’m so aware of the precariousness of it; the preciousness of it,” says Osman – incidentally, the brother of BBC game show host Richard Osman (Pointless). “Coming back to that, I think we work harder and the gigs are better, because we know quite how wrong you can go.”
When it came to writing the follow-up, Night Thoughts, Suede (and longtime producer Ed Buller) decided to throw out the rulebook, recording an album’s worth of music rather than writing complete songs first. “We went off to a studio in Belgium, the four of us without Brett, and recorded the record, with no clear idea of where vocals were going to go, and just gave it to Brett and said: ‘see if you can make an album out of this.’”
The result is still recognisably a Suede record, with themes of love, despair and transcendence, and hummable could-be hits such as ‘Outsiders’, ‘Like Kids’ and ‘What I’m Trying to Tell You’, but there are also epic atmospheric tracks, some using full orchestra. It’s not a million miles from their second album Dog Man Star (1994) – the album that nearly tore the band asunder but which is regarded by many as their crowning achievement. Night Thoughts is also a deliberate affront to current trends: a concept album, perhaps?
“I don’t think it’s a concept album. I think it’s an album,” says Osman. “Twenty years ago, what we were trying to do would have been entirely unremarkable. You know, it’s a record that has a start and a finish and the tracks flow into each other. It has themes that repeat. That’s what records used to be, before everything got chopped up to go on playlists.”
Be that as it may, the entire album comes with its own 47-minute feature film, directed by Richard Sargent, in which a drowning man’s life flashes before his eyes. “It kind of came about through a hatred of Suede videos really,” Osman laughs. “We finished the record and were really proud of the way it did feel like one piece. And we thought, ah, fuck, we have to cut this up for the videos. And we said: well, we’ll just make one film for it.”
That film was premiered at two London gigs last November, projected on a screen while the band performed the album in its entirety. The shows got rapturous receptions, although the band did hedge their bets with a second half of greatest hits.
Suede’s live shows, galvanising as they are, are not the most startling thing about them. As Anderson once said: “The history of this fucking band is ridiculous. It’s like Machiavelli re-writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas...” Here’s their career in ten astonishing facts:
1 Before Suede found drummer Simon Gilbert, Mike Joyce from the Smiths answered their ad and auditioned for them.
“That was one of the strangest days of my life because we didn’t really believe it was true,” recalls Osman. “We wrote ‘Smiths-influenced’ in the advert, but it just didn’t seem possible. Then [Joyce] walked in through the door. It was never going to work but I tell you what, it was such an amazing thing for us, and especially for Brett, that he took us seriously.”
2 Ricky Gervais was one of their early managers… and Suede once supported Gervais’s band, Son of Bleeper.
“Yeah, he worked for our management company back in the day, sending out Suede demo tapes and stuff. He was a very pretty boy, like a young Bowie – you have to check out his band Seona Dancing. When he made it on TV I did the longest double take. He was always a really sarky bugger, he really was. I’m really glad he’s a comedian rather than a manager because he was a fucking shit manager!”
3 On the cusp of success, rhythm guitarist Justine Frischmann left the group – and also her relationship with lead singer Anderson, for none other than Blur’s Damon Albarn.
It was the kindest thing she could have done. Anderson’s broken heart fuelled some of the best tracks on Suede’s debut album, and the band’s chemistry crystallised as a four-piece. Frischmann went on to have success with her own Britpop group, Elastica.
4 A 1992 cover of Melody Maker proclaimed them the ‘Best New Band in Britain’ before they had officially released any music.
“I thought: ‘fuck, I’m actually gonna do this,’” says Osman. “It’s a really strange thing. We’d been so ignored for so long. We couldn’t get gigs and we couldn’t get any press and we were so out of step with all the bands around us. It’s difficult to convey how powerful the British music press were at the time. It suddenly meant the rest of the world that didn’t live in Camden would know who we were.”
5 During the recording of their second album in 1994, at the height of their fame, their genius guitarist Bernard Butler quit – and the band were OK with that.
“I look back now and wonder, what the fuck were we thinking? He was the main songwriter, probably the best guitarist of his generation. And he left and we just got on with it. We felt kind of bulletproof at the time. We had an idea of the kind of band we were and the kind of band that mattered.”
6 They found Suede fan Richard Oakes to replace Butler and their next album, Coming Up, was a triumph, yielding five hit singles in 1996.
“We got a 17 year old in who had never been in a band! We just forced our way through it with sheer ambition and stubbornness, and probably stupidity.”
7 They called it quits after the flop of 2002 album A New Morning…
“It was partly a huge relief. We’d made a shit record that I wasn’t proud of and that makes you feel kind of worthless, because your life is tied up in it.”
8 …but they reformed for a charity concert in 2010, and in 2013 released one of their best records yet, Bloodsports.
“Lots of bands that come back are really, really lazy. It’s so seductive, because you go out, play all the old songs and no one’s seen you for ten years and you get this amazing reaction. So on Bloodsports we were brutal. It was like, write ten songs, keep one. Write ten songs, keep one...”
9 Their new album Night Thoughts is also a ripper.
“It was really hard to make. As you get older it gets harder to find those places where the band is interesting, but not repeating itself. Good things are hard to do, which is why everyone doesn’t do them…”
10 They won the NME Godlike Genius Award for 2015 for having “fundamentally altered the course of alternative music in the 1990s”.
“The awards are one thing, but the fact people like the records and come to the gigs is the real vindication. The fact that we did something good after doing something shit is vindication enough really.”
Night Thoughts (Warner) is out on Jan 22.