Tom Hodgkinson meets the Suede frontman to discuss the ramshackle years before stardom, recorded in his acclaimed memoir Coal Black Mornings. The memoir describes his childhood and his teenage years spent listening to music in his bedroom and reading NME, as well as the early days of Suede. He says it is very much a book about the 1980s rather than the 1990s.
Tom Hodgkinson: Coal Black Mornings is a great read and catches a certain moment in culture. But it comes to an end quite abruptly.
Brett Anderson: It ends the moment we get signed, which was 1992.
TH: So was that a concept – it was going from childhood to getting signed?
BA: That was my only concept. I loved the idea of ending the book at the point most people’s memoirs would start. I thought there was something really bloody-minded and funny about that. I really wanted to portray a side of rock that is unexpected. I didn’t want to write about the 1990s, “Cool Britannia” and New Labour.
TH: That would be too obvious?
BA: Everyone has done it a million times before and my experience of the 1990s was very different. The 1990s were still kind of the 1980s up until 1992 or 1993. The 1960s went on until about 1973. It always happens.
TH: There was a lot of good music then.
BA: Oh God yeah! It was alternative music before alternative music became de ned and careerist, which happened in the 1990s, I think. Alternative music was genuinely quite outré. There was amazing music being made from The Cure to Felt, and people like New Order, genuinely breaking new ground. Then I think, in the 1990s and the 2000s, alternative music became more of a style rather than a state of mind. Then of course, big business comes in.
TH: And there was this big thing about not selling out.
BA: That doesn’t exist anymore. People have to sell out now, it’s the only way that they can make money. Oh God, the things we turned down in the 1990s. Big money adverts, promotional things, all sorts. We never used to turn up at awards ceremonies. We got nominated for five Brits one year – and the idea of turning up at the Brits? You must be joking! How uncool is that?
TH: So who would you say were your top bands of the 1980s?
BA: Well, The Smiths obviously, I know you don’t need anyone else blathering on about The Smiths, but they were very influential. They were our role models in lots of ways, in the way we went about writing and their attitude. Their non-conformist attitude, but also their pop sensibility. They were not avant-garde.
TH: We all had Smiths posters as students.
BA: Did we, though? I’m not sure – I mean, I totally did – I was a Smiths fan at university in 1985 and I remember feeling like an oddball. The hall of residence I was in wasn’t decked with “Boy with the Thorn in his Side” posters. Me and my mate were the only guys that liked The Smiths. They’re one of those bands that have become bigger since they split up. Part of the beauty of The Smiths was that it didn’t feel mainstream. It felt like one’s own little club, like their brilliant B-sides were a gift in exchange for your loyalty. A kind of “Thank you for being part of our little gang”. That’s something that I really wanted to do with Suede. Especially in the early days, B-sides were very important to us. It was about creating a little cult, a group that people can identify with and want to be part of. I always wanted to polarise people’s opinion, to be hated and loved in equal measures. I never just wanted to be quite liked. There was something rather dull about being quite liked.
TH: The way you talk about it, Suede wasn’t just a few songs, it was a much bigger concept than that.
BA: But you have to be careful of what hindsight does. Hindsight frames things and gives a logic that, at the time, simply wasn’t there. You’re stumbling around trying to find your identity. In hindsight I can say: “Yes I meant to do that”, but I don’t think I was that in control of it. It was hard in the early days of Suede. We weren’t very good musicians; that’s just a truth. We were pretty crap, which I don’t mean disrespectfully to anyone. I don’t think there’s anything shameful about ineptitude. Ineptitude can lead to brilliant things and it’s wrong to equate ability with quality. There’s a million people who can sing like George Michael standing in dole queues. Or the queues round the block to audition for The X Factor. Who cares whether someone can sing in tune? I want to hear someone with flaws, with something to say, with an interesting voice.
This is an extract from a longer interview which appears in Idler 64. To buy a copy, click here.