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23 October 2019

Brett Anderson: “I deeply regret taking drugs. It wasted years of my life”

The Suede frontman on Brexit, the band’s rebirth and his self-critical memoir.

By George Eaton

In 1992-93, before Suede had even released their first album, they featured on 19 magazine covers. The subsequent eponymous record charted at No 1 in March 1993 and became the fastest-selling UK debut for almost a decade. Morrissey covered the band’s first B-side (“My Insatiable One”) and David Bowie embraced frontman Brett Anderson as an heir.

Yet Anderson, who once likened Suede’s history to “Machiavelli rewriting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, had vowed never to write of this vertiginous ascent. His first memoir, Coal Black Mornings (2018) – an elegiac account of his impoverished childhood – consciously avoided what he called the “coke and gold discs” narrative.

But Anderson could not resist temptation. The result is Afternoons with the Blinds Drawn, a book that is by turns defiantly celebratory and fiercely self-critical.

“The only way I get through winter is to write,” Anderson, 52, explained when we met recently at his flat in Ladbroke Grove, west London. “And I was faced with a winter in the countryside [he lives in Somerset] without an album to write because I’d just finished one.”

Some of the book’s most perceptive chapters are on the nature of fame: its simultaneously intoxicating and distorting effect (“It felt like I was trapped inside a futurist painting, restless and kinetic,” writes Anderson). He reflected: “As I drift further into the forest of middle age, it’s even more fascinating because you find that your persona is set – mine is set in about 1993. People expect me to be turning up at the school gates whipping my arse in a tight Seventies Portobello Road leather jacket.”

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If so, it is perhaps because Anderson – lithe, tanned and impeccably tailored – has aged with an ease suggestive of a Dorian Gray-style pact. There is little visible trace of the chemical addictions that defined his existence in the late Nineties. “I deeply regret it. It was a waste of years of my life and I think that my work would have been much better without it,” he says now.

Anderson conveys, above all, the banality of addiction. “It’s so difficult to talk about drugs without it turning into a headline and that’s why I deliberately didn’t use any proper nouns when talking about them,” he said.

“It’s really interesting as a parent negotiating these things [Anderson is married with a seven-year-old son and a 15-year-old stepson]. I think about it a lot, how best to discourage one’s children from going down that route when I myself have been guilty of doing that. You can’t ever moralise – they’re going to find out the truth about you in the end. The only tool that I think is effective is to try and deglamorise it.”

Anderson’s androgynous looks defined Suede’s aesthetic. Many of the band’s early songs – “The Drowners”, “Animal Nitrate”, “Pantomime Horse” – reference gender ambiguity and sexual fluidity, themes that appear startlingly prescient 25 years later. Anderson, who memorably described himself in a 1992 Melody Maker interview as “a bisexual man who’s never had a homosexual experience”, recalled: “I was talking about songwriting at the time… It’s a wonderful thing that society is now much more accepting of those things. I do look back at the Nineties and the sly misogyny of lots of the lads bands. It was never overt but there was that Loaded culture, that Men Behaving Badly culture, which we deliberately distanced ourselves from.”

Though Suede are sometimes described as the first Britpop band, Anderson has only disdain for the movement. Some commentators, I note, have even partially blamed the phenomenon for Brexit. “I think there are definitely parallels,” Anderson replied. “Politically and culturally, it feels hugely anachronistic now. I’m amazed that lots of the main bands that spearheaded that movement are still taken seriously, amazed that we don’t see it in the same way that we do dodgy bands from the Seventies. I’m flabbergasted – without naming names.”

In the wake of Brexit, a euphoric 1996 Suede B-side, “Europe is our Playground”, acquired a renewed resonance. “Songs have a life beyond the moment that you write them… I love that idea,” said Anderson. “They’re a living, breathing thing, rather than something that’s set in glass like a dead butterfly.” He described Brexit as “an utter tragedy”, adding that David Cameron, this season’s other memoirist, “should be hiding for the next ten years”.

Suede split in 2003 after commercial and critical decline. But they have since enjoyed a late renaissance, producing three well-received albums since 2013 (Anderson has also made four solo LPs).

“What I’ve done with the past two records, especially, is use parenthood as a motor to generate ideas,” Anderson told me. “I’ve talked about the neurosis of parenthood… Unlike fear for your own mortality, fear for your child’s mortality is a thousand times worse, that’s why there are so many books and films about children going missing.”

His other greatest fears, he said, are cancer and, curiously for an affluent rock-star, poverty. The latter, in part, accounts for his work ethic but so do the epiphanies of music. “It’s almost a chemical reaction, when you put a phrase with the right melody,” Anderson said. “You’re always looking for that piece of magic.”

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This article appears in the 23 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The broken state