Suede’s second album, Dog Man Star, is released on Monday (October 20) as an expansive 20th-anniversary super-deluxe boxset, so we thought we’d dig out this piece from Uncut’s July 2012 issue (Take 182), where Brett Anderson, Bernard Butler, Ed Buller, Mat Osman and Simon Gilbert remember the creation of Suede’s debut single. Inspired by glam and “engorged flesh”, it earned the band celebrity fans and a record deal, and helped change the course of ’90s indie… Words: John Robinson
For Suede, it was, in many ways, the worst of times. Singer Brett Anderson had broken up with girlfriend Justine Frischmann, losing along the way his residence in her plush Kensington flat, and her hustle as ersatz band manager.
It was also the best of times. In his new, meaner lodgings in London’s seamier Westbourne Park, Anderson made a giant leap forward as a writer, shedding his Momus-indebted flourishes for a new style of lyrics that romantically recast his own penurious lifestyle. He grew closer to guitarist Bernard Butler, and their songwriting partnership gave up its first real fruits.
“When someone is going out with someone in the band and they’re going home together you can never break that down,” remembers Butler. “Brett was a hidden character behind Justine. So when that ended, that’s when we started writing good things together. Justine lent me the money for a Les Paul, for which I’m eternally grateful.”
Suede had been ignored in their first incarnation. Now, revelling in this anonymity, the definitive lineup began to develop their personality and present it in their songs.
“We started to see ourselves as a little force,” says Butler. “We used to say, ‘We have the power’, like from Bowie’s ‘Quicksand’. It didn’t matter what anybody else thought, as long as you had hold of this thing called The Power.”
Equipped with this Crowley-derived mantra, Suede began working in a Hackney rehearsal room on their new, glam-inspired sound. They recorded a three-track demo, and offered it to the music business. One small corner of the music business listened, and, with Morrissey and Blur looking on, an underclass anthem was born.
Mat Osman (bass): “The Drowners” was from the first batch of stuff we did that sounded fully formed and not like what we had been doing before at all – it had weird edges to it that other stuff we had written didn’t. The stuff we’d been doing before was… Smithsier. But “The Drowners” doesn’t jangle at all.
Brett Anderson (vocals): Me and Bernard were starting to click as songwriters when we wrote “The Drowners”. We thought it was a pretty amazing song, and we demoed it and “To The Birds” (and “My Insatiable One”, at Rocking Horse Studios in South London) and sent it to people in the record industry. No-one was particularly interested [laughs]. We were quite shunned early on, with exactly the same material that we were later hailed for, which was quite a strange situation.
Bernard Butler (guitar): Justine left the band in the middle of 1991. The whole thing with Justine was a massive slap round the face for Brett, in creatively a very positive way. He started singing in a different way and we dropped all our material. We would cancel rehearsals until we had a brilliant song – then we’d go to rehearsal with one song and play it for four hours. Then we’d record it and go home.
Osman: Justine had more money than the rest of us put together, so we were OK for rehearsing and stuff like that. “The Drowners” was recorded when we were the most poor we’d ever been.
Anderson: “The Drowners” was a sort of celebration of that kind of lifestyle, I suppose… a drifting, stonery, specifically British lifestyle, wandering about roundabouts. That’s kind of how I spent much of the 1990s. There’s something deeply suspect about social tourism, but this was saying, “This is how I live, and I’m proud of it. I won’t join the rat race. I won’t be a puppet to advertising. I won’t buy into what society tells me to buy into. I’ll just live within my means.” There’s something quite pure and quite beautiful about that.
Osman: We took it to every record company and they were completely uninterested. We’d go out every night having written “The Drowners” and watch bands, thinking, ‘How the fuck are they signed and we’re not?’ And not really realising that cyclical thing that happens – that at that time every record company was looking for the next Ride.
Butler: I remember me and him [Anderson] used to walk round London at that time, like Withnail and I or something, thinking we were really fantastic. Actually looking like an absolute couple of pricks, with our Oxfam clothes. We really didn’t mean anything.
Osman: Signing to Nude [for a two-single deal] was the most fantastic feeling, after the voicelessness of it. Saul [Galpern, Nude records boss] and Ed [Buller, Suede producer] took you seriously and would talk about you in the same terms as your heroes. It’s tremendously empowering. Otherwise, you’re thinking, ‘Am I just being deluded?’ One of the reasons the records sound as confident and as joyful as they do is because we’d found those people – people who had seen great gigs and made great records.
Simon Gilbert (drums): Once we’d signed with Nude, we had EastWest after us… Once word got out you were signed, everyone started knocking on your door. We got flown over to LA by Geffen and then a couple of weeks later by Sony. It was a free for all. The best thing was that they would open the record cupboard for you after these meetings, and you’d leave with a bag full of free records.
Osman: Our main income for six months was getting free records from these record companies, then racing each other to the Record And Tape Exchange in Notting Hill. I remember going there with this Bruce Springsteen live boxset which we had got off Columbia and thinking, ‘Fucking hell, this is going to be worth thirty quid…’ I got in there and the guy said “Sorry mate, the rest of the band have been in first…” and seeing three of them up on the wall.
Ed Buller (producer): Suede were signed to a good friend of mine that I hadn’t seen for a while – Saul Galpern. I knew Saul when I worked at Island Records. He liked some stuff that I’d done since I left Island, so he rang me up. He didn’t have a lot of money but he knew that I was fairly proficient at doing quick little records fairly proficiently and on the cheap. He knew I was a big glam fan, so he said, “I think I’ve got a band that are right up your street.”
Anderson: I think Ed respected that the songs were very fully formed. It wasn’t a Frankie Goes To Hollywood situation. The songs sounded great when we played them live, and it was more of a question of capturing that and that vibe, and adding a few touches. He didn’t treat it as another scruffy record that nobody really cares about. We very much believed in the songs, and what the band was about and the spirit of the band. It was very special and kind of against the grain.
Butler: I really liked Ed, he was a great inspiration because he’s quite an ordinary kind of fella, but he had this depth of technical nous that I was desperate to mine. He was easy to take the piss out of and have a laugh with, and you need someone like that in a band. He got what I wanted to do. I had all the parts – we all did. We didn’t want to record live to prove we could play live, we wanted to make great pop records.
Buller: A massive thing for me was Bernard, because he was a proper virtuoso guitarist. I’ve known a few. I did a session with Eric Clapton about three years before that – he’s a nice bloke and he can play the guitar, but it isn’t my style of guitar playing. I just got Bernard straight away – I thought it was going to be so much fun. That was a big part of it: Bernard was very easygoing but analytical. What we didn’t want to do was make it a clone of a ’70s record, we wanted to visit it in a different way. The guitar parts were all showing off – it was like a fight for who was more important, the guitarist or the singer. At the end of the day, you know who’s going to win, but for a minute it was touch and go.
Anderson: “The Drowners” was a strong statement. No disrespect to anyone else, but I’ve always liked that “us and them”, it’s inspired me in my music tastes: growing up in the early 1980s there were lots of tribes in the playground, and I wanted Suede to be like that, a love-us-or-hate-us situation.
Buller: Brett, like a lot of great singers, put on a performance, an inflection, like David Bowie and Marc Bolan, a “singing voice”. If you imagine there’s a dial attached to a singer’s forehead that measures their mannerisms from low to extreme. I knew the only thing I had to do with Brett was to dial that down a bit. “She’s taking me over…” being an example. When we started on that, it was very extreme, because of the live thing, a way of getting the spotlight back on him. I know he looks back on some of those early recordings with a certain discomfort. I tell him he shouldn’t, as it made them so distinctive at the time. The only direction I ever gave Brett was “Dial it back a bit on that line…” He took it well. He trusted me.
Butler: The homoerotic references, it was something I had no knowledge of or interest in until people started talking to him about it in interviews. It hadn’t occurred to me that we were behaving in a camp sort of a way or anything like that. It wasn’t a homoerotic kind of thing. We behaved in quite an effeminate way because that was the kind of boys we’d grown up to be. Baggy had been quite macho, quite masculine. I didn’t see any homosexual references, it was just the way we were as people. We were happy to explore all aspects of who we were as people.
Anderson: It’s a very sensual sort of song, isn’t it, “The Drowners”? It’s got kind of sexual signposts which you can follow… at your peril, wherever you wanna go with it. I don’t really know what the fucking thing’s about. I don’t think any writer does, anyone who tells you what it’s about is misunderstanding their art. It’s a writer’s job to lead you somewhere, to offer flavours. It’s about a sort of desperate state of… flailing around in yards of engorged flesh. Of course, everything you write is from experience. But a song isn’t a book, isn’t a page from a diary. You’re taking the art in a different direction. It’s closer to poetry, though not as close as people think – you’re suggesting things and playing with words a lot of the time.
Osman: “The Drowners” was the Suede badge. I remember doing a Christmas show to four people, so selling out the Camden Falcon was like selling out Madison Square Garden. We don’t work well without an audience. That was the first time people were singing stuff back to us.
Anderson: When you first play gigs, there’s a “D”-shaped-space in front of the stage, which people don’t really dare to go in before the band is signed, because they’re frightened that they might infect them with their failure. But suddenly, there were people there. We played the Camden Falcon and Morrissey turned up and Suggs turned up, and there were people right in my face at the front of the stage. There wasn’t this… gulf of horror in front of me. It suddenly changed from four people standing at the back, to full-on hysteria. It was kind of wonderful.
Butler: I think it’s probably the best-sounding thing we ever did. It still sounds really raw and fresh and colourful. I’m proud of it – it didn’t sound like anybody else. We were very focused on making great records. We didn’t want to be successful. Our hearts were set on making something great.
Photo: Pat Pope