It's an oft-observed phenomenon, but true: life, in the internet age, has sped up. And nowhere is this more nakedly evident than in music. Songs aren't heard, they're aggregated, videos aren't absorbed, they're simply premiered and then filed away. With their new record, though, Suede are sticking to their guns – their foot isn't on the accelerator, it's on the brake.
“There's lots of documentation that people are much more superficial with their consumption,” Brett Anderson tells me. “They'll flit from thing to thing, they'll lose their attention span. There's a tendency that, because this is happening in the mainstream, for record companies to suggest it's happening everywhere, and you should do things in a certain way and you should tailor the way that you work to suit the Zeitgeist. And I think that's nonsense.”
“There's whole armies of people out there that want depth in their work, they want to commit to their music and to the art that they consume,” he insists. “They don't want a flippant, superficial experience, they want something with a little bit of depth to it. It's just that, real. It's just bloody-mindedness to say, well, we're going to make a record that doesn't sit neatly with that Zeitgeist. I've no interest in chasing the Zeitgeist, it doesn't interest me at all. I find it... fairly futile to be honest. I'd rather oppose it than go with it.”
Accurately enough, new album 'Night Thoughts' could scarcely be accused of chasing the Zeitgeist. It's an ambitious piece, one that by its very design forces the listener to consume the record in its entirety. Songs lean into one another, like a Roman arch where each block supports the other, the most humble and ornate sharing a common purpose.
It's a studio record, born from touring. Taking comeback album 'Bloodsports' out on the road, Suede found a virile, visceral energy – one they took straight into the studio. The singer explains: “There's something to be said for a band that have been touring for a while – it's a completely different feeling to a band that haven't toured for a while. The way they play together, the energy.”
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With old cohort Ed Buller on board as producer, the band pitched up in Brussels, exploring one of Europe's most beautiful cities while letting their minds wander. “It's residential, but most residential places you read about are in the countryside – and Suede don't really work in the countryside. We come out in hives, immediately,” laughs bassist Mat Osman. “We basically went in and recorded a whole album. A whole album's worth of material, just us noodling around. Not thinking about songs, not thinking about structures and stuff. Almost treating it like a soundtrack, or something.”
The aim, he insists, was to be as un-Suede as possible. “We wanted to just try and do something that is completely different from what we normally do, which is just sitting in a room with acoustic guitars, concocting songs. There's lots of stuff on the record that can only really come about from that kind of studio-as-an-instrument, kind of thing. 'Pale Snow', which is two songs shunted together, and doesn't repeat. It doesn't have any hooks, or things like that. It just meanders. It's the kind of thing that you would never sit down and write, in your Donovan-style acoustic guitar musing.”
Brett, meanwhile, high-tailed it back to London. The band sent across regular updates, sound files for the singer to explore. Lyrically, 'Night Thoughts' has a remarkable unity – as, indeed, do all aspects of the record – so it comes as no small surprise to learn that, throughout, Brett Anderson worked on instinct, allowing ideas to coalesce randomly, almost naturally.
“I didn't sit down and think: oh, I'm going to write a song about parenthood and loss and ageing and decay,” he insists. “I was writing about family, I suppose, in a broad term, and fear of loss. The fear of being overwhelmed by these things.”
“It's not until half way through that you realise what it is that you're doing,” the singer asserts. “Artists sometimes make out that they're more in control than they are. We're certainly not. We kind of go with these things, and I find them out myself. I'm quite instinctive about it. This sounds funny because writing is cerebral, but when you're writing songs, it's not like that for me. It's much more like a bunch of feelings, and then you rationalise it and tie it all together and try to make sense of it afterwards, I think.”
Re-grouping in West London, Suede soon developed a clear idea of where the album would head. “We knew right from the start that we wanted... I guess more of a mood piece, where the tracks flowed into each other,” Mat explains. “There's a certain kind of feeling about it, y'know. The music was – naturally, I think – quite dark, and it has that late at night feeling. It's quite slow. And all the changes that are going on in Brett's life, those two things came together.”
There's a nocturnal, somnambulist atmosphere rippling through 'Night Thoughts'. From its explicit evocation in the title down to the cool, glistening keys of Neil Codling, the record seems to dwell in the un-named space that exists between too late and too early. “It's just something that was happening in my life,” sighs Brett. “I was waking up at these annoying times! And sitting there and being overwhelmed by life. Thinking, oh, what's going on here? Everyone has those moments. I wanted to reflect it in the sleeve, as well. I had this constant image in my head of a really small, vulnerable character in this big frame, in a really big setting. The small figure lying in the sea. This metaphor for being overwhelmed by life.”
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The small figure lying in the sea. This metaphor for being overwhelmed by life.
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Even at its grandest, most flamboyantly beautiful, there are aspects of 'Night Thoughts' that remain tied, anchored to a kitchen sink sense of realism. At one moment towards the end of the album, the voice of an elderly lady can be heard – seemingly a fellow customer in Brett's local cafe. “We used a lot of found sounds, lots of the voices you can hear – some of them are my kids, some of them are real conversations that I've had,” the singer explains. “There's an old lady towards the end of the album and that's a real conversation that I had with this charming old lady in a cafe. Just talking about life and all of these big questions, and she was amazing – I just thought she was great. And unbeknown to her I recorded it and used it on the record! Things like that. I quite like that, the way it ties in. I wanted it to feel quite human.”
It's a heartening image – and one quite wonderfully tied to Suede's own iconography – to envision one of British music's great survivors sitting down with an old lady for a cup of tea. Despite all of its changes, I offer, London is still London. “It's always changing,” he replied. “That's what makes it itself. I still find it very inspiring, London. I wrote a line once: “all the love and poison of London.” And that still resonates with me – there's something still equally beautiful and equally poisonous about it. But I think that's true of any great city. It's just a huge maelstrom of life, and London is still very much like that, to me.”
'Night Thoughts' is a deeply London record, a deeply British record. The album was aired at the end of 2015 with a sensational show at the Roundhouse, with the band playing behind a sheet while a film shot by Roger Sargent was screened in front. It's a curiously perverse move in every sense – the band hidden while the music is heard for the first time, the themes of the music interpreted in a radically new way while still unknown to most fans.
Brett explains: “I called Roger up – because I loved what he did with the Fat White Family, actually. I thought it was an amazing video. I explained the themes of the record, there's a lot about family on there, fear of loss, growing old and looking back at youth, and all these sorts of things. They resonated with him because he was going through family loss at the time, and he really wanted to express himself. It's not supposed to be a slavish reflection of the narrative, it's almost supposed to be someone else's interpretations of the themes.”
In a way, it's an entirely appropriate decision. Suede want the listener to switch off, to slow down, and to soak up their music. “I love that feeling,” says, Brett, “when you get in the cinema, where you go to watch a film, and the lights go down, and you turn your phone off, and you're committed to two hours of your life where you're not able to check your emails, or go and make a cup of tea. I don't know – there's something nice about committing to these things, especially if it's worthwhile. It takes you on a journey. We wanted that for the album, really.”
Mat Osman is in clear agreement. “I just feel like there's a vast number of people who want something with a bit more substance that they can lose themselves in,” he argues. “And it's not just my generation, looking on the records that we were listening to growing up and thought were great. I find it in everyone. People who love music... they want that feeling you get in the cinema. I love that feeling of going to the cinema and the lights go down, and 500 of us lose ourselves for three hours. Everyone's committing to it. I love it, it's great. And I don't think it's as strange and un-zietgeisty an idea as we're being told.”
At one point in our conversation Brett dwells on the band's refusal to bow to the prevailing norms. Stubborn-ness, I suggest, is a large part of what defines Suede, of the palette they draw from. “It hasn't always been to our advantage, to be honest,” he chuckles. “It defines us, to a certain extent. We've always... it sounds a little clichéd, done things for our own reasons. But I feel like we have. It feels like we've trodden our own path through all this.”
“The mainstream has moved around us,” insists. “Sometimes we've been a long way from the mainstream, and sometimes the mainstream has collided with us and veered off again. We'll just carry on cutting our way through the undergrowth with our machete, doing what we do. And I like that.”
Suede exist in a curiously autonomous realm – their reformation charging old fans, those inspiring live shows winning legions of new admirers, people unaware of their history. Caught between those two realms, 'Night Thoughts' embraces both – it's a record that could only be made by a band resolutely aware of their past, yet brave enough to forget it.
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'Night Thoughts' is out now.