After reforming in 2010, keeping their band a moving entity was crucial for the members of British alt-rockers Suede.
Each of the four studio albums that followed have explored new territory, constantly pushing the music into exciting places.
About the last album of the group. autofictionthe ninth, the goal was to capture the essence of Suede’s raucous live sets in the studio like never before, recording live in front of fans with minimal backing musicians or overdubs.
While the pandemic ended up making it difficult for fans to be included in the actual recording process, the final product nevertheless achieves the goal, with the new song “What am I without you?” probing the crucial dynamic that exists between band and fan, defining the live concert experience.
“Brett has this thing. I think he is a rare talent. Writing these songs that, on the surface, are pretty traditional love songs. But, deep down, something rather strange is going on. And that was exactly that,” bassist Mat Osman said of Suede singer Brett Anderson’s composition of the new track. “It’s very easy to listen to as a very traditional love song. But I think he came from not being able to play live, the sudden realization that a band without an audience…is nothing. We are nothing without them. You’re just five guys in a room,” he explained. “It’s just an acknowledgment that nothing we do means anything without people listening.”
During a recent tour stop in Chicago, in the midst of a rare US joint performance with the Manic Street Preachers, Osman’s slap bass kicked off “The Drowners,” Anderson sang side by side with fans taking selfies in the floor of the Auditorium Theatre, “Animal Nitrate” sending fans into a frenzy moments later.
I spoke to Mat Osman about working to capture the spirit of the group’s frenetic live set at autofiction, Suede’s relationship with his fans and keeping a closer eye on the business side since reformation. A transcript of our telephone conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below.
I know that capturing live sound was a real goal this time around (even if the pandemic thwarted it a bit). Especially coming off the last two albums, what made that so important this time?
matt osman: I think it was two things. I think partly it was because the last two albums were very cerebral and quite complicated. There were orchestras and spoken word pieces. And I think we felt that we had gone as far as we wanted to. Other than that, it’s kind of like Talk Talk or something. And we didn’t want to go there.
But I think in general, as people, as a band, every couple of years we do a reboot. We go back to the beginning and try to figure out what makes this magical and what makes you want to do it.
And because we have this strange story. Going up it was like a second debut album, you know? It was like a new band basically. Y blood sports, when we returned after a decade gone, everything was starting again. Every few years, we have a disaster and have to start over. And this time, we just decided to start over without the mess.
There was something that really struck me about the idea of trying to capture sound live. Because I know they didn’t record with a lot of extra musicians to achieve that. Ironically, it has become a time when many bands rely on backing tracks while on stage instead of using those additional musicians. How important was it for you to avoid that, either on stage or in the studio?
MO: It has always been vital for us, very important.
One of the things we did when we came back was to look at other bands that had reformed. And we went to see a couple of people whose names I won’t mention. And it became very clear that what they were providing was a memory: it was the record reproduced with incredible precision with a couple of session musicians and backing tapes. But you might as well have been in the living room.
I think, again, because we crashed and burned, we had a lot to prove. And the first time we rehearsed, we said, “Okay… Let’s make it really small, tight. And that we are the five with visual contact, being able to see each other, and we will simply play ”. And that has been our mantra ever since.
And one of the things that has always frustrated me is that we’ve never really captured that drama and that power in the studio. And it was a very deliberate attempt to capture that this time. I think we’re getting closer than ever. I think there’s a kind of rawness and irregularity that we probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to let go of sooner. “She Still Leads Me On” is about five BPM faster at the end than when it begins. There are bugs and stuff in there. And we wanted to capture that. We wanted it to feel like you were in the room with us.
“What am I without you?” it reads like some kind of love song to its audience. How important was it to hit that note?
MO: Brett has this thing. I think he is a rare talent. Writing these songs that, on the surface, are pretty traditional love songs. But, deep down, something rather strange is going on. And that was exactly that. It’s very easy to listen to as a very traditional love song. But I think he came from not being able to play live, the sudden realization that a band without an audience…is nothing. We are nothing without them. You’re just five guys in a room.
All these things are interrelated. One of the reasons we wanted a live feel is to have the feeling that we’re all in this together. A great live show is as much about the audience as it is about the band. You can’t have a big concert with such an audience. It just doesn’t matter how good a musician you are, it’s all about that exchange of energy.
I was getting to the point of realizing that, especially the first time, you can feel very indifferent to people listening; you just assume there’s an audience there and they’ll buy your records and come to your shows. But, as you get older, I think the feeling that you’ve really affected people’s lives and you’re a part of people’s lives becomes much more important.
We formed a band for the same reasons most people form a band: to show off, to be heard, and to get girls. But you can’t be like that at 50. And suddenly the idea that what you’re doing intertwines with important moments in other people’s lives becomes something really beautiful.
It’s just an acknowledgment that nothing we do means anything without people listening.
“Turn Off Your Brain And Yell” sounds like a pandemic anthem. It sort of summed up my pandemic mindset sometimes anyway. I know it was the last song written for autofiction. Was it some kind of response to what was happening in the world?
MO: God, yeah, I mean the record was finished. But I don’t know, it was actually over when the lock type was almost over. However, it is almost a summary of the record. It’s about that kind of primitive sense of music, you know? Something like “Personality Disorder”, when we play that live… it’s purely physical. But there’s something absolutely cool about that.
When we first came back, when the band reformed and we played at the Royal Albert Hall, I realized that this physical thing was something I had totally forgotten about. The physical: the sound of a massive fucking band through huge speakers and what it does to you physically. And that’s what that song is.
It’s brainless. It is about the body and the heart.
I’m looking at your band’s timeline here. You guys leave in 2003, just when the music industry is really taking the internet by storm. You go back in 2010 and it’s in full swing at that time, with major consequences for artists. As someone who studied at the London School of Economics, when you find yourself in a radically different industry like that, does it help to be a bit more aware of the business side?
MO: Oh yes, completely. We are in charge now. The first time, it was almost an abject lesson in what not to do. We just assumed that someone else was paying for everything. It never occurred to us that every damn thing, every luxury, every aftershow, every bottle of champagne, would come back to you at some point.
I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. It was an absolute blast, it really was. But, yes, nowadays, we are much more: we make the records ourselves. We pay for the records ourselves and then we give them to the record companies. I love doing it that way. It’s much more tense. And it means we have to think about financial things, which none of us have the skills for. But it’s about control. We get to make the records we do.
We have been incredibly lucky. We sold a lot of records when selling a lot of records made you a lot of money. And we’ve played a lot of festivals when playing festivals makes you money. We hit the sweet spot both times.
It’s much more difficult for young bands. I can’t imagine what a band like us would do now. We got a record deal on our first single and neither of us went back to work. We just made music. And then I see big bands nowadays… and they’re working bars during the day. And it seems absolutely insane to me. it really does
How important is it to continually find new ways to push music forward and not just rely on nostalgia?
MO: We wouldn’t do it any other way. We really wouldn’t.
One of the good things is that I always feel like we can afford a kind of Going up tour or a 20th anniversary reissue of something, as long as most of what we’re doing is forward-thinking.
It just makes us… I think we feel like we never got it right. And I think it was a great thing that we broke up. Because I think we’ve always had that feeling of having to do better. You know what I want to say?
This, I think, is the best record we’ve made in a long, long time. And all it makes me feel is that maybe the next one will be the one. Maybe we’ll finally get it right.