By his own admission, Brett Anderson has never been a big fan of rock biographies. “There’s a couple of exceptions, but generally I think they’re poorly written and underwhelming and they seem to be very formulaic, because band’s careers are formulaic,” says the Suede singer, casually perched on a sofa in a quiet corner of an upmarket Manchester hotel.
“Every band starts with struggle. If they achieve success, that cusps into excess and then there’s disintegration – the band splits up and there’s a sense of rebirth. It’s a very predictable life and Suede weren’t immune from it. We fell into those traps.”
Formed in London in the early 1990s, Suede stood out as something different, artily aloof and dangerously exotic right from the start. Famously hailed “the best new band in Britain” by Melody Maker before they’d released a note of music, the group’s potent mix of snarling glam rock and songs about grimy bedsits, lonely housewives and illicit liaisons propelled its four members – Anderson, guitarist Bernard Butler, bassist Mat Osman and drummer Simon Gilbert – to the top of the charts and laid Britpop’s foundations.
Butler left the group in 1994, replaced by Richard Oakes, and the band went on to release five more albums, including two number ones (1996’s Coming Up and 1999’s Head Music) and 2013’s comeback set Bloodsports, which followed a decade-long hiatus. Driving it all has been Anderson, long one of England’s more articulate and self-aware rock stars, whose recently released memoir Coal Black Mornings avoids the clichéd trappings of most music biographies by focusing exclusively on the first 24 years of his life, ending at the very point where Suede get signed.
“I didn’t want it to be the conventional rock memoir at all. I wanted it to have a bit more depth than that,” explains the 50 year old, smartly dressed in dark shirt, trousers and flowing grey coat, his trademark fringe dangling loosely above angular cheekbones, thin lips and pointy nose largely unchanged from Suede’s 1990s’ pomp.
The book is dedicated to his five-year-old son Lucian and Anderson says that he wouldn’t have started writing it were it not for him. “It was very much inspired by the emotions that are thrown up by having a child. Instead of being a selfish human being that’s just worrying about whether your hair is going to fall out or if you’ve got enough money to pay the mortgage, you suddenly see the bigger picture and see yourself as a point on a path between my father and my son. You’re just another point in this wonderful lineage.”
Anderson’s father, an eccentric taxi driver, obsessed with Winston Churchill, Horatio Nelson and Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, is a key figure in Coal Black Mornings. The songwriter documents his childhood growing up in a tiny terrace house in Haywards Heath, on the grubby fringes of the Home Counties, where everything they owned was homemade or second-hand, in evocative literary detail. His father, who died when the author was 38, is portrayed as a domineering and often glum man prone to “brooding rages” and forever clashing with his “snotty, sniffy, slightly maudlin son”.
“It would have been very hard for him to read in lots of ways because I am critical of him and I do talk about how complicated our relationship was,” reflects Anderson. His mother, who walked out of the family home when he was in his late teens and his elder sister, Blandine, had left home, is painted in warmer tones, with her death from cancer just a few years later one of the book’s most moving sections.
“Writing about my mum was very hard in the sense that it dredged up emotions that I hadn’t felt for many, many years. That was really tough for me,” says Anderson, who recalls days being unable to get out of bed “crushed and motionless in the soft oblivion of the duvet”. At one stage while writing, he decided to shelve the project, anxious about how much of his private life he was revealing.
“There were a lot of nights waking at four in the morning and asking myself: ‘Do I really want to do this? Is it worth it?’ I weighed it up so much and what swayed me in the end was that I thought it was quite good. I felt as though I was setting the record straight without score settling and suggesting to the small part of the world who cares that maybe the persona of what they know about me is different from the real person.”
The person who emerges is a reflective, deeply thoughtful individual whose poor upbringing and years of penniless struggle sit at odds with the louche debonair image Suede later cultivated. Although the book ends at the point where the band signs its first record deal, fans will enjoy fresh insight into their stumbling first steps, gigs in empty rooms and Anderson’s oblique lyric writing.
“There’s always a screen when you are making and writing songs. It’s never as completely candid as something like a memoir, which is so exposing,” he states. “It’s incredibly hard writing songs and as I get older it gets harder. It used to flow out of me, but now I have to work very, very hard to get to the same level. For some reason, writing prose felt a lot freer. I really enjoyed it. Maybe it’s something to do with the age I am and the time of life I’m in at the moment.”
Buoyed by the book’s positive reception (Generation X author Douglas Coupland called it a “heartbreaking work of staggering genius”), Anderson says he plans to write more prose, but has yet to decide what form it will take. “The obvious step would be to do part two, but I don’t know if I’ll do that. I’ve got an idea for fiction, which probably sounds terrifying to anybody who’s ever read other musicians’ fiction, but it may never see the light of day. I would have to be convinced that it would be good enough.”
His day job, however, continues to be singer with Suede, who release their eighth studio album, The Blue Hour, later this year. Written at the same time as his memoir, the record shares many themes with Coal Black Mornings, says Anderson, calling it an album “very much influenced by ideas of family”.
“My new muse is my son. It’s an album about the fears of childhood and that was very much inspired by him.” Asked how fatherhood has changed him, Anderson – who is married and also has a teenage stepson – recalls his own father “always trying to wrestle control over the moving pieces of his world” and says he’s wary of falling into the same trap. “Sometimes you have just got to let go. There’s a point when you have kids where you have to surrender to the mess and the chaos. I’m a bit of a control freak in lots of ways and that’s allowed me to relinquish control of it, which is good.”
Having settled into comfortable middle age, the singer now finds himself regularly shuttling between his home in the country (“amazing in the summer. In the winter, not so much”) and his flat in London, the city that forms the backdrop to so many of his songs.
“People often ask me where I live and I automatically say, ‘London.’ And then think, ‘Well, I don’t really anymore.’ I’m slightly displaced myself,” he says sounding momentarily nostalgic for the past he vividly documents in Coal Black Mornings when Suede “kicked against the dreary mediocrity of the time with a style, a spirit and a force that ended up breaking down doors.” Those days may be far behind him now, but his passion to craft poetry out of everyday life, be it in song or prose form, and the process
of self-discovery that entails continue to burn bright.
“I thought a lot about the idea of person versus persona when writing this book – that huge chasm between the real person that you are and the person that is projected,” he states. “It’s a really fascinating dynamic because your persona wouldn’t exist unless there was a grain of truth in it and you’re complicit in creating it. But there’s also an element which is partly fabricated and out of your control. It’s really interesting subject. Someone should write a book on it. Maybe I’ll do it one day.”
Coal Black Mornings is published by Little, Brown
Brett Anderson on…
The power of English language
“I learned a lot about language and its beautiful nuances writing the book. I’m trying to inspire my kids with English and explain to them if you have some sort of command of English how it gives you a certain power. There’s something very democratic about that. It’s not elitist in any way. Anyone that can be bothered to pick up a book or go to a library or look on the internet has access to that power. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Writing about his parents
“If they had been alive I probably wouldn’t have been able to write the book. But I think in lots of ways I justified it by thinking that it gives them a life beyond death. I saw it as an act of kindness in lots of ways. It’s that thing of you die twice: the first time when you die and the second time when the last person who remembers you dies. It feels like writing about my parents in a book prolongs their life somehow.”
His sister’s reaction to Coal Black Mornings
“She’s a very different person from me and she didn’t really understand why I was doing it. She lives in a farm in Devon. At this moment she’ll be in the fields, up to her knees in sheep shit delivering lambs. That’s very different from my life and I think she was probably thinking: ‘What the fuck are you doing this for?’ She also said: ‘I don’t really remember it like that. I remember Dad differently. But just because I remember him differently doesn’t mean that that’s the truth and your version isn’t the truth.’ That’s a really interesting philosophical point about writing a memoir as well. It’s a perspective. It’s not the absolute truth.”
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