Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester
10th October 2019
As Brett Anderson launches the second volume of his autobiography, Afternoons With The Blinds Drawn, Ian Corbridge joins the intimate setting of the Dancehouse Theatre to hear Brett’s own version of events as he provides a fascinating personal insight into one of the greatest bands to come out of the 1990s.
Brett Anderson’s first highly acclaimed autobiography, Coal Black Mornings, was published in 2018 charting his years growing up, his early family life and taking us all the way through to the point where Suede were about to break. A little over a year later he now brings us his second volume, Afternoons With The Blinds Drawn, which focuses not only on the rise and decline of Suede, but also provides us with significant personal insight into the events that shaped the life of himself and his fellow band members. Kate Popplewell was on hand to lead the discussion and facilitate questions from the audience within this intimate setting.
The discussion kicked off with Brett’s reflections on ‘the book that he didn’t want to write’, which was seemingly founded on his desire to avoid the conventional rock autobiography. However, Brett clearly enjoyed the whole process surrounding his first book and being in the book world; as a secondary task in his life this gave him the space to enjoy it rather than being totally absorbed in the whole project. Because of this enjoyment he made the decision to write the next chapter but not in a conventional way. Brett saw the entry point to the book to be writing about himself and the journey through the machinery of success and what it did to him, looking at himself almost as a specimen going through that machinery. He feels it is an honest of account of what it is like going through the process of setting up a band and achieving fame and success. His focus was writing about a persona by a real person and not by the persona.
It was noted how the book was underpinned by a total lack of sympathy is his appraisal of his own motivation and how he was very hard on himself, which Brett clearly accepted. Brett loved the self-deprecating tone of the first book and had every intention of carrying this through his second. The fact that he wanted to be the villain in his own story caused amusement amongst the audience as Brett did not feel he was qualified to point the finger at other people for the events that happened. But knowing his own back story, he was happy to luxuriate in his own recrimination as Kate put it, taking inspiration from the words of Oscar Wilde. It was a fun process which also helped to validate those moments when he would self-congratulate himself, noting his pride over songs such as Asphalt World and Europe Is Our Playground.
Brett described how the structured and stylised openings to each chapter, with a scene setting paragraph, were intended to paint a vivid literary picture in lieu of the absence of any photographs in the book. There was also a deliberate approach to avoid slagging anyone off and avoid any proper nouns to avoid the media taking things out of context.
The role of Mike Joyce was also covered, having spent around 6 months being in Suede, and Brett’s ongoing affection for him was very evident and remains to this day. Mike clearly nurtured the band in their early days and took them under his wing, seeing something in them that maybe the band couldn’t even see at the time, which was a tremendous help to the band members.
After referencing the first piece about the band written in Melody Maker and the significant press coverage that followed Suede through those early years, Brett then talked about his views on the reluctant nature of fame and how it affected him through that period. Whilst you can never predict what sort of person you would be now had you not gone through what Brett has experienced, he was very conscious of the fact that his persona was much closer to himself as a person in those early years than it is now, where he sees a much larger differential, especially with the person doing the school run and getting the book bags together in a morning. Brett recognised that being on stage is an act of elitism and you are expected to be extraordinary and this presents a fascinating contrast with the person at home.
Brett was also resigned to the fact that regardless of what he does or achieves now, the public perception of him through the media will always remain one of being arrogant and vain. He considers that you have one public persona which is set in stone immediately you become successful and one which will emerge later in your career depending upon where you take it. Whilst writing books such as this can undermine the mystique, that initial persona remains intact nonetheless. Brett cross referenced this view to Morrissey, generating hearty laughter from the audience, noting that whatever Morrissey does or says now, his early persona will always be revered, and he will still be played on the radio, unless of course he crosses the line.
Kate then threw out the challenge that being in a band does distort personal relationships and Brett noted that had a massive impact on relationships within the band, more especially with Bernard as they were two such different people. The pressures of life in a band merely served to enhance those differences ultimately leading to a breaking point. Too much media exposure too early in their career is something they had to deal with and face the consequences of as it was very much out of their control, but this is just a pact you naturally enter into.
Kate noted that in Suede’s early years the media jumped on references to the music of Scott Walker and the writings of JG Ballard, and Brett admitted to not really knowing the works of either at that time but was then of course inspired to check them out. Whilst you cannot be in a position to have listened to or read everything, it is often the case that you can be influenced indirectly through other sources, citing David Bowie as one particular route.
Brett then went on to consider the elements that characterised the band, or the ‘Suedeness’ as Kate referenced it from the book. Brett recognised that there were times when writing Head Music he stepped over the line, switching off his lyrical brain and going onto auto pilot, trying to do something more oblique and drifting into self-parody more through laziness than anything else. Since getting back together and writing Bloodsports and subsequent albums, it has been a fascinating quest being a middle-aged man but still writing about things that are ‘Suedey’. Brett recognised that there was always a central core of emotions that he wrote about but which he clothed differently, such as loneliness, sexuality and isolation. Whilst in the early days he sang about lovers and alienation, he now looks more towards his family for inspiration and motivation, noting that the last album was more about the fear of losing a child.
Brett noted that Suede still remain outside of the mainstream of the music industry but highlighted with great amusement that a song such as Animal Nitrate, which was about drugs and sexual abuse, got A-listed on Radio One and played alongside Boyzone. This felt like a wonderful victory just on the basis of a song having a pop hook and with the majority of people having no clue what they were singing about.
Brett spoke about the creative process behind songs and how much harder it is now to get the nuggets for which any writer naturally craves, but when you do get them it is a beautiful moment. He referenced Life Is Golden from The Blue Hour which when he sings it live, he realises how much it connects with the audience and it is such a powerful thing which he will always carry on trying to chase.
Brett discussed the Britpop era and the New Labour movement, through Tony Blair, who tried to harness the zeitgeist through the infamous invitation to Number Ten, which of course did not include Brett himself for whatever reason. He noted Suede had a complicated relationship with Britpop with Suede documenting the drizzly irrelevant world of John Major, with subsequent bands actually celebrating this period, and therein lied the difference. The one good thing about Britpop was clearly its focus on rejecting the concept of American cultural imperialism.
Speaking about relationships within the band, Brett noted that rock’n’roll and stability never go hand in hand and the excitement is always about living on the edge and things seemingly ready to explode. Having said that he no longer feels there is a need for that conflict but there will always be a point to prove in whatever Suede does and, as a result, every album feels like a comeback album.
It was evident drugs do cast a shadow over much of the book without ever being named. This Brett felt was not necessary given that people who were interested already knew what had gone on. The main chapter focusing on this period was written more in the third person as if an unconscious attempt to distance himself from a time which Brett was obviously not proud of.
It did not go un-noticed that today was the 25th anniversary of the release of Dog Man Star, a fact which drew loud applause from the audience. Whilst it feels a long time ago, in another sense that time seems to have passed in the blink of an eye, and the great thing for Brett is that the album which at that time was an anti-Britpop record is as relevant now as it has ever been and resonates well with the public right now.
Opening up questions to the floor prompted more interesting debate and discussion, moving from his favourite children’s author, possible forays into fiction which he admitted he had dabbled in, and the risk of killing anyone whilst swinging his microphone on stage. However, Brett could not find an answer to the question why Suede always seem to release their best material when a Conservative government is in power.
The solo years after Suede’s break up were noted as a key period for Brett to develop as an artist in his own right without everything being done for him and clearly he feels it helped him to mature in a number of ways. He enjoyed that period and is still proud of the material he released. Future recording plans were covered with Brett noting that after writing two very narrative based albums with a clear theme, he was looking to move away from that concept and merely write songs to produce a more raw rock record.
Overall it proved to be an entertaining, amusing and insightful evening educating us on some of the creative thinking behind Suede as a band and Brett as a songwriter and performer. Whilst it feels like it is the second book in a trilogy, Brett clearly feels like he needs more distance before writing about a period which is much closer to the present so we should not expect another volume any time soon. In the meantime we can enjoy this second volume and look forward to the next musical chapter of Suede when that has been written and recorded. Clearly these are still exciting and creative times in the world of Brett Anderson and Suede.
All words and photos by Ian Corbridge. You can find more of his writing at his author profile.