Peter Ormerod interviews Mat Osman as Suede prepare for Penn Fest
"See you in your next life, when we'll fly away, for good."
It's a rare and special thing, catching a great band right at the top of their game. That's where Suede were on December 6 1996. They had emerged three years earlier, placed against their wishes by the music press as the vanguard of a new wave of British bands, garnering a feverish hype that threatened to obscure their true qualities. The next couple of years had them release one of the decade's most majestically flawed albums, lose a guitarist of soaring talent and become shrouded in sordid tales of drug abuse.
But the Suede that took to the stage that winter's night in Derby were far from a spent force. They had just released their third album, Coming Up, on which they had cast off much of the lavish excess of their previous records and crafted a shimmery, shiny gem, spotted with delicious seediness and threatening murk. The chemically-induced rush of euphoria invoked by its title proved intoxicating to fans old and new, too; five of its songs made the top ten. With their supernaturally gifted new guitarist and beguiling new keyboardist, they were lean, intense, fierce and seemingly unstoppable. Again.
It was the first gig I'd been to, and shows by Suede would comprise many of those that followed. But by 1999, it was apparent that something was wrong. A concert in Brighton had all the songs, but surprisingly little spark; they seemed jittery and uneasy. And worse was to come: in 2002 it was if they had become their own tribute band, performing adequate versions of their hits to willing audiences but almost entirely shorn of presence, enthusiasm or verve. The flesh was willing but the spirit was weak; their break-up the following year felt inevitable.
"It almost became ordinary and everyday," says Suede's bassist, Mat Osman, now. "And that's a terrible thing for a life like this."
Thank heavens, then, for this, Suede's next life, in which we find them lean, intense, fierce and seemingly unstoppable. Again. "It's amazing at the moment," says Mat. "I love it."
And so the best new band in Britain became arguably the best old band in Britain. It's quite a story.
We all know how British indie-rock bands work. They're powered primarily by the songwriter, or by a partnership of songwriters. They set the direction of the band, creatively and aesthetically. They are usually the singer and/or lead guitarist. They obviously need a drummer to bash out a rhythm and keep things in time. Oh yes, and a bassist, too, to fill out the sound a bit, but we don't usually care that much about them.They're hardly integral to the whole thing, after all.
But Mat Osman is different. The music of Suede has been dominated ostensibly by two songwriting partnerships: first by singer Brett Anderson and original guitarist Bernard Butler, and then Anderson with Butler's successor, Richard Oakes. But it's the partnership of Anderson and Osman that formed the band, and remains at its heart. He is surely one of the great thinkers of modern British music; "he should be on Newsnight," Butler once opined, alluding to Osman's ability to theorise and analyse.
In conversation, Osman is polite, understated, insightful and authoritative. But there's a sense of innocent joy, too: his first words to me are "Hi, it's Mat from Suede", as if he can't quite believe it either. Perhaps he can't.
"It never occurred to me that I'd be in my 50s making music," he says. "It definitely never occurred to me that I'd be in my 50s making Suede records. I couldn't have imagined the band would have that kind of maturity to it.
"But it's been really interesting. Brett's done an amazing job of taking the emotions that he's always sung about - love and jealousy and loss and all those things - and growing up with them."
Suede are far from the only '90s band to have reformed in recent years. But Suede may well be the only '90s band to have reformed in recent years and made genuinely great work. Having got back together in 2010 for a charity concert, they released the punchy, zesty Bloodsports in 2013, followed by the more conceptual Night Thoughts (and accompanying film) in 2016. But it was 2018's The Blue Hour that really found them back at their best, albeit a different kind of best: newly imaginative, daring and expansive, but grounded in the same love of songcraft that gave the world The Drowners, Animal Nitrate, So Young, The Wild Ones, Trash, Beautiful Ones and so much more. The album was in the upper reaches of many Best of 2018 lists and constituted a more than worthy addition to their cherished catalogue of work.
"With the last two records, when Brett said he wanted to write songs about family and his son and stuff like that, my initial thought was 'oh, for f***'s sake!'," says Mat. "They're almost always absolutely terrible. But the way he managed to fit a Suede filter to those things to find the pain and jealousy and terror in families - it's been really good.
"It is uncharted territory - it's difficult to make grown-up music that isn't boring. But that's great - I love the fact that every time we sit down to make a new record, I don't know exactly where it's going to go and I end up really proud of it."
Of how many bands can that be said? Suede were outsiders at the outset. It seems they still are.
"It's hard work. It really is. But again, when we came back we looked at a lot of bands who had reformed. And you realise their records are like souvenirs - like a programme for the tour. They're secondary to doing anything else. But for us, I think we all knew that unless we could make something we were really proud of, we'd probably just stop again.
"We write tons of songs for every record, and every time we go through this mental anguish of 'it's not going to be good enough'. We scrap half of it and then finally we crawl across the finish line. It's hard work, but so it should be. It's what I've spent the last 30 years doing."
Suede found their way back to their creative peak in a typically Suede way: by lot of accident and a bit of design. Before the release of Head Music in 1999, some expected them to become as big as - wait for it - Travis (who, it should be said, were huge at the time). But although a few of its songs were hits - notably Electricity, She's in Fashion and Everything Will Flow - it was torpedoed by misguided adventures into a more groove-based sound and lyrics suggesting Anderson's vocabulary had become as thin as his body. Their attempts to rectify matters with their next album - the more clean-cut, vaguely pastoral and trad-sounding A New Morning - would just make things worse; the result was largely flat and uninspired, and Anderson would later disown it. Mat concurs: "I wish we'd stopped earlier the first time. There's nothing wrong with saying 'we're not doing it right any more'."
But unlike so many of their supposed peers, Suede have evidently learnt the lessons of their errors. And they now find themselves in an intriguing place: knowing their strengths but not confined by them.
"It gets harder every time - but that's exactly it," says Mat. "When we came back, one of the things that happened was that we went back through the old records to do a Best Of, and the scales fell from our eyes. We were like 'so that's what we're good at. Why were we trying to do something else?'
"But it's a balancing act. It's making the kind of things we make - big, passionate, emotional rock records - without repeating yourself. So you have to keep finding these strange branches off the main tree to make interesting new records. We have a sense of what we do well and it's a way of finding new ways of doing that each time."
And keeping alive the creativity has evidently helped reinvigorate Suede as a live band, too. A string of acclaimed shows earlier this year flowed into a series of ecstatically received festival appearances, including sets at Primavera in Barcelona and in corners of the continent as far-flung as Finland and Croatia. Their appearance at Penn Fest is part of the same desire to keep things fresh.
"We're trying not to repeat ourselves," says Mat. "When we got back together, one of the things we said is that we were never going to let this turn into a job. There was that weird thing at the end of the band where it was all we'd ever done. When we got back together, one of the deals we made with ourselves was no long tours, no keeping the set the same, no slipping into that. So we've been very clear this year on going to countries we haven't been to and playing festivals we haven't played."
The experience of playing those pre-split gigs has left its mark. "We were going through the motions," says Mat. "And however much you try and get out of that, once you're on that treadmill, there's something dispiriting about it. The best thing that ever happened to us was splitting up.
"We're very clear now on trying to capture that magic each night. The rest of being in a band is unimportant - it's making records and playing gigs. The rest of it's just fluff. You suddenly realise what's great about it - that first gig we did when we came back, you think you're going to miss the adulation and all those kind of things, but it's the physical thing of standing on a stage with a huge racket going on behind you and a huge racket going on in front of you. It's an amazing physical feeling as much as anything, and I didn't realise how much I'd missed it until I had years away from it."
The crowd at Penn Fest can at least be sure that Suede won't see it as just another gig. Mat talks of Anderson's meticulous preparations with an affectionate exasperation.
"Brett's obsessive about setlists. He'll spend a week on a setlist. We play slightly differently depending on when dusk is and whether it's dark, and whether it's somewhere we've played before. We like to keep ourselves slightly off balance - you can get into an autopilot thing which is not healthy. The whole idea is that these nights are magical, one-off moments."
And for all the excellence of the latest material, any fears that the set will be dominated by newer songs can be dispelled.
"We'll be playing a ton of stuff that people know," says Mat. "The thing about a festival is that you have to accept that you're not playing to your own crowd. So it'll be tons of stuff that people know, dotted with a few things that about four people in the entire crowd will know. It's a Christmas pudding with the occasional as sixpence to grate your teeth on."
Nor is it nostalgia for nostalgia's sake as far as Mat is concerned.
"You would think that playing Animal Nitrate or Trash for the 500th time wouldn't work," he says. "But as long as it's in a set with other stuff, then it's all about the feeling - it's all about the reaction. Every time you think 'it might be a bit dull to play this again', you get the kind of circuit of energy between you and the crowd, and every time it sparks the feeling that those songs have in them.
"It's all about what comes back from the crowd and what lifts you. You play something like Trash, and when you get an entire crowd singing it back to you, it's a different experience. You're not just playing the song - it's something communal. Sure, it has a bit of the past in it, because I know a lot of our songs mean very certain things to people, but also there's something really dumb and teenage about a gig. Everyone suddenly behaves like they're 14 again - crowd and band alike. I can't imagine that's ever going to get old.
"You need to be alive on stage. I've seen so many bands and you think 'just put a record on'. It has to have a sense of danger and a sense of human beings. We like to play quite tight together as if you're in a rehearsal room together, because that's how you get the chemistry. You can hear chemistry on stage."
It's tempting to see Suede not as one band, but as several. There were the struggling hopefuls playing to three people in a pub basement; the gutter-glamorous tyros whose self-titled debut album blended melodic stomp with twisted beauty and won the Mercury Music Prize, who slayed the Brit Awards with a performance that still startles to this day; the shadowy, slightly squalid gothic romantics of second LP Dog Man Star; the leather-jacketed indie-pop princes of Coming Up; and so on. Away from the core of Anderson, Osman and drummer Simon Gilbert, members have come and gone, along with, from time to time, the band's mojo.
Yet from Osman's perspective, there's been a remarkable continuity. "It feels like the same band. When we're writing now, every now and then we'll do something or write something and we're in a rehearsal room and a get flashbacks to 1990, and those same kind of sparks of magic that come when something comes together. It feels like the same band, it's just taken a lot of wrong turnings. Some right ones too!
"When we got back together, we hadn't played together for eight, nine years and we went into a rehearsal room and started playing, and it was as if those eight years hadn't existed. I'm sure we'd all grown as human beings, but as Suede, it's like a family or something. It's like when you go back to your family at Christmas, and it doesn't make any difference that you're a lawyer or a journalist - you're still the eight-year-old son. The roles in the band were set in 1994."
This mixture of stability and momentum is evidently doing the band good. The creativity continues to flow, collectively and individually: Osman recently announced that he has written a novel, to be published in February next year. Its title is The Ruins, which sounds suitably Suede-ish. Is the rest of the book?
"Very recognisably so. One of the characters is a failed musician, and it's very much 'there but for the grace of God go I'.
"When I started it, it seemed absolutely impossible. I hadn't written anything longer than 1,000 words since I was a teenager. But then when you make a record, there's always this thing that what you do is you find a couple of key songs, and they act as a structure for the record. With each album there's usually a track that comes in and you think 'right, OK, fine'. And it was the same with writing a book - I thought I was going to get half way through and want to give up. But I found a couple of scenes - a scene near the end, a scene in the middle and a scene near the beginning - and suddenly I was like 'OK, this is what it is'. And then it's just work. It's great work and it's creative work, but it's just filling in the gaps."
And while they would be forgiven for taking the easy route from here, Suede show no sign of doing so. Their next album promises to be a sharp change from The Blue Hour.
"Last time it was very heavily structured and had orchestras and spoken word and stuff like that," says Mat. "As usual, I think the next one will be the complete opposite. I think the next one we're going to try and record pretty much live, just five of us in a room - spend a lot of time rehearsing, and then try and capture something a bit more straightforward rock'n'roll, that live feeling.
"We've got five or six key songs. It'll either take us three months or a year and a half to write the rest of it. It's started, we know what it's going to sound like, we know where it's heading. So it's festivals for the rest of the summer, and then heads down for probably a year of writing and recording. It'll be lovely if it came out the end of next year - that would be great."
So that's Suede these days. Releasing great albums, playing stellar shows, their artistic restlessness lent renewed focus by experience. They're coming to Buckinghamshire and we should see them while we can. Because it's a rare and special thing, catching a great band right at the top of their game.
* Pennfest takes place on July 19 and 20 at The Big Park, Horsemoor Lane, off Penn Street, Bucks, HP7 0PL. Also on the bill are Peter Doherty, Miles Kane, Craig David, the Happy Mondays and more. Visit pennfest.net for details.