The men behind Suede hated each others' guts once (and may still), but they've put aside their differences long enough to reform under a new name, with a new album. Brian Boyd talks to Brett Anderson about the fickleness of fame - and why you won't be hearing any of the old songs in concert
IT'S NOT big or clever for the guitarist to flick V signs behind the back of the lead singer - but it is funny. This is where we left Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler back in 1994, shortly before the latter was sacked from Suede during the recording of the lost masterpiece that was Dog Man Star.
Like most other notable songwriting teams, these once close friends and even closer musical partners had quickly begun to loathe each other. It was during these final gigs that Butler worked through his anger issues with the puerile (but probably deeply satisfying) gesture of giving Anderson the fingers in front of Suede's audiences.
As severed alliances go, Anderson and Butler's was spectacular. Anderson threw all of Butler's treasured and very expensive guitars out of the studio window and onto the street below. Butler allegedly called Anderson a paedophile in a post-split interview and the latter responded by downplaying Butler's input into the group by recruiting a 17-year-old schoolboy from Devon to replace the "irreplaceable" guitarist.
It's difficult to quantify just how huge Suede were in the early 1990s. A front cover of the Melody Maker proclaimed them as "The Best New Band in Britain" - before they had even released one note of music. Their debut album was anticipated as "the most eagerly awaited since Never Mind the Bollocks". Morrissey anointed them by covering My Insatiable One. The album won the Mercury Music prize and was the fastest-selling debut release since Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredrome. Even their press agents won an award for the "best press campaign of the year". Anderson had the one-liners, Butler had the riffs; their future was so bright they had to buy a sunglasses factory.
"The history of this fucking band is ridiculous. It's like Machiavelli rewriting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It involves a cast of thousands. It should star Charlton Heston . . . it's like a pram that's just been pushed down a hill. It's always been fiery and tempestuous and really on the edge and it never stops. I don't think it ever will." That was Anderson at the peak of the band's success, alluding to then not publicly known simmering inter-band hatred and prodigious Class A drug use.
After the split, Suede continued to release albums. Anderson became addicted to crack cocaine and then heroin; just a few years ago he was spotted walking down the street where he lives at 3am shouting out: "I've got the best drugs in London".
Suede limped off the stage after the multi-layered disaster that was their A New Morning album in 2002. Butler became a Johnny Marr-like guitarist for hire, working with Bert Jansch and David McAlmont to little effect.
Last year, after Suede were put to bed, Anderson rang Butler.
"He could have picked up the phone and told me to fuck off," says Anderson. "It's not like we're best friends or anything, we've still got a lot to sort out between ourselves. We had both said and done things we regretted, so it was difficult. We were 10 years younger when these things happened. But, meeting up again for the first time, we still had a lot to put behind us, we had to draw a line. We didn't meet up to have a relationship, it was with the idea of working together again."
Tellingly, Anderson and Butler refuse to be interviewed together. You can have one or the other, or one after the other, but never together. This is not Friends Reunited.
This wasn't exactly the first time the two had met since Anderson sacked Butler. "It was a few years ago," says Anderson. "I was getting out of a cab and not looking where I was going. Suddenly this car appeared from nowhere and had to break quickly to avoid hitting me - it was Bernard in the car. That could have been a legendary rock'n'roll death!"
They are now called The Tears, a reference to a Philip Larkin poem, Femmes Damnées, which ends with the line: "The only sound heard is the sound of tears."
Anderson is adamant he didn't collapse Suede just to get back with Butler. "The band came to a natural end. The real reason I rang him is that I felt I had written my best songs with him. It certainly wasn't for social reasons."
Butler, for his part, has said that ever since Suede broke up, he wondered how long it would take Anderson to call him.
"The thing about working with him again is that because of the music we had already produced, there had to be something spectacular happening between us," says Anderson. "There was always that fear of tarnishing everything that had gone before - the debut album and Dog Man Star. A few songs in and we knew we had something, something that was Anderson and Butler but something that was not Suede, if you know what I mean."
The new album, Here Come The Tears, is robust and impressive. Butler is still a show-off guitarist and Anderson has lost none of his lyrical bark and bite. The singer is withering of bands that have followed in his wake who tread water with glum, introspective lyrics.
"It's all easy-listening indie now, isn't it?" he says. "All this obsessing about the self in songs these days. It can work if it somehow illuminates the human condition, which it rarely does, but it's not about being a member of society. It's the old thing: the personal is the political. Look at the bigger picture."
Anderson excels himself on one of the album's best tracks, the uncompromising Brave New Century, in which he sings of the meretricious ornamentation of contemporary life: "We sit and choke on magazines/And worship shit celebrities. Religion breathes like a disease/While people spit on refugees."
"That was written before the election here, but I just could not believe that an election could be fought over the abstract idea of immigration," he says. "Middle England were provoked by the Daily Mail - I mean, these people have never met, let alone talked to, a refugee. I wanted to humanise the immigrant communities with that song.
"As for celebrity worship, it's becoming even more extreme and bizarre. There will be a revolt and these false idols will be overthrown."
Now clean of drugs, he says the songs have benefited.
"There were the what I call opiated fop years with Suede, and there were also a few cliches in there also. We were treated like we were capable of doing anything. I see it happening now with Franz Ferdinand and Keane - no one had heard of them a year ago. Every band hated us at the time, and I hated us, because the focus wasn't on the music. Now we can write songs like Apollo 13. I'm just back from a European press tour and people were asking me if it was about the film and I'm going 'do you know what a metaphor is?' That song in particular is important for us. There's lot of space there and a different dynamic to it. It's the sort of area we'll be going more into on the second album.
"This really feels like a debut, it will be massively bettered. We're not going to run away after six months."
The Tears are lined up for a number of festival appearances, including Oxegen in July. But those who go expecting a medley of Suede hits will be disappointed.
"We're not doing any Suede songs," Anderson says flatly. It's important to distance ourselves from those past songs. We're The Tears now. Having said that, there was a gig in Sheffield a few weeks ago and during the encore we did do a Suede song. We hadn't rehearsed it, and the only reason we did that was to get it out of the way - the 'will they be playing any Suede stuff?' question that has been hanging around us since we got back together again.
"There's the answer. We played a Suede song for the first and last time. We're not going to be trading off the past - it holds too many bad memories for the both of us. We want to be brave and contemporary."
SUEDE'S LOST CLASSIC
WHEN The Guardian had a poll of the 100 greatest albums of all time, only four releases from the 1990s featured - and Dog Man Star was one of them.
Recorded on the back of one of the most critically acclaimed debuts of all time, the wheels were beginning to fall off when Suede assembled for the follow-up. A much-hyped US tour (where they had to be called The London Suede) ended in ignominy with the band being upstaged by their support act, The Cranberries. Such were the tensions in the band that Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler could not be in the studio at the same time for the album's recording.
The album perplexed the band's fan base on its release in October 1994. Gone was the indie squall of the debut, to be replaced by a big, sprawling Gothic sound that sounded like a collision between Killing Joke and Keats.
Containing symphony-style odes about doomed urban landscapes, the album remains a towering achievement. Put tritely: it was Britpop's Sgt Pepper's.
"Imagine Coldplay releasing a record like that," says Anderson of the album. "They're far too sensible to do anything like that. Nobody understood it when it came out. We were supposed to bring out a similar album to the first, but we went for this big statement instead. You'll never get another Dog Man Star. Record companies simply won't allow their big-selling acts to be so ambitious and experimental".
Dog Man Star was up against two new albums. One by a new band from Manchester - Definitely Maybe - and the other called Parklife. The Britpop wars were about to commence. But without the participation of the band who started it all off.