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Suede: ‘In middle age we’ve become monks’

PUBLISHED: 14:24 31 January 2016

Suede. Picture: Steve Gullick

Suede. Picture: Steve Gullick

© Steve Gullick

Founding member and bassist Mat Osman tells Alex Bellotti about why the once-hellraising band are now trying to grow old gracefully.

“When you know that every record could be your last, it forces you to really make something good,” says Mat Osman, bassist and founding member of Suede. When we talk, it’s impossible to ignore the added pertinence, considering that just three days earlier David Bowie passed away following the release of his final album, Blackstar.

Indeed for much of our interview the shadow of the late icon hangs over the conversation like a silver-lined cloud, because as much as any band, Suede encapsulate the legacy Bowie left behind. When the London group burst onto the scene in the early ‘90s with hits such as Animal Nitrate and The Drowners, it was in a haze of androgyny, volatile sexuality and – at least in the case of lead singer Brett Anderson – emphatic drug consumption.

All sounds familiar, you might say, but it was the music itself that really showed Bowie’s influence. From dark kitchen sink drama to amphetamine-fuelled escapism, this was a group that understood what it meant to feel like an outsider, and how to impress that on to tape.

In much the same way as Ziggy Stardust had to evolve, however, Suede are at a pivotal point of their history. While their first decade allowed them to trade off a youthful capriciousness, since reforming in 2010 they have had to come to terms with middle age – whether they like it or not.

“I’m really glad I was in a big, badly behaved band when I was 25, but to be doing that at 48 would be slightly tragic,” admits Osman. “A bit of the bald man in a Porsche syndrome.

“It’s one of those weird things that sneaks up on you, and the idea that we’re an established band still seems quite strange to me. I still feel like we’re sitting outside it, but I think a band, like a person, has to age gracefully.”

Harking back to the heyday of their first three records, Suede’s 2013 comeback album, Bloodsports, was by Osman’s own admission “a bit of a Stalinist attempt to rewrite history” – banishing the previous end point that was 2004’s whimpering A New Morning.

If Bloodsports’ soaring glam guitar and wailing melodrama re-established the vintage Suede ‘brand’, though, their latest offering, Night Thoughts, is a more mature creature. Prone to brooding, balladic reflections on age, loss and the trials of parenthood, the band will be bringing it to the Kentish Town Forum on February 12 as part of the 2016 NME Awards shows.

“Bloodsports was like a debut album – it was the five of us in a room showing what we do best,” says Osman. “But the minute it was finished it was about finding the next step.

“This was like recording (second record) Dog Man Star, thinking, ‘Ok people are listening’. It’s an incredible privilege that most bands don’t get, and you can go a bit further because you know that people are going to come with you.”

Perhaps part of the reason why fans have stuck by Suede is because of their continually compelling live presence. Anderson and Osman may both be 48 – drummer Simon Gilbert is the oldest at 50, keyboardist Neil Codling is 42 and guitarist Richard Oakes 39 – but on stage you could legitimately argue that they’re better now than they were in their 20s.

“You’ve got to remember that tours used to be holidays for us. When we started the band, we’d never done anything or been anywhere, so when we went on European tours it’d basically just be a party for four weeks. Sometimes we were absolutely great on stage and sometimes we were pretty ragged.

“It’s just not like that anymore,” Osman continues. “I’ve kind of resigned myself to the fact that the only thing really special about the five of us is the records we make and the shows we do, so everything is geared around that. When we tour now we’re like monks, because the one thing that’s really great is that hour and a half on stage.”

Looking back to their headlining slot at Glastonbury last summer and their stint at the Roundhouse in September, this is certainly the look of a band enjoying creative freedom once more. Free of chasing Radio 1 playlists or a top spot in the charts, Suede are now able to rely on their fanbase and experiment. Their new record, for example, dispenses with singles and instead is paired with an album-length film by photographer Roger Sargent.

“I think the thing that really happens when you come back is that you realise how precious it all is,” says Osman. “When we split up the first time, none of us had done anything else. It almost felt like normal life, being in a band, and it’s not – it’s a wonderful, strange, surreal thing and you should never forget that.

“What I love, having been apart from it, is that it still feels quite precarious and precious doing this now. I’m quite aware of how easily something like this gets broken, and it ups the anti – just a bit.”

Suede play the Forum on February 12. Visit o2forumkentishtown.co.uk

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