NME, 12 April 1997

BEAUTY AND THE EAST

Brett keeping his head straight At last SUEDE can relax. There’s nothing left to prove. They’ve survived Butler’s passing and got through the ‘The Pie Era’, while the crucial ‘Coming Up’ album hit Number One and went on to sell, ooh, loads. And now they’re rocking that most unlikely of rocking places – HONG KONG. STEPHEN DALTON shares a joke or five with the New Suede. Pacific rimming: STEVE DOUBLE

Here they come, the Beautiful Ones. Immaculately turned out in figurehugging black and stylishly sculpted hair. Passionate, elegant, enigmatic – and screaming their tiny teenage heads off.

Because they’ve just glimpsed the unlikely objects of their worship: five unshaven, malnourished geezers with slept-on hair, rumpled jumble-saIe trousers and unnatural gaps where their backsides should be. The Men With No Arse have just hit town.

It’s 11am, we’re at a press conference in the bowels of a Hong Kong hotel, and Suede are wearing sunglasses. Of course. Outside, a gaggle of olive-skinned beauties in skinny-rib ‘gayanimalsex’ T shirts will keep a constant vigil throughout the band’s three-day visit, rewarded only by occasional glimpses of their lanky heroes. In the kingdom of the perfectly proportioned, the no-arsed are kings.

Hong Kong is a not a big rock’n’roll town. A recent Elton John show was cancelled when the authorities insisted the audience could only listen through headphones and must wear gloves to clap. But even so, Suede are major news here.

They recently topped almost every award category in local rock mag, Music Colony Bi-Monthly, while the press conference finds them receiving a platinum disc for ‘Coming Up’.

Suede are here to play two shows, both sponsored by Guinness. A company representative tells the conference it’s natural for Suede and Guinness to join forces, since both are “vibrant, alternative and daring to be different”. Brett visibly blanches at this point ironically, this only increases the black-clad singer’s resemblance to a human-sized pint of Guinness. Spooky.

Suede meet the press Mat reveals his penchant for Thai rap to the assembled Asian media. Later, when Invited to speculate on Bernard Butler’s new musical direction on Creation, he fires back a cool, “Dunno… probably Thairap.” Hardly anyone laughs. As usual, Suede’s ultra-dry humour is mistaken for haughty aloofness.

Suede are, you see, a pretty funny bunch. Never mind the permanently scowling photo sessions and bitter, bitchy interviews – Suede off-duty are all in-jokes and camp quips. There’s Mat the cruelly Incisive commentator, Simon the permanently bemused hairspray junkie, Richard the softly chuckling observer, Brett the queen bitch and surreal Neil the human eel. A minibus ride with them through the Buddhist temples, glistening skyscrapers and highrise Blade Runner slums of Hong Kong is spiced with more toilet-sex innuendo than Joe Orton’s entire career.

At a local TV station Channel V, NeiI cheekily insists on introducing videos “in the style of Brian Blessed”. When the interviewer asks what Suede offer that other bands don’t, Mat says “a free holiday”, Simon “youth opportunities” and Brett “a plasic dinosaur”. Nobody laughs. Except Suede. Suede laugh a lot. Infact, spend a few days with Suede on the road and you can’t help recalling the young Rolling Stones: cock-rocking six titans one minute, tarty littlee princelings the next. Classless cockneyfied aristocrats with a burning sense of their own importance, sure, yet always giggeling at their own absurdity. Yes, even Brett. But when the faintly ridiculous business of being teeny pop icons is dealt with, Suede rightly become deadly serious about the business in hand, ie, rocking like wild pigs on crack. When it comes to rock’n’roll, New Suede are The Professionals. And their first show, at Queen Elizabeth Stadium, is a rollicking triumph, with 2,000 doe-eyed teens screaming along to lyrics about anal sex with drugged-up dogs in ’70s council flats. On Mars. Possibly.

It’s an explosive reminder of what Suede still do better than anyone else: savage, sexually-charged stomp-rock punctuated by huge, heartbreaking ballads. The latter might even be the key to Suede’s popularity in Asia, since epic weepies have always dominated here. They certainly pack enough of a punch to reduce the band’s emotionally frail press officer to a blubbing wreck. Or maybe that’s the jet lag.

Even Mr Guiness is grinning lika a chimp, mainly because the crowd is 90 per cent Chinese. Although almost unprecedented for visiting gweilos, as the locals call white invaders, this is exactly the market Guiness wants to reach. Vibrant, alternative and daring to be different. Ooh yes.

Afterwards, when Suede and their entourage speed off in a convoy of Mercedes limousines, a frothing ocean of fans parts to let them through. Bloody heIl – the Beatles at Shea stadium or what? We are then whisked to a Guiness-sponsored aftershow bash in a terrifyingly posh hotel nightclub, ushered in through the kitchen. Totally GoodFellas. We then discover we’re going the wrong way. Ho Hum. Totally Spinal Tap.

Inside the club. Suede are confined to a roped-off corner surrounded by a million photographers and approximately 200 of the world’s most beautiful women. Everyone makes a point of not drinking any Guiness, out Suede still stay the required one hour, shaking hands and making polite conversation. They are, after all, The Professionals. The PerSueders, even. The Dutiful Ones.

Finally it’s back to sanity at their own hotel. Brett and Richard disappear to their beds, but everyone else stays up for a quiet tipple. What’ll it be? “A Guiness,” grins Simon. And he means it. What a wag.

ACROSS ENDLESS Asia to the fields of Cathay, Suede are one of a handful of British bands currently inspiring new levelss of starlust. Hong Kong is only part of the story – a few days before our interview, they played one of their best gigs for 5,000 rioting kids in supposedly antirock Singapore. Teeming crowds mobbed them at the airport in Thailand, a country so attuned to Suede’s ethos they’re thinking of recording demos for the next album there. Even Communist China has invited them over to play.

It’s tempting to tag Brett’s boys with the term applied to many ex-pats who thrive in the colony: FILTH (‘Failed In London, Try Hong Kong’). But Asia isn’t a consolation prize for Suede, it’s just the nevest jewel in their recently renovated crown. Suede are on top of the world.

And boy do they know it. Maybe it’s because, until now, despite of their relentlessly bullish interviews, Suede have always had something to prove. First, with ‘Suede’ that they were the best band in the world. Then, with the druggy delirium following ‘Dog Man Star’, that they could survive losing Bernard Butler and being eclipsed by more commercial britpop rivals.

Even last time they met NME, Suede still had the relatively unknown quantity of ‘Coming Up’ on their hands. But that was before it shifted close to a million copies, almost outselling its two predecessors combined. Brett the paranoid prima donna has thus evolved into Brett the funny, focused, laid-back pop star. It seems he’s finally learning to enjoy the job he craved from birth. An accurate assessment?

“Pretty close, yeah. That sort of implies it’s this comfy, safe little world that I don’t particularly want to get out of, and it’s nothing like that. There’s still a hugh drive, but I’ll tell you what it is – after five years of bitching and fighting and screaming and psychosis and lunacy and aggression and fucking insanity, you get sick of all that. You’re left with the decision: what are you doing this for? For the insanity or the music? And it sounds really boring but Suede have always done it for the music.”

But isn’t it also partly that New Suede have found their niche and learned their limitations? You’ve settled for being the best rather than the biggest, whereas once you wanted both, America, for instance, is now dismissed as a lost cause when once Brett promised it would be “brought to heel”.

“America has never been as important to me as it has for everyone else,” he shrugs. “Europe and Asia opening up is going to prove that even more. It pretty much doesn’t happen for British bands in the States. When it does it’s a complete fluke and it can’t be predicted. I’ve said it before but we went over there in 1993 with what I thought was the best band in the world, and they weren’t interested. So, pffff, what can you do?”

But the Brett of five years ago wouldn’t have settled for that, surely? “I know. but that’s the Brett of five years ago. I’m totally willing to admit that you change your opinions and you say things that you believe at the time, but you realise were wrong.”

Brett insists Suede are still rooted in Britain, the wellspring of global pop culture. But doesn’t international success mean this attachment is more to feed his muse than his bank balance these days?

“Possibly, yeah, My muse is my most Important thing in life, I don’t want to loose him.”

So your muse is not a horse?

“Erm, no.”

Still, Businessman Brett seems to rule Artist Brett these days. Where his younger self flavoured flamboyantly arrogant soundbites, the singer’s conversations are now peppered with talk of tour support and midweak chart positions, the mundane realities of band life which Artist Brett perhaps wouldn’t have dirtied his hands with.

“Yeah, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” he nods. “You have to walk this thightrope and it’s a matter of having control. it’s about not being this fucking leaf floating around in the wind that the record company, or the media, is basically blowing. You have to choose your weapon, and sometimes your weapon is knowing about midweek positions and stuff like that.”

This pragmatism also applies to Brett’s current health regime. For most of the Asian tour he’s been early to bed with a herbal remedy and a humidifier on to protect his precious throat. He also still dabbles in the brown-rice diet he outlined to NME last October. How much of this new moderation is due to approaching the watershed age of 3O? “Quite a lot really. When I was younger i saw my body as this thing that you could do absolutely anything to. Then I saw a photo of myself one day and realised I was looking like a piece of fucking shit – I think it was an NME cover, actually, for a big piece about how Suede were going down the pan. The photos were pretty grim, which was probably a good thing. I felt completely betrayed at the time, but looking back it was probably a good kick up the arse.”

Ah yes – the Pie Period.

“Yeah, too many pies! No, it wasn’t pies, it was too many drugs and too much red wine. Because once I have a line of coke I can’t stop drinking, I hammer myself into the ground… and yeah, I looked dreadful.” Brett may joke about it, but that January 1995 NME cover still looms large in Suede’s personal mythology. Mired in smack rumours and the fraught aftermath of Bernard’s departure, the interview hinted that Suede were losing it bigtime. It created a lingering paranoia which gnaws away within Brett to this day, even his ebullient 1997 incarnation. Disturbingly, the singer can virtually quote verbatim all of Suede’s bad reviews from the past five years. Bloody hell. Sometimes it seems Brett doesn’t just want unconditional love for Suede, he wants to dictate precisely how we love them too…

But such preciousness, hopefully, Is the last hangover from Old Suede. New Suede really don’t need the siege mentaliyy of their cobwebbed past. This is the band who made ‘Coming Up’ after all – a shamelessly upbeat pop masterpiece and, to some ears, a purpose-built career-saving exercise. Right. Brett?

“I guess so, yeah. It was a matter of getting back to basics and re-establishing ourselves. The most heartening thing about ‘Coming Up’, is I actually see it as a springboard, whereas with the first two albums. I knew there was a timebomb there. Suede was actually this narrowing corridor going towards a cul-de-sac.”

But some saw ‘Coming Up’ as a functional record, sacrificing Suede’s dark grander to commercial pop compromise.

“Possibly, but a lot of people thought it was a really exciting album. Possibly it was a functional record, which I’m totally willing to accept, but within that it’s got its own worth, with two or three great songs that really carry it. Yeah, maybe something like ‘Trash’ or ‘The Beautiful Ones’ can be considered throwaway, but again that was partly the point. I mean, some of the least disposable music ever made has been so-called ‘disposable’ music. Motown has got the longevity of the fucking Bible, and it was written so these black factory workers in Detroit could pay the rent!

You can’t get more throwaway than that, but those songs’ll last a lot longer than… erm, I can’t think of an opposite to that.”

Procol Harum?

“Procol Harum! There you go. Or Focus!”

Another possible reason for Suede’s invincible mood is the long-overdue acknowledgement of their influence on British music, with darkly dramatic Brett-pop bands like Strangelove and Mansun emerging from the ravaged carcass of Britpop. Suede as godfathers of New Grave, anyone?

“There’s a couple of bands that have been influenced by us,” agrees Brett. “Not hugely, but there’s a thread in Geneva and Strangelove and maybe Mansun. But I Wouldn’t like to be considered responsible for po-faced-ness. That’s a misunderstanding people have with Suede, that there’s an overseriousness to it.”

But the black uniforms, the operatic emotions, the soaring drama – haven’t Suede just reinvented goth?

“What a HORRIBLE thing to say!” flounces Brett. “That’s one of the most insulting things I’ve ever heard!”

Come on, there must be a few closet goths in Suede?

“There certainly is NOT! I’ve seen Mat with dyed black hair and a paisley shirt once, when he was 16, and that’s about it. I’d like to think someone shot me before that happened. Which oversimplification do you want to fire at us – that we’re glam or we’re goth?”

It used to be glam. Now it’s goth.

“Oh right. We’re moving on to goth now, are we? How long have we got?”

About six months.

“Right, we’d better get an album out,” snaps Brett, breaking into a deathly croak: “R-O-LLL OUT THE BA-ARR-ELL!!” he groans, Andrew Eldritch-style. “It’s Chas’n’Dave’s new serious direction! ‘I’VE GOT A LU-UV-ERLY BU-UNCH OF CO-CO-NU-UTS!!!’.”

See – you make a pretty convincing goth, Brett.

“Right, I’m insulted! I’m going to the toilet…”

AND OFF to the toilet he toddles. Which gives us ample opportunity to make the acquaintance of Neil Codling: Suede’s elusive new songwriter, cousin of Simon, face-pulling keyboard gonk and saucy sex kitten.

The pleasant surprise is what a cheeky chappie Neil is. Don’t be fooled by the rabbit-in-the-headlights glare and Posh Spice pout he turns on for every camera – the freshly shorn Neil’s actually an unassuming fella with a ready wit,a relaxed angle on stardom and a tendency to talk like Ozzy Osbourne when being interviewed by inane TV crews.

It’s been said before, but Neil was obviously built in a Suede laboratory. The reptilian cool, the regal demeanour, the pallid beauty – even his surname sounds like some impressively exotic sexual practice…

Then there’s his super-deadpan stage persona. He’s hilarious. He’s audacious. He’s, erm, taking the piss surely?

“You can take it exactly how you want,” he reasons. “It is a very funny situation, to be sat there onstage with four people playing ‘Animal Nitrate’ and you’re doing absolutely nothing.”

Naybe Neils role is more than musical. Perhaps he’s Suede’s catamite – a boy slave kept for sexual purposes?

“Hmmmm,” frowns Neil. “Kattomeat, maybe. Kittycat…”

Then again, maybe not. But pretty-boy Neil has stolen some of Brett’s sexual limelight, hasn’t he?

“It’s nothing to do with me,” he sighs. “Any media persona comes from only a narrow part of what you are.”

Maybe, but you’re still a top bit of rock’n’roll totty. Suede are now, in Kenickie’s memorable phrase, a “bi-fancy pieced” band, with both Brett and Neil in their lust armoury.

“I’m not anymore, he is,” sobs Brett, back from the toilet. “In the old days I used to be up there, but Neil’s like my picture of Dorian Gray. I just deteriorate behind the scenes and write these songs while he stands there looking cool.”

Oh humbug. Which of you gets more sex offers?

“I don’t get any!” protests Neil.

“I don’t either!” chirps Brett. “I think Mat gets them all. It’s like Bill Wyman getting all the birds in the Stones, because he was the one people found a bit more aproachable. People think I’m going to start spouting poetry at them, and Neil’s going to stare an icy glare at them and make them wither. So because of that they run to Mat and Simon and Richard and we’re left there in our single beds crying, aren’t we Neil?”

Come off it, Brett. You were, after all, in Cosmopolitan’s 100 Sexiest Men supplement last month.

“God, was I?” He beams.

Yeah. Apparantly your teenage indie fans have been replaced by professional 30-something women.

“Really? That’s great, they’ve grown up with me then.”

So to test this new marketing angle, we’ve collected some comments on Brett from professional 30-something women. Firstly: “He looks like he never washes his hair…”

“I don’t,” agrees Brett. “I wash it about once every four months, because it gets so fucking sweaty at gigs, so if you spent all your time washing it you’d have a fucking balloon on your head. There are natural oils which kick in – four weeks of looking like a drowned rat then suddenly you look like an advert. Unfortunately I’m in the four weeks of hell at the moment…”

Second 30-something woman: “He needs a bit more meat on him if I’m going to fancy him…”

“Oooh, no, a bit more meat just doesn’t suit me. It goes straight to my cheekbones, and I’ve got to keep them.”

Third 30-something woman: “Can I have a signed pair of his dirty underpants?”

“Erm, that’s only because they work in a laboratory and they want to analyze them! They work for the drug squad!”

Huh. So much for the ‘older bird’ market. Let’s get a bit more direct – who’s got the best arse in Suede?

“Richard,” muses Neil. “Richard’s got a cute arse.” Brett disagrees. “Simon’s got a nice arse. He’s got a nice body because he exercises more than us, from drumming all the time.”

There aren’t that many actual arses in Suede, though, are there?

“No, I definitely haven’t got an arse”, nods Brett. “My legs go straight up. I am arse-less.”

“It’s an arse-less society,” quips Neil.

Speaking of arses, has Brett ever actually experienced gay animal sex?

“Not yet, no. Maybe I should.”

Ever tried analingus?

“Analingus?” He coughs. “Sorry, I’m not talking about my sexual life.”

“They’re a good airline, Analingus,” deadpans Neil. “Very pleasant staff.”

Ever tried Codling?

“I’ve tried cuddling Codling,” says Brett, “but he was all naily…”

Ever been shagged by someone purely because you’re famous?

“Yes, and it does your fucking head in,” smiles Brett. “You learn pretty early on that’s not a good one to get into.”

So you don’t take advantage of such situations anymore?

“No, I mean… you know… ooh, you’re embarrasing me. I’ll tell you what, I’m just going to get a drink…”

And he’s off again, the maddening ponce. Great pop star, mind.

A BRITISH outpost since the Opium Wars of 1841, Hong Kong reverts to Chinese rule on July 1. By Spooky coincidence, this will be exactly three years after Suede and Bernard Butler legally sealed their separation. Not that you get any sense of impending doom from the colony’s teeming tenements and steaming alleyways. Sure, long visa queues snake from the US consul, but there are also twice as many Brits here as there were two years ago. Most seem to be anticipating some kind of economic free-for-all, as if July will be more like the fall of the Berlin Wall than the fall of Saigon. Very odd.

In it’s own way, Suede’s Hong Kong visit is a little slice of history too. Their final show at the spanking new Hitec Arena is, astonishingly, the colony’s first all-standing rock show.

It’s also the closing of Suede’s latest chapter. The end of concentrated touring for ‘Coming Up’, as marked this week with the release of the last single from the album, ‘Lazy’. The end of fighting back, proving themselves, feeling like kings in exile. With a million-selling Number One album behind them, Suede don’t really need our pity any more – nor indeed their own. It’s time for The Professionals to move on.

Which they almost certainly are doing as you read this. Because the fourth Suede album is currently being written, and neither we – nor they – will settle for anything less than perfection. So what will it sound like?

“You can’t plan it,” frowns Richard who, as Brett’s main co-writer, is the largely unsung architect of the buoyant New Suede sound. “The moment you start planning what it will sound like you’re finished. If you say, ‘This album needs three ballads, two fast ones and a song with the word arse in it’ – that’s not how it works, it’s just the way it naturally happens. If you get a good album you get a good album. The next one might be shit, who knows? Ha ha!”

Will there be more of Old Suede’s doomy splendour on the new album?

“Absolutely,” nods Brett. “The way I see writing is like a pendulum, you are swinging between these two things, and the next album will probably have a lot more gravity. I definitely want it to sound more real and lyrically a lot more removed as well. I want it to be observational without being patronising. A bit more clinical, a bit icier, a bit less emotional – and maybe a bit less heroic too, a bit less romantic…”

So, functional, healthy, Businessman Brett will soon be turning back into stacked-up, cracked-up, Artist Brett?

“Absolutely. That’s what the song ‘Lazy’ is all about, me and a friend watching the sun come up after a night of extremity. I mean, I’m looking healthy now, but ask me the same question when I’m in the middle of writing an album and you’ll be talking to a lunatic. It does really flip for me, there’s two completely different sides. That’s how I operate, on a binary system. It’s either lunacy or… focus.”

The madness of Artist Brett already seems to be creeping back by the time Suede finish their final show. It’s a full-on riot, with Richard see-sawing across the stage like a man possessed, Simon’s drumkit almost toppling backwards from sheer punishment, and Brett soaked to the bone by water-chucking fans. It climaxes with a nuclear meltdown of the Pistols’ ‘No Feelings’, including virtual mass orgasm acros the arena. Afterwards, the floor is awash with puddles, one of which is probably Suede’s press officer.

At the end-of-tour aftershow, held in a freaky fourth-floor disco run by the Chinese mafia, Artist Brett is already in full comeback mode. Various potions and powders are dispensed before Suede slither off into the Hong Kong night, eager to satisfy all the appetites they have been dutifully suppressing for weeks. Their muse needs feeding – and no, brown rice won’t be on the menu.

Just two hours ago, Suede were The Professionals. But tonight the Men With No Arses are running with the dogs. And tomorrow? Tomorrow they’ll chase the dragon home.

Typed in by David