“We wanted to do something that was less immediate, something a little bit more challenging…” hmv.com talks to Suede
Although they rose to fame in the Britpop ere of the 1990s, Suede reformed in 2012 to release their comeback album, Bloodsports, a record that recalled the best of their 90s heyday, but for their new album, Night Thoughts, they’ve done something very different, making a record that's designed to be listened to as a whole and even commissioning a film as a companion piece to the music.
We sat down with bassist Mat Osman to talk about why they’ve taken this route, how they ended up with an entire film instead of music videos and what you can expect from their all-new live show…
Your new album Night Thoughts is out on Friday, it's been about three years since Bloodsports, what have you all been up to in the meantime? Has it been solid touring?
“No, we toured for about a year, but after that we started working on the new record. It takes us a long time nowadays, I think as you get older and you have more albums under your belt, finding an interesting place to go without repeating yourself becomes more difficult. We actually finished it a year ago.”
So what’s been happening in the meantime? Why the long wait?
“Well, right from the start we’d wanted to make something that would get listened to in one go, something that kind of ebbed and flowed. So we got to that point and then when we started talking about videos, it seemed to kind of spoil the whole idea, it went against everything we’d tried to do. So then the idea of doing a film came up and that added another 6 months onto it. Then it was going to come out at Christmas and we thought ‘actually, it’s really not a very Christmassy record.’ So, January it is!”
Including the film then, how long has it taken to put all of it together?
“All in all, it’s been about two years. It’s weird. We went off to Belgium and recorded about a whole album’s worth of just music, which we’ve never really done before. I mean we didn’t have any songs or anything, we just recorded about 50 minutes of music and then gave it all to Brett (Anderson, singer) to turn it into songs.
“So that accounts for about half of Night Thoughts, then we came back and worked at Sarm West studios in London, where we did some more conventional kind of songs. After that, Neil spent a lot of time locked away in his attic trying to create something out of it all that flows properly.”
We’ll come back to the film that accompanies the album in a minute, but generally speaking, how have you found making this record compared to Bloodsports? Brett's been quoted as saying that was your hardest album to make, would you agree?
“Er, they’re all hard, haha! But yeah, totally, I mean that was our ‘comeback record’, and most bands’ comeback records are usually not very good. I mean there’s something really seductive about the idea of coming back, you play your best songs live for a year and you tend to start thinking ‘well, this is easy. All we have to do is write 12 songs as good as them and we’re laughing’. And you kind of forget that it’s taken 20 years just to kick those songs into shape!
“So that was a really long process, just learning to be Suede again. Learning to have high standards and deciding that we only want to release stuff that’s at least as good as what we’ve already done. This one was a bit different though because we knew we’d be doing something very different. We wanted to do something that was less immediate, something a little bit more challenging. It’s a real balancing act, I can’t stand self-indulgence in music, but at the same time we were trying to make something that was a bit more immersive, so it did take a long time to find something that fitted in the right way.”
So the whole writing process has been totally new to you this time?
“Yeah, exactly. We’ve never started just with music before, normally we’d sit there in one of our bedrooms and just bash away at the songs until they’re ready. With this, there are quite a lot of tracks that are just pieces of music that take you from one song to another, so it’s been a very different way of working.”
You've worked with Ed Buller again on this record, he seems to be your producer of choice. What makes him such a good fit for you?
“Lots of things. High standards. He was there when we recorded the early albums and songs like ‘Trash’, so he knows what we can do and he’s really not afraid to say ‘this isn’t good enough’. And he’s not just a hired hand, he’s just as tied up in it as we are, he’s not just there for the money – ‘cause we hardly pay him! He’s a member if the band while we’re making a record, really.
“Also, with this album, because we were talking a lot about film music and the way you have themes that appear throughout, his insight was useful because he works in film music when he’s not doing production. He’s really at home with all that, so doing that stuff on a record wasn’t pretentious to him because that’s the way he’s used to working.”
Can you tell us a bit about the concept behind the film that accompanies Night Thoughts?
“Yeah, I think one of the reasons we did this is just because we’re kind of crap at making videos. It’s always so depressing, they cost loads of money and we never feel like they’re any good. Especially for this record, which didn’t feel like it was lots of radio-friendly singles, so we just thought that if we’re going to have something visual then we should do something that has as much substance as the record. We thought ‘let’s not waste our money making three adverts, let’s spend it on a piece of art.’
“So we talked to a few people about ideas for a film as a companion piece to the album. We were really clear that we didn’t want it to slavishly follow the record, because there’s not really a narrative to the album or anything like that. But we wanted someone who could take the themes of the record and make something from it."
So Roger Sargent ended up directing the film – how did he get involved?
“As soon as Roger heard what we wanted to do, even before he’d heard the album, he had this idea of a really dark family drama. He had places that he wanted to shoot it and he just had this very clear idea of how he thought it should look, it has this very kitchen sink, British, working class kind of feel to it, the kind of thing you never really see on film. It all just felt very Suede. I mean we’ve known Roger for years, but from the very first meeting it felt like he really got what we were trying to do.”
“He’d just sort of been around for ages, he first started taking pictures of us at Glastonbury in 1994 I think, so we’ve known him for a long time and he did some photos for Bloodsports as well. But I’ve followed his video career with interest because he has this very unique style. I think we were always quite jealous of the videos he did for people like Fat White Family, we kept saying ‘this is what we should have been doing!’ So it was a chance to take that and expand on it.”
How involved have you guys been with that side of things?
“We’ve tried not to be too involved at all. We’re not filmmakers and I can’t think anything worse than us making a vanity piece. We told him what the record was about and he came back with a really detailed storyline. We went through it with him and there were a couple of points where we said ‘we don’t think this works with the record’, and there were others where we said that and he’d go ‘no, trust me, it’ll work’, so at that point we would say ‘ok, it’s your film’.
“I went down a couple of times while it was being shot and we talked through a few things, but it’s Roger’s film, we wanted to be very clear about that. We didn’t want a kind of puppet director.”
What does this all mean for the live shows? Will the film be a part of that?
“Yeah, we’ve played it out twice already, we did a show at the Roundhouse in November. What we ended up doing is having this huge screen showing the film, and we’re playing behind it. It’s an idea our lighting director had, for the first two songs you’re not totally sure if we’re even in the building, but hen he starts lighting us from behind, so you see us through the screen. It’s a really interesting effect - it’s quite something. We had no idea whether it was going to work until the dress rehearsal the night before we did it, so we were like ‘well, if it doesn’t we’re absolutely fucked’.
“It’s very un-Suede, we’re usually all about that connection with the audience, so it’s quite static and makes everything quite quiet, but I really like it, it’s a strange sideways step for us.”
Does that restrict what you can do in terms of playing the older songs?
“No, what we did is play the first half of the gig like that, because that whole thing is only about 45 minutes, and then for the second set it’s a much more traditional Suede thing, where we can get sweaty with the audience, that’s still a big part of what we do."
So where are you taking it on tour?
"The tour’s not too long, because it’s quite a difficult show to put on, logistically. You need a lot of space for the screen, but we didn’t really want to do it in all-seater venues because the second half is more like a traditional gig. I think we’re doing 10 or 12 dates in Europe, then we’re playing London, Leeds, Dublin, Edinburgh and Manchester. I think we’ll do a much more traditional Suede set at festivals, but you know there are film festivals and things like that, so maybe we’ll turn up at places like that, see how we go down with the middle classes!”
Will there be another Suede album after this?
“Yeah. It’s the first time we’ve really felt like this, actually. We got of the studio and it was such a weird process that I think we thought we’d made something quite difficult and un-commercial, something that was almost just for us. It’s completely out of step with the times, really, but the reaction has been so good and I keep coming across people who seem to want something more immersive, something you have to commit to, like you would a film or a box set or something. So it’s the first time we came out of the studio going ‘we want to take this further’ so that’s the plan. To do something even more un-commercial, haha!”