BRETT ANDERSON – A LITERARY CONVERSATION.
With the release of the Suede frontman’s highly lauded memoir ‘Coal Black Mornings’ published by Little Brown, he converses with Mark Fernyhough on writing, the esoteric and what comes next for his band…
Portraits taken in London by Heike Schneider-Matzigkeit
Interview & final three images by Mark Fernyhough
MF: So far, how is the book world comparing to the world of music?
BA: The book world is much more polite. I quite like going to visit my publishers as they are all very sweet and nicely educated. It’s all very pleasant. You know, there’s a lot of inverted snobbery in the music world and everyone pretends to be really working class and talks like this – *faux working class voice* ‘alright, yeah, cheers!’
MF: You are actually working class, that’s the difference isn’t it?
BA: Well, exactly. In the book industry people are perfectly happy to admit that they were brought up in Oxfordshire and had nice parents, and it’s lovely. I’m quite enjoying the whole experience actually. Who knows maybe that’s just one of those things that happens at the start of these campaigns when it’s all still good fun – as soon as I start getting bad reviews and the book starts selling terribly I’m sure it will all come crashing around my ears.
MF: Did writing Coal Black Mornings feel like a form of time travel?
BA: Yes, very much so. Absolutely. When I was writing about my mum dying, I hadn’t really felt those feelings in that same way since it actually happened. So it really did genuinely feel like going back in time and reliving those moments. Those early days at university with Justine and all these pivotal moments in my life – I definitely felt that I was back there. It was an amazing feeling actually.
MF: It’s a shame people like Prince or David Bowie didn’t pen memoirs. Their inner story is lost to the world really….
BA: Who knows what their books would have been like, but more than anything, it’s a loss for them. Writing a memoir answers questions that you’ve always had hidden inside. There’s lots of things that I learnt from writing this book, it unlocked lots of answers about my relationship with my dad and stuff like that.
MF: Whilst writing this book, did you feel the need to don another hat metaphorically or physically, to make a distinction between your songwriting self and your author self? A Roald Dahl cardigan or Ted Hughes fishing rod, perhaps?
BA: I didn’t really feel the need to try and ‘become the writer’. I was quite conscious that the book felt like me. It was an interesting process having it edited by the publishers. They basically go through it and send you back their version of your book. It’s improved grammatically and stuff like that, but I actually went back and made them change it back again. I said ‘this isn’t me anymore’. They were great and totally understood. I was very keen for it to have my voice.
BA: Well, lots of autobiographies are ghostwritten. I feel it’s a bit of a shame to be honest, I definitely wanted to write my own. Whenever I say I’ve written a memoir people ask ‘did you write it yourself?’
MF: Yeah a lot of people just dictate them, don’t they?
BA: Yes, exactly. It’s basically an interview that’s transcribed, I really didn’t want to do that.
MF: Despite some very powerful moments, the book is shot through with understated humour. Was it important to you that the book wasn’t too kitchen sink and bleak?
BA: Actually yes, it’s interesting you should pick up on that – the first version I wrote was too kitchen sink and bleak. I think it’s got to entertain. It’s like with music – there’s an element that’s got to entertain as well as challenge – it’s finding that sweet spot between the two. So I did bring in more humour. I think it’s important ‘cos it gives the book a kind of nice soft scruffiness in a way. If it was too bleak it would just be a sort of misery memoir. In any life there are moments of darkness, there are moments of funniness and there are moments of sadness. I wanted it to reflect all of the sides of life.
MF: How did writing the book connect to writing Night Thoughts which shares some similar ground in terms of dealing with childhood and family?
BA: Yeah, that’s interesting. I wrote it after Night Thoughts but these things are all kind of connected. The last couple of years I’ve been slightly obsessed with parenthood as a theme. As a personal theme and as an artistic theme. Night Thoughts is very much about life and birth and death. I think it definitely led on to wanting to write a memoir I suppose. Having a child yourself immediately stimulates thoughts about your own childhood. There will be more of an influence on the next Suede album really.
MF: Compared to many in your line of work you’re quite a private sort of person who outside performing doesn’t exactly court the spotlight. Meanwhile writing about your childhood is almost the most personal type of autobiography you could write…
BA: When I wrote the first version of the book a while ago, I read it back and thought ‘I don’t want to do this. I’m not ready for this information to be public’. I’ve definitely painted a stylised picture of my life, but you do that by what you decide to leave out.
MF: As you discuss in Coal Black Mornings you are unapologetically in-touch with your feminine side. Do you think the world would be a better place if classic macho qualities slowly became extinct, or do you think there’s value to them too?
BA: There’s nothing wrong with masculinity and there’s nothing wrong with femininity, they’re different sides of the same coin. I just happen not to be Henry Rollins. That’s not me. I think if there’s any kind of femininity in Suede it’s because I wanted to express myself truthfully. I didn’t want to be hiding behind this mask of fake masculinity.
MF: Who would you rather be friends with – someone who cares about their hair too much? Or someone who cares about their hair too little?
BA: (laughter) I don’t think you can care about your hair too much Mark. People mistake vanity for insecurity. Often when I’m looking in the mirror people assume I’m thinking – ‘Wow I look amazing!’. In reality I’m often thinking ‘God, my hair looks shit today’.
MF: Writers from Yeats to Burroughs had a great interest in the occult. Do you think there can be an esoteric otherworldly element to the act of writing?
BA: Yes, I do. I think even when you write songs you are channeling primal subconscious thoughts, which are definitely esoteric. I’ve always been interested in artists like William Blake and Aleister Crowley. I love the idea of an artist switching off his consciousness and letting his subconscious take over. I’m not personally a huge fan of stream of consciousness literature. I find it a bit boring. I enjoy a strong narrative. But I completely respect all of those more experimental writers.
MF: Speaking of which, what method did you employ to get your passages down? Typewriter? Quill? Dictaphone? Old lady secretary transcribing it in the corner?
BA: A quill? (laughs) I’m just sort of imaging myself with one….
MF: It’s not hard to imagine really..
BA: (laughter) No actually, I didn’t have ‘Word’, the computer program, so I wrote it as emails.
MF: Wow (laughter). Brilliant.
BA: I wrote it as very, very long emails.
MF: Were there any other titles which you held up as the gold standard of what you were trying to achieve with Coal Black Mornings?
BA: Yes, I was very much inspired by Laurie Lee’s ‘Cider With Rosie’ actually. I read it when I was a kid and the language is just so extraordinarily beautiful. Breathtaking in lots of ways. But beautiful without being self conscious.
MF: Do you think writing the book will inform the way you approach your future lyrics?
BA: Yeah I’ve been wondering about that. It’s a tricky one – when you are writing words for songs it’s very different. What I like about writing prose is the freedom. You can literally do anything because you’re not constrained by the laws of music. On the new album there’s a spoken word piece. That’s the first time that I’ve done anything like that and that was definitely inspired by writing prose.
MF: When writing, did you always hear your own internal voice being translated onto the page, or were you ever like, ‘Oh gosh, I sound like an 18th century servant girl – I had better retire my typewriter for today’?
BA: (laughter) ‘I sound like an 18th century scullery maid!’ I was quite conscious of not coming across as too verbose. It’s about getting the balance right. I wanted the book to not be just another trudge through the life of a bloke in a band. I wanted it to have value beyond that. But at the same time I was very conscious that there’s people who will automatically accuse me of being pretentious like they have my whole career. I suppose I was kind of wary of that as well.
MF: Would you consider delving into the realm of fiction writing in the future?
BA: I don’t know Mark, it’s a good question. I had an idea for a story that I started to develop. I’d have to do it very, very carefully. I wouldn’t want to assume that because I can string a few sentences together and talk about my life that I can automatically become a fiction writer. When you are writing your memoir you don’t have to create characters, you just follow the thread like Theseus following Ariadne’s cord. It’s very different from constructing a fictional world. But maybe I’d like to try it, yeah.
MF: What’s next for Suede?
BA: We’ve got a new album coming out. We’ve recorded it, we’ve recorded the strings and we’re going to mix it over the Easter holidays. So it should be out towards the end of the year. I’m very excited. I feel as though there’s been a real trajectory that we’ve been on through the last three albums – from Bloodsports to Night Thoughts to this album. There’s a creative path we’re treading and this is the next level up I think.
MF: You were previously talking about Suede recording a 20 minute song, what was the outcome of that?
BA: Yeah… I don’t think that’s going to happen now. Whenever we start a record we have a manifesto and I remember with this one that was one of the elements. I think we tried a 20 minute song and it sounded boring, so we gave up. It’s important to subvert your own manifesto sometimes. But one of the things on the manifesto was a spoken word piece and that’s definitely on there.
MF: Do you feel more complete having finished Coal Black Mornings or less complete?
BA: It’s expressed a lot of things I wanted to express and I’m feeling in quite a good place with it. But it’s early days and in a couple of weeks time I might feel as though I’ve cheapened my life by writing a memoir. Who knows?
MF: Do you feel the world will be closer to knowing the real Brett Anderson once the book has been communally devoured?
BA: That’s a very, very good question and difficult to answer. A lot of people think I’m quite humourless and might assume I’m from some middle class background. I think the book will correct those assumptions. Like you said before, there’s humour. People see Suede as quite serious, but as people we’re not especially humourless. So yes, I think it will challenge some assumptions but as to whether people will get to know the real me, I don’t really know what the real me is.