Getting a Big Head

The London Suede leaves behind its heart for Head Music

The publicist from Columbia Records calls right on time, Tuesday at 10 a.m., the very moment a member of the London Suede is scheduled to call for an interview to promote Head Music, the band's latest album. Only, instead of the expected "I've got Richard Oakes from the London Suede on the line for you; hold while I put him through," the disgruntled female voice says, "Sorry. I just got a call from Suede's management informing me that the band won't be doing any interviews today. We'll have to reschedule." When asked, jokingly, if it was because they were all too hung-over, the other end of the line is deadly silent.

Maybe she didn't hear the joke, or maybe it was too true to be funny. Or maybe it was because she was just so irritated that she'd be making a dozen more phone calls exactly like this to a dozen more American journalists who were all expecting a morning phoner with an English rock star, not a distracted apology.

But then, Suede didn't earn its reputation by pandering to Yanks. Suede's identity is as steeped in the English aura as Twinings Breakfast Tea; imagine David Bowie driving a red double-decker bus straight into the Thames. The United States has never been kind to Suede, so why should the band care if a few journalists have to wait a few extra days? Already, U.S. copyright laws forced the band to change its identity, adding "London" to its name before its second album, 1994's Dog Man Star, even though the acclaimed English act wouldn't have been confused with the beyond-obscure female folkie that claimed it first.

Back in black: The London Suede is, from left, Brett Anderson, Simon Gilbert, Mat Osman, Richard Oakes, and Neil Codling.
Back in black: The London Suede is, from left, Brett Anderson, Simon Gilbert, Mat Osman, Richard Oakes, and Neil Codling.
The Butler didn't do it: The London Suede has been playing catch-up since guitarist Bernard Butler (third from left) quit the group in 1994 during the recording of the band's second album, Dog Man Star.
The Butler didn't do it: The London Suede has been playing catch-up since guitarist Bernard Butler (third from left) quit the group in 1994 during the recording of the band's second album, Dog Man Star.

Thus far, the name change has been the most notable achievement in the group's American career, save for garnering a smattering of androgynous cult followers, having a tour van full of equipment stolen in Boston a few years back, and racking up lukewarm record sales. Columbia Records, the band's American label, didn't even bother to spell all the members' names correctly on the publicity photo. And the last time the band's members hit Los Angeles, hoping for some good weather to relieve tour drudgery, it rained the whole four days of their stay.

"And I hear it only rains there about four days a year," says Suede guitarist Richard Oakes, three days after the original cancellation, sounding pleased to take time off from London flat-hunting to answer questions. "Last time we toured [America], it was a bit of a downer because all our stuff got stolen." He then tells the brief and sad tale of some Boston joyrider who hit the jackpot -- a truck laden with guitars and amps -- while stumbling through a hotel parking lot in search of a four-wheel target. "But we managed to do the rest of the tour OK. I think we're going to tour there for the new album at some point, but it's still being worked out..."

Oakes trails off. Younger than his bandmates by an average of 10 years, he sounds about as convinced of a Stateside tour as a weatherman giving an extended forecast without the help of radar. He does admit that the European, Southeast Asia, Australian, and U.K. parts of the band's tour schedule are nailed down, but fails to mention the United States in that group. American fans may need to start worrying that Suede's U.S. tour leg might be more hopeful fiction than a likely happening.

"Diving headlong into it -- that's what we usually do when we release a record," Oakes says. "We usually go straight into a tour. But this time we're gonna be more relaxed about it."

Perhaps it's hard to predict Suede's future, period, because the veteran band is finally treading new territory -- in its approach to songwriting, to rehearsing, to recording. Head Music marks the first time Suede, led in both spirit and pose by the ever-effete and charismatic Brett Anderson, has broken from its glammy, guitar-driven roots and embraced more current electronic leanings.

For a long time, Suede had no real impetus for change. In 1992, before it even released its first single, the band was dubbed Best New Act by Melody Maker and paved the way for countless U.K. art-school dropouts to form smooth yet pensive bands of their own. Now, Suede is too busy exploring the studio playpen to bother setting trends anymore. It may be unfair to criticize any musician for resisting a ride on the Radiohead-driven highway of techno-rawk, but for such a smart band to take so long to get around to it seems odd, as though it might've sensed the treachery in such a direction. "Better late than never" could apply, but judging by Head Music, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" may be the more appropriate cliché.

"We wanted to appreciate other elements of music," Oakes says. "Become a bit more electronic, a bit colder, a bit more brutal." For a band already saddled with labels such as "glam" and "style over substance," this choice proves precarious. Head Music is 13 new songs of Suede's in-place affectation: slick, ribald, and more than a little dark. But take the band's usual aloofness and multiply it by eight; you could listen to the new album that many times and still feel nowhere nearer to the band's emotional core.

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