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.

"When we recorded the album, it was much more a case of everybody playing as many instruments as they could," Oakes says. "We didn't just stick to our own roles. It's a good way to work, it's more exciting, and it lets you experiment and explore your own musicality."

If Suede couldn't erase the influence of Oakes' predecessor, Bernard Butler, on 1996's Coming Up, it has certainly succeeded now. "Electricity" pounds with the underpinning of wah-wah reverberation, but waves of echoing vocals and raspy, constant drumming threaten to beat it down, letting a guitar breathe only during a brief, heavily effected solo before it disappears under the epic drone again. It's catchy and disposable -- as soon as the song wraps, you've forgotten what just happened to the last four and a half minutes of your life. The next track, "Savoir Faire," continues this bent, urged on by Anderson's sneering couplets: "She lives in a house, she's stupid as a mouse...she's shaking obscene like a fucking machine and she's gone, gone, gone." It plods along under sticky computer-morphings and little else, a one-way trip to "circa-1990s."

"The way the songs were written was totally different," Oakes admits. "We wanted to change the way we work. It's just a case of everyone's taste changing. People have said to me, 'How come you've done less work on Head Music?' and that's not true. I did loads of work on this album. It's musically more instinctive; there's more to it. And the next record will be even more so."

It's a million meters from Suede's distinctive foundation of Butler's luscious, layered, thickly muscled guitars; once upon a time the band was associated with ear-stroking, six-string passages evoking the best of Johnny Marr and Mick Ronson, the kind of instinct-driven British guitar heroes spawned by working-class angst. Like Marr in the '80s, Butler's hyper-textured style informed or inspired nearly every British pop band that formed after Suede's 1993 self-titled debut.

When Butler departed during the recording of Dog Man Star in 1994 to pursue a solo career, his sound was gamely carried on by the late-joining, 17-year-old replacement Oakes, who sputtered out slick and technically perfect background to Anderson's devilish croon. Whatever soulful voicings Butler's guitar work had lent to the otherwise sex-and-drugs-and-fashion-obsessed band was lost when he left; Oakes struggled to fill those shoes. Coming Up, the first album featuring the rookie, not only betrayed that the band had lost one of England's most imaginative guitarists, but, on a brighter note, hinted at the promise of Suede's potential future with a new player who needed some time to grow.

"For the first year of me being in the band, I was just there to play the guitar parts," Oakes says of his joining during the promotion of Suede's second album. "Dog Man Star was very ambitious; it showed a lot of promise. But it was the sound of a band that no longer existed. I came along and had to tour with it. And then came the end of '95, the beginning of '96, I started to write my own sort of music and was able to contribute artistically. Because the band was really eager to do something new, and I was there to help them, really."

If the "new" Suede didn't show up on Coming Up, it seethes through Head Music. But Oakes doesn't believe his age or taste led the band down the new album's aural path. "Brett and Simon have both got a very young head on their shoulders," Oakes says. "I think with or without me, they'd have the same attitude toward the industry and toward music in general."

Suede's Butler-heavy early albums carved out an impressive, sensual niche for the band in the stagnant realm of early-'90s English rock and introduced the world to Anderson's fixation with Low-era Bowie and his slippery slide into dark and gorgeous melodies. Coming Up, however, was a pale imitation. Anderson still mused on about beautiful boys and trashy girls, Oakes ripped through his best Butler impersonation, and drummer Simon Gilbert and bassist Mat Osman walked through their usual paces, joined by new keyboard player Neil Codling. Suede's sonic stroll toward self-indulgent esoterica -- apparently Butler's influence -- was effectively derailed (or at least re-routed toward Butler's 1998 solo album, People Move On). Coming Up was accessible, blandly likeable, formulaic by Suede standards. It wouldn't win Suede any trophies for innovation, but it wouldn't let the band disappear from its fans' collective consciousness either.

Head Music could be the very thing the band's loyal following might have expected Suede to do next. It wouldn't be like Anderson and company to get left behind in the race against technology, and for those who don't like their Gucci smeared with the blood and sweat of a real beating heart, this album's a goldmine. But from track to track, "She's in Fashion" to "Crack in the Union Jack," the more attentive listener -- the one who hears a gleam of heaven and guts in the anomalous and wrenching ballad "Down" and longs for the more balanced days of "My Insatiable One" and "To the Birds" -- may think Head Music feels too skittish, like a pebble tripping lightly across a very big pond. Oakes doesn't agree that the record will fuel the band's albatross-like style-vs.-substance issue.

"Ah, the universal argument," he sighs, sounding as if he answers this question five times before his morning tea. "I think that on Head Music the style was only realized at the very end when we were mixing it. You can talk and talk about it till you're blue in the face, but we've always managed to maintain the integrity of the pure song underneath. Once the songs are written, you can start forming them in the shape, putting flesh on the bones."

But like some alien, boneless organism, Head Music might well dissolve completely without its studio-designed flesh. Suede seems to be getting further from the thing that makes a song stick. "Well, we wanted to change the way we work," Oakes continues. "But it wasn't a deliberate thing. It was totally natural. We don't just sit around a table with a stylist and the record company and say, 'Where are we gonna go now?'"

Without Butler, that might not be very far.

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