Q&A: The London Suede’s Mat Osman on ‘Autofiction,’ North American Tour with Manic Street Preachers

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Rock Cellar Magazine

Suede (known as The London Suede in America) helped kickstart the Britpop music revolution. Singer Brett Anderson and bassist Mat Osman, childhood friends from West Sussex, formed the riveting English rock band with Justine Frischmann on guitar in 1989.  

It wasn’t long before Bernard Butler signed on as lead guitarist and Simon Gilbert became the permanent drummer upon the advice of future comedian/actor Ricky Gervais, who sent a Suede demo out to record companies. Frischmann and early Suede drummer Justin Welch would depart to form Elastica.

The toast of the British music press before releasing first single “The Drowners” in Spring 1992 (Morrissey covered B-side “My Insatiable One” on tour), Suede’s audacious self-titled debut album emerged the following year. Reaching No. 1 in the U.K., it snagged the prestigious Mercury Music Prize and was certified gold.  

Exquisite sophomore effort Dog Man Star replicated the U.K. sales status. Butler exited and was replaced by 18-year-old guitarist Richard Oakes. Gilbert’s cousin Neil Codling fleshed out the Suede sound on keyboards for a few albums. Coming Up proved even more popular at home. 

By 2003, Suede had racked up more than a dozen top 20 U.K. singles, but Anderson decided to break up the group. After reuniting for a Teenage Cancer Trust charity concert in 2010, the musicians rediscovered the joy of playing together and have released several impressive studio albums in the interim. Autofiction, which was released in mid-September, rivals the striking sounds of the old days, albeit with more grit.  

Click here to pick up Autofiction on CD from our Rock Cellar Store — On SALE
Click here to pick up Autofiction on LP from our Rock Cellar Store — On SALE

The quintet’s co-headlining North American tour with Manic Street Preachers (each will rotate closing sets) starts this week and marks Suede’s first major U.S. and Canadian routing in 25 years. Both acts previously toured Europe together in 1994. 

Rock Cellar checked in with Osman via phone from his home in London. 

Manic Street Preachers and The London Suede tour

Rock Cellar: What are your thoughts on doing this rare U.S. tour? 

Matt Osman: I really don’t know what to expect. It’s quite strange. We play Europe and Asia all the time, so you get into a groove with those places. You know what they like and what they don’t like. This is weirdly uncharted territory for us, which is quite exciting. 

Rock Cellar: When I saw the band’s last U.S. performance at Coachella 2011, you weren’t onstage. I was surprised. What happened?  

Matt Osman: My visas always used to take months to get through. We just couldn’t get it in time, so Neil stood in for me. And no one seemed to notice! He said it was quite insulting to me and quite insulting to him. 

Rock Cellar: These November shows will be your first here since 1997, then.

Matt Osman: I come over there a lot, but yeah — it’s my first time playing since then.

Rock Cellar: Many American fans have been champing at the bit to see the band perform.

Matt Osman: I did a book tour for my last novel. One of the reasons I’m so keen to come back, especially in Los Angeles, is that I just met so many people who had photos from the last time we were there and recordings, getting me to sign stuff. There seemed to be a real wellspring of love for the band still, so I’m hoping they all come out and drag themselves out of their old people’s homes for it.

Rock Cellar: Around the time Autofiction came out in September, Suede did some promotional club and record store shows in England and Europe where you played the new album front to back. How did the songs go over with fans?

Matt Osman: It’s been amazing. The thing is — it was written to be a live album. We’ve had a couple of [recent] albums that were quite orchestral, complicated studio things. [This one] was deliberately written to be something that sounded like five people in the studio; five people in a rehearsal room. We didn’t have that thing where we’re like, “How are we going to translate the orchestra and spoken word pieces and field recordings into a rock ‘n’ roll show?”

It’s just built for it. We didn’t intend actually to go out and play the whole album in the entirety. We wanted, especially after COVID, to do some shows that were properly “in your face” — where you could see the whites of the audience’s eyes; you could have a bit of community and contact. We spent a month in tiny little venues where I wasn’t able to move onstage. I was stuck in one place; otherwise I’d get hit by Brett. 

Rock Cellar: The band initially wanted to take a hybrid studio/live recording approach for this album. That didn’t work out because of COVID. Are you satisfied with what everyone accomplished?

Matt Osman: Yeah. I love how the record sounds. Every time we do a record, we go and play it live and then after six months, we go, ‘Why didn’t it sound the way it sounds live with people there?’ Part of that is the adrenaline of having an audience. The original idea was to hire a space, play for a month and [invite] people down every night to have that highwire feeling that you get with a gig. Then record that and turn it into a record. 

And literally the minute we were like, “OK, we’ve got some songs, we could do this,” COVID happened. We were left with the worst idea for lockdown. I think the spirit of that lived on. I suppose the good side of COVID for us was that we were in our rehearsal room and no one else was there. We had no crew, no extra musicians or anything. We squirreled ourselves away and tried to treat it like we were a brand new band. Just the five of us, trying to make the songs sound exciting in a small space. 

Then we recorded at Konk Studios, Ray Davies’ place up in Crouch End [London]. You know the way those Kinks records sound? You can hear the sweat and you know that they can see each other as they’re recording. We tried to keep that kind of live spirit all the way through. The record’s full of mistakes. The tracks speed up and slow down like nobody’s business. But I think there’s a real charm to it because of that. 

Rock Cellar: A rough ‘n’ ready approach.

Matt Osman: That’s a polite way of putting it. 

Rock Cellar: Ed Buller has been at the production helm for six of your nine albums, including Autofiction. Do you almost consider him like an unofficial member of Suede? If Ed suggests something, do you know instinctually know exactly what he’s talking about?

Matt Osman: Yeah, I think he’s been with us long enough that he’s not [concerned about being] polite at all. There’s always that thing when you work with a new producer and they’re too polite to you. Ed spends most of his time going, “That’s awful! You’ve got to have written something better than that!” He really pushes at it. Especially when we wanted to make a record that had the feeling of when we started in 1991-92. He was one of the few people that saw us in front of 20 people.

Before “The Drowners,” he came along and saw us play live. He knows the kind of ramshackle, exciting theatrical nature of those early shows. He was always gonna be the guy for this record. He knows the DNA. 

Rock Cellar: Brett’s lyrics on Autofiction are some of his most personal to date. What did you think when you first heard them? Are you still amazed at what he comes up with?

Matt Osman: I am! Over the last couple of records, he actually said to me: “I’m going to start writing a little bit about family, about my kids and marriage and all these things.” I was initially terrified because those generally tend to be very sentimental. I think it’s difficult to write about your kids and write about real family relationships with a really objective air. But bless him — he’s just incredible at dragging the tension, the fear, and the complexity out of those things. 

One of the things he said, which I think is really fascinating about this record, is that rock ‘n’ roll is always about the beginnings of relationships or the ends. It’s always, “I’ve just met this girl and fallen in love” or “We’ve just split up.” But it’s never about the fear of having kids or the terror of growing old. All those things. I’m really proud of what he’s done, which is to marry a really youthful-sounding record with an exuberance to lyrics that aren’t youthful rock ‘n’ roll clichés. 

There’s no point of us pretending that we’re 25 anymore. I do love the fact that he sings about what it’s like being a 55-year-old man, but because the songs are steeped in loss, fear, love, and longing; I think you can still understand them. 

The London Suede (Photo: Dean Chalkley)

The London Suede (Photo: Dean Chalkley)

Rock Cellar: They are universal. 

Matt Osman: Yeah, totally. The song “She Still Leads Me On’ is a very personal song about his mother and about how she’s still a beacon for the way he acts. I talk to people for whom it’s a love song about their girlfriend or partner, and that’s fantastic. I think without even knowing what it’s about, you understand there’s a yearning exuberance to it that people just get. 

Rock Cellar: There are two songs on the new album where the bass really plays a prominent role in the sound. The first one is “Black Ice.” What did you think when you first heard Richard’s demo?

Matt Osman: I absolutely love it. It’s really interesting — when Richard joined, we gave him this incredible listening list. It was important he understood where we were coming from as a band. Ed was playing him T-Rex and Roxy Music. We were playing him Kate Bush, Pink Floyd and all these things that he might have missed. 

Because he’s such a good musician, he took them on board immediately. In a weird way, this feels like the first record that comes from the heart of his teenage years when he was a huge fan of The Cure, The Fall, The Banshees and Magazine. People like that. One of the things I loved about “Black Ice” is that we always talk about The Fall as being an influence on the band, but I think it’s the first time you can hear it. He came to me with that, and I thought, “Fucking hell; that’s great.” It’s like a Fall track. I didn’t change a bit. It’s fantastic.

Rock Cellar: Then there’s the slow-building closing track, “Turn Off Your Brain and Yell,” with a “Peter Gunn”-style repeating bassline. It almost didn’t make the album, right?

Matt Osman: It’s so weird. Until just before it was finished, the last track was this real delicate ballad [“What Am I Without You?”]. I don’t know what we were thinking. Because the rest of the record was this snarling thing. It was about to be printed and Brett said, “I’ve got this track and it just feels like it should go on the record.” It was such a scramble to do it. 

Having said it was all done really live with the five of us in a room, Simon had gone home to Thailand by that point because we thought we were done. He recorded the drums basically in the jungle somewhere and the rest of us went to Konk to finish it off. 

In a weird way, it’s a summation of everything on the record. It’s quite not like anything we’ve done before, really. There’s a minute and a half before Brett comes in. It has a slightly Cure, Public Image feel to it. I think in a weird way, it might point to what the next record might be like. For us, doing something like that, or “Shadow Self,” with those long instrumental passages, felt quite unusual for us. It’s one of my favorites.

It’s fantastic live. I can’t wait to play that live in The States. 

Rock Cellar: Despite streaming music being more popular than ever, Suede still takes an album’s running order to heart, making sure there’s a real ebb and flow dynamic for those of us who still prefer physical CDs or LPs. Does that remain true with all of the band?

Matt Osman: Brett is obsessive about it to the point that I’ve given up answering emails about it. He’ll say, “Here are five different track listings. Which one do you think works best?” It always ends up with me saying, “Brett, at the end of the day, you’re the one who’s thinking about this the most.”

When we did [2016’s] Night Thoughts, we were in a meeting with some record company guy who was saying, “Everything has to be front-loaded. The best tracks have to be at the beginning and the best bits of the track have to be at the start of the track.” I was like, “This is so fucking depressing.” You suddenly realize you’re trying to compete in a race you don’t want to be in. At that point, we were like, “Let’s do something where it has to be listened to as one track.”

We made it so everything flows into each other. It’s informed everything we’ve done since. More than anything because we did it partly to be bloody minded. But we found so many people got it. People say, “What I want from a record now is to lose myself in it and for it to have a little world of its own.” We spend a lot of time thinking about setlists and track listings. Just the idea that you get lost in.

That’s really important to us — that we don’t make music for people who put music on in the back of dinner parties. It’s made to be listened to.

Rock Cellar: Autofiction continues a long line of mysterious Suede album cover images. Is the bed pictured on it an homage to past covers?

Matt Osman: Not deliberately. We saw a picture we loved by a Danish photographer which was very similar, but the guy in it was much younger. We were gonna use it and the record company thought it looked really dodgy. We tried to remake it.

That’s Brett on the cover. I guess unconsciously and literally, when I saw the picture, it was one of those moments you get when you’re making a record, you see loads of covers and then everyone goes “Right, that’s obviously it.” It’s only later when you go, “Right, that’s the third album cover with a mattress on it.”    

Rock Cellar: With Suede covers, going back to the debut album, you don’t immediately know what you’re seeing.

Matt Osman: What I love about a good album cover is it’s like a lens for hearing the record through. It adds color and feeling. We always knew we wanted this one to be black and white. To have a starkness to go with the music. 

Rock Cellar: Turning to some history: What was it like to be in the eye of the media storm when Suede was the most buzzed-about band in Britain in 1992-93 and your first three albums were a big success there?

Matt Osman: You know what? I loved it. Obviously, we went through some horrific ups and downs. We fucked up many, many times. Took lots of meandering roads. Just the sense of being at the center of the culture, you’ve got to remember at the time it happened, Britain had this incredible music press where you had three weekly newspapers about music. There were record shops on every high street. It was the last time a band like us were shoved in everyone’s faces. I know loads of people absolutely resented us for it and we probably should have been a bit less promiscuous about what we did. But it was a blast.

I look back on those days with tremendous fondness. 

Rock Cellar: Suede released its first single when grunge rock was still popular and Madchester’s dominance was fading. Do you think Bernard’s unique guitar sounds paired with Brett’s androgynous, yet commanding presence and realistic lyrics helped you guys stand out from the pack?

Matt Osman: Yeah. I think it was very much that people recognized themselves and their lives in the songs. We were going through a period in Britain where everything had become a bit floaty and dream-poppy and the lyrics were nebulous things. Suddenly, you had this guy who looked like the people you know, talking about their lives that you knew, and it reached people. 

I have such a fantastic memory of the first time we played L.A. and being there with my wife. We’d spent a couple of days in L.A. and everywhere we’d gone, people were all white teeth and healthy. Then we drove up to the venue, there was this massive queue and suddenly everyone looks kind of slightly ill, dark and [wearing] black. There’s loads of makeup going on. She said, “Where did all these people come from? I’ve never seen anyone like this in L.A.” 

That’s exactly what happened with Brett and me. We always felt we were slightly odd and on the outskirts of things. Then suddenly, we started going to the gigs and realizing there were millions of us. They were just all dotted around. For a couple of years. It was like this huge band of outsiders. It’s a wonderful, very moving thing. 

Rock Cellar: Here in Los Angeles, legendary DJ Rodney on the Roq at KROQ/106.7 FM was an early supporter of Suede, likely playing “The Drowners” and “Metal Mickey” before anyone else. Did that exposure on such a trendsetting station help draw more attention to the band elsewhere in America? 

Matt Osman: Totally. Coming to California was like coming home. It was such a strange thing. There’s something so all-encompassing and huge about America. Everything gets talked about in terms of business and which radio stations you got added. It was so lovely to come to a place that was so Anglophile. People understood it and knew what you were talking about. Although we were singing about very specifically London things and places.

The lives were about pretty much anyone who was young, interesting, and poor in a big city. 

Rock Cellar: When Richard first joined the band, he was thrown into the fire …

Matt Osman: [laughter]

Rock Cellar: How do you feel his guitar playing has evolved over the years?

Matt Osman: I think he’s a phenomenal musician. He was asked to do an absolutely impossible job. He was appointed to replace [Bernard] — someone who at the time was probably the best-known independent musician in Britain. Someone who was winning all the plaudits. He had to nail everything that Bernard did and write our biggest hit album while he was still technically in school. 

It’s incredible to me how blasé we were about it. I think now [if it happened], I would worry for his mental health and I would think it’s too much to put on someone’s shoulders. He’s incredibly modest and you’ll never hear him shouting about what he can and can’t do. I think especially on Autofiction, he’s basically taken the reigns of the band. This is his record, and we just play on it. 

Rock Cellar: Your first novel The Ruins came out in 2020 and your follow up The Ghost Theatre is due next June. Have you wanted to try your hand at being a fiction writer for a long time?

Matt Osman: I always wanted to do it. It felt like the [Mount] Everest of the creative process. The one thing that looks so terrifying and daunting to do. I have to say, if I wasn’t the bass player in Suede, I don’t know if I’d have ever had the time to do it.

There’s nothing like a bass player’s schedule to make writing a novel a little easier.

The London Suede/Manic Street Preachers 2022 North American Tour Dates

NOV 3: VANCOUVER, Canada @ PNE FORUM (The London Suede close)
NOV 5: SEATTLE, WA @ NEPTUNE THEATRE (Manic Street Preachers close)
NOV 7: SAN FRANCISCO, CA @ THE WARFIELD (The London Suede close)
NOV 9: ANAHEIM, CA @ HOUSE OF BLUES (Manic Street Preachers close)
NOV 10: LOS ANGELES, CA @ THE PALLADIUM (The London Suede close)
NOV 13: AUSTIN, TX @ ACL LIVE AT THE MOODY THEATER (Manic Street Preachers close)
NOV 16: CHICAGO, IL @ AUDITORIUM THEATER (The London Suede close)
NOV 18: SILVER SPRING, MD @ THE FILLMORE (Manic Street Preachers close)
NOV 19: PHILADELPHIA, PA @ THE MET (The London Suede close)
NOV 21: BROOKLYN, NY @ KINGS THEATRE (Manic Street Preachers close)
NOV 22: BOSTON, MA @ THE ORPHEUM (The London Suede close)
NOV 24: TORONTO, Canada @ MASSEY HALL (Manic Street Preachers close)

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