The London Suede
Suede Head: An Interview with Richard Oakes
It’s been five years since Suede’s founding guitarist, Bernard Butler, left the band to follow his own artistic muse, and a 17-year-old Londoner named Richard Oakes took his place. There was never any problem with Oakes fitting in amongst the other members of Suede or playing Butler’s signature guitar licks. But one might expect that Oakes faced a firing squad of adversity from devoted fans of the original Suede, who might be resentful of anyone attempting to fill the shoes of the widely-adored Butler.
Fortunately for Oakes, that wasn’t the case. “It was exactly the opposite,” he says, speaking from his home in London. “I was expecting [animosity] but what I got was people saying ‘I’m glad you’ve come along, because we really love the band and we never want [Suede] to split up.’ [It was the opinion of fans] that even if a pivotal member like Bernard Butler left, it’s good to have somebody else come along and take-on the task of replacing him. The thing is,” he continues, “I never saw myself as replacing him. From the moment [Butler] left, the band changed. My role coming into the band wasn’t going to be a blueprint of his at all. The whole thing was totally different…it was based around freedom. The fans, they were very supportive. On my very first gig, they all had balloons that spelled out “Welcome Richard.” They could have been horrible, but they were very nice.”
In June of 1999, Suede (which also includes Brett Anderson on vocals, Mat Osman on bass, Simon Gilbert on drums, and Neil Codling on keyboards) released their second post-Butler album, the follow up to 1997’s wildly successful Coming Up , ambiguously entitled Head Music . With Head Music , Suede take a less guitar-oriented approach to expand their sophisticated Brit-pop sound, courtesy of new producer, Steve Osborne. A good balance of gorgeous, sweeping ballads and bouncing techno-pop, crammed with Brett Anderson’s curious rhymes and gender-bending, psycho-glam lyrics (not to mention the thrill of hearing Anderson sing “Give me head, give me head..” on the chorus of the title song), Head Music is a lot of fun. Here’s what Richard Oakes, an extremely down-to-Earth and good humored guy, had to say about the recording of Head Music and what’s been going on inside camp Suede since we last heard from them.
What was the difference for you between making Coming Up and making Head Music ?
Richard Oakes : I think that [on] Head Music …the doors that were opened were much more important. We stuck to a set of rules for Coming Up as opposed to opening any doors. Every song had to be three minutes long; that sort of thing. When we wrote Coming Up , people said that anything on [the record] could be a single, you know? (Laughs) They were all good radio songs and they all sound good live. The way they were written was very strict; we wrote them all in the rehearsal room.
On Head Music it was virtually the opposite; we wrote all over the place. We wrote on the bus, in our rooms, we wrote in the rehearsal room, on the lawn — any idea anybody had was thrown in there. Then, when we actually bashed it all out together, there’s no rules. No one’s told what to do. The freedom that we demonstrated [while] doing it was an eye-opener and a door opener for us. Of course, having a different producer [changed things] as well. [Steve] helped us and showed us how to make more grooves out of the music and stuff like that.
When you decided not to work with Ed Buller for the new record and hooked up with Steve Osborne, was that a conscious effort by the band to really go in a different direction?
It was a mixture, really, of [wanting a different sound and] the fact that we were going to get somebody different to do Coming Up , but because the situation was tentative — Neil was a floating member [and] I’d only been in the band for about a year and a half — [the band] needed to tread familiar ground with me. So, we got Ed in to do that [and it ended up being] quite a traditional Suede album. As I’ve said, it didn’t open that many doors. It was quite similar to the first two, in many ways.
Definitely, [bringing in Steve] was just a case of needing fresh blood in there and fresh ideas, somebody whose approach to music was so totally different from either ours or Ed’s. The way Steve Osborne works is incredible. His attention to detail is amazing. He’ll spend ages getting a tiny little loop of Simon’s drums right, just so he can put it somewhere near the end of “HiFi.” Things like that are at a different level of attention. He’s a real professional, so he taught us a lot. He works for about 14 hours a day in the studio and gets to spend about half an hour with his wife on the weekend [laughs]. He’s a very hard worker.
I was speaking with a friend of mine, a fellow critic, who lives in Seattle now but is originally from England. He’s been a Suede fan from day one. I asked him what he thinks of the new record, and I want to read you what he said, because I want your reaction: “Suede have become pale imitations of themselves, retreading weak musical ideas and even recycling lyrics.” I don’t really get what he’s saying, because I think the album is really great. I wondered how you respond to that kind of criticism?
Well, obviously I don’t agree. I mean, if I did agree it’d be pretty silly, wouldn’t it? No, I think what he means by ‘paler’…he probably means it’s definitely less colorful. If that’s what he means, he’s right; there is less lushness in the music. The music isn’t a renaissance painting anymore; it’s much more of a modern art piece. But that’s a progression forward in my book, and the next album is gonna be even paler and even more brutal, even colder, and much more to the point.
I love those words: brutal and cold.
Yeah, that’s what it’s going to be like. It’s going to be more of a dance record, the next one. So, Head Music is a stepping stone between the traditionalism of Coming Up and the modern approach of what we’re going to do in the future. As far as lyrics go, I don’t know what, you’d have to ask Brett [laughs]. He’s definitely got a style and having a style doesn’t necessarily mean repeating yourself or regurgitating your old work. I think no matter what your friend says, I bet he still loves Head Music . [Laughs] You know?
I don’t know how he couldn’t. I think he just likes to be mean.
He does love it, or if he doesn’t then he will. You can go blah blah blah ‘Suede are this, Suede are that.’ By the end of the day, you love the record. (Laughs).
You did a bit of writing on this record, with the single “Electricity” and a couple of others. What is the extent of your participation in the songwriting process?
Well, just because everything was so different, the way we wrote these songs was very different than the way they were written before. People always look at credits on the record, I never understood that, I would never look at credits myself. As far as I’m concerned, “The Band” have made the music as opposed to the one person writing it. A lot of the songs have got either one name or two names after them, but that doesn’t mean that they were written by one or two people; they were written by five people. The original idea was come up with by one person, but it takes a team of people to design and create it. That’s the way I see it; we are a creativity and design team. Songwriting credits are only on [the sleeve] anyway because of our contracts — you have to have someone’s name after it and some of us have got a writing contract [and] some of us haven’t — but everybody puts an equal amount of work into it. I did far more work on this album than I did on Coming Up , but my name is on fewer songs — that’s just the way it works out. Some people maybe would put their foot down and make a fuss like a spoiled child, but I’m not going to do that at all. I think that the album’s great. Whether I’m credited or not for the amount of work I did, I don’t care as long as the album’s good [laughs].
Is there any freedom there for you to bring lyrics to the table, or does Brett sort of dominate that arena?
Well, he used to dominate it. I don’t write any lyrics but Neil’s got a song on the album called “Elephant Man,” and he did the lyrics for that, and they’re great. It’s nice to have a different approach on the record. I mean, everybody’s playing everyone else’s instruments nowadays. On the album, Neil did a bit of drums and Mat did a bit of guitar, I did a bit of bass and keyboards and Brett did a bit of guitar and keyboards. It’s just like everybody’s playing all different instruments now. There’s no rules about the music anymore, and that’s much more the point for me. That’s the way all the great bands have worked; like the Beatles, they were always swapping instruments. It’s worth it, because it makes every angle different.
I am curious about the use of scissors on “Can’t Get Enough.”
[Laughs heartily] Mat HATES that! Neil’s got samples in the keyboard when we play it live, one of them is the drums at the beginning and one is the scissors, a loop of scissors (laughs), and Mat absolutely hates it. It sets his teeth on edge, ’cause being a bass player and being very tall, his favorite sounds are low sounds. If he hears a triangle or scissors or anything high and scraping he hates it.
So the scissors sound is just a sample or did you have to make that sound?
Oh no, no. I was going to say, when I talk about ‘live,’ it’s stuff that’s sampled off the record onto the keyboard, just so we can play it live. But we actually recorded that ourselves. Brett had a pair of scissors and (laughs) he was playing them along to the track and we all said ‘That sounds good,’ and we went and recorded it. I mean, people use lighters and things, don’t they, as percussion instruments, why not? That’s the freedom of music, you can do anything you like. In fact, to get the stomping sound, on “Can’t get Enough” we went outside — four or five of us onto a kind of metal staircase, balcony thing, that was outside the studio — and put some chip-board down on top of it and then we held a microphone up and then we all jumped up and down on it to get the right noise, and that sounded great. It was very dangerous, ’cause it was a very small balcony, and we could have fallen off [laughs]. But I think Mat was in the most danger ’cause he’s the tallest. That was fun. It’s good fun to do things like that.
Well, I got some questions from Suede fans who participate in a particular Internet newsgroup and I thought it might be fun to ask some of the better ones. The first one is, what are the best and worst aspects of being in such a popular band?
The best and worst aspects? I dunno. The best aspect is, obviously, if you’re that successful it means that lots of people hear your music and lots of people like it and lots of people understand it. That’s very much a plus point. That’s the whole reason I’m in a band, is to make people…well not to make people listen to my music [laughs], but to have people listen to my music, and to get the reaction back off them. To have them say ‘I really like that’ or ‘This means a lot to me’ or whatever. That’s the whole point [of why] I’m in the band. It’s nothing to do with money or anything.
And the worst point? It sounds silly to say it, but the worst points are things like having to get a taxi at half past seven in the morning to go to the airport, that sort of thing. And that’s a very silly thing to complain about, so I’m not going to complain about it very long [laughs] ’cause I hate reading other people complain about that. It means working at funny hours, it means a lot of getting out of bed and dragging yourself here and there and getting very tired. Not eating properly or sleeping properly or drinking too much, or something, ’cause you’re bored. You know, stuff like that. That’s the downside to it.
Do you find that the degree of fan adulation you get — especially in Europe — hinders your ability to have a private life?
Not at all, I’m completely anonymous in London. I could walk down the road wearing a T-shirt saying “I am Richard Oakes. I play the guitar in a band” and nobody would know who on Earth I was. That’s the beauty [laughs]. It’s always the same thing with taxi drivers. They say ‘So, what do you do then?’ and I say [mumbling] ‘Well, I play guitar.’ ‘Oh, anyone famous?’ And I say [mumbling] ‘Well, you might not have heard of us.’ ‘Well what’s the name of the band?’ And I go [mumbling] ‘It’s, like, Suede.’ And they go, they either say ‘Nooo, I haven’t heard of you’ or they say [laughing] ‘I think…have you got one out at the moment?’ You know, it’s like that. It’s not a kind of David Bowie getting in a taxi and everyone going ‘Oh my god! You’re him aren’t you!’ It’s nothing like that really. [Laughing] It brings your feet to the ground with a bump to hear someone say ‘I haven’t heard of you.’ or ‘I don’t like you.’ [laughs]
Okay here’s another fan question, one I particularly liked: do you all have to HAVE TO wear black leather jackets all the time, or is it optional?
No, we have to [laughs]. No, we don’t have to at all, it’s optional. It’s what we wear more at home. I went out today, flat hunting, in fashionable North London [laughs] and I was wearing a black leather jacket because that’s what I wear all the time. It’s got nothing to do with the band. Whether I was in the band or I was a builder or an accountant or a swimmer, I’d still wear a black leather jacket. It’s just the thing we feel most comfortable in. It’s nothing to do with image. I have very little time for Suede’s image; I think we’ve got a really bad image.
Here’s another good one: what do you think of all the Suede bootlegs that are so readily available?
[Laughing] I think they’re great! I love bootlegging! I think the funniest thing is somehow getting ahold of some gig you did four years ago, and listening to how bad it was and how badly you played. I think bootlegging is great. I think more people should do it. I agree with Chrissie Hynde in [her opinion of] bootlegging albums as well. It’s like, there’s no record market in somewhere like Thailand. It’s all based around bootlegs, and that’s all well and fine. No one can afford to buy a record in Thailand cause they’re all poor. So, yeah, they can bootleg it, they can do whatever they want. Chrissie Hynde said, to begrudge some 14-year-old kid recording something off the radio is really kind of mean. Records are expensive things and not everyone can afford them. Even though you put a year of your life into them, still, I think it’s important to have [the record] there for people to hear — under whatever methods they want.
I think “She’s in Fashion” is a remarkable song. When I first heard it, I thought it reminded me of an old Roxy Music song. It has that kind of sweeping quality and has that real ’70s progressive pop feel to it.
Well, everybody says something different about it. I’ve never heard anyone say it sounds like Roxy Music before, but there was a nasty review in one of the papers in England that said it sounded like Sister Sledge — which is very interesting — because of [that song] “We Are Family.” I never thought we’d write a song that people would say sounded like Sister Sledge. To me, it sounds like a Suede song. You can shoot it down in flames or you can say it’s the greatest thing you’ve ever heard.
Speaking of hype, have you seen the new Star Wars movie?
I haven’t no, ’cause it’s not out in England. I mean, I’m all ready to be [disappointed] because it’s the nature of hyping — and especially of British hyping — for everyone to go ‘Oh, I can’t wait for it to come out!’ Then about a month before it comes out, everyone goes ‘Well it’s not gonna be that good really, is it?’ ‘Cause everyone’s hyped it so. Then, when it comes out, they go ‘Oh it was rubbish! It was all hype! Rubbish!’ So I’m at the stage now where I’m ready to watch it and then go ‘That was rubbish.’
It’s not getting great reviews, but you’ve got to see it anyway.
But nothing ever does. The second coming of Christ won’t get any good reviews when it’s been hyped that much, you know what I mean?
(Thanks to Lola, Ned, and members of The Wild-Ones for providing questions).