Suede’s Mat Osman,
The TVD Interview

I catch Mat Osman on a Monday morning, but he’s in London, where it must be nearing teatime. He doesn’t sound as if he needs a pick-me-up; as soon as he picks up the phone we’re off to the races. “I spend all of my life talking,” he says, which is one of the reasons he loves making music but hates writing about it. “I love the way music is kind of an older language than anything… it can express emotions that you can’t express in words. I’m always dissatisfied when I write about music because I can’t capture it.”

But he does capture the exhilaration of that primal, pre-verbal communion between performer and audience. His enthusiasm is palpable and genuine. He gives the impression of someone who loves what he does and doesn’t take a bit of it for granted. In an era of untouchable superstars and aloof, too-cool-for-anything auteurs, it’s refreshing to hear from someone who is unapologetically passionate about their art, and how they make it. “One of the things I love about making music is I spend my days with friends I’ve known for thirty years,” he says. “It’s not from the five of us but from some chemical reaction between us.”

That alchemical magic made Suede famous when their first LP won the Mercury Music Prize in 1993 and became one of the fastest-selling UK debuts in a decade. But almost from the get-go, they had a longer reach. “We were quite big in places that didn’t speak English very quickly,” Osman explains. “I think that people understood that we were singing about ordinary lives. Scruffy, poor, quite extreme lives in big cities. It’s dressed up in the clothes of London because that’s where we’re from, but if we had grown up in Tokyo, we’d be a Tokyo band. I think people respond not to the specifics, but the motion of it. We’re quite a dramatic, theatrical, aggressive live act.”

He and his bandmates hope to bring the infectious adrenaline of vintage Suede to their first US tour in 25 years. They haven’t played the States since then except for an appearance at Coachella in 2011. “We have no idea what to expect,” he admits. “It’s going to be absolutely fascinating.” They’re sharing the marquee with the Manic Street Preachers, whom they toured with back in ’94. “If you asked people which two British bands were likely to crash and burn,” he says, “it would have been us and them. It’s quite interesting that we’re the two left standing from those times.”

The other acts who usually keep Suede company in the lists of Britpop royalty have since gone the way of the dinosaurs. But Suede always found the label ill-fitting, which might be why they survived. “The music had become kind of jingoistic and flag-waving, and that was a long way from our thoughts about Britain.”

Of course, they’re not quite the same band they were in the Nineties. They’ve done a lot of learning in the interim, starting with their past mistakes. “We fucked up so kind of royally,” he says, of the band’s breakup in 2003. “We completely lost our way. Splitting up was a relief as much as anything.” Now that they’re older and wiser, they have “unfinished business” to attend to. “We all realized what we could have been, had we been more focused… had we been different people.” After “an album and a half that weren’t very successful,” they’ve prioritized quality control.

Their new record, Autofiction, left 38 of 50 tracks on the cutting-room floor. “We spent a lot of time trying to make sure that we make something we’re proud of because there have been some moments in our lives when we’ve made stuff we’re not proud of. As you get older that becomes more important,” he says. “It’s partly kind of trying to right the wrongs of what we did before, and it’s partly ambition—to do something great wherever.”

Nobody ever achieved greatness without taking some risks. It can be “seductive,” Osman says, to rest on your laurels, but he doesn’t strike me as the type to rest much—on laurels or anywhere else. “There’s a kind of comfortable life out there which is playing the first three albums over and over again and never doing anything else,” he says, “but we’re not good with comfort, to be honest, as a band. We’ve always been at our best in a crisis.”

They’ve weathered their fair share of those over the years, but he seems to have as little use for regret as he does for rest. Unlike some of their too-cool contemporaries, who struggle to distance themselves from their early work in pursuit of greener pastures, Suede wants the best of both worlds, deftly straddling the line between the nostalgic and the new. “We made a record like we were eighteen again,” Osman tells me. “It’s full of mistakes, but we kinda wanted to do that… The intention was to sound like a band—not too polished, not too cerebral. We’re going to try to capture some of that live, the violence and the energy.”

And Osman is full of energy. Now, at 55, he might be busier than ever. After the band’s (thankfully temporary) split, his focus shifted to writing. “I wanted to do something that was my own,” he says. “Every now and then I would have an idea and it would suggest a short story and nothing else.” But he soon set his sights on writing a novel—“the Everest of artistic pursuits”—and worked to combine bits of short fiction into something longer. “I probably worked in the least efficient way possible. That was how I learned. It was sort of like Suede in the early days. We had three years of no one coming to the gigs, and it was fantastic for us. We made all our mistakes in front of five people and a dog, so when we really did it in front of people it was all bangers.”

Whatever the methodology and however many the mistakes, Osman scaled his Everest—and not just once. He’s published two books: a novel, The Ruins, and England on Fire— “a visual journey through Albion’s psychic landscape”—co-authored with Stephen Ellcock. Bloomsbury snapped up his next novel, The Ghost Theatre, which is slated for publication in 2023.

He also served as the London editor for alternative city guide le cool. Flag-waving aside, the city still intrigues him. London remains “kind of unknowable. It’s very strange to me when I go to cities with grid systems where you can’t really get lost. In London, getting lost is kind of the major state of being,” he says. “Every day you come across some leftover bit of Tudor architecture next to some brutalist shopping center… there’s no rhyme or reason to it. The past and the future and the now—they’re all just kind of messed up together.” But that’s exactly what sustains his long love affair: “It’s not a pretty city, it’s not a tourist city, it’s where people come to do great things.”

We talk for a while about London’s hidden gems, wax poetic about our old stomping grounds, reflect on what’s changed and what probably never will. He’s full of excellent and unexpected recommendations, from where to find the best hot chocolate to how to catch an opera under the railway arches. We can’t help comparing notes on the best record stores around town, and when I ask how he feels about vinyl’s big comeback, he answers like a true artistic omnivore: “I reckon 75% of what I listen to is streaming from the computer. I don’t really care—I know that sounds unmusical.”

But vinyl, he insists, is still valuable: “The thing I absolutely love about the return of vinyl is the physical object of it. As a band we’ve always been interested in the look of stuff and the world around it… I’ve always thought of the record cover as a filter through which you hear the record.” He loves the cover of Autofiction, but also the pictures inside. “You’re sort of three-quarters of the way to understanding the record before you’ve heard a note, and that’s something I really miss with streaming.”

Records, like Suede, are back in a big way, and Osman quickly puts his finger or what gives a piece of art real staying power. “When we got back together we made Bloodsports, and the reason it’s a good record is we’d had nearly a decade away and we’d had a decade to fall in love with music again and just to realize what was great about Suede, what actually mattered.” Over time, things crystallize. “Everything is a gamble and it’s work,” he says. “[So] it’s important that it’s of worth.” Suede’s return to the USA is sure to be worthwhile.

Autofiction, the new release from Suede is in stores now. The band’s North American tour begins on November 3.

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