Former Suede frontman Brett Anderson has lost none of his restless energy, writes Alan Warboys
Brett Anderson, the androgynous, artful pop star of the 1990s and self-proclaimed founder of Britpop, has long struck a chord with young people in Hong Kong. For 15 years - from the early days of Suede through his brief reconciliation with guitarist Bernard Butler in the Tears to his recent solo career - he has been one of the most popular overseas stars in the city.
It has always seemed an unlikely relationship - the languid singer's melancholic lyrics, drug excesses and ambivalent sexual orientation sit at odds with straight-laced fans raised on wholesome, homegrown heroes. But sell-out gigs, chart-topping hits and huge record sales reveal a deeper fascination.
It may be because, unlike many of his contemporaries, Anderson put Hong Kong on his musical map. He played here several times with Suede and the Tears. But then, Oasis, the Prodigy and Primal Scream played in Hong Kong in the 90s without getting the same reaction. Only Bjork runs him close.
Anderson isn't sure why the relationship is so special, but says he enjoys coming to Hong Kong. 'It's always a very exciting city,' he says, ahead of his first solo gig here next week. 'It's always a highlight for me. I find it kinetic, very modern. It's as simple as that.'
With his eponymous debut album released earlier this year, Anderson finally did what most charismatic frontmen do: ditched the band (although Suede bassist Mat Osman still performs with him). Why now? 'It seemed like the right time,' says Anderson, who turns 40 next month. 'For my whole career I was making records under the name Suede or the Tears and I thought, 'Why not do it myself rather than hiding behind a name?'
'The name Brett Anderson is more personal than Suede and the album is the most personal I've made,' he says before contradicting himself. 'Dog Man Star [Suede's second album] was intensely personal. I've always believed art should be personal - it's like having your intestines ripped out and placed on the page.'
On his solo album, Anderson lays himself bare lyrically and strips the music down, with strings often replacing the jangly guitars of old. If it's at times morose, it also seems to cut away the facade of Anderson's long-cultivated glam persona.
'I'm treating it as growth, musically,' he says. 'It's a journey for me. This isn't the end point of it, it's the first step. I'm interested in how it's going to go. I'm always searching for the perfect song. Music is such a powerful thing. I've been making music for 15 years and I still don't know anywhere near enough about it. I think it's very exciting.'
Anderson admits that he long thought he'd never go solo and that working alone isn't always easy. 'I love the sense of freedom. I couldn't really make the same decisions when I was in a band. But you don't have the momentum. You have to step up and take responsibility. Ten years ago, I wouldn't have been able to shoulder the burden. Ten years in a band makes you stay a kid.'
A decade ago, Anderson and Suede were the beautiful ones, a glamorous, Bowie-influenced band who helped revive British pop. Their first three hit albums were critically acclaimed and Anderson was a love-hate figure of fascination for the British press. The band's next two albums were less successful. In 2003, Anderson reunited with Butler, who left Suede in 1995, to form the Tears. It was a short-lived reunion.
'We just made one record - that was what we wanted to do,' says Anderson, although he has blamed the band's demise on the media for being more interested in the ups and downs of his fractious relationship with Butler than the songs they produced.
Anderson has rarely shown anything but scorn for the media and music industry, and remains outspoken about both. 'What happened with Britpop is that guys in suits got hold of it and made lots of money,' he says. 'It got turned into some boring, beery cartoon and I didn't want anything to do with it.' Not to mention the fact that Anderson's girlfriend, Justine Frischmann, left him for Blur frontman Damon Albarn. 'Alternative music became mainstream rather than counterculture,' he says.
But internet music has taken control away from record company executives, he says. 'At the moment there's a sense that bands can break through without the machinery of a record company.' Suede got their break after featuring on the cover of music magazine NME before they'd released a song. But he expects the power shift to be short-lived. 'They'll find a way to wrestle power back. Corporations are ruthless and relentless.'
Anderson's passion for music is undimmed and he still relishes touring. 'I enjoy it more and more. I'd always thought I'd hate it when I got to this age, but it's such a buzz.' Playing live, he's prepared to do Suede songs as well as solo works, although they get a more acoustic makeover.
Being on the road is less messy these days, says Anderson, who enjoyed an all-night bender in Wan Chai when he first visited in the early 1990s. 'When you're young you can't separate touring from your social life. I treated it like a party. But you can only do that for a while or you'll kill yourself. People who live hard on the road are absolute casualties. I've learned how to divide these two things.
'I don't care what a rock'n'roll star should be doing. I'm committed to making that stage show a spell-binding experience for the audience. If it means drinking Perrier, then I'll do it.'
Brett Anderson, HK Convention & Exhibition Centre, Wan Chai, Aug 14, 8pm, HK$380, HK$550, HK$650
HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3128 8288
Britpop got turned into some boring, beery cartoon and I didn't want anything to do with it