“Is this America, or is this the bands?”
That’s the question that Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield remembers asking himself back in the ’90s, about the destructive impact that touring the United States seemed to have on so many bands (particularly British ones) of the era. At the time, the question was most directly inspired by his then-tourmates in Oasis and Screaming Trees, both of whom appeared to be disintegrating as the three acts were trekking across the U.S. in 1996. But Brett Anderson, leader of the London Suede, recalls his own band being something of a casualty of stateside touring in their own early days.
“I’ve seen bands fall apart in America – our own included, actually,” Anderson says. “And I’ve seen what it can do to you … I’m slightly wary of the pressures that the States kind of exerts on bands, actually.”
This wariness may have contributed to both bands — two of the U.K.’s most successful and best-enduring alt-rock outfits of the ’90s — mostly refraining from touring the States in recent years, with the London Suede’s last full U.S. trek now a full quarter-century in the rearview. But older, wiser, and newly motivated post-pandemic — and with a pair of excellent recent albums to promote in the Manics’ 2021 effort The Ultra Vivid Lament and London Suede’s September release Autofiction — the two veteran groups are linking up for a dozen North American tour dates, starting Thursday (Nov. 3) in Vancouver, and taking them to both U.S. coasts and a handful of cities in between. “We’re not all 25-year-old lunatics anymore, so hopefully we can bring a bit of judgment to bear with that,” Anderson says.
It also helps that the two groups, who toured together in Europe in 1994, are longtime well-wishers and kindred spirits. It’s a familiarity obvious in Billboard‘s Zoom conversation with Bradfield and Anderson, who spend the first five minutes catching up about each other’s lives, and laughing about how unimpressed their kids are with them. (“I think it doesn’t really matter what your parent does, they’re automatically uncool, aren’t they?” Anderson remarks. “It’s just the definition of being a parent — that they’re a bit naff, d’ya know what I mean?”)
Below, Billboard discusses the two bands’ histories of touring America with Bradfield and Anderson — as well as what they expect on this current tour, and why them actually getting along with one another is more the exception than the rule with bands of their era.
So obviously it’s been a while since you’ve both been on tour – and it’s even longer since you’ve been to the States, in both your instances. So what made now the right time?
Bradfield: I suppose I should just be really honest … after COVID, after lockdown, and then looking in the mirror too many times … as a band, we started talking about the things that we wanted to do again, just in case — well, just in case, really. And we had realized that we hadn’t toured America that much, and we wanted to go back. And places like America and Japan were places that we always want to go back to. It was just that thing of the near future not being so definite anymore – it spirited us on to actually do it again, I think.
Anderson: Yeah, uh, from our point of view – I can’t remember where the suggestion came from, but one day someone suggested this… did it come from you guys?
Bradfield: I think it may have come from our dear manager, Martin [Hall].
Anderson: Well, that’s lovely. Then it was a fantastic suggestion. Like most things with one’s career, it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time. And I think that you kind of have this sort of idea that everyone’s got these incredibly sort of strategic plans for their careers, and it’s not really like that. You kinda stumble into things. Someone suggested it, and we thought, “Yeah! F–k it, why not? Let’s do it.”
Bradfield: We have no delusions about what we mean in America as a band, y’know, the Manics. And the idea of going with another band that could help us with the lifting – sometimes lift more than we could, or vice versa, just helping each other – was appealing to us. Because we’re not delusional about our status in America. And just touring with Suede, in terms of – some kind of kinship there, some kind of empathy that we share, I think – and the idea that we could actually help each other get there, and for it to mean something … we definitely looked at touring with Suede – with you, Brett – and we just thought, “God, that could just be a great experience for us,” simple as that.
Anderson: Yeah, I think the same for us. You know, we haven’t been to the States in such a long time, and it didn’t really ever go off for us in the States. I mean, the first album [1993’s Suede] did OK, and then after that we had to change the name [to The London Suede], and there’s a lot of s–t that went down … and we just sort of left it alone for a while.
And when [this tour] was suggested, it was almost like – you know, more than the sum of its parts, almost. It’s a thing with both bands together – I think we share, not the same fanbase, because that would be oversimplified, but I think we have a fanbase in common. Lots of people like both bands, there’s a similar kind of thread that runs through both bands. So it seemed like a really exciting prospect. And we’d toured together before and we’d always got on, so it seemed … like yeah, a bit of a no-brainer.
Bradfield: They know that we’re quick sound-checkers! [Both laugh.]
Had there ever been any discussions either between your two bands, or between your bands and other like-minded bands from your era, of doing kind of this package thing, and sort of doing the strength-in-numbers approach and maybe getting to the States last decade or the decade before?
Anderson: The problem is … we don’t really like many other bands. That’s our problem. We’re one of the most miserable bands in the music industry, d’you know what I mean? So the Manics are one of the few bands that we like.
Bradfield: As I remember, there was a quote from Richey [Edwards, late Manics lyricist/guitarist] before — somebody asked him why he didn’t really like other bands, and he went, “You wouldn’t ask other plumbers if they hang out with other plumbers. You wouldn’t ask James’ dad,” who was a carpenter, “if he hangs out with other carpenters. Why do bands need to hang out with each other?” And he has a point!
I grew up in the music press of the ‘80s, and I grew up with Ian McCulloch, Mark E. Smith, Morrissey, all just taking shots at each other all the time. There was open warfare! And it was kind of part of the game. So we kinda grew up with that culture in the press, that bands didn’t necessarily have to like each other. So Brett – I can concur with that. I don’t have many musician friends.
We had supported Suede in France, and a couple parts of Europe back in the ‘90s. And so we knew that it worked, and we knew that we got on with those guys, and we knew that – importantly — we can give each other space. You don’t have to prove to each other that you have to socialize all the time. And you know that you can get on if you have to socialize … So, unless we’ve all irrevocably changed since then, I think we should be OK again.
Was it sort of a rite of passage for U.K. bands back in those days to build your audience at home, and in Europe, and then come to the States and have a bit more of an up-and-down experience? You say that you don’t really like a lot of other bands, but would you talk to other bands and kind of compare experiences at the time?
Bradfield: There was a strange thing in the ‘90s, where you were goaded by the British music press that you hadn’t really made it if unless you sold records in America. But then when you went to America, you realized that the British music press – NME, Melody Maker, Sounds – meant f–k all in America. You know? In fact, when we first came to America, we were just called “typical NME band”; that was used as the open insult to describe us when we first came to America. But then we’d come back, and the NME would say, “Well, if you haven’t sold quite a lot of records in America, you haven’t really made it.”
So there was always this strange kind of like, back and forth thing going on about the pressure of having to sell records in America for it to sort of define you kind of thing, from the British music press.
Anderson: I think [touring America is] an interesting cocktail of things, isn’t it? So often what happens is: a band becomes successful in the U.K., and then they go to America, and … they find a challenge, because they’re not received as warmly in America. So straight away, their egos are damaged. I’m just talking about it as a broad thing, not anyone specific. But that’s what happens, and you’re not playing in front of your London crowd or whatever. You’re in front of a much more disinterested crowd. And then the size of the country as well, just the physical size of the country. All of these elements kind of get thrown into the mix.
And then there’s obviously – when English bands are in America, there’s a kind of sort of carnival element to it, where you almost feel like you’re on holiday. We definitely did that in the early ‘90s, you know, partying much too much. You feel as though you’re not really working, you’re kind of on one long jamboree, almost. And all these elements, and drugs and drink and stress – they’re very harmful to bands.
It’s a crucible that kind of makes you or breaks you. And some people come through it unscathed and some people don’t. But it’s all kind of part of the contract that you enter into, you know?
Do you have any really positive experiences that you remember – shows where you did find a small audience that was really invested in the band?
Bradfield: Oh, yeah! Absolutely, the first time I played in Detroit, I absolutely loved it. I had a great day in Detroit. I had the best hot wings ever. I played the best gig in front of 350 people in a 1,000-2,000 people room. But the 350 people there were absolutely amazing. I did the corny thing of, like – because I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for the Red Wings, the ice hockey team – and I went to the Hitsville museum, I had a great gig, I had great food … that was one perfect date, that was amazing.
And then I’ve had other nights there that were strange. [America] is just like any place, it’s a mixed experience. But the road feels like a very real place in America. The contrast of experiences is so enormous, that it feels like a very real journey when you come to America. But that’s what makes it exciting. That’s why we’re coming back. Because there is a challenge there. And there is a bit of fear there. But you know that when it clicks, it’s a great experience, too.
Anderson: I’d echo that. You know, it’s a big country – it’s like saying, “What’s it like touring Europe?” “Well, you know, Sweden is different from Spain, it’s very different from Austrian …” America’s almost like a lot of different countries [in one]. There’s no one American experience. And it’s difficult to really sort of sum it up like that. It’s like, some gigs will be great, and some gigs will be terrible, I’m sure …
Bradfield: Hey, Coach, thanks for the pep talk! [Both laugh.]
Have you found in general that bands from the U.K. from the ‘90s have more of a U.S. base now than when you were touring at the peak of your popularity?
Anderson: I’m kind of keeping my expectations low and then I’ll be pleasantly surprised. It’s been such a long time ago since we’ve been to the States. I’d like to think that there’s kind of, y’know, universal appreciation of both bands. And as bands kind of age, they kind of like, grudgingly gain more respect. But who knows? It might be a disaster! I don’t think it will be, but …
Bradfield: I’ve done an interview like a week ago, and one journalist said, “These are quite small gigs for you.” I’m like, “F–k no! Some of these are quite big for us in America!” So we’re under no illusions.
Is there anything that you’re particularly looking forward to coming to America – places to visit, or venues you’ve never played before that you’re really excited to play for the first time?
Anderson: I’m looking forward to [all of it]. I’ve got that sort of slight nervousness, that slight sort of anticipation. But it could be really exciting. It’s going to be great touring with the Manics, and it’ll be great in the States, and let’s see what happens.
Bradfield: It kind of feels so novel to come back to America, that there will be that element of feeling like it’s the first time for a while. And you never know, it could be the last time! It could be.
Anderson: It could absolutely be the last time for us, as well. Who knows? We haven’t been there for 25 years. We might come back in another 25 years! It might very well be the last time we play for another 25 years. So if anyone is ummming and ahhhhing about it — come along, because you might as well see us now.