Can former foes Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler really be back together?

In 1994, Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler's band Suede were the biggest new act in Britain. Then the two fell out spectacularly and the group disappeared. Now they're back as Tears - but still not friends, finds Alexis Petridis

Even at a time when indie bands long consigned to the pages of history seem to be reforming on a weekly basis, it would be fair to call the reunion between Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler unexpected. In 1994, the duo were, respectively, the singer and guitarist at the heart of Suede, then the biggest new band in Britain: the previous year, their eponymous album that had become the fastest-selling UK debut since Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Welcome to the Pleasuredome, and won the Mercury music prize. Their songwriting partnership was talked of in the same breath as Morrissey and Marr. Then they fell out, as Anderson puts it, "very publicly and vitriolically". Butler took to flicking Vs behind the singer's back onstage.

Depending on whose account of their demise you believe, Anderson may or may not have had Butler locked out of the band's studio and his guitars thrown into the street, while Butler may or may not have accused Anderson of being a paedophile. According to John Harris's Britpop history The Last Party, the final words Butler uttered to Anderson for nine years were "you're a fucking cunt". As Suede soldiered on and Butler forged a solo career - both with varying degrees of success - they continued to snipe at each other in the press. Somehow they did not seem due for a chummy rapprochement.

And yet, here we all are, in the East London offices of their publicist. Anderson, now 37, looks considerably healthier than you might expect for a man who was addicted to heroin and crack "for ages": "I just really, really enjoyed drugs. I gave up by myself. Didn't go to rehab, just stopped doing it. Did it the hard way, which is the best way, because you feel the pain. You're never going to do it again if you have to go through that pain."

Butler, a 34-year-old father of two, infuriatingly looks exactly the same as he did a decade ago. If the atmosphere between the pair isn't exactly wrought with backslapping bonhomie, at least they're in the same room, promoting the debut album by their new band, the Tears. A collection of brash pop songs and bleak, slightly disturbing ballads that recalls both early Suede and Butler's soul-influenced work with David McAlmont, Here Come the Tears packs a considerable punch. Nevertheless, Anderson admits he felt trepidation at suggesting the reunion. "He could have picked up the phone and told me to fuck off," he says. Not for the last time in the interview, Butler disagrees. "I always knew this was going to happen at some point," he smiles mischeviously. Contrary to a reputation for surly prickliness, mischievous smiles rather seem to be Bernard Butler's thing. "When he split up Suede, I thought, 'Hmm, I'm going on holiday next week, I wonder if he'll ring before then?' I was pretty prepared for it."

The pair were inseparable friends during Suede's early years: The Last Party depicts them dressing identically and smoking the same brand of perfumed cigarettes. It's certainly a difficult image to conjure today. They seem like diametric opposites. They even sit differently. Anderson reclines back expansively on the sofa, Butler perches nervously on the edge. Suede's ignoble demise - drug problems, a disastrous final album, a sudden decline in commercial fortunes - seems to have done nothing to dim Anderson's star quality. He somehow manages to be simultaneously friendly and slightly aloof: "Having experienced extreme criticism and extreme praise, I'm wary about the media."

Meanwhile, Butler turns out to be neither surly nor prickly, but an absolute hoot, wryly witty about the vagaries of the music industry (his second solo album was, he concedes, "universally seen as the shoddiest work of all time"), and the nature of his reunion with Anderson. "I think he's really underestimated," he says of his partner, "possibly because he hasn't been quite in the right place at the right time, he hasn't been wearing the right trousers for the few years. It's like he's been going to the football with a helmet on or something." In an era of PR spin, there's something oddly endearing about Anderson and Butler's refusal to pretend to be best buddies once more. Although both claim recording Here Come the Tears in Butler's attic studio was "surprisingly easy and enjoyable", they prefer to be interviewed separately. Anderson bats away any attempt to probe too deeply into their relationship: "It's not really a topic I want to talk about because we've still got a lot to sort out between ourselves." Butler is even more blunt. "It's about making a record," he says. "It's not about keeping our golfing holiday on hold for 2007."

There seems little doubt that Suede's meteoric rise had much to do with their estrangement. These days, rock historians tend to depict Suede's success as a kind of amuse bouche before the earth-shattering arrival of Britpop's main course. It is easy to forget how fantastic and unexpected their career trajectory seemed in the early 1990s. Their debut single The Drowners was released in April 1992, a snottily confident marriage of heavy-duty glam rock guitar riffs, and sexually ambiguous lyrics. Within days, the cover of one music press weekly proclaimed them the best band in Britain. Ten months later, they were the opening act at the 1993 Brit Awards, performing the ferocious Animal Nitrate, their third single and a top 10 hit. "I felt Suede were the first band to be treated in that kind of way, the first band to be picked up by the media like ... not guinea pigs, but we were going to places nobody else had been to," says Anderson. "And now it's even more so - a year ago no one had ever heard of Franz Ferdinand or Keane and now they're huge. Even with Suede, we didn't get to that level that soon. You wonder where it will go next."

Stardom allowed Anderson to adopt Morrissey's old mantle as a quotable music press provocateur. A decade on, his conversation is noticeably purged of the kind of confrontational bons mots that once peppered his interviews. He refrains from suggesting that he is a bisexual who has never had a homosexual experience, or that "America is a thing to be broken, like an insolent child". He even makes a fair fist of sounding chastened about all the youthful spouting off - "it was probably the wrong thing to do" - although the suspicion that he relished every minute is hard to dispel: "I wanted to put myself in people's faces, but that was born out of youth and a musical climate where everyone was content to be saying nothing and doing nothing. You have to put it into context. It felt as if I had something to say and I was going to say it at the cost of pissing people off."

Unfortunately for Suede, among the ranks of the pissed off was Bernard Butler. Mention of the group's salad days does not bring forth the expected torrent of dewy-eyed reminiscence. "Every band hated you because you were getting all this attention," he sighs. "Frankly I hated us as well because the focus wasn't on the music. It was on all this stuff that I didn't understand. I just found it embarrassing to be honest."

Tensions between the two were further exacerbated by spiralling drug use - Anderson spent one contemporary interview discussing with great seriousness a creature he had invented called Jaquoranda, which had a deer's head and wore a sari - and a disastrous trip to America, which doggedly declined to be broken like an insolent child. They finally erupted during the making of Suede's second album, Dog Man Star. At the time, Dog Man Star was seen as the stuff of career-smothering disaster. Bursting with florid, camply dramatic arrangements and lyrics about stabbing cerebellums with curious quills, packaged in a sleeve featuring a grainy photography of a man's bum, it shared shelf space in HMV with the considerably less complicated pleasures of Oasis's Definitely Maybe ("Dadrock," sniffs Anderson. "Proper music, made of wood, like something out of the Arts and Crafts movement.").

Today, it sounds astonishing, the last of those grand, intriguing, destructive follies that make for great retrospective features in Mojo. Try as you might, it's impossible to imagine any current band attempting something similar, which is presumably as reassuring for the music industry as it is depressing for the music fan. "You simply wouldn't get Coldplay doing that now," chuckles Anderson. "No disrespect to those kind of bands, but they're much more sensible than that."

"When I look back at Dog Man Star, I don't regret for a moment that I didn't compromise about it," says Butler. "I still say to this day that the producer made a terrible shoddy job of it." I tell him that's what Anderson told me. Another mischievous grin - "Yeah, he says it now, doesn't he? It's no bloody use saying it now. When I said that at the time, they fired me."

And yet, personal issues aside, the pair seem artistically reinvigorated by each other's company. Anderson talks excitedly of Tears songs like the ballad Asylum, inspired by his father's struggle with depression, as having moved away from "Suede cliches or Brett Anderson cliches ... it's not, you know, opiated fop territory". There's even a hint of the old provocative flash and arrogance when talk turns to the future: "Here Comes the Tears feels like a debut. It will be massively bettered." On this at least there's no hint of disagreement. "This album's like rocking the boat a bit. There's been a few splashes," nods Butler. "Next time, I want to get rid of the sails and see what happens."

· Tears's single Refugees is out on Monday. The album Here Come the Tears is out on June 6.


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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