He posted one incredibly confident letter and passed the audition with one of the best bands around. Tim Tucker talks to Richard Oakes, the man behind the sound of Suede. When Bernard Butler, 'Best guitarist of his generation[TM]', walked out on Suede in May 1994, during the stormy sessions for their second album Dog Man Star, many saw it as the end of the road for a band which had been the great hope for British guitar music. Butler took with him half the songwriting responsibilities (his collaborations with singer Brett Anderson making up all the songs on both their albums to date) and, in the view of many, any hopes that Suede could carry on as a band.
By the time they had announced his replacement, the 17-year-old Richard Oakes, Suede had yielded their prime place in British music to Oasis and a tide of new indie guitar bands united by an attitude loosely labelled Britpop. With half their principal songwriting team gone, it looked as if they would be consigned to the footnote of history. Two years on, and Richard Oakes has turned the whole thing around.
At first seen as little more than a stand-in for Butler, he's since proved himself a young, exciting and versatile musician and transcended any comparisons with the former occupant of the Suede guitar spot. More importantly for Suede, he has proved a more than adequate songwriting partner for Brett Anderson, playing a major part in fashioning the Suede 'comeback' album, Coming Up, one of the best releases of last year.
Richard shows none of the naivety that you might expect from a young pop (up)star(t). It is still only recently that he walked out of a bedroom-guitar existence in his home town of Poole in Dorset and waltzed straight into one of the biggest British guitar bands of the nineties, yet he exudes an impressively calm confidence, bordering on the cocky, but falling short of full blown arrogance due to a knowingness and affability that belies his tender years and limited experience.
Many have wondered how it has come to pass that a lad of a mere 17 years (at the time he joined) was possessed of enough self belief and ability to not only sit comfortably and hold his own in the number one album-selling Suede but also provide them with a much-needed career boost. Richard's creative input has helped to propel the band forward stylistically, taking them on a sharp but welcome diversion, away from the increasingly self-indulgent moodiness that typified Dog Man Star, and towards the uncompromising optimism of Coming Up.
What's the story?
So Richard sent a tape and a letter to Suede putting forward his case. "The tape demonstrated me playing some of their old songs as well as some of my stuff, with a letter saying 'I know I can do you good, I'll be a real plus for you'. And that was what they liked. I wasn't saying 'Please let me play for Suede', I was saying 'Take me or leave me'."
And this was just a tape produced
There was a telepathy, you know, like you can get with a band, and it was like this is happening. Their faces said to me 'You've got the job', but their mouths said 'Come back next week' (laughs). I was feeling really cocky about it. I went home and told my cat. My family had gone on holiday, and I only had my cat to talk to, so I told him I'd got the job. I just knew I'd got it." He had a second audition, and was invited to join the band. Three weeks later he played his first gig with Suede.
"The only experience I'd had of playing live was with a Dixieland jazz band, playing lots of diminished chords, black bow tie, the works. I hated the solos, it was all pentatonic things. Then the next thing I knew I was in France playing to a load of mad Suede fans who were all holding balloons up saying 'Welcome Richard'."
Richard's first job with Suede was to tour promoting the recently finished Dog Man Star album, duplicating predecessor Bernard Butler's guitar parts note for note on a distinctive cherry red Gibson 335, similar to the one Butler played. Despite having only recently joined, he soon tired of covering the earlier Suede material and wanted to get some of his own work in to the band's set. There were the inevitable comparisons to Butler to contend with, but despite the weight of Butler's reputation, Richard was never really that enamoured with his predecessor's style.
As is now evident from listening to the Coming Up album, Richard's style is more direct, less fussy than Butler's. What strikes most, though, is his instinct for a fine riff and his talent for creating guitar parts filled with blinding melodic invention, recalling Mick Ronson's work with Bowie in the Ziggy era. His lines are lean and bolshy, often inspiring, always appropriate, and they form fascinating counterpoints to Brett Anderson's lithe and tremulous vocal lines.
"It's interesting you should say that", says Richard, "'cos if you take something like Lazy, which Brett wrote most of the music for, it started off like this (plays straight chords to Lazy). He played it to me on an acoustic round at his house and, as soon as I heard that, in the same way that he starts thinking of a melody for the lyrics, I start thinking up a melody for the guitar. I find a tune that goes over the top. And I came up with this (plays the finished, ultra melodic, maddeningly grinding guitar part for Lazy). It works against the vocals, and gives it another level."
And do these lines and melodic ideas
come about by playing with familiar scale patterns?
So we're not likely to see Richard
Oakes solos all over Suede records in future?
Despite this direct, stripped-down approach, there is a layered feel to the guitar parts in particular that suggests studio overdubs were essential. "It's funny, because there aren't that many parts to it, it just sounds like a lot because the parts are well written. Everyone arranges the songs together in Suede, because we spent six months in a rehearsal room with them before we went in to record them and the arrangements were pretty much worked out during that time. It just comes naturally.
That's us clicking as a band. You don't have to sit down with a calculator and write it all out. Everyone just knows." Perhaps more remarkable than his talent on the guitar is Richard's aptitude for writing damn good songs and producing, in association with Brett Anderson, some of the band's best material to date, in the likes of Trash, The Beautiful Ones and the latest single Saturday Night. "That's what I said in the letter that I first sent them I'll write for you. I'll write your next album, don't worry about it. I was very cocky, a bit too cocky really. But it worked."
It certainly did. While Dog Man Star was a sepia-tinged bedsit fantasy, cramped with overworked guitars, dour orchestral pomp and flamboyant vocal flourishes, Coming Up is as lean, focused, glamorous and positive as the new young guitar star who sits at its heart. Richard didn't just step in and take over where Butler left off, he saved the band from a potentially fatal downward spiral. Naturally, the band are ecstatic with their new prodigy.
"Richard's contribution to the record has been a revelation to me," says Brett Anderson. "There's a whole feeling that the band is united again now. We've managed to turn the situation round and write some of the best songs we've ever written."
"My sister had an old Spanish guitar which was completely warped 'cos she used to leave it out in the sun," Richard remembers. "I worked out how to play the A chord. About three months afterwards, I got heavily into the Clash, and found out that most of their songs revolved around the A chord. I mean, White Riot has only got two chords and I could play them all (laughs)."
So did Richard teach himself, like
so many others, by learning songs from favourite records?
While Richard claims not to have any guitar heroes ("I could say 'I like Mick Jones', but what I'm really saying is 'I like the Clash'"), he says that there are "certain guitarists I look up to in their own right". "People like Keith Levine, of Public Image," he continues. "His style I really like and I'm always very subtly ripping it off. I think it was inspired. He used to do loads of stuff like (plays guitar line with finger barring across top two strings). It's just two-string stuff and there's loads of it on the first Public Image album. It's really exciting and unusual at times it doesn't sound like a guitar. But loads of people have copied him like the Edge from U2. He's always doing lots of two-string stuff which sounds exactly like Keith Levine, it's just that people don't realise."
Meanwhile, Richard is fast developing a reputation as a guitar hero in his own right, following in the footsteps of the likes of Johnny Marr, and, of course, Bernard Butler.
"Yeah I know, it's a shame that, innit? People throw around phrases like 'The greatest guitarist of his generation'. I'm sure people have said that about Johnny Marr, people have said it about Bernard Butler, and one day people might say it about me but it doesn't mean anything. I don't feel part of that group of guitarists, 'cos they all end up going solo and getting boring. I don't want to go solo and get boring. I didn't like Johnny Marr. I don't like the Smiths. I was too young for them. I missed them. And to me, Bernard Butler was part of the band Suede. He was good in the band."
It's a testament to Richard's self assurance and confidence that he's offered the band more in the way of musical direction and new influence than they have provided him.
"Neil (Codling, Suede's keyboard player) has done the most for me musically. Since he's joined, I've found these Scott Walker records creeping into my collection. I'm like, how did they get there? It's his influence on me. I didn't really know much about David Bowie before I joined and all of the band like David Bowie. Even so, I'm not a massive Bowie fan. I've got my own tastes really. The stuff I like fits in most closely with the stuff Simon (Gilbert, Suede's drummer) likes, 'cos he's like a punk. He's got all these Crass records and stuff, and I like all that."
After his experience with a warped Spanish guitar and the A chord, Richard was soon looking for something a little more versatile. "I saved a bit of money, and I got a Korean Squier Telecaster. It was bad, I mean it wasn't a great guitar, but I've used it with Suede, and I'm keeping it lying around because I love the way it looks. You know, maple neck, white scratchplate and black body..."
Just like the one the Clash used."Oh yeah, totally. You know what it's like with any otherguitars you get faced with. The Gibson 335 was too kind of BB King for me, the Strat was too Mark Knopfler, the Les Paul was too heavy metal, whereas the Telecaster was, you know, a real working man's guitar."
This guitar carried Richard right up to the time of his joining Suede. "The first guitar I bought with Suede was a '60s reissue of a Les Paul, which I only bought because it was blood red, and I liked the colour. And then we got a Gibson 335 with a whammy bar attached, to go on the road and tour the songs from Dog Man Star. You can't go and play the songs from Dog Man Star without a 335. It was for the sound of it really. I hated the look of it because it looks exactly like the guitar that Bernard (Butler) used. I want to get rid of it now. And then we got a lovely blue 1994 USA Strat that everyone thought was a Clapton model.
It got nicked so we got a black one which everyone thought was even more like a Clapton model. Everyone says to me, 'Is that a Clapton signature series Strat?' and I'm like, 'aaagh!'." The instrument Richard chose to bring to the interview and photo session is a tarty looking, lipstick-red Fender Jaguar, which looks like it has a few stories to tell. "I got this about a year ago and it's really good. It looks good in pictures so I use it in all the videos. It's pre-CBS, 1964. It's really scratched up, I mean look at it. Someone's tried to screw something into it and not done a very good job. It sounds brilliant though. On the bridge pickup, with the ProCo Turbo RAT distortion pedal, through a Vox, you get some wonderful sounds. I used this on Saturday Night".
\Despite his own small collection, Richard went for an array of exclusive vintage guitars for the recording sessions of Coming Up.
"I got a lovely blonde Telecaster, I don't know where it's from. We hired it from Phil Harris Hire. And also a really old Gibson Les Paul Gold Top I think it was a '50s model which I used on things like Filmstar. With the Gold Top you can get a really good glammy T-Rex sound and you can also get a fantastic Pistols-y sound out of it. For Filmstar, that's all I needed the Gold Top through the Ampulator, and that's it, you've got the sound."
Everyone tends to think of chart bands as stacked with cash, and there's no doubt that, if they carry on as they are, certain members of Suede will be earning a few bob over the next few years. But money takes time to circulate in the music industry and Richard still retains an earthy realism. He has a down-to-earth attitude to spending money on guitars and equipment like the rest of us, he's always on the lookout for bargains.
"I just recently bought one, when we were in Henley. I was with Pete, the guy who works with Suede on guitars and, while we were soundchecking, he came back from this shop and said, 'Ooh I've found this lovely Telecaster'. I'm not going to say how much it was but it was cheap. It was a 1971 model, blonde, and I went down and played it and it was really, really nice. I couldn't believe it was so cheap. Obviously the people who owned the shop didn't have a clue. So I was like 'I'll buy it.' You've just got to keep your eyes open. Quite often people have things that they don't realise the value of. If I'd have bought that Tele in London it would have been quite a few grand. It's a very nice guitar. I had to get it set up of course. But it's not like you have to go to LA to one of those warehouses, not at all.
If you're in a small town, just go and look, and see if they've got anything. It's just keeping your eyes open. I used to think for a long time, 'Well I've got a Les Paul so I don't need another one', but if you can find a different one and it's not too expensive..."
There are a dizzying array of guitar sounds on Coming Up; the heavily glammed-up fuzz of Trash and Lazy, the sleazy jangle of She, the champagne sparkle of the Beautiful Ones and Starcrazy... It comes as some surprise, then, to discover that there wasn't a single guitar amp used on the album.
Some of Oakes's songs feature very unusual chords, and non-standard chord shapes, but it turns out that this has nothing to do with any background in musical theory or training in exotic harmonies. Rather it's a willingness to experiment and that cocky confidence that ensures that he won't be bound to any rules.
"I invent new chords just to be a bit different," he smiles. "Basically, it's my attempt to be a bit muso, and failing miserably but coming up with some funny chords instead. Like the chord that links the verse and chorus in Trash. Someone in the band told me 'lose that chord', but I stuck to my guns, and I think it works really well." (Fact fans please note: the chord in question is an A diminished played in open position, with both E strings muted).
The mood in the Suede camp is soaring. 1996 saw them reclaim the ground they lost to the Britpop explosion, and manage the enviable task of retaining a hugely loyal fan base while garnering a whole new group of younger fans. January sees the release of Saturday Night, the third single from Coming Up, and a triumphant UK tour. There will be more recording later in the year.
As for Richard, he's very happy. Having passed the audition, made the gig, written the latest Suede album and seen it reach number one in the album charts, he's remained totally unphased through it all. Right now, it seems that nothing can go wrong for him.
"I want to write the album of the '90s", he says, without a hint of doubt. And you just can't help but believe he'll do it.