Neil Codling looks bored. So far he's smoked half a packet of fags, sorted out the contents of his trouser pockets and devoted a considerable amount of time to just running a hand throuhg his '70s meta-public-school mop and staring off into middle space. Seemingly laughing at a half-rememberd joke, he doesn't even flinch when a sweat and beer-soaked Brett Anderson, bathed in green light, slams his microphone into the stage and cries, at full volume, "I'm aching and I need more heroin!"
It may be nearly halfway into Suede's performance at Liverpool Royal Court, the whole venue might be rattling down to it's post-war foundations and Brett Anderson may well appear on the point of physical collapse but Neil Codling, Neil Codling doesn't even appear to have touched his keyboard yet. In short, he looks like a complete star.
"When Bernard left a lot of people lost confidence. A lot assumed we were over." Brett Anderson
"He just had this absolute confidence... the confidence of being good." Mat Osman on Richard Oakes
If there was one overriding preoccupation of Suede's November interview in Select, it was with that word 'confidence'. It had been lost and now, not surprisingly, they wanted it back.
While 'Coming Up' was one of the outright albums of the year, exuding both chemically-enhanced arrogance and bold pop immediacy, for many people, Suede were still the band who, since the departure of Bernard Butler, had spent two awkward years in a wilderness of 'difficult' tours, endless drug accusations and 'gayanimalsex' T-shirts - a band with little real sense of unity and a dwindling fanbase.
Those who had witnessed January 1996's fan club gig at London's Hanover Grand and the later October dates at Kilburn National, however, knew that something had changed. It was evident in Richard Oakes' new-found assurance, in the band's choice of a Bernard-free song-set and in the barely concealed violence of Brett's performance. But, most of all, it was visible in the presence of the reptilianly-handsome fellow on keyboards and backing vocals - the one who appeard to do nothing at all, very well indeed.
Still, despite word-of-mouth assurance that the new-look 'Coming Up' Suede are a frighteningly good live proposition, it's not surprising that a large majority of tonight's capacity Liverpool crowd are made up of many who are "just down for a look", the curious, the sceptical and a fair few for whom 'Coming Up' is the first Suede album they've ever bought. Nevertheless, despite a reluctance to call themselves fans, a large number of tonight's audience will stay behind, calling for encores long after the main lights have gone up and the band have retired to the threadbare Pinteresque surrounds of the lounge bar.
"Do you know Neil Codling?" enquires one of a gaggle of beatific Mersey teens extricating themselves from the still-applauding stagefront scrum, "Is he a mysterious man?"
Her pal, equally in awe, is only capable of a small whipser. "Neil Codling. Very handsome."
As Simon Gilbert and Neil natter quietly with friends and fans and various glum members of Liverpool City Council enquire after the whereabouts of "the singer", an elegantly wasted Brett Anderson lurks in the corner of the 'function area'. He is studying a fan-bought copy of Patrick McGrath's The Grotesque, musing on the band's turbulent history and why Suede now feels like a completely new band.
"There's a sense of unity now. Richard and Neil, they've restored a sense of balance."
What do fans think of the new look Suede?
"We've got different types of fans. Each member of the band now has his own fanzine. Simon's got one called Simply Simon, there's Little Richard, Mon Petit Mat, and Neil's got one called New Boy, and some fucking Neil Codling and Geneva fanzine. Actually, d'you know that I'm the only member of Suede who hasn't got his own fucking fanzine?"
Fittingly, for a band who've always courted an image of decadent glamour, Suede now have an onstage presence that perfectly matches their recorded tales of bohemian drug excess. Complementing Anderson's ongoing transformation into a handsome laudanum-ravaged cad, Oakes now takes the part of his precocious artful-dodger sidekick, while Codling as their Dorian Gray figure, the nonchalant young gentleman caught in the midst of a gentle opium revelry, elegantly bored by the whole thing.
Significantly, the role of Mat and Simon in all this seems to have become that of the workhouse slumkids, pushed to the back of the stage, providing prole bass-and-drums power for the dirty three's immodest pop pleasures.
How exactly does the ringmaster feel about all of this, young Neil replacing the old guard at the front of the proscenium arch?
"Part of it is logistical," asserts Brett, "Matt needs to be at the back, close to the drums. If Mat was at the front of the stage it'd look ridiculous. Then, on the other hand, Neil's a show-off. Neil needs to be at the front."
Why, as Suede's keyboardist, has 22-year-old Codling decided to adopt the role of the grand poseur, a man who spends more time smoking tabs and staring into space than actually playing his instrument? Not since the mid-'70s art-school conceits of such wacko performers as Sparks' Ron Mael and all of Kraftwerk has a musician placed himself arrogantly at the front of a stage and ably demonstrated an aptitude for doing very litte indeed. And not since Richey Manic has there been a figure who, through image and style alone, so aptly represents the ethos and confidence of one band.
"I'll agree," nods Codling, barely interested, "it's a weird thing."
Offstage, Neil Codling cuts a far less self-assured dash than he does on stage. He's still annoyingly handsome in the fashion of some cold-blooded Left Band gamin, but in his awkward shifting and genial Midlands burr, he's qute a regular guy, a fact well hidden from all those craning necks down the front row. Gone are the steely glances, the regal posture - he appears almost normal. Almost. So what is going on in his head when he's up there onstage?
"The thing is," he drawls, "you can over-analyse anything. With the fan club gig none of us thought, 'What shall we do with Neil?' When we set up the stage, there I was, squeezed to the front. I guess it's quite fortuitous. I get a lot of breathing space."
Ah yes, breathing space. Exactly what does Neil Codling do during those moments of dead time when Brett Anderson is wrapped up in microphone cable and attempting to throw himself off the top of Simon Gilbert's drum-riser, except kick back, put his feet up and stare out into the audience?
"I enjoy communicating," he grins, "I could stare at my shoes or gaze at a certain spot at the back of the room, but I'm in front of these people who've paid money to see us. I can't dance, so I'm usually just listening to the songs and looking at everyone. It's quite funny. When you stare out at people, sometimes they just stare back but sometimes they're quite unsure of what to do."
There are even occasions when Neil simply pushes his microphone stand away, rests his head on his hands and watches the rest of the band perform. Why doesn't he just go offstage?
"I revel in that situation. It's a perfectly natural thing for me. With songs like 'So Young' they're playing that and I think 'Right, I've got a contribution to make,' but if not, I can just relax for a bit. There's a real strength in silence. It's got presence. Once you're confident about how the music's coming across you can pretty much do anything."
The following night, in an X Files-wash of purple stage light there can be seen the bobbing glow of Mat Osman's fag tip at the back. As white light breaks through and Simon Gilbert starts up a roisterous glam drum intro, enter Neil Codling, taking time out to light up a tab as he strolls across stage. He sits down just in time to hit his first keyboard cue and hear a manic Barbie-waisted Brett Anderson belt out the start of the sneering, arrogant 'Filmstar' - complete with that etirely apposite line, "Elegant sir / In a terylene shirt / It looks so easy."
By the time of 'She', the band outlined in banks of red light, Brett has, once again, slammed his mic stand into the stage and is whirling the microphone around his head in an enormous arc that barely misses the heads of Oakes, Osman and Codling. In their neo-beatnik costumes of black shirts, black hipsters and black leather jackets, the image is one of not-quite-right rebellion, a pill-popping ad copywriter's notion of mid-'60s New York Cool.
Only Richard Oakes, pristine in blue denim, playing the guitar almost apologetically as if it were a nervous twitch, looks in any way out of place. Last night, in Liverpool, Oakes was like an afterhought, as if someone had brought him in at the last minute to replace the stingy black-clad guitarist who'd croaked the previous night.
Tonight, however, Suede are faultless. There's a bit of unnecessary lighter action during the unearthly lament of 'By The Sea' but thankfully, 'Animal Nitrate' is up next and such a Bic-related nonsense is ditched in favour of proper rock-pit scrummage. Similarly, Brett can't help but slip back into his old mannerisms - holding the mic out to the audience and encouraging all to join him in an hilarious chorus of "Over twentywu-uh-urn, wu-uh-urn." The experience is only enhanced by the sight of Neil sitting for the duration of the song with legs crossed, fag in mouth, like some bored checkout girl at the end of her shift.
Next up it's 'The Wild Ones' - another one that's got nothing to do with him - so Codling simply rests his head on his hands and watches the rest of the band, seeminly in awe of the sepctacle in front of him. This carries on into 'So Young' until, about halfway in, he decides to make a contribution. Flicking his fag away, mid-smoke, in an arc of red sparks, he taps out single plink-plink piano notes on the keyboard, notes that add a certain hilarious bathos to the sight of a frantic Brett Anaderson, again wrapped in microphone lead, his black shirt oily with sweat, singing "Let's chase the dragon" like a man possessed.
With the whole venue now joining in on the "lalalala" refrains, show-closer 'Beautiful Ones' sounds uncannily like some off-the-rails '60s Health Authority jingle exonerating excessive drug use. Codling, only joining in on backing vocals after another leisurely drag on a fag, finishes his performance by crossing his arms, shirvering, delivering a small bow and exiting stage left, still smoking.
"I dunno, I guess he feels less connection with early songs..." Backstage, and Brett is failiing to convince in his attempts to rationalise Neil Codling's performance in terms of things like musicianship. So he gives up.
"You know that walk that he does from the side of the stage?" grins Brett. "He times that walk, times it so that he sits down at exactly the right time, just as he plays his first note."
It's very Neil.
"Everything he does is like that, very Neil. He's a professional. Neil Codling is a 24-hour job."