Interview: Gaz Coombes
Published on October 9th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
Imagine if you will one of those televisual flashbacks, heralded perhaps by the stroke of a harp, a wistful upwards gaze and a ‘jellying’ (for want of the correct technical term) of the picture. Ready? Then let’s begin…
It’s the mid-’90s; this writer is not yet into his teens, and he’s lying on a bed listening to Supergrass’s still-exhilarating debut album I Should Coco over and over, playing the tracks in alternative running orders to experience it differently, scanning the album artwork – front and back – while rushing out of his tiny little mind on this imagination-fuelling sensory discovery. Not long afterwards his mind would be blown all over again by this band’s monster of a follow-up In It for the Money, and again by the star-gazing psychedelia of their eponymous third album two years after that, with three subsequent albums infusing yet more joy and beauty into a psyche increasingly hardened by the cynicism attendant with the aging process.
(Another harp-stroke, please, Maestro, and take off the sepia tint!)
We’re back in 2012; this writer is in his late twenties, listening for the first time to Gaz Coombes Presents… Here Come the Bombs, the astonishing debut album by the titular former Supergrass front man (click here to read his gushing four-and-a-half-quail review). The soulfully brooding strum of seventh track “White Noise” rolls along, cracks open a celestial shaft of light with its devastating sigh of a chorus “I’m always trying to tell you / I got problems / That I can’t work out / I’m always trying to tell you / I get lonely / And you’re all I’ve got”. It’s not typical of an LP high on stompingly ace, electronica-infused Gaz-pop, and leaves Rocksucker all the more floored for it, saturated with conflicting emotions. It’s perfect.
Now, it may be stating the bleedin’ obvious to point out that the child and man respective to the afore-painted pictures are one and the same person, but how richly representative it is of the dynamic between artist and fan that it was the same voice eliciting two such contrasting reactions at two different stages of life. Wild abandon, lonesome rumination, turbo-charged glee, psych-tinged wonder, even luxurious sophistication: Supergrass have resonated with Rocksucker in many different ways over the years, and the fact that we’re still enthralled by Here Come the Bombs several months after its release indicates a(n admittedly distributary) renewal of this bountifully rewarding one-way relationship.
So, er, we got to speak to Gaz as he prepares for a UK tour in support of his latest single – some ditty by the name of “White Noise”, apparently – but we neglected to warn him that the transcript would be preceded by four paragraphs of flowery self-indulgence, the antithesis of the powerfully direct pop music he creates. Probably best to mention the PRS for Music Heritage Award that Supergrass were honoured with the other day and wrap it up here…
How autobiographical would you say the lyrics of “White Noise” are?
I think everything kind of is, you know. It’s not always easy to decipher what the percentage is (laughs), but like a lot of the lyrics they’re kind of ‘moments’, little glimpses of things, rather than a constant outlook. They’re little snapshots of moments, whether they be surreal or odd, or sad; so I suppose it is kind of autobiographical, but mixed around, played with.
Apparently you played all the instruments on the album…
Pretty much, yeah.
Yeah, I love doing the drums.
How about the electronic elements? I was wondering how much of that might have been down to Sam Williams, as bits of the album remind me a little of The Animalhouse, his erstwhile project with Mark Gardener.
It was mainly that I just got into programming in my studio, getting ideas for beats and putting stuff down. I did all the programming; it was an area I was interested in but hadn’t got to do much – if any – of in Supergrass, because we had such a great drummer in Danny [Goffey] that we didn’t really need it.
Do any of the songs on the album date back to the Supergrass days?
No, they’re all new. In fact, I think a recording of “White Noise” was hanging around a couple of years ago, but not as a Supergrass thing, just as an idea that I had. Everything else is brand new, written after we split.
Is it true that “Bombs” began life as a poem?
Yeah, sort of; just a little stream of consciousness, really. It’s unrelated to the music, I just wrote these lines down as a sort of Dr. Strangelove thing, where he’s riding the bomb at the end. I wanted to do this sort of visual thing from a bomb’s point of view, this man-made, inanimate object destined for this kind of bizarre end, and what a strange idea that is. So yeah, I just wrote a few lines, really, and that turned into the track.
Do you do that kind of thing often? If so, does it always become music, or might you release some written word material one day?
I don’t think so, no. It’s more just a sort of, you know, you have a pad and a pen nearby, and you do a little bit of stream of consciousness, a few instinctive ideas. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it’s just utter rubbish (laughs), you just see what happens. I’ve got loads of books filled with weird nonsense and ideas, it’s just part of the writing process.
Is it too early to ask if you have a second solo album planned?
Not necessarily planned, but I’m always writing, and I’m trying to get a new song into the set during this month’s tour. It’s just part of the ongoing thing: I keep writing, and when I’ve got a bunch of tracks together I’ll get back in the studio, yeah.
What will become of the unreleased Supergrass album Release the Drones?
Nothing really, because we only got three or four songs into the recording of it, along with half a dozen ideas, but the reason it didn’t come out is because it wasn’t good enough, so that might not be any different now. It’s just going to have to remain on those hard drives getting dusty.
Do you have a favourite Supergrass song and/or album?
I dunno, that’s like trying to pick a favourite out of your children! I have a different sort of connection to each of them, really. The first album [I Should Coco, 1995] was a really special time, everything was alive and it was just the perfect timing in every way; there are songs on it which I think still sound fresh today, which is really cool, so that’s a special record. But I don’t know, maybe the second one [In It for the Money, 1997] is my favourite, if I’m going to have to pick.
This will undoubtedly sound rather odd, but I’ve contended for many years that In It for the Money has the best-smelling CD booklet I’ve ever encountered.
Yeah, we worked on that, actually; the smell of the paper was very important to us.
So it was deliberate?
(Laughs) No! Maybe the printing press had particularly strong ink that day. I haven’t got a clue. I know what you mean, though, I do love the smell of fresh vinyl or CD. But yeah, the best-smelling Supergrass record, I haven’t heard that before, so that’s good.
Best-smelling of any record, not just Supergrass records! It was all lovely and ruffled, too.
Wow! Mental. That should have been written on the actual CD, you know those press quotes they do.
If there’s ever a reissue…
Yeah, we’ll use your name with the quote!
(Makes mental note to dig out the CD and formulate an elaborate, Jilly Goolden-style description of the booklet’s smell.) Supergrass were sometimes portrayed as being a “singles band”, which I always thought harsh given how blindingly brilliant the albums are. Do you feel as if the band wasn’t taken seriously enough in certain quarters?
No, I don’t think so. I think if we were seen as a singles band then it’s because we had great singles, so I can’t really complain about that, and I think the fans who were really into the band loved the albums for the same reason we loved the albums, because there’s so much depth on them, so many different ideas. So no, I think the balance is perfect: we were an albums band that had some great singles.
I remember reading a review of Life on Other Planets  in either Select or Mojo – I can’t recall which – which made it their Album of the Month yet still spent the lion’s share of the piece talking about how much fun it is, barely giving any mention to the songwriting, musicianship or delivery. At the time I found it quite patronising, albeit they were praising the album. Have you ever encountered this sort of thing, and if so has it bothered you at all?
It’s hard to let things like that bother you, really. You start to see that that’s just what people do; there’s a kind of easy and lazy way of looking at Supergrass, I think, which I think journalists would often apply to everything. That’s just the way it is; you get inaccuracies in reviews and stuff, and people not seeing it in the right way, but you just take it with a pinch of salt.
Quite an obscure question, this, but I’ve wondered whether the sudden eruption of distortion in “Diamond Hoo Ha Man” was intentional or not.
What bit’s that?
In the first chorus, coinciding with the first “Gotta get you in my suitcase!”.
I don’t know…I can’t remember. I’m sure it was intentional, or an accident that was left in in an intentional way.
(Rocksucker says: We thought perhaps our copy had been corrupted when we compared it to the song’s video, in which said eruption isn’t audible, but then we listened to it on Spotify and it’s definitely there. How odd.)
From the same album [Diamond Hoo Ha, 2008], I thought “Rebel in You” should have been as big as any of the old Supergrass hits. Had promotion become a problem by the end?
Yeah, the last four or five years was a tough time at EMI. I suppose everyone was kind of waiting on the edge of their seats to be fired or for there to be a big takeover. No-one quite knew who was going to keep their job, and I think when you’re not a major, major artist on the label, when you’re around the middle of the pile…I dunno, the focus wasn’t there enough because everyone was concerned about their own jobs.
The enthusiasm that was needed to be put into the record just wasn’t there, and we were all really frustrated, especially because – like you said – we felt that “Rebel in You” could be a really big record. But yeah, there was no-one there to back it up, and that’s why we left pretty soon after that.
What are the other guys up to at the moment?
Mick [Quinn, bassist] has a band called DB Band: they’re gigging around and made an EP recently, so he’s playing, doing his thing. Rob [Coombes, keyboards] has got a proper job, working for real people, and he’s really happy, got three kids so he has a busy time of it anyway. Danny’s working on his Van Goffey project, which is his solo material; I’ve been doing little things with him on that and I really like it, actually. It’s really great stuff.
Can you see there being another Supergrass album one day?
No, not really. It’s just not in my thinking at the moment. It’s…I suppose all I can say is “no”! (Laughs)
Are there are up-and-coming artists that you’d like to recommend or give a shout-out to, other than DB Band and Van Goffey?
I really like the Alt-J record from this year – it’s got some great sounds on it, and good songs – and there’s a band called Stealing Sheep who I think sound cool. So yeah, there are a few things floating around.
Finally, if you had to spend the rest of your life in solitary confinement, with just the back catalogues of five different musical artists for company, whose would you choose?
Ooh, god! Er…probably Bowie, Elvis, Beethoven, Neil Young and…er…Frank Zappa.
Gaz Coombes, thank you.
Gaz Coombes will digitally release the wistfully melodic and reflective “White Noise” on 22nd October, in a bundle with acoustic versions of “White Noise” and “Hot Fruit” (taken from Dermot O’Leary’s Radio 2 show). He will also play the following live dates this month…
17th NEWCASTLE, Academy 2
18th GLASGOW, King Tuts
19th MANCHESTER, Club Academy
20th LEEDS, Brudenell Social Club
21st BIRMINGHAM, Academy 2
24th LONDON, XOYO
25th NOTTINGHAM, Rescue Rooms
26th BRIGHTON, The Haunt
27th OXFORD, Academy 2
28th BRISTOL, Fleece
For more information, please visit www.gazcoombes.com