Super Man: Gaz Coombes interview
Gaz Coombes releases his third solo album, World’s Strongest Man, this month – the follow-up to 2015’s excellent, Mercury Prize-nominated Matador. Will Simpson finds out more about his revitalised creative process, studio freedom and the vital role vinyl has always played in his life…
The longer you spend in a band, the trickier it is to establish yourself as a solo entity – just think of Mick Jagger’s repeated attempts to carve a niche away from the Stones. Gaz Coombes spent 17 years as the frontman and face of Supergrass, and still has to be précised by references to his former group… though perhaps for not much longer.
His second solo album, 2015’s Matador, was a critical and commercial hit, winning plaudits and a Mercury nomination. The follow-up, World’s Strongest Man, is even better: a confident-sounding, beguiling album brimming with musical invention and midlife yearning that you just know will feature heavily on those year-end lists. By then, he might not be ‘Gaz Coombes: he used to be in Supergrass’ – just Gaz Coombes.
“Well, that’s up to other people whether they still see me in that way,” he smiles, clutching his pint, sat in a quiet nook of a West London pub. “But yeah, it’s been really exciting these past four or five years. It’s probably been the most creative time of my life, as far as musical output and writing is concerned. I feel really good about things.”
The umbilical cord with the parent group was finally cut back in 2010. There was no personal animosity, he says; it’s just they’d got bogged down recording their seventh album. “It was like pulling teeth, trying to get us to agree on what we liked and didn’t like and how we should approach it. I remember going back home between sessions and it was really getting me down. I knew it wasn’t working, but I also knew I couldn’t really see a way out of it, because there were some stubborn feelings around. I thought, ‘I can’t do this, ’cos it’s not making me feel good. I’ve just got to step away’. And that felt good – being honest with everyone and nally saying, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’.” At that stage, Coombes had no plans to go solo. “I didn’t leave Supergrass to go solo; I did it to fix my head,” he insists – but after a while, he started writing songs anyway. “It’s what I do: I play and I write. It was inevitable that six months later, I’d start again.” He describes 2012’s Here Come The Bombs as “an almost accidental first album”.
Music in the Blood
Coombes has known no other life than music. He was still a teen when the first Supergrass album was released and his previous band, The Jennifers, had been signed to Nude Records when Gaz was just 16. His dad played jazz piano and his brothers have both played professionally – big bro Rob was involved in Supergrass and his younger sibling Charly played keys in blues-rock band the 22-20s. Then there was his uncle’s secret stash of vinyl. “When I was about 10 or 11, my uncle went travelling and he le his record collection in the basement of my family house – boxes and boxes, lined up. I remember my parents saying, ‘don’t go near Uncle Pete’s records’. So, of course, I’d creep down there at night, flick through the covers, read the sleeve notes on the back and I discovered, well, everything: Patti Smith, Blondie, Zappa, Sex Pistols, you name it. Then I started taking them up to my room and playing them on my Alba Midi system, with a needle like a piece of glass, probably killing the vinyl.”
It was a household in which music was heard constantly. “There was also this stuff coming through my bedroom walls. My older brother was listening to a lot of Spacemen 3, Chapterhouse, The Cure – The Cure were probably the first band of that era I really got into as a kid. And The Smiths! I remember picking up a lot of their singles. They were really wonderful things to have – the sleeves were fantastic. I’ve still got them all now, all lined up. I’ve also got a 10″ of Meat Is Murder that I think is quite rare.
“Vinyl played a really central role in how I got into music and even now, I still collect it. Most places we go to on tour, I go into a record shop. I lived in Brighton for 10 years and there’d be record fairs down at the Conference Centre, and I remember picking up an original copy of On The Beach by Neil Young. And Pacific Ocean Blue by Dennis Wilson. This was before there had been any reissues of either, so it really was like finding buried treasure. Then I found The Man Who Sold The World – the American issue with the cartoon cover, the cowboy one. It was really exciting finding these weird, alternative versions of classic albums.”
When The Jennifers ended, Gaz and school friend Danny Goffey formed Supergrass with bassist Mick Quinn. Looking back now, they seem to have ended up curiously undervalued as a band. Though they had a No. 1 album and 14 Top 40 singles – including one, Alright, which to this day remains a generational anthem for the sun-kissed children of the mid 90s – they never seem to crop up on all of those Britpop documentaries and retrospectives. Even non-fans regarded them with a certain affection, but perhaps a lack of drama or narrative in their career meant they were taken for granted.
“Yeah, it’s a weird one,” he considers. “I think the quality of what we did was a lot stronger than a lot of the other stuff that was going on – it had a rawness and realness to it. But we didn’t have the swagger and arrogance of those other bands; all that larger-than-life kind of thing. We didn’t all move to London, get involved in the scene and go down that route. We wanted to be in our bubble as a band and not play the fame game. We were subtle, in a way, but subtlety doesn’t get you to the top.
“I think even at our peak, we were always a band who would do it our own way. We had so many offers – some ridiculous, others really serious. There was that Spielberg thing, for instance [bowled over by the Alright video, the iconic director approached them about making a Monkees-style TV series]. That was a serious thing and we just turned it down flat! At the time, it was more important to get our second album out.”
But even if Supergrass could have been bigger, their ex-frontman seems on a roll at present. Maybe he’s one of those artists who just peak later? “Well, for me, there’s no reason why, 25 years later, I can’t capture something on record that’s as good if not better than those early Supergrass records,” he insists. “Energy-wise, it doesn’t mean you have to settle into being a ‘mellow’ songwriter, or a ‘singer-songwriter’. I’ve always hated that term. It gives me the wrong image. I don’t see myself as one.”
However he styles himself, he’s revelling in the creative freedom solo life affords, playing most of the instruments on World’s Strongest Man himself. “I like to come up with an imaginary line-up before I start – ‘Oh, we’ll start with a guitar and piano’, or: ‘I’m going to record this with drums, bass synthesiser and violin’. It might work, it might not. It’s a really exciting way to create: throwing mad ideas around without feeling like you’ve got someone else twiddling their thumbs on the sidelines. It’s harder in a band. You need to keep the energy flowing and people get bored.”
A music-saturated household has remained a constant. “I’ve got a pair of decks in the studio, but there’s also a record player in the kitchen. There’s a little box down there that I keep on siphoning records into, from the studio into the kitchen.
“I’m always looking for new stuff to play on vinyl. We had a New Year’s party a few months back, so I thought I’d get hold of a few party-type records. I bought the Goat album on vinyl, The Lemon Twigs’ record and this ESG boxset, which is brilliant.”
The big question, though, is whether he’s passed on his passion to the next generation – are his own daughters as obsessed by records as Coombes and his siblings once were? “It’s hard, isn’t it?” he says. “They kind of are. I think vinyl is fascinating to them. My kids, when they first looked at it, were all, ‘Oh wow, that’s incredible, what is he doing to them? That’s amazing! What, the sounds come out of that?’
“And then they go onto YouTube and consume everything on screen. But I’m a big believer in leading by example. Maybe, at some point, it’ll have an impact…”