Gaz Coombes interview – 2015

Gaz Coombes, Mick Quinn and Danny Coffey formed Supergrass in 1993 in Oxford, at the tail-end of the 'new wave of new wave' movement, and the beginning of Britpop, a golden age for British guitar music, as record decks were being dumped for electric guitars. Of course, Blur and Oasis were the heavyweight champs, the musical equivalents of Ali vs Frazier, slugging it out, somewhat half-seriously, before the eyes of the world. But not far behind were this highly energetic indie pop rock band, who released Caught By The Fuzz on a small independent before being snapped up by Parlophone. That song, a fantastically catchy slice of urban mischief delivered in a slight faux-cockney accent by Gaz Coombes was the first single to be released by the major label. "It wasn't trying to be a real statement, but at the time we knew that it was a big deal. Kids all around England were getting nicked for having a bit of hash on them. In Oxford that kind of thing happened quite a lot. It's all true, so it was easy to write. It wasn't funny at the time… I was only 15 and shitting myself! The song has that disturbing energy. It's comparable to your heart racing. The adrenaline rush you get when your mum walks into the police station is similar to the energy of the song," Gaz has said. This was followed by Mansize Rooster and then their piece de resistance, Alright, a song that climbed to number two and is one of the defining songs of that era, a three minute slice of hugely infectious guitar pop music that radiated youthful optimism. "We weren't part of any particular movement, although we were signed as part of this new wave of new wave movement, which turned into Britpop. We didn't fight against it, we just operated in our own little space."


At the very beginning though, and as the lyrics to Alright say: 'We are young/We run green', and Coombes was very young when music started to properly take shape in his life. "My Grandfather was a jazz pianist and my uncle played guitar, so there was all this stuff going on around the house, at family gatherings, playing Don McLean or John Lennon. Good memories.

"School was alright – I was kinda doing alright – but we were all into music, and we started playing covers;  Cure songs, Smiths covers, Dinosaur Jr… And then me and Danny (whose Dad was once a presenter of Top Gear) started writing songs, and that changes everything really, and it starts to become something more real, something tangible."

Coombes and Danny Goffey formed The Jennifers in 1991, along with Danny's brother Nic. It was their first taste of being a proper band with original songs, They released the one single on indie label Nude Records, Just Got Back Today, and became a significant part of an Oxford scene that included the likes of Ride and, of course, Radiohead…  "I was still at school," says Gaz. "I was writing songs even then. They were rubbish! We had one called 'You Keep Punching me', which was quite good. It was about this bully that keeps hitting you. That was a big one for us (laughs).

"We were young, but a good place to start. You've got to find your voice, find who you are and make your mark, and believe in what you're doing."
 
Mixing Buzzcocks type punk with Kinksque 60s storytelling, and a whole host of other influences, their debut album I Should Coco (again, a cockney reference) made it to number one in the summer of '95, a phenomenal achievement, made all the more remarkable by the fact that the band had only formed at the tail-end of '93, and Coombes had only just turned 19 when the album was released. Amazingly, I Should Coco was the biggest selling album on Parlophone since The Beatles.

Over the next few years, Supergrass released hit after hit, while the highly distinctive look of Gaz Coombes (he first grew those sideburns while still at school) drew in offers from the likes of Italian Vogue and Calvin Klein, and most famously, Steven Spielberg, who saw in the band, via their video for Alright, an opportunity to create a 90s version of The Monkees. "Yeaaahhh…" says a wary Coombes, no doubt still annoyed that people have the nerve to bring this up… "Oh, man! I'm sure we've nailed this one, it's been around the block… We were young, got a call, went over there, and it was very surreal. We were focussed on our second album, and we just knew what we wanted to do. I don't think any of us were ready to be teenage American TV stars. A bit fucked up, really."

As for those sideburns, are they still there? "As far as I know, they are still clinging on! If I shaved them off they would be back within 10, 15 seconds. I can't get rid of them. I did think about growing a beard with it, but I reckon I would look like a fucked up Father Christmas…"

At the height of their fame Coombes decided to move down to Brighton in the late 90s, where he became a regular fixture on the music scene, ending up staying here for a number of years, a period he remembers with fondness: "I think it was about just getting away from Oxford at that time. The vibe around where we were living, it was random bits of violence, heroin was on the up and up… A few people where we were living were into that game. It was a bit of a rough time… Although the band was going well, me and my girlfriend were getting a bit disillusioned, and we thought we would get away from it. And Brighton was on the up. We felt it was a great place to go. Culturally, there was a lot going on. It's interesting, it was just shifting out of the club thing, musically we were heading into more cool bands.


"We lived all over; in Hove, Brighton and Kemptown. Loved it, man! We were there before we had kids, and it suited our lifestyle, lots of socialising, and making the most of all those wonderful pubs," he laughs.

The death of his mother took him back to Oxford, to his family roots, and he's remained in the area ever since, even acquiring the old family house in the process, and moving in with his long-term partner Jools, with whom he has had two daughters.  "I'm out in the country, living next door to some cows. It is a great part of the world; now that we've been back (since 2006), it's totally different now. Being slightly older I can also now see the qualities of Oxford, the city."

Supergrass called it a day in 2010, a little tired from the rigours of being a band and a star, with all the usual attendant problems in tow, such as drugs. At the time they had embarked on their seventh album, but none of the songs have seen the light of day, as yet…  Will it, and will they? "I don't know," say Gaz. "It's impossible to look into the future. It's only been five years. I think there needs to be a lot more water under the bridge. Above anything, I think people need to miss you more before you force yourselves back into peoples lives. I've got too much respect for what we did and for our fans. To do something for the sake of it, or for the money… it would have to be natural; not enough time has passed yet. I'm focussed on now, there are a lot of exciting times ahead, and I'm writing better than I ever have. I'm not looking back…"

Coombes is referring to the new solo album, Matador, the follow up to his debut solo album Here Come The Bombs, released in 2012. And he's very chipper about how that went… "I had some ideas that I got really excited about… With this album I am perhaps being a bit more instinctive about my songwriting. I got hooked into that approach right away, about recording it. And writing. Just trying to get things down as quickly as possible, and not dither around playing with sounds for days on end. I dunno, the way I made this record is much in the way I make demos, but good sounding demos! it's quite a natural approach."

Encompassing psychedelia, krautrock, ambient and the odd Radiohead style soundscape, Matador also includes the 2013 single Buffalo. It's a fine album, demonstrating his often underrated knack for melody and song craft, usually making things sound deceptively simple. But it's also a long way from those early Supergrass songs, a melancholic streak permeating here and there, reflective of his character, which didn't always take well to the limelight in his band's heyday…  "There are a lot of first takes on the album, a lot of first vocal takes. I did most of it at home, then when it all got it a bit too much, I would go into this other studio in Oxford, where I have a friend (Ian Davenport), working with me. And that was brilliant too. I did most of it myself, but I got Loz Colbert on drums on four tracks, my brother (the youngest sibling, Charly) played synth on a track, and I got some backing singers in on a few songs. In the main though, it was just me. What was cool about this record was writing songs on drums, or on the bass, or even starting on a loop. It's been really exciting, doing this on my own."

 

Even doing the artwork for the album was a pleasure it seems… "I did a shoot with Rankin a few months ago for a charity thing. We got on really well, and I asked him at the the time if he would be up for dong another shoot. When we were talking about the artwork with the management, I said: 'why don't we ask Rankin'? He's great to work with, and I trusted him to do the right thing. It was a really spontaneous shot… a quick look, for whatever reason. I was proud to put that on the cover."

Known primarily as a guitarist, Coombes can turn his hand to most things it seems. "I play a bit of everything really. There's been many, many rehearsals where I've jumped onto the drum kit, and annoyed the other band members. Bass has always been my favourite instrument though, I've written a lot of songs on that. "I don't really know what my first instrument is. I guess guitar, but I learnt piano before I learnt guitar.

"When I was 13 or 14 I wanted to play in a band, and met Danny Goffey (who remained with Supergrass throughout their career) and a few other people. But, piano is not very rock 'n' roll. Well, it wasn't at the time. I thought this isn't going to look good, and guitar took over. But I've always played piano over the years."

Touring with a five piece band, Gaz & Co road tested the new material last November. "There's Ben Walker on keys, and messing with loops and samples as well, to try and keep the experimental vibe of the record. He's my Brian Eno, if you like. Then there's bass, drums, guitar and me. We did three shows in November, a showcase for the album. That was amazing, one of the best shows I've ever done. Luckily, I've got great people working with me at Caroline (his label), a bunch of people who just like music. It feels really good, like it did when we were with Parlophone in 94' and 95'.

Jeff Hemmings

Website: gazcoombes.com
Facebook: twitter.com/gazcoombes
Twitter: facebook.com/GazCoombes