Gaz Coombes – Interview 2018

Gaz Coombes is one of those wonderful examples of a lead singer going solo and completely smashing it while moving away in a different direction. Since leaving seminal Britpop group Supergrass, he’s released three fantastic records, Here Come the Bombs, Matador, and brand-new album, World’s Strongest Man. We said that World’s Strongest Man was, “A continuing examination of ideas of masculine power, pride and ego” with, “Coombes laying bare his own frailties, in mind and body.” It’s a truly excellent record, and we sat down with Gaz Coombes to talk World’s Strongest Man, Frank Ocean, hip-hop, Record Store Day and Resident Records.

Matador was a critical and commercial success. Did you feel any pressure to follow that up?
I dunno, I always feel the same thing I guess. When I do another record, it’s about getting a better one than my last one. That’s the only pressure I get, from myself to write better music. If anything, I think it gave me some confidence knowing that Matador was just me in a studio, expressing myself and being instinctive and natural. I felt good going into this one, just knowing that I’ve got to be honest with my ideas. Get things done and keep that interest and spontaneity running through it. I feel like I’m getting into a rhythm now, you know?

You said that World’s Strongest Man was inspired, “Variously by Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man, Frank Ocean’s ‘Blonde’, Californian weed, British woodlands, unchecked masculinity, Neu! and hip-hop”.
The title is poking fun at that ridiculous, entitled alpha male thing. It’s feeling more and more old fashioned as we go forward. It’s just a playful dig at that really. The album itself is about all sorts of things, it’s a snapshot of my headspace over two years really, so there’s everything in there.

What is it about Frank Ocean and hip-hop in particular that resonates with you?
It’s often production stuff. I’m just a solo artist, writing is a singular concept for me. The starting point is always from a singular idea. I think that alone I can relate to other artists, whether it’s Beck, Frank Ocean, or whoever that just build things in that way. Prince, or something, or even Bowie at times, I could relate to that way of working and writing without a band around me in a room. I just really enjoyed that process, it’s quite a free and exciting process to write.

Do you think that happens more in hip-hop as well now?
Well, yeah. It’s not necessarily my school but I can really appreciate what I hear and I think a lot of it is constructed. You know, I’ll start something with a beat or a loop, and then I’ll sit and play some piano chords to that loop and I’ll loop a drum beat. A lot of it is based around loops and jamming with myself essentially. I don’t know how individual hip-hop artists work but it’s sort of starting from a solo point of view.

I think ‘Walk the Walk’ has that laid-back, hip-hop-inspired beat to it…
Yeah, that’s an example of that. I play a lot of drums in my studio, and then I’ll sample beats and almost like make my own breakbeats. I sample myself and then make something from it. Yeah ‘Walk the Walk’, I think even on this session, the drums were taken from my 404 sampler so it’s like a mono feed of that drum beat looping. I just like that way of working, it feels quite immediate and I’m not getting bogged down in production sounds for a whole band. I just take each thing as it comes.

You stated that ‘Walk the Walk’ was about, “Misguided, delusional men that are making the world worse for everyone else”. Can you talk a little more about that?
It’s a fictional tyrant – a fictional character – but with other people in mind that I don’t think I need to explain. Yeah it’s just one of those things, it’s a strange time. I guess these things can’t help but creep in at times into the lyrics.

Is it important for you to be political or does it just happen?
I don’t see it as political, I just see it as being aware of what’s happening around me. Like I said, the album is a snapshot of my whole headspace over a period of time so some of the things on the record are more visceral and more emotional, like being driven by a mad knight, or being in love. Other elements of the record are looking outward at some of the bizarre things that are happening around us. I’m quite happy to feed those kind of things into the lines, like cultural things, but I wouldn’t say I was political. There are people who can write in a political way a lot better than I do, but it’s more visceral possibly.

You released ‘The Oaks’ as a 12 inch single for Record Store Day, with a Leftfield remix. How important is RSD for local record shops? And do you still collect records?
I think it’s great. It’s great to see that there are a lot of great, independent record stores that are doing their thing. Much like when I grew up, I’d go around Oxford to loads of different record stores and pick up mad bits of vinyl. It still seems to resonate with people and I think that’s great. There are some of them that are dropping away which is frustrating but there’s lots of ways of consuming music these days. I like to think that there’s space for everyone, there’s an ease to streaming that seems to connect with people but kids are still really enjoying buying vinyl. Seeing the artwork and seeing exactly how the band wanted it to be and designed it for that 12” scale, it’s cool man. Good to see it still going strong, ish!

Speaking of which, you’re playing at Resident Records in Brighton on 6th May.
Yes, I know it well! I lived in Brighton for ten years between ‘97 and ‘07. I still very much consider Brighton to be my home. Yeah, many afternoons spent in Resident and I had a few friends that worked there over the years. It’s great, I’m looking forward to getting down.

How different are those in-stores, compared to a ‘proper’ gig?
They’re usually kind of chaotic, sort of manic, but fun! It’s just a bit different, it’s nice to be that close to the fans in the store, and they get an intimate gig and I get to play songs in a different way. And I get to say hello to them all, it’s lovely.

World’s Strongest Man contains the thoughts and emotions of a maturing man. When you first approached your solo project was that purely to move away from Supergrass or was it more of a natural movement away?
It was just instinctive really, I would never really calculate anything in that way. I wouldn’t want to mould a sound, or create a sound to appeal to anybody. I wasn’t like “Yeah, I’m 42 I should probably sound a bit more mature”. It’s way more visceral, it’s just a feel. It has everything to it, there’s still some silliness at times and some heavier stuff as well. Life’s way more complicated than it ever was, there’s loads more going on in life. As you grow older you look outward a bit more and look around you and it’s less of my own bubble. There’s all sorts of reasons why it doesn’t sound like music I wrote when I was 18, but I think that’s necessary and it should be that way, to evolve. This is Gaz 2.0, baby!

And you head out on tour soon?
Yeah. Head off on a UK tour May 17th, kicking off at The Garage in Glasgow. It will be a great few months actually, I’m all ready to go. The band is up and running, I’ve got a full band doing the album. It sounds amazing.

Is it a different band from the last tour?
Same band, I think there might be a couple of little changes, but yeah it’s sounding massive. Really, really great, I’m just really excited with what they’ve done. We’ve managed to translate the record quite beautifully live. It’s a very exciting thing.

Liam McMillen