The Press Article
Supergrass - Road to Rouen - 2005
What's happened to Supergrass?
The brand new sounds of Supergrass's fifth record (in stores on September 27th) might frighten the horses. But only if the horses are timid, unadventurous types who think Supergrass should still be doing buzzsaw pop, ten years after they re-invented the form with I Should Coco.
Yes, they have been through the most difficult period of their decade-plus existence. There was personal upheaval and professional wobbles; life happening, in other words.
For a minute there the Supergrass we know and cherish didn't even exist. But being the plucky, hardcore, music-loving band of brothers that they are, they got a grip and soldiered on. And they have made a record that is utterly, intriguingly, brilliantly different...hiding in a barn in Normandy.
They had signed off a decade together as a band with last year's 'best of', Supergrass is 10. Gaz Coombes (vocals, guitar, beard): "A celebration of just getting to 10 years - it was a benchmark; to gather songs together and see what we'd done. Then it was a case of turning the page." Mick Quinn (bass): "We spent a year touring Supergrass Is 10, and obviously that dredges up all the more commercial big hits. Which was fine, but we had moved on from 'Alright' we had done three albums since then."
The Road To Rouen started with the idea of Supergrass building their own studio. They've self-produced their albums before, but this time they would go further. Their new record wouldn't be One Louder. It'd be One Wilder.
Gaz: "We all record demos at home, and I've always been happy with that sound you get in your bedroom. You don't mean to, you don't plan to go lo-fi, but you come up with say this glorious bass sound and it's never like that in the studio. Why is that? With all those wires and leads and engineers?"
Mick: "Cause they're doing it right?"
Gaz: "Well, yeah, doing it the way they've always done it for 20 years or whatever."
Danny: "And we've got none of that technical experience, so it's really good
to just go for it and make mistakes."
For reasons Supergrass will have to tell you themselves, the band has got a barn in Normandy. They begged, borrowed and bought a bunch of recording equipment and installed it in this space in the wilds of northern France.
Nothing fancy, mind you. This jerry-built recording environment was more gang hut than Stones Mobile. We don't want to use the word 'organic', but unfortunately we just have. Between November 2004 and January 2005, this cheap 'n' cheerful rustic idyll was Chateau 'Grass.
Rob Coombes (keyboards): "We'd run around outside the barn catching the eggs coming out of the hens, before they hit the ground."
Mick: "Normandy is very empty, not many people in all that countryside. There was plenty space to make noise."
But amongst all the escapism and adventurism, there were shadows. 'It's been a strange couple of years,' says Gaz. Always a private person, he only mentions this reluctantly. 'The weirdest two years of the band's career. It just makes life challenging. I had the birth of my daughter and then within months Rob and I lost our Mum, you know, extreme highs and lows. And during the making of the record there were problems within the band. Danny had to step away for a couple of months; it definitely put more pressure on the three of us to get the record finished in time. It was important to complete the album otherwise all those songs and frustrations would have been left hanging around. But those things gave the songs more weight and a kind of emotional strength.
Reunited, Supergrass found they were working together better than ever before. Road To Rouen is packed with ideas. Surprises at every turn. For reverb, the band customized an old well outside the barn. First single 'St Petersburg' deploys a zither to memorable effect, as well as gentle strings and a clip-clopping rhythm. A Seventies-vibe travelogue, if you like, it was recorded live in one take. The title track began life as an idea for film about a killer-kidnapper cruising French motorways (just as 'Brecon Beacons' from 2002's Life On Other Planets began as a film about witches).
As some of the song titles suggest, much of Road To Rouen is about a journey, travelling, going places, moving on, growing up. Again, you'll have to see them for more detail. 'Kick In The Teeth' has great wobbly space keyboards in the middle-eight.
Speaking of Low C; "The demo was sort of Lennon-y. It's kinda melancholic, retrospective" says Gaz. "It was inspired by going to see Neil Young and he had some crazy tunings on his guitar, I suppose that's kind of where the title came from; ridiculously low strung guitars. It's a great sound"
In the middle of the album is 'Coffee In The Pot', a chewy instrumental that (I'm saying) feels like a bossa nova children's theme. It came together in four hours, as the band hunted for a string sound on the studio equipment they were still cheerfully trying to get a grip of. They found a five-second sample of an old jazz band were they Cuban? that had an odd sound. Having worked out that it was made with wood blocks and ukleles and guitars, they dismantled it and re-imagined it themselves.
"It's the interval," says Gaz. It's the edge of a vinyl record, sort of a visual thing" says Mickey.
Then there's 'Roxy', a seven-minute 'suite' of strings, electric guitars, gentle keyboards and drums that sound like helicopters. Most bands would stick their wig-out number at the end of the album. Not Supergrass.
They anchored theirs at the heart of Road To Rouen. And, why not?
Road To Rouen, in a very good way, is all over the place. Even its length is refreshing in this era of a music business gripped by gigantism. Nine songs, 36 minutes and 37 seconds. It didn't need to be any longer.
"It felt right to make a smaller record," says Mickey. "We'd built a studio on our own. We didn't want to bite off more than we could chew. It's quite an ambitious record; to have gone on any further might have been to much."
Album opener 'Tales OF Endurance Pts 4,5 & 6' was a key song. (Pts 1, 2 and 3 will come out years hence, they say, full of digital jiggery-pokery (...if it's OK for George Lucas...). As well as reflecting in its title, what they've been going through these last two years, sonically its typical of the new adventurous spirit within Camp Supergrass; it's a bluesy ramble full of brass and piano. "Don't look back, it's far to fall" sings Gaz. "Count the hours, face the fears" Then he mentions "commercial suicide". A comment on what they're doing musically?
"Ah, in places, possibly," muses Gaz, still trying to process all these ideas himself. "I suppose you always want the music to go down well and there's often insecurities, but in a way, that lyric was our confidence coming through, Y'know, this is what we're doing, we'll take any shit that comes our way as a result."
And if a by-product of all this is Supergrass's least (immediately) poppy album but ultimately, perhaps, their most rewarding so be it?
'We wanted to do a record that's pretty honest, says Gaz. You know, trying not to focus on some sort of massive commercial connection. If we'd done ten more Pumping On Your Stereos or Graces we wouldn't have been showing anyone anything new. We had to make the record this way to survive musically as a band. The upheavals made us value the band more. When it's not going right you really miss it. We had a rough period and some things were uncertain, but one thing that was certain was the finishing of the record."
So...The stuff of life. Birth and death. Confusion and reconciliation. A zither, a ukelele, Led Zep-style psychedelic-folk, brass, strings, the model of drum machine used by Sly & The Family Stone, a song that began as a video inspired by classic Dutch kidnap chiller The Vanishing all these are on Road To Rouen.
Gaz Coombes thinks for a minute. 'As you get older life does have a habit of doing little u-turns on you occasionally, and you just have to deal with that. We're lucky that we're in music - it's a good place to sort through all that stuff.'
So here we are, a decade on. Wha's happened to Supergrass? They've started Chapter Two. A whole new adventure on the Road To Rouen.
Capitol Music Canada - 2005