The Press Article
Just when you thought summer was over, Supergrass extend it by releasing their third album.
HELEN DALLEY spoke to Gaz Coombes about solos, seriousness and the future of guitar music.
You're in for a surprise here: Supergrass have changed. They're no longer simply about being young, free, cavorting round making daft videos and feelin' Alright.
Their third album is just out, and the band are seemingly finding their feet - hell, they're even writing serious songs, talking about musical ambition and how they still have a lot to do. So have the darlings of the now defunct Britpop scene finally grown up?
Don't worry too much: they're still making great guitar music and they haven't lost their inimitable sense of humour, either. But they have been listening to Frank Sinatra and Curtis Mayfield. Don't let them fool you by writing songs about pumping on your stereo, Supergrass have different things to offer this time around...
AN UNEASY STAR?
Nevertheless, it seems appropriate that on the day TG meets Supergrass at their record label offices down in London, it's a bright sunny day. Not only are they cheery, Supergrass are a down-to-earth bunch. Gaz and Mick are travelling by train from Brighton and oxford respectively for the interview - there's no swanky pad within spitting distance of the Met Bar for these boys.
When Gaz arrives, clad in sunglasses and sandals, his trademark sideburns intact, he seems shy and untouched by stardom - not quite what you'd expect. Where is the larger than life character as depicted on the album cover of their debut I Should Coco? - or the cheeky chappie in those madcap videos Alright and Pumping On Your Stereo? Or the cool dude who appeared on the cover of The Face, the same one who turned down the opportunity to model underwear for Calvin Klein? Even though he isn't, Gaz comes across as your average kind of guy, unspoilt by fame and fortune. He later attributes this to his family and friends... and by not living in London.
It may be that notoriously difficult third album that the band have just finished, but Gaz says it was actually easier than In It For The Money to record. There's a reason for that, though: "I think it has something to do with us going into rehearsals quite early - about February or March last year. For three months, we were writing songs, so that sorted it all out for the studio. Basically, we were more organised this time around, and as the songs were sorted, we were then freer to experiment with sounds."
That's all very well, but what does the LP really sound like? Gaz has already intimated that the new record has a 'groovier' sound to it than the two previous albums...
"Yeah; I dunno for what reason. I suppose I've been listening to a bit more soul music. I've always listened to it, just a bit more so recently. Curtis Mayfield and Sly And The Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, too. And even stuff like Frank Sinatra: just emotional sort of music." Was is a conscious effort to make a record with a different sound to it? "I don't think we ever do anything consciously to that degree. The only conscious thing was to approach it with a raw kind of attitude, to play it live and just get the vibes across. Pumping... is a perfect example of that kind of thing, it was all about the vibe of England, beaches, the World Cup tournament; we recorded it around that time. It's not a particularly good song, I think it's more of a good vibe, atmosphere song. But that was a conscious song, all the rest... well, songs just come out, don't they?" For some lucky people, Gaz, yeah!
DEEP OR SHALLOW?
The second single Moving, out now, is markedly different from Pumping...
"It's the story of the album really," Gaz elaborates. "The next one after Moving is different again." Moving is something of a sad song for Supergrass... perhaps you could even term it (gulp!) deep.
"Yeah," agrees Gaz. "It wasn't intentional, though. When I first played it, it just kinda came out, creating with it this quite melancholy feeling, about getting out of a rut and moving onto something new that you're not really sure about." Writing a non-happy song perhaps? "The chorus is much more immediate," he adds quickly. "It's two different songs really. My brother (keyboard player Ed) had the chords on the piano for the chorus, I had the verse bit, then when we got in the studio, we added some strange stuff with the Hammond."
But it's not all about new songs; a remix of Sun Hits The Sky is about to surface, created by Ali G (cheeky DJ character off Channel 4's The Eleven O'Clock Show).
"It's not really like that," Gaz is keen to point out. "Everyone is making it sound loads more than it really is. What happened was Talk Back productions sent me a fax asking if I'd like to go on the Ali G show. Basically, the idea was, I'll go on and start singing to Sun Hits the Sky and while I'm singing he's there with the mixing desk and he started feeding in drum'n'bass stuff, and towards the end, he comes and unplugs my guitar and the whole track would just be his drum n bass track. But it's translated into that we've done a remix with Ali G. It was just a bit of fun," finishes Gaz.
NOT JUST ABOUT FUN
The act of going on TV and having as ironic a character as Ali take the mickey out of you is something many bands would be far too precious to consider, so it speaks volumes about Gaz's character.
"Yeah, he took the piss out of me. What is it with this monkey man thing, though? (presumably Gaz is referring to his sideboards). Fuck it, though, I've had that for the last how-many years. It doesn't really bother me, I just laugh. I got my own back anyway - I had a dig at him for his little goatee beard. You've gotta have a laugh about it, you can't get too serious about stuff like that. It's not worth it."
Which brings us onto how Supergrass view themselves and how they would like to be viewed. Essentially, they're regarded as a feel-good band, but does Gaz wish people would take them more seriously sometimes? "Erm..." there is a pause. "Maybe, I dunno. I think the people who are really into the band, they know there's different sides to us. The part-time listeners seem to zoom in on certain aspects of us. It doesn't bother me, because we're equally spread, emotionally and moodwise as a band. We have bad days just like anybody, and songs like Moving show that." He adds, "Of all our videos, for instance, there's only really Alright and Pumping... and maybe Late In The Day with an obvious sort of humour. Lenny and Caught By The Fuzz, for example, are a lot more like rock'n'roll videos. People don't remember that. I don't get pissed off about it, but I sort of wish that people would see a little bit more into it, not just be so surface about it all."
Part of the reason is this: "We play parts in our songs, like in Alright, we were jolly little lads, cockney boys, when you're 13 and just discovering everything, riding your bikes and stuff. But I was 18, Mick was 25, Danny was 23 and we weren't really like that at that point. but people didn't understand that. Maybe it's too subtle for them, it wasn't obvious enough that it was a piss-take."
Anyway, enough of singles, videos and whether Supergrass are regarded as they should be, lets get serious: does Gaz rate himself as a player?
"Er... I started off on the piano, y'see," he explains apologetically.
Even an early started like Gaz, who landed a record deal before he was 17 with his school band The Jennifers didn't discover the delights of the guitar "until about 12 or 13," he confesses. but don't think he sat there playing over the latest rock hits.
"Everything I've learned, I've just started to play and done my own way. I don't think I'm technically very good," he says. "I just put feeling there, it's more about playing with sounds When we play live, I think we're really tight and we've got loads better. And when it comes to recording, I can create weird sounds, by not playing orthodox." As for his solos, Gaz finds it hard to describe them. "I don't know what they are - blues maybe - it's really hard to explain. It's just a riff that sounds good, or something like that, isn't it? Mick's a really good guitar player," he says changing the subject. TG has heard a rumour that he played on Alright...
"He played the Hawaiian guitar on Alright," affirms Gaz. "We share parts, 'cos I play bass. It's really good to be able to swap over. I play a lot of drums as well... we probably spend about half of rehearsals playing each other's instruments. But that's how we get good songs." So that's their secret. Go multi-instrumental and you too can have a string of hits...
Getting slightly more technical, what about the solos on this album? "There's less of them than on the other two albums, it's really weird," explains Gaz. "Me and Mick were talking about it when we'd just finished recording. There's a lot more... not solos, but not rhythm - just things happening with the guitars. There's one track called Aeon, which is basically just Eno-esque-y layered guitars, like you'd do strings or something. There's about 12 guitars on that track, but it doesn't really sound like guitars, it sounds like a cacophony... but it's really tight, it's not messy guitar. And there's a lot of picking in it, which I'm really into." This all sounds intriguing. another one of real interest to guitarists is a track called Far Away.
"It's got a lot of bad plucking on it!" he laughs, "and a really odd solo with a volume pedal. That's a good example of what I like about solos: root sound then the volume pedal. It works well dynamically."
His past favourite solos include, "Sitting Up Straight, on I Should Coco. I still can't actually play it, and I don't understand it now! The Strange Ones I like as well..."
THAT FIRST SOLO
Some are born with a natural, dazzling aptitude for guitar but those are few and far between. For most, playing improves with good old-fashioned hard slog, and Gaz is no exception to this rule.
"It's just knowing the guitar, knowing where to go. I still don't know scales and stuff like that, I've never been into sitting down at night, working out scales. It's just trial and error throughout the years really. Playing dud notes and remembering not to play them again!," he proclaims.
Gaz can still recall mastering his first solo.
"One of my first memories of being in the studio was playing this solo for a song when I was about 14. Danny and Ed (Gaz's brother) were egging me on, crouched down on their knees, and I did it. It was like, wow!"
The inspiration for that solos came from two rather different players: "Hendrix, really basic aspects of Hendrix. Just the blues stuff, and the riffs and the vibe of some of it I feel quite close to. I think Neil Young, too, feeling-wise. Who else can play just a one note solo with such feeling?" he questions.
"He's not technically brilliant, it's quite messy in places but it's got character through simplicity. It's down to his sound, the way he strikes the strings, bends the notes. I like that, it didn't seem like he was influenced by anyone but himself. That's pretty much how I feel, I'm always willing to explore new things."
Okay, so there may not be as many solos on the as-yet-untitled third CD from the 'Grass, but there's still a lot of guitar. Gaz gives us the low-down on what he's been using.
"For the harder rhythm stuff, I used my Tele between coil and humbucker - it gives quite a beefy sound, especially with my Fender Twin. For Pumping..., I used a Gibson 335 through a Marshall. There's also a Gibson SG, which doesn't go out of tune and the Burns... Gaz was a big fan of that for a while wasn't he?
"I still love it, it's great for big rhythms because it's got a really wide neck. The chords really sing, rather than being chuggy like a Tele." As for efforts, there aren't that many.
"A lot of it's straight through an amp," explains Gaz. "I've still got my Mesa Boogie pedal and my silver tube pedal, and that's about it really. Oh, and the wah. That's pretty much the same set-up as I had with The Jennifers when I was 14. A couple of distortions - one for extra, extra overdrive. And a delay. It's quite nice to play with sounds after you've put them in, though - I just get weird boxes from the studio. I've got one called the Mutator (made by Mutronics...Ed), which Jonny Greenwood uses on Paranoid Android where it stays on the feedback." Alright for some, eh?
MUSIC AS AN INSPIRATION... OR NOT
Gaz may be a forward-thinking guitar player who isn't scared to experiment, but there are precious few big guitar hits around at the moment... is the experimental thing enough? Even big guitar bands such as Suede and Blur are having trouble attaining consistent top ten chart placings. "Well, I think it's just another sort of phase," says Gaz hopefully.
"It's just another phase of the dance chart music. It was like that before. We were really lucky with I Should Coco, because it was such good timing without us really knowing it. People just wanted to hear that kind of music then. Since Oasis have made it really big, that's opened up the charts a lot. So we were getting a number 2 with Richard III, a complete rock'n'roll Stooges-ish number. We sold as many with Pumping... so it's just the state of the charts. Suede and that aren't really selling less records."
Gaz is less optimistic about some of the musical role models around in 1999. "Are Steps and all these teenage bands anything to look up to? It's not healthy. I'm not saying rock'n'roll is the best or anything, but I think kids should be listening to something they can aspire to. how can you aspire to Steps? Maybe you want to have a haircut like it, but that's it. That's what does my head in really. I was really pleased when my younger brother started listening to Beatles records. All those amazing songs!" he gushes. "If you hear it done by an orchestra in a lift, you still hear those melodies."
But we digress slightly: to return to the question, should guitar music be restyling itself, looking to the future and not to the past? Gaz thinks so...
"But I dunno how you consciously change and develop it," he says. "You can bring technology into it, obviously - which we've done, by using a lot of computers on the album. But we're still quite wary of cutting too many corners and using too many shortcuts. A lot of the stuff we've done just with a four-track is quite limiting, and because it's so limiting, you work your way round things and end up creating sounds that you wouldn't have usually got if it's all there and easy for you. I think guitar music should be changing, but I'm not sure how. All we're doing is trying to put our emotion into it."
That emotion hasn't slipped by unnoticed: Supergrass are an undoubted 90's success story. Many of the band's contemporaries haven't been so lucky, falling by the wayside in the seven years since our cheery trio burst onto the Britpop scene in 1992.
"That's because we weren't Britpop," states Gaz. just like every other band say who have been tarnished with that evil brush. "People spent a long time trying to lump us in with it, but we weren't bothered. So we didn't spend our interviews going, "look, we're not Britpop!," because it didn't mean enough to us to even do that. But having said that, that Britpop thing probably did us a lot of good at the time," he admits. "Obviously, it was a movement of some kind. We came through it 'cos we felt separated from it all, really. I wasn't even into Elastica or Echobelly. Blur were the only one I liked."
THERE'S BETTER TO COME
Seven year on, two award-winning albums later with another one on the way and Supergrass can seemingly do no wrong. but they still feel like they have a lot to do.
"We signed a six-album deal and thought, we'll do these six albums. We write a fair bit of instrumental, moody stuff, so we could do some good stuff for a film. A rock opera!" he jokes. "Tommy, Hair.. The Who were great because of that. they were a British band, but so much larger than life." A bit like Supergrass, really. As for Pete Townshend, Gaz is clearly impressed. "How did he do those windmills and strike the chord?" muses Gaz with a touch of amazement. has he ever had a go? "Probably in rehearsal, jumping up and down, straining the back of my leg!"
Disregard, if you can, the image of Gaz windmilling Townshend-style, or penning a rock opera and listen up, for he has something to say.
"We're still not where we are yet, this album is still not the best we can do," he says, with almost a touch of the tortured artist about him. "But it's 12 more songs that I think have progressed in sound and structure from In It For The Money. It's got the roughness and excitement of the first album and the structure of the second, but it's also expanded; there's a lot more vocals on there, melodies, harmonies... it's more emotional than our previous records, and it goes back to that thing about what music you were listening to. I've also been listening to Frank Sinatra. The orchestration and strings in Sinatra's music, and the Beatles are always inspirational." We warned you: there's a lot more to Supergrass than just having a laugh...
Helen Dalley, Total Guitar - October 1999