The Press Article
Hey! Hey! We're The Cheeky Monkeys!
And people are wont to say they monkey around. But for Oxfordshire's Supergrass, rumbustious rock'n'roll mixed with bags of youthful insouciance has meant a Number 1 with their debut album. Interview: Stuart Maconie.
In Spinal Tap, that penetrating cinema verité dissection of the music industry, various scenes are offered as examples of the rampant absurdity of the rock'n'roll business: ill-advised bookings at air force bases, labyrinthine backstage tunnels, pathetically small Styrofoam Stonehenges.
Such thoughts come to mind when, on a blistering Saturday afternoon, we are driven, your Q party and the rock'n'roll phenomenon that is Supergrass, through the streets of Glasgow in a metallic grey Rolls-Royce en route for the art deco factory where Tunnock's delicious range of chocolate-based comestibles are created. We arrive to find what might be termed a gaggle of employees and their children standing in the sunshine by the factory gates. One small boy is stripped to the waist revealing a large tableau on his diminutive chest comprising the legend "Tunnock's Tea Cakes" and below "Supergrass" all surmounted by a stylised representation of the aforesaid chocolately tea-time treat. One can only hope that this is not a real tattoo or difficulties aplenty await in adult life.
Autographs are signed, caramel logs are munched with gusto. The Tunnock dynasty, of whom many are present, politely ignore the fact that singer Gaz Coombes is elsewhere and that drummer Danny Goffey is trooping filthily bare-foot around their hermetically clean premises. As we go, head honcho Archibald Tunnock regales us with statistics: three tons of caramel is stirred daily in this vat, that Swiss wrapping machine handles 17,000 of something in an afternoon. Earlier in the day, guitarist Mickey Quinn had been asked for the most absurd and extra-ordinary Tap-esque events that have befallen Supergrass to date and he had demurred on the grounds that they would be lurid and unprintable. But as he is lifted on to a small platform of chocolate marshmallows in order to be snapped by a "smudge" from the local paper, he turns and whispers, "Forget what I said. This is the most outrageous thing we've ever done."
Engine purring, Archie Tunnock's Roller (Registration AT 12) takes our entourage away. We are waved off by the Tunnocks (pause for Sid James-style throaty chuckle) plus their charming workforce and kin. The sun beats down. We stop at some traffic lights and reflect on the strangeness of it all. As we pull away, a ruddy Glaswegian clad only in upsettingly brief football shorts espies us and points to his similarly-attired companion. "Look," he cries, "it's M People!"
It's been, as the triffids once said, a hell of a summer, and it's had it's ups and downs. In the minus column, there's been smog, giant wasps and John Redwood, but on the plus side there's been Dominic Cork, alcoholic lemonade and a summer single as perfectly formed as a Faberge egg. Short of hiding in a hollowed-out sofa in the lounge of the Thurso lighthouse, it is hard to see how one might have avoided Supergrass's Alright and its radiant and manifold charms; the thumping barrelhouse piano, the perky, vivacious bass line, the Albatross-like harmony guitar break and, best of all, the cutest line in a pop song for some years: "We get up/We go out/Smoke a fag/Put it out". The way it's belted out of building site trannies all summer long and united young and old, goth, hippy and punk alike in joyous singalong recalls Mungo Jerry and Paul Burnett and the pop Augusts of childhood.
Lying in the shade of their tour bus backstage at Glasgow's T In The Park festival, Gaz draws on a shapeless, fragrant and elephantine roll-up and recalls "it wasn't written as an anthem. It isn't supposed to be a rally cry for our generation. The stuff about "We are young/We run green..." isn't about being 19 but really 13 or 14 and just discovering girls and drinking. It's meant to be light-hearted and a bit of a laugh, not at all a rebellious call to arms." And as Danny remembers: "It certainly wasn't written in a very summery vibe. It was written in a cottage where the heating had packed up and we were trying to build fires to keep warm."
"I wouldn't say we knew it was a hit as soon as we wrote it," proposes Mickey, "but when it was recorded, it sounded very good. Even just listening to the backing track it obviously had something. The thing is it sounds brilliant on the radio or in a car. Probably even better than on a big system at home."
And the word "infectious" might have been coined for it, though Gaz now feels that "annoying" might be nearer the mark: "You go in a shop and it's on and you wince a bit. Not because I'm not proud of the song but because it doesn't represent us fully. Songs like Lose It and Wait For The Sun or Sofa are very different."
"There is another side to us. The dark side," offers Mickey with an inappropriate grin.
Who, then, are the 'Grass - or, as the even more familiar know them, The 'Arse? Memorably described by Q's David Quantick as "nine-year-old boys with beards", Gaz, Danny and Mickey are, in fact, 19, 21 and 25 respectively. For the uninitiated, Gaz is the one whose defiantly "Is it for a play or something?" mutton chop sidies and noble cheek bones make him look like nothing so much as the Brad Pitt of Planet Of The Apes. Danny is the wraith-like drummer, a youth so skinny that you wonder where the flailing Keith Moon conviction comes from. He's also the most gregariously goofy, even in such cordial company, and, one imagines, the most likely to drive a Roller (not Mr Tunnock's heaven forbid) into a hotel swimming pool. Though he hates to be cast as calming paternal hand, Mickey is shrewder and more knowing, with the steadying influence of a small baby at home. This trio is essentially the deal, although for live performance they are augmented on keyboards by Gaz's brother Bobsie. Yes, the 'Grass are a family concern. Danny's brother Nicky is responsible for their characteristically larksome videos.
Skies are blue for Supergrass right now. Things were not always so good, though. The mind wanders till it alights upon the memory of a gig as Islington's now defunct Smashed club one Thursday night in 1990 and, on stage, a band called The Jennifers; mid-teens from Oxford who exemplified the carnival of aimlessness that was the "shoegazing" scene and who had aped without compunction the slovenly stance of neighbours Ride. The Jennifers were bloody awful. After one unloved single (now, naturally changing hands for silly money) on Nude records, home of Suede, they wisely knocked - or rather tapped it listlessly - on the head and retreated to the dreaming spires.
Two of them were not to be put off though, and had made a touching pact to continue to work together whatever happened to the luckless Jennifers. Gaz and Danny (for it was they) nurtured dreams of rock stardom yet and spent the days jamming and listening to a whole lot of much better records than previously (Beatles, Hendrix, Neil Young, etc). By day Danny was, implausibly, a dinner lady or, more correctly, dinner lad, while Gaz had found employment at the local Harvester, where one of his colleagues was bedroom recording musician Michael Quinn. History does not record whether either said beamingly, "Have you been in a rock group before?" to the other over the salad counter. However, it is known that they became the inspirationally named Supergrass soon after (following a brief spell as the somewhat less punchy Theodore Supergrass) and lo, they were very good indeed.
"There was a feeling that something was going to happen," remembers Gaz. "All the early gigs were packed and people were getting very excited. Our families and friends kept badgering us for autographs saying, We want them now because they'll be worth something when you're famous. There was a lot of interest from majors, a lot of big money offers flying around."
It was all very different from Mickey's first sighting of the other two in an Oxfordshire village hall when "the only lighting they had was two strobes where were on throughout the whole show. They played stuff like Dinosaur Jr covers and Danny kept doing these crap drum rolls." A six-track demo tape recorded under the auspices of local music producer Sam Williams did the rounds in the autumn of 1993 and saw them quickly snapped up by Parlophone. One of the tracks on the demo, Caught By The Fuzz, was to become their debut single.
Caught By The Fuzz provided a snapshot, no, a Dulux matchpot of what the total Supergrass experience might entail. Two and a quarter minutes of nervous energy and '77 vintage vim, it relates the true story of how the 15-year-old Gaz was busted for smoking dope. The tearfully remorseful, terrified and self-pitying tone is much more the authentic voice of adolescence than anything the Sex Pistols ever recorded. All thoughts of overthrowing the government will have to be postponed because, frankly, Gaz's mum is going to kill him. "If only my brother could be here now/He'd get me out, he'd sort me out alright," he pleads winningly. Caught By The Fuzz sorted Supergrass out alright, showing respectably in the national chart and reaching the Top 5 of John Peel's Festive 50.
Pushed as to why The Jennifers were so terrible and Supergrass just dandy, Danny laughingly reminds one that "we were just little fishes. The Jennifers were a school band, a YTS band. We were 15, 16; we needed to grow up. The two or three years that have gone between are the two years where you learn a lot in life." Formative years, agrees Gaz, of "shit jobs and drugs and male bonding. There were no great tragedies, no great angst. We just grew up as people and as musicians." Mickey is more blunt about why The Jennifers were so poor: "Because I wasn't in them," he states baldly. The others think for a moment and then agree.
Caught By The Fuzz begat their first Top 20 hit, Mansize Rooster, a song apparently boasting of being manfully, er, equipped despite one's tender years, though this is by no means clear from the lyric. Supergrass were becoming pop stars at a rate that makes the average meteor seem laggardly. All the right things were happening. They ran into trouble with Hugh grant's "people" over using "that" mugshot on a poster. Gaz was offered five figures to pose in his underkeks - or, if you will, "grundies" - by Calvin Klein but didn't have the time. He and the others were putting the finishing touches to the Supergrass debut album, I Should Coco.
It was recorded at Sawmills Studios in Cornwall. To reach it, you take the car as far as it's possible, walk half a mile down a disused railway track, then take a boat under a rock arch and out to the studio. It's remote. Just the sort of place to chill out and get your Tolkienish acoustic epic done. Oddly, Supergrass came up with a tersely teenage 40 minutes that has set punters and critics aflame. Rave review have come fitted as standard and rightly so. In terms of sales, I Should Coco has surprised even its most fervent admirers by entering the chart at Number 1 and dislodging hirsute soft-rock pin-up Jon Bon Jovi who, in turn, has ousted wan hairless oddball Michael Jackson.
Danny claims, unconvincingly, to have been "actually a little sad at knocking Jon Bon Jovi off the top. He puts in a lot of hard work and he's a good icon for teenagers. Michael Jackson - well, he tries hard too."
"I used to love Michael Jackson," says Gaz. "I had Thriller when I was 12. Everybody did. I keep forgetting we got to Number 1. We haven't succumbed to all the rock star stuff yet. You mustn't let yourself get blasé about things though. Although you can't help it a little... I mean," his voice drops to a whisper, "did you know that we're playing with The Rolling Stones in Germany? I mean, that is something, isn't it?"
Danny interrupts, "You went back to bed when I told you."
"Well, I know, but I was excited. What do you want me to do - shout, Fucking Hell! and jump out of the window?
Coming, as it did, warmish on the heels of fêted records by Blur, Oasis, Elastica, Pulp et al, I Should Coco and the Supergrass phenomenon was reckoned to be more than just one Oxfordshire trio's shot for the big time. The success of Supergrass is seen as a vindication of the Britpop renaissance that's been coming to the boil for two years. This seems self-evident, but Gaz isn't having it.
"Does it have anything to do with British pop? Isn't it just something to do with Supergrass having made a good album? Isn't it just an individual thing? I don't feel part of a Britpop scene. I don't feel any association with the other bands, even though I like some of them. I like The Bluetones and The Nubiles and The Mystics"
"Black Grape, man," says Danny from a prone position where he is cooling himself with a small fan of the electric variety. "Excellent group."
"Yeah," continues Gaz "but a lot of the other stuff doesn't interest me. I mean the bill we're on today: Elastica, Echobelly, Menswear. I mean, no offence, lovely people but we're nothing to do with that. The bloke from Menswear came up to me and said, straight-faced, "Gaz, let's bond." He was desperate to know what I thought of his band. He's a nice bloke but why should I want to bond with Menswear?"
"We never get in the gossip columns," opines Danny. "Menswear are in every week."
On the other hand, the 'Grass are in no doubt of the value of attitude.
"You've got to have an attitude, something that comes through your music that sets you apart. Music stands alone but attitude is vital in bringing it across. And I think with us it's youthful, it's easy-going, it's fun. It's not nationalistic or political. It's a god time thing."
Danny confesses to having been a "bit" of a raver, very into raving and all that, and I think that comes across. Not in the music but in the attitude. There's a real feel of being up for a good time."
He's right, but it's not the louche, slightly mucky good time espoused by Primal Scream or The Rolling Stones. It is, as Gaz points out, easy-going, optimistic, stoical and full of bonhomie - "Can't go mad/Ain't got time" as they sing in one of alright's charming couplets. If Kurt Cobain's worldview was best expressed as "I Hate Myself And I Want To Die" then Supergrass's is "Mustn't Grumble And The Pubs Are Open".
Mickey reflects that "people wanted a bit of a change after all that grunge stuff. In the beginning I thought some of the stuff we do was a bit cheesy, popular knees-up sort of stuff but I've realised now that it was just right for times when there wasn't much happy stuff about. It was all Nirvana. A lot of it was not interesting or catchy. Now a lot of stuff about us is a piss-take, like the videos. And I think people find that refreshing. The Smiths were often morose but they were catchy and they had this cheeky edge. That's what made it so good. Dark stuff can get a bit one-dimensional."
The 'Grass are delighted to have found favour, as reported in these very pages, with Morrissey. "That, to me, means more than having a Number 1 album," says Mickey, soberly. Among other alumni who have given them their seal of approval are Ian Astbury of The Cult ("When he started he was all fresh and excited like us, but then he went through everything. Rehab about three times, the lot. He said if it all started to go like that for us to give him a ring and we'd go for a drink") and The Cure's Robert Smith, who has invited the band to join him on tour. Having been a local pre-teenage celebrity of sorts with his primary school band, the Fallopian Tubes, Danny's head remains unturned. "At 10 I was signing autographs in return for a peek at girls' knickers. I know the score. I suppose we could become a stadium band. Look at Blur. I mean, they're practically one now and who would have thought of that?"
"I don't mind as long as we still make music we're proud of," ventures Mickey. "If we could do it like R.E.M. who are still credible and have done it their way, recycling their waste and being very PC. They seem something to emulate."
By the way, what are your groupies like?
"I don't get involved in any of that," Mickey replies instantly and sternly.
"Dwarf negro lesbian trannies," says Danny and wanders off to watch Black Grape.
"Oh, do I have to? Can't you tell them I've had a drug overdose or something?" It is later the same sticky afternoon and Danny is trying to wheedle his way out of the band's engagement at the festival's signing tent where punters come to have bits of their anatomy autographed and where, in a queer how-do-you-do, Kermit from Black Grape is to fall and break his leg just prior to taking the stage.
"Oh, come on, Danny. It'll do your ego the world of god," cajoles Mickey wryly. Now straddling the twin worlds of serious rock acceptance and teeny adulation. Supergrass are learning, unlike Kermit, to take these things in their stride. They don't seem to mind the promo chores beyond a certain longing to hang around, chill, chew fat and watch band rather than be continually on call to, as Gaz has it "be at the mercy of everyone with a radio mike who wants two minutes of your time. I'd never mind taking time to sign an autograph for a fan but these people want a piece of you for business reasons." He suddenly looks panic-stricken. "Not that I mind talking to you. This is different, really." Aaahh...
Which brings us to Tunnock's caramel Wafers. Following a recent and, dare we say it, perhaps apocryphal tale of Danny's addiction to Tunnock's excellently chewy fare, the company invited the band to "take five" from their T In The Park itinerary to visit their bakery. It's a lightning tour, a bit of silliness, one for the album, so to speak. It does, at least, add something to the slim list of rock/confectionery crossovers apart from Marianne Faithful's legendary Mars bar experiments. And some little kids are made happy for a while: perhaps the ultimate triumph of all pop music.
In the still, tropical air of mid-evening, Supergrass are scheduled to take the stage in an admittedly vast marquee whilst Therapy? are frightening the children with their cathartic self-loathing on the main stage. The logistics are all wrong but it's too late to stop now. The 'Grass are on stage at 8.40 and by quarter past eight, insane queues stretch from every available opening of the tent. Tempers fray, the Po-liss swoop, it gets fractious. Roughly four times as many people want to see the band than are going to squeeze into that boiling, wreaking 500-capacity tent. Such is the press of the throng that only by frenzied blagging does your Q reporter succeed in getting in, then getting backstage, then finally and fortuitously finding a spot on the stage, somewhere a few yards east of Danny's right elbow. This is the view as Supergrass see it and it's an eye-opener.
For one, the noise is bowel-loosening. When the band play Alright or for that matter Lenny or indeed any old B-side, the crowd run Gaz's amplified vocals a very close second. Then there's the heat. You are sodden within seconds by the blast of hot air coming off their bodies. A constant, yucky drizzle of condensing sweat falls from the tent roof. There are business men who would pay good money for this kind of sensual experience. Supergrass play their rousing set including covers of The Kinks' Where Have All The Good Times Gone and the Mickey Newbury-penned, Kenny Rogers-recorded I Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In. Aside from a terrific performance of the obscure Odd, the highlight, naturally, is Alright. Three and a half minutes, no fat, reminds you why you got suckered by all this in the first place. All the usual clichés apply, ringingly.
Afterwards, people get a little emotional. "I knew I didn't want to play any more but I knew I didn't want to leave the stage either," says Gaz in the cool twilit tour bus "I just wanted to stay there and look at them. I wanted to say (affects kittenishly cute visage) I'll miss you...really." The band are driving through the night tonight from Glasgow to Heathrow, from whence, at nine, they fly to Valencia for a festival. Ridiculous, yes, but they are making hay while the sun shines.
Except the sun might be shining for a long time yet for Supergrass. Their second album is, it seems, partially written but they claim to have no real idea what it will sound like. "It won't be string sections and cellos," says Mickey, "but then again, I wouldn't want to dismiss that completely. You never know what we'll feel like in five years time."
"It probably won't be a techno record. There'll be a few comedy songs, some punk, some country and western stuff, a bit of J. J. Cale, some bitchin' riffs," offers Danny.
I Should Coco has been short-listed for the Mercury Prize, the winner to be announced on September 12. Last year, the prestigious award was won by M People. Given that none of Supergrass is a six-foot black woman with a towering mop of curls, perhaps that's where our Glaswegian friend was getting confused.
Q - October 1995