“It's been the most creative period in my life so far...” hmv.com talks to Gaz Coombes
For much of the 1990s and beyond, Gaz Coombes was the proud owner of Britain's most famous sideburns as the frontman of Oxford-based trio Supergrass, a band whose knack for songwriting saw them score a string of hits and deliver six studio albums before finally calling it a day in 2010.
Since then, Coombes has embarked on a solo career that has so far produced two albums – 2012's Here Come the Bombs and 2015's Matador – the latter earning the singer and guitarist a nomination at that year's Mercury Music Prize.
This week he returns with his third solo album, World's Strongest Man, which arrives in stores today. Ahead of its release, we caught up with Gaz to talk about adjusting to life as a solo artist, the inspiration for his new album, and why he doesn't feel compelled to play Supergrass songs in his live sets...
So this is your third solo album, how are you enjoying life as a solo artist compared to being in a band?
“Yeah, a lot is different actually, it's a lot more work! It's all down to little old me. The lack of delegating was a bit of a shock to the system, it took a year or so to get into that mode. But yeah, it's been a pretty amazing four or five years I reckon, it's been the most creative period in my life so far. That's not to downplay anything Supergrass did, I'm incredibly proud of that whole time, in that 20 or 25 years we did some incredible stuff, but I don't see the problem with looking at it in a completely different way.”
Has it changed much in terms of the creative process?
“Being in a band is all about the dynamics and creating a singular voice with different people, all being in that zone, travelling around as a gang and all of those elements, everyone writing together and forgetting who wrote what. I like that as well, but it just seems to feel right at the moment, it really fits where I am to just get into my studio and explore, create and just make some mad music that I really enjoy making. I'm just really pleased that performing it live now has sort of taken it to another level, I've just managed to get a really great bunch of guys to play live with. I guess that 25 years down the line, for me to be still getting the buzz that I get from playing live shows is really, really special. It's been a really exciting, creative few years.”
When did you start working on the new record?
“Probably about a year ago, or maybe the end of 2016. I'd just come out of all the touring for Matador and I guess I kind of had a little break just to gather my thoughts. But there's like an inbuilt clock, it's weird, but once you've done the touring for an album, you have a couple of months and then it just feels like 'right, next one'. That seems to always be quite an instinctive point really.”
Looking through some of your inspirations for the album, you've cited Grayson Perry's book The Descent of Man, which talks a lot about masculinity - does that feed into the title of the new album?
“Yeah, it does, it was one influence among many things, but I'm happy for it to have been highlighted in a way. I'd already written quite a few of the lyrics, and I guess this was last summer, I was doing a little summer reading and taking little trips away just to get out the house. That was something that really spoke to me, I thought it was an incredible bit of writing, really non-judgemental, really interesting and insightful. I don't know why but it just really hit me and it's something I've struggled with at times myself in terms of how to manage vulnerability, quirks, one's own failings if you like, or just uncertainty.”
“It's a strange business because it's kind of mixed with ultra-confidence as well. I mean, I love to perform and I love to write, and I'm confident about that. But it is this mixture of one day being in pieces and the next day feeling like you're king of the world. I guess unfortunately that's just what we have to deal with, but I was really fascinated with questioning some of that and 'World's Strongest Man', the track itself is sort of a playful look at one's own abilities or inadequacies, however, you see it.”
Is that a theme that runs throughout the whole album?
“It's just something that really spoke to me and I wanted to explore it a little bit in the lyrics. But again, it's a mixture, there'll be a really deep comment, but then alongside it. I always like to throw in something a little bit more hooky, or something that's a bit more open to interpretation, keep a little bit of ambiguity. I don't think any of the songs are 100% social commentary, it's just bits of how I see things in my life and how I interpret it.”
Do you need to have an idea of what the album's going to be about before you start? Or does it just happen organically?
“No, yeah it does. I guess you're talking about a concept album and I think I put so much into the sonic palette and how I want it to sound, the musical side of it, that I think to create a concept album lyrically too would kind of blow my mind! I just feel like I want to keep the songs separate as well. There's a song called 'In Waves' that's more about that realisation at 13 years old that those childhood dreams of being an astronaut were out the window. I only had a couple of GCSEs and then I started playing guitar and I thought 'OK, guitar works, I can play guitar'. But I thought it was quite funny to be at that crossroads at such a young age, and the letting go of these fantastical kind of dreams. So yeah, it's a real mixture lyrically on the album.”
You've also mentioned that hip-hop and Frank Ocean's album, in particular, have been an influence on the new record, how has that manifested itself?
“Again it was early last year and I was just on the way home in the car with Jules, my wife, and was listening to various things that people had sent me or things that I'd heard about. We put on that Frank Ocean album and I just felt that it was such a complete record and an interesting album. I feel like we've been in a culture, especially with hip-hop and R&B, where an album isn't so important, it's more about those hit singles. And I was in a band as well where that was the focus, where you'd finish an album and all the label would be interested in is 'what are the hit singles?'”
“We always resisted that in Supergrass and we always tried to make complete records, but I thought it was interesting to hear albums like Lemonade by Beyonce or Channel Orange by Frank Ocean and to hear these complete records that were experimental and exploratory. I found that quite inspiring, and I guess as a solo artist and the way that I make music, it may well start from a loop, a drum beat, a breakbeat or something, then I'll put a bassline on it, so I feel quite in tune with that sort of hip-hop approach I guess, as much as it doesn't sound like it because it's not my school.”
So are you producing the new album yourself?
“Yeah, but I was also working with Ian Davenport over in another studio, so I guess you could say he's been co-producing it with me.”
Are you using session musicians in the studio, or is the same band you play with live?
“No, I tend to do most things myself really, I'll get as many ideas as I can down, so I played all the drums on the record and most of the other bits, but I would get Nick (Fowler, guitar) or Garo (Nahoulakian, bass), the guys I play with live, they would often come into a session if I had something in mind. But also we'd do these sort of mad room recordings, almost like field recordings but in the studio, we'd just set up a mic in the middle of the room and pick up these instruments that were maybe a bit off the beaten track, and create little soundscapes which I'd then place underneath the other tracks, so that was fun, all that kind of stuff."
So in terms of touring, you've got some European dates coming up in April and then you're back in the UK in May. Are you taking it anywhere else?
“Well, I'm off to America on Sunday just to do a quick solo whizz around the States, just on the east coast and west coast, I'll take a few guitars and a few little mad boxes, drum machines and stuff. Then through Europe in April, again just solo stuff, and then taking the full band out in May and jumping into a few festivals in the summer. So yeah, busy few months ahead, it's all very exciting.”
Do you ever slip any old Supergrass tunes into the set?
“Not with the full band, no, but sometimes if I'm on my own I may pop in a little one in the encore or something, I'll play it by ear. I think I've done 'Moving' a couple of times, occasionally I'll do 'Caught By The Fuzz' in a sort of Billy Bragg style electric guitar kind of way, which is quite fun. But I only do them if I feel like it's gonna be fun and I definitely don't feel obligated to do anything. The feedback from gigs is always so good and so positive, and I always really appreciate that from the fans, that they're ready for what I'm doing now. And it's not like the artist-led thing of 'you will hear my new stuff whether you f*cking like it or not!' You know, they always seem really up for it. I did a show the other night and some of the comments about the new songs made me feel so good. It's a tricky one, you can't talk down to your audience, you've to give them the benefit of the doubt, they might be really up for hearing something different or unusual, and that's the way it's been so it's great.”
World's Strongest Man is available in stores now – you can also find it here in our online store.