Mike Atkinson

Interview: Gaz Coombes, Supergrass

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on April 11, 2008

Where are you speaking from today, Gaz?

I’m at home on Oxford, recording some B-sides in my little studio, with a few of the fellas. It’s been a good day, actually.

You recently appeared on ITV’s Guilty Pleasures, covering Michael Jackson’s Beat It. I thought it was a good performance on an otherwise iffy show.

You just don’t know at the time. When we heard about it, we knew the Magic Numbers would be there, and Sophie Ellis Bextor, and obviously a few real mainstreamers. I thought it sounded alright, and that it could be quite a laugh. When I saw it, I thought it was a bit dull. But although it didn’t make for riveting viewing, I actually really enjoyed it. Basically, it was like walking into a pub full of old folks and screaming really loudly. We woke everything up a bit, I think.

I do take issue with the concept of “guilty pleasures”, though. Apart from maybe smoking, I don’t see why any pleasures should be guilty ones. I thought we were over the whole “cool factor” thing by now?

Well, that’s true – but there are certain pleasures that maybe one wouldn’t want to mention too much in public!

I guess that show marked the end of your Diamond Hoo Ha Men side project, where you and drummer Danny Goffey went out and performed as a duo – including here at the Bodega Social last December.

We knew we wanted to get out and play, because our bassist Mick was still laid up after a serious accident, but we didn’t want to reconstruct Supergrass too differently, and bring in too many different people. A lot of our new songs have riffs in them, and so they were possible to translate into guitar and drums, in a White Stripes-y kind of way. So it all pieced together, and it all worked. Plus playing in little clubs for 18 to 25 year olds was a really good laugh.

The title track on the new album (Diamond Hoo Ha) has a White Stripes sound about it, with that typically bluesy riff, so I guess there was a link.

I dunno. I mean, we weren’t really taking the White Stripes thing too far. They’re an amazing, inspiring band, but we’ve always written with riffs, going back to Richard III.

Have you buried the alter egos, or will they make a re-appearance?

I can’t remember where they are at the moment. They went off on sabbatical. Maybe joined a cult, somewhere in Middle America.

Good luck to ‘em. The new album is more upbeat, punchy and straightforwardly joyful than I was expecting. After some of the darker material on Road to Rouen, was there a conscious decision to return to fun?

I don’t think there was a conscious decision to return to anything. From the beginning, we were writing in quite an energetic fashion, so we just pushed that. We didn’t want to repeat Road to Rouen, but at the same time we wanted to take some of its more intense elements and bring those into the new record. In songs like Whiskey & Green Tea and The Return Of, there’s some crazy stuff going on, which isn’t simple. It might sound simple, but it has complexities underneath.

In The Return Of, you sing about “the return of inspiration, the return of serotonin”. It made me feel that Supergrass is back in a happy place.

There’s maybe some underlying message in there, yeah. I don’t think there has ever been any lack of inspiration, but there has definitely been a return of a sort of bonding between us as a band. Our closeness has come back really strongly. There were troubling times between us over the last three years, so it’s great to be close and excitable again.

It’s such a relief that you haven’t gone down the route of making the sort of polite, sensible, mid-paced, thirty-something corporate indie which you hear so much of these days. Naming no names…

It’s just not in our nature. We like things to be raw. We’ve never really thought about whether something will break through and sell millions of records – although we always think after we’ve completed each record, that it’s definitely a massive album that should sell millions. So someone’s going wrong, somewhere along the line!

There’s also an unexpected variety on the album. Based on the two singles, and on the songs that you’ve been performing on TV, you would expect that all-out, rock based energy to run all the way through, but there’s a change of direction in the middle. Songs like The Return Of and Ghost of a Friend have a lighter, more pop-based approach, and there are some 1970s Bowie influence at work on the final track Butterfly. Is that due to the influence of the Hansa studios in Berlin, where Bowie recorded in the 1970s, and where you recorded this album?

Not necessarily. The songs were written before that, back in Oxford. For me, Butterfly has a kind of epic quality, but in quite a raw way. There aren’t too many instruments plastered all over it, just a sort of emotional power. We try not to get into particular references, where we want something to sound like Bowie or whatever.

I just thought that there might have been a deliberate nod towards him. I suppose it was something about the way it was phrased.

I don’t think we ever do any deliberate nods to people. We stumble across things, and at times they might have a bit of Stones-y edge, or a bit of a Bowie feel, or a bit of a Talking Heads-ness, but that’s as far as it normally goes for me. It’s what I do with all bands. Even with really so-called “pioneering” bands like Radiohead or the White Stripes, I can still say: oh, there’s definitely a little bit of Al Green there…

It’s a game we all play, isn’t it?

Definitely, yeah. So it’s that sort of thing, but we don’t really look at references too much.

The song that has grabbed me the most is Ghost of a Friend. It’s certainly the tune I’ve been ear-worming the most. It sounds like a really radio-friendly, hooky pop song, at least on a certain level. Would that be a potential candidate for a future single?

I don’t know. We all love that one, and it’s just a case of which ones are coming through, and which ones are getting the feedback. It hasn’t necessarily come through as a single yet, but there’s still time. Rebel In You is going to be the next single, but after that we don’t really know what the deal is.

Well, that would be my tip, for what it’s worth…

Yeah, mine too, I’m into that one.

Although on one level it’s radio-friendly, hooky pop, there also seem to be some personal references going on. It sounds like someone from your past – maybe a former lover, or a former friend – is reminding you to keep your distance from some of the madder elements of the rock and roll circus.

Yeah, I think that’s what it is. Danny wrote a lot of those lyrics, and I think he was escaping from that kind of intense life, that doesn’t really let you breathe. It’s really constricting and suffocating. Then there’s a chance to get out, and you hear the voice of someone pushing you or guiding you through. It’s definitely got that vibe.

The other one that interested me lyrically was Whiskey & Green Tea, which describes a trip to a Chinese karaoke bar called KTV. I’ve spent some time working in China myself, and we had a KTV in our city as well. It sounds like you’ve had one of those deeply weird nights that can only happen in China.

Well, that’s it; all sorts of things happened. It was a really mad visit, and really culturally interesting. On the plane home, I started writing about it. It was almost like a little story, and we just picked out lines from it for the final track. Things like going up to the thirteenth floor, to be greeted by military rows of schoolgirls. The situations were bizarre, so it deserved to be noted down.

I ended up in a nightclub on Christmas Day, with go-go dancers dressed as Santa Claus, writhing to a gangsta rap version of Jingle Bells. Then when you went to the loo, the toilet attendant would give you a back massage, whether you wanted one or not. Totally weird. I also met some musicians when I was over there, and they seemed culturally starved in terms of access to Western rock music. You couldn’t buy it in the shops, so I sent some over when I got back, almost like food parcels. When you were there, did you get any indication that China might be opening up to Western rock music?

Only the very beginnings of it. I think we were only the fourth rock and roll band to go over there, or something. I think it will open up, because like anything they’ll realise that there’s potentially money to be made. There were little signs of it.

In the city I was in, there was just one club that played live rock music, and that was shutting. I went to the last night. Everyone was still talking about when Suede played Shanghai five or six years earlier, as there had been nothing since.

Yeah, yeah, totally – it’s crazy.

I have a niggle about the album’s packaging, which is rather on the minimal side. It’s like you’re just expecting people to burn it to their iPods, and never look at the CD box again.

That’s pretty much what they do, isn’t it? But I don’t know if that was really the issue. On vinyl, it’s actually superb. It’s brilliant: you basically pull the vinyl out of the… [pause] inside bit, if you know what I mean. It all makes sense; it’s like you wouldn’t want any more. But yeah, the CD does perhaps look a bit minimal.

I just think that with a CD, you want to add a bit of value to the people who are going to pay that extra three quid, rather than just going straight to iTunes.

Well, perhaps, perhaps. But I love the cover anyway.

In terms of the way that you’ve survived, people now see you as the last survivors of the Britpop era. A lot of the reasons why bands tend to split up haven’t happened to you, so what is it that has kept you together as a foursome?

I suppose we feel like there’s a long way to go. We haven’t yet explored everything that we want to. Maybe there’s a timeless quality. Maybe when bands are stuck into a fashion or a trend or a movement, it shortens their life as a band.

Often one person will take over and start dictating the musical direction, but it strikes me that you must be considerably more democratic than that.

All four of us write songs, so it’s a bit like the bloody Beatles! No, I’m joking. But as we all write, it’s easy to get variation. It keeps the interest going, and it keeps things flowing.

Am I right in thinking that you’re touring as a five-piece?

Yeah, we’ve got my brother Charlie on board. He’s playing second guitar, and some backing vocals. It’s really opened up certain tracks. Some of the new album has a real heavy guitar sound, so it really works with that second guitar.

Is Mick fully recovered, and coping OK with the demands of touring?

Yeah, he’s pretty good. We did those four dates last month, and he played really well, so we’re not really worried about that. We’re looking forward to the gigs. We’re playing better than we have done for years, so the set’s going to be wicked.

And you’ve had many, many visits to Rock City under your belts before. A favourite venue?

Yeah, it can be just totally fucking mental. The roof can really lift off, so it can be a great night.

Well, best of luck with the album. I know that it hasn’t exactly set the charts alight, so I hope that situation turns around. 

I think it’s really down to EMI. If you don’t put much money into something, you probably won’t get it out there, so it is frustrating. We’ve loved everything we’ve done on this record, and so you want that to come from other areas as well. But we’ll see what happens, eh?

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