Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes: ‘As you get older, there is more colour in life to tap into musically’

Many music recording facilities are sterile, uninviting places, but Gaz Coombes’ home studios is quite the opposite. His video chat with Review reveals a delightfully homespun space with a mix of lamps picking out muted tones and a vast array of instruments. It’s the sort of environment where one might be happy to while away a great deal of time, and Coombes says it is all too easy for him to spend hours here tinkering with songs.

lthough he lives and records in rural Oxfordshire, he tries to be a “good neighbour” and doesn’t work in the studio after midnight. As his fascination with the drums has grown, perhaps it’s a wise move, especially as he notes that “it’s not a fancy studio that’s all soundproofed.”

Coombes is 46 and has been in the public eye for the best part of 30 years. He was so young when offered his first record deal, as frontman of the Jennifers, that his mother had to sign it for him. When his next band, Supergrass, went supernova in 1995 with the release of their debut album I Should Coco and its UK number two single Alright, he was still a teenager.

His solo output has been markedly different to the boisterous sugar-rush of classic Supergrass, but the warmth that was one of the characteristics of that band’s sound is there in all his work, including his new album, the charming Turn the Car Around.

Most of it was recorded in this studio, which he built last year. “I find the home studio, if anything, helps me focus and to work hard and get things done. I think the shortest possible time between having the idea and recording it is vital. If I get any idea, I can run over” — the studio is “across the way” from his home — “and everything’s plugged in and ready to go”.

He says Turn the Car Around would have sounded very different had it been recorded in a “really expensive residential studio over a three-week period”.

“For this bunch of songs, it was the perfect environment, and really ‘vibey’,” he says. ““I’d have guys from the band come over for sessions and we’d work late into the night and put old movies on the projector and jam and have some drinks.”

The new album is the third part of a trilogy that began with 2015 album Matador and continued with 2018’s World’s Strongest Man. “They’re very much linked,” he says. “Matador saw a new process for me in terms of an approach to writing and recording, a lot of it based at home, and using what was around me. Also a lot of experimenting, piecing [music and ideas] together with my friend and co-producer Ian Davenport.”

Coombes worked on the new album for 18 months and says he felt “bereft” when it was finished. “It was like a great friend to me and then you have to let it go [when it was finished]. It’s like, shit, I’ve got nothing. I can’t come over to the studio and mess around with that vocal.”

The lead single, Don’t Say It’s Over, was “loosely” inspired by the moment he met his wife. “It’s about a perfect night and not wanting the night to end,” he says. “You feel this connection, this intense love, but you fear losing it. I guess it’s a love song, but a f***ed-up love song.” He says he was keen to try to pen a “dark love” song in the vein of the Shangri-Las’ Remember (Walking in the Sand).

Coombes has been married for years and has an adult daughter, Ray May, and a second, Tiger, who turns 15 this year. He has never felt that domestic bliss stinted his creativity as a rock musician, but the days of over-the-top living are a long way behind him. “In terms of the excesses of the rock and roll life, surely you would hope that you wouldn’t have a bunch of kids and be a complete f***ing nutter-lunatic off your head all the time. That’s not being a good human thing,” he says.

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“I think you can embrace what’s great about rock musically and lyrically well into your 40s, 50s, 60s, whatever.”

He warms to the theme. “I personally think that as you get older, life becomes a lot more interesting and complicated. It doesn’t have to be kids and family, but [as you age] there’s more colour, more scope and you can tap into all those things [when making music.]”

The album, he adds, “is about life”.

“Some of it is inspired by my daughters and some bits are inspired by the woman I love, but then even the love songs are not so personal. So I tend to correct people when they say, ‘So this one’s about Jools [his wife]’ and I go, ‘It’s not about her but she can be an inspiration in a song that can appeal to anybody.”

Coombes seems very well adjusted for someone who was thrust into fame at such an early age. “I don’t know if I emerged unscathed,” he says, with a wry chuckle, “but I’m reasonably OK. We always enjoyed and appreciated the travelling and the job, just being in a band, man — it’s incredible. I don’t know what it is but you just want to keep moving forward and not get stuck in a hole.”

He has seen the rock’s dark side too. “I’ve had friends who struggled and I’ve lost people.”

Supergrass were a big deal in the Britpop years although he, like most musicians from that era, dislikes the tag. “I think, for certain patches, there was some really good music,” he says. “Like anything, when a movement hits hard, it’s usually when you get to the tail-end of it that it’s not so good and you get a lot of bands coming along that aren’t bringing anything new. But, I always liked Pulp and I really liked those early Blur records.”


Turn the Car Around by Gaz Coombes

Supergrass offered something fresh in the 1990s and while their music evolved in the 2000s, the zeitgeist had moved on. They split due to creative differences in 2010, only to reform in 2019. The plan was to play Glastonbury, but that was put on hold due to the pandemic. They finally got to play that reformation show last summer.

“On the day, I could feel this huge — I don’t know how to describe it — emotion and togetherness. There was a powerful vibe in the crowd. It was the biggest show we’d done in a long, long time. We got on stage and there was a bit of feeling around for the first few minutes and then it just flew and it was a beautiful moment. When he got off stage, the feeling was one of relief. Sometimes those big high-profile, high-pressure shows are tricky. Some amp f***ing blows up or your guitar string breaks for the first time in two years, but it all went beautifully.”

Supergrass also played the monster show in celebration of the life of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins at Wembley Stadium last September. He had died suddenly aged 50 six months before. “It was incredible,” Coombes says, beaming at the memory. “And it was an insane undertaking, bringing all those artists together.” Paul McCartney, Brian May and Liam Gallagher were just some of those who performed on the day. “There was no hierarchy [among the artists] and people would just go on stage whenever. It was an honour and privilege to be on stage with all those brilliant artists and to be able to do it for Taylor.”

This year Coombes will play shows of a more intimate nature, including a date at Dublin’s Academy. He says he has plenty of happy moments playing this country, but a couple of shows over the years at the Trinity Ball stand out. “Those shows were always insane — and a lot of fun.”

‘Turn the Car Around’ is out now. Gaz Coombes plays the Academy, Dublin on April 14 and the Limelight, Belfast on April 15

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