Supergrass - Britpop's jauntiest survivors grow up
They made their name as a happy-go lucky power-pop band. Supergrass have grown up, but have kept their energy. By Chris Mugan
We are in one of those trendy bars decked out like a traditional boozer, and two members of Supergrass at least look the part. Bassist Mick Quinn is hunched over a knobbly, rustic walking stick, like an Emmerdale extra about to herd his sheep.
While rain pelts against the window, frontman Gaz Coombes stokes the open fire with practiced ease. Only the incessant sirens remind us that we are in central London.
Along with drummer Danny Goffey and Gaz's keyboardist brother Rob, they chat in relaxed fashion, four family men enjoying a get-together. The easy-going atmosphere reflects how the band have regrouped after a difficult couple of years. Their fifth album, 2005's introspective Road to Rouen, was a departure for a group known for their cheeky tales and glam punk pizzazz.
It was born out of traumatic times: the death of the Coombes' mother, while Goffey was embroiled in tabloid-friendly shenanigans as part of London's hip Primrose Hill set. Now the band find themselves re-energised on that album's follow up, Diamond Hoo Ha, a nonsensical title that reflects their carefree early days, as does its sturdy pop rock aesthetic. No sooner was the album in the bag, though, than misfortune hit them again with a bump. While on holiday in the south of France, Quinn, the band's steady elder statesman, contrived to walk through a first-floor window. His heel-bone was shattered in 15 pieces and his spine was damaged.
Watch the Supergrass video for Diamond Hoo Ha Man
This, though, was a lucky escape. Doctors explained that if the injury had been in only a slightly different place, Quinn would have been paralysed, as he explains: "I got up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water and didn't know where I was. I took a wrong turn half-asleep." The bass-player was laid up for two months, one of which was spent on morphine – "great for artwork ideas" – and is still going through physiotherapy ahead of the current tour. Before that, he had to watch Goffey and Gaz perform low-key sets as the Diamond Hoo Ha Men, an instructive lesson for him.
"It reminded me of when me and Gaz do acoustic sets for stores or radio and reinterpret songs that way. It was interesting to hear facets you wouldn't normally hear." More germane was when the band reconvened to play proper gigs with the Coombes' brother, Charlie, drafted in to help on keyboard bass. "They could look up at the audience more, but it's difficult because we're not showy in that way." Such steadfastness is testament to the band's rediscovered focus. Following the wake of their greatest hits collection, Supergrass is 10, Road to Rouen was a chance for the band to show a more thoughtful side, but what emerged was overblown, full of odd tangents that divided critics, and baffled fans weaned on the zing of their Britpop heyday.
Rouen was written and recorded at a French barn owned by the three Coombes brothers, Quinn explains, as a means of escape. "Everyone had had a heavy personal year before that with various things going on in their lives about which they weren't too happy. We'd just released the hits and didn't feel like doing that again. Nothing too breast-beating or tortured, just more quiet and low key."
Certainly Gaz remains proud of the result. "This was the most alone we'd been, so we could be more experimental. In the past, we might have thought, 'shit, we're pop-rockers', while now we could keep going with ideas. People see us, rightly so, as energetic and boyish, but on all our records there's always been other sides to us." Maybe so, though Rouen lacked an upbeat number like "Caught by the Fuzz", which balanced the more introspective "Sofa (of My Lethargy)" on their debut album I Should Coco.
He argues that there is some progression between the two works. "We wanted to return to some elements on Road to Rouen and I hope people can see we do that with every album. There are certain songs that hint at the next record." On Rouen, he points to the final section of "Tales of Endurance (Parts 4, 5 & 6)", where the basic trio close the number after the detailed orchestration that has gone before. Goffey, meanwhile, reveals that the band saw the need to come back strongly. "[Rouen] started out more psychedelic and I thought it was going to be our really strange album, but it ended up more folky, quite simplistic in some respects. There was no particular plan. It was just see what happens."
This was very different to the sense of purpose behind Diamond, Gaz admits. "We didn't want to rush into this record because we felt so unified as a band. We wanted to do exactly the right thing musically, in terms of the studio, the producer and where we were going stylistically." Supergrass found a sympathetic producer, Nick Launay, who has captured something close to the intensity of their live peak, a well-oiled, balanced, four-piece machine. Goffey adds that this partly explains why they recorded Diamond in an environment that was the polar opposite to Rouen's bucolic charms, the pulsing heart of inner-city Berlin. "There was definitely something like: 'let's do some songs with a bit more punch, a few more RPM and have a go at all these bands that are around at the moment.' We needed to go somewhere different and exciting."
Soft-spoken Rob has the best story about events last May in one of Europe's most dynamic cities. "We stayed at an apartment in Kreuzberg and one night there was a party upstairs, which we gatecrashed, I think in our pyjamas – just as it got raided by the police. I ended up being frogmarched out of the block – out of my own flat!" It is a lot different from the band's domestic lives. He, Gaz and Quinn have all returned to the village of Wheatley, outside Oxford, the childhood home of all four members.
"It's more for all our kids," Gaz admits. "Me and my brother's and Mick's kids are friends and go to the same school. I had 10 amazing years in the band before I had a kid, but now we want different things. The house we live in has the same field of cows that we grew up with and played our first songs to. Well, probably not the same cows." Not that Wheatley is without rock pedigree. Mick Jagger used to pick up his paper from Quinn's local newsagent, though now the place is better known as the electoral stamping ground of MP Boris Johnson. When schoolchildren were asked who they wanted to open a new park, they chose him over the band.
Goffey, meanwhile, has been renting a series of houses in Hampshire with his wife Pearl Lowe, which has given her another chance to promote her homeware designs. I remark that whenever his missus is interviewed, she seems to mention baking. Is there a cookbook in the offing? "There could be, but I'm not allowed to talk about that," Goffey laughs. In the midst of such domestic bliss, Supergrass spent a leisurely six months writing lyrics for Diamond. Rather than jam interminably, the group split into pairs to hone their writing, Gaz explains. "There's never been one voice, which has made for really interesting lyrics at times, but can be a bit confusing." He was inspired by a documentary on the comedy team the League of Gentlemen, who worked in pairs, then shared their ideas. "We all see the same sort of things, so it's easy for two of us to get on the same page. The main thing is to get the focus and be really direct."
One unexpected upshot of this strategy was that the band were better able to use personal experiences, he goes on. "We felt really free writing about things we tend to keep between ourselves, whether it's a bizarre in-joke or a period of time that has strange elements to it." One such song is "When I Needed You", a tale from his and Goffey's early days when they visited a new-age travellers' site, got stoned and cadged a lift back in a stolen car. "Me and Danny were in the back, really paranoid. As soon as you think about it, you get this great picture and we wanted to get that down on paper."
Once they reconvened, the band found similar themes emerging, Goffey remembers. "There are songs that are about either yourself or someone else losing it slightly and needing a bit of guidance or assistance, but it wasn't a conscious thing." "There's a lot about fun and the perils of losing it, the ups and downs of being out of control," Rob adds. This pair seem to have had the most fun, as they share a similar, surreal sense of humour, the drummer says. "We're really relaxed in each other's company. We can say anything to each other, especially after a couple of pints. Where other people might tell us to shut up, we can see the method in the madness."
Goffey agrees: "It used to be quite laborious when we worked together. We wrote a few lines but then someone wouldn't get what was going on. With me and Rob, once we got a basic idea, it seemed to grow quite quickly." This pair came up with the zany "Whisky and Green Tea", based on a wild night, and its consequences, in Beijing, although they are also responsible for the more contemplative "Return of Inspiration", which probably sums up best where the band are at the moment. The band regularly draw parallels with their early days, whether in terms of newfound energy or the return to telling stories of their laddish japes.
Gone, though, is the carefree attitude of their early singles, replaced with an admission that every action comes with its own cost, as Gaz readily agrees. "There are moments when you struggle through things and moments when you're on top of the world and I like to think this record reflects that. 'Whisky and Green Tea' has different levels, first how we get sucked in by the locals but then the next day is one hungover, bizarre trip. I thought I had a broken nose because I had these sunglasses on that were too heavy."
"It's not Bob Dylan, but we're getting better at expressing ourselves," Quinn adds, and Gaz concludes: "Rouen gave us the confidence to be open. It's a good feeling." One result of this penchant for more personal lyrics is the impact on Gaz's vocals. He is less likely to ape Marc Bolan or Mick Jagger and instead sound like himself. "It makes a difference when you don't bash something out really quickly with loads of meaningless one-liners. If you think about what you're singing, you feel it more. A few songs eat at me. If only we'd pursued them a little bit further."
Despite all the talk of personal lyrics, the track that gives the album its title, "Diamond Hoo Ha Man", is a throwaway, cod-sinister romp about a strange man and his mysterious suitcase. "It's a great image, not as good as one of David Bowie's weird characters, but it reminds me of one of those," Gaz says. "We were batting it around, then Nick said he'd spoken to Nick Cave and mentioned it as a possible title and he went, 'Yeah, man, I love it.' He has good album titles and if he likes it..."
Not that the band needed Cave's guidance to know they made the right decision. What doesn't kill you makes you more robust, they say, and Supergrass are as galvanised as they have ever been. As Goffey reflects: "After 10 years you're allowed to have a confusing period. It is just great that we have come out of it so strong."
'Diamond Hoo Ha' is out now on Parlophone; Supergrass tour from 11 to 21 April (www.supergrass.com)