Few bands from the UK rock explosion of the mid ‘90s survived the sophomore slump. Although die-hard fans and anglophiles sill argue whether or not Supergrass is actually considered a Britpop band, their singles such as “Caught By The Fuzz” and “Alright” definitely lumped them into that category at times.
Last year marked the band’s tenth anniversary, which was celebrated by the release of Supergrass Is 10: The Best Of 94-04, an outstanding collection of their finest hits. With a decade under their belt, Gaz Coombes led his band into new territory with their latest album, Road To Rouen. This was easily their most mature record to date, which showed a band still growing and continuing their quest for making that one definitive album.
I had the fortunate opportunity to speak with Rob Coombes, keyboardist and elder brother to Gaz. We discussed the making of the album, the journey of Supergrass so far, and the importance of keeping a clean home. Yeah, even rock musicians have to tidy up now and then.
Chip: Hello Rob! Sounds like you have had a busy day so far.
Rob: Yeah, really busy today. I’ve been on the phone all day while cleaning my house from top to bottom.
Chip: Oh nice! I guess even rock & roll guys gotta clean now and then, right?
Rob: Yeah, but only every once in a while.
Chip: Well, I have been a fan of Supergrass since the early days of I Should Coco. So many bands of that era, UK rock of the mid ‘90s and such, didn’t survive past the sophomore slump. What do you attribute to the longevity of the band? Lots of vitamins and a clean home?
Rob: Both of those seem very important. Ya know, many people lumped us into the Britpop movement in England. I know this may sound harsh, but I really think there was an awful lot of money flying around for getting new bands. I think if you had the right address and looked kinda cool you were already halfway there.
Chip: Right. I am not gonna throw out band names, as that is unnecessary, but it does seem like a portion of the Britpop bands were really a dime a dozen. Not all of them, as I am a fan of that era, but…
Rob: Of course. Well, we definitely tried to distance ourselves from Britpop. When we first started gigging, and I remember the first festivals we did, ya know you’d see a lot of the Britpop type bands and it just seemed like a really uninspired period of music.
Chip: Which is obviously a problem that you guys have not run into. Now on to your fifth album, you packed up and recorded in France. What made you decide to make the record there?
Rob: We’ve worked in Normandy before. We are really lucky as we’ve got the use of a cottage in Normandy. Well, it used to be a cottage where we’d go there and write. Then it kinda grew and there was a barn that was renovated there and we were all kinda secretly thinking that it would make for a perfect studio. The layout has a mezzanine that looks over to a big sorta high ceiling living room. It just seemed like the perfect live room.
Chip: Sounds like a great place to get away and record.
Rob: Exactly. I think Supergrass has spent far too much time in expensive studios ya know, spending a whole day trying to do very little. We’d just come up with one line at the end of a lyric ya know? And I think when you are working under that kind of pressure it is not good… you’re not really creating. Especially when you consider that I Should Coco, ya know everybody just loves the feel of I Should Coco and the vibe to it, and really it was written in a similar kind of way as we did Road To Rouen. It was just the band in a room with fairly limited gear… just really concentrating on songwriting.
Chip: Which sounds like a winning formula.
Rob: Well we hope so. [laughs] I think with the last two or three records we’ve used all the modern trickery in the studio ya know, Pro Tools and all that stuff, and I don’t think it adds anything to it sometimes. In fact you can end up with so many possibilities and permutations, combinations… often you get mislead into what the actual essence was that you were writing in the first place. I think that was really important to just sort of stripping it all down and having it really simple. I think we really enjoyed playing like that. If you listen to the album there is loads of bleed everywhere. On drums there’s sort of keyboard takes that didn’t make it, and you can hear them bleeding through the drums. I think that kind of thing is really cool, ya know?
Chip: You can tell by the album that these are really honest recordings. No bullshit or anything, which is really part of its charm. Now, this reminds me of a few interviews of yours I have read in the past. You used to be all about being a perfectionist in the studio. Has this finally gone away, allowing you to enjoy the live experiences when recording?
Rob: That would be a criticism I’d have of myself. Ya know, I think it is only natural when you try to create a record which is gonna be there for eternity, you want to sort of try to show the best side of yourself. You want to play things the best that you can. But then you have to see the bigger picture, and if a take has a great vibe but you happen to screw up in it, then you have to learn that it is the take to go to. It took me a while to get my head around that. I can remember having a few heated chats with the guys saying this is bollocks and they’d tell me that I can’t hear the vibe of it. It is something I’ve learned over the past few years, and I’m glad I did.
Chip: On a couple of songs from the new record, such as “Roxy” and “St. Petersburg”, there are some really nice orchestral moments, with some great use of a string quartet and a horn section. Who composed those?
Rob: Well, Gaz was lucky to have some really good string samples at home… and some horn samples as well. He kinda played them over demos and we got the string sections and the horn sections to play them note by note, which they found quite a bit difficult. It is always interesting to try and get some classical musicians to play something that is totally not what they would usually do, so it was amusing. I’d do it again just to see the look on their faces when we try to get all these weird rhythms going.
Chip: With the band being over a decade old, you guys have toured the world over and over again. Do you still enjoy playing any of the older material?
Rob: The great thing about it is that when we did Road To Rouen, which is a much more acoustic sounding album, we had really for years been playing just full-out electric sets which was what Supergrass was known for. We love playing things at one hundred miles per hour… ya know kinda punky and whatever especially live, and I think what Road To Rouen did for us is that it made us take a step back not only with the tracks on the new album, which obviously we had to play in a more acoustic way because, well, there was hardly any electric guitars. Even keyboards were mostly acoustic with piano and Wurlitzer. When we were touring it, it also sort of made us look at the stuff from before. We reworked a lot of the stuff we had from the past. They ended up working really well ya know? Songs like “Kiss Of Life” we changed parts for it and we changed the tempo. I mean, that one in particular ended up being better than the version we produced on the record.
Chip: Road To Rouen is an album that seems to tell a story. What would you say is the t
heme or the common thread that runs throughout the record?
Rob: I see the record as kind of a journey, ya know? Um, but other than that it is really personal. When we all got together to write I couldn’t be sure that Mickey was thinking the same thing I was, or Gaz was, but it seemed to me that it seemed to be a journey. The whole situation with going to France, constantly going over to Normandy to do the recording, there was a particular route that we took all the time. It started on the A16 from Dover down to the A13. It is a very strange road to travel on. It is very difficult to explain. But it kinda feels like…. I am not really a supernatural person… but it feels really spooky on this road. We always did it in the dead of night, and it always seemed to be raining. You’ve got these incredible bridges that you go through and it seems to add to the sort of atmosphere of the album… the whole getting there.
Chip: That makes complete sense. Driving in the dead of night had to be a challenge. Did you ever have any problems getting to Normandy?
Rob: Yeah. I wouldn’t say we got arrested, umm but we kept getting turned over all the time. I don’t know why but they have all these secondary borders in France, so when you go to England you go through Dover, and whatever your choice of contraband happens to be gets sorted ya know? It’s not the same in France. Every bridge and everytime there is a bottlekneck the Jean Dammes were there taking out everything from your car. It kinda added to the mystique of the whole journey, like were we gonna make it there or were we gonna have to bribe some French guy who was gonna plant something on us?
Rob: It was really weird in that respect. Ya know, this was also our most difficult album to write. Danny particularly had a really hard time in writing it. It put time constraints on him with his partner who was pregnant again. I found it really difficult to leave my family, which is growing by the day ya know? So it did seem like a journey, and I think everybody got what they needed out of it. I hope you don’t write this in a really banal way, but it was a journey into ourselves as well. I learned a lot about myself and how I should be writing albums, as well as taking a leap of faith on the way. You can’t be in control 100% of the time. Have I said journey enough? I’ve got to find a better word…
Chip: You need to have a thesaurus handy for these interviews. No, I ‘ve got it, which makes me appreciate the album even more. Let me wrap this up with this – This is a little selfish, but I just need to know that you guys have some more music left for us. Supergrass isn’t ready to hang up their hats, right?
Rob: We always have this feeling that the next album we do is going to be the one where everything kind of works properly. We always have this positive mindset that we haven’t done ourselves justice yet. I dunno, maybe a lot of bands feel that way, but I just know that I love being in Supergrass, and I still have this feeling that there is something there that we haven’t put out yet… that we haven’t quite put our finger on yet… and I can’t wait for that day.