Not Just In It For the Money
Danny Goffey, the drummer and arguably most comical member of Supergrass--a band that already possesses a stronger-than-average sense of humor--has pitched his voice up high enough to suggest that maybe his pants are too tight. He and his bandmates have settled into a booth in the furthest corner of an empty midtown Manhattan bar, but the R&B music pulsing loudly in the background threatens to overwhelm any conversation.
Danny leans over and yanks the wires out of the nearest speaker, but it's little improvement. So now, in his best female diva voice, he suggests, "Perhaps we could all just talk like this."
It prompts little more than a smile from his exhausted bandmates, singer/ guitarist Gaz Coombes and bassist/vocalist Mick Quinn (Gaz's keyboard-playing brother Rob serves as a sort of invisible fourth member).
Fresh off a plane from Japan, the trio are in New York for 48 hours before continuing home to England. If the jet lag weren't difficult enough, they must also endure two days of questions about their (frankly wonderful) new self-titled U.S. release, some seven months after having completed the album and promoted it to the rest of the world. Any feelings of deja vu?
"Well, the interviews are always a bit different in different countries," Gaz claims, unconvincingly. "People ask different questions. But yeah, it all blends into one eventually, and you forget which record you're even talking about." In fact, Supergrass have already begun working on their next album--but, for the benefit of those U.S. listeners who are just catching up, back to the old news...
After cutting their first two full-length records (1995's I Should Coco and 1997's In It For The Money) at the isolated Sawmills studio in Cornwall, England, the band decided they wanted a change. They settled on Ridge Farm, just south of London; Mick says that was mainly because of the studio's large live room, which could give them a bigger drum sound. "Also, In It For The Money was quite layered and produced," he says.
"We wanted to move away from that and make an album that was stronger song-wise than production-wise."
While the new recordings proved to be every bit as musically inventive as their previous efforts--mixing tympani, vibraphone, strings, harpsichord, and other curious sounds in with their rock-solid foundation of guitars/ bass/ drums/ keys--it turns out that these additions were not just spontaneously sparked by a plethora of musical toys lying around the studio.
"No, we had to go looking for our instruments," Mick explains. "We already had the idea for the tympani, for example, and we actually drove to a nearby public school, went into the music department and asked if we could borrow their kettledrums. We gave them 10 quid, took their kettledrums for the afternoon, did the tracks, and had to drive them back there at the end of the day.
"But the production was quite well-planned," he continues. "Every instrument we had was rented at a specific time and we knew exactly what we were doing with it. We rented a full-sized harpsichord and had that around for a week, so all the stuff we recorded that week had a harpsichord bit on it."
Another key to the smooth recording process this time around was advance preparation. "We worked on demos for three months before entering the studio," says Gaz.
"Yeah, we had the basics of most of the songs before we went in this time," Danny adds. "I remember we made a lot more changes to things in the studio on In It For The Money."
How can they tell when a song needs more work? "When you take [the rough mixes] home to play for people and notice that you're kinda feeling embarrassed about something," Gaz smiles. "Then you know something's wrong."
Supergrass also chose to record on their own this time, employing only an engineer. How is it different being self-produced? "Probably less arguments!" Mick laughs. "We're a pretty tight band and we tend to see things similarly most of the time anyway."
Despite their musicality, nobody in the band has had any formal instrument training except for Gaz, who had a few piano lessons in his youth. "I had one lesson on the drums," Danny admits. "But then the guy gave me an exercise to do, like homework, and that was kinda the end of it. But I can play piano and a bit of guitar."
"Where'd you learn piano?" Mick inquires.
"My mum got a really crappy old piano when we were younger," Danny replies. "She thought it would look nice in the front room. But it was horribly out of tune."
"Born Again," a track driven by a Stevie Wonder-ish Rhodes keyboard, phased vocals, and a wah-wah-spiked rhythm guitar, is one of the new album's most sublime moments, and it also demonstrates that the band aren't averse to trading instruments when the fancy hits.
Based around "a really old guitar riff" that Mick had kicking around, the song came together one day during a jam session that found Gaz on bass and Mick on guitar. In the studio, Mick played a double bass and had the already-hired string section replicate a part that had previously been played on a keyboard. Gaz then added some xylophone, and the track remained an instrumental for nearly six months.
"It was the last song finished on the album, because I didn't have any lyrics for it," says Gaz. In fact, the vocals were added so late that they had to be recorded in the small project studio in Oxford that the band shares with Radiohead.
The self-titling of their new album is only one of several signs that point to a fresh start for Supergrass. More notable is their change of record labels in the U.S. After mutually agreeing to part ways with Capitol, the band now find themselves on Island/ Def Jam. So are they pleased with their new home?
"Well, we're going to find out," says Gaz. "We were all definitely happy about being based in New York now instead of L.A."
Mick is more frank. "I don't remember a time that I was ever that excited about [being on] Capitol. They just never seemed to understand our band, ever."
"Great bunch of guys, though," Gaz says diplomatically (and perhaps only half-seriously).
"Well," Mick grunts, closing the subject, "name one of them."
The band will take to the road in the States for only a limited number of live shows in 2000. It's the antithesis of the old Oasis "breaking America" approach of staying for months on end and playing every city on the map. "We've tried that one already," deadpans Mick. "I just don't think it's worth the compromise. We'd rather keep our heads together as a band."
In closing, another British group, Gay Dad, comes up. The band released a solid pop album last year, but some critics noted that their music bore a distinct similarity to Supergrass's. Any thoughts? "We live in an open society," Danny observes. "I think it's fine to have gay dads."
"Yeah, as long as you're over 21, it's fair enough," adds Mick. From a band that'll remain serious only long enough to talk about its own music, one would expect nothing less.
Dev Sherlock, Launch.com - April 2000