The Press Article
Wanna Be In Our Gang?
They're still ridiculously young, yet Supergrass are already old hands at making infectiously memorable pop songs. So why do they shun the glitz and glamour that comes with fame?
It's not a point of pride or anything, but Supergrass don't play Alright at gigs any more; they haven't for ages. They all say the same thing: that song is in the public domain now. It may be fun to play, it may be the song that people who've never heard of them know, but it's not their song. It belongs to soundtracks and arcades and weird, middle-of-the-night Euro-telly (We are young, we run green/Keep our teeth, nice and clean/ See our friends, see the sights/Feel alright!). It came out in 1995, but feels as if it's existed for ever. They're absolutely right, of course - I can't be the only person who's seen my dad singing it on a karaoke machine (I mean your own dad, naturally - I bloody hope I'm the only person to have seen my dad doing it). Supergrass are still as young as most bands touting a debut album (they're on their fourth), but they're not kids any more; most of them have kids.
Having said that, they're still plenty keen on playing Caught By The Fuzz, which pre-dated Alright by some months and is all about some youthful twerps getting done for cannabis possession. So, they're in Sydney, Australia (as opposed to all those other Sydneys). It's the middle of 2002, in a venue that looks weirdly like the London Astoria, and they're playing to a crowd of really excited people who in all likelihood don't know what a fuzz is, a song that was written eight or even nine years ago about a law that now barely exists. And it still sounds so ace, not from a nostalgic, wasn't-Britpop-magical point of view (it wasn't), but because it's a great song, and one of many. Gaz is a brilliant, vivid, muscular frontman (I mean muscular figuratively, not in a letchy way). Mikey likes to play with his back to the audience (he claims it's to gee Danny along, but I think it's because he's bashful). Danny - and this isn't the first time the comparison has been made - plays the drums like Keith Moon, all vim and ego. Bobsie is a very meek showman, if you can imagine such a thing.
They are a rum bunch, Supergrass - they've outlasted almost all the other outfits signed in the optimistic mid-1990s, when everybody with facial hair was deemed a potential new Oasis and given loads of money. But they've never come close to the gravitas of their surviving contemporaries (Blur, Radiohead, Pulp, even Suede). The more I listen to them, the more I think that this slightly flighty image has nothing to do with the music and everything to do with - well, a number of things, all of which fall under the broad category, Their Funny Little Ways.
The group started with Gaz Coombes, the vocalist and youngest at 26, who met Danny Goffey, the 28-year-old drummer, when they were some stupid age like 11 and 13, at school in Oxford. They became the Jennifers, which they all know now as a kind of YTS scheme for the band - everybody delights in pointing out how lame it was, but that does gloss over how very singular it is for a band to be signed while the lead singer's voice is still, technically, in the middle of breaking, and he has to get his parents down to the Venue in Oxford because he's too young to sign his own contract. That fell apart; Danny and Gaz made a blood brother-style pact always to make pretty music, but didn't get it together until Gaz met Mikey when they were both working in a Harvester.
"We never said, 'Let's be in a band'," says Danny. "It just sort of happened. Our first gig was for some girl's birthday party. We thought, 'Shit, we'd better write some songs'." Do they still see her? "No. She was a right old dog." Mikey, the bass player, is a bit older (32); Bobsie (30), Gaz's elder brother, has been playing keyboards with Supergrass since around the beginning (before that, he sometimes drove their van), but has only just agreed to become a visible fourth member (this was the first interview he'd ever given; he wasn't particularly comfortable talking about himself, and kept trying to turn the subject to Harold Shipman).
In 1994 or 1995, the most important thing for any band - or, certainly, any band's publicity people - was distinguishing them from all the other bands that looked a bit the same. The USP of the 'Grass was that they were really cheeky; they were the Monkees of the 1990s. Steven Spielberg even approached them to make a programme, which would've been a lot like the Monkees. Looking at the interviews of the period, it's striking how many synonyms for mischief were invented apparently just for them (including "larksome", "mirth-packed" and, obscurely, "waggling").
All of them, to a degree, now take issue with this business (apart from Gaz, who seems pretty happy with it). Danny says, with some bravado, "That whole reputation extends from the Alright video, where we do look really cheerful. But I was on two Es that day, going mental. Of course I looked cheerful." Mikey, more laconic and less revealing, contests the fact not that they were cheerful, but that anyone else was less cheerful. "I swear it, Radiohead were secretly having a really good time. They were running summer camps in their minds." Then, as if I'm going to take that literally, "Actually, I didn't know them. At all. Gaz and Danny knew them better than me."
Anyway, they've had some heavyweight albums since the larksome I Should Coco; In It For The Money ("This title is heavily ironic," a number of US reviewers clarified); the plangent Supergrass; and the latest, Life On Other Planets (quintessential feelgood Supergrass in the early mould). They've seen a lot of life, and pretty fast - the younger pair got their wild years out of the way before they were 20. They're muso-grandees now, but their past hasn't etched itself very efficiently into any of their faces. Mikey still looks uncannily like Dennis the Menace; Gaz is still the hirsute chappie that all the girls like; Danny still has the top of Peter Cook's face welded on to the bottom of Cilla Black's; and Bobsie never used to have his picture taken, but now looks like a court portrait of an anguished cavalier, and you don't get that from nowhere.
The only time their happy past seems to get on their nerves is when the photographer produces a trampoline and asks them to jump up and down on it. Gaz says, "I'm not particularly happy about this", which is about the most trenchant, assertive phrase you'll ever hear from him. "I don't want to be all chirpy. I only want to do it if I can look really serious." Two minutes later, they are all hugging and bouncing up and down. I'm sure I heard one of them say, "I forgot how fun trampolines were."
The fount of this eternal youth is, I think, their preternatural fondness for one another. There's nothing unusual now in a band that stays together for four albums - most outfits that split the money anything like fairly can manage that. What is unusual is the way they talk about each other. Bobsie at one point claims to have "always been in awe of Gaz". But he's four years older than him. Where's his contempt? "Oh, no, we've always seen each other as very equal," he says, shortly after he mourns the fact that his five-year-old daughter sees him mainly as a friend, when really he wanted to be a parent (he has a problem with assuming seniority). I ask Mikey what band, hypothetically speaking, he'd join if the others all died, and I think the thought genuinely upset him. "I waited about 10 years for Danny and Gaz to come along, and get a band together with them. So I'd have to wait another 10 for someone else. I wouldn't be in a hurry." (It's such a romantic, Humphrey Bogart way of putting it.)
Danny will just about admit to getting pissed off with the others when they want to get something exactly right, and he thinks it's already right and wants to go to the pub. "But I'd feel really bad if I had a massive go at any of them, because they're all so sweet." They don't have anything like the intense dynamic of a new band. For a start, they don't live in the same city: Gaz is in Brighton, Danny in London, the other two in Oxford. While on tour, there's no great drive to stick together (unlike Doves, who were also playing the festival at Byron Bay, up the coast from Sydney, and moved like a many-headed grunge-beast). But they have this sound fraternity that precludes starry behaviour. Bobsie, on the issue of tantrums and suchlike, says, "You can't get above yourself with people who remember what you were like when you were 10. But then, saying that, there were things that the lads did even when they were 10 that were kind of like rock stars."
Their love lives are similarly lacking in turbulence. Bobsie, at about seven years, has way the shortest relationship (with Mandara, who he first met when he was 16); Danny has the most children (a step-daughter called Daisy, and two sons, Alfie and Frankie). Gaz is the only one without children, which he makes up for with the fact that he's been going out with Jules for about his whole life. (I speculated to her, while he was being accosted in a gentle, girl-fashion after the Sydney gig, that that must get on a person's tits. She said, "I'm used to it", looking stoic but also slightly as if it got on her tits.) Mikey has two children with someone who works at a support group for drug users. Danny's girlfriend, Pearl, is the only one who's ever been in music as well (she sings; used to be in a band called Powder) and, even there, you never get the sense that the private life is an adjunct of the public one (like you did with, say, Meg and Noel).
Talking about the Brit award they won in 1996, for best newcomer, Danny says, "It was a bit weird. Because Pearl was throwing up, she was pregnant, and she wasn't allowed into the bit we were in. So we got the award, and all I could say was, 'Thanks a lot, but if you see a girl being sick in the aisles, help her, because she's all on her own.' I just blurted it out, I didn't know what I was saying." None of them is playing fame-maths, where you find someone to go out with who is exactly as famous as you, and then you end up with fame-squared of your original fame amount. None of them, in fact, is playing any kind of fame game at all. Such games would include: a) taking psychoactive drugs with fun regularity; and b) mixing with other famous people in high-profile venues.
Actually, Danny does get up to a bit of that. The only whiff of conflict that's ever come off this group is down to the fact that Danny likes to hang out with stars (there were quite a few paparazzi shots of him and Pearl with Liam in the Patsy days) and the others have no time for it. Gaz can't see the point of parties that aren't full of his friends. "I find it a little bit strange meeting a lot of people, particularly a lot of strange people, when you've got to go in there and shake hands with them all. I don't like that at all." As for Mikey, he gets shy just walking down the street on his own. Bobsie doesn't have strong views on the matter, but still considers astrophysics a viable second career (he has a degree in it, so he's not just loopy), which I think says it all about his feelings for multicoloured cocktails in a room full of celebrities. Danny, however, likes an event; he will dismantle a small roadblock and run down the street with it to turn an evening into more of an event. He likes hanging out with famous people. "There is a really tight pack of people, and I'm not in that. They do really posh things that are really expensive, my share is always paid for, and it's great. And you go off and have these little benders. It's just a part of life."
But he's the only one that does that, I say, obtusely really (they may be a band, but they're still individuals and all that). "Yeah. I don't want to be that person. But I haven't got a choice, because I really like it! I don't see why the others don't!"
The thing is, it sounds as if he is in the tight pack of people, the inner circle, unless there's an even tighter pack that no one knows about. "Last summer, we went on holiday with, like, Jude and Sadie, Kate Moss, all those, and everyone was off their faces and there were really scary times, it was all mental," Danny says, apropos some accusation I made that none of them was sufficiently debauched. The others were pretty scathing at my suggestion that princelings of rock owed it to their fanbase to get a bit messy. Mikey ran through it with patient logic: "It's difficult to shock people - if you wanted to, you'd have to push the boat out pretty far. And why would you want to go there anyway? To entertain other people or to entertain yourself? You'd entertain people in passing, and then entertain yourself at leisure in some institution."
In fact, the differences are pretty superficial, and all of them are as one on the big issues, such as Whether Or Not It's A Bit Embarrassing Being In A Blacked-Out Stretch Limo (we were going around in this fat car, all around Sydney, where people still stare because limos haven't become irrevocably associated with hen nights, and Gaz gets out to buy a manky Smarties biscuit, and is actually blushing when he gets back in. They all look a bit sheepish about it, like they'd rather be on a bus).
So, since there are no underlying issues of band-splitting potential, they may as well find themselves a fresh task (they're leaving three years between albums at the moment - apparently for promotion, but I can't help thinking that's a bit leisurely). The big unachievement left to them is breaking America, which - the experience of Bush (the band, not the president... well, actually, the band and the president) demonstrated - is a totally unpredictable thing, with no basis in quality.
Their home audience, meanwhile, is selling them short. Mikey says this of the live crowd in Britain - "They're too well-informed, they've got a fixed idea of what they want to hear" - but I think it's true also of the critical reception they get for every new album, which always kicks off from the position that these are very affable young men who have just made some more affable young music. Gaz talks with enormous fervour about the richness and depth of the new album, and he's right to, but the memory of their early, approachable pop and personas seems to militate against people listening to them seriously enough (it's so daft, in a world where people listen to Toploader seriously!).
Anyway, American adulation has eluded them so far. This is because: a) they turned down Spielberg's offer (on balance, everyone on earth thinks this was the right choice); b) they've given the US a shot, but they haven't given it their best shot (that would involve living out there, or at the very least staying out there longer than three weeks, which is about their maximum before they want to go home); c) they don't really hold with selling their songs for adverts, which is a very fertile ground for Atlantic crossovers; and d) well, America is unpredictable.
Whether or not it comes off is largely immaterial, I suspect. This isn't a particularly materialistic band, for one thing - hence all the stuff they turn down. Besides, there is a remarkable amount of contentment going around, which would suggest that they don't give a monkey's (though Gaz gives a bit of a monkey's, impressed by the sheer number of Americans there are). It's not out of the question that they're just very happy doing what they're doing.
The only possible schism now is who gets to decide when they're too old for this game. Bobsie (shortly after he claimed that most people could do what he does just as well as he can) sounded as if he'd start seeing himself as an ageing rock star within about the next six months ("You're not ageing," I point out to the self-deprecating 30-year-old. "I'm not a rock star, either," he replies). Gaz gives the band "10 years, until all the hair goes. Then we'll go to Jamaica and form a commune." Mikey will do whatever he likes, for as long as he likes doing it, he says. Danny probably will, too, although he lost interest in the whole ageing phenomenon almost as soon as it was raised.
Meanwhile, they have a fine album (that's as in "quality", not as in "OK"). They are proper rock grown-ups. They aren't cheeky monkeys at all.
Zoe Williams, The Guardian - 14 September 2002