The Press Article
Supergrass have returned with one of the year's best albums. But its cheery facade belies battles with detox, internal strife and a public who don't want them to grow up. Roger Morton investigates.
The landlord of Wheatley's The King And Queen wasn't to know. "Kids Welcome" reads the sign on the door of the cosy village in, and by the look of it, it's been there for years. Making the pop'n'crisps brigade welcome probably makes business sense in this quiet Oxford suburb and, curiously, without that sign Gaz Coombes, Danny Goffey and Mickey Quinn might never have written their most famous puppy-punk moment, Alright. "On this very pub table," according to Danny. And perhaps the ensuing eight years would have been less a process of on-going rebuttal.
The four Supergrass members - joined by Gaz's venerable, John Cale-a-like keyboardist brother Rob - now have seven of their own kids and a collective age of 116. They arrive in Wheatley not as a gang, but one by one, extricated from family life in three different towns. Yet with the release [of] their fourth album, Life On Other Planets, and its span of glammy pop and dark cosmic rock, the issue of their perceived unchanging 'joie d'inconsequentiality' still follows them.
"Actually, it wasn't this pub where we wrote Alright," dismisses sensible bassist Mickey. "It was the White Horse in Forest Hill." But there are plenty more echoes of the past here. Within minutes of entering The King And Queen, a pattern is set for the next 12 hours. An enthusiastic old mate - Gaz and Mickey's former boss at the local Harvester - forces a breakfast round of shots. Nostalgic conviviality follows. Gaz's dark past as a bellringer is exposed; Danny recalls his spliff-related expulsions from both Wheatley Comprehensive and his A-Level college. The days when mid-teen Danny and Gaz started their first ban, The Jennifers, are remembered as times of a smoke, a beer and a post-pub blowjob behind the solicitors' office. Anyone wishing to rhyme alcoholic and bucolic might find an excuse in a ballad of Supergrass' early days.
"Our first audience was cows," reveals pensive, affable Gaz. "When we rehearsed in the cottages, they'd come and press their noses up. They weren't dancing, but they were licking their lips, which we took as a good sign."
Levered out of the pub by an anxious co-manager, the band drive to a hill above Wheatley to gain vantage on their past. On the left is Shotover Hill, eulogised on 1999's self-titled album. "We used to come up here and score from travellers," says Gaz. "It was the only thing we really did. Just went out, got drunk. Played music."
On the right, after a trudge through autumn leaves, a faux Grecian folly. Funniest Thing, a track on the new album, refers to Supergrass's early LSD visions in this very edifice. Today, however, and acid flashbacks are interrupted by mobile phone calls demanding decisions on video shoots and marketing choices. When extrovert Danny - the only member who still resembles a cartoon of himself - removes his shirt to play 'dead body' in a reed bed, he reveals marks on his back from a detox treatment. Things have changed. Life is more complex, and there's something ghostly about the way Gaz, Danny, Mickey and Rob fall affectionately in step, already old war buddies, strolling away from their past with echoes of Last Of The Summer Wine.
"When I think about it, it does feel like we've come a long way," ponders Gaz. "I was 17 when we signed the deal and we went off to America, Brazil, Australia and Japan. It's been pretty hectic."
The assertion that the band "hasn't changed", however, is never far away. Today, Supergrass have returned to their Oxford roots to play a hometown radio broadcast from renowned live music venue, The Zodiac. Similarly, the arrival of Life On Other Planets, eschewing the involutions and string sections of the last two Supergrass albums in favour of T-Rexisms and the classic pop of single Grace, has supported the case for 'no change there'. "I think the essence of what we are hasn't changed," considers Gaz. "I think we still have the enthusiasm for doing music, and then having space and time away from it."
But live longer with the record and there are digressions into lyrical weirdness, psychedelia and soul-searching which have little to do with the perceived formulae of stereo-pumping Supergrass summer pop. The same could also be said for both '97's In It For The Money and '99's Supergrass. While Alright lumbered the band with that lightweight image, their failure to lapse into dysfunction has probably prevented Supergrass from being taken seriously. Nice blokes, who get along and have a laugh are allowed to make good, but not great music. If the trade-off for not playing the angst card is that they have sustained the band and their friendships, no one's complaining.
Rob figures they've survived because actign a rock star isn't an option when you've known each other since you were "crappy" little school kids". Danny puts it down to honesty and supportive personalities. Mickey is keen to point out a distinction which he feels was missed in a recent review of Life On Other Planets, which stated: "it's hard to take what Supergrass do seriously when they so obviously don't".
"I don't think we take ourselves seriously, but we take our music seriously," he bristles. "Also, I don't see why music that doesn't take itself seriously isn't important. I guess sometimes we tread that knife-edge, but it's never over-played and it's never a black-and-white as that." As Gaz points out, all three original members contribute lyrics; a consistently grumpy record is never going to happen.
Perhaps Radiohead would've been more like Supergrass if their drummer had been penning tunes. It hasn't helped the perception of Supergrass that that other Oxford band, raised in the same semi-rural neighbourhood, were notorious as soundtrackers of the wounded psyche. Gaz can cite a history of melancholy Supergrass, from Time To Go in '94 to Prophet 15 and Run, which close the new album, but the impression is already set that Radiohead do one thing, and Supergrass muck about at the other end of the spectrum.
"I don't see why there's any difference between us and Radiohead in the way that we like to challenge ourselves," says Gaz. "Although it's completely different music to what we do, the ethic is maybe similar."
Danny takes a more sociological slant on the disjunction between the two bands. "Didn't they go to private school? I didn't know them when we were growing up... I think we were more from the nutcase side of things than the student sort of thing."
The notion that Supergrass have cruised their pop lives, happy nutcases riding a wobble-free frisbee doesn't quite do the band justice. They may have avoided a full on Britpop hangover, but as the easy chart victories of I Should Coco gave way to the long, mid-league survivors haul, bumps in the road were encountered.
The third, self-titled album in '99 saw an "unstable" band getting "ratty" with Danny as he failed to turn up for studio sessions. There were extra-band personal problems, and by the end of '99 a "disheartened" Danny was missing dates on their European tour, while Gaz admitted they were "knackered". At the same time, tha band's departure from Capitol in the US and a re-signing to Island necessitated an extra year gigging in the States. The band who slogged it round the US in 2000 - including eight weeks opening for Pearl Jam - were not exactly bouncy. They survived their transatlantic campaigns, but resentments lingers, with Mickey describing the whole situation as a "pain in the arse".
In band terminology, Supergrass are now in "post-hectic" phase. "Hectic" is Gaz and Danny's word for when it all gets a bit much. They will record, tour, visit the US and party on, but not at the expense of family and friendships. Thus, in 2001, the songwriting sessions for ...Other Planets began with two months together in a villa in the south of France, drinking wine and getting "completely caned". Thirty minidiscs were filled with drunken ramblings. Then they had to come home and make a proper effort. "Terrible really," laughs Gaz.
With American producer Tony Hoffer (Air, Beck) recruited, ...Other Planets emerged from largely stress-free sessions in Rockfield, London and Chris Difford's Heliocentric in Rye. Chris's daughter lent her name to the single Grace by regularly wandering into the recording studio. Family vibes were maintained and former Physics and Astrology student Rob took his telescope around, allowing nightly viewings of the Milky Way and a cosmic overlay for the album. The band now unanimously declare that they're "in a good place".
Later in the day, the leafy memory lanes of Wheatley are replaced by the kebabby boulevards of central Oxford as Supergrass bus it to their Zodiac show. On the left is 345 Cowley Road, where for two formative years the band shared a house. Then there's Faisal Stores, once known to the 'Grass as "Facial Stores". Up ahead and round the bend, The Jericho Tavern, where they had to lie about their ages to get gigs as The Jennifers, and where the linear process of growing up turned spiral, with the help of a smoke, a beer or six and some special tutoring from Danny's chums Terry the hippy, Cosmic Bob and Paper Man (he had his own religion).
Watching Supergrass play that night, they are, of course, both the same band that wrote fun songs in the pub eight years ago, and something darker and more thrilling: molten, projectile metal-psychedelia bouncing off The Who, The Beatles, T-Rex, even The Smashing Pumpkins. They play the new album, and divert into heavier ...Coco tunes. Then they mess with your assumptions by prefacing an encore of their other teen punker, Caught By The Fuzz, with a macho guitared rendition of Neil Young's The Loner.
Add that to Mickey's talk of wanting to "stretch out a bit" in the songs, Gaz's interest in doing some low-key soundtracks for French films, and Danny's contribution to his partner Pearl's solo album, and its not hard to construct a picture of a band straining against their audiences expectations.
"I think we probably are the sort of band that people don't want to grow up, and it's going to kill us," says Danny. "No, we can talk about this, but it doesn't really matter. Even on the next album I don't really want to change just for the sake of it. If we can just keep writing great songs."
Choosing mateship and melody above glamorous dysfunction may seem less than interesting, but it doesn't mean that Supergrass haven't grown up from a carefree, stoned Wheatley youth. At the Oxford aftershow, Gaz and Danny skilfully parry old mates with the kind of jovial deflections that, outside of a band, make you 'mature'. What's sweet is that, despite the throng, they seem more interested in talking to each other.
"It's really weird. I just think me and Gaz are really really close, in a mad way, and we all are," says Danny. "People come up saying, Can you sign this or do that, and we're like, Sorry, we're just having a really nice chat."
Out on the dancefloor at the Zodiac, the real 21st century rock kids are beating each other over the head with inflatable plastic guitars to the ironic accompaniment of Van Halen, while they wait for the nu-metal DJ. Maybe we should allow Supergrass their traditional values. Maybe The King And Queen's landlord was right to beckon them into his snug.
Roger Morton, Mojo - January 2003