The Press Article
Keeping It Surreal
For three years they were adrift up the Britpop creek sans paddle, but now Supergrass have sailed back into view brandishing a "consciously weird" new album. So, what kept them? "We were sitting around, getting pissed," they inform Paul Stokes.
An hour before arriving on stage at Spain's riotous Benicassim festival, Supergrass are slouched in a stiflingly hot backstage dressing room.
"I am sad," announces singer, Gareth "Gaz" Coombes loudly, smiling between his trademark sideburns. "Estoy contendo, I am happy," he continues, leafing through a Spanish phrasebook delivered to all performing bands on the eve of the festival. "Esta canción se llama, this song is called... Perhaps I should say these onstage tonight?"
Benicassim Music Festival, near Valencia in Spain, has been described as the Spanish Glastonbury, although its derelict airstrip-esque site means the comparison is more about line-ups than location. And, despite booking a large number of British bands - The Cure, Doves and Radiohead are also playing - the organisers are clearly hoping some of the local lingo makes it onstage.
While drummer Danny Goffey, Supergrass' most boisterous member, and keyboardist Rob Coombes (brother of Gaz and now officially in the group) start ordering sandwiches, bassist Mickey Quinn seems keen to further Supergrass's international relations.
"Stick the book onstage and pick things out at random," he suggests to Gaz. "Then try and guess what you've said. You never know, you might say something entertaining."
Tonight marks only the second opportunity for the band to road test songs from Life On Other Planets, Supergrass's first album in three years (the first came at Bowie's London Meltdown festival in June). And, with time running out before show time, Spanish lessons are abandoned in favour of choosing tonight's set list.
Stretching out in the warm night air, Coombes ponders the selection like a crossword fanatic. Periods of contemplation and pen chewing are punctuated by frantic bursts of scribbling. But song selection shouldn't be a problem. Possessing the most pop-attuned ear of any of their Britpop compatriots, Supergrass arrived in 1995 with their brash, youthful debut album, I Should Coco. Consolidating with one of the last decade's great singles - the spearmint fresh Alright - they looked set to stay abreast with Radiohead in the race to represent the future of British pop. However, in 1997 they opted for the experimental, long before Kid A was even a glint in Thom Yorke's eye. Quinn now describes the follow-up album, In It For The Money, as a "dark soup".
"It was almost designed to be a grower," he explains. "It was supposed to take a bit of listening to get into."
Sales cooled, similarly to the likes of the stricken Sleeper and Menswear, who found themselves dropped in the post-Britpop hangover. And just as 1999's eponymous third album generated the Top 20 hit Pumping On Your Stereo, the public turned their back on Supergrass's warped, but radio-friendly pop.
"It was weird," says Goffey, "because I don't think we were part of the Britpop thing. We always made the music we wanted to make rather than sounding like everybody else, but we're still here."
Nevertheless, Noel Gallagher-style denunciations of previous work are not permitted (Goffey has already earned a ticking off for telling Q earlier this year that the band's "heads and heart weren't in the last one". "Your head and heart perhaps," moans Gaz), but the last album is still regarded as a disappointment by the band. The feelings of a missed opportunity is perhaps best epitomised by the fact it ended up self-titled, simply because an alternative name wasn't agreed in time.
"It should have been called The X-Ray Album rather than just Supergrass," declares Gaz. "Then perhaps it would have turned out differently. We let ourselves down a tiny bit with the performance and the production. I remember Your Love sounding like the Spencer Davis Group in my head, but it just didn't happen during the recording. But I don't want to take anything away from the last album because there's stuff on there we could never do again. Moving and Mary are two of my favourite songs."
Changes were needed before the recording of another album and, after a long holiday, Supergrass began consolidating, most visibly by making Coombes's older yet calmer brother, Rob a fulltime band member in January last year.
"I've been part of the band for a while," explains Rob, who has played keyboards with Supergrass since 1996. "It's probably been more of a change to the people on the outside than it has been for us. I've been involved in most of the things we do for years. I just haven't been visible. I suppose, in a way, it's a promotion."
The group weren't fearful of sibling rivalries?
"Nah, it's been great," laughs Gaz Coombes. "We're just really cool with each other, I've got respect for my older brother. Honestly."
"You must think we're really wacky," complains Goffey while, at Q's behest, he perches on the bow of a small fishing boat, brandishing a cutlass. For a band who once had abortive talks with Stephen Spielberg about setting up their own TV series - a sort of Monkees for the '90s - the public opinion of Supergrass as class clowns has been hard to shake, much to their annoyance.
"The pantomime act started feeling like a treadmill after a while," explains Goffey. "On top of that, we'd spent a long time ignoring each other because we'd been in each other's pockets for so long, especially when we were writing and recording."
"we'd get crabby with each other," agrees Quinn. "If you're going to lock yourself away in a studio together and not see anyone else for three months, you're going to get annoyed with someone picking their nose and flicking it at you. But generally we know that nobody's being out of order when they clown around."
Fortunately, Supergrass did not require a painful sacrifice to ease the recording tension. Eighteen months ago, the band decamped to France. Roaming the likes of Nice and Cannes, they spent the first three months of last year officially on a writign trip. In reality, the excursion was more a team-bonding exercise than a motivational one, and most of Life On Other Planets was written on their return to Blighty.
"We took the decision to enjoy ourselves and regroup," explains Goffey brightly, of the excursion which was pitched somewhere between the poet Shelley's grand tour of Europe and The Osbournes, compete with days of jamming, watching films and getting plump on high living.
"It wasn't huge decadence, not in strict rock'n'roll terms," blushes Quinn. "More like going down the supermarket and blowing £400 on French food and drinking nice wine. It was great getting fat and eating chocolate every morning. And we were just making music for the sheer hell of it, not to entertain anyone. In France it became good fun to do, We just sat around and got pissed and messed about together and that's the first time we've really done that since I Should Coco. I don't think we would have played the same way on the new album if we hadn't gone to France."
"Everyone keeps asking if it was similar to when the Stones went off to record there in the '70s," says Goffey. "And probably on the alcohol front it was, but the main reason was to get away from being at home and all the pressures. It was important to recapture the sense of enjoyment we used to have when making music."
Nevertheless, the break didn't provide much in the way of workable material.
"no, we had a lot of rubbish," says Quinn, the group's self-confessed worrier. "We floundered for weeks and then all of a sudden we went on a roll and produced a lot of good demos. I remember feeling depressed about it at the time, but it was worth it."
Despite the added pressure, the French excursion reminded everyone that being in Supergrass was good fun, something Life On Other Planets makes abundantly clear. Built around a foundation of pacy, bad-mannered pop, its loose, edgier approach boasts a strong family resemblance to their debut album. But it's the futuristic lyrics rooted in science fiction that really mark the new album.
"It was a conscious thing to make i weird and surreal," explains Goffey. "Lyrically, this is our best album. I like the idea of writing lyrics that aren't obvious, but there's still some information there."
"At the time I was reading touches of Aldous Huxley and Arthur C Clarke," says Gaz. "That gave me inspiration for the space-related stuff."
Quinn is more blunt as to the writing process. "It's ridiculously convulated," he says, "But the best lines are the ones when you come in from the pub, pick up a guitar and sing the first thing that comes into your head. They're the killer ones. Then you spend hours trying thinking up the one that are really rubbish."
Later that night, Supergrass play some of their new material. Five songs from the new album are included in tonight's show, which deliberately excludes Alright ("We don't need to rely on Alright, we've got other songs that are as strong," says Gaz) but boasts Moving and the riotous Caught By The Fuzz. Even unheard of, new track Grace prompts an outbreak of crowd surfing. It seems Gaz Coombes's optimistic broken Spanish between songs has won them a horde of new admirers.
"This album has given us a lot of confidence," says an exuberant Goffey afterwards. "I don't feel like an old band. We're only four albums in and as long as we keep the vibe going then hopefully there'll be plenty more."
Well, with the recent French retreat in mind, perhaps they should just all move in together for inspiration?
The band look at each other with an expression of horror.
"Maybe if we didn't have families we would all still be living in a big house together," suggests Rob Coombes.
"No we wouldn't," counters Quinn, shaking his head furiously. "Because we'd have killed each other by now."
Q - October 2002