The Press Article
Supergrass were Britpop's brightest young stars, the Hair Bear bunch on bikes with universal tunes. Then came the complicated rock opus and the disappointing sales. Now they just want to be left alone to make magical music. "If it doesn't sell that many then... tough," they tell Tom Doyle.
Gareth "Gaz" Coombes lay star-shaped on the bed in his Barcelona hotel room, on the verge of throwing up. It had been a fantastic day and an even better night, watching Manchester United snatch injury time victory against Bayern Munich in the Champions League Final at the Nou Camp Stadium.
Earlier, in a moment of rare rock starrish indulgence, he'd flown to Spain along with a handful of industry executives in a Lear Jet chartered by Parlophone Records especially for the occasion and had his photograph taken beaming impishly as he sank into the luxury airline seat, feet rebelliously pitched up on the seat facing him.
Post-match, in his hotel room, it was late, and Coombes was "caned". But just as he was drifting off, a familiar melody nagged him back to consciousness. Out of the television issued a karaoke-like jingle for a lemon-flavoured Spanish soft drink, the ad featuring a middle-aged Iberian pub crooner joyfully proclaiming that he was young, he ran green, and - without the merest sliver of irony - kept his teeth nice and clean.
"I just suddenly thought, Fuck, that's Alright," Coombes groans. "It was surreal, hearing this bloke's voice trying to sound really young. Thing was, we didn't know anything about it. Apparently advertisers can do a complete copy of a song and not pay anything. It's only if they change something that they have to ask permission...
"Something like that anyway," he tails off, lapsing into a shy mumble. "A weird rule."
Gaz Coombes didn't get straight on the phone to his lawyers. Typically, Gaz Coombes couldn't be arsed. He would rather, if it was alright by you, make music and smoke marijuana; since he is a musician, there is little else that he is constitutionally obliged to do. Having been sucked up by the Britpop whirlwind and then suffered the thud as their 1997 album In It For The Money struggled to match the platinum status of their debut, I Should Coco, he's emerged with a shoulder-shrugging ambivalence to this business of lawyers, A&R, marketing and selling records.
This month, Supergrass's to-all-intents-eponymous third album is released ("It's not actually eponymous... We couldn't think of a title, so officially it has no title"), weaving familiar elements of the first two - the surreal sense of wonder of In It For The Money, the controlled powerhouse trio dynamics of I Should Coco - without drastically redrafting the formula. It's a record that arrives at a worrying time for British guitar bands.
"Remember, though," lectures bassist Mickey Quinn, in his dry, hangdog way, "people said all that stuff about guitar music being dead ten years ago when rave first came out. You can only play the music that you want to. If it doesn't sell, that many then... tough,"
BEFORE SUPERGRASS released their 1999 comeback single, Pumping On Your Stereo (cheekily, they sang "humping on your stereo" throughout - a Coombes/Quinn whim that drummer Danny Goffey originally tried to block), they found themselves in the position of having created what was widely hailed a masterpiece second album, but having "blown it" commercially. The singles pulled from In It For The Money - Richard III (No.2), Sun Hits The Sky (No.lO), Late In The Day (No.18) - traced a rather unsettling trajectory.
"We weren't disappointed in the sales of the last album at all," insists Gaz Coombes who parked today at a bench in the beer garden of a west London pub - might pass for the devilishly handsome son of Richard Branson. "We sold more worldwide, did over a million. Less in England but more in America and Europe. Y'know, it didn't have an Alright on it and it didn't hit people. It didn't have those pop hits on it... it was slightly more thoughtful."
"I suppose we sort of blew it in terms of being a really smooth commercial act and cashing in," Quinn sighs. "But in some ways that's nice. We sort of had to develop mechanisms for dealing with the flak afterwards. But if you're a long-termist, these things will work out."
Danny Goffey and Gaz Coombes are 23; Micky Quinn is 29: too young to be washed up so soon. A third album put paid to Sleeper (granted, they were living on borrowed time), Menswear didn't survive their second, but Supergrass are made of sturdier stuff, and may yet prove to be the Britpop fallout victims who survive without taking a dramatic left-field turn or strapping on hip hop beats.
Image-wise, however, they have problems. public perception of Supergrass remains frozen in stone since the Chopper bike-racing Alright, even if their idiosyncratic, surrealist rock has taken giant steps ahead.
"That really wasn't us," Coombes is still moved to insist, four years on. "That was us playing the parts of young kids breaking into life. Mick was 25,26 when we did that,"
Subsequently more and more nervous about "doing" wacky, Supergrass saw their second album as an opportunity to develop their artistic personae and suppress the gurning.
"It was the first time that we produced ourselves," recalls Goffey, "so we tried to make it a wider, bigger sound, sort of more Small Faces-y. It was really subconscious. But then we broadened the gap between us as musicians and the image of us as little kids on bikes, playing the 13-year-olds. It did take us out of the Britpoppy thing."
WHILE SOME OF the sessions for the third Supergrass album broke with tradition as the group decamped to Ridge Farm in Surrey, most of it was recorded at Sawmills in Cornwall, a residential studio located on an estuary reached only by rowing boat. Scene of the recording of the first two albums - I Should Coco in the summer of '94 when the band went crab-fishing; In It For The Money in the heart of winter 1996 with Quinn "going mad, mixing it in my head when I was trying to sleep" - it has become the trio's spiritual home. Cut off from the outside world, it provides more than enough creative freedom since, as Quinn notes, "it takes the people from the record company four hours to get there, so they can't be arsed".
There's evidence that when Supergrass - royalties divided equally, all three responsible for music and words - play together, it's in the childlike sense of the word. "Sometimes we go into the studio and just put the mikes on and talk bollocks to each other," Goffey explains. "Then we just pick little lines out that are cool."
The drummer incredulously remembers the pivotal moment when Supergrass delivered the masters of I Should Coco to Parlophone: "Our A&R guy couldn't believe that we'd played all the instruments. He thought we'd got loads of guys in to play on it. We were like, (affronted) What do you mean? That's so out of order. So then we established that, y'know, people should leave us alone. We'd do the music."
But having insisted that they could sail their ship alone, the three found themselves heading directly for the rocks on the first British tour for In It For The Money. Under-rehearsed and augmented by a brass section, playing in mid-sized to modestly cavernous venues that felt uncomfortable, Supergrass died on their feet.
"We had two days rehearsal and basically we couldn't play the songs," Quinn admits. "It all went horribly wrong. All credit to the horn section because they were trying to work with a band that was all over the place."
"We've always had a hard time translating to a huge audience," Goffey acknowledges.
"It was one of those things," Coombes decides. "It's unfortunate when you're a band who're fairly popular, when you make mistakes, you make them in front of a lot of people. It was too much and we played with uncertainty. Combining that with the big venues, it didn't really happen."
"SUCCESS ALWAYS FITS," says Alex James of Supergrass's Parlophone labelmates, Blur. "It never feels odd."
For Supergrass, however, success doesn't fit; it has often felt odd, and there's a sense that the band were secretly happy to pull back from the edge of wider fame after the Top 5 showings of Alright and Going Out. When The Sun newspaper offered the band an enormous, undisclosed sum to use the latter to soundtrack their TV commercial, the band instantly declined. "We don't want to say how much they were offering," Quinn insists. "Ask Hurricane #1 because they took it."
Still, 1999 has seen Supergrass maintain a low-level tabloid presence through Danny Goffey and girlfriend Sam Lowe's friendship with Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit. One recent paparazzi snap showed them crushed together in a modest family car at the end of what appeared to have been an eventful night out. These experiences, the drummer concedes, have given him an acute insight into the nature of tabloid fame.
"The picture shows this massive, mental time, but it's not like that... and I had my fUcking kid there," stresses the father of two and step-father of one. "It was just us going out for a meal. You get these shots of Liam and Patsy having a massive argument... but it's just what you do, isn't it? Liam's probably going, I don't wanna fucking go shopping any more. And she's going, I wanna get this dress here and he's like, I'm going home. Then the picture makes everyone think they're having this huge argument. It's weird."
What's the bond between you and Liam? Is he your best friend outside of the band?
"No he's not. I've only known Liam for the last few months. And he has a fucking rough time. My girlfriend met Patsy and it went from there. It's not something that I really like to talk about."
But people are fascinated.
"Well he's just a really.., y'know... people think he's a bit of a press man. But he's just a really honest sort of guy. And he's witty as well. He tells funny stories that youjust piss yourself at."
"He was telling me this one the other day about Elvis in his later years. How he wouldn't go to the toilet unless he had a fresh duck to wipe his arse on. He liked the downy feathers of the duck... and then he'd throw it away. (Sniggers) I was like, Yeah?"
Goffey's attraction to the lights of the London party scene doesn't sit with the more reluctantly famous Coombes and Quinn. The former admits: "We take the piss. It's like, Here Danny, saw you in The Mirror the other day with Liam and Patsy"
Does the drummer ever worry that his band mates see him as just a ligger?
"Well they take the piss. But they're fucking frightened of all that shit. Frightened of meeting people. And they don't live in London (Coombes in Brighton, Quinn in Oxford with a daughter and step-daughter). What the fuck, y'know, if I'm out having a good time? There are loads of dickheads out there but it's fun talking to dickheads. It's like a social study in how wanky famous people can be. And also how lonely people are. I go out because... I dunno... I just enjoy spreading my weight around. Hey, I'm just an approachable guy, man."
The lyric of Going Out ("If you want to go out/Read it in the papers/Tell me what it's all about") hinted at a social schism within Supergrass. Mention this to Goffey and he wanders back from the pub toilet in a fug of mild paranoia. "Now you mention it again, that's freaked me out," he frowns "I suppose to a certain extent it was."
Confronted with the same theory three weeks later, in a break from rehearsals in Putney, the laconic Quinn isn't so sure.
"Not that song, no," he smiles. "I shouldn't really say this, but there are a couple of songs where I'm having a pop at Danny. Over all three albums, there's bits here and there. It's definitely love/hate with Danny. Some days I hate him. Some days I can't think of anyone better to be in the band."
GAZ COOMBES IS happiest these days on the beach at Brighton, kicking back and smoking cannabis with his friends.
"It's a very liberating place to be," he enthuses. "It's really free and it's sort of happening. It's got a good vibe about it. I've been down the beach so much recently, more or less every day having some beers, watching the waves come in and having a smoke. When I sit on the beach I feel like Brighton goes on for miles. And that sort of helps your state of mind. Gives you a freer state of mind."
Are you too shy to be a rock star?
"Yeah, it's weird. I sort of think sometimes maybe you need to have that rock star persona. But I never wanted to be a rock star. I just wanted to be in a band, I never really aspired to be that rock star thing. It would be easy for me to get really into it, move up to London and start doing those things. But I believe that if we ain't got a record out, there's no point in having my picture in the paper.
"I want to get a lot out of my life in a lot of different ways. If I just put it all into one area and become a complete rock'n'roller, going mental on drugs and shagging women everywhere, I won't be fulfilling other aspects of my life. I'Il end up with a dodgy perm and my own guitar shop."
In the common understanding, rock bands are supposed to have an insatiable hunger for power and success - an unquenchable thirst for continent-straddling market domination. Supergrass, just want to make great music, get stoned, get drunk with their friends (even if, in Danny's case, that means running the paparazzo gauntlet) and have enough money to pay their mortgages at the end of the day ("We know it's boring").
EVEN IMAGINING the worst case scenario - that if their sales seriously bottomed out, they might be dropped - Quinn remains unfated.
"I'm sure we could sign to some smaller label," he nods, "and just keep doing what we're doing."
You get the feeling that if the outside world could just get over that Alright video, everything might just be perfect in Supergrass's world,
"We've figured out," Mickey Quinn concludes, "that in twenty years time when all the fuss has died, all we'll be left with is the records."
Then, sagely, he makes a point of adding: "And maybe a few nice photos of us looking daft, acting 14 and wearing rubber rings."
Q - October 1999