The Press Article
Are You Alright?
It were all running along beaches wearing matching T-Shirts round here when we were kids. But now, after watching their album tumble out of the Top 60, Supergrass seem to have gone distinctly grumpy. At the tail-end of an American tour, meet the band who like to say 'No'...
The dead stars stare out from behind the glass frontage of a converted hardware store. Freddie, Jerry, Sid, Zappa...airbrushed images of deceased greats, all caught in various twisted stages of the afterlife. Gram floats skyward in a suit of lights, Jimi writhes under a burning crown of thorns, Kurt is drawn to heaven on a ray of golden light issuing from a hole in the top of his head.
This is Lupo's Heartbreak Hotel, Providence, Rhode Island, located between the Circus Of Values Tupperware store and Mama Theresa's Home Made Italian Food 'Closed For Bereavement', It's also the site of the last date on Supergrass's American tour.
Outside the venue, Alphonse, the band's driver, leans against the hood of the black Japanese limo that will ferry the threesome around town in search of a photo opportunity that doesn't evoke the bleak colonial desolation of Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers.
"Man!" declares Alphonsem staring at the 'comedy' noose hanging above The Heartbreak Hotel's doorway. "If I lived in this town, I'd kill myself."
Somewhere in a parallel universe, another Supergrass are holed up in an American television studio, reading through scripts for the second series of the Spielberg-produced Supergrass! TV show. America loves them: already familiar to the nation through his lucrative series of Calvin Klein ads, Gaz Coombes is rapidly becoming an A-list celebrity with regular appearances on The Tonight Show and a rumoured on-off romance with Liv Tyler.
It gets better. After a successful appearance hosting Saturday Night Live, Danny Goffey is set to star opposite Jim Carrey in his first Hollywood feature, while Mickey Quinn is rumoured to be producing the long-awaited second album. 'Alright: Hits From The TV Series' spent two months at the top of the Billboard charts before being toppled by Hanson. Rumours that the band are no longer on speaking terms have been rigorously denied by their US management.
"Hey hey we're the Monkees/You know we love to please/A manufactured image with no philosophies" - 'Ditty Diego' by The Monkees, from their anti-pop art movie Head
"If you like me/You can buy me/And take me home/When you see me/On the TV/I'm alone/...I'm not really there" - 'You Can See Me' by Supergrass
The story of Supergrass is a story of negative decisions - of turning down a five-figure offer to model for Calvin Klein and refusing to take up Mr Spielberg's offer of a lucrative TV Series. The incessamt resolution is to never sell out or do another 'Alright'.
At the heart of much of this is the incongruous figure of Gaz Coombes. Despite his undeniably racy good looks, Coombes appears to have an almost pathological fear of being seen solely in terms of image, of being fancied as a bit of a looker rather than a bit of a singer/guitarist. "When people respond to image," he has said in the past, "I tend to withdraw."
Comparisons to The Monkees, the video for 'Alright', pictures of Coombes in the tabloids with a new haircut: all these things were 'image', the elements that detracted from Supergrass being a Rock Band. They gave rise to the bitter, anti-media paranoia that was streaked through 'Going Out' and the band's effective retreat from the public scene for an entire year.
As the limosine cruises down the near-deserted streets of Providence, past the Sportsman's Inn ("Erotic dancers and two movies nightly"), the Every Kind O' Nut store and the toy shop selling wooden clipper ships, Coombes broods behind shades amd exchanges arcane playground witticisms with the other two concerning the enormous size of Mick Jagger's head.
Gaz (in tone-perfect Jagger): "Keef, d'you fink my 'eads too big?"
Danny (adopting eerie Keef rasp): "Nah, man. Every cat's got the right sized head for his body. It's cool."
The band are completely at ease when talking like this. Mock arguments and funny voices place them at their ease; it's like talking to hyper-intelligent children with their own secret language. You can talk about nothing with Supergrass for hours. It's them being genuine, themselves. They're more troublesome when anything approximating an 'interview' starts. Supergrass, after all, do not like interview.
Mention of being young and running green and the band's never-to-be TV mega-stardom still visibly rankles. Those ideas represent 'pop': the thing they must resist. The band started losing their minds around the time of 'Alright'. They thought they were turning into Boyzone. The American fans still ask for 'that song' and whether there'll be any more like it. The band have had enough. Danny argues that questions on this subject are "all passe".
"That's three years ago," he asserts. "We've grown up."
"I'm sorry," mutters Gaz, "but that song was complete and utter..."
"I still like it," interrupts Mickey.
"Nah, I don't mind it too much," concedes Gaz. "It just pisses me off sometimes. We tried to stop playing it, but we only managed three dates. People have to let go of that idea of us. It's changed and it will change again."
They also want to put an end to the Spielberg stories. They "just spoke to him", insists Gaz, just went over because he was interested in the band. No concept was ever fully developed.
"It's been talked about so much," says Mickey at one point, "that if we ever did take him up on the offer, which is still possible, we wouldn't be able to do it low-key anymore." A 'low-key' Steven Spielberg project. Maybe that's what he told them.
Much as it would offend them, no matter how much they bristle like Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back, Supergrass do resemble The Monkees. Not the classic image of the speeded-up, formation cartoon foursome from the half-hour TV episodes, but the anti-industry, no-sell-out, bad-faith Monkees who made Head and the agit-pop TV special 33 Revolvers Per Monkee.
The overlapping three-way conversations and shorthand characterisation are there on the surface ("Danny's the wacky one, Gaz is the cool one and I'm the boring one," deadpans Mickey at one point), but also present is the consummate pop band with a pathological fear of being seen as manufactured in any way, bereft of free will or in thall to the press.
"Look," spits Danny in a rare moment of ill will, "I don't know why we have to explain all this shit anyway."
"Then again," reasons Gaz, staring out at rusting Providence industry, "I guess it's good to explain stuff, but you don't want to ramble on...'
"Or end up trying to defend yourselves," adds Danny, apologetically.
"How are we doing here?" enquires Gaz. "Are we doin' alright?"
The New York Supper Club is by no means a typical rock venue. The matt blue walls, scarlet velour and potted palms would be more at home to a poetry recital for the local Temperance League. It's the kind of ludicrously upmarket place where a regular visit to the toilet involves a stand-off with a small, well-groomed old gentleman in a white frock coat who offers you various musky unguents and body balms, stands around looking officious whilst you have a wee, hands you a fancy towel and expects a couple of dollars for the inconvenience.
Yet despite - or perhaps, because of - such serene surroundings, the penultimate gig of Supergrass' American tour is fantastic. Supergrass tonight indulge in everything from distorted, riff-heavy psychedelia ('I'd Like To Know', 'In It For The Money') and supercharged '70s fuzztone noise ('Man Sized Rooster' and Kenny Rogers cover 'Condition') to pithy acoustic furry ('It's Not Me') and plain old boisterous pop (everything else).
Onstage, Coombes is a rock natural, effortlessly slipping into the kind of rock postures that Paul Weller or John Squire could only cadge off their heroes. He is every inch the effortless, reluctant star. Drunken, pneumatic women in floral print dresses and big-waisted 22-year-old guys in skate wear throw themselves up onto the raised hands of the swarming crowd, surfing across their heads, waving at the dullards on the top balcony.
On this evidence, Supergrass are back to doing more than alright. Without the affection of the horn section that blighted their English tour, and with the addition of a wheezy organ accompaniment from Gaz's brother Rob, they manage to look all but unstoppable.
But there is a problem. The one song most notable by its absence, the one the record executives came to see, is 'Late In The Day'. It's the next single: the one that Parlophone hope will break them in America. It's not even on the set list.
When 'In It For The Money' was released on April 21, it was proclaimed as something of a classic in the British music press. Self-produced, with a cynical, anti-industry title, it suggested that the 'Grarse had reconciled the media overkill that came in the wake of 'Alright'. Yet, sometime during their European tour in April, they appear to have had doubts about the whole fame and attention thing all over again.
After turning down a headlining slot at Glastonbury, believing that they still weren't ready for that sort of distinction, Supergrass also became uncomfortable with the size of the venues they were playing on their British tour and the addition of a horn section (which, they felt, detracted from the true three-piece power and unity of the band).
The tours failed to kick in. Although a healthy unit-shifter in the rest of the world, in the UK 'In It For The Money' has still yet to sell more copies than 'I Should Coco'. From initially being seen as Parlophone's mid-summer cash cow, 'In It For The Money' - which at the time of writing sits at number 64 in the charts - is now being referred to as a 'steady seller'. "We're now looking at projected sales towards Christmas," said one Parlophone spokesperson. In short, Supergrass' second coming has failed to happen.
Backstage at the Super Club, secure in the knowledge of a gig well done, Gaz is quite happy to admit that the album has failed to sell as well as expected. "That was because we did a bit of a shit tour," he states, matter-of-factly, "The horns..."
"It wasn't the horns' fault," reckons Mickey. "It was that we weren't tight enough for the horns."
"We chose the wrong size of venues," asserts Gaz, changing tack. "We need to be a bit more selective about it, a bit more interesting. Not necessarily do the same gigs that every other band does. Sometimes it takes mistakes like that for us to realise. We're tighter now."
Supergrass have never taken praise as gospel. If anything, they're a little too humble. They're happy because they received critical acclaim for the album. A lot of bands have told them it's a great album and Gaz sees Supergrass as that very '70s thing, an 'album band'. "Totally," he shrugs. "We're nothing else, really."
And, in keeping with the '70s ethos of bands like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, they'll tell you that it's not about commercial success.
'Sun Hits The Sky' could easily have been a number two single if only the band had released it in a double-CD format, like 'Richard III'. But they didn't have the tracks and they didn't want to rip the kids off with some dodgy live tracks on the second CD.
There comes a point in talking to Supergrass when you suspect that they're secretly pleased 'In It For The Money' did not take off in the way the press, the record industry and The Man predicted - that they don't really want to be what their record company want.
"I don't know," confesses Gaz, playing with the ringpull on his can of Coke Classic. "I don't really care how we're perceived.
Would they really want 'In It For The Money' to be a million seller?
"Well, yesh," mumbles Gaz, "but I think we're in a really nice position at the moment. We feel quite secure in our little bubble."
Ten years ago, 'indie' bands who talked about living in their little bubble, of being wary of the press and just wanting to make their music were all too commonplace. Indie bands were supposed to hate the charts and Top Of The Pops and 'the media'. It went with the territory. But then the charts changed, people stopped buying Phil Collins records and indie music made it to the Top 40.
Then came Oasis - cool, anti-establishment and Number one in the charts. Liam, Damon, Jarvis...suddenly pretty boys in guitar bands were selling tabloid newspapers, tabloid newspapers were setting up stings to get the pretty boy faces on the cover and, for a band in which the lead singer is congenitally shy to the point of being withdrawn while the other two members have young families to look after, such media attention became hazardous.
Steady relationships is what it's all about in Supergrass.
"I think some bands don't want to say that," considers Gaz, as the black limo takes the band on another circuit of Providence hot spots, "because it doesn't sound cool. It sounds boring."
"I don't give a shit," retorts Danny, "because it's not boring. If any fucker wants to come round my house and see what I get up to..."
Danny Goffey, 23, lives in Camden with his girlfriend, Sam, better know as Pearl from defunct Britpop annabes Powder. They have two kids: Daisy, seven, from Sam's previous relationship, and Alfie, nine months. After the New York gig Sam is backstage with Alfie who looks uncannily like a minuature version of Danny with wide inquisitive eyes, cheeky face and black hair sticking up in all directions.
"He does impressions," says Danny. "He does Popeye and one where he looks like he's chewing gum. It's hard to tell them apart actually."
It kind of makes sense that Mickey and Danny are the two fathers in Supergrass. As well as having families of their own they also play a decidedly paternal role in protecting Gaz from the outside gaze of the media.
"Gaz worries about the attention he gets," says Danny, playing with Alfie's jet-black spiky hair. "He's quite sensitive about the fact that he's not sharp enough to pull it off."
"I think," he says handing Alfie back to his mum, "that gaz'd probably have a hard time if he started taking all the responsibility, doing all the interviews himself, cos he's not really that into it."
Supergrass used to get drunk and go mad, like any band thrown into the free-money circus of a major label. But the more it went on the more they became weary of meeting new people because, as Danny puts it, "there's so many fucking idiots in this business".
"Over the last two and a half years," he concedes somewhat sheepishly, "I've talked so much shit to so many people and I've just wanted to say 'fuck off!' to everyone."
Danny will keep going in Supergrass because it means he can spend time playing music and getting paid for it. It's a boring reason, he admits, but that's what it is.
"Anyway," he concluded, pointing over to Sam and young Alfie, "me and Mickey have got to keep going because we've got mouths to feed. I saw Del Amitri on Top Of The Pops the other day. The sideburns, that drummer. It looked like us in ten years' time."
"In the firefighter's world, survival is the only benchmark of success..." Supergrass' palatial tour bus sits parked in the sidestreet alongside The Heartbreak Hotel. On The TV screen a fireman is jumping from a burning building, holding a small baby. His head is on fire. "This is so horrible," complains Gaz, "can we turn it off?"
The video is one of those true-life disaster compilations: car crashes, hurricanes, houses falling over. The group hate it, but the road crew keep putting it on. Danny thinks it will desensitise him to real life. Getting desensitised is a real worry for Supergrass.
"I used to get really excited about going on tour," remembers Danny. "I'd wake up ten hours before a flight . It used to be like going on holiday."
"The first time we were on a tour bus," adds Gaz, gesticulating to the interior of their current land boat, "we almost wet ourselves. Completely amazing."
What replaces that thrill now?
"Drugs?" offers Danny
"It's about getting on the bus and getting through it," says Gaz gloomily.
"We've always got something to do in the evening," says Mickey, entering the conversation for the first time, "which is play a gig. That keeps it together. Simple as that, really."
Is there nothing special about Supergrass as a band that keeps it together?
"Dunno," shrugs Mickey. "Haven't a clue."
Mickey Quinn, 27, is a father of two. Of his role in Supergras he says, "dunno, I just write basslines". Deadly serious, with the kind of mature, well-travelled voice common to news reporters, Mickey Quinn hates interviews. He describes the worst thing about Supergrass as "being shut in a hotel room for three weeks doing press which has very little to do with writing music". He's been in bands for 14 years because "it's better than washing dishes". He finds it strange that Supergrass have had such success because "it just seems really obvious what we're doing".
It's difficult to tell wether he's taking the piss or deadly, deadly serious. Ask him to describe himslef in five words and he'll say, "No. No. No. No. No."
Inside the venue, local band Closer are playing their final number. It is the sound of a distressed pig being force fed an electric fan. The decor can best be descibed as a tasteful meeting of early-'70s youth club and late-'50s meat factory. Most of the dead pop stars that adorn the walls have faded in the grime. One image, however, is still distinct, a nightmare image of a Siamese twin Elvis, fat and thin Kings joined at the waist by one Elvis belt, contorted and twisted against the wall. Welcome to the Heartbreak Hotel.
On a big night, it could hold in the region of 1,000 people. Tonight, there's barely 250. As the band walk on stage to a small clatter of applause and red, green, yellow and blue '70s disco lights, there is a very real sense that the Heartbreak is about to claim three more victims. The 'vibe' is non-existent and the youth of Providence are dressed in straw boaters and Breton shirts and dancing a strange approximation of the skinhead moon-stomp. Yet, somehow, Supergrass' set is even more impressive than New York.
With Gaz on the left, Mickey on the right and Danny's drumstack in the middle, they assume the classic power-trio formation, grinding and hammering their songs into the stage, appropriating Big Black riffs for 'Strange Ones' and slipping into Hendrix distortion for 'Cheapskate' - all with the added rare bonus of Gaz Coombes castigating his audience "because it's our last gig and you'd better clap a bit louder".
Backstage, there is no post-tour celebration. The band will see a couple of fans, sign a couple of T-shirts, get in the tour bus, travel overnight to New York, and fly back to Britain in the morning.
"The first time we went to America," remembers Danny, opening a can of post-gig Bud, "it was great. We'd have breakfast in mad cafes and then that starts to wear off..."
"But it probably hasn't worn off yet..." interupts Gaz.
"No," says Dan, staring into the middle distance, "we're still into it."
Yes, Supergrass are still into it, as long as 'it' doesn't get too big to handle. As he's said in the past, Gaz couldn't handle being Liam Gallagher ("I don't want to be a soap opera for us all to watch") but is there any level of band fame he'd be happy with?
"It's weird you should say that," he says flopping into a ratty couch. "I'm always think about that. The kinks did it quite well, didn't they?"
"They hated each other," interupts Danny.
"Forget about that," says Gaz, far more at ease addressing Danny than Select, "it's how they did it. Not getting too big. That's probably why Ray Davies has stayed so level headed." Ray Davies, it should be noted, actually suffered one of the worst breakdowns in rock history. But anyway...
"It all comes back to JJ Cale," says Gaz, invoking the name of the gnarled American blues legend the band bear a strange admiration for, "and how we...well not idolise him, but he didn't really have... er, a press campaign."
"Anyway," reckons Gaz, "it's not the be all and end all, Supergrass. We're having a great time, but i can't see us doing it in ten years' time with the same enthusiasm. Who knows? In ten years I'll still only be 31 and we're pretty sorted at the moment. Don't you agree?"
Gaz Coombes is 21. He is painfully shy. Ask him what his role is in Supergrass and he'll say, "I dunno. Er... I can't describe it. You need to ask Mickey or Danny." Of the rest of the band he says, "Dunno really. Danny's quite hard to find sometimes. I don't really know."
Describe yourself in fove words.
"Er... Pretty much getting there, basically."
Select - October 1997