Walk the Walk: An Interview with Gaz Coombes
Former Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes talks with PopMatters about his career, rediscovering his love of the guitar, and his new solo album, World's Strongest Man, which may be his best work yet.
World's Strongest Man
Hot Fruit Caroline International
4 May 2018
When a successful band calls it a day, it's fairly inevitable that the front person will eventually strike out on their own. With no bandmates to appease, they find themselves suddenly free to branch off in any number of new and unexplored directions. However, making that transition from front person to successful solo artist doesn't always go according to plan. The musical minefield is littered with those solo careers that promised so much but were cut down before they even had a chance to get going. The only inexorable option left being to suck up those "musical differences" and get reacquainted with the bass player's questionable personal hygiene habits on the back of a tour bus.
In the case of former Supergrass frontman, Gaz Coombes, his solo career since leaving the Oxford four-piece has gone from strength to strength. After the aggressive and politically charged Here Comes the Bombs, Coombes took a more meditative approach on 2015's Matador. Now, with the imminent release of World's Strongest Man, Coombes proves his longevity further with his most varied, and arguably best, album to date.
Speaking to Coombes at his house in Oxford, the artist behind some of the most revered British records of the '90s and '00s was keen to chat about how it felt to have to follow a successful record again, the influence of British artist Grayson Perry, and how he embraced the electric guitar again on the new record, all while still recovering from a recent bout of flu. "I thought I got away with it too! I even started bragging about how invincible I am, and then I just went down like a sack of potatoes."
Matador saw Coombes experiment with a more textured, layered sound and a result was one of his most cohesive and rewarding albums to date. For many fans and critics alike, it saw Coombes completely step away from the shadow of Supergrass. "On Matador, I guess something clicked or something resonated in a cool way, and that's always great when that happens. I guess I've had it in the past over the years when I've had a record that resonates. You write something that fits into the way people are feeling or relates to people in some way."
While success and recognition of his solo work is something that Coombes is very proud of, he finds it difficult to judge whether that means he has successfully made that transition from band frontman to solo artist. "I think it's hard from the inside. It's always work in progress you know. I guess it's great and positive that you're getting the confirmation that it's going well and people are digging it really. That's great, but it's hard for me to see it like that. I mean for me writing and creating music is all just a kind of continuation. When I left Supergrass, I was just carrying on with my ideas."
With Matador, proving that he could do it on his own commercially and critically, Coombes found himself in the unfamiliar situation of having to follow up a hit record again. "It was interesting writing this record because I'd forgotten that feeling of having to follow up a successful record, so it was almost like an alien feeling again to feel that pressure." With that in mind, Coombes was very sure of what he had to do with the follow-up. "It always has to push on and evolve and expand and that's always been really important to me. I had to forget how well Matador did and just get in the room and see what came out and try and be spontaneous and honest."
As with the writing of Matador, the initial writing and recording sessions for what would become World's Strongest Man took place in the familiar surroundings of his home studio. "When I came out of all the touring for Matador and reached the end of that cycle if you like. I had a bit of time off, and then I started formulating ideas. It's quite clear when I'm starting on the next album. In that way, it is kind of similar to the old idea of getting the band and getting everything ready and we're in album-making mode now. It's usually quite clear that that's where I'm at."
Once Coombes is in album writing mode, his initial setup is the same. "I like to have limitations at the beginning. Not really a big candy store of whatever I want. My studio is quite modest in that way. It's got the key things I know I can get great results. I've got some amazing sounding demos just through that process of limitation and having to commit early so I still kinda of do that now. Although we have digital recording I do like to commit fairly early on. It's just a case of getting these ideas down."
World's Strongest Man is a strikingly confident sounding record with a very definite sound and sense of place, something that came quite early on in the writing process. "As soon as you start hearing them back and I'm feeling like this is really doing it for me and the idea kind of takes over, and that's when the confident sound comes through. It's just being in the song. There's no more confidence than there normally is and, conversely, there's no fewer neuroses and self-examination and freaking out that something's a bit shit. It's all the same stuff that I always get but as soon as the ideas really kick in then it kind of takes over and I feel it's strong, you know."
With this being his third solo album since the disbanding of Supergrass way back in 2010, Coombes has developed a distinctive approach to his songwriting in marked contrast to his days with the Britpop survivors. "I think it's different now. The way I write is different. It's about being quite visceral with it and just allowing myself to explore these ideas without any pre-editing. Very much stream of conscious."
To maintain that edge, Coombes is mindful of not inhabiting the same artistic space for too long. "It's always important for me to kind of try and push it somewhere else. I can't just relax on it being a lovely or sweet guitar part. I have to keep pushing it. I have to try and find a place for it to sit. That's what I find exciting about writing at the moment being very instinctive and letting my instincts take over in that way but then trying to push myself in terms of what I normally do and how I normally go about things."
That does require a certain amount of patience though as, at times, the finished song can seem like a long way off. "Sometimes the song won't kind of show itself for months so there'll be a gradually throwing things at it. I'll wake up one morning, and I'll get a feeling for a sound, and I'll give it a try. It is very much like a painting I guess. You can get halfway through and start scratching bits of it out to do another layer and see if that layer works best." Nonetheless, some songs will take a lot longer to reveal themselves than others:
"I'll tell you what the little troublemaker was!" he says, suddenly animated. "I can't remember why now, I think it was structure. I think I just knew that the verses, the vocal melodies, the piano, the groove of the beat. It's kind of one of my favorite things, but for a long time, the rest of the track was kinda substandard. It was so frustrating. You're just touching this really great idea, but it hadn't sort of formed itself. You couldn't quite see where it was gonna go. It was so frustrating for months!"
In an attempt to avoid becoming too exasperated, Coombes took a well-earned break, during which he got to grips with British artist Grayson Perry's book, The Descent of Man. In it, Perry attempts to deconstruct the gender role dictated to men by society and explores the adverse effect it has on them, their relationships and society in general. It was an illuminating read for Coombes and proved to be a turning point in the writing of the album.
"It's really fascinating," Coombes notes. "It's just this conditioned idea that you have to act a certain way, but you don't have to treat anyone like that. I don't know it just seems more and more obvious to me. It's gotta start from a very simple point which is just be a decent human being and try as be as open-minded as you can be. Don't fall into the cliches. People are kind of savvy man, and they see through it."
The influence of the book is obvious on the album, particularly on the title track where he takes Grayson's broad themes and adds some of his customary lyrical wit and nuance. "The idea of World's Strongest Man [is that] it's a lighthearted poke at myself and modern men, not in a really heavy way. It's about being isolated in situations, focusing on all the inadequacies, and just being a bit of a loser or not getting out of bed. It's about vulnerabilities as well."
Nevertheless, as much as Coombes is interested in articulating certain serious, important issues, he is fully aware of the dangers of pounding the listener with polemics. "I like to mix it up with all sorts. These are still songs man, so I like to mix it up with a cool lyrically hook. Not every lyric has all this weight on it. It's all about mixing this very throwaway stuff with the odd line that is very important to me."
Musically, the album mixes up the reflective and atmospheric direction of Matador with trippy, cinematic piano ballads ("Slow Motion Love"), hazy, Bowie influenced mid-tempo numbers ("Oxygen Mask") and even throws in a children's choir ("Wounded Egos"). However, what is immediately noticeable is the return of some good old-fashioned, big guitars. Whether it be on the title track or the Radiohead-meets-Queens of the Stone Age freakout of "In Waves", World's Strongest Man features plenty of Coombes plugging in and letting loose. One of the highlights being the prowling strut of "Walk the Walk", a riff he is particularly enamored with. "The opening two bars, yeah that's the shit. That's the kind of thing that when you listen back even as the person who wrote it and kinda go 'Fuck!'"
As welcome as it's return is, it's still a bit of a shock, particularly as Coombes has largely shied away from the electric guitar as lead instrument in his solo work. "I think it started from the first solo album where it was almost kind of indignant like aggressively decided not to have any guitar. Just make that separation I guess. It was an interesting thing to separate myself from the history. The last thing I wanted to do or would ever do is come straight out of Supergrass and go and play shows on my own and play big rock songs. I don't want to rest on the legacy. So part of that was just making big moves. Unattaching myself. I guess I'm further away from it now so I can kind of entertain some of the roots of what I do and where I've started and stuff. Picking up a mad guitar and put it through a weird little amp is still as much fun as it was back then. It's still a buzz."
Crucially, on World's Strongest Man, Coombes has managed to challenge himself artistically whilst retaining the honesty that has earned him his ongoing success as a solo artist. A sure sign that Coombes should avoid the fate of many of the band front people gone solo artists who have gone before him."I just try and be honest and put that everything on record that just speaks. I keep referring back to the idea of just keep making it better and keep on surpassing it if you can. It's feeling like it's in a good place now where I'm in a rhythm. I feel good about this one. I feel really good."
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