The Long Road to Hoo Ha: An Interview with Supergrass

In 1994, everything in England was about Britpop and the so-called Cool Britannia, a cultural movement that gravitated toward the resuscitation of pop music as the strongest force to unite all layers of society. It even got old mommies singing the Boo Radleys’ “Wake Up”, and provided the best item to sell abroad (music is still England’s first export). Suddenly there were dozens of musical acts that in some way or another seemed to invigorate the English self-esteem.

Many say that Britpop had started in Manchester with bands like the Smiths and the Stone Roses, but I believe they were only laying the carpet for the following wave of acts who would take over the world and make London the Musical City of the World during the second part of the ’90s.

Then again, what all the new acts had in common was that they somehow reenacted the best part of the British rock legacy, from the Kinks (Ray Davies was fundamental to Damon Albarn’s Blur) to David Bowie (a decisive influence, not only musically but theatrically, on Suede). It was exactly with Blur and Suede’s first singles, “Popscene” and “The Drowners”, that Britpop started in 1992.

From that, a whole scene grew like crazy, always fed by those most interested in it, the British music press, with Melody Maker and New Musical Express leading the pack. When a young trio from Oxford called Supergrass released their first album, I Should Coco (a title that implied a party mood), in 1995, it was only four months before the highest point of the Britpop lifespan took place: the famous battle between Oasis’s and Blur’s new singles, which would eventually be won by “Country House” (from Blur’s fourth album, The Great Escape) over “Roll With It” (from Oasis’s What’s the Story, Morning Glory?).

But, of course, as it usually happens, not all the acts that are part of a scene have the same importance, and most of the ones coming out during the Britpop explosion didn’t last for too long. Bands like Gene, Menswear, Echobelly, or Elastica (which I’m including here because of their singer’s personal connection to Blur and Suede’s frontmen; indeed, Elastica’s musical direction had nothing to do with Britpop whatsoever) don’t exist anymore. At least each one of them left a small but nevertheless important legacy, a small contribution to Britpop history, a portion of the greatest hits of the era. In fact, you could burn a really great CD that included just one song from every Britpop act.

Apart from that, there were only five really great bands in Britpop’s First Division. Only one keeps the same lineup, strength, and interest today. Guess which one it is.

Blur. Finding themselves disenchanted after having perfected the Kinks-esque optimismic formula they’ve been looking for, the aftermath of The Great Escape took its toll on them, and forced Albarn to dictate a new approach to music. In a profound trip to self-deconstruction, under the acknowledged desire to become the English Pavement, they were capable of producing their best work ever, the albums Blur (1997) and 13 (1999). After that, everything started to rotten, and with a growing sense of disunity and personal problems caused by the typical excesses of the rock star lifestyle (as it is graphically documented on Alex James’s amusing bio of the times, Bit of a Blur), the rope finally broke on Graham Coxon’s side, whose contribution on the late Think Tank was minimal, and whose solo career has grown in audience response and general interest ever since. He’s been rumoured to be returning for a new Blur album sometime in the future, but that has yet to be seen to be believed. In fact, it seems that he reunited with his old pals for lunch on late 2007, the first time he had seen the three other Blur members in five years, but nobody was able to come up with the issue of recording as Blur again. Poor fellows.

Oasis. Or the tale of a bunch of badly behaved Mancunians (although I’m sure Noel Gallagher may keep forever saying that it was all his brother Liam’s fault) that penned the best pop songs of the ’90s — “Wonderwall”, “Some Might Say”, “Live Forever” and others — and later lost their way, their inspiration, and some band members (with replacements coming from b-series Britpop acts and Ringo Starr’s lineage). They ended up turning exactly into what their name implied in the first place: a tiny place of hardly fertile soil in the middle of a vast desert where a lonely palm stands giving little shade to just a few smaller plants (if you haven’t understood the metaphor, yes, Noel is the palm; the desert is the majority of the songs included in all of their albums since their masterpiece, 1998’s What’s the Story, Morning Glory?; the rest, only one or two per album, are the actual soil that somehow keeps the tiny oasis alive and sort of green). The reason for such a downturn in their creativity — and the reason why Noel had to even let Liam include his own compositions in their latest albums — is a a real mystery. Some say it happened because Noel had all their “good” songs written way before the band had released any of them, and that the rock star lifestyle drained his brain of ideas. Some would say that Noel Gallagher’s genius at writing and Liam Gallagher’s recognizable vocal inflection started to repeat themselves and we all got bored with them. The truth is that if you make everything dependable on one individual, you will risk not only the possibility of having that person stressed, he may end up not having a single new idea at all. They’re working on their seventh album anyway, due for release in September 2008.

Suede. In an unusually prolonged agony that no one understood at the time, they started on top (having been proclaimed “best new band in Britain” before they had even released a single song) and went downhill to the very bottom of musical stardom. Not only because rebel guitarist Bernard Butler had left singer Brett Anderson and the rest of the band musically guideless after the recording of their glorious second album, Dog Man Star (1994), but also because with substitute Richard Oakes they were never able to grasp again their initial greatness and/or success (these two things are not the same). That’s why album after album meant disappointment after disappointment for their loyal fans. In the end, and in a quite paradoxical turn, Suede disbanded just before Anderson reunited with Butler to record an effortless album under the name the Tears. But the sort-of reunion wasn’t as successful as planned, as the Tears have gone on hiatus, leaving Anderson free to record his first solo album and Butler to continue his usual labour as a producer.

Pulp. Indeed, a very different class. Although still said to be on hiatus after the release of their last album, 2001’s We Love Life, I would argue that having a long record of dismissed members (their Wikipedia profile actually accounts for up to 17 previous members) should maybe indicate that this collective follows very different rules, even if they may seem stupid, stubborn, or hidden for all us mortals. Anyway, being led by the sheer awkwardness of their bespectacled, ultra-skinny weird front man, the Sheffield act took around 15 years to get popular. Way before the now classic Different Class album was a huge success in 1995, they had already released four albums, and had been operating since 1978. For years, they unsuccessfully tried to surf other waves, until the opened-to-all-kinds-of-cultural-agitators Britpop and Cool Britannia excuses came in, and made an icon of Jarvis Cocker and his entomological views of daily British modern life. After that, fame had consequences on Cocker’s reflective mood, and Pulp ended up taking the Pink Floyd-esque road, the one with The Wall‘s aesthetic, or the ability to write songs about the consequences of fame and the feelings of hate and revenge it provokes — and signing their best album, This Is Hardcore, in 1998. After that, there was not much left to be done, meaning that things are only interesting when you have a goal, but they tend to lose appeal when you’ve actually found what you were looking for. Anyway, what else would you do if you were Cocker, the only man capable of committing an act of terrorism during a Jacko performance (during the 1996 Brit Awards) for which all decent humans should be eternally grateful? Another solo album, as the one he released in 2006? Why not?

Supergrass. They never fed the press with explosive headlines, kept the same formation for years — with the final recognition of Rob Coombes, Gaz Coombe’s brother, as a proper member of the band — and effortlessly released a new album every two to three years. They were the less successful act in Britpop’s first division, but they always laughed at that condition: “We are everybody’s second favourite band,” they taglined. When you look at the cover of their sixth album, Diamond Hoo Ha, you notice it’s exactly the same guys that were painted on the cover of I Should Coco more than twelve years ago. And you kind of feel that time has maybe stopped for them, as they seem to have not lost a single hair, to be perfectly fit, and, as their postures over their instruments suggest, to be ready (and only worried about) doing what this was and will ever be about: playing great music. It is (and has always been) a more direct and honest approach than it was with any of the bands previously dissected in this article (just remember the excessiveness of Oasis’s Be Here Now cover). Prior to the release of this new album, the only news we had from Supergrass was, of course, different and very mundane: while on vacation with his family in France, bassist Mick Quinn fell out a first floor window while sleepwalking. Such a surreal event only empowered the remaining duo (it seems Rob Coombes will always be kind of apart) to play as Diamond Hoo Ha Men while his friend recovered at the hospital, which he already has. Now they plan to tour the world playing their new songs. And they will even support Foo Fighters in the States. So…

Photo: Andy Willsher

Congratulations! You’re right! The only British band that survived the Britpop era without major injuries and keeps in good shape today is Supergrass. You may be wondering how they managed to do it, why they succeeded where all the rest failed. I have my own theory here, and it’s a mixture of normality and lack of ambition: Supergrass never pushed hard to be successful, or if they did, they always thought that the only way to success was to play better, write better songs and, eventually, to have a better time on and off stage (and that included having the best possible attitude towards your bandmates). That is maybe wishful thinking, but it seems to kind of suit the image we have of these four guys.

At the same time, their enduring career responds to another decisive factor: they were never keen on hit singles (though they have had plenty of them, but only because the music industry obliges them) or to follow any specific music trend. I mean, any song on any of their albums is a potential single. And, if you think about it, they were the only band in 1995 that really reminded you of all the British past glories, the only musicians that were able to jump from one reference to another (be it Mick Jagger’s Decca years inflection on the song “Time”, to Pink Floyd’s ’70s grooves and progressions on “Sofa (of My Lethargy)”, to the Buzzcocks’ energy in the famous “Caught by the Fuzz”. And there were more many more influences visible under the radar: David Bowie, Supertramp, the Kinks…

But there was something more in Supergrass. In the history books, Radiohead and the Verve are always presented as the official takeover to the Britpop era, and the air of renovation they brought with them are palpable on Blur’s more experimental late albums and in Pulp’s aforementioned transformation into a discontented and more abstracted act. Call it early maturity, but Supergrass were never the odd one out in either stage of British musical evolution, as their albums always had a bit of Britpop attitude along with a desire to inhabit similar sonic lands as Thom Yorke and what the rest of his peers from Oxford were into (this whole theory of mine is most palpable in Supergrass’s third album, where they jump from the anthemic and uplifting “Pumping on Your Stereo” to the lysergic couple that songs “Born Again” and “Faraway” make, and well before they close the show with the Syd Barrett soundalike “Mama & Papa”).

How could they mix all that? Well, simply because they had the talent for doing it. The fact is they have continued to do it and never failed to gather such different aspects of English music. From the more elaborate In it for the Money (1997) and the Floyd-esque Supergrass (1999) to their trip to the ’70s that’s Life on Other Planets (2002) and back to their most intimate and insightful on Road to Rouen (2005). Now with their sixth album, they try to convey all they like and have perfected through the years in what is possibly the most proper collection of rock they’ve written since their third album, the one known as the “x-ray album” (because of the “intimate” view on the cover). And now they try to discover if they are still relevant in a time of Franz Ferdinands, Arcade Fires, Hot Chips, etc.

That was what I had in mind when I was about to interview Danny Goffey, the drummer for Supergrass, who I hadn’t had the chance to talk to in 2005 when the band was near me in Spain promoting their previous album, because his wife had just given birth to their newest child. That time, I tell him, I had to talk to Gaz and Mick. “Poor you!” he says. And that’s just how we start the interview…

As I started listening to this new album, just by listening to the sound of the opening guitars in the first song, I was instantly sure that there was something new going on on this album. That riff even reminded me of the famous “Smoke on the Water” one. Am I nuts or what?

Cool. Well, on this album we had a new producer, Nick Launay, that made sure we got some loud guitar sounds and stuff like that. And you know, Launey has worked with people like Talking Heads and Public Image Ltd., and so I think he has a pretty good ear for sounds. But, I don’t know, I think Gaz has moved on in his sound as a guitarist, and he really has a great sound coming out now. But anyway, that is as much as I can speak for the guitars, other than Gaz is brilliant at it.

Surely something had to change after so many years, in order to avoid boredom and repetition. Is that the reason why you traveled so much during the recording of this album?

Well, I guess this is just some kind of reacting from the previous albums, especially Road to Rouen (2005), which was a more kind of reflective, acoustic-laid album. You know, we felt really really good when we were writing these songs, and we spent a lot of time at each other’s houses, working on lyrics together and stuff. And what you hear, it’s just the vibe that came out at those early stages, when we were already in good places in our life. At the same time, we fancied making an album that we could go through it all on stage. I suppose that led to getting really exciting sounds coming out and big riffs, and stuff like that. So yes, of course you have to change, or else it will get boring.

Is recording somewhere else far from home a good strategy?

Well, recording an album, there always comes a time when you’ve got to do it, to get away from your friends and family. That’s one reason. But there was another one, and it was a selfish one: We wanted to go to Berlin, we wanted to know what Berlin was as a city. Because that would make us feel differently about music, about how our music is. And also another reason, the third one, had to do with the actual studio; we really wanted to work at Hansa.

You know, whenever someone records at Hansa, we are reminded of how mythical the place is, because that is were David Bowie, with the help of Brian Eno, created his famous trilogy of albums. I feel it’s turned into a cliché…

Well, I don’t know. I suppose it keeps things interesting by itself. But it wasn’t the best studio technically. There was a lot of really old stuff, that took us about a week to really get into. To start recording, we actually had to change stuff, to kind of mend it, making it kind of sound good. So it really delayed us a little bit. But yes, there is some kind of nostalgic feeling about some of the great albums that you love, and if you have the chance to go to the same place where they were recorded, I think it can only really help you as a band. Instead of just going to somewhere 20 miles away and coming back every day to your place; that way you don’t get totally involved in an album.

Photo: Scarlett Page

And why were you so much into going there? Are you hardcore fans of Bowie’s Berlin albums — Heroes, Low, and Lodger?

Yes, we have always been. But it was basically a friend of us that was working in one of the studios at Hansa. We were actually thinking of going to France or somewhere like that to record, when we met him and he told us that he had been working at Hansa. And we haven’t really heard about Hansa for years, we didn’t know if it was still going or not. And it was just one of these quick decisions that you make in life, like, “Wow, yes, it’ll be great!” And the idea of living in Berlin for four to five weeks was quite appealing, something we hadn’t done before.

Anyway, would you say that choosing the producer is a much more important decision than choosing the studio?

Hmm … Probably, yes. But we got the producer after we’ve chosen Hansa. We always do things … I mean, there’s not a proper way to do things. We had a list of producers we would like to have worked with, and Nick Launey sort of really came later on, through another person. So we kind of did it a little back to front.

I believe you haven’t ever recorded in the States…

Not really … We did a sort of song with the Dust Brothers about ten years ago that was on the soundtrack of a film, but it wasn’t a very good experience. Because we weren’t very much in control of what was going on there.

So the States were never an option for this album?

Not really. But actually Gaz went and did some extra vocals and mixing at Nick Launey’s studio in LA, which is in the city underbelly. He was there for a couple of weeks. So we kind of finished it up there. Anyway, it’s not that we would not want to record in America, it’s just that it hasn’t happened for us yet. If we make another album with Nick Launey, we could probably well go and do it in LA.

I wonder how you would sound if you recorded in Brooklyn, I believe it would be exciting for the mind…

Yeah, I see what you mean; maybe recording in LA won’t be as exciting for the mind…

I don’t think so!

Yes, I’d rather record in New York. But, wherever we go, we always try to focus and find what’s good about the place. You know, to find the good places, the good parts of every town…

Everybody respects you because you seem to be a pretty normal bunch of guys that have never sold themselves commercially in any way, not even including cover versions or guest musicians in any of their albums…

Well, I don’t know really. We were talking about that the other day, about maybe doing something more … I think we have always been odd. But I’ve done a lot of stuff; I’ve just done a song that’s coming out in March which is for a homeless charity called Crisis. Gaz and me actually worked on this during Christmas with people like Graham Coxon, Paul Weller, and Beth Ditto. Me and Gaz kind of wrote the basic track and then everybody joined in and did their parts. We actually had a concert on March 2nd with all the bands that were involved. So that’s a certain thing apart from my albums. But if you ask me, I don’t mind collaborating with others in different projects, but I sort of think that, if you’re in a band, it’s good to keep it together, and write our own songs between us; kind of ‘This is who we are’. To work with other people, I’d rather do it outside of Supergrass.

How are Supergrass’ fans today? Have they gotten older with you?

They range from kids to granddads. We have all sorts of fans. You know, we recently played some gigs with the Arctic Monkeys…

I was gonna ask you about that. You may have seen many bands appear… and disappear. What do you think when you see the Monkeys?

That they are gonna last.

Who else is gonna last?

I don’t know. Maybe the Mystery Jets. They are a great band; I think they will be around for a while.

What about Pete Doherty and his Babyshambles?

Oh, yes. I like Pete, he is a good boy.

Is this song in your new album, “Rebel in You”, about characters like him?

Well, maybe it is about people a bit like that. It’s about the different friends we’ve had that at some point have started to lose the plot of who they are.

The titles of the songs in this new album suggest a more mature approach in the lyrics, am I right? Do any of them refer to Mick’s accident? For example, a song titled “Return of Inspiration”; I can only think of it either as a big joke, or as something very serious…

That song’s about celebrating that you are inspired. If you listen to the lyrics, the say something like “Nothing can make you feel bad, nothing can make you feel down, you’re just in a big high”. It’s a song about musical inspiration, and about nothing in life being able to make you go down; not even the end of the world.

As I said, more serious stuff than in previous albums…

Ok, but there’s also stuff like “Whisky & Green Tea” that is not particularly that serious. A lot of the songs to me are about the highs and lows of being out of control, about the highs and lows of being confused.

A good definition of what it is to get older.

Yeah, maybe, because life is quite confusing.

Of course, as the music industry is these days. And in the middle of all the changes and the confusion that the music industry is suffering, you seem to always be there, immutable, always great in your own traditional approach…

Well, it’s hard to say, because we all have families and stuff. We do what sort of suits us, or what we can do. And sometimes it’s hard to put a great album together, you spend a lot of time, and then you get on tour … I don’t know. It’s quite hard to explain but I think we are a traditional band that just tours and pulls albums out. In between, we try to enjoy our lives as much as we can. There’s always other things that come up, you know, like this Crisis thing. Do you think we should be less traditional?

I don’t know. I’m sure little changes can’t do any harm. And of course I can’t see you reinventing yourselves in Madonna or U2 style…

But maybe we had to get into something like that to be more mass popular… I don’t know. Maybe you have to do certain things…

I really think you are about the songs, a group of people who just make great songs.

Well, hopefully we can keep going like that for another few albums…

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