ALL EMBITTERED aspiring musicians over 30 are advised to turn the page. The reason? Brit-pop phenom Supergrass, particularly singer/guitarist Gaz Coombes. Along with his bandmates, bassist Mick Quinn and drummer Danny Goffey, Coombes is the author of two million-selling albums, and a third, the new Supergrass, that's well on its way to that mark; he recently flew to Spain in a Lear jet to support his beloved Manchester United football team; his band turned down Steven Spielberg's offer to create a Monkees-esque sitcom around the group; and Coombes himself declined a Calvin Klein modeling contract (he's a dreamboat by most accounts). Oh, and he's 24.
Showbox, Saturday, May 27
You should have turned the page when you had the chance.
"I think things just hit you and you know what you're supposed to be doing," says Coombes. Speaking from the office of his New York City publicist two days before the launch of the band's headlining US tour (they'll tour later this year with Pearl Jam), the singer is polite, if not the bundle of energy one might expect given his recorded output.
Coombes has been playing in bands since he was 12, although Supergrass didn't get their start until 1993, when the young songwriter fell in with Goffey, whom he met at a job in their native Oxford, and Quinn, a friend of Coombes' older brother (and the band's unofficial fourth member, on keyboards) Rob. "We all knew each other, but it never occurred to us to all join forces," Coombes says. "It just happened." They released several singles on independent labels before being discovered in a pub by Parlophone, which issued the band's debut album, I Should Coco, in 1995. An explosive, bratty, and thoroughly British concoction that recalls the early work of the Kinks, the Buzzcocks, and the Who, the record was an instant smash with excitable pop fans from the Thames to Tokyo, largely on the basis of such classic tunes as "Alright" and "Caught by the Fuzz," a hilarious account of Coombes' real-life teenage pot bust.
One fan of the album was Spielberg, who flew Coombes, Quinn, Goffey, and their families to LA in order to pitch his sitcom idea in person. "Although it was really mad to go and meet him," recalls Coombes, still amazed by the experience, "I don't know, we just weren't really into it. We were into being in a band and it was all a bit daunting." Supergrass was also wary of being pigeonholed so early in their career, especially in light of the album they were making.
RELEASED ON CAPITOL in May of 1996, Supergrass' sprawling, moody In It for the Money immediately required fans and critics alike to reassess the young threesome. Although it features uppity tunes like "Tonight" and "Sun Hits the Sky," the album (produced by the band with longtime crony John Cornfield) also includes "Late In the Day," "It's Not Me," and the foreboding, epic title track, songs that are all darker in both sound and content than much of the debut. Nevertheless, sales of In It for the Money were brisk everywhere except the US, where, despite a supporting tour with the Foo Fighters, the figures were disappointing. "We'd go home and look at the record sales and they'd be kind of nothing," Coombes says. "The success that we were having live just wasn't translating." The band moved to Island/Def Jam shortly thereafter.
For Supergrass, Coombes says the band wanted to do something different. "Before we started this one, we wanted to get away from it being as broad as [In It for the Money]," he explains. "We wanted the sound to be a little more straightforward. We wanted to use more melodies and vocal arrangements. There's a bit more groove in there, a bit more soul." Those qualities are borne out on tracks like "Mary," the disco-inflected lead track "Moving," and "Pumping on Your Stereo," an absurdly catchy groover that owes a heavy debt to Bowie's "Jean Genie." In a twist that's classic Supergrass, Coombes and his bandmates actually sing "humping on your stereo."
For Coombes, the experience of recording Supergrass (in the English town of Surrey) was highlighted by Britain's participation in 1998's World Cup. "I remember recording 'Pumping' right after we beat Tunisia," he says, perking up noticeably. "That was quite good." The band also took advantage of the local grammar school's music department. "We'd ring them up and hire a tympani drum or whatever." While Coombes claims that no children actually contributed to the record, there is a certain youthful abandon to it. That only serves to fuel the singer's annoyance with recent declarations by the press and fans that the band has somehow matured. "I don't really like that sort of term, you know?" Coombes says. "It's a bit obvious, isn't it? Everybody grows up."