Interview: Gaz Coombes: “I feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants”

Gaz Coombes: “I feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants”

A long way on from Supergrass, Gaz Coombes is racing ahead with his own work thanks to ‘Matador’. David Zammitt finds a man in the heat of a bullfight.

Gaz Coombes is reflecting on the chaos surrounding the release of his second album. The feedback from fans and critics alike has been overwhelmingly positive but there’s a sense that, even if it weren’t, he’d still be loving every minute of what he repeatedly describes as a “seat-of-the-pants” ride since Supergrass called it quits just over four years ago. Having cloistered himself away in a studio built in his Oxford home, he’s emerged confident and with a desire to take his bold new sound on the road as the old, familiar electricity returns.

Confident he should be. ‘Matador’, the fruit of that largely solitary labour, takes the melodic sensibilities of the Britpop trio and dials down the cheekiness to create a style more fitting of a 38-year-old father of two. Strings are lavished on almost every track, elevating Coombes’s sound to a euphoric, triumphant plain and from its syncopated, soaring opener, the Bowie-channelling ‘Buffalo’, it’s sonically more ambitious than Supergrass’s output and lightyears ahead of his 2012 solo debut, ‘Here Come The Bombs’. While that collection largely picked up where the band had left off, this time trip-hop synths pulse, with relentless, mechanised Krautrock percussion driving tracks like ‘The English Ruse’ forward with a restless energy. Elsewhere, ‘The Girl Who Fell to Earth’ is as close to Gainsbourg you’re likely to get this side of the English Channel.

And yet, as we chat, Coombes is remarkably unassuming. It’s easy to forget that this is a man who shook Glastonbury’s NME Stage at the age of 19, who scooped both an Ivor Novello and a Mercury in 1995 and a clutch of BRITs over the next ten years. He’s honest in his admission that he really didn’t expect the praise that has been heaped upon him over the last few weeks and even his description of a collaboration with Jonny Greenwood on the Inherent Vice soundtrack is modest to the point of self-criticism. We should thank ourselves lucky it hasn’t all gone to his head.

How has it been second time around?

It’s strange because it’s very different. But it’s still pretty nerve-wracking when you lay it out there and present it to people. When you’re in the studio, buried in there, you get ideas out and you have no thought for anyone listening to it at the end of it. But I’m really excited. I feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants and it’s been really quite manic this month. And it’s been a great response.

Has it surprised you how positive it’s been?

No, I guess not. I didn’t know what to expect – I have no specific expectations really. My eyes are pretty wide open and it’s just a case of trusting in what I’ve done. I was getting a real buzz in the studio when I was playing stuff back. I got that feeling I’ve always got since I first started, when you hear something back that just gives you that buzz it’s an addictive feeling. I guess I knew I felt good about it but I didn’t know if anyone else would agree so it’s a mad one.

When you’re ‘buried’ down in your home studio, where do you get feedback on the material?

There’s kind of a go-to mini network. I guess everyone from my wife to management. I’ve been with my manager since I was about four years old, or at least it feels like it! And that’s the feedback that I trust. It doesn’t always mean that it’s going to connect but it’s helpful.

Is your wife honest?

Yeah, she is actually. Or I can usually tell from her body language!

Do your kids get involved?

Yeah, it’s really cool to bring them in in a relaxed way and say, ‘Come and see what Dad’s been up to.’ It’s more for them to have that feeling of holding a microphone because it feels quite important and purposeful so it’s interesting to see how they react when you hand them a microphone in the studio environment. It’s pretty sweet.

So there could be a Supergrass mk. II?

Yeah well I’ve got two girls so maybe something like The Bangles.

What’s it like working on your own versus with Supergrass?

I feel at the moment that I can go direct to the source of any idea. You just pick it up right from the root of it and there’s a purity about that that really interests me. Much like this album, you have instinctive ideas that you don’t have to persuade somebody to enjoy alongside you. You can just get that idea out and if it works that’s brilliant and if it doesn’t then just can it. There’s no politics or diplomacy needed and that’s just a really exciting way to work, man. It’s an edge-of-the-seat way of working. And I work with people I know who are Oxford-based who are really creative and who I can feel inspired by as well so that’s really cool.

What’s the Oxford scene like these days?

I think the cool thing about it is that there isn’t a scene. I think that’s always been the cool thing about it. When other cities in past decades were gaining a particular movement or scene or style, Oxford was always pretty diverse. I don’t think Supergrass and Radiohead and Ride or whatever was a scene, it was just some cool bands coming from the same place where you could be left along and there was no big pressure of big shows early on as a band. You were just left alone to grow.

Speaking of Oxford musicians, how was it working with Jonny Greenwood on the soundtrack for Inherent Vice?

Me and Danny [Goffey, Supergrass drummer] went for a day to see if we could help out and it was great to see Jonny working like that. He’s really stamped his identity on soundtracks and I’m a big fan of his own work so it was a real honour to be asked. We made some funny noises and bashed away and played some guitar and bass. It sounded really great so they’ve done a brilliant job in finessing our ropy performances.

With a young family at home, how do you approach touring these days?

There’s always a copy of The Times and a pair of slippers and a nice, warm whiskey. No, it’s not that different. I mean, I wouldn’t go away for three months solid like I would’ve done back in the day, so I guess things have changed a little bit. And my family comes first so you work around that but what really propels me forward is doing live shows and seeing different parts of the world. And that’s still as much of a buzz as it ever was. And when I get out there I sink everything into it and become quite obsessive within that framework. That feeling on stage is still pretty magical and you get hooked on that so I can’t wait to get out on the road.

Gaz Coombes’ UK tour starts at Bristol’s The Fleece, 4th February. ‘Matador’ is out now on Caroline International.

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