Gaz Coombes: 'I Think We Can Become Too Omnipresent'

13 September 2018 | 10:12 am | Bryget Chrisfield

His eldest daughter is now the same age as Gaz Coombes was when he joined his first band. Bryget Chrisfield discovers the artist most famous for fronting Supergrass thinks it's possible to become "too omnipresent".

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When we check in with Gaz Coombes, he's in Oxford enjoying "a week off" for the first time "since the start of the year". "I've been away so much, it's been great to hang out with the kids," he shares, referring to his daughters, Raya May and Tiger, aged 15 and ten respectively. "Last night I took them both - we were watching the World Cup, 'cause England had a big game last night - so I let them stay up a bit late," Coombes recalls excitedly of England's victory over Sweden, which earned the team a semi-final spot.

So Coombes must have been about the same age as his eldest when he first started touring in bands, then. "Well pretty much about that, yeah," Coombes acknowledges. "I mean, the first band I was in, The Jennifers - I was my daughter's age, 15, yeah, it's crazy!" When asked whether he felt all grown up back then, Coombes recalls, "I don't think so. I was a very sort of shy kid... I think I did all my growing up between 16 and 20, to be honest - I think that's when I kinda grew up fast; just more being in the public eye as well, I guess." 

We're tipping the internet makes "being in the public eye" even more brutal these days and Coombes concurs, "I think you're right, definitely. It was a different time, you know... You could go and record a record and be away for six months... I always used to like that when a band I loved used to go make a record and half of me would think, basically, 'Where are they? Where've they gone?' 'Cause there wasn't this daily update from the band. And I really miss that in a way, you know, without trying to be too nostalgic; I miss that approach and mystery in music, I think it really aids the music and gives it another sort of depth." 

Bowie's final studio album Blackstar, which was recorded in secret and seemingly dropped out of nowhere, springs to mind as a perfect example. "Yeah, yeah, absolutely," Coombes enthuses. "That made it a 'moment' and, I dunno, I think we can become too omnipresent... It's not a case of being antisocial [laughs], I think it's more, like, you just want the music to kind of do something that's not every day, you know? And I don't wanna normalise music in that way." 

This will be the first time Coombes tours our shores in solo mode, off the back of his genius third solo set World's Strongest Man, although Australian fans would've already clocked him on local stages fronting the band for which he is most known: Supergrass. After admitting that punters occasionally yelled out for Supergrass during his solo shows "early on", Coombes extols, "I've been pretty blown away, to be honest, about how enthusiastic and how up for it the fans are for the new stuff. It's really cool... In fact, they shout out for solo songs that I haven't played for a while. I had one guy - for basically the whole gig in Glasgow, recently, after each song he'd shout for One Of These Days, which wasn't in the set, but it was kinda funny! It was cool." Coombes speaks exuberantly throughout our chat and uses the word "cool" a lot. 

On the creation of World's Strongest Man, Coombes points out, "I like to produce in a way that it seems like a record that's out in 2018... I don't want it to just be a purely retro exercise, it's gotta have something about it that connects you with the here and now." 

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He played all the instruments himself on this album and the drum patterns are consistently interesting and varied throughout. "I love playing drums," he admits. "It's actually one of the first things I'll go onto. I'll lay down some sorta loop or a quick piano idea or something and I'll have it running through the headphones, and I'll just jump on the kit and play along."

Coombes utilised "a monophonic synthesiser from the early '70s, made by Hammond" for the first time on World's Strongest Man, he tells. "It's a pretty crazy sound, it's got this sort of stylophone vibe to it in a way and [produces] just these very raw kind of DIY sounds that have got a nice bit of hiss on them and a nice bit of noise on them - I dunno, I like things that are unstable... I think hearing that air and that sort of wobble just makes it kinda real and vulnerable. But for me there's nothing better than having a really amazing hook that's undeniable but played on [an instrument] that's kind of slightly wrong or delicate," he laughs. "I like that juxtaposition of the confidence in a part, but then the kind of shakiness of the instrument, you know?" 

Certain album tracks - particularly the shimmering synths, jilted tones and oblique use of children's choir in Wounded Egos - give this scribe Damon Albarn vibes! Hopefully, Coombes takes this as a compliment? "It's cool!" he enthuses. "Damon's great."