Gaz Coombes, Mick Quinn and Danny Goffey, I'm quickly learning, are three supremely unflappable dudes. We're sitting in a cozy office inside the Universal Music Group's gigantor Manhattan headquarters last month while the snow shoots down in angry spasms of white, gathered to talk about Life on Other Planets, the latest album the three have made as Supergrass. Danny's reclined in an office chair he's handily converted into a chaise longue, Gaz is wondering if the band's publicist can't scare up some rolling papers and Mick's lazily checking someone or other's e-mail, piping up every few minutes with a pithy comment as if to demonstrate that he can type and think simultaneously.
Then who breezes into the office, just as I'm asking if they still think drugs are funny? Lyor Cohen, CEO of Universal's Island Def Jam Music Group--Supergrass' boss, a music-biz power player, one very tall-ass man. Cohen's on his way out of the office, and he's in the middle of what I can only imagine to be one of his occasional walks through the company halls, intimidating employees and squeezing in some valuable face time with whichever of his artists happen to be hanging around. (I'm fairly sure the Stereo MCs are holding court a couple of doors down.) Great, I think, a real chance to see Supergrass squirm. After all, this guy hangs out with Jay-Z, and I know I saw Ja Rule give him pounds on MTV; Supergrass are just three Beatles-loving wimpazoids from Oxford, England. But all the three do is calmly shake the man's hand, tell him things are going splendidly and return to my question. And Lyor's gone, just like that.
It wouldn't have been this way in 1995 (not least because the Universal Music Group didn't exist in its present form and because I'd have been busy in high school history class not interviewing musical groups). Back then the band was made up of three giggling young men barely out of high school themselves, the proud owners of I Should Coco, a spastic, hilarious ode to getting "Caught by the Fuzz," contemplating where the "Strange Ones" go and wasting away on the "Sofa (Of My Lethargy)." Britpop's gleefully unashamed younger siblings, Supergrass spoke for kids uninterested in Blur's mannered observations on English class warfare and unimpressed by Suede's attempt to will glam-rock back into vogue. You know, basically the Sum 41 of their day--which means if the Man had stepped to Supergrass once upon a time, Supergrass would probably have made a joke about venereal disease to avoid stepping back.
Supergrass performs March 14 at Gypsy Tea Room, with The Coral.
Over time, of course, the band began observing English class warfare and doing a little glam-rocking of its own. Coco's follow-up, 1997's In it for the Money, and 1999's self-titled effort both featured lots of instrumental detailing and new-wave psychedelic atmosphere and songs not explicitly about dickhead police officers; Money's even got one called "Sometimes I Make You Sad." Life on Other Planets continues that trend, revving to life on a spacy keyboard riff that leads into "Za," a piano-led rocker whose telling second line is "Time waits for no one," and closing with a beatific homage to the B-side of Abbey Road called "Run." If musical sophistication is what floats your boat, then it's undoubtedly the band's most accomplished album yet; in a true sign of maturity, it piles on the horns and synths and blah blah blah, but not at the expense of the Almighty Song. (What I didn't tell you before is that Rob Coombes, Gaz's older brother, joins our huddled office powwow shortly after Lyor good-afternoons us; he's playing keyboards on the road as the band's unofficial fourth member. Rob, that is; not Lyor.)
So how did Supergrass--the former young Turks of Britpop, the one-time keepers of England's dork-rock flame--become such self-assured gentlemen? "How did we get so old and slow?" Mick clarifies, grokking my point precisely.
"Well, we didn't have an idea of what our band was," Danny explains. "We just had our songs at the time. It was very exciting to go into the studio and just go mad. And I suppose you just get more used to playing."
"Yeah, I mean, there's no particular image we went for," Gaz says of the early days. "I suppose you do videos and TV interviews where you kind of play up and be a bit of an idiot, and then that's what people start to see. I wouldn't ever make any comparisons to the Beatles, musically or anything, but it's sort of the way they did press conferences and stuff--that just happened, they were just fucking around."
"A lot of other people are a lot more professional about that," Mick says, laughing.
He's poking fun at the band's own unlikely slide into adulthood--an iffy proposition for dozens of British guitar bands before Supergrass; remember Kula Shaker?--but what Mick doesn't say is how natural and unforced the transformation sounds on Life, how they've managed to deepen their craft (a word the trio still rightly recoils from) while retaining a good deal of the unbridled vim Coco all but oozed. For every balmy ballad like "Evening of the Day" there's a two-minute paroxysm of attitude like "Never Done Nothing Like That Before." Or there's that one, at least.
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"It's about writing good songs," Gaz says of the not-enormous change in process. "You kind of think more about how it's all gonna fit together--the sound and the producer and further along the line--but initially it's the same as normal, in a way. There's no particular direction change, going into R&B or jazz or anything.
"I still get the feeling we might do that, though," he counters when I say that Supergrass records never feel like the band sat down and said, Let's make a record like this. "Like, fuck it, let's do that."
"Sometimes we do fuck around a lot," Danny adds, "we just don't put it on our records. We're always messing around with cinematic, instrumental jams, but we just think it's a bit too boring to put on a record. But I think one day it'd be good to do a kind of mad sound piece."
I'm not unflappable enough to tell them that that actually sounds pretty lame, but I'm also getting the impression that they wouldn't care if I did.