Gaz Coombes on Matador, David Bowie, and Life After Supergrass

Photo: Ian Gavan/Getty Images

Of all the recent solo albums by high-voiced frontmen of Britpop bands, the best one belongs to Gaz Coombes, whose 2015 record Matador is at least as good as any of the excellent ones he made with his former group Supergrass. Matador gets a deluxe vinyl release in America today, and Coombes's first-ever solo U.S. tour will stop at New York's Rockwood Music Hall on March 24 and 25. Vulture spoke with him about going solo, the time he met David Bowie, and whether we've heard the last from Supergrass.

You didn’t have much downtime after Supergrass split in 2010. You and Danny made an album as the Hotrats that same year, and then your first solo album, Here Come the Bombs, came right after that.
I’m lucky enough — or dumb enough, whichever way you look at it — to have a studio at home. My wife can get frustrated with how often I’m in here, but my kind of downtime is to make music. I never really planned to do a solo thing, I just kept writing and recording new stuff, and there it was.

You've said you recorded most of Matador at home, which is a little hard to believe given the level of production. How much gear do you have in your basement?
I’ve just got a few key things, really. Some instruments, synthesizers, just a few really old compressors, and then one great microphone. I had an old vintage U47 for a while, which I guess is the mic. What I’m doing at home is recording demos, but when I’m doing it, there’s a potential for them to be more than that. I did the second half of the record at a studio, but half, if not two-thirds, was done at home. When I started talking to myself too much, I knew it was time to go to the studio to see other human beings.

Usually when someone leaves a band to make a solo album, the arrangements get smaller. But you’ve gone in the opposite direction — there are choirs, strings, and synthesizers all over Matador.
I wanted to capture big moments. I probably shouldn’t say this, but I was in a famous broadcasting house in London, and this orchestra was playing, so I opened the door, and just recorded half a minute of it on my iPhone. What they were playing was incredible. And then I got home and looped about ten seconds of it, which led to the chords of “Detroit.”

Matador has a couple of songs about American Rust Belt cities, “Detroit” and “Buffalo”…
“Buffalo” isn’t about the city. It’s about the animal, but it’s not even really about the animal. It’s a weird desert tale. It’s a kind of … I guess, yeah, throwing in a few metaphors here and there, but something saving you, finding you, rescuing you. I have this image of climbing onto a buffalo and it taking me out of the desert to safety. It’s how my mind works.

Is it different writing lyrics for solo albums? Most early Supergrass songs were written in the first-person plural, like they were coming from the whole band, so you had some cover. But do you feel more exposed writing in the first person?
I’ve really enjoyed discovering how I write on my own. I wasn’t afraid of being honest and direct, but I also had an eye on not being too morose or depressing. No matter what, the lyrics always have to have a hook. You can’t just go rambling on in first person about your feelings or everyone’s going to get really bored.

You’ve said that when Supergrass was writing music together, some of your ideas died in committee. Is there anything on Matador you think would have been vetoed if you’d proposed it to your old bandmates?
All of it.

I haven’t got a clue. We were great when we worked together. We were all open to anything, and we would all feed off each other really well. When you’re working with a group, and something good happens, and there’s a shared look of recognition, that’s really powerful. But when something wasn’t connecting, and we weren’t on the same page, it was really frustrating. So I love working on my own. It’s been great.

Your voice sounds better than ever on this album. Have you noticed any difference in what you’re able to do with it after 20 years?
Not particularly. I can still reach the high stuff. I’ve learned a lot over the years. I’ve actually been working with Nigel Godrich, who has lots of little hints and pointers, just helping with certain inflections and bad habits that I got into. I do feel that I can probably do anything now, and I didn’t feel like that before. It’s a different kind of confidence. I was confident in an “ignorance is bliss” way before.

Matador has more than a few allusions to David Bowie on it, including the cover, which seems like a nod to Heroes. What did you think of Blackstar?
It’s completely insane. Blackstar was a crazy album, with some beautiful, moving bits. I don’t know if there’s anyone else his age that would make an album like that. Maybe Lou Reed would have, or Neil Young. But so many artists just get more watered down as they get older. Listening to it now [since Bowie’s death] … I don’t know if there’s another record I listen to the same way. Maybe Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue, which was a late recording for him and there was a lot of pain in those songs. With Blackstar, I wouldn’t say it’s an uncomfortable listen now, but it’s really unique and has lots of weight.

Did you ever meet Bowie?
Yeah, once. He asked us to play his Meltdown festival in London. And then a week later, he was performing somewhere else, and just at the very end of the night, he walked past us — I was with my girlfriend — in the hallway, and I thought, I’ve got to get my girlfriend to meet him 'cause she’s such a huge fan. So I called after him, “Dave!” and he turned around and walked back. He really wanted to chat. I said, “I’m Gaz, I’m in Supergrass” And he said, “I know who you are.” His minder called him to leave, and he didn’t want to. He was lovely.

Last fall, you put out an expanded version of Supergrass’s first album, I Should Coco, with lots of demos and bonus material for its 20th anniversary. Any plans to do the same for In It for the Money next year?
I think it would be good. It was great to acknowledge the anniversary and remind myself what a great album I Should Coco was. And, yeah, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen for In It for the Money, I guess. There were more outtakes and demos and rarities as time went on, because the recording equipment got better. It was actually quite tough to find stuff for I Should Coco, but there’s loads more stuff to uncover from later.

Will we ever hear anything from the sessions for Release the Drones, the album you were working on when Supergrass broke up?
I don’t know, man. It’s really hard to say. There’s a reason why I left and didn’t want to make that record. There are some cool moments here and there, but it just wasn’t feeling good and I wouldn’t want to release something that was substandard. But who knows?