LONDON – Gaz Coombes has grown up, but he hasn’t grown old. The carefree effervescence that characterized his band Supergrass, Britpop’s cheeky monkeys, has vanished, but five years into a solo career the band’s erstwhile frontman refuses to settle into the traditional post-split career trajectory.
“I find the whole earnest, tortured songwriter thing a bit ugly,” Coombes says on the phone from his Oxford home. “It grates on me. I don’t want to sit on a chair with an acoustic guitar and sing sad songs. I want to excite people and entertain. Even the album cover, it’s a statement of real intent — I’m not sat there with an acoustic guitar looking cool and moody.”
That album, second solo effort “Matador,” is his strongest in some time. Coombes says “it’s inevitable that being on your own, doing things at your own pace and your own style” led to an “exploration of new ideas” on the release. He isn’t wrong: With Krautrock flecks, Moog sounds and ambient interludes, it has echoes of the more digestible post-millennium output of fellow Oxford contemporaries Radiohead, and is a world away from the giddy euphoria of Supergrass’ signature hit “Alright.” In contrast to its uneven predecessor “Here Come the Bombs,” it sounds like a man comfortable with life on his own.
“I’m trying new ways to approach lyrics and original ideas, but I wanted to make sure I’m not too rambling, that I’m coherent, not self-indulgent,” he says.
Lyrically, “Matador” can be an unsettling listen, with bereavement and drug-fuelled neurosis as touchstones.
“I wanted as much of my character and personality as possible,” he says. “There’s light and dark — it reflects life. I’ve had some truly low times over the last 10 to 15 years and I’ve had high and joyous moments as well. They’ve all made their way into the album.”
Coombes has written about himself before — Supergrass’ stupendous debut single “Caught by the Fuzz” was a swashbuckling real-life tale of a run-in with the law — but the “glimpses of oddities of life we always gravitated toward” were often masked underneath sideburns and a cartoonish image that was so synonymous with the band that Steven Spielberg approached Coombes, drummer Danny Goffey and bassist Mick Quinn to make a Monkees-style TV show.
“There was a lot to get through perception-wise for fans,” he says. “For critics there was a lot of baggage. People got hooked on the cheeky, fun aspect of Supergrass.”
It did Supergrass no harm — the unrestrained fun of debut “I Should Coco” and followup “In It For the Money,” both Britpop high points, sold more than 1 million copies each — but, now a 38-year-old father of two, Coombes says that “life around music is a bit different.” Does it irk him that the scampish image casts a shadow?
“No, it’s not a problem. What were you doing at 17 or 18? I’m sure your life now is very different to what you were doing back then,” he says. “Yeah, your body gets older and you lose a bit of hair, but ultimately my mind is still the same. I’m still the same person. I don’t take myself particularly seriously.”
His solo career is a different matter. “It’s a constant process, but confidence is up. I have belief in what I’m doing.”
Billboard Live Tokyo is keeping eight seats at Gaz Coombes’ shows available for Japan Times readers for free (four at each performance). Apply online at jtimes.jp/music. Deadline: March 16.
Gaz Coombes will play two shows at Billboard Live Tokyo on March 18 (7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. starts; ¥6,600-¥8,600; 03-3405-1133). For more information, visit www.gazcoombes.com.