Seventeen years in the same band,and you can start to forget things. Gaz Coombes is recovering a feeling the moment you first realise that music can give you goose-bumps, make your hair stand on end. He got it aged fourteen, and he’s getting it again now.It was a“new emotion,” he recalls. “Like nothing I’d felt before, and it would choke me. I was always in tune with that feeling, but never quite brave enough to explore it myself.”
For nearly two decades with Supergrass, Coombes came to embody the oddball end of British indie and Britpop. But it is through his solo work that hehas found himself. With his 2015 album Matador, he presented a new musical identity: wide-screen, emotional, cinematic and full of artistic surprises. It earned him a Mercury Prize nomination.“With MatadorI almostgot it right...” he says.
With World’s Strongest Man, Coombes brings that solo self into dazzling definition. There’s more space and light in the music, which takes its motorik drive from krautrock (first single, Deep Pockets, issurreal night-time car journey) and its subtle soundscapes fromintrospectiveWest Coast hip hop. Lyrically, hepoints the searchlight inwards to explorewhat it means to befree anddoing life on your own terms.But this is an album more outgoing than its predecessor –with a greater variety of moods than we’veheardfrom himbefore.
Coombesoverhauled hishomestudio, dragging everything from the basement of the househe shares with his wife and two daughters and takingover the first floor–theliving space became a happy tangle of drum machines and synths.TheWorld’s Strongest Manis exquisitely made and lovingly lo-fi. Musically,it almost refuses categorisation: Walk The Walkcould be Thom Yorke singing funk over a track by NEU. There are gorgeous, experimental electronic landscapes, but there are chorusesas lush as any of the top ten hits he’s known for.As with Matador, heplayed most of the instruments himself.The albumtitlewas partly inspired by Grayson Perry’s The Descent of Man-the potter’s 2016 manifesto for that ‘doomed species’,the white middle class male.The title track, withits cavernous reverb, explores the contradictions of masculinity: “I’m a little messed up / I’m the world’s strongest man / Call me if the fire starts / don’t call me when it gets too hot...”
“It’s about an adult human being who wants to be all these things but has weaknesses,” Coombes says. “To be honest, I think I’m really good at being a little bit fucked! It’s not all laid out in front of me perfectly. I wanted to get that across by being open and honest.”Walk The Walk(“In a time of separation / Paralysed by our own nation”) widens the view, with flashes of figures that could be Trump or Boris Johnson, or any other of the “misguided, delusional men that are making it worse for everyone else,” Coombes says. It conjures up images of asweaty guyinacompound withhis finger on thebig red button:“Imagine freeing men from those constraints of being dicks! Imagine what they could do...”As the father of two girlsand the only man in the house, heexplores male psychology with humour and self-awareness. The mesmerising Wounded Egos(“Right wing psychos/All the madness outside”) hints at extreme politics but focuses onone manwho’s hiding his head in the sand.It is a beautiful, paranoid portrait of getting stoned in San Francisco -backed bya children’s choir who weren’t aware quite what they were singingabout. From Tenderloin, to Florida, to the “North Atlantic winds” that shake his walls (onWeird Dreams),this is an album whichstretches space and time, full of snatches of poetry, sunlight, fear and love.It’s perhaps not surprising that Coombes was listening to Frank Ocean’s Blondea lot last year. His new materialshares the same impressionisticquality -exploring quiet moments, new sounds, and the inner workings of a mind.“I’m still conscious of laying out thoughts that are too personal to hear, and not moaning about stuff,” Coombessays. “It can’t just be rambling thoughts of inner turmoil! In music there needs to bedirectness. I found it fascinating, that combination of being open and honest about the things that freak me out, but being disciplined to keep it in a framework.”Darker feelings never overwhelmWorld’s Strongest Man. In Waves, which transforms an antique, off-kilter sample into a sharppost-punk riff, was inspired byhappymemoriesof teenage discovery. “I wanted to be an astronaut when I was younger,” Coombes says.“But I quickly realised it might be slightly trickier than I thought withonly couple of GCSE’s in Art andMusic...SoI bought an old guitar instead, and that was doable!The song isloosely inspired by that period ofdiscovery as a kid, all those big brush strokes and new loves”Thereare moments ofgreatintensity -Vanishing Actis his “breakdown song”, a driving stream of consciousness with a wild cry of “I’ve got to get my fucking head straight!” Butthere is also restraint. Slow Motion Life(“I took my hands off the wheel”) puts the breaks on, right at the album’s centre -a hazy ballad in which the music stretches into a blissful, almost anaesthetised space.The Oaksis a mysterious meditation recalling thoughts in the wake of hismother’s death ten years ago,taking itstitle from a crop of trees he’d walk to near his parents’ house. It’s a song about the distractions wemake for ourselvesin a time of chaos
(“Another plan to occupy”) with a whispered refrainof “All I want is you.”The album ends with Weird Dreams, where clipped beats and bubbles of poetrymostrecall thefeeling of theFrank Oceanrecordthat inspired it. It isa portrait of intense love:an entire lifetime lived with someone,in one night.As the hagiography of Britpop’s founding fathers continues, Coombescontinues tomove on. One of the great freedoms in being solo is having free reign to experiment. Hecreates“fantasy bands” in his head to inventnew musical textures, then records andeditsthem into shortloops for blink-and-you’ll-miss it “mini-soundscapes”.Recording was “very much a spontaneous thing,” he says,“working off instinct and recording from the early writing stages. What gives me a buzz is not knowing quite what you’re going to do. That first phase has to be as exploratory as possible.”Coombeswould alternate between his own studio and Courtyardin Oxford: aweek on his own, recording as many ideas as he could as quickly as possible -thenhe’d “take his ramblings” to long-time producer Ian Davenport, with whom hestructuredthe record. He compares it towhat it must be likeediting a novel.He works with a strange combination of perfectionism and spontaneity. Loads of first takes and happy accidents made it on to the final cut.He is a long time victim of “demo-itis”: “You do something on a four-track cassette recorder and you take it to an expensive producer in a posh studio and you say, no, the demo was the one we want,” he laughs. “I’m a really big fan of those early ideas. The way you did something,before you knewwhat you were doing.”“I loved every minute of Supergrass, apart from maybe the last few years...” headds. “But I spent twentyyears in that machine and for me it was an absolute joy to approach music a different way. Just to make some art that was not calculated to hit a certain market, or do a certain job.”You could say he’s followed the reverse trajectory of hismany of hispeers, finding the creative process easier now than ever before. “I feel like I am full of ideas,” he says. “It used to be much more of a struggle to write songs. I feel more connected to modern times than I ever used to, but I’m resistant to playing the game.”Writing and recording World’s Strongest Man, Coombes has finally felt a bit of that musical euphoria he first sensed at fourteen,listening to Abbey Roador Pet Soundsin his bedroom. It comes from music that is“Full of love.Experimental.Uncertain but confident. Itbelieved in itself,but it wasn’t scared of being vulnerable.”And his studio is stillset up in the living room, at least for now.World’s Strongest Man is released on 4thMay 2018.