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 he has 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 Matador I almost got 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, is surreal night-time car journey) and its subtle soundscapes from introspective West Coast hip hop. Lyrically, he points the searchlight inwards to explore what it means to be free and doing life on your own terms. But this is an album more outgoing than its predecessor – with a greater variety of moods than we’ve heard from him before.
Coombes overhauled his home studio, dragging everything from the basement of the house he shares with his wife and two daughters and taking over the first floor – the living space became a happy tangle of drum machines and synths. The World’s Strongest Man is exquisitely made and lovingly lo-fi. Musically, it almost refuses categorisation: Walk The Walk could be Thom Yorke singing funk over a track by NEU. There are gorgeous, experimental electronic landscapes, but there are choruses as lush as any of the top ten hits he’s known for. As with Matador, he played most of the instruments himself.
The album title was 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, with its 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 a sweaty guy in a compound with his finger on the big red button: “Imagine freeing men from those constraints of being dicks! Imagine what they could do…”
As the father of two girls and the only man in the house, he explores male psychology with humour and self-awareness. The mesmerising Wounded Egos (“Right wing psychos / All the madness outside”) hints at extreme politics but focuses on one man who’s hiding his head in the sand. It is a beautiful, paranoid portrait of getting stoned in San Francisco - backed by a children’s choir who weren’t aware quite what they were singing about. From Tenderloin, to Florida, to the “North Atlantic winds” that shake his walls (on Weird Dreams), this is an album which stretches 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 Blonde a lot last year. His new material shares the same impressionistic quality - 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,” Coombes says. “It can’t just be rambling thoughts of inner turmoil! In music there needs to be directness. 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 overwhelm World’s Strongest Man. In Waves, which transforms an antique, off-kilter sample into a sharp post-punk riff, was inspired by happy memories of 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 with only couple of GCSE’s in Art and Music… So I bought an old guitar instead, and that was doable! The song is loosely inspired by that period of discovery as a kid, all those big brush strokes and new loves”
There are moments of great intensity - Vanishing Act is his “breakdown song”, a driving stream of consciousness with a wild cry of “I’ve got to get my fucking head straight!” But there 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 Oaks is a mysterious meditation recalling thoughts in the wake of his mother’s death ten years ago, taking its title from a crop of trees he’d walk to near his parents’ house. It’s a song about the distractions we make for ourselves in a time of chaos (“Another plan to occupy”) with a whispered refrain of “All I want is you.” The album ends with Weird Dreams, where clipped beats and bubbles of poetry most recall the feeling of the Frank Ocean record that inspired it. It is a portrait of intense love: an entire lifetime lived with someone, in one night.
As the hagiography of Britpop’s founding fathers continues, Coombes continues to move on. One of the great freedoms in being solo is having free reign to experiment. He creates “fantasy bands” in his head to invent new musical textures, then records and edits them into short loops 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.”
Coombes would alternate between his own studio and Courtyard in Oxford: a week on his own, recording as many ideas as he could as quickly as possible - then he’d “take his ramblings” to long-time producer Ian Davenport, with whom he structured the record. He compares it to what it must be like editing 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 knew what you were doing.”
“I loved every minute of Supergrass, apart from maybe the last few years…” he adds. “But I spent twenty years 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 his many of his peers, 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 Road or Pet Sounds in his bedroom. It comes from music that is “Full of love. Experimental. Uncertain but confident. It believed in itself, but it wasn’t scared of being vulnerable.”
And his studio is still set up in the living room, at least for now.
World’s Strongest Man is released on 4th May 2018.