|Gaz Coombes — World’s Strongest Man (4 May 2018)|
Gaz Coombes — World’s Strongest Man (4 May 2018) EDITORS’ NOTES
♠♣♠ For some, Gaz Coombes is just the mutton~chopped likely lad who peaked with Supergrass mega~single “Alright”. Those people are missing out. The trio were perhaps Britpop’s most underrated band (the mature, but commercially modest later releases deserve rediscovery) and their talisman’s solo career has continued to burnish a robust and quietly brilliant talent. World’s Strongest Man is Coombes’ most confident solo album yet — a satisfying coalition of Here Come the Bombs’ trippy chutzpah and Mercury Prize~nominated Matador’s melodic sure~footedness. Highlights abound (the Berlin electro shuffle of “Deep Pockets”; “In Waves” and its sinister groove), but this is a carefully layered record to play right through.
Born: 8 March 1976
Location: Oxford, England
Recording Location: Courtyard Studio, Oxford
Album release: 4 May 2018
Record Label: Caroline International P&D
01 World’s Strongest Man 3:28
02 Deep Pockets 3:50
03 Walk the Walk 3:56
04 Shit (I’ve Done It Again) 2:58
05 Slow Motion Life 4:28
06 Wounded Egos 4:08
07 Oxygen Mask 4:10
08 In Waves 2:54
09 The Oaks 4:39
10 Vanishing Act 2:50
11 Weird Dreams 4:54
℗ 2018 Gaz Coombes Ltd.
≡ Beverlei Brown Vocals (Background)
≡ Loz Colbert Vocals (Background)
≡ Gaz Coombes Composer, Mixing, Producer
≡ Ian Davenport Producer
≡ Nick Fowler Bass, Guitar, Piano, Vocals (Background)
≡ Colin Greenwood Bass
≡ Steve Keros Design, Photography
≡ Gita Langley Violin
≡ Bob Ludwig Mastering
≡ Garo Nahoulakian Guitar, Piano, Piano Strings, Vocals (Background)
≡ Craig Silvey Mixing
≡ Faith Simpson Vocals (Background)
≡ Steve Stacey Design
ANNIE ZALESKI, April 26, 20185:00 AM ET
≡˜≡ Gaz Coombes thrives on progress. By the time his former band Supergrass dissolved in 2010, the group had shed its fizzy Britpop roots and grown into a sophisticated outfit hopscotching between all kinds of extroverted sounds: obsidian glam, lush orchestral rock, and blustering blues. As a solo artist, Coombes has continued pushing his sonic range forward, toward a realm that’s far more intimate and experimental than the one in which Supergrass operated.
≡˜≡ The Oxford, England, native’s third album, World’s Strongest Man, is full of eerie sound sculptures, built around Krautrock~inspired rhythmic bustle, oblique electronics — which alternate between dour synths and gushing keyboard percolations — and chattering percussion. Shivering violin chills the solemn piano ballad “Slow Motion Life”; “Walk The Walk” is a funk flirtation with contorted melodies and plush Faith Simpson and Beverlei Brown background vocals; and both “In Waves” and “Vanishing Act” find Coombes unleashing some brash electric guitar buzz.
≡˜≡ The musician co~produced World’s Strongest Man with long~time foil Ian Davenport, but played nearly every part on the album himself. Such control over the artistic vision explains the record’s otherworldly vibe and freedom from convention. But World’s Strongest Man is also said to be partly inspired by Frank Ocean’s Blonde, which better informs its inward~looking purview: Both records understand that giving arrangements and textures room to breathe creates a sonic landscape conducive to emotional depth.
≡˜≡ The cloistered feel of World’s Strongest Man also correlates directly to Coombes’ introspective lyrics, which he’s said reference his own experiences with anxiety and depression. In practice, this translates to songs about trying desperately to regain emotional equilibrium (“Vanishing Act”), resisting the urge to give in to darkness (“In Waves”) or finding solace in love despite feeling unbalanced (“Weird Dreams”). Coombes’ expressive voice captures these many moods; depending on what the song requires, he skips between a conspiratorial soul croon, thrashing punk yowl, and a vulnerable, spiraling falsetto.
≡˜≡ The implications of hiding intense personal fears are even more complicated on the brisk synth~pop single “Deep Pockets,” which explores self~medication as a way to deal with social anxiety. The narrator suggests claustrophobic settings can lead to poor decision~making. He’s only able to gather up the courage to venture outside by relying on a familiar crutch: being “too stoned in the back seat again.” (World’s Strongest Man is hardly anti~marijuana, however: On “Wounded Egos,” a creativity~inducing strain known as Lamb’s Bread is mentioned as something used to buoy optimism amidst the stress of global chaos.)
≡˜≡ This batch of songs hints at a poignant take on the album’s title, World’s Strongest Man: It signifies someone using a steely façade to mask deeper personal uncertainties. But on other tunes, the titular figure is viewed with more skepticism. The title track’s conflicted protagonist vacillates between insecurity and arrogance; accordingly, when a crisis hits, his boasts turn into bluffs: “Call me when the fire starts / Don’t call me if it gets too hot.” The illusion of power is also exposed on the cynical “Walk The Walk,” which alludes to political divisions (“I’m in a time of separation / Paralysed by our own nation”) and the dangers of being distracted by subterfuge.
≡˜≡ Yet Coombes also recognizes that strength and vulnerability can bolster each other. The fanciful “Oxygen Mask” takes the form of a comforting (if cautionary) letter from the constellation Aquarius, here personified as a wizened sage directing young, whippersnapper stars to wear their oxygen masks to weather a bumpy, dystopian future. It’s a playful conceit that nevertheless beams the crystal~clear message that change is difficult and inevitable, but ultimately what’s needed for survival. Coombes has always taken this message to heart, and on World’s Strongest Man, it’s a credo that yields some of his most perceptive, satisfying work yet. ≡˜≡ https://www.npr.org/
≡˜≡ As the exuberant frontman for the boundlessly imaginative Brit~pop group Supergrass, Gaz Coombes at one point seemed to be an eternal teenager — a man destined to never lose his baby fat and never slow down. But time has a way of aging even the irrepressibly youthful, and by their second decade Supergrass had started to expand sonically and, by the time he released his solo debut, Here Come the Bombs, in 2012, just two years after the disbandment of Supergrass, Coombes had eased into the role of something of a Brit~pop elder statesman: a pop songwriter who was ready to explore new territory without swearing off his allegiance to melody.
≡˜≡ Melody always was Coombes’ specialty, even when he was the lead singer of the Jennifers at the age of 16. He and fellow Wheatley Park School classmate Danny Goffey formed the Jennifers when they were teens, and the Oxford~based quartet got far enough to land a contract with Nude, the label best known for signing Suede. The Jennifers fell apart after releasing the “Just Got Back Today” single in 1993, but Coombes and drummer Goffey formed Supergrass with bassist Mick Quinn later that year. Supergrass’ rise was quick, with their debut single, “Caught by the Fuzz,” selling out its first pressing in 1994 and receiving praise from John Peel, NME, and Melody Maker. Their debut, I Should Coco, arrived in the summer of 1995, right in the thick of Brit~pop mania, and it was one of the biggest records of the year, thanks in part to its effervescent hit “Alright.” With their second album, 1997’s In It for the Money, Supergrass’ fame spread outside of England, but like so many of their British peers, they never managed to crack the U.S. market, despite support from such American fans as Foo Fighters and Pearl Jam.
≡˜≡ Supergrass released an eponymous album in 1999 and Life on Other Planets in 2002 — the latter arriving the same year that Gaz’s brother Rob Coombes officially joined the band as their keyboardist, but their commercial fortunes began to slide somewhat. The contemplative 2005 record Road to Rouen was followed by the glitzy Diamond Hoo Ha in 2008 and then the group fractured, the band attempting to record a seventh album provisionally titled Released the Drones in 2009 but ultimately abandoning the sessions. In the aftermath of the band’s split, Coombes and Goffey bashed out cover versions in the 2010 one~off the Hotrats, and Coombes got down to business for his solo career, recording Here Come the Bombs in his home studio. The album appeared in early summer 2012, greeted by generally positive reviews. His second self~produced album, Matador, appeared in January 2015. Coombes played the majority of the instruments on Matador, assisted on occasion by his brother Charly and Ride drummer Loz Colbert. Matador debuted at 18 on the U.K. charts and wound up earning a nomination for the Mercury Prize. Coombes returned in May 2018 with World’s Strongest Man. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Interview by: Christina Smart AXS Contributor May 2, 2018
•≥ Following up on a commercially and critically successful album would be intimidating for any artist. Now add the fact that said album, Matador, was nominated for a Mercury Prize (to recognize “the best of UK and Irish music and the artists who produce it”) and you would half~expect the artist to either going running for the hills or ball up in a fetal position in a corner somewhere rather than work on the follow~up. Thankfully for us, Gaz Coombes chose neither of those options, instead returning to the music world with his third solo album World's Strongest Man available on Friday, May 4 (via Hot Fruit/Caroline).
•≥ Chatting with AXS from his home in Oxfordshire, Coombes (the former lead singer of Supergrass) took time to discuss the new album, the whirlwind success of Matador and how having a drink with your manager can inspire some great lyrics.
AXS: Congratulations on World’s Strongest Man. It’s a fantastic album. Before we get into that, I’d like to touch on Matador a bit. With the success of that album — the Mercury Prize nomination, the critical and commercial success — going into the making of this album was there a feeling of ‘Ok, I’ve got to top that’ or just go in a completely different direction? Also, were you able to take a step back and enjoy while it was happening? Or did it hit you when it was all over?
Gaz Coombes: First off, it was a great 18 months playing Matador live and yeah, it got really well received. The fans were singing along to the shows. It was a great feeling. At the time I felt it was a real buzz. I guess that's the only way I can describe it; it was, kind of, an exciting 18 months. It’s just great to feel that, with a new set~up and with a new bunch of songs which was very different to anything I had done before, for people not to be shouting out for Supergrass songs during songs, I felt like I had kind of won. The idea for me, and I guess for any artist is to evolve and to not be judged always on what you’ve done in the past and not rest on any legacy or the comfort of that legacy and push myself into kind of uncomfortable places. I felt really good that it worked.
•≥ Also trusting my instincts on Matador. All the writing and the recording and the production was all a case of just sort of trusting myself without trying to sound like anything or thinking 'this kind of groove or this rhythm is really hip at the moment. Let me do a bit of that.” It’s like no, it was what excites me when I'm in the studio. What do I really get excited about and try to articulate that. I felt like I articulated it really well on Matador and so, yeah, it was a kind of ‘I need to carry on and kind of pick up where I left off.’ Definitely not make the same record. Absolutely not. It has to be a reaction but it was a case of my mentality and approach going ‘yeah, let’s carry on. It’s going really well, you know?’
AXS: You’ve talked about how reading the book “The Descent of Man” influenced and inspired parts of World’s Strongest Man. Listening to it, I feel that there are moments where there are very raw, brutally honest lyrics. One of the songs that really struck me was “Oxygen Mask” and the idea of you must take care of yourself before you can really take care of anyone else. Is this something you had to learn for yourself in your personal and professional life?
GC: Yeah, absolutely. It’s still something that I guess I battle with all the time. I think all of us weird and wonderful humans, I’m sure we battle against the idea of self~preservation. I guess in kind of the way the landscape is at the moment and the culture of social media and the way that we’re all so close to one another I think it’s become quite easy to shout at other people and to judge what’s happening around you. I feel it personally. I want to make sure that my house is in order; my kids are learning from us in the right way and that's my first concern, really. Cause they’re the ones that are going to take over. They’re the ones that are going to pick up from us. So as opposed to judging other people and calling out other people or getting too involved in other people’s business it’s kind of like, let’s get my own house in order. So that’s what “Oxygen Mask” is really and the message on the safety card on the flight to secure your own first because you’re no use to anyone else if you don’t make sure you’re fully upright and ready to go. Otherwise, you can’t help anyone.
AXS: Did this mentality switch for you once you got married and started having a family? Did you put any thought to this 20 years ago when you were single and touring with Supergrass? Did it ever come to mind or was it more so ‘Ok, I've got a family. I really need to take care of things”?
GC: I think it was more sort of culturally, really. When I came up with the lyric, I was with my manager. We were in Berlin before a show and having a drink and I just came up with that lyric and I think it was because I was ranting on about how there’s so much noise around on the internet and with Twitter and all this kind of thing. It’s just so noisy! Everyone’s screaming and commenting on everything and everyone’s got an opinion on every little tiny thing. And I was just kind of like ‘Yeah, it’s mad.’ It’s kind of like, shit, I feel like I want to make sure that the people I love around me are all kind of set and they’re all doing good and then I can move on to worry about the rest of it. It was more of a frustration of, you know, maybe everybody needs to stand back a little bit. Just for a short time. Just stand back and take a breath. Come back to Twitter, it’s fine. You can come back and rant on but just take a breath. Imagine if the whole world just took a breath.
AXS: In “Wounded Egos" you end the song with a children’s choir. Now, I may be reading too much into this arrangement but is this a musical commentary on how all the emotional issues we deal with as adults are borne out the things we experience as children?
GC: The way I looked at is was the lyric “Wounded egos, Right~wing psychos” which I guess I have different people in mind when I think of that lyric. I thought it was cool that kids sort of sung it, you know? Because, again, they’re the ones that have really got the most important voice. Whatever we’re leaving behind for them, at the moment, we're not leaving things in very good shape to carry on. I thought it was good for them to sing that quite, kind of tough lyric in a way. I was quite surprised when the school let them sing “Right~wing psychos” [laughs]. I think they’re quite liberal teachers at that school so that was cool.
AXS: One of my favorite songs on the album, if only for the title, is “Shit (I’ve Done It Again).” What struck me about this song is the vocal delivery which has this weariness to it along the lines of ‘Why can’t I learn this lesson?’ In “Vanishing Act” you shout “I’m going to get my fucking head straight!” Did these come from moments of personal frustration where certain things or situations play themselves out over and over again and you haven’t figured out how to change them?
GC: Yeah, exactly. It’s like reaching for that cream cake that’s wired up to electricity and you keep trying to grab it and keep going back to it. It’s the self~destructive thing. It’s always been there and as you get older, it becomes manageable and you get more responsibilities in life so that does help. But yeah, I feel I’ve never quite shaken that side of me and it can be frustrating. But again, I like to write about these things with a kind of playful edge to them so it’s never too morose and it’s never too depressed.
AXS: Another thing that stood out for me is the album imagery that shows you laying in a suit by a pool in sunny Los Angeles. Now, again, I may be reading too much into this imagery...
GC: No, read away.
AXS: Is this a commentary on the alpha male metrosexuals or, going back to social media, having to put up certain pretenses these days?
GC: I think it’s got a lot of things in there. I think it’s got some different layers. I see different things in it all the time. I like the juxtaposition of the title and then this flawed character in this glamorous setting. It’s all about contradictions and juxtapositions. I think I like that — the unique imagery. But even the fact that the font is in this bright neon pink is creating this feminine side to the whole thing and yeah, for sure, that dominant alpha~male thing that’s dull and boring these days and destructive and divisive. I didn’t see the problem with making a little hint at that as well. But it’s not a big political statement as such, it’s like a piece of art. The great thing about art is that you can interpret in lots of different ways.
AXS: You just had a quick tour of the States and you’ve been touring this country off and on for well over 20 years. Are there things about this country now you view as being vastly different from when you first started, whether it’s political attitudes of something else? Or is it, as you’re touring, you are very isolated and in your own music industry touring bubble, which does happen to be very liberal~minded so you’re not necessarily exposed to it?
GC: Yeah, we see a lot. We’re always hanging out in the city that we’re in, ever since ‘94 when we first came over to the States. We’ve been at hotels during the O.J. Simpson trial when Bush was first elected and I’ve been in bars and you see how people react to these things. It’s often in the major cities where there would’ve be gasps and shock and horror with Bush getting elected but then in other cities, they’re cheering and whooping and hollering, so it just depends. We’re always around really cool, balanced, global~minded people and I guess what you see in the political side of America doesn’t always tally with the people we were hanging out with.
•• In essence, no, I don’t think it really has changed. There’s always been something going on. There’s always been something politically where the people we’re hanging out with are disgusted with what’s going on. Obviously, the Obama years were a joy. But I kind of remember this sort of vibe when Bush was in as well, there was a lot of disbelief and frustration.
•• Obviously [now] is far more extreme. I think it’s been consistently a wonderfully magical place but it’s kind of worrying, troubling place as well. I love America so much. I lived there as a kid for about 3 years in California and it’s always been a second home for me coming over but I look at it a bit more rose~tainted than some people. ≡˜≡ https://www.axs.com/
|Gaz Coombes — World’s Strongest Man (4 May 2018)|