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Gaz Coombes: ‘When it all took off with Supergrass, that was a lot to deal with’

Long before Supergrass were pumping on our stereos, their frontman Gaz Coombes was a music-obsessed teenager looking for a stage

Gaz Coombes was born in Oxford in 1976. He lived in San Francisco for a spell as a child, but aged nine he returned to his birthplace and the keen music fan formed his first band, The Jennifers, when he was 14. They signed to Nude Records but split by the time Coombes was 16. Working in a local Harvester, he formed a friendship with fellow employee Mickey Quinn, and along with Coombes’s pal Danny Goffey the trio formed Supergrass.

The band released six albums in their 17 years together, scoring a UK number one with their debut LP I Should Coco in 1995. They also scored a string of hit singles, including two number twos with Alright and Richard III. They split while working on their seventh album in 2010, but reformed in 2019 to go back on tour. After having their plans delayed by the Covid pandemic, they continued touring up until 2022, when they performed at Glastonbury, watched by Billie Eilish.

Coombes followed Supergrass by embarking on a solo career that saw his second album Matador nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2015. He is about to release a new album, Turn The Car Around.

In his Letter To My Younger Self, lifelong music fan Coombes looks back on the career of his dreams, but also looks back on the death of his mother shortly after the birth of his first child as a dark moment that continues to haunt him to this day.

I was 12 years old when me and Danny [Goffey] first got together in his bedroom. He had this really crappy drum kit that was falling apart, I brought a little keyboard. We were like, “we’re gonna make a band!” I quickly realised the keyboard wasn’t very cool, so I ditched it to learn how to play guitar. I had a couple of guitar lessons at school, but they were so dull – I learned G, E, D and A and then ditched the lessons and thought, that will do me. I could write punk songs with those four chords. 

I grew up surrounded by music. All the parties we used to have – get-togethers, family dos. A couple of my uncles were good guitarists, and we would have big singalongs, with all the oldies getting really hammered. There was always a piano in our house. My older brother Rob learned to play it when he was really young – and ended up playing in Supergrass – so it was a very musical house. I’m back in my childhood home now. I’m very lucky that I have great memories of this place. It was never a case of being desperate to get out. 

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My uncle went off to live and work in the Bahamas and left his record collection in our basement. That was a big moment. My mum was like, please don’t go through Uncle Pete’s records, they are very precious. So whenever I could find a moment I’d sneak down to thumb through his vinyl. All this incredible music, playing the Sex Pistols or Patti Smith or Neil Young or Harry Nilsson or Blondie. It was totally eye-opening.  

I didn’t grow up in a political household. It was so different to now where you wear your colours loud and proud. As kids, we were playing music and hanging out – we thought politicians were just these suits on Question Time making weird noises. We didn’t think about the impact politics had on our life. 

My younger self was just trying to find a place in the world. Village life was quite slow. That kid was quite bored. So I looked for enjoyment and excitement and met some really like-minded people. Across the road from my parents’ house there was a row of cottages where all these colourful characters lived. There were a couple of dealers so we would go and have a smoke, loads of music was happening. It was like a mini-Laurel Canyon just across the road where we could sample the delights of adulthood before we were really adults.  

Supergrass
1994: With bandmates Mickey Quinn and Danny Goffey, around the time of their signing to Parlophone. Photo: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images

I was so shy as a kid. And I was still really shy when I was 16, 17, 18 – even when things were kicking off. When I look back, it is what makes those performances on TV or at Glastonbury quite mad. They are really pent up. If I’d had more confidence, the performances might not have had the charm they had – I just used to lose myself on stage. There was a shyness there, but I felt at home. It was never fear. So I would like to tell my younger self that it’s all there for you if you just believe in yourself. Then again, I kind of did believe – otherwise I wouldn’t be here now.  

With hindsight, it’s pretty magical that we were that young and made an amazing record, I Should Coco [released in 1995], that connected with people. It is so rare that happens. I wouldn’t have expected it and I don’t think our parents did either. They were really cool, though, our parents. They didn’t freak out too much. But I don’t think they were thinking it would go where it did. 

We were probably scammed in our record deal. But we were also pretty lucky. We were with Parlophone and they were really musical, creative people who let us do our thing. We never felt any pressure – but there was a lot of money flying around then. We were doing videos for ridiculous amounts of money, which is quite sickening when you look back. Especially now I know we can do things in a really interesting way without that excess. 

It was a strange time, the 1990s. It was a bit of a free for all, everyone was off their heads and it was a bit insane. You look back at headlines in the NME or Melody Maker and think, you can’t say that! There were some unsavoury tones to it – but nevertheless it was a very exciting decade.  

Gaz Coombes and Foo Fighters
2008: With Foo Fighters in LA (l to r) Taylor Hawkins, Dave Grohl, Coombes, Nate Mendel and Chris Shiflett. Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

I was just a young boy and had quite a calm upbringing – so when it all took off with Supergrass, that was a lot to deal with. I loved the feeling on stage. It was just a case of maturing away from the band and away from the stage, and we were non-stop for at least the first decade so there wasn’t much time in between all the chaos and fun. So my late 20s, when a lot was happening in my personal life, was a time of really fast growth.   

My first daughter being born was incredible. It was something we had wanted for a little bit and I remember the day so vividly. It was really lovely. There was no panic – there was more panic on the second – so it was idyllic. We had a home birth, then at about 7pm, we were sat in bed having a bowl of pasta and watching Top Of The Pops having a really normal evening. We looked down and, holy shit, there was our baby. Life had changed.  

Losing my mum was the hardest time for me. It was the biggest loss I’ve ever experienced. I was 27 and I’d just had a child that year –  she was three months old. So it was incredibly intense. I would like to have dealt with that better afterwards. I was so busy, I was making records and didn’t really explore it too much. Then it leaves more painful trails as you go on because you haven’t processed it in the right way. But that is grief. You need to feel it. And to still feel that grief 15 years later is a way of staying in touch with her. Because although it has eased, it is still there.  

Supergrass at Glastonbury 2022
2022: Stealing the show on the Other Stage at last year’s Glastonbury Festival. Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images

I got lucky, man. I got lucky early on and I met an incredible woman and we had kids. So I did all right. So I would probably just tell my younger self, “Just do what I did. It worked. It’s brilliant!” It is a tricky life, being in a band when you have kids – the amount of time you are away. But you learn how to speak to the kids while you are away – you learn what is best for everybody’s headspace.  

My younger self would be excited about having a long career with his mates, playing around the world. We met so many people in the industry that I’ve learnt so much from. The idea of playing on stage with musicians like Nile Rodgers or Foo Fighters would have blown my tiny little mind.  

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What my younger self would be most surprised by is that after the band, I went on to make other records that did really well. My [2015] solo album Matador was a beautiful moment for me. It was the first time I really let loose in the studio, instinctively writing and recording. And it worked. I was so excited to be nominated for the Mercury Prize. I was just making this mad album, then suddenly these reviews came in and it took on its own energy. It was a really beautiful experience to remind myself that, more than 25 years after I started, there are always possibilities ahead.  

I’ve always been quite in the moment with things. When I was 16, I never remember thinking about what I’d be doing 30 years later. But I would’ve loved to have known that things would still be going great – and that I had kids and the kids were good. It’s been a good journey.  

Coombes’ new solo album, Turn The Car Around, is out on January 13 (Hot Fruit Recordings / Virgin Music). He tours the UK in April. gazcoombes.com

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy!

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The new book Letter to My Younger Self: Inspirational Women is out now, you can order it here.

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