‘I backed myself into a corner’: Gaz Coombes on Turn The Car Around, Supergrass, and self-discovery

Marking his 10th year as a solo artist, Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes releases his fourth solo album to date, Turn The Car Around on January 13. Headliner sat down with him for an in-depth chat about musical discovery, calling time on his old band, exploring themes of masculinity through songwriting, and why he has no idea where he is headed next…

Gaz Coombes occupies something of a niche in the pantheon of great British songwriters. When Supergrass emerged at the height of Britpop as a trio of baby-faced upstarts, early singles like Alright and Caught By The Fuzz became instant classics; impossibly hooky vignettes of youthful abandon and misdemeanor that would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the biggest hits of the ‘90s and etch themselves permanently into the pages of iconic 20th century guitar-driven pop. Subsequent releases such as Richard III, Sun Hits The Sky, Moving, and Pumping On Your Stereo would serve only to reinforce their status as masters of melody and purveyors of some of the finest singles of the era.

But while their songs have undeniably endured, the band’s frontman has not found himself fixed by the media gaze in quite the same way as some of his contemporaries. The absence of high-profile spats with other artists, or a reluctance to engage in the public sniping and macho posturing that typified so much of UK indie rock at the time, has perhaps led to Coombes being perceived as a more anonymous figure; simultaneously a musical national treasure and one of its most underrated talents.

When Supergrass split over a decade ago, Coombes’s transition from band leader to solo artist was also scrutinized to a far lesser degree than some of his peers. An obvious case in point being the demise of Oasis, with the anticipation of where the brothers Gallagher would tread musically almost secondary to the inevitable slagging match that would ensue between them.

This, it seems, has been to Coombes’s benefit. With no such baggage on his shoulders, he has spent the past 10 years releasing a volley of ever-intriguing, ever-evolving records that rank among his finest creations to date. His latest and fourth solo album Turn The Car Around, a refined blend of pop melodies, fuzz infused rock, and gentle acoustic numbers, feels very much like the distillation of everything he has produced since breaking out on his own. What’s more, that instantly recognizable vocal has simply grown richer over the years, seemingly immune from the ravages of almost three decades in the business. Few voices in British pop have aged this well.

When Coombes joins Headliner over Zoom to discuss how Turn The Car Around came into being, he explains that he always felt the record needed to draw a line under his solo output so far. Following 2015’s Matador and 2018’s World’s Strongest Man, he says he publicly declared the record as the final installment of a trilogy purely to put pressure on himself to mix things up next time out.

“What I said was sort of bollocks,” he says with a laugh, sitting in the newly built studio at the end of his garden where much of the new album was made. “I publicly said it was the end of a trilogy to back myself into a corner. I don’t know if it is... well, it is, as I’ve said it now! That was the point. I wanted it to be set in stone so that it pushes me onto something completely different next time. I don’t want to start the next record like I’ve started the last three, which have all been made in a very similar approach or process. I just decided I wanted whatever I do next to be different and leave this as a moment in time. And they are all totally connected. Lyrically I have got across all of the themes I was playing with, and I have explored that as much as I would like to for now.”

The biggest thing I've learned is to trust myself. Gaz Coombes

That warm and familiar tone of voice, such a defining feature of Coombes’s music, is very much present in conversation as well. He’s funny and thoughtful in equal measure, and generous with his time, happy to discuss at length everything from Turn The Car Around to Supergrass’s final shows this year and his performance at the Taylor Hawkins tribute concert, following the Foo Fighters drummer’s untimely death in 2022.

One of the aforementioned lyrical themes that courses through the trilogy he speaks of is that of masculinity. With album titles Matador and World’s Strongest Man, to recent single Sonny The Strong, it’s a subject that has been central to much of his solo work to date. Inspired by English artist Grayson Perry’s book The Descent Of Man, he explains how he has sought to discover more about himself through lyrical exploration.

“I suppose it’s not just that area, it’s everything,” he says, pausing for thought. “There was that book and other documentaries and other things I’d read; I took inspiration from many places with regards to how different people approach life and how they live their lives. Stories about what people go through to keep surviving are always really fascinating. I’ve been finding out about myself in many ways over the past 10 years, being a solo artist.

“I spent most of my life in a band and it was an incredible time, but it’s different coming out of that and going into this. There was a lot of discovery about who I am, and along the way you are asking questions about bigger things that are happening around us - my kids, inspiring stories, problems that I see around me in the world. And you try to process those through writing and sometimes they’re really direct and other times they are really vague and just part of a mood. Like The English Ruse on Matador was definitely a time when, like so many times throughout history, the government was just so awful. I’d kind of think, well, I’m not a political writer and I don’t have that mind, but equally I can just say what I’m feeling about this situation, and I can put it into words and put it in a song.”

Given the seemingly ever-escalating political and social turmoil of the times, was there ever a chance that Coombes would address those matters more directly this time around? Or does the concept of the protest song pale before the scale of the challenges so many are facing at present?

“I don’t know,” he ponders. “There isn’t the innocence that there maybe was back in 1965 when Dylan would be a bit more overt about the element of protest with his writing. They were more innocent times. It’s like writing too much about the pandemic, which could easily have been done during the making of this record. It’s tricky - you don’t necessarily want to date it or put it in a hole. I’d like these records that I make to be quite transient and float through time, and you can go back to them whenever you want. But on the other hand, documenting what’s around us, like old books, is where you make notes of what’s happening. It’s all autobiographical essentially.”

I'm always looking for that amazing record. I'm still as passionate as I was when I was 17. Gaz Coombes

On the subject of self-discovery, Coombes suggests that he is increasingly learning to trust his hunches in the studio. After 10 years as a solo artist, he explains that he is now feeling more comfortable in his own skin than when he initially emerged from what had always been a tight knit creative partnership between himself and fellow Supergrass bandmates Mick Quinn and Danny Goffey. This certainly rings true throughout Turn The Car Around, its nine tracks navigating a range of stylistic and tonal shifts more seamlessly and confidently than ever before.

“We all wrote together in Supergrass,” he elaborates. “The first solo record was definitely the transition record and it maybe took me one album to get into that new headspace. Around Matador quite early in the writing I got some really important feedback from people I trust and that gave me a lot of confidence, but confidence to write however the fuck I wanted to write; to let myself just go with it and be as honest with the writing and recording as possible.

“Before that it had been a case of maybe writing what I think I should write or recording the way I think it should be recorded. It’s just uncertainty, I guess. The biggest thing I learned was to trust myself and my gut feeling. That had a knock-on effect in life as well – in working with people, making important decisions around my career. Believing in my instincts was a really big thing.”

Coombes also highlights the role of regular producer and collaborator Ian Davenport in steering the direction of the record.

“I’d start off at my studio and just record and write and put as much down as I could,” he says of how the record first started to take shape. “Then I’d get a bit restless and need a change of scene, so I’d go to the other studio where Ian works and stay there for four or five days. Then we’d go through all the madness that I’d done the previous week and try to work it out and make sense of it all. And Ian is great at that. His initial response is what I always look for. He just has good taste. One of the things you always look for in a producer is trusting their ear. You trust that you are both on the same page sonically, aesthetically and stylistically. Quite often you might work with a mixer or producer that is great, but you just don’t connect somehow. But Ian is amazing, he’s a great facilitator and pulls out the best of what I do.”

While the completion of Turn The Car Around was one of the defining aspects of Coombes’s 2022, another significant moment came at the highly-anticipated return of Glastonbury. Celebrating both its 50th anniversary and its first post-Covid outing, the legendary festival also saw Supergrass take to the stage for the very last time, as the band brought the curtain down on their reunion tour with a crowd-pleasing set bursting with hits and fan favorites from across their entire career.

Stories about what people go through to keep surviving are always fascinating. Gaz Coombes

“The gigs always feel great,” he smiles when asked how it felt to be gracing the stage with his old bandmates for the last time. “This was a reunion that was always about just having fun. We wanted to get together again and celebrate all the great stuff we did. We still have that connection onstage and it’s still really exciting to play together. But the reunion has to end and you just keep dancing on through.”

Another big moment came in the form of Coombes’s appearance at the emotionally charged Taylor Hawkins tribute concert at Wembley Stadium. One of Hawkins’s favorite bands, Supergrass had previously toured with Foo Fighters in the ‘90s. And at the tribute concert, the band performed a selection of Hawkins’s favorite Supergrass songs, while Coombes joined Chic icon Nile Rodgers onstage to perform a rendition of David Bowie’s Modern Love.

“It was an incredible day,” he reflects. “It was unbelievable how they put it together. All the different artists and musicians they got; it was just an incredible place to be for a day. Really powerful, really moving and emotional. The crowd was incredible. We had been lucky enough to play with Foo Fighters at Wembley before and those guys are great. They’ve always been so supportive, and Taylor was such a big fan. Whenever we’d see him, he’d greet us all with this ear-to-ear grin and he was always such a joy to be around. He would have loved that day. It was a mind-blowing display.”

For now, Coombes’s focus is very much on the release of Turn The Car Around, his upcoming tour, and carving a new way forward after the completion of his musical trilogy. But with so many landmarks and milestones now in the rear view mirror, does he ever take a moment to reflect on all that’s gone before over the past three decades?

“I don’t do that,” he laughs. “Sometimes with interviews about Supergrass you get asked about the old days, but even when we were back on a tour bus together, we didn’t do much reminiscing. I never feel like I have the time to sit and bask or evaluate what I’ve done. I’m obviously very proud of certain things, but it’s all just an ongoing process. I’m always looking for that amazing record, and I’m still as passionate today as I was when I was 17. It’s always just been in me to go and explore.”

Three decades into his career he may be, but it still feels like Coombes’s journey of exploration is only just getting started.