It’s one of music’s greatest afflictions. For decades, band members have taken the solo route with varying levels of success and failure. Robert Plant never truly untangled himself from the Led Zeppelin mystique, while Alan Partridge remains the only bloke to claim that Wings were the band The Beatles could have been. And lets not forget about Mel C’s post-Spice Girls career. Though I sense you already have.
“I was naïve in thinking that people would forget I was the Supergrass vocalist, the comparisons will always be there,” begins Gaz Coombes. Of course, the Oxford native would be right. For the generation of Britpop teens that sang along the carefree Alright and Pumping On Your Stereo, the music that Coombe crafts today could not be any further removed. For his second solo LP 'Matador', brooding synthesizer beeps, two step rhythms and strained vocals read like a product by Thom York or his protégé Matt Bellamy rather than the cheeky chap who once "bought some wheels/ took it out/ 'cross the fields."
Today, Coombes sees his new sound as a creation of chance, rather than intention: “I really wanted to make something spontaneous. Being by myself for the majority of the album’s creation allowed instincts to govern.” Repeated listens reveal a singularity to each track, only to be bound together by the sustained use of arid, brooding instrumentation.
“The first track I wrote for the album was Buffalo and it began with this simple loop and staggered piano chords – it came together so quick. When I began recording I had so much self doubt – I just didn’t know what direction to go in, but hearing the first demo of Buffalo filled me with a renewed confidence.”
'Matador' is an album that could only be created by a musician whose life is in a special place, and as somebody fascinated by the human condition, Coombes agrees:
“There are aspects of my life that are going really well right now, but there are also things that are quite the opposite,” he says, before pausing - “life is one long contradiction and I feel this album tackles exactly that.”
“How do you pick yourself up when your life is on the floor? With Matador I’m trying to say is fuck it, come on, you have to get through this. I don’t want to be one of those singers that moan their way through every album. Having said that I find the dark side of life fascinating. Like the best comedy, the greatest music always has a sinister shade.”
Our conversation then turns to The Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, another '90s rock behemoth now going solo, who in a recent interview with The Guardian claimed that reviews for aging '90s rock stars are pre-written by the press. But Coombes is more philosophical than his once devil-may-care persona would have you believe: “Corgan is an amazing character and a truly great musician. Though I feel he has a chip on his shoulder. Why? Who knows. Being in a big band for the best part of twenty years doesn’t owe you anything - you cannot assume that your next album will be a world beater if one you wrote a decade ago was a classic.”
With Damon Albarn, Noel Gallagher and Coombes having released new music in the last few months, many critics are dubbing their latest work collectively as ‘mature Britpop’. It’s a label that the Supergrass frontman fails to take kindly, “I think it’s lazy to think of anything that Noel, Damon or Thom produces today as anyway related to Britpop – especially 'Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes'. I also fail to see a relation between Britpop and my own LP. Britpop was the scene of my adolescence, I’m 38 now – I’ve shed my youth,” he says before adding, “The only way to combat thought like that is to think in the present. This album isn’t about past glories; it’s rooted in the present.”
Pressing an artist to select a favourite moment from their latest work usually results in prolonged silence and resentment, but Gaz seems more enthusiastic than most to chose his own 'Matador' snapshot: “If there is one element of the album that comes together better than I envisaged it would be the breakdown and choir parts of The English Ruse. By using the choir I hoped to create a Disney-like sound, and no, I didn’t go entirely bonkers and look to recreate Frozen. What I wanted was a tone reminiscent of those mystical 1930’s Disney productions.” Its an otherwise hair-brained idea that somehow works beautifully, just like the remainder of the record.
You could easily to forget that Coombes once fronted a band whose first LP was Parlophone’s fasted selling debut record since The Beatles’ 'Please Please Me'. A band that once played Wembley Stadium. A band that won ten major music awards.
Should it come as a surprise that Gaz has invited himself into that select club of band members who have gone solo and successfully so? Not at all, and while much has changed around Coombes since those tentative steps as a professional musician, his inspirations remains the same, “It’s those records that you grow up with that define what you create. I still get the same enjoyment from listening to my Neil Young and Iggy Pop LP’s as I did when I was a teenager."