Supergrass sit round a table in an Oxford pub, drinking lunchtime lager and coffee. Six albums in and barely out of their twenties, the four guys who made Diamond Hoo Ha are raring to go. They're back, not limping but sprinting.
It's fitting that, a dozen years after Supergrass (Gaz Coombes-Vocals & Guitar, Mick Quinn-Bass & Vocals, Danny Goffey-Drums & Vocals, Rob Coombes-Keyboard) were the teenage sensations at the great Britpop party - the boys teaching the dadrockin' men how to write proper, roaring pop songs - 2008 should find the band back on home turf. For this album, Supergrass have rolled back home, and rolled back the years, while marching firmly into the future.Diamond Hoo Ha is the band at their exuberant best. It's an album of raucous rock 'n roll songs that are glitzy and glam as they are punchy and gritty. It's the sound of a band, 14 years young, building on the timeless songwriting qualities that have helped them outlast all their Britpop peers bar Oasis - the latter longstanding fans, alongside other superstars like Dave Grohl and the Arctic Monkeys. Which other British band is still able, with seemingly effortless ease to conjure up songs and videos that crackle with breezy enthusiasm, humor and inventiveness?
"We wanted a record where you got all of Supergrass," says frontman Gaz of this decisive return to form, "The joy, the intensity, the darkness, the melodies. All of those have always been important to us and still are." Hence Diamond Hoo Ha; an energetic album bristling with hooks to hang your coat off and melodies to lose your shoes to. How did Supergrass get to this point? By yomping all over the place - gigging, as they've long done, up and down the UK and all around the world; finding inspiration wherever and whatever the occasion; rebuilding and rebooting their band in the face of often punishing circumstances - then taking it all back home. By finding each other and falling in love all over again. Travels and travails: Supergrass know the meaning of both.
Three years ago, hot on the heels of their "Best Of..." Supergrass Is 10 compilation and tour, the foursome decamped to Rouen in northern France, where the brothers Coombes own a barn. There, in the bucolic fastness of the Normandy countryside, they assembled their own jerrybuilt studio. They broke the band down. They broke the songwriting process down. Then they put it all back together again. It was out with the buzzsaw pop that had made their name with landmark debut I Should Coco, in with Road To Rouen: 29-minute-long self-produced album of psychedelic folk, giddy experimentation and poetic, often dark lyrics.
"It had a very focused direction," reflects Gaz, "which I like to think was kinda beautiful. But it was quite melancholy." But not everyone was feeling it. Drummer Danny admits now that he left the band - "wandered off' might be a more accurate term - before the album was completely finished. He'd co-written, amongst others, the single "St Petersburg," but nonetheless "it's the only album where I felt a little detached... I was going through my own personal demons. I was the only one who wasn't living in this village, I was in London. They could talk to each other a bit more, and I was in London carrying on with my bunch of nutters."
Is "Rebel In You," one of a fist of instantly catchy radio-friendly monsters on the new album, about Danny? "It's hard to move on/so why don't you come back/you can't stop the rebel in you/hands down you're beautiful..." Replies Danny,"broadly, it's a song where you see one of your best mates fucking going off the rails. I've got loads of mates like that. It's that 'have a look at yourself' thing."
This bump in the road didn't knock them off their stride for too long - Danny returned almost as soon as he'd gone. The invigorating, deeply personal songs on Road To Rouen - which arose, in part, from the death of Gaz and Rob's mom and the acoustic tour with which the band launched the album in summer 2005, got them back on track.
"I always hate musicians using the word 'cathartic' when talking about records,' says Gaz with a wince. "'I'm releasing my demons through my art,'" he intones with mock pomposity. But the last album was a release in many ways, "cause it allowed us to feel really free for this record, and explore all the energy that we know Supergrass has got."
Last year the gung-ho four headed to Hansa in Berlin, the legendary studios where David Bowie, amongst myriad others, had recorded Low and Heroes. "The whole place hasn't changed much since the Seventies - the furniture hadn't been cleaned, loads of the stuff didn't work. The mixing desk was quite fucked, so it took three or four days to get the first backing track done. But the atmosphere was great. It was a bit of a shaky start but we were flying after that" reflects Danny.
Supergass had spent the preceding few months popping round each other's houses every week, working in pairs on lyrics, honing demos. They had booked producer Nick Launay, a veteran studio man with records by Nick Cave (most recently his Grinderman project) and umpteen others on his resume, stretching back to PiL and Gang Of Four. He, too, was keen on focusing in close detail on what the band were collectively good at, and playing to their individual strengths.
States Gaz, "He (Launay) knew Danny was like an animal on the kit, about Rob's experimentation on the keyboards, what Mick could do on the bass. Nick just understood us. He's loved our band for a long time, seen us live, recognized the energy. At the start he said, I know what you can do, and I've seen you do it, but I'd love to make a record where you all go for it.'
As much is evident on the warm but edgy sound of the appositely album track titled, "The Return Of'"- it starts with a Strokes-like garage throb before mushrooming into a master class of Velvets inspired harmonies. As the last line has it, it sounds like the return of serotonin.... That natural chemical high, it transpired, had been firing all over the place...
"Bad Blood" is another big one, a moshpit stomper that exploded into life one late night in Reyjakvik, Iceland. Says Gaz, "We'd played the Airwaves festival, and it was about four in the morning, and right outside our bedroom window in Reyjavik there were loads of boozy scuffles. A really beautiful town, peaceful during the day - then it just went mental at night with drunken fights and shouting. I just thought the contrast was amazing. We carried on writing the lyrics later, using experiences we'd had, wandering around New York at two in the morning, the worse for wear, and being exited by the dangers, but also being a bit naive. The big line in there is, I don't believe that man needs God, thank God. Then it goes on: I can't forget you, you're all I've got my love. It's saying man doesn't need God, he just needs a good woman."
Lyrically, "Whiskey & Green Tea" features Chinese dragons, revolving doors, middle-aged schoolgirls. It also features an Oriental-flavored intro, furious riffology and far-out saxophone, the latter courtesy of Acoustic Ladyland's Pete Wareham. "The lyrics were taken almost word for word from a night out we had after we'd played a festival in Beijing," reflects Gaz. Interjects Danny, "Me and Gaz just went out on the lash with strange people. The chorus mentions the KTV, which is the Karaoke TV Club we went to - it's really weird, 13 floors up, lots of strange Chinese women there, who just kept giving us whiskey and green tea. We were playing drinking games by rolling dice and we had no idea what was going on. There were rows of women dressed as schoolgirls. Gaz got punched on the nose or head-butted or something."
Lyrically, the thrillingly diverse Diamond Hoo Ha offers more impressionistic pleasures too. The words to the closing track, "Butterfly" were written by Mick and Rob. "The line, The devil has left me, it's a smack in the face is about how it's not always easy to get out of the comfort zone even if it's a bad place to be. Sometimes it feels warm to be in dark places," says Rob.Last summer, with the album completed, Supergrass supported Arctic Monkeys at some big outdoor shows. They had previously supported Coldplay on a stadium tour. Two very different invitations, both indicative of the regard in which Supergrass are held by the (slightly) younger generation. Of all the British rock bands who burst through in the mid-Nineties they're the only ones still alive, still forging ahead, still - musically speaking - Having It. "I think we are facing up to that," chuckles Gaz, "that we are slightly elder statesmen. But for me its about feeling relevant always. You always want to be contemporary." Last summer, with the vital, fighting fit songs on Diamond Hoo Ha in their back pocket, Supergrass were about to lift - off....
...and then Mick sleepwalked out of a first floor window while on a family holiday in the south of France. He'd been wandering around the kitchen of their holiday home and woke up on the ground, in the rain, in agony.
One bumpy ambulance ride later he was informed that he'd crushed two vertebrae in his spine and shattered his heel. It was a close thing: the French specialists told the bass player he was millimeters away from being a paraplegic for the rest of his life. As it was, they were able to fix his spine. The heel was more of problem. The bone was shattered into 15 pieces. But two operations later he was on the mend.
Mick was in hospital in Toulouse, France for two months. He watched a lot of films and listened to a lot of Stooges and Pixies. Relfects Mick "I listened to a lot of loud and angry music going into theatre but a lot of Al Green and soul stuff later on."
During this time, at the Barfly in London, two roguish characters in silver jumpsuits took the stage of the tiny venue. They are the Diamond Hoo Ha Men, and the duo rock their way through the caterwauling blues-rock boogie of their single "Diamond Hoo Ha Man" and other modern classics. "The Diamond Hoo Ha Men are only alive for the duration of the single,'"says Duke Diamond, aka Gaz. "They've been playing tiny clubs all over the place, coming on at one in the morning and having a laugh."
Aside from a nom de gig for Supergrass's semi-secret, back-to-basics side project, who is the Diamond Hoo Ha Man of the single's title? "Maybe he's like a really dodgy Fear and Loathing-type travelling salesmen - he does his work but always has another plan in his head, something a bit seedy. But with the album, Diamond Hoo Ha also means a really good time. A Diamond Hoo Ha Man is someone who's a bit excessive." says Danny. Adds Gaz, "A thrill-seeker."
Back in the Oxford pub, sitting around the table the band reflect on the last couple of years. Re-invigorated and with their new found kinship Supergrass are looking forward to the good times ahead. "Things around you can be so mental that you find yourself in hard-up positions," reflects Danny. "But the love you feel for the band is probably the highest it's been for me, ever. What we can achieve, and what we do achieve - it's just brilliant."
"The most vital thing is, we still feel like we're a new band," concludes Gaz. "The personal shit we've been through has made us feel really fresh. There's a new connection between all of us, and you can hear it in the songs."
Let the Diamond Hoo Ha Times roll. www.supergrass.com