By Drew Ailes
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"Yeah, we actually smoked a spliff with him," says Supergrass drummer Danny Goffey of the band's recent run-in with Al Gore during a taping of The Late Show with David Letterman. He's kidding, of course; the Oxford, England-based band (Goffey, singer/guitarist Gaz Coombes and bassist Mickey Quinn) are known as much for their goofball sense of humor as for their catchy, propulsive rock.
So much so, in fact, that after the band enjoyed a string of UK hit singles in 1994 and 1995, they were approached by Steven Spielberg about starring in a Monkees-style TV romp. "He wanted to do some sort of series about a British band who comes to America," Goffey says. "We went over and met him, and he told us about his ideas. It was quite flattering, really, but we were halfway through doing our second album and we didn't want to become Steven Spielberg's pet band from England. We didn't feel like we'd done enough music yet."
Goffey and Coombes started playing together in a band called the Jennifers, which released a single in 1990, when Coombes was only 14. The two kept playing together after the Jennifers broke up, and by 1992 Quinn had been added to the mix.
"Mick just lived in the same village," Goffey says. "He lived in this row of cottages, and I moved into one of the cottages. We just started jamming together for about six months. We didn't really have a band; we were just jamming.
"Then someone had a birthday party and we had to do a gig, so we kind of thought of a name and did this really crap gig at this little party. That's how most bands start -- they get pushed into doing gigs."
The name they settled on -- Supergrass -- is a British term for a special class of informant who, in return for telling the U.K. government truth and lies about the Irish Republican Army, is given special government protection and whose testimony is not subject to much courtroom scrutiny. The word is a curse in IRA circles. But Supergrass, the band, had no political mission beyond having a good time.
"It can mean loads of things," Goffey says of the name. "We thought it looked quite good. We thought it looked like a good club or something, the Supergrass club. We had all these theories that we were gonna start a club as well, and call it Supergrass, and play there every night."
That may not have materialized, but in the couple of years after that birthday-party debut gig, Supergrass released their first singles. The debut, "Caught by the Fuzz," told the story of young Gaz's bust for drug possession over crackling Buzzcocks-styled pop-punk. "Mansize Rooster," the second single, was similarly frenetic but added a Madness-influenced piano stomp.
But anybody expecting strictly fast-and-loud adventures from Supergrass would be set straight by their 1995 debut album, I Should Coco. Alongside the mile-a-minute rave-ups (and "We're Not Supposed To," a tape-manipulated bit of Chipmunks horseplay) were slower, more reflective songs that reached back further than punk for inspiration. The gorgeous "Sofa (Of My Lethargy)" and "She's So Loose" showcased the supersharp melodic sense that was often overlooked in the noisy rumble of the singles.
As the album climbed the U.K. charts, critics and fans alike noted the band's unusually wide and open-minded attitude toward their influences. Here was a band whose members could rock furiously but weren't afraid to let the cheesy pop sounds of the '70s occasionally crop up in their songs. They didn't seem to care whether their influences were hip (Buzzcocks, Rolling Stones) or, well, not (Elton John). There was never a strong genre concept for the band, Goffey says: "We don't actually really know why our band exists or exactly what we do. We just play drums, bass and guitar ... I can never explain what we do."
The song that made the band stars in the U.K. and Europe was "Alright," a bouncy, lighter-than-air concoction wherein the ghost of ABBA could be heard wafting through. It's a great, great song, one that guitar-pop lovers will still be spinning in 10, 20, 30 years. But thanks in part to an antic-filled video, it further cemented the idea of Supergrass as a teenage sideshow act who, although entertaining, were somehow too lightweight to really be considered Serious Rock. "Well, we shot ourselves in the foot, really," Goffey says, "because 'Alright' was that kind of song. It was about being 15 years old, and we sort of portrayed that in the video, so we kind of got labeled as these happy kids who took drugs and got out of their heads.
"It took us a while to get rid of that, but we never really get pressured by anyone from a record company. They're not even allowed into the studio."
Indeed, after the adrenaline rush of I Should Coco, the second album, In It for the Money, was far denser and darker. It seemed as if Supergrass was overreacting to the band's lighthearted image, and the reception from critics and fans was mixed. But taken on its own merits, In It for the Money is a sturdy, often exciting album whose sonic clutter and clever melodies make for highly interesting listening. After all, nobody stays a teenager forever.
It's amazing that the band was still concentrating so much on music while the whirl and glare of stardom was all around them. To this day, for all their success, the band still seems very much like, well, a band, whose members do what they enjoy and enjoy what they do. Goffey is quick with a self-deprecating joke and seems to be beyond the point where press accolades really matter.
Supergrass didn't spend a lot of time worrying about the lukewarm reception for In It for the Money; there were tours to be done and records to be made. The group's third album, called simply Supergrass, was released in the U.K. in 1999. Again, there was no stylistic agenda beforehand.
"No, that would seem really unspontaneous," Goffey says, "because all three of us write. I write a lot of songs on piano, and Gaz writes a lot on guitar, and we each have our own styles. There are always a lot of songs around, and we just kind of go along like that. Everyone has their own idea what they want to do."
Having said that, Goffey admits that the third album turned out a bit different from its predecessors: "The last album was a bit more relaxed and had a bit more soulfulness to it than our previous albums."
Supergrass does indeed have a looser, warmer sound, recalling a lot of '70s music but not in an overtly cornball way. The first single, "Pumping on Your Stereo," is a catchy riff-rocker that recalls early-'70s Rolling Stones. On the Web site (www.childrenofthemonkeybasket.com), it's described as having been "written to annoy the hell out of everyone." "(That comment is) just Mick being bored, but it probably turned out more like that," Goffey says. "It's just a bit of a laugh, really, written very quickly at rehearsal. It was almost like this piss-take of short rock & roll music: It's really simple, and it's got that sort of annoying melody in the background.
"Some songs, you hear 'em for a year and then you remember that you like the song really even though it's annoying. We have a tendency to write quite a few annoying tunes."
One of the more up-tempo tunes on the album is "Jesus Came from Outer Space." Though the song's snappy pop melody sounds great to fans of the "old" Supergrass, Goffey says it could have used more work: "It's a bit of a mess, that song. It could've been quite good, but we ran out of time on it.
"It started out like this anti-religious song and dealt with those sorts of subjects, that no one can prove any theory about religion. But it didn't really turn out like that in the end. It's got a bunch of one-liners in the lyrics."
Goffey isn't bothered by the band's lack of widespread commercial success in the U.S. "We sort of have, like, a fan base where we can play gigs of 1,000 people where three-quarters of them know who we are and we can just have a laugh. That's enough for us." And unlike many great British bands of the past, Supergrass doesn't seem fixated on making it in the States. "I think in a way it isn't really the bands" who obsess over America, Goffey continues. "I think a lot of the time it's the English press and maybe record companies."
In any case, the current tour, which sees Supergrass opening for Pearl Jam, will put them in front of their biggest U.S. audiences to date. "It's gonna be a bit weird to get our heads around it," Goffey says. "We'll probably just play loads of crap songs and have a laugh."