It's been said that Oasis was the new Beatles and Supergrass was the new Monkees, but now it's the other way around. Twelve years after the height of Cool Britannia, no other band from Britpop's first division has continued to make more varied, inventive and entertaining records than Supergrass. While Oasis treads predictable but profitable water and Blur remains fractured in a chaos of side projects and reunion drama, Supergrass gleefully plays with the best bits of glam, punk, '70s pop and psychedelia as if it's still a band of teenagers. It surprises satisfies listeners at the same time — and the band's sixth and latest album, Diamond Hoo Ha, is another serving of gourmet comfort food.
How can you grow up and keep rocking? The question itself is as tired as a new Status Quo album, and the answer usually involves things like speed, volume and sunglasses. But Supergrass has a more personal answer: maintaining the spirit of innocence that made its early records sound so fresh in the mid-'90s. Regardless of tempo or decibel level, the band is at its best when it sounds like it's having a blast, as on its fizzy 1995 debut, I Should Coco, 2002's kaleidoscopic masterpiece, Life On Other Planets, and the new album.
"It's more a lack of wanting to be really professional," says singer, guitarist and sideburns cultivator Gaz Coombes. "It'd be strange if we were to kind of set up some huge light show and cordon off areas for us to walk through backstage. We don't see a lot of the industry that the enormo-bands see. There's a lot of really big bands that are down-to-earth and manage to keep it together, but there's an innocence in not taking things too seriously and getting too professional."
Sure, Supergrass does get world-weary sometimes. Frankly, it would be weird if any group of men in their thirties didn't. The results, while no less musical, can be less engaging and exciting. 2005's moody Road to Rouen was born under a cloud of crap, including the death of the Coombes boys' mother (Gaz's brother, Rob Coombes, plays keyboards in the band) and an ugly tabloid mess involving rumors of wife-swapping between drummer Danny Goffey and Jude Law. It was the closest Supergrass had ever come to breaking up.
"I think we probably all felt like it at some point," Coombes says. "I remember just feeling focused on the record. Danny as a friend was important to me, but I knew the best way through it was to let him sort it out and not be somewhere where he didn't feel happy. I just thought, 'We have to finish this record.'"
The members of Supergrass have been best friends and bandmates since they were teenagers, Coombes says, so sometimes the only way to transcend the shit is to rock out.
"It happened again recently when we got together for rehearsal after seventeen months," he says, referring to the practice sessions for Diamond. "We were, like, sort of a silly gang making each other laugh."
Perhaps Diamond's sprightly youthfulness also comes from recording in the studio where some of the young Gaz's favorite records were made: Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin. Longtime Coombes idol David Bowie recorded "Heroes" there, in the shadow of the Berlin Wall. It's a big contrast to the rural and home studios Supergrass has traditionally used.
"Yeah, Berlin's a really vibrant place to be in, especially for a month," says Coombes. "We really wanted to soak up that environment and atmosphere. We knew these songs had quite an urgency about them, an energy and rawness. It helped the album get somewhere you won't get if you've got time to settle in for country living."
The upbeat, glammy sound of Diamond isn't exactly what you might expect from producer Nick Launay, who's known more for doomy work with the likes of PiL, Gang of Four, Killing Joke and Nick Cave.
"It was hard to tell at times where he wanted to push it," Coombes admits. "We'd done some demos with three mics on the drum kit, a very live feel. As the session went on, it got complex at times, sonically. But [Launay] was great at picking out the strong points, looking at each of us, trying to get us to play together really well instead of constructing the album with overdubs.
"That's what this record's all about: exploring what we're good at. Always being true, always being honest, not going, 'Let's do an R&B record this time.'"
Coombes cites the latest single, "Rebel In You," as one instance where song and production complement each other. Never content to deploy one hook where three or four will fit, Supergrass crams decades of cool into four minutes — pumping glam piano and disco bass on the verse, surging guitars on the chorus, some space-age keyboard sounds on the breakdown, woo-oo-hoo whoops all over the place, and a quintessential Supergrass melody that's both offhand and sophisticated.
Reviews of Diamond have made a lot of hay out of two tracks in particular: "The Return of Inspiration" and "Whiskey and Green Tea." The former isn't really the literal "Hey, we're having fun again" announcement that many assume ("I don't think it's that literal, no," Coombes says. "A band realizing they were great again — no, that's not what it's about").
"Whiskey and Green Tea," an impressionistic account of the band's trip to China, is the most polarizing track on the record. Allmusic.com says "overloading 'Whiskey and Green Tea' with too much stylized British whimsy, it threatens to topple over on the weight of its braying brass," while The Stranger calls it "the band's most pounding sing-along rocker since (their 1997 single) 'Richard III.'" It's hard to see what the fuss is about: It's a pretty typical Supergrass hook-a-rama with a dollop of noisy studio experimentation in a couple of spots.
"The manicness of those two sections, the beginning and middle eight, I think could go even further," Coombes says. "It just feels right. It feels like a complete song — lyrically as well, because of being in China and the experiences we had that were kind of amusing and disorienting."
If Supergrass was an odd fit for Britpop — too young, too funny, too unpretentious — it's tempting to wonder how the quartet would be received as a new band today. Certainly, the 'Grass has been namechecked time and again by younger, punky-poppish sensations like tourmates the Arctic Monkeys.
"We played with Arctic Monkeys, and it was great," Coombes says. "But they're nothing like us onstage. They said themselves that we were a big influence on them, which is cool, but they have their own character and attitude. It's a great compliment that there were records we made that had an impact when they were growing up.
"That's always what we go for," he adds, "We go for that now — for that guy someday saying 'When I was fourteen, I had Diamond Hoo Ha.'"
Supergrass, with the Foo Fighters and Year Long Disaster. 7 p.m., Sunday, July 20. Scottrade Center, 1401 Clark Avenue. $22.50 to $42.50. 314-421-4400. www.scottradecenter.net.
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