THERE ARE few musicians, who, more than two decades into their career, produce a set of songs many regard as among their finest, if not indeed their best, that go on to get a Mercury award nomination, in a year which is also the 20th anniversary of the album with which they originally made their name.
Gaz Coombes, the Oxfordshire singer-songwriter, and former leader of Supergrass, is one of those few. In January he released his second solo album, Matador. It enjoyed good sales in an era when most people think music is something that should be free of charge; it was showered with critical acclaim - Q declared it Coombe's "masterpiece"; MOJO gave it five stars, not a score it hands out lightly; in September Supergrass's 1995 debut I Should Coco was given a lavish re-release; and in October Matador was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize.
"It's been an amazing year, but it's not really sunk in yet. It's been pretty fast. I haven't had a lot of time to stop and think," Gaz tells me during our Wednesday afternoon interview, later admitting to being "overwhelmed" by the Mercury nomination. "It's exciting to be acknowledged," he says. "The Mercury is really important in the way it highlights all music, whether it's sold 100 or a million, it takes into account more than just commercial success."
Yet despite 2015 being one of the artist's most successful years, he refuses to bask in current glories. "For me, it's always really about what's coming next," he says, and it is telling when he adds: "Most of the time I've been on the road touring, bringing the tracks to life on-stage, and that's been the really exciting part, hearing the way the songs have evolved live. The songs are a record of me when I wrote them, sitting in my basement, with a piano, a drum machine, and noises floating around, but other elements have developed since on the road. That's exciting as it keeps it fresh for me, and hopefully for the audience as well."
Galway will get a chance to hear Matador's songs live when Gaz plays Strange Brew at the Róisín Dubh on Thursday December 3 at 8pm. "It'll be the first time I play here," he says. "I've travelled to Ireland a lot over the years and always had a great time. I'm looking forward to Galway, it's going to be a great night."
'It's not a way I've worked before'
Gaz's Irish shows feature him on "guitar and piano and some loops", and a striking feature of Matador - given how Gaz and his guitar were seemingly inseparable in Supergrass - is the dominant role for piano, and the variety of moods and textures created through keyboards and effects.
"I've played guitar my whole adult life, that was my thing," says Gaz. "I played piano on the records, but it's always been a bit of a passion of mine to write on piano. When I started on my solo records, I was conscious of not repeating myself and adding limitations - not too much guitar - or else I would find limitations that would spur me to reach beyond myself in a different ways."
The result of fighting against limitations is Matador's magnificent opening track, 'Buffalo' with its sombre pain chords, surrounded by ambient electronica, and grandstanding Bowie-esque chorus.
"I had this series of loops and beats that went round and around and I started hitting piano chords over them, to see what sounded good," Gaz says, when I ask him how the song came about. "I was just waiting to hit something harmonically and melodically interesting over the loops, just experimenting really. It's not a way in which I've worked before. In a band, you write together in a room, and everyone contributes. This time I was on my own and had the freedom to start something from an odd point or a weird angle."
Matador is, as Gaz told thelineofbeestfit.com, is the record where he most "definitely settled into being myself". He expands on that for me, again citing 'Buffalo' as a key song: "'Buffalo' was the first time I'd composed in that way and when I finished, I knew that was the vibe I wanted, and that became the template. In that sense I had more freedom and confidence to be myself and to feel it is working. That was pretty amazing. I hadn't felt that before.
"When we were in Supergrass, I don't think any of us showed that individual voice each of us have. You don't need to in a band, where you have a collective voice. I was finding my own singular voice and it's scary as well. I didn't know what people would think. They could have thought it was terrible. That would have been hard to take, but thankfully it worked out the other way."
Oxfordshire in southeast England is sometimes included in the list of so-called 'Home Counties', and home it certainly has been for Coombes for most of his life. He lives with his wife and daughters in the house where he grew up, while its basement has been converted into a studio.
"I have lived in Brighton and London when I was younger but I'm back in Oxford, so the place has a pull to it," he says. "I grew up in the countryside, away from the city. It was a mellow way of life and that has an effect - having the space, when Supergrass started out, to learn and grow, away from London, and the city, and the hype of the music scene, and from trends, and its' the same now. I can hide away in my studio in the basement with my music and just be pure with it and not feel there is any outside hype."
Recording Matador at home allowed the family to play a small role in its recording. The children sang over some tracks "just for fun", but his wife co-wrote the lyrics for another stand-out track, 'Seven Walls'.
"I had a few lyrics written down, and they had taken me to a place, where I was 16/17, sitting in a concrete carpark, under a dark sky, drinking Löwenbräu," says Gaz. "It was fun to write, but then I hit a brick wall with it, so I went upstairs, my wife was there, and I asked 'Can you give me a hand with this?' and she came up with some of the lyrics, like 'Still have yellow, marked with coal/The numbers barely readable/So let's walk down to Cherry Cove', which really captured that end of the night feel for me. Her input resulted in some of my favourite lines in that song."
Lots of ideas
While Gaz has much to be proud of as his solo career hits its stride, many audience members at his shows will hope to hear some Supergrass songs. Are such expectations frustrating? "No, not really," he replies. "When I'm with the band I feel Supergrass songs should be played by Supergrass, not by another band, but if it's just me and I have an acoustic guitar, I'm happy to play some Supergrass, provided the audience are suitably badly behaved!"
With 2015 marking the 20th anniversary of Supergrass's debut - which also received a Mercury nomination - what is his favourite song from I Should Coco? "I've always liked 'Strange Ones'," he says. "That did it for me live. We had fun recording it, but the whole record was fun to record. Looking back it was a great experience, and I'm still proud of it."
Yet, as he said at the beginning of the interview, Gaz is about looking forward, not back, so what are his plans for 2016? "I've lots of shows up to mid-December, then I'll have a break for the Christmas and it's straight back into the studio, writing little bits for the next album," he says. "I have lots of tapes of ideas. It will be exciting to see what happens. I'm shitting myself though. Can I write any more tracks I feel are good enough? But that's the thing man, it's always about improving on what you've done and getting the music going."
Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, the Ticket Desk at OMG Zhivago, Shop Street, and The Róisín Dubh.