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"Damn, I didn't know! It hasn't been on the telly here yet. That's terrible," exclaims Supergrass singer-guitarist Gaz Coombes, immediately lowering his voice to say "that's terrible" again. He turns his mouth away from the receiver to relay the bad news to long-time girlfriend Jools.
"Johnny Cash died," he tells her before returning to the phone.
"It's awful when someone you really respect like that dies. I remember when Curtis Mayfield died; I was gutted. I guess you just have to keep listening to the records -- at least you've got that."
It feels slightly odd that such matters of life and death have pervaded the first few minutes of conversation with the exceptionally friendly frontman. After all, the Oxford quartet -- rounded out by bassist Mickey Quinn, drummer Danny Goffey, and Coombes' older brother, Rob, on keyboards -- is known as one of the most mirthful bunches of musical personalities in all of England. They've clowned their way through practically every interview on record, sported more interesting facial hair than your average Civil War general, appeared as giant muppets in the ingenious 1999 video for "Pumping On Your Stereo," and ripped through hundreds of gigs both massive and tiny with reckless giddy abandon.
But Coombes, a new first-time father, seems to be in a generally reflective mood at the moment. Maybe parenthood has chilled him and his bandmates. With more than a half-dozen kids among the four of them, he jokes that Supergrass has "a huge sort of Osmonds-type thing happening." Or perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the group is nearing a significant milestone -- in a few months, it will commemorate ten years together.
"I've definitely been thinking about that a lot recently," he says. "It's pretty mad. I wish we'd done more records!"
Even if it has only four albums to its name, the band's dynamic decade of existence is pretty impressive, especially considering that most British acts in the '90s were (metaphorically speaking, of course) like smack addicts: The first hit was the best, but subsequent years were spent chasing the high and never quite attaining it, rotting away or dying in the process. Oasis? Irrelevant. Blur? A shadow of their former selves. Gene, Embrace, James, Longpigs, Bluetones, Mansun. Ummmm, who?
But Supergrass has thrived over the long haul for a couple of reasons. They're spectacularly gifted musicians and melody-makers able to fuse their collective influences (Bowie, T. Rex, the Kinks, the Beatles, Buzzcocks, etc.) with new and clever ideas to make their songs fresh and exciting each time out. And their level of enthusiasm hasn't flagged. This year's Life on Other Planets sounds as fun and inspired as their splendidly unruly 1995 debut, I Should Coco -- released when Gaz and Danny were still teenagers.
So how does the band plan to celebrate its tenth anniversary? "We were thinking it'd be cool to do a retrospective thing with a DVD and a CD and all that kinda business," Coombes trumpets. "Sort of like Neil Young's Decade, not just some silly greatest-hits thing but a real look at the last ten years with a few of the hits and a lot of other stuff."
As for the DVD, Coombes admits that searching through their personal video archives hasn't brought back a wave of memories so much as filled in some historical holes. "We were really quite off our heads back on those first American tours, and I can't recall much, so it's good to have all that footage," he laughs. "I have some stuff when we were all thin and scrawny and kinda wired, doing little sketches about Superfly on the tour bus and all that sort of weird shit. We weren't necessarily meaning to 'document' things -- we were just having a laugh filming each other. What I do remember, though, is all the gigs being really wild the first time in America and being totally blown away by the whole thing. Just a complete contrast to playing up north in England, where it's really grim and the nightclub owner is a big ol' bastard who's really moody. But you get in the States and everything is really crazy and happy; it's really cool."
Combes says the band still loves to tour the U.S., even if breaking through on a big scale here has been something of a challenge.
"It's never really been easy for us to get a song on the radio," he says. "They're always telling us they don't know where to put our music because it's not really heavy rock; it's not R&B. To them, it's like some sort of 'middle music' they can't understand. Like, we'd kinda go mental in the chorus and it would be quite hard, but it wouldn't be hard enough to fit in with Queens of the Stone Age or whatever.
"But at the same time, I reckon there's always this nice kind of buzz every time we come over here," he continues. "It's like we've been this underground cult band right on the edge of success for about ten years, but I like that, because we always get a great vibe when we travel around, and people seem really happy to see us. It's still really great."