Music interview '“ Gaz Coombes: '˜I've started to look outside more at what's going on'

'You can call me whatever you want, baby,' drawls Gaz Coombes down the phone line, a sentence punctuated with an awkward chuckle from the former Supergrass frontman.

Gaz Coombes
Gaz Coombes

He’s responding to a query about whether he is to be called the World’s Strongest Man now – after all it’s the name of his recently released third solo album.

In fact, the record is not a swaggering chunk of ego dressed up as a piece of art. It’s kind of the complete opposite – an album on which Coombes, 42, holds a magnifying glass over masculinity, conceit, and anxiety.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

It’s what someone would see if they “cut open my brain and looked at what had been logged over the last two years”, Coombes says of the album, which was partly inspired by Grayson Perry’s book The Descent Of Man, in which the artist explores how men’s rigid interpretation of masculinity is damaging their lives and society.

Gaz Coombes

“How do you shake that conditioning?” Coombes asks rhetorically. “To free, really free people up. Not to call them stupid or say they are doing anything wrong but give them the option of being free of any stereotypes.”

The book was like a “lightning bolt”, he says. Perry’s deconstruction of gender combined with an excess of “power-hungry maniacs” in both popular culture and politics led Coombes to write Walk The Walk, a cautionary tale of deluded ego which greets you with a heavy, groove riff.

“Baby, you’re the one, you can walk the walk,” he sings down the phone at a mention of the song, before stopping himself mid-description as he labels the backing vocals sassy.

“I can’t believe I just said sassy,” he laughs. “That’s my nine-year-old speaking.”

It’s not the only influence his two daughters have had, he continues. Coming more than two decades since Supergrass released their brash debut single Caught By The Fuzz, he’s been able to reframe and explore the destructive side of masculinity, a journey present throughout the record.

“I went through my twenties and thirties in the bubble of the band,” he says. “I was very much riding a wave and didn’t really look around much.

“I’ve got two daughters now so there’s different hormones in our house and a different mood, in a way I just feel very in tune on this journey,” he adds.

“Over the last three or four years I’ve started to look outside a lot more at what’s going on and how that affects my kids, and the people I love. That creeps into the record for sure.

“Everything from the destructive and divisive nature of these entitled, rich, white guys and to other areas I probably wouldn’t have talked about before so much,” he adds.

While Walk The Walk checks toxic masculinity, the album’s predominant record Vanishing Act deals with anxiety. “I express myself in music and what I do and it’s a great outlet but it’s a strange world doing what we do,” he says of the track. “Why not just open up about how you feel about those dark moments? Music is highs and lows... it’s just weirdly unstable. You can be at home for months on end and then away for ages, a strange kind of life.”

It caused him to subconsciously blank out a lot of the band’s early days, he reveals, but there are few regrets from what he can remember.

“I think we had a good radar and I’m always proud of that,” he says. “And if anything I would have told myself to settle down on stage a bit earlier and not be so tense. It was quite intense very young, playing massive gigs.”

World’s Strongest Man also takes on fascism on the gospel-cum-electro track Wounded Egos, which features a choir of primary school children singing the refrain “Wounded egos / Right wing psychos”. It was Coombes’ idea but producer Ian Davenport managed to rope in his children’s school to carry it out.“I was quite surprised,” he says. “I didn’t know what the teachers were going to say, I was half-expecting to be told, ‘Get out, we don’t really want to politicise these children’. But no one said a word so I guess they were quite fair-minded teachers.

“These kids are the next generation – they’re way more important than we are,” he continues. “They’re going to hopefully make some big steps to make things right. I thought, ‘Why not?’ – the idea of the next generation singing something so direct and timely.

“It’s just art as well. I’m not a politician, I’m a musician, as I work through a record it’s a bit of everything; it’s the way I express, like throwing paint at a canvas and you see how it falls.”

And he really does maintain hope for the next generation. He speaks of his nine-year-old daughter being “in tune” with how life is and heaps praise on “trash TV” for incorporating all genders and sexual orientations.

“It can be a dating show but it can have all wonderful kinds of pairings of people and that’s just normal life... You’d never have stuff like that in the 80s, it was all very dry and black and white. Normally I’d say don’t watch this s*** but it’s good if it’s just in day-to-day life and shouldn’t be strange, everyone is free to be who they want to be.”

World’s Strongest Man is out now. Gaz Coombes plays at Deer Shed Festival on Saturday July 21.