Necessity may well be the mother of invention, but complacency is the mother of reinvention. With over a dozen years and five albums under essentially the same lineup, Supergrass readily understands the concept of guarding against becoming too comfortable with the creative process.
The story of the sixth and latest Supergrass record, the stellar Diamond Hoo Ha, really begins with the band's last album. Going into the making of 2005's Road to Rouen, Supergrass had decided that it was time to tear down and rebuild their creative machinery. In the midst of that re-examination, frontman Gaz Coombes and his keyboardist, brother Rob, had to confront the death of their mother, and the songs that emerged from that period were darker and more introspective than anything the band had ever attempted in the past. Adding to the strange atmosphere being crafted during the sessions, drummer Danny Goffey, a then-recent target for tabloid speculation with his then-girlfriend/now-wife Pearl Lowe, left the group for a head-clearing walkabout; although he returned after the briefest absence, his exit threw the band's future into gauzy territory.
"Danny certainly had a hard time going through Road to Rouen," says bassist Mick Quinn via phone, who brings the band to town to open for the Foo Fighters. "He was pushing us to keep going on our usual up-and-out formula, so he found it difficult. At the beginning, he put a lot of effort into the music, but in the later stages, on the lyrics and stuff, he couldn't sort of get there. He just started turning up less and less in the studio. It was quite worrying at the time, and there was a possibility that that was it for Supergrass. That was hanging in the air a bit. But me and Gaz know Danny so well that we kind of half expected he'd come back with his tail between his legs. And he did."
To emphasize the raw emotion that characterized Road to Rouen, Supergrass unveiled the album with an acoustic tour three summers ago, a vast departure from the irrepressible blast of previous albums and tours. The subdued nature of the entire presentation of Road to Rouen was something of a surprise for critics and fans, but it was heartily embraced by both, for the most part. And although many viewed the album as somewhat cathartic, the band didn't come around to that way of thinking until much later."It was definitely after the fact; when you're making these things, you're quite wrapped up in it," says Quinn. "I don't think we were thinking in terms of going through a heavy period. We'd just put out our Supergrass 10 album, with all our singles on it, and we wanted to do the opposite of that and make an album without any obvious singles. We were focused on it being a slow burner and an album that would unfold over time. The melancholy probably came from Gaz and Rob's mum dying the year before and all the personal problems we'd had. The reflection on where we came from for this record came in hindsight. We hadn't planned any of it."
At any rate, it was a very different Supergrass that convened last year to begin work on what would ultimately become this year's Diamond Hoo Ha. Determined to revisit the visceral pop melodicism of early triumphs — I Should Coco and In It for the Money — the band began collaborating on material that swung and snapped with the best of those seminal albums.
"It's always painful to do things differently when things are going well," says Quinn. "Road to Rouen was a really interesting and relaxing record to make in a lot of ways, but it's good to challenge yourself and try new things, and that's exactly what we did on this record. We didn't try to make Road to Rouen Part 2, just like we didn't try to make I Should Coco 2 after we released that. It's important to move on quickly."
Quickly is certainly an operative word in the Supergrass camp. Even as the band was preparing to support Road to Rouen, new material was evolving."I remember Gaz turning up with a demo for 'Rough Knuckles' very early on, maybe two, three years ago," says Quinn. "We were playing bits and bobs in sound checks, so this album had its embryonic stages in the touring for Road to Rouen."
Although Coombes arrived with close to two dozen songs initially, most were jettisoned for being too close to Rouen, and they naturally gravitated to the heavier tunes that seemed closer to what they had in mind for the new album. After writing and adapting material, the band contacted an old friend for some sonic advice."
We had a period where we got in touch with Sam Williams, who produced I Should Coco," says Quinn. "We knew that we didn't want him to come in and produce, because we'd been there, but what we really liked about Sam was his ability to arrange. So we did a week's session with him, arranging songs, and then it became very apparent which songs we were going to use. That set the tone for the record after that."
The last piece of the Diamond Hoo Ha puzzle was set when Supergrass, with veteran producer Nick Launay, traveled to Berlin to record at the legendary Hansa Studio, where David Bowie tracked Low and Heroes.
"David Hasselhoff recorded there as well," says Quinn with a laugh. "It's changed completely since Bowie was there. The wall's come down and it's a completely different atmosphere in the city. But it's such a strange and intriguing city. One of the primary ideas for going there, apart from us being Bowie and Iggy Pop fans, is that it's a very cheap recording place."
There are Bowie-esque ghosts on Diamond Hoo Ha, particularly in "Rebel in You," which pumps and sways with Lodger-like power."
I can't deny it," says Quinn. "There's a lot of soul in there as well. Me personally, I listen to a lot of Al Green, and I'm ripping off the backing vocal style for that. But yeah, that E-bowey sound, that Robert Fripp stuff he played on Heroes or Lodger are in there. That all interests us; it's such a complex sound. But it does still sound like Supergrass. I don't think we're going to worry Bowie's lawyers at all."
Once Diamond Hoo Ha was completed, the band dispersed to enjoy some time off before hitting the road to integrate the new material into its sets. Quinn took his family to the south of France for a quick holiday, where he somehow managed to sleepwalk out of a window, crushing two vertebrae and smashing his heel bone in 18 places. He credits his French doctors with keeping him from becoming a quadriplegic, a fate he was mere millimeters from enduring.
Quinn was still recuperating when Diamond Hoo Ha dropped in England back in March; in his absence, third brother Charlie Coombes sat in on bass for a handful of gigs, but for most of the early shows, Coombes and Goffey did guitar/drum duo appearances as the Diamond Hoo Ha Men.
"It was an interesting approach," says Quinn. "I managed to get out and watch them play a couple of times. I was still on crutches at the time. I sat there taking notes on their stagecraft and stuff — obviously, I thought they needed a bass player — but it was really weird going to see those two perform and not have to do anything."
Response to Diamond Hoo Ha has been relatively good at home, with the album just barely cracking the Top 20. Although not charting as high as previous Supergrass efforts, the press has definitely been generous in its praise of the album's sound and direction.
"I was a bit worried that there'd be a danger in them saying, 'They've gone back to their usual sound and this is the same old Supergrass,'" says Quinn. "But it's not, and they've seen through that and seen that it's a new thing, more guitar-based and more heavy, and it's a different sound. I was pleased that they'd noticed that."
Foo Fighters, Supergrass, 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 25, Quicken Loans Arena, One Center Court, 216.241.5555, Tickets: $27-$47.