“The hardest fight is the one you fight alone” Matador
It’s been an extraordinary journey for Gaz Coombes, from flashily whiskered pop tearaway to Ivor Novello and BRIT award winning rock star to soundtracking the summer (he was responsible for that sublime cover of The Kinks ‘This Time Tomorrow’ for John Lewis earlier this year). However the mega-watt melodic genius responsible for ten Top 20 hits and six Top 20 albums – I Should Coco was Parlophone’s fastest selling debut since the Beatles Please Please Me – has often obscured the fact that, like any 37 year old, he’s had his fair share of bumps and bruises along the way.
It’s these aspects of his journey – including self-doubt, personal loss and drug-induced tour psychosis – which he faces up to on his remarkable new album, fittingly entitled Matador.
“There’s definitely a tenderness, darkness and uncertainty to the songs,” he says with a smile. “But I think there’s a resilience and a confidence about being vulnerable, even though that sounds contradictory.”
There are precedents for such sonic soul baring, of course. From John Lennon (Plastic Ono Band) to Neil Young (On The Beach) to Damon Albarn’s Everyday Robots, major artists have long used their solo career to express a sense of desolation, loss and personal renewal.
But Matador also comes with a radical musical backdrop, first hinted at on his 2012 solo debut Here Come The Bombs. “That record was all about creating some distance from Supergrass in how I approached writing and recording,” he says. “In a way I think I forced the issue at times and put too many ideas on there; I guess that’s partly the nature of a first album… This time around I was more relaxed, more direct in my approach – but at the same time I still didn’t want the record to sound like anything I’d done before.”
Sessions for what would become began in Gaz’s home studio in Oxford in early 2013. Playing all the instruments himself using an arsenal of analogue synthesizers he’d amassed over the years, he wrote instinctively, placing emotional honesty over technical perfection.
“It was a really exciting and liberating way of working,” he explains.
“Lyrically I wanted to keep it very raw and emotive and the music reflects that. I’d start with a loop or a little riff then use this little blue box I’ve got to take it in various directions –whether it was using different time signatures, adding orchestral samples or speeding songs up and slowing them down. It might sound arrogant, but I see it as similar to the way you create art – you have to feel it on the spot.”
As his ideas took shape, Gaz convened with engineer Ian Davenport at Courtyard Studios in Abingdon to fine-tune the results, bouncing ideas around until they coalesced into recognizable songs.
If last May’s strictly limited edition 12” single – ‘One Of These Days’ c/w ‘Break the Silence’ – acted as the perfect bridge between his debut and the more expansive feel of his newer songs, it was with the stunning ‘Buffalo’ that his vision came into sharp focus. Uploaded last October to a rabid response – 6 Music ‘A’ List, critical raves- its confessional lyric (“I’m an acrobat on the wire”) was counter-balanced by a tightrope-taut arrangement.
“It was a compliment when people said they didn’t think it was me,” he says with a smile. “It’s basically just Mellotron, drums and piano, but still with a really epic sound. That was what I was looking for; to simplify the music but still have these big impact moments.”
It’s this sense of space which permeates every second of Matador’s thirty-nine minutes. From the astral gorgeousness of ‘The Girl Who Fell To Earth’ to the dream-like cadences of ‘Oscillate’, it’s the sound of a songwriter melting musical boundaries like snow; merging elements of Neu!, Disney musicals, Swedish psychedelicists Goat, Gyorgy Ligeti and Eno in a glacial soundscape as ambitious as it is beautiful.
Lyrically, it finds Gaz happily exiled from pop’s comfort zone, too. Tackling subjects ranging from the druggy darkness which descended on Supergrass (summed up in Detroit’s sardonic lines: “The poison, the powder and the lies/Better jump right in ‘cos the water’s fine”) to the relentless spin-cycle of the political classes (‘The English Ruse’) to the see-sawing emotions involved in the grieving process (‘To The Wire’), it’s both intimate and unflinchingly honest.
At its heart, however, there’s a romantic core that binds Matador’s songs together, most evident in the exquisite ‘Seven Walls’. “I wrote that with my wife,” says Gaz. “It’s a musical love story about the nights we’d have together in Oxford years ago, when we’d sit in the back of the car park having a joint and a couple of beers. Nothing special on the face of it, but it’s about the magic in those tender moments.”
The result is an album in the classic sense; one with the sort of emotional uplift which, to these ears at least, suggests it should be filed next to Beck’s epic solo voyage, Sea Change. “There’s this disposable vibe around music at the moment which is odd, because it’s so obviously central to most people’s lives,” says Gaz in conclusion. “Life is full of moments of fear, loss and longing, but it’s how you get through those things and triumph over them which define you. But there’s as much light as there is dark on this record; there’s beauty in both of those states and that has always intrigues me.
Who could ever doubt it? Call it the return of the album if you like, but one thing’s for sure. Matador is the sound of one of Britain’s greatest songwriters facing the future with a flourish.
Turner Hall are working on Gaz’s second solo album Matador.