You Sing, I Write: Q&A with Mick Quinn of Supergrass

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Q&A with Mick Quinn of Supergrass

While out in California last week I caught U.K. band Supergrass' incredibly energetic live show — chock full of solid guitar riffs and catchy choruses — at Avalon in Hollywood. (You can read that review here.) Bass guitarist Mick was nice enough to sit down with me for a bit before their sound check for the night. He talked about their current tour with the Foo Fighters, their new album, Diamond Hoo Ha and American fans: “We do have a really big cult following in America. That’s the weird thing; we seem to get good reaction, that’s why we keep coming back." Read on for the rest of the interview and check them out on MySpace if you haven't yet!

You guys are on tour with the Foo Fighters. How’s that going?
It’s great. We’ve done two nights so far, really big gigs. I think this is maybe our third tour we’ve done with Foo Fighters. We toured with them, maybe in ’97; I think was the first time, which is nearly 10 years ago. We’ve known them for years and they’ve always been really into our band and dragged us along a few times. It’s great, we played Wembley Stadium with them in London last month and that was maybe one of the biggest gigs we’ve done. They said it was there biggest gig; it was like 86,000 people which was astounding and really fun.

How is it different from touring with Foo Fighters vs. doing your own headlining show?
You have to get scientific about what sort of set you want to do. We’ve got maybe five, six albums worth of stuff to choose from. The set for the Foo’s, we’re onstage for a lot shorter so you want to try and make your point quite quickly whereas you can stretch out in your own gig. You’ve got your own fans coming and they might want to see different elements of the band and slow songs and want more obscure tracks from our back catalog. And also have a bit of fun and try and mix it up a bit.

You just released your sixth studio album, Diamond Hoo-Ha. Tell me a little bit about it; did you have a certain concept going into the studio?
Yeah, we did. The album before was kind of a very reflective, kind of quiet, acoustic record and we wanted to go back and play heavier stuff. A lot of people have said in reviews it’s a return to former stuff. But, I think it’s a new direction again. There are no slow songs on the album whatsoever. Usually there are quite a few stylistic changes, but we wanted to have the focus of the last record and just go in one direction. We did it quite differently. We spent a lot more time writing the songs and a lot less time in the studio. We just got very prepared and went in and recorded it very fast.

We traveled out to Berlin into Hansa Studios, which is a really famous studio where David Bowie recorded Heroes, Iggy Pop recorded there, U2 did Achtung Baby there, David Hasselhoff has recorded there. It’s just got loads of history to it and its right near where the old wall was in Berlin, in the center of Berlin, and it’s just such an amazing city.

So did that experience play into the album itself?
It’s difficult to know whether it played into this album. It did on the surface of things. It’s more when you were there, you took onboard the whole city and that will probably go into the next record. When you’re in the heat of making the record you go off looking out into the city, but when you get your days off you’re wandering around, taking stuff in and it takes a while for that to absorb into your psyche and come out in the next record.

You’re also having a DVD out in August.
Yeah, well there was a side project. I had an accident about 10 months ago where I fell out of a window and broke my back. In the middle of the night, I had gone on holiday with my family, and I was looking for the bathroom, I was looking for a glass of water and I just took a wrong turn and went out a window, hit the ground. I really did myself in. I was lying up in the hospital for two and a half months. I couldn’t go out and do some of the touring at the beginning of the record so the lead singer and our drummer, Danny, went off and did this little side project to tie things over and launch the first single basically. They did a few really small gigs around England to 500 people, to really bring it down to basics, just drums and guitar. They took Gaz’s younger brother and they all, for some strange reason, probably lack of sleep, they took on these alter egos and ended up filming themselves and this is what’s being released, three hysterical people with not enough sleep.

You guys have been around for a while, since 1994. How do you keep your music fresh and new?
Too long. [Laughs]. We still inspire each other. Everybody in the band writes. I think if there was one songwriter everyone would get a bit tired, but we’re all checking things in from different directions. We always try and not repeat ourselves. Case and point is our last two records. Even if you’ve done something that has been successful or worked out really well, it’s good not to try and repeat that because you get less in returns the next time around. I think we learned that quite early on.

What keeps you motivated?
I don’t know, its rock & roll really. We still really enjoy playing, it’s a bit of a cliché, but when we do stand up in a room you end up forgetting about having to go to the supermarket later or doing some ridiculous thing or whatever. You just start playing and the music excites us and that’s always what has kept us going. It’s quite easy to get ground down by the music industry because it can be difficult to be artistic, but there’s still always room to do it and that’s kept us going.

You have had some of your music featured in movies over the years. How does that go about happening?
Well, just the offers come up. We’re always a bit reticent about releasing songs out to advertising in some ways because they’re your babies and you want to express them. Then again, you have to reach people and have them hear the songs. If it’s a harmless product, then it’s not a real problem.

Have you always wanted to be in a band?
I don’t know. I’ve just always have been in bands. Even before Supergrass, I’d been playing in bands for 10 years. I never looked at it as being in bands or playing gigs, it was just making music. We used to just play in the living room. You’d come back from the pub and you had about five pints. We used to live out in the sticks, so we had no neighbors to annoy and we used to just play in the living room for our own amusement and that’s how we learned to play. Even when I went out to college, all through college I’d play in bands and when I came back from college I didn’t do much, but I had always played in bands throughout the whole period without even trying, without even thinking about it. It’s something that just won’t go away, I have no choice.

Was the original name of the band Theodore Supergrass?
Yes, probably for about two months. We had about five different names before that, but then we played this one show in Oxford and it got a write-up in the local magazine, a really good write-up, and we thought if we changed the name again people weren’t going to turn up because they wouldn’t know it was the same band so we ended up being stuck with Theodore Supergrass. And then we realized that Theodore was a bit rubbish so we took that off.

You basically got started in the U.K. and then branched out to the U.S. What’s the difference between your fan base?
We seem to get a more honest reaction in America. I think, in some ways, because we’re a British band and we started off in England. I think every band gets hyped in the beginning and the reality of what the band is, is slightly skewed. But when we came to America people really didn’t know about us and still a lot of people don’t really know who we are. So you get people turning up to the gigs and they just have to react to what they’re seeing on the stage. We used to get bikers showing up to our gigs and really weird people that you wouldn’t expect to show up to a Supergrass gig and they were really into it. Coming in today, a family of five, the parents and three little kids had driven hundreds of miles to come and see us and you don’t get that anymore. Maybe because you don’t have to travel 200 miles to get anywhere, but you get more devoted fans and people that really do get into the band in a really strong way in the U.S.

How would you explain your music to someone who has never heard it?
I usually just say we’re in a rock & roll band. It’s usually too difficult to explain. What’s the point? You wouldn’t want to. Once you start defining what you do you instantly want to break out of that.

How do you feel this record is different from your previous ones?
Certainly, we wanted to make a record that didn’t dip really. We wanted to make it very hard and very energetic, kind of the laidbackness of Road to Rouen previously, it was so focused in that direction, although it had some diverseness as well. We wanted to really focus on just being energetic on this record. Also the speed of it, we wanted to get the energy of recording very fast and doing lots of over dubs and making the production complicated and that was achieved by getting Nick Launay to produce and limiting ourselves with time and bringing a lot of energy to it.

How do you feel the music industry has changed over the years from when you started?
It’s really interesting right now because no one knows what’s happening and all the major record companies are really freaking out. They don’t really know what’s going on and that means there’s a huge vacuum for what could go on. Also, you can go to the Internet and find all sorts of people who don’t have to worry about record distribution in the same sort of way or marketing in some ways. The Internet is such a massive market where you can reach so many people and you can do that from the comfort of your own bedroom. And again, just bands coming out of nowhere that people weren’t expecting to do well and it’s an honest reaction. It’s people hearing our music and wanting it, there are no middle men and that’s really interesting.

What is it about Supergrass that has made you guys stick around for so long?
We haven’t let our quality control drop yet. We still invest a hell of a lot of energy in making those records. We spend a good six months where we don’t sleep for ages. We put a lot of effort into them. We’re not aiming to make a record that will last six months for our promo campaign, you want to go back and listen in three years time and listen to a song. It’s tricky, it’s difficult, but I think we’re putting in the energy. Other bands have tried to survive for a long time. There are good examples out there; a band like The Kills and they have managed to do it on their own terms and still keep going. It’s going to end one day though.

When do you feel will be the time that you’ll think, “Alright, I want to retire”?
I don’t know if I’m going to retire. You could come to the end of Supergrass and what you could do with that, it’d be interesting to branch out and try other things and then maybe come back to Supergrass late in the stage. I’ve always been interested in listening to music certainly, and still very interested in music generally. You get pissed off at things and then you go and see someone else play an amazing gig and it just makes you happy about being alive.

Do you have a favorite song out of the entire Supergrass catalog?
It varies. I tend to go for the really unusual ones. There are a few B-sides that we’ve done. The thing that I like about the B-sides is that they’re always very relaxed and there is no pressure when you’re making a B-side so you’ve got really spontaneous songs coming out. There was a track, the B-side to the “Kiss of Life” and we took the reels off the tape machine and put it upside down so the tape played backwards and then we rerecorded the whole song backwards and it just became this other song that was really unworldly, just really strange lyrics as well because we had to rework what he was singing backwards as well. It was cool. It was called “We Dream of This.”

You all take part in the writing process. Where do you get your inspiration from?
I can’t talk for the others, but me personally, I listen to a lot of music and hear interesting chord changes. Or just little bits you like and you try playing it on guitar and you play it wrong. You try and cover somebody else’s song and you end up fuckin’ it up and it makes you go somewhere else, and you start hearing interesting changes, which drags me in. Part of it is ripping off the other two — if Danny or Gaz have written something interesting I’ll try to work it out my way and it will lead me somewhere else and so we get inspired by each other. It’s always just a small thing that gets you in first and leads you to something else. Lyrics, just living every day, you might hear an interesting phrase or someone says something in a conversation that’s the inspiration for the lyrics. In the visa office, when we were getting the visas for America, some guy said he’s technically classed as an alien with potential on his visa. That kind of phrase, you could write a song called “Alien with Potential” just stuff like that really.

Special thanks to Jennilyn Lazo for these photos.

If you haven't yet, be sure to check out Supergrass on MySpace and see a show when they're in town!

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