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"Yeah, we actually smoked a spliff with him," says Supergrass drummer Danny Goffey of the band's recent run-in with Al Gore during a taping of The Late Show With David Letterman. He's kidding, of course; the Oxford, England-based band (Goffey, singer/guitarist Gaz Coombes and bassist Mickey Quinn) is known as much for its goofball sense of humor as for its catchy, propulsive rock.
So much so, in fact, that after the band enjoyed a string of U.K. hit singles in 1994 and 1995, it was approached by Steven Spielberg about starring in a Monkees-style TV romp. "He wanted to do some sort of series about a British band who comes to America," Goffey says. "We went over and met him, and he told us about his ideas. It was quite flattering, really, but we were halfway through doing our second album and we didn't want to become Steven Spielberg's pet band from England. We didn't feel like we'd done enough music yet."
Goffey and Coombes started playing together in a band called the Jennifers, which released a single in 1990, when Coombes was only 14. The two kept playing together after the Jennifers broke up, and by 1992, Quinn had been added to the mix.
"Mick just lived in the same village," Goffey says. "He lived in this row of cottages, and I moved into one of the cottages. We just started jamming together for about six months. We didn't really have a band; we were just jamming.
"Then someone had a birthday party and we had to do a gig, so we kind of thought of a name and did this really crap gig at this little party. That's how most bands start -- they get pushed into doing gigs."
The name they settled on -- Supergrass -- is a British term for a special class of informant who, in return for telling the U.K. government truth and lies about the Irish Republican Army, is given special government protection and whose testimony is not subject to much courtroom scrutiny. The word is a curse in IRA circles. But Supergrass, the band, had no political mission beyond having a good time.
"It can mean loads of things," Goffey says of the name. "We thought it looked quite good. We thought it looked like a good club or something, the Supergrass club. We had all these theories that we were gonna start a club as well, and call it Supergrass, and play there every night."
That may not have materialized, but in the couple of years after that birthday-party debut gig, Supergrass released its first singles. The debut, "Caught by the Fuzz," told the story of young Coombes' bust for drug possession over crackling Buzzcocks-style pop-punk. "Mansize Rooster," the second single, was similarly frenetic but added a Madness-influenced piano stomp.
But anybody expecting strictly fast-and-loud adventures from Supergrass would be set straight by their 1995 debut album, I Should Coco. Alongside the mile-a-minute rave-ups (and "We're Not Supposed To," a tape-manipulated bit of Chipmunks horseplay) were slower, more reflective songs that reached back further than punk for inspiration. The gorgeous "Sofa (Of My Lethargy)" and "She's So Loose" showcased the supersharp melodic sense that was often overlooked in the noisy rumble of the singles.
As the album climbed the U.K. charts, critics and fans alike noted the band's unusually open-minded attitude toward its influences. Here was a band whose members could rock furiously but weren't afraid to let the cheesy pop sounds of the '70s occasionally crop up in their songs. They didn't seem to care whether their influences were hip (Buzzcocks, Rolling Stones) or, well, not (Elton John). There was never a strong genre concept for the band, Goffey says: "We don't actually really know why our band exists or exactly what we do. We just play drums, bass and guitar . . . I can never explain what we do."
The song that made the band stars in the U.K. and Europe was "Alright," a bouncy, lighter-than-air concoction wherein the ghost of ABBA could be heard wafting through. It's a great, great song, one that guitar-pop lovers will still be spinning in 10, 20, 30 years. But thanks in part to an antics-filled video, it further cemented the idea of Supergrass as a teenage sideshow act that, although entertaining, was somehow too lightweight to really be considered Serious Rock. "Well, we shot ourselves in the foot, really," Goffey says, "because 'Alright' was that kind of song. It was about being 15 years old, and we sort of portrayed that in the video, so we kind of got labeled as these happy kids who took drugs and got out of their heads.
"It took us a while to get rid of that, but we never really get pressured by anyone from a record company. They're not even allowed into the studio."
Indeed, after the adrenaline rush of I Should Coco, the second album, In It for the Money, was far denser and darker. It seemed as if Supergrass was overreacting to the band's lighthearted image, and the reception from critics and fans was mixed. But taken on its own merits, In It for the Money is a sturdy, often exciting album whose sonic clutter and clever melodies make for highly interesting listening. After all, nobody stays a teenager forever.