In A+E, Graham Coxon has made perhaps his most daring, and best, solo record to date
With his singular yet wildly varied guitar plastered over so many instantly-recognisable moments in a 20 year career, a queue of household names waiting to sing his praises and so much made of his understated, everyman persona, one could comfortably drown under the weight of writing on the subject of Graham Coxon. Trying to say something new or interesting about him seems almost moot.
Yet somehow, it’s not. Somehow, even with that inbuilt history, and with the word ‘Blur’ once again a staple in the musical lexicon, Coxon remains an idiosyncratic and intriguing individual. Continuing to skirt the underside of the radar with his brave and frequently surprising solo material, there’s still more than enough to talk about with Graham Coxon.
While you may think the role of guitarist in a band of such lofty standing lends itself seamlessly to stepping to the forefront of the stage, it takes little knowledge to see how far Coxon stands from the archetype. His solo career shuffled reluctantly into life, showing itself as a means to vent a passion for music very separate from that which made his name. Expressing his love for more obscure strains of American alternative rock and punk, early efforts like The Sky Is Too High and The Golden D were fuzzy lo-fi gems. When four years later he produced still his best-known, and most instantly striking solo effort, Happiness In Magazines, spawning indie-club staples Freakin’ Out andSpectacular, the material still stomped its feet firmly on trashy garage rock ground. Now, having churned out solo efforts at impressively regular intervals, including 2009’s startlingly introverted and critically lauded blues/folk piece The Spinning Top, he’s back in the form of stark statement of intent A+E.
Numbers like City Hall, Eat And Drink And Pollinate and the ominously trundling The Truth edge towards the inhuman, portentous drama of so many of the most memorable strains of Krautrock, or even Steve Albini’s atonal drum machine-led post-punks Big Black. OpenerAdvice, meanwhile, allows its brash riff to collide headlong with an instantly memorable chorus harmony, neither of Coxon’s dual sides able to fully placate the other, both forced to compromise. A microcosm of the album’s aesthetic, the hypnotic swagger of Seven Naked Valleysturns from ominous to chirpy in the space of a note. Single What’ll It Take is the obvious gateway into the record, electronic elements adding a poppy shimmer rather than a robotic absence of humanity, but very rarely does the album revisit its undeniably hook-ridden and bright-eyed enthusiasm. No, the melody here comes in bursts, persuaded out through Coxon’s alt rock brickwork, where chords move cynically, top guitar lines seldom go where you’re expecting, and drums are either made by machines or by people pretending to be machines.
Coxon tends to release his solo material to minimal fanfare: most people would be taken aback when informed that A+E is his eighth full- length. He’s as close to an underground hero as you’re likely to find in the impossibly overhyped world of UK guitar music. But despite a gathering buzz for this latest effort, over the weeks preceding our interview, his face had become synonymous with a ridiculous furore surrounding what was intended to be a celebratory Blur performance at the Brits, hijacked in a whirlwind of deplorable red-top sensationalism. It’s a depressing indictment of what the Brits (brought to you by MasterCard) has come to represent, and sadly ironic given Coxon’s association with an era when the Brits actually mattered; when every kid in the country sat in front of their televisions waiting torturously for the envelope to be opened. These days, the only thing tackier than coverage focusing on a couple of bum notes in a live performance and what the stunningly irrelevant James Corden may or may not have said, is the garishly dolled-up statuettes themselves. But hey, as Graham himself puts it, “if you put something on ITV, this is going to happen.”
For new record A+E you’ve utilised a lot of drum machines and synthesisers; what was your motivation for that move, and do you find it as easy to express yourself that way?
I think I started using those methods to purposely be unexpressive, actually. When I was demoing the album I was sitting around and I didn’t really have to do anything, I wasn’t signed, it was a sort of ‘free agent’ feeling, really. I felt like making certain noises purely for my own entertainment. I found I was a bit tired of playing guitar, particularly after recording The Spinning Top and playing it live, it got quite demanding. I got a bit overwhelmed by my own flavour, if you know what I mean. So I started mucking around with playing riffs on the bass and getting busy with my drum synthesiser, making different sounds, improvising riffs and rough structures. I think there are only three songs on the album which use drum machines, but even when I was playing live I wanted to play in such a way. Obviously there is the odd expressive element, the odd fill on drums that’s a bit jazzy or a bit groovy, but basically going for quite stodgy grooves. Ooh Yeh Yeh (the album’s closer) is quite a stodgy sound. There’s a lead guitar that’s all a bit out of tune and this thick, two bass pattern that goes over the top of a basic blues almost. I like the idea of doing stuff that’s kind of from the old school, but mixing it with something different, almost like how The Velvet Underground would do the blues or something. I think I was using the guitar as a massive fat paintbrush of saturation, really.
Something like City Hall is reminiscent of a less abrasive version of Big Black – is that a reference which resonates with you at all?
Maybe, yeah. I’ve got some Big Black records.
The reason we ask is because your love for American alternative rock, indie, post-punk etc. is well know, from referencing Pavement to covering Mission Of Burma on The Golden D. What was it about that sound that first appealed to you?
I was listening to a lot of alternative stuff in the mid 90s that was getting introduced to me by the kids in Huggy Bear. They introduced me to Sonic Youth albums and stuff like that, but I suppose they got me into some more unusual stuff, rare soul music and American punk rock, Pavement and Mission of Burma. I was a little bit bored of the older influences, so it had a big impression on me. I think they were doing interesting things with the guitar. They had a bit more of a free attitude to their playing, whereas in Britain we were stuck in traditions that were a bit past their sell-by date. It was almost a 60s influenced thing in the mid 90s in Britain and I’d been playing that stuff all my life, it was a basic, staple way to play. I wanted to be more expressive. I think emotionally I needed to be able to play that way. The Americans were doing that stuff, so I was listening to it.
Do you think you used your solo material as a platform for these new influences because you didn’t think you’d be able to express them with Blur?
I guess so. I started writing songs by accident. A friend of mine had written a script for a film and he said: “I’d really like it if you wrote a couple of songs”. I was like, “well, I don’t really write songs”. I’d written You’re So Great (from Blur’s self-titled 1997 album), but I’d hardly call it a song in Blur terms, it was just a little ditty. So I wrote a couple of songs for his film, they were Me You, We Two and A Day Is Far Too Long (both of which are on Coxon’s debut album The Sky Is Too High) and I really enjoyed the fulfilling feeling of writing a song. I suppose I got a bit better at it and wrote things like Freakin’ Out and Bittersweet Bundle Of Misery and I was sort of like, ‘wow!’ I couldn’t quite believe that I could write proper songs that were in that old school tradition. So I went back and concentrated on not making particularly insane noises on guitar but, I suppose, on songwriting. Now I’ve sort of caught up with both. I’ve got these ideas that can accommodate more wild playing and more expressive insane guitars.
This does seem quite a daring record to make at this point in your career. The Spinning Top, while introverted, was perhaps more immediate. Do you think it might be a reaction to playing older material with Blur which has prompted you to go so far on this record?
Maybe you’re right, I don’t know. I actually thought this one came out more immediate than The Spinning Top. I dunno, sound-wise it’s more exciting, a bit more seductive. I thought The Spinning Top had this folk- blues-jazz element that can turn people off pretty quickly if they’re not into that sound.
That’s true, but some people might find this combination of what can be quite harsh guitars with synthesised drums quite challenging.
Yes, well I suppose I’ve never really cared (laughs). As far as a challenge goes in terms of a sound, I suppose I don’t find it challenging because it’s come from my own mind, but then I can listen to a lot of jazz, or a lot of Faust or Can albums and can feel very challenged by it, but the challenge won’t make me give up listening to it.
To change the subject to Blur, at the now almost legendary 2009 set at Glastonbury you seemed to have notably changed in your capacity to translate your guitar playing, as well as your stage presence, do that scale. Do you consider that a product of your solo work during the period of hiatus?
I think we had a lot of enthusiasm. When we were at the height of everything in the mid-90s it was bedlam, y’know. It was difficult to play and keep emotionally under control in those circumstances. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of travelling and it was pretty draining. The technology’s come on a lot too. I mean, I think we were probably playing better than ever, but also the monitoring is better, the PA systems are better, they’re smaller and louder. But there was this enthusiasm, this renewed vigour. We were just really enjoying being back together and playing those songs and they had a poignancy, they sort of seemed to come from the past but seemed almost contemporary.
And to an extent you could appreciate it all the more having had a period to take it in.
Yeah, I definitely appreciated what a good job that is, to play in front of a lot of people with a big amplifier turned all the way up and a lot of happy faces. You can’t not enjoy it, it’s pretty amazing.
So considering that, do you feel like you’ve been a bit harshly treated by some factions for the reaction to your Brits performance and cutting off Adele?
We didn’t cut off Adele.
It did all seem quite bizarre.
Yes, it’s bizarre. I feel bad for Adele being cut off, but as the curtain went up and we’re being told to start playing, James thingy was telling Adele to wrap up her speech. It was like, “ah, shit. This is a bit weird.” And that was it, really. It was unfortunate. I don’t think it was anyone’s fault. But you put something on ITV, this is going to happen.
It’s a pretty sad indictment of what the Brits now stand for that you’ve got one of Britain’s most celebrated bands playing and all people are talking about is something as mundane as a mistake in the timing.
Well at a ceremony like that you’re expected to play your first song as if you’ve been warmed up for half an hour. We went into it energetically, just like we always have. If people are used to pretty singing backed up by session musicians, that’s not really our problem.
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A+E is out now on Parlophone
Catch Graham Coxon at:
London Forum – April 25th
Bristol Trinity April 28th
Words: Geraint Davies