Photography by Dan Kendall
ON HIS CHEAP AND NASTY A+E
In an overgrown garden in sleepy north London, the most influential guitarist of his generation can smell wild garlic. “It’s really pungent,” insists Graham Coxon, Blur’s talismanic prodigal son and one-time NME Award winner for best solo artist, as he rummages around the greenery, rubbing shrubs between thumb and forefinger to eke out the scent. Our photographer, who put him here in the first place for our shoot, exercises patience. After a vain search, Coxon concedes that it could just be someone cooking next door, a shot is taken and we go inside.
But such attention-diverting tactics aren’t surprising: Coxon has, after all, always looked uncomfortable in the spotlight, famously opting out of much of Blur’s champagne swilling, Groucho Club bravado of the mid-90s, and even now ploughing on with a musically confrontational solo career while his bandmates are, variously, entering politics, appearing as judges on cheap TV talent shows and, of course, touring the world as the leader of imaginary cartoon bands or with Elizabethan operas. While the fact remains that he is a 43-year-old man still incapable of making eye contact, there’s a perverse honesty to Coxon’s shtick.
For one thing, to look at him is almost to know him – in mucky Converse and drainpipes, well-chewed nails and constantly ruffled hair, he is the quintessential feet-turned-in, socially awkward indie hero, all guitar-god exuberance when everyone’s looking elsewhere but flustered speech when called to say anything himself. But his awkwardness seems more a coping strategy than a cause for sympathy. Indeed, for all his diffidence, there’s a stealthy ambition to Coxon’s musical career: it’s worth pointing out that with April’s release of ‘A+E’, his eighth solo record, he has now made more albums alone than with Blur. Even so, being centre of attention isn’t getting any easier.
“I’m just not really frontman material, whereas Damon is,” he explains apologetically, when probed about the difference between playing by himself and with his bandmates. “In Blur it’s cool because I can pretty much sit back, concentrate on playing a guitar. But on my own it’s a bit more complicated – I have to sing and play in time and things like that,” – he says this last bit with heartfelt candour, as if revealing a grand secret to performing music – “and I feel a bit like I’m rooted to the spot.”
If by “frontman material” Coxon means Albarn’s rabble-rousing berserker routine, then true, he’s certainly not that. However his presentation, both on record and on stage, is certainly enthralling, almost mysterious; Coxon’s is a solo career full of ripples and eddies, off-kilter rambles and idiosyncrasies and, crucially, little compromise. He comes across like a leader in a band of one, and that can be heard on ‘A+E’ more than any of his other solo work, especially compared with his deeply collaborative, thoughtful and altogether grown-up last album, ‘The Spinning Top’. “A+E was made up as I went along, pretty much start to finish at home, by myself, and was no way as carefully arranged as ‘The Spinning Top’,” he explains. “There were ideas that I wanted to develop later on, but I never got round to it, and then I got used to the songs how they were, so just put on some drums and sang a vocal.”
If that sounds simple on paper that’s because on record it is too, mainly. While not an album with any airs or graces, and certainly one that feels stumbled upon rather than painstakingly crafted, ‘A+E’’s repeat-listen value comes via that classic pop trick of offering a hook with something screwy underneath. On ‘Meet & Drink & Pollenate’, the album’s catchiest track, a blaring horn lick draws you in, then crunching sludgy guitars and tinny beats keep you wondering, broadly, what the hell Coxon’s playing at.
“It’s just really ratty club music,” he explains dismissively, when asked what he was aiming for with ‘A+E’. “A lot of clubs up north under railway arches have this cavernous, echoing sound, and I thought that’s where I’d like to hear these songs: in clubs full of social inadequates who would have to get very drunk before they would dance. A lot of beer, and Miaow-Mix probably, or whatever it is they have nowadays. But I think ‘A+E’ is real booze music – vodka Red Bull and lager.”
If all this rhetoric – the listen-while-pissed, the celebration of the anti-craftsmanship – makes ‘A+E’ sound somewhat disposable, that’s kind of the point, says Coxon. In our 45 minutes together, he proudly calls his latest record “cheap and nasty” several times (and it is, often delightfully so), and is ultra-suspicious of any pop music with ideas above its station. He puts his decision not to paint a front cover for ‘A+E’ – the first of his solo LPs where he hasn’t – down to a discomfort with current “pretentious, overprecious” album artwork, and dismisses any attempted grandeur within music as “God, it’s only pop”.
But if his solo manifesto seems to be one of zero frill and ultimate authenticity, his job in one of the UK’s most loved bands couldn’t be more different: in July Blur will release a lavishly packaged, premium-priced 21st anniversary box set containing all their albums, remastered, a host of rarities, three concert DVDs and a collectable seven-inch. They will then perform in front of 50,000 people in Hyde Park to close the London Olympics and, if 2009’s triumphant reunion is anything to go by, sign off with ‘The Universal’, perhaps the least cheap and nasty pop song you could ever imagine.
Coxon’s fine with the dissonance though. “I’m just good at departmentalising,” he says. “My role in Blur is different, that’s all.” But depending on who you read, that role might not exist for much longer. In April, Damon gave an interview to The Guardian’s John Harris saying that he didn’t think there’d be any more Blur albums, or gigs after August 12th. Couple that with a career-spanning box set that would make a perfect bookend, Alex and Dave leading happy lives away from music, and everything’s looking one way.
“Did he really say that?” asks Coxon, protectively and slightly peeved, when I bring up Albarn’s quotes. “John Harris stabbed him in the back [in that interview]. He reported it in a pretty bullshit way.” Nonetheless, Coxon acknowledges Blur’s form in making ambiguous statements about their future. “Normally, we pick an answer out of a hat,” he explains with a wry smile. “We don’t know what the future is really.”
So far, so non-committal, so evasive. But what about Coxon himself? If it were up to him, I ask, would he like to keep the band going? There follows twenty seconds of silence, during which he runs through his entire repertoire of nervous ticks: he chews his fingernails, ruffles his hair and chomps down hard on his bottom lip. He purses his lips and blows a slow raspberry, then finally speaks. “I don’t really know how to answer that.” There’s another pause. “If we could do something really good, then yeah.”
As in new material? If he could wave a magic wand, have a new Blur album that sounded great and go and tour it?
“I’d do that, yeah. If it was guaranteed to be absolutely fucking brilliant,” he says, staring fixedly at a spot on the carpet, wringing his hands. And that seems to be as much clarity as we’re going to get on the subject, the subtext seeming to be that it’s Albarn’s call: Coxon’s keen, and the others will do what they’re told.
It’s a dangerous game taking anything Alex James says seriously, but one of his more shrewd observations of recent years, in his autobiography, was describing Graham Coxon as “brilliantly artistic but vulnerable”. It almost entirely sums him up. Where James is cocky and irreverent, Rowntree the nerd and Albarn bolshy and aggressively ambitious, Coxon is the sensitive soul, both in Blur and alone, deeply insular and at times painfully self-aware. When his press officer pops his head around the door to remind him that it’s time to collect his daughter from school, Coxon tuts to himself “another reckless interview”, furrowing his brow and giving his hair another ruffle. It’s not that he’s said anything particularly controversial – he’d like to make another record with Blur, the cheap’n’nasty aesthetic of his new album is deliberate – but the overall impression is of somebody who’d feel far more comfortable were he just left alone with his guitars to keep making imperfect, inconsistent but always fascinating pop music.
“I’ve always worried about dying young, that’s nothing new,” he confesses as he gets up, “but these days it’s have I got twenty years? Thirty? Ten? I wake up in the morning thinking ‘how long have I got left to do some really good stuff, to better myself, before I cark it?’.” Coxon’s internal ambition is undeniable, admirable and strangely romantic, and suits his slightly maverick, worry-head personality. He may want his old band back, but if he has to keep bettering himself alone, then so be it.
Cheap and nasty: A bluffer’s guide to Coxon solo
The Sky Is Too High (1998): The “unlistenably lo-fi” tag it’s gained over the years is only partially justified; it’s also thrillingly intimate and intense, and has aged surprisingly well. ***
The Golden D (2000): While Blur were at their most cerebral on 13, Coxon was at his most visceral here on this wild blitzkrieg of precision chaos. ****
Crow Sit on Blood Tree (2001): Dabbling in blues, punk and folk, the only consistency here is the mediocre songwriting. Its moments of haunting beauty are disappointingly infrequent. **
The Kiss of Morning (2002): Recorded while being fired from Blur, the frustrating stylistic restlessness continues, but the sound is warmer and the songs more memorable. ***
Happiness in Magazines (2004): Newly alone after 15 years stood just behind Damon Albarn, Coxon aims for the charts – and hits – in a glorious stampede of post-punk and Kinksian melody. ****
Love Travels at Illegal Speeds (2006): The rockin’ riffs from the last LP are retained, but patchier songwriting and a meandering second half let it down. ***
The Spinning Top (2009): Coxon’s 70s-infused concept prog-folk album is at least half an hour too long, but when it works it’s achingly pretty, wonderfully recorded and perfectly performed. ***
A+E (2012): Coxon’s “booze music” album is also his most ratty, scabrous outing since The Golden D. Perhaps his best, probably his most idiosyncratic, and definitely his most provocatively danceable. ****
By Sam Walton
Originally published in issue 38 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. May 2012