Graham Coxon

Graham Coxon
The Britpop guitar hero is loud and clear (not Blur-ry) on Love Travels At Illegal Speeds

Riffing at illegal speeds: Coxon onstage.
Photo by Pennie Smith

Graham Coxon has grown up.

One of Britain’s most inventive and eclectic guitar heroes (a description he’d probably find discomforting), Coxon now makes the records he wants to make and plays the shows he wants to play. A loving dad, he treasures his relationship with his 6-year-old daughter above all else. He banished a former demon—alcohol—from his life in 2001—traded it away for more confidence, better relationships and greater artistic fulfillment. He’s not the old, ’90s-era moody Graham; the oft-contrary, 20-something quiet Beatle on Blur’s dizzying-heights-of-success-and-excess merry-go-round. He’s been off the bottle and off the merry-go-round for a while now and has, by his own reckoning, arrived at his mid-30s much the better for it. Much better.

Coxon is happier now. Much happier.

He is, simultaneously, excited about his solo career and proud of his work during his 13-year stint as resident guitar genius in Blur, the phenomenally charming and veddy English quartet that spearheaded the mid-’90s Britpop explosion. Universally hailed as a gifted and exciting guitarist, the thin, soft-spoken and bespectacled Coxon conveyed a sort of Clark Kent-ish image—until he grabbed a guitar, at which point it would become clear—loud and clear—that he was an artful, musically ferocious and more-than-worthy successor to the throne of Townshend, Weller, et al.

Coxon, born in Hanover, Germany, in 1969, was a fine arts student at London’s Goldsmiths College when he formed Seymour in 1989 with schoolmates Damon Albarn (vocals) and Alex James (bass), plus drummer Dave Rowntree. He left school as the band—soon renamed Blur—rose from the short-lived Manchester scene to achieve great success in Britain in the early ’90s before positively exploding with their 1994 breakthrough Parklife , considered by many as the quintessential Britpop album. A slew of highly successful albums followed, and Blur eventually cracked the elusive U.S. market in 1997 with the distortion-drenched “Song 2.”

The new album, Love Travels At Illegal Speeds .
Image courtesy Parlophone Records

Despite Blur’s enormous success though, Coxon often felt he was being dragged on a ride that he didn’t particularly enjoy, and he left Blur in 2002, having already released three acclaimed solo efforts, The Sky Is Too High (1998), The Golden D (1999) and Crow Sit On Blood Tree (2001). His first album as a full-fledged solo artist, 2002’s The Kiss Of Morning , earned praise and healthy sales, and Coxon re-teamed with Blur producer Stephen Street for his most successful album, 2004’s Happiness In Magazines , for which he received the New Musical Express Best Solo Artist award in 2005.

Coxon’s sixth solo album, Love Travels At Illegal Speeds , comes out this month, and he rang Fender News one night in late February from his home in London, after a day of radio appearances promoting the album and having just put his daughter to bed. He talked at length about his love for Fender Telecaster® guitars, ’60s and ’70s garage/psychedelic pop and ’90s U.S. indie rock, and indulged in some guitar gear shoptalk. He also spoke candidly about his battle with booze, the long and bumpy road to self-acceptance, and the fact that while current relations with Blur are actually quite amicable, a reunion is unlikely, even though he really should call Alex …

FN : How does Love Travels At Illegal Speeds compare to your past work?
GC : Crikey! I think I’ve developed in every way, in public, as a guitar player with Blur and with my songwriting, arrangements and ideas. I haven’t sort of “hidden away” for years and then presented myself all “butterfly”-like. It’s weird, because I’ve been a bit of a maggot for most of my public career (laughs ).

FN : We probably wouldn’t describe you quite like that …
GC : Well, I think most people prefer the maggot to the butterfly, or the fly, or whatever I am. But I think I got back to writing songs. It’s become more important to me—a sort of “scruffy perfectionism” that I’ve developed. My idea of perfection is always not quite the mainstream. So, I suppose it’s all of that and what I see as my roots and influences. And it’s gotten to the most intense with this new record.

FN : What influences you lately?
GC : Well, really it’s always been ’60s music a lot, with the mid- to late-’70s music coming out—progressive rock, punk rock and post-punk. And then it’s all sorts of the ’60s stuff, from the very simple things like the Kinks, the Beatles and garage stuff to the more psychedelic things like the Nuggets records—psychedelic garage music like the Creation, the Electric Prunes, the Seeds, the Remains, the Chocolate Watchband or the Magic Mushrooms (laughs ). I love those recordings! It’s perfect pop music because of the dynamic range, excitement of the sounds and the energy. It’s kind of what I try to get at, really.

FN : Since you play all the instruments on your solo albums, is there anyone in particular you lean on for creative inspiration?
GC : Well, just me, really. It’s pretty much a solitude thing. I love it that way. I had about 13 years of sitting in studios waiting around for other musicians to finish their parts while I was increasingly pacing around waiting to play. I demo everything at home. I figure out all the parts and arrangements there.

So I pretty much get it all down before I enter the studio—the demos, my head, notebooks, drawings and everything. All my energy goes into thinking about arrangements and sounds. I’m a very unsociable and grumpy man when I’m recording or writing … even more than usual (laughs )!

FN : Your producer, Stephen Street, must have very thick skin …
GC : Stephen’s really great because he’s very consistent. I know that when I go into the studio, it’s going to be the same situation; the same lights. He’s going to be wearing another clean, well-pressed shirt. He’s going to be focused and professional. And he’s going to be able to slow me down when I’m going too fast, or give me encouragement when I’m in the pits of despair (laughs ). So yeah, he’s good.

FN : How would you characterize his contribution to your music?
GC : He just lets me get on with it. He’ll suggest some stuff. He’ll say, like, “Maybe this section needs something else …” And then I’ll muck around on an organ or I’ll try something out on the guitar. And if nothing works, nothing works, and that’s it. He’s good at slowing the process down a little bit, which is good because I can race and forget things. I’m very organized in a sort of a way, but Stephen is in a whole different class of “organized.”

FN : Has your relationship with him changed much since your Blur days?
GC : It’s pretty much the same. Stephen doesn’t change much. Our relationship is quite similar. When he first met me, I guess I was 21 or 22 years old. Sometimes I think he imagines that I’m still that age (laughs ). He has sort of an “uncle” kind of thing going on. Sometimes I have to remind him that I’m actually in my mid-30s. I’m a little older than I used to be; I can talk (expletive ) a lot of the time!

FN : And you can back it up now …
GC : Well that’s the thing. In 2001, when I did make a lot of changes to my life (see introduction ), people did start taking me seriously. And when I did start dealing with people in a nicer, positive way, it was amazing to me to have a really good relationship with people at the record company and with producers and things. I used to be such a kind of a bipolar person. I was a bit “swingy” with the moods. I’m a little bit more consistently “middling” now. It’s amazing what’s happened to me since I made those changes.

FN : Who were your guitar heroes early on, and who are they now?
GC : I always liked the rhythm guitar sounds on the Jam’s records, and I always really liked Pete Townshend (the Who). I owe Pete Townshend a lot, as far as stage antics and a purely aggressive kind of rhythm playing. Then I started getting into acoustic playing and blues artists, like Mississippi John Hurt. It’s interesting how his music came into this country and turned into, like, a folk/blues—like John Renbourn, Bert Jansch and Davy Graham. I’ve been exploring another world with folk music. It’s a huge wealth of stuff.

I’ve been reading biographies, like Bob Dylan’s Chronicles , and going on to read about Dave Van Ronk, who I greatly admire. His book is amazing—The Mayor of MacDoug
al Street . It talks about he ’50s, the jazz thing and then the folk thing coming out. It’s a really good book. Last summer, all I did was read about these people and play about four or five hours a day of picking, and that was it (laughs )! It was great.

FN : Are you still playing that much?
GC : Not right now. I play about an hour or two a day, I suppose. Just picking stuff. I’m interested in those picking styles and being able to play the bass with my thumb and all of that boring stuff that you should never really talk about because people start going cross-eyed—until they start hearing it and it sounds nice. It’s easier to hear than be told about.

FN : How did you start out on guitar? Were you formally trained?
GC : I got my sisters’ acoustic guitar and started playing a couple of chords when I was about 13. I think my first electric was a Kay®, and then I got an Aria® Pro II, which I got from my sister’s friend, who’s a doctor, which I pretty much played; pretty much unadventurous, until it broke. I snapped it at a show. I was swinging it around my head and the strap came off the guitar. The guitar shot across the stage and the headstock snapped, of course, being a Les Paul®. Damon was actually trying to break it. I got it off him and broke it myself even more. That’s sitting upstairs, leaning against the wall.

FN : How did you discover the Telecaster?
GC : I think it was when I started recording with Stephen Street and really all I had was this Les Paul® Custom. I’m still playing that, but it really wasn’t appropriate for some of the sounds I wanted. In the early days, the sounds of the guitars on Abbey Road were something that I really enjoyed—the fat, bluesy nature of it.

Either way, Stephen lent me his Tele. He’s got a lovely old Telecaster, and that was it. As soon as I played that, I couldn’t believe it. It was something about the neck and the slimness of the neck. And what a tough little thing it was, and what a ring-y sound it had—it had the sort of ring I liked with the Jam and the Who. But it also had a really good punch. It was so comfortable; I really couldn’t quite believe it (laughs ). Now I’m just a Telecaster maniac, I suppose …

FN : What’s in your current stable?
GC : Oh, I’ve got all sorts. I have a lot of the ’52 reissues, and the neck is quite wide. I was using that the whole way through Blur. Then I started to explore and got an older one, and I realized how slim the neck was. Then I started getting lots of old ones. Any kind; like Customs and Thinlines. I have a Thinline at the house that I like playing. They’re all mostly from the ’60s. Recently I got a Relic®, a blue one, which I play pretty much all the time.

Then I found this old one from ’68 that some lunatic had butchered and put some PAF® pickup in where the neck pickup is. This great big, fat Gibson® pickup, you know (laughs )! And he painted it like it was a shed or something, with this thick yellow lacquer stuff. But that’s the one I’ve been playing pretty much all the time because I pretty much have it on the treble (pickup). But if I push it forward onto that Gibson® pickup, it goes all big, fat and bluesy. It’s a great guitar and the neck has been well worn in. So it’s kind of a Frankenstein, but it’s my favorite guitar to hit.

FN : You sometimes replace your pickups. What do you replace them with?
GC : For a while we were putting in more powerful pickups, but I’ve thought better of that now. I like to keep that pretty much standard. Because it becomes too powerful for the setup I have—with my pedals and the Marshalls®. If I start to fiddle with pedals and things, I lose a lot of dynamic range if the pickup is too powerful. So just a standard pickup and a little crank from the amp, and then those distortion units can really raise the power levels and volumes as I feel appropriate, because I do have a few levels of volume just by pressing buttons.

FN : Is that why you use two Pro Co® Rats with the Marshall®—so you have different stages?
GC : Yeah, I’ve got some kind of really strange, Japanese, sting-y fuzz—the really old-fashioned kind—and then a couple of Rats. And then there’s a DOD® Punkifier™, which is quite an insane pedal, actually. You get a variable on that. But it’s basically all analog kinds of effects. I can’t really get into the rack sort of things. I like tubes.

FN : You’ve certainly had some loud rigs. You had to, with Blur once touring with bands such as My Bloody Valentine, Dinosaur Jr. and Ride.
GC : I have had the pleasure of standing onstage during a Dinosaur Jr. sound check. And that’s (expletive ) loud! Jesus! They didn’t even play a song; they just made noise (laughs )! But that was one my favorite bits ever, of my whole career. That was in ’92.

FN : Are you a fan of (Dinosaur Jr. guitarist/singer) J Mascis?
GC : Yeah, I love Dinosaur Jr. I love the soloing, the launching into this pretty out-there stuff.

FN : The original Dinosaur Jr. is back together …
GC : Yeah. I’d love to see that. I did this whole “Rollercoaster” tour for a month, with Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine and Jesus and Mary Chain in ’92. Every night was bloody great—just going out and watching them, my favorite groups at the time. Excellent!

FN : Your playing style is quite idiosyncratic. How did you develop it?
GC : Oof!—I don’t know. Maybe it’s out of feeling a lot less than other guitar players. Almost like Pete Townshend, who would complain that bloody Clapton could play so well, and he felt inadequate.

I suppose it’s the job of rhythm and lead to try to back up the emotions of the singer’s lyrics and all that. I guess it came from playing lead and rhythm at the same time. I’ve no idea other than that. That must’ve been how it is—because I wanted to express something. But also, I am, I suppose, a pretty decent rhythm player. I also wanted to be making these noises that excited me, too. I wasn’t happy to be just sitting back there with the drums and chug along.

FN : You have many fans at Fender. Several of us have tried to learn some of your licks and have found them incredibly hard to replicate.
GC : Really? That’s great
(laughs )! I know that one of the guitarists in Slipknot really likes me, apparently. I was pretty amazed. I bought their first record, the scary one. That blew me away, that record. I never heard anything so hard. It’s pretty amazing.

FN : Would you say that elements of the Telecaster’s design have added to your style? If so, how?
GC : Oh definitely! I think really when you go onto Tele, it sort of seduces a bit—it asks to be played a certain way; to have a sort of slinky rattle. It’s just great for dampening and pulling the strings. It’s a great guitar for abuse because it’s so tough.

You can do anything with a Telecaster. You’re never really afraid. You’ll be afraid more for your hands than for the instrument. You can go for this kind of “British” sound, or it can be this beautiful, clean country sound. You can really do anything on a Tele. Although I love an SG®, really, on certain songs. I play an SG® if I’m going for that totally rock sound.

FN : What would you suggest to guitarists who want to play like you?
GC : Really, I’m trying to think … the Jam was a big influence. And I was mixing that with blues stuff I really liked—like the Cream song “Crossroads” on Wheels Of Fire . A lot of soul records as well. And the Beatles. I suppose things like Squeeze and the Cars as well. You know, those guitar solos in those early Cars singles are amazing. He (Cars guitarist Elliot Easton ) is incredible—the guitar sounds and everything; that “chuggy-chuggy” sort of sound, I guess.

Um … crikey! I don’t know if I really sat down to create my own style. I don’t suppose it’s possible to be that “knowing” about it. Because, like you said, I seem to have a distinctive style, but to me it’s just something I didn’t see develop. It’s kind of like an accent when you move around the country. In the end, you’ve got to be talking a certain way that you didn’t talk 10 years ago, you know?

I suppose it comes from a lot of mod music and punk rock music and psychedelic music—Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett and that kind of expressive music. You know I do like freaky sounds. And I do love effects. I like the guitar to speak for itself an awful lot. I’ve done an awful lot of solos where I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I just smack the fretboard and bend the note until it fits the chord. Stuff like that. I let the guitar do the job and try to intervene as little as possible. Just see what the guitar wants to do. I quite like that approach.

I think the guitar solos on Yo La Tengo’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One are incredible. That LP is a masterpiece. There’s a song on that called “Stockholm Syndrome,” which influenced my “Coffee & TV” solo (from Blur’s 1999 album 13 ), which I think is one of my favorite solos I’ve ever done. That solo had no predetermined plan; it’s just the thumping on of a load of effects pedals on the floor and bending notes to see how they fit. It’s kind of like Jackson Pollock style. There are all sorts in there—the tremolo comes on, then another bloody pedal comes on. Then there are two distortion units at one time. You can hear the effects clicking and changing all the way through the solo. I really like that. It’s good fun!

FN : The riff you play on “Villa Rosie” is fantastic …
GC : Oh blimey yeah! That riff is very contrary. It’s so English in a way.

FN : It’s very you .
GC : Yeah, it is. With the hammering-on and hammering-off. Kind of making my life and my job more difficult than it could be. That’s one of my traits with guitar playing.

FN : No wonder you drank so much when you were in Blur!
GC : Yeah, yeah, that’s what Stephen always says—“You don’t make your job easy, do you?”—when I’m struggling over this guitar thing in the studio.

FN : But that’s one of the things that makes your playing so great …
GC : Yeah, you just go further and further until it gets insane. It’s kind of a perversion, isn’t it (laughs )?

FN : Even though you’re only in your mid-30s, you’ve already had a long and storied career. What would you say are your biggest successes and regrets?
GC : One of my biggest regrets is that no one really told me that I should slow it down with the booze. You know, no one ever said, “Slow it down.” They just said, suddenly, (expletive ) “Stop!”

FN : Not even your bandmates?
GC : Not really. So that’s my advice. Was that really advice (laughs )?

That was one of my regrets—that I didn’t slow down. Because, as I’ve calmed down, I’d rather enjoy a glass of nice Italian red wine with my food, and I can’t. And that’s a bummer. And I think I never really let my true feelings out every now and then, when I was doing things that I wasn’t comfortable with.

FN : Would you do things just because it was easier to avoid conflict?
GC : Yeah, absolutely!

FN : What about your biggest successes? What are you really proud of?
GC : I’m most proud of my relationship with my daughter. Because for a while—for the first eight months to a year of her life—I was with it, but I wasn’t really 100 percent with it. And the changes I made have allowed me and her to have such a great relationship. She turns six in a week or so. And that’s really cool!

And I’m proud of everything we did with Blur. I especially like a lot of the B-sides and the weird stuff that was going on. It’s quite a crazy story. But, really, I think I should be a lot more proud of the stuff I’m doing now, in a way.

FN : Because you’re wiser and more experienced?
GC : I think I’m only doing things that I’m really comfortable with. You know, I’m more accepting of myself. I’ve become more accepting of my own voice. I don’t feel I have much to prove. And I think that so long as I keep it real, or whatever they say—keep with my roots and respect my roots—then no critic can ever damage me. If you’re doing stuff for the right reasons, then no one can really touch you. And that’s what I’m doing now, and that makes me proud.

FN : You’ve come quite a long way …
GC : Yeah, bloody hell!

FN : Do you have an amicable relationship with Damon, Alex and Dave?
GC : Yeah, reasonably. I haven’t really seen them for ages. But I was just thinking today that I have to call Alex and see how he’s doing. Damon’s super busy. Soon, we’ll meet up, have a cup of tea and see how we all are. But in the meantime I have to talk to Alex and see how he’s doing …

FN : Do you think the four of you will ever make music again?
GC : I really don’t know. I’m quite happy with how it’s going at the moment. I don’t know if I’d be doing the right thing by going back into a band situation just yet. I’m very cautious.

FN : Your solo career has really taken off. Happiness In Magazines charted higher than any of your previous ones; Love Travels At Illegal Speeds will likely do even more.
GC : Yeah, yeah … let’s see.

FN : Will there be a U.S. tour this year?
GC : Yeah, I think I’m going to come over pretty soon and do a few key shows, and then maybe come over a bit later on in the year. We just have to see what’s happening with the release over there.

FN : You know how difficult America can be …
GC : That’s fine. I’m quite happy with my small crowd of smiley faces there. They’re with it—the brethren, the breadwinners, or whatever. They seem like family to me. If we added any more lunacy to that, you know, it might lose something. But I wouldn’t mind selling a few more records over there (laughs )!

For more information on Graham Coxon, visit www.grahamcoxon.co.uk .


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