Bagel Western and the Manfred Mann Sound

Interview with Graham Coxon

by Charlotte Robinson


21 January 2005

| It was surprising that Graham Coxon’s management had to give advance warning not to ask “The Two Dreaded Questions”: What did he think of Blur’s last album, and is he rejoining the group? It’s been two years since the guitarist left the defining band of Britpop, and frankly, he has better things to talk about, namely his fifth solo album, Happiness in Magazines. Released last May in the UK and hitting American shores in January, Happiness is Coxon’s first post-Blur disc and truly marks his arrival as a solo artist. While critics were quick to dismiss his first four efforts as a noisy response to Blur’s polished pop, Happiness is a shameless return to the magic of the pop song, filled with huge hooks, confident vocals, and clever but unfussy production by longtime Blur producer Stephen Street—the kind of album many Blur fans have always hoped Coxon would make.

Kicking back with a cup of tea in his London home, Coxon spoke to PopMatters about the new album, his happier and healthier lifestyle, the perils of nail-biting, and why he will never be Bon Jovi.

PopMatters: You’ve said that Marianne Faithfull encouraged you to jump into your solo stuff and express yourself more.

Graham Coxon: I’m not sure whether she wanted me to do it on my own. [laughs] I think she said to me once in her whimsical way, “Graham, Graham, you must fly” and I was like “What?” and she was like “You must fly. I’d love to see you step out and really rock, really solo, really express yourself, go for it”, and all that sort of thing. It was like, oh that’s interesting. I got a few comments like that from friends or people on the Internet: “You know, when you record next, put your vocal higher in the mix so we can hear your lovely voice” and I thought oh my God, all of these things I’m very shy about like my voice and wondering whether I can allow myself to behave like that—almost like a rock star!—do solos and be proud of oneself, to be confident and all that. I never really seemed to be like that to people and I guess I never will be, really, super confident and a slick performer, although I’ve got a lot better. But yeah, it did encourage me that there were people that thought I was worth more than I guess I thought I was myself. It’s quite nice.

PM: This is your fifth solo album. Did you feel differently about this one, like the fact that you were done with Blur opened the door for you to do something new?

GC: In a way it did. I just had to figure out what kind of a person I was going to be. It wasn’t only leaving Blur, it was that my whole 2001 was full of collapses into really bad alcoholism and hospitals and things like that, ending up in a priory and ending up in a sort of recovery thing for alcoholism and things like that. Leaving Blur was another part of me having to concentrate on my own health and getting my priorities updated and wondering what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Also, wanting to be a little more domestic. My daughter, who was one year old then, I thought, she’s important, I should spend as much time as possible with her from the age of one up until—God, I don’t know—definitely I thought it was important when she was two and three and four that I had a really close bond with her and a really great relationship with her. For awhile I didn’t think about anything else but getting out of a situation that I thought was causing me harm, which was alcoholism and the Blur thing and all the stuff that deep down I guess was making me unhappy. I didn’t really know I was going to write Happiness in Magazines. It just sort of came out of the time I had given myself. I felt like a weight had lifted and suddenly these songs were appearing, and it was really exciting.

PM: Why did you decide to work with Stephen Street? Were you just comfortable with him because you’d worked together in the past?

GC: To start with, I thought I’d get a producer because of the control issues that I’d had with my own albums before, like playing everything, being the producer, even though I’m not really a producer. I had to face up to the fact that perhaps the quality of some of the stuff wasn’t as good as it could have been if I’d asked for help from somebody who knew a bit more about what they were doing. Stephen was an obvious choice to me because, with these songs that I’d been demoing at home, I thought to sing these as they really need to be sung, I can’t be singing apologetically or not very confidently with some of these songs because they won’t work. They really required a lot more effort in a lot more controlled environment, and help. I just thought if I’m going to try and see what I’m capable of vocally then I can’t do it with a stranger, I have to go with Stephen, because I don’t mind making a fool out of myself in front of Stephen. I’ve done it so many times before anyway that it didn’t seem so much of a problem. And he’s very encouraging and patient and focused and calm and very quick so it just seemed obvious that Stephen was the guy for the job.

PM: Was it his idea or yours to use strings on a few songs?

GC: Well, it was just obvious that the song wanted strings. That’s what it is, really: you have to obey the song. That’s why I had to sing in a certain way for some songs; I almost had to get into some character. Like “All Over Me” Graham is different to “Freakin’ Out” Graham. These songs require something of you and of the instruments, so the strings were kind of obvious with “All Over Me” and “Are You Ready?” I was listening to a lot of Ennio Morricone. It’s kind of like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, “Are You Ready?”

PM: Yeah, it has that spaghetti western, gloomy, cool sound.

GC: That kind of—what is it?—spaghetti bagel, East End, North London western. [laughs] Do you know London?

PM: A little.

GC: I live in Camden, and just up the road is a place called Primrose Hill, which is a very lovely place where lots of famous actors live. One of the first reasons I started doing stuff on my own was to explore music that I knew that Blur wouldn’t probably be interested in exploring, like country music and some American musics. So a lot of my other stuff that had obviously American influences was called “Primrose Hillbilly”, so now it’s like “bagel western”.

PM: And the Kinks had their Muswell Hillbillies album, so they had their country infatuation, too.

GC: Exactly. Well done. [laughs] Muswell Hill, yeah, that’s up the road. So, yeah, I guess I was reaffirming what I felt are my roots, being a kind of English chap and my roots I’ve always felt have run down through the late ‘70s and into the mid to late ‘60s and things like that. I really believe in sticking to my roots and what I think the truth is and not really gender-hopping. Gender-hopping?! Genre-hopping, not gender-hopping. That’s something completely different! Genre-hopping!

PM: Gender-hopping could be fun, too—who knows?

GC: Yeah. Not much “hopping” though, is it? There’s only sort of that way and this way.

PM: Were there certain things you were listening to at that period that influenced you?

GC: I was kind of thinking about what music I really, really like. What was the last sort of stuff in the charts I thought was any good, and I thought wow, that’s going to be probably the late ‘70s. I was listening to Scott Walker quite a lot and the Cars, English stuff like the Ruts, kind of I guess like punk and new wave. And the Saints—you know the Australian band?—which I still think is really amazing. I guess I’m still in that world. I’m not bored of that. I found myself in Blur being witness to people who were so bored with the real kind of weapons of rock ‘n’ roll, like with leather jackets and denim jeans, and guitars and drums. I don’t think I’ll ever be bored with drums and guitars. I won’t feel the need to go into Africa and struggle with a strange string instrument. I don’t feel the need to do that and I do still feel challenged by—I guess it’s pretty traditional music, really—drums and bass and guitar and maybe an organ or something. I call it the Manfred Mann kind of sound. I think that a pared down group of musicians making a noise is the way to do it.

PM: You play almost everything on Happiness. You’ve played guitar for many years, but when did you branch out into drums and bass?

GC: I guess I’ve drummed since I was a kid. I never really had a drum kit; I’ve had drum kits on and off, but never really used them an awful lot but I guess naturally I could just drum—lots of drumming on tables and on my lap, tapping on the floor with my feet and learning how to play things, just out of enjoyment rather than forcing myself. I suppose when you enjoy doing something and you do it a lot, you get better at it. That’s how drumming came about, and I guess if you know how to drum and you know how to play guitar, then the bass is pretty easy.

PM: You’ve been playing some shows. Who’s in your band, and is it weird having other people play your stuff, since you wrote and recorded everything yourself?

GC: No, it’s really cool. Everybody in my group is old friends that I’ve known for years. They offered their services, and it was like, yeah, yeah, come on in and rehearse, and we’ve been playing pretty much all this year. And they can all play really good, but I mainly chose them because they’re good friends and I thought we shared the same outlooks with clothes and humor and music and stuff, I guess we’re all from indie or punk rock backgrounds. We’re definitely not mainstream people, particularly in our outlooks. It was really about us doing shows and having fun. I didn’t want them to feel any pressure. I don’t want to feel any pressure myself, to be like “I must, I must”, but kind of like let’s have fun and see what happens. I think that attitude probably has proved to be a really neat attitude to have. It seems obvious to an audience if you’re playing with that attitude then it’s a nice atmosphere.

PM: On your web site, there’s a clip of you playing “Freakin’ Out” at a record signing and you seem much more relaxed and happier than you did a lot of the time with Blur.

GC: I am a lot happier. With Blur a lot of the time I was angry and upset and depressed and I didn’t know why. It was years in that condition. After I figured it out, it was an amazing thing, to figure out why I was and to go. I just felt light and free, and like I was doing music for the right reasons again, for fun and to communicate some sort of emotion.

PM: After being on the sidelines for so many years, is it strange to be the one in the spotlight, miming in the videos, doing press?

GC: A bit weird, but it’s not too weird. It’s just a minor adjustment, ‘cause I had to do that kind of stuff in videos, looking miserable. God. I’m not a big fan of videos. But it’s necessary. I just have to move my microphone to the middle of the stage, really. I guess between songs when we’re doing live stuff I still get a bit caught out because I don’t really know what to say to an audience. I’m not Bon Jovi. I can’t sort of rally an audience with—I don’t know what they say…

PM: “Hellooooo, Cleveland!”

GC: Yeah, all that kind of stadium-speak, I’m not really good at it. Videos are always a freakish thing. It doesn’t really matter where you are, they’re always weird. People brushing your face with brushes and then there’ll be these big workmen, belts on with tools, standing around looking at you like you’re mad. It’s always weird. [laughs] And you’re just trying to mime to this song. It makes you feel ridiculous. Never fails. [laughs]

PM: It must be strange to be an introverted person and be swept up by the machinery of the British pop music scene.

GC: I’m more comfortable with the British pop music scene now. I think now it’s an awful lot more genuine. I think there’s a difference. When I was struggling with the fame and what I was and what was the group I was in—this was like ten years ago—over those years—it was very different. I found it to be a very fake music scene in Britain. The ‘90s music scene in Britain was crap. It was very mediocre groups and it was this weird sort of exaggerated Englishness and this mid-tempo anthemic sort of stuff. It didn’t seem genuine to me. It didn’t seem like the truth and that was the problem I had with it. But I think the situation’s a lot different now. I think people making music now don’t particularly give a toss, they don’t have a problem with whether it sounds English or not. You know, that overplayed Englishness it had in the ‘90s to combat the explosion in the States of “grunge”, I suppose it was called at the time. We had to exaggerate our Englishness to show our difference from it, and now I think there isn’t so much of a difference. I think the American groups and British groups have almost converged. It’s almost like you can’t tell the difference with some groups, whether they’re American or English, there’s sort of a similarity. So now I don’t think there’s much of a problem with feeling out of place and like you’re doing the wrong thing, like you’re being untrue to yourself like I thought I was being in the late ‘90s.

PM: Can I ask you a personal question, but not a deeply personal question?


PM: I’ve noticed in interviews that you bite your nails a lot. I’m a nail-biter, too. What is it about nail-biting that’s so satisfying?

GC: I hate biting my nails, because I bite them down, particularly on my left hand, my middle finger, I bite that one quite a lot and it kills me when I’m pressing it on the fret board of my guitar because it’s so short. I don’t think there’s anything satisfying about it. I feel immense shame every time I do it. Actually, earlier on, like in the summer or last autumn, I just stopped biting my nails for a time and they grew quite long. I was really impressed I could almost pick the guitar like an old folk bloke, I could pick with my nails. It was like, wow, I’ve got nails like a proper guitar player, but then I was on tour in the bus, I’d just had a stressful evening and they all went, every single one of them within the space of about twenty minutes. So I don’t know what’s so satisfying about it.

PM: It’s a good stress-reliever.

GC: Well, there’s better stress-relievers, but I suppose [fingers are] there and they’re quite convenient. I smoke cigarettes so that used to make me laugh about myself when I drank, I’d have a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other hand and I’d still be managing to bite my nails at the same time, burning my face with the cigarette or pouring beer onto my face or down myself. Nail-biting is appalling. But I do, I love it. I can’t help it.


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