Music

Pop Music Happens: An Interview with Graham Coxon

Evan Sawdey

Coxon has a new solo album out, but he seems as concerned with cheese as with anything, except his discovery of writing pop songs.

Graham Coxon loves his cheese. No, not cheese as in "camp" or "tacky" -- cheese as in the good stuff, like cheddar. This is one thing I discovered when interviewing the former Blur guitarist about the forthcoming U.S. release of his sixth (and quite good) solo album Love Travels at Illegal Speeds. After releasing aggressive self-produced discs during his time with Blur (like the excellent The Sky Is Too High and punk-influenced Golden D), Coxon has focused in on a more lightweight sound, still utilizing his incredible guitar skills. Former Blur mouthpiece and current Gorillaz ringleader Damon Albarn has stated that it's unlikely Blur will record another album unless Graham comes back into the fold. When asked about replacing him, Albarn has been famously quoted as saying, "We'll never find another guitarist as good as Graham!"

Yet that was a while ago. Finally achieving some commercial success in Britain with last year's Happiness in Magazines and getting a sizable Stateside following, Coxon seems poised to finally shake off the Blur shackles that have been dogging him for so long. Being a self-professed fan, I was a bit nervous in calling him up, but found that Coxon is warm, funny, witty, and engaging. During our talk, he hinted at some of the reasons he left Blur, why he wants to collaborate with Beck (and no one else), and the lack of reason in writing blatantly happy pop songs. Oh, and the cheese thing.

How's it going?

Yeah, yeah, good. How are you?

Well, I got a chance to listen to the album, Love Travels at Illegal Speeds, so I just got a few questions for you. First off, how's it like working with Stephen Street again?

It's good, ya know -- it's like very easy. The cool thing about Steve is that he's very consistent, mood-wise. He's a very hygienic man. He's always in -- ya know whenever he's in the studio he's always the same. Which is good in that situation because whatever mood I'm in, he's always the same, and he can bring me back to a decent frame of mind, so yeah he's quite fun like that.

Well it's interesting listening to the album because I listen back to Golden D or The Sky Is Too High and those have such a dirty, musty, primal feel to them. Here, I think with [Love Travels] and Magazines, I feel there's a lot more power-pop. With Golden D it felt like there was a lot of aggression you were getting out. Do you think the power-pop direction is something you're going to continue for a while? Is it something you're more comfortable in?

Um, I don't know. I think [with] the new record I really wanted to get it really right with what I started with Happiness in Magazines. Because I'm having to write things and I'm like, "Wow, I could really write these pop songs" and I didn't really think I was capable of doing it before, so it's quite exciting. I wanted to carry on a bit with that ... but it was just how these songs turned out. I really didn't set out to make a more aggressive-sounding record or make the subject matter as it was -- it just turned out that way. So I don't know whether I'll stick around this direction. Obviously I'm writing some songs that are in that vein still, because it's a large part of my heritage from the late '70s -- stuff I was listening to when I was a kid ... there's kind of other stuff I'd like to explore too ... maybe think of it deeper in the musical side of it with the arrangements and things like that.

Well, continuing with the power pop thing -- one of the surprises I had when I got the album was a little sheet that came out with it for all the codes you can get for the ring-tones of it.

Oh my God!

And to top it off, just the other day, I was watching the trailer for the movie version of The History Boys and they were playing [the Blur song] "The Universal" in the background, as part of the trailer.

Are they?

Yeah. So that made me wonder: Happiness in Magazines is the third album you've had released here in America, and Love Travels is coming to be your fourth. How important is success in America to you?

Not at all. I mean, obviously, success is a weird subject. I mean, I love America, and I'd love it to go there and play huge places, but the other part of me is quite happy with the amount of fans I got there. You know, and I spent a long time in a group that seemed obsessed with becoming rather large in the States, which to me I think sort of, you know, doesn't happen. It affects your mental health. It's something that could happen but you'd go crazy trying to achieve -- and I don't think it really exists.

That's fascinating. You know, I was reading over some of the interviews you gave before this, and it seems like a lot of people were ready to jump on the questions about Damon [Albarn] and the Gorillaz, and I actually really liked what you had to say on how you were happy that he seemed to be writing songs for himself now. So one thing I had a question about was how [Albarn] is doing a lot of collaborative projects right now -- has there been any collaborations that you've had in mind? Any dream match-ups now that you've staked out a claim by yourself as a solo artist?

I guess there is. You know ... I've always listened to a lot of Beck. I met him once, and I thought he was great. You know, there's always something in his records that just blows my mind, and he's amazingly creative and clever and capable of writing some of the loveliest types of songs -- and I always thought it'd be kind of neat to, you know, muck around with him and Nigel, you know, Nigel Godrich or something and see what happens. Maybe that will happen one day, I don't know ... but no one else, really.

Well I've been listening to your record a lot this week, and on a personal level, I was most struck by "Tell It Like It Is". I really enjoyed that song. But in listening to it, I'd say this is a really happy album, especially when you go back to, say, The Sky Is Too High -- this is just a wonderful batch of joy. But a lot of the lyrics are really particularly dour.

[Laughs.]

In "Just a State of Mind" there's that line "I'm so lonely to love someone" and then the chorus of "Tell It Like It Is": "You came into my life and then you disappeared." For such a happy album, there's such a sense of longing behind it, too.

Well yeah, it's not a particularly happy album. I think happy happy music or happy sentiments are kind of...

Fake?

Well, not fake. I just think they're set up more like requirements, really. I don't really see the point. I mean, it's like diaries. I mean, if you're happy, you're only getting on with being happy. You don't like diaries so much. But if you have some sort of crisis or are depressed, you indulge yourself, then you write in your diary, "Woe is me." And it's the same with song stuff. I don't ever really write about happy stuff -- so it seems that most of my music is about miserable stuff but it's only probably because I write when I'm not feeling particularly with it. You know?

It's interesting too because, especially with this and Happiness, you just attach [these lyrics] to such joyously happy choruses. It's like everyone's dancing and moshing until they really listen and they realize, "Oh wait, that's not all that happy after all."

Well, I suppose choruses are there to be catchy and to sort of grab you. Maybe that's why they're called hooks. Yeah, I think it's kind of a requirement in pop music -- I mean obviously I do really enjoy some happy music …

Beck.

Beck has written some extremely miserable stuff. But some songs like ... some Jackie Wilson stuff. Very, very happy. You know, that "Higher and Higher" song -- you don't get much happier than that. But for me it seems crass to write happy [songs] ... I mean, I could, but I'd just feel a bit of a retard. But pop music happens. I do love the melodies and I do like uplifting melodies and I love the way that chords can affect your mood and lift your spirits and I suppose even when there are in the albums [that I write] are declarations of love and it's still miserable there are happy [moments] and you can't shake it off, really.

Well, it seems you're obviously well-fitted for pop songs. Have you ever had any interest to do a McCartney kind of thing and start working on classical compositions?

Well, I have a bit, as the more I write songs the more I get interested in the music side of it and arrangements. But classical music, I don't know. When it comes to classical music, I like some pretty amazing stuff. And it's all very well coming from Blur and having been in a group with a guy who could write good pop music, but when it comes to classical music you're up against people like Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff and Chopin, it's different altogether. If I was to write or try something classical or orchestrated ... it'd have to be pretty good. Maybe in 20 years.

Many albums down the road.

It's something I'm interested in, but I think I'd play around with some more acoustic stuff and maybe some other instrument ensembles -- woodwind or whatever and just try some arrangements and see how it goes. But I am much more interested in the big Romantic composers than the modern composers. I do like classical music a lot, yeah.

You make it kind of sound like you almost want to record [his dark and heavily acoustic third album] Crow Sit on Blood Tree again.

Well kind of, I mean, I don't really want to record that again. I don't really want to be in that state of mind again. It was a pretty rough one. I am interested in the more poppy kind of Velvet Underground classic traditional English music and folk music, so what I've been writing recently -- and I've written quite a lot -- seems more in [that kind of] area.

Do you ever listen to the old Blur albums like Leisure and Modern Life Is Rubbish?

Um, sometimes. I listen to Modern Life Is Rubbish-era B-sides. Those singles I think were some of the best things we did. "Oily Water" and "Resigned" ... "Miss America" ... "Peach". I think the songs from around that time were great. Great recordings -- and done in such a great spirit. Sort of a spirit that got lost a little soon after that when we kind of didn't feel so free -- maybe a bit more restrained. Got to keep the eye on the experimental side a bit.

You know, I don't think the stuff you're recording now you could have recorded with Blur necessarily.

No, I don't think so. It'd be interesting. When I recorded my first record, The Sky Is Too High, I got Damon to come to the studio. He could pick any songs he thought would be kind of cool to try over with Blur but he didn't really want any.

Well, anything else you want to mention? Any closing statement?

Yeah ... what's the best cheese in America?

I'd have to say cheddar.

So you have cheddar in America! Because you don't have a place called Cheddar, do you? In America.

No, not to my knowledge at least.

Because, you know, you're not really allowed to call champagne champagne unless it's from the champagne area of France.

Otherwise it's "sparkling white wine".

That's right, yeah. Yeah, cheddar's great. You like English cheddar?

That I haven't tried.

Oh my God, you should. Fly down to England purely to travel the place and try the cheeses.

Well I think that wraps it up time wise for us. Thank you very much!

Yes! Cheerio! Bye!

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