Time Out speak to Graham Coxon about music, life and the ongoing popularity of Britpop
It’s been said that Graham Coxon is a nice bunch of guys to be around. Arguably the most talented guitarist of his generation, he has spent a somewhat schizophrenic career flitting between any number of genres and styles, most recently involving himself with Peter Doherty’s punkish noise, while simultaneously masterminding Spinning Top, a wonderful new acoustic record that demonstrates an intricate side to his playing, hitherto unknown. Oh, and he’s also mid-rehearsals for this summer’s hottest ticket, the Blur reunion, which will see the one-time kings of Britpop take the stage together for the first time since 2000. It’s a schedule that leaves us with a lot to talk about, so let’s begin with the new folk record, shall we…
‘This isn’t a folky album,’ he snaps, Time Out hastily chastened for our devil-may-care attitude to genre labelling. ‘There aren’t any folky reference points. It’s nothing to do with folk music.’ It should be noted that our opening exchange had been convivial – docile, almost. Coxon really comes alive when talking music, and his interest in the British folk scene of the late 1960s, the era that Spinning Top appears to be most inspired by, seems expansive and ongoing.
For a man reputedly a little chaotic, he seems to know exactly what he’s aiming for. ‘It’s to do with the process people were putting folk music through in the ’60s; to do with the jazz elements being brought in, and the swing elements being brought in.’ We get the feeling that he’s been misinterpreted before. ‘It’s nice for the music to be understood and praised. It doesn’t happen that satisfactorily often enough. A lot of journalists are allowed to just do their thing – bulls**t their way through it, really. There are a few bad apples spoiling the whole crate of, err, journalists.’
There’s no question that Spinning Top sees Coxon at the height of his creative powers. From the off, it glistens with sparkling guitar lines and surprising arrangements – an Eastern string band here; a Latin percussion groove there. The opening three tracks are predominantly acoustic, which may account for the apparently offensive ‘folk’ label that follows the album around (there’s no escaping the influence of Nick Drake on ‘Look into the Light’). Just a little further in, however, and it’s business as usual – the angry Telecasters of ‘If You Want Me’ and ‘Caspian Sea’ suggesting a level of debt to the Beatles’ White Album that hasn’t been heard in Coxon’s music since Blur’s ‘Beetlebum’. ‘I love making big noises,’ he smiles, almost childlike. ‘These solo shows I’m doing now are pretty humble.
The sounds you make on an acoustic guitar… it’s a high maintenance instrument. You have to tickle it comfortably. And then the electric ones you can bang and the sound will go on forever. I enjoy them both.’ Much has been made of Spinning Top being a concept album, ostensibly dealing with the life of a man from birth to death.
‘I realised that some of the songs suggested events that could be in someone’s life.’ His own, perhaps? ‘Err, no, because I haven’t ever been shot and then brought back to life by a spirit from the Caspian Sea!’ Our flimsy line of questioning rumbled, Time Out turns quickly to the Blur issue.
Isn’t it difficult, we wonder, to return to a hugely successful band when you appear to be at the height of your solo career? ‘I never really feel about it that way – that I’m riding the high point of my solo career,’ he replies. ‘But it’s brilliant to be told you’re doing your best stuff when you’re 40. I love to go back to the group and play interpreter to Damon’s madness… and make big noises.’ Ah, the big noises again. They seem to mean a lot to him.
Some observers have suggested that the release of Spinning Top is some kind of subconscious attempt to detract from the big Blur reunion, undoubtedly the bigger of the two events. He’s certainly had the album under his belt for a while (‘I recorded it about a year ago, then I was doing the artwork, resting and enjoying it for a year on my own’), so the timing of its release is open to interpretation. However, he genuinely seems up for the summer gigs with his old friends, and Britpop Graham (supposedly obtuse; given to Blur-related suicidal tendencies, if recent tabloid reports are anything to go by) seems thankfully absent.
He tells us the fortnightly rehearsals are about to step up to a daily schedule, that they’re going well, and that he’s not nervous at all. ‘I think the shows will just be fun,’ he says, adding with a touch of loneliness, ‘this has been the hard work, really – these dates on my own.’ Has he found that the old Blur classics have come back to him easily? ‘They never go anywhere. I’m a bit like that – I’m just straight there. I’m a bit photographic in many ways.’
Our conversation winds up in a friendly chat about his favourite late ’60s folk albums, (in case you’re taking note, he recommends the first album by The Incredible String Band: ‘There are a lot of embarrassing songs on that, but there are two or three really good ones’; any of the early Davy Graham albums; Bert Jansch’s Dazzling Stranger, which he says is ‘lovely, as a collection’), and we leave wondering which of the Grahams that we met today he’d most like to be. Given that his conversation naturally relocates to Les Cousins folk club, London, 1969, we think it might be Folky Graham. We wouldn’t say that to his face, though. He might clobber us with one of his big noises.
15 years ago, Blur released Parklife, an album synonymous with Britpop. We asked three survivors about the genre’s early days. Sonya Madan was the singer for Echobelly, whose hits included ‘Insomniac’ and ‘King of the Kerb’. She still writes and performs, and the band will reform for an acoustic set on July 9 at MoHo Live in Manchester, UK.
Johnny Dean sang with Menswear. He’s keen to quash the rumour that he works in a mobile phone shop. ‘I really don’t know who makes these things up, but they should consider a career writing jokes for Christmas crackers.’
Mat Osman played bass with Suede until their breakup in 2003. These days he edits the London edition of popular email magazine Le Cool, and occasionally tours with former Suede frontman Brett Anderson.
Sonya Madan: It seems strange looking back now, but the whole ‘movement’ felt totally natural. Everyone seemed to congregate in London, wherever their roots were. We wanted to write about our own experiences and dress the same way.
Johnny Dean: You have to remember that alternative music at the time had been dominated by grunge, and I think dressing up rather than down was a reaction against that. For me, grunge became synonymous with bands like Pearl Jam, and it just seemed so American and middle of the road. I couldn’t relate to it. But I didn’t think, ‘Right that’s it, where’s my dad’s old tweed jacket?’ – I didn’t consciously react. It all sort of evolved. I remember walking along Southend seafront in a suit and Cuban heels and provoking outrage amongst the local grunge fraternity, so paradoxically I was rebelling.
Mat Osman: We literally played the toilet circuit – The Falcon (Camden Town), and places like that – and couldn’t get anywhere. We regularly played to about three or four people. We were utterly out of step with the times.
JD: In late ’93, I started going to Blow Up (a club at the Laurel Tree in North London). Downstairs they played a weird mix of ’60s lift music and incidental stuff. Upstairs it was more eclectic. By mid ‘94 it was ridiculous. The place would be packed, sweaty, almost unbearable. There was a real feeling that something was going to happen.
MO: I can remember doing a Select magazine front cover, and then buying it the next week to find a Union Jack superimposed across the back, which was a bit distressing and odd, because we always saw ourselves as a kind of European band.
JD: I think the press was desperately looking for a new scene. The whole Blow Up thing was only a very small corner of a very big city in a whole country, but it was buzzing. It was ripe for the picking. It fitted in with current attitudes and it was just waiting for some witty soul to christen it Britpop.
MO: It was a very localised phenomenon when it started out. You could be incredibly famous in one postcode and completely unknown in the rest of the world. I can remember going to Scotland and Manchester for the first album, and people being incredibly dubious.
SM: We got on pretty well with Blur and Oasis as we toured with both of them abroad. I thought Damon was really nice. He was very sussed and aware of what he was doing. The Oasis boys were also great fun. In reality, Liam came across as shy and sweet. They had a creative press department, if you know what I mean.
MO: The generation before us were New Order, and that extreme independence thing. We always felt that we should be part of the mainstream. That was what the whole Britpop thing was about – a bunch of record company people and journalists seeing how far they could push their luck.
JD: These days I look back on the whole Britpop era with some confusion. I don’t understand how it became such a phenomenon. It was hardly original – the music seemed so derivative. Sometimes I think the ’80s was the last decade when everything seemed new.
MO: I don’t have any Britpop buddies at all. I’ve never been one for looking back, or hanging around with musicians and telling war stories. I’m really proud of what we did and the records we made, but it’s done and dusted for me. Spinning Top is out now on Transgressive Records, available from www.amazon.com. Blur open their reunion tour at the East Anglian Railway Museum, Colchester, UK, on June 13.