BY JONATHAN VALANIA As the guitarist for Blur, Graham Coxon has done battle with: the Gallagher brothers, his own band, and even himself — and emerged victorious. During the Great Britpop War of the mid-90s, Blur and Oasis fought each other tooth in nail for the top of the charts and the cover of the NME, and Liam Gallagher went so far as to publicly wish that Blur frontman Damon Albarn contracted AIDS. Today, the members of Blur are lauded for making smart innovative music with a broad palette of sounds and musical styles, either as a band or as solo artists and members of various side projects, while the Gallagher brothers, together and alone, continue to crank out increasingly pale variations on the same Beatles forgeries that once took them to the Top of the Pops. Blur frontman Damon Albarn has created acclaimed music under various side project guises (The Gorillaz, The Good, The Bad & The Queen) while Graham Coxon has released eight excellent solo albums that draw inspiration from everyone from Syd Barrett and Billy Childish to Link Wray and Ennio Morricone. His latest is the soundtrack for the acclaimed Brit Netflix creep show End Of The F*cking World and it’s f*cking wonderful.
After a protracted hiatus, Blur re-convened in the 2003 to begin work on what would become Think Tank, but after a few days in the studio Coxon was shown the door by his bandmates. After a stint in rehab where he was treated for acute alcoholism, Coxon emerged a new man, his considerable creative powers intact, and eventually re-united with Blur who went on to record and release The Whip in 2015 in addition to cranking out the aforementioned solo albums and focusing on his work as a fine arts painter in the interim. Recently, we were lucky enough to get Coxon on the horn in advance of his one-man career retrospective show at The Foundry Thursday September 27th.
DISCUSSED: Syd Barrett, Sergio Leone, Sterling Morrison, veganism, Brexit, socialist book stores, Arthur Lee, Michael Caine, Ennio Morricone, Billy Childish, Village Green Preservation Society, Phil Spector, Peter Green, Bob Dylan, digital painting, John Barry, Fender Jaguars, Forever Changes, Ray Davies, Percy, Dave Davies, Pink Floyd, B.B. King, John Mayall, Clapton, and The Velvet Underground.
PHAWKER: I have a couple proper questions and then just a list of artists or composers that i’m sure are significant to you that I want to play word association with. Before that, I was reading you’ve become a vegan in the last six months to a year, is that correct?
GRAHAM COXON: I became a vegan about eleven months ago I guess.
PHAWKER: And that was prompted by?
GRAHAM COXON: I became a vegan because I was watching a lot of food documentaries on Netflix, I think there’s a lot of people that do that. But I was ready to go in that direction because I was getting more and more weird and angry with the food industry and the meat industry. I was thinking it was very irresponsible. So I decided I couldn’t support it anymore. It wasn’t difficult for me, I’m already weird about eggs and milk and eating chickens, I think God who would want to eat chickens, they’re weird looking. But cheese is a tough one, cheese is the cigarettes of food. My veganism is fluctuating at the moment, I’m not as strict as I used to be so I’m not sure I can call myself a vegan right now. I totally agree with the cause. I do as best as I can to be healthy and vegan.
PHAWKER: Quick take on where you stand on Brexit?
GRAHAM COXON: It’s absolutely insane, it’s a waste of time and energy. I think it’s unleashed some really unsavory feelings in people, it’s given people the opportunity to brandish a lot of hideous beliefs that were thought of as unacceptable a few years ago. It’s an interesting thing. Now people will openly be more racist and bigoted. I guess I’d rather know how people feel but just knowing that it’s out there and the deep feelings about the violent incidents, politically violent, that frightens me. Years ago, you could differ on politics and still get on fine, you could be best mates. There would be endless discussions in the pub but it wouldn’t get heated. Now you have right-wingers destroying a socialist bookstore. That’s getting odd, now you can make attacks because you look like a leftist. It’s kind of like civil war.
PHAWKER: As you’re no doubt aware, there are very similar things going on in America. It is exactly what you’re saying, attitudes we thought we’d evolved past or that at least people had the good sense not to bring up publicly because it wasn’t accepted anymore. But you said they attacked a socialist bookstore?
GRAHAM COXON: Yeah they wrecked it, ripped everything up, were violent and threatening.
PHAWKER: Good grief, what year is this? Let’s move onto this word game. Billy Childish.
PHAWKER: I can hear his influence in your work.
GRAHAM COXON: He’s influenced me about a lot of things. He’s quite an extreme character. He’s very opinionated, he’s made excellent records, I loved the Headcoats albums. I used to go see him in the mid-90’s play in North London. It was a really good time, we got to be friends, I put out some of his albums on my old record label. I see him every now and then, he lives out in Kent.
PHAWKER: Does he still perform?
GRAHAM COXON: He’s been concentrating on painting a lot.
PHAWKER: His paintings are really good. So are yours, I’ve seen some of your visual art as well.
GRAHAM COXON: Well thanks, I don’t really get to do that as much now.
PHAWKER: You haven’t been painting recently?
GRAHAM COXON: No, I haven’t painted for ages. For awhile I thought we were going to get enough artwork to get a little book and that would’ve been a cool idea but that’s gone on the backburner for awhile. About four years ago I did a bunch of paintings and then I had to work on music really. So I sort of stopped. I still have a sketchbook to draw and make notes. I like doing it digitally because I can do that anywhere. I did a lot of paintings onto canvas a few years ago but God it’s frustrating, working with paint that takes ages to dry. If you work digitally, it’s dry immediately.
PHAWKER: So you prefer to work digitally? What are we talking about, something more design oriented?
GRAHAM COXON: No what I did with all my own artwork, you can’t beat a pencil and a piece of paper, that’s where I always start. I draw, then scan that and put it into a painting program. So all the drawings that were in The Spinning Top album and all my other artwork on my album covers have all been done like that, a painter program or pencil drawings done in my notebook and scanned in.
PHAWKER: Jumping back to the names, a quick thought or two on Morricone.
GRAHAM COXON: Well I grew up with that sound of Morricone from the Sergio Leone films. I can’t really get away with it, same with [film score composer] John Barry. The first time I saw The Ipcress File with Michael Caine, it’s John Barry, that beautiful sound of weird string instruments that sound Eastern European. I always liked spy movies, cowboy films, spaghetti Westerns. I loved A Fistful Of Dollars and even that mad comedy spaghetti Westerns They Call Me Trinity, really funny, when they’re all eating beans and farting and stuff like that. That kind of 60’s James Bond theme and Henry Mancini, “Pink Panther,” and Morricone, that Fender Jaguar kind of sound. The bandito shouting and whistling and incredible high voices they had, it’s incredibly emotional. And those bandito trumpets going on. That was just in my blood along with The Kinks and The Beatles. So when I heard Arthur Lee’s Forever Changes I was like ‘shit, it’s got those bandito sort of trumpets,’ I don’t know if it’s very nice to call them bandito trumpets but that kind of Mexican trumpet thing.
PHAWKER: You’re talking about mariachi horns?
GRAHAM COXON: Mariachi kinda thing, yeah. So when I heard the Love album, Forever Changes, it was like meeting a long lost brother, that record. It formed my sound and the sounds that I loved, I loved those twangy sounds.
PHAWKER: I hear all that stuff in your guitar playing, even when you’re composing and arranging. I love all those sounds too. They’re just classic, you mentioned the Bond theme, I think that’s one of the greatest recordings of electric guitar ever. You mentioned The Kinks there for a second and I want to ask you quickly, since Blur was so closely associated with The Kinks, was always cited as an influence by critics— What is your favorite Kinks song?
GRAHAM COXON: Oh boy. You know, for a long time it was “Shangri-La” because it’s really long and it’s got loads different parts and it’s just beautiful. Someone in his 20s who knew what it felt like to be 55, it’s kind of insane. [Ray Davies] is an absolute genius, just had a phenomenal mind. When he was young, to be able to sing about this stuff. Isn’t it 50 years since Village Green Preservation Society?
PHAWKER: It is.
GRAHAM COXON: Yeah, and some of the most beautiful songs ever on the Percy soundtrack.
PHAWKER: You know what was sort of a late period discovery for me, because mostly I was a 60’s Kinks guy but the Dave Davies song “Strangers,” are you familiar with that one?
GRAHAM COXON: I don’t know if I know “Strangers.”
PHAWKER: Check that out sometime. Let’s talk about Syd Barrett, I’m curious how you came across him, how did it blow your mind?
GRAHAM COXON: I used to go out with a girl when I was 17, I used to spend hours in her bedroom that’s how I started to really like Syd Barrett, used to sit and drink red wine and eat olives. She had great records, loads of the Velvet Underground, Pink Floyd, Patti Smith, Vandergraft Generator and she had some Kinks. We would listen to Relics actually, which had “Bike” on it. I suppose it was “Bike,” that physically affected me, it was really strange, all the echoey, quacky beast noise at the end. It all freaked me out, I loved it of course. That album had a massive influence on me. With “Cirrus Minor” the extended organ outro, “Julia Dream,” actually my girlfriend was called Julia so “Julia Dream” remains in my heart as a special tune. She had Doors albums as well but I never really liked the Doors. I bought that Doors album, The Best of the Doors or whatever and after a few plays, I liked some of it but then I was like shit, I had to throw it away.
PHAWKER: What are your thoughts about Sterling Morrison as a guitar player, his sound and style, that lock-step strumming thing, that I can also hear a bit in your sound, maybe I’m mistaken?
GRAHAM COXON: Oh no, I loved the Velvets, I loved “What Goes On,” the closet mix, I love an extended organ outro. But his playing is really sensitive, he loves to bend those notes and have this lovely dissonance. Considering the times, they were really discordant, rampaging kind of noise. A lot of really beautiful arrangements and guitar playing. I prefer the melodic side of it, when I was younger I guess I prefered the really noisy stuff.
PHAWKER: I totally agree with you. Someone said that to me when I was in my twenties, it was an older person who turned me on to this, he told that when he was young I really liked the noisy stuff, and as you get older you gravitate towards his more melodic stuff.
GRAHAM COXON: Wasn’t he writing pop songs for people when he was a teenager anyway?
PHAWKER: Yes he was, like a song factory thing, Pickwick Records.
GRAHAM COXON: Kind of reminded me of one of my favorite songs by The Teddy Bears, “To Know Him Is To Love Him.”
PHAWKER: You know how raves about this song? Bob Dylan says it never got better lyrics-wise than that song. ‘To know, know, know him is to love, love, love him.’
GRAHAM COXON: That’s an incredible song. I searched an original 45 of that for ages. That was Phil Spector, he wrote that when he was 16.
PHAWKER: What have you been listening to lately that has been blowing your mind, maybe that’s new to you?
GRAHAM COXON: I’m just going to the same old stuff all the time, really. The Furthest Tree by Clive Carroll is one of my favorite listens, he’s from England, he’s one of the best acoustic guitar players ever. He plays a mixture of classic and jazz, whatever, he can do anything. That album has a neo-medieval thing in the middle of it, his playing is ridiculous. I’ve been going back over a lot of John Mayall and blues stuff, I’ve recently listened to the B.B. King Live at the Regal. I’m actually forty years too late listening to that, I wish I’d listened to that when I was 13, I’d be a better guitar player now. I’ve been listening to a lot of Clapton stuff, Pete Green, Mr. John Mayall. Watching his YouTube things. I seem to go over a lot of old ground and every time I go back to something I just go deeper into it, the trench, I rotate around these records. They all just feeds into my head, my head collects this information to use, I’m learning loads each time I listen. I don’t study music or anything, I wish I had when I was growing up, just sat down for a year or two and grappled with playing but I didn’t have time, I was already in a band having to do touring so I couldn’t geek out in my bedroom. I didn’t have time to really get better. I’m working to sound better for this tour right now.
PHAWKER: And you’ll be just playing acoustic guitar, correct?
GRAHAM COXON: I’ll be playing acoustic, there’s going to be an electric [guitar] knocking around in case I want to pick it up, make some noise. I’m just going to have everything around me to make it fun, for myself and the audience.