Graham Coxon: All a blur
A bestselling solo artist and one of the greatest guitarists of his generation, Graham Coxon should be toasting his own success. Instead, he still has regrets about the Britpop years, he tells Fiona Sturges
An unusually bright morning at Graham Coxon's house in Camden, north London, his girlfriend Essy lets me in and directs me upstairs to the attic room where Coxon is having his picture taken. I am followed by Frankie, the couple's hyperactive terrier, who spends much of the next hour trying to insert her nose in my sheepskin boots, despite the very visible obstruction that are my legs.
Coxon comes over to say hello. A youthful 43-year-old, he looks much like the Julian Opie cartoon portrait on the front of Blur's Greatest Hits album – the dark eyes, the shaggy haircut, the same slightly anxious expression.
Once the pictures are done we retire to the rather smart kitchen in the basement, which Essy tells me has just been done up. While she makes some tea, Coxon frets about what odd things they might have left lying about that might end up in this piece. I point to a curious arrangement of green potatoes and garlic in an ornamental bowl and suggest they might make the cut.
"Hmm," says Coxon eyeing it uneasily. "That is strange. I don't know why... Um..." Elsewhere there are piles of books, a shoebox labelled 'glasses' and a vase of wilted lilies. Then I spot Coxon looking at me looking around his kitchen and I decide to sit down and let the poor man relax.
Coxon is a worrier. A self-confessed pessimist, he frets about the state of the world and prefers his own company to those of other people since, "I can only really be myself when I'm alone". He doesn't like flying on aeroplanes, he says, because he doesn't like being in close proximity to others and objects to being told what he can and can't do. He isn't crazy about cinemas either: "I'm very self-conscious about getting up and going to the loo," he explains, while fidgeting with his hair. "So invariably in the second half of the film I'm crossing my legs in different ways trying to get through it and praying for it to end." Twenty-two years into his career, both as a solo artist and one quarter of one of Britain's most successful British bands, he is still concerned about how people perceive him. How do you think that is, I ask. He grimaces. "Middle-class cockney I guess."
Coxon recently did the Tweed Run, an annual event in London where cyclists don tweed outfits and silly moustaches and ride classic bikes for charity. He mentioned it on Twitter, at which point someone "who was obviously a massive Oasis fan" tweeted "Tweed? Yeah, that figures you posh cunt". Coxon was mortified. "It made me quite angry, because it reminded me how in the Nineties I was viewed as this posh, southern, Chelsea fan, even though I'm none of those things. I'm an army kid from the Midlands. I'm working class!"
Though Coxon's solo career continues to soar – his latest album A+E, his eighth solo effort, has been met with adoring reviews – he will, of course, always be identified as the guitarist from Blur. In turn, Blur will be forever remembered as the cheeky upstarts from 1994's Parklife, their third album that catapulted them into the big time, and the band that fought, and won, the fight against Oasis in the so-called 'Battle of Britpop' when both made national news by releasing singles on the same day. In a newspaper interview Noel Gallagher said he hoped singer Damon Albarn "would catch Aids and die" (for which he subsequently apologised).
Coxon, always the quiet one, tells me he did his best to stay out of it and finds it odd that it's still talked about. "The fact that Noel and Damon are pretty good friends now and I'm supporting Noel on tour in September doesn't seem to enter people's heads. They want to perpetuate something that us lot have forgotten about. In the rare moments that it pops up in conversation we're, like, 'What was that about? What a lot of nonsense'."
After a long period pursuing their own projects – Coxon as a solo artist, Albarn as Gorillaz mastermind and composer of operas, drummer Dave Rowntree as a politician and lawyer and bassist Alex James as cheese cheerleader – Blur seem to be back in business. Having reformed in 2008 and picked up the Lifetime Achievement Award at this year's Brits, they are now due to perform at the closing ceremony of the Olympics in Hyde Park, and there's a retrospective box-set due later this summer. Coxon won't divulge whether they plan to record more material though he does say they are now very close – "like brothers". And, like brothers, there have been times when they have fought bitterly.
One such scrap led to Coxon being expelled from the band for seven years. In 2001 he was battling alcohol addiction and had recently split up with his long-term partner, Anna Norlander. The pair shared custody of their then one-year- old daughter, Pepper. Coxon remembers feeling "sad and overwhelmed. And a bit knackered. I just needed to regroup. And as a band we all really needed that too. I think we all went a bit funny."
Just as the band were due in the studio to record their seventh album, Think Tank, Coxon checked himself into the Priory. In his absence, the rest of the band decided it was time for him to leave. Were they right?
"It's complicated," he reflects. "I'm still not quite sure what happened and what the reasons were, though clearly I had let them down and had gone into the Priory rather than recording a new album, but it was something that I needed to do. It was unfortunate. It was like being on a motorway and wanting to pull over but no one letting you, and knowing that you were going to crash.
"I just needed to take my hands off the steering wheel. In the end, it was good for me. It meant I could take some time, I could look after my daughter and be at home. And in the end that caused a situation where they could all do that."
I tell Coxon I imagine him as a mellow drunk, quietly keeling over in the corner. He says not. "I had my tantrums," he says thoughtfully. "I was thinking about this earlier on when I was in bed with a cup of tea – that's when I do my thinking, before the brain wakes up properly and you can delve quite deeply. I was trying to figure out when I started to get angry. There was the time when I was 18 and in my first big relationship, and getting to grips with the reality of another person's problems and my own. But then, at 23, feeling slightly..." he stops and thinks for a second, "...betrayed, I suppose. It was then, when I was drinking, I'd get a bit angry. I had a feeling that I wasn't taken seriously, that I was always interrupted and talked over, and it was really because of my own shyness and habit of mumbling. It was no one's fault particularly. I was the youngest in my family and the youngest in Blur and I always felt like the kind of brat. So that was when I started to snarl a little bit."
Coxon was born in Germany where his father was stationed as an army bandsman. When he was five, the family moved back to Derbyshire to live with his grandfather, and three years later moved to Colchester in Essex. At secondary school he met Albarn. While the other boys obsessed about football, they sat in the music department talking about clothes and their favourite bands. At 18, they both headed to London – Albarn went to drama college while Coxon enrolled at Goldsmiths to study art; there he met Alex James. In 1990, with the addition of Rowntree, Blur was born.
Coxon was halfway through an art degree when the band started to take off.
"The director said to me, 'I know what's going on, I've seen it all before. Just go away for a year and if it works, great, if it doesn't, come back'," he recalls.
He didn't go back – though he's never quite let go of his roots, sporadically putting on art exhibitions and taking charge of the artwork on his albums. The cover of his latest LP has a picture of a girl's bleeding knee that he took on his camera phone. He won't reveal the identity of the knee's owner, so we'll never know if Coxon wilfully pushed someone over for the sake of art.
He says he's not so bothered about painting any more. "I'd love to have a month to myself and a ton of canvases, but there's no time. It's kind of like a hobby. There are other things I want to do, such as bettering myself as a musician."
There's a touch of wistfulness as he observes: "Damon's gone off to Mali and worked with all sorts of different people. Musically, he's put himself in some weird areas where he might have struggled. He's made some brave and adventurous moves and that's probably what I want to do. I mean, I don't think I'd go into opera, although I went to see Damon's and thought it was lovely. But I wouldn't want the stress of something like that. There's enough stress in performing as it is."
After being ejected from Blur, Coxon had no particular plan about what to do next. When he wasn't looking after Pepper, he would sit in front of the TV strumming away at his guitar by himself. Slowly songs started to emerge.
For years, he had never seen himself as a songwriter. But then he wrote a song on Blur's self-titled album from 1997, called "You're So Great". On the strength of that, a neighbour, who had written a script for a film, asked him to write a couple of songs.
"I said, 'But I don't do that really'. And he said, 'Eh? You're a musician, just do it. I'll be back on Tuesday'. And I thought: 'All right, I'll have a go'. And then I started to realise that they were interesting to do, and a really good way of sorting through feelings."
These days, Coxon takes a very academic approach to his work, studying certain musicians and, in the case of his last semi-acoustic album, throwing away all his plectrums and growing his fingernails in order to master the art of picking. He talks earnestly about knuckling down and fulfilling his potential. "To get better at anything you have to practise a lot. It doesn't just appear," he explains.
Such studiousness might seem unnecessary for someone often referred to as the greatest guitarist of his generation but, as Coxon points out, "I've only got myself to please. When I'm on my own in my front room with a guitar, there's no one going to say to me, 'That's really great' if I play some old rubbish. I do believe in doing things right. Which is why The X Factor and The Voice are so disgraceful to me."
That's pretty fierce, I say. "That's how I feel about it," he replies. "Perhaps I'm old-fashioned in that sense – that I believe you have to pay your dues. Being a musician is not something you can become overnight."
Iask what he does to relax. "I'll sit around watching telly or I'll pop down the road for tea and cake," he says. "I also read a lot of biographies; I've just started a new one on Miles Davis. He's funny – he calls everyone he meets a motherfucker, sort of as a compliment. He even calls Sarah Vaughan a motherfucker. He's pretty brutal."
I tell him that I've just read a memoir by Tim Burgess of the Charlatans, in which the band members blow coke up each other's bums. Coxon looks astonished.
"Really? We never did anything like that. I mean... blimey. We were far too proper. We wouldn't even be able to watch each other go to the loo. In America, we'd play in these little clubs where there were no doors on the loos and we'd be horrified."
Along with music, clothes have always been a big deal for Coxon.
"I think to most people it's not outwardly noticeable, but to me it makes a lot of difference what shoes I wear, and whether I put them with the blue mac or the black mac. It reflects my mood."
He used to love shopping but now finds it disappointing – "I'm a bit of a cultural pessimist. I don't think there's much on offer. But also, I've pretty much got everything I need."
It's true, he doesn't so much have a walk-in wardrobe as a whole room dedicated to clothes storage. He reckons to have around 30 boating blazers, the same number of tweed jackets and overcoats and more stripy T-shirts than he can count.
"There's a whole cupboard devoted to jeans as well which is just ridiculous," he says. "Most of them should be thrown away."
He's got glasses for every occasion, too. Today's, he says, are for everyday use, though he has more "exotic" pairs for when he gets dressed up. He first started wearing them as a homage to Morrissey. Only later were they discovered to be a requirement.
When he's not on tour Coxon says his life is "like a librarian's" and he's happy to spend most of the time pottering around at home. He and Essy, a photographer whom he met in 2006, divide their time between Camden and a house in the Kent countryside, where he keeps his collection of motorbikes. Ah, the rock-star hobby, I say.
"Yeah, I suppose you could call it that," he replies. "Alex and Dave do planes and helicopters, though I've never been keen. None of my bikes are MOT-ed and insured at the moment, so I haven't ridden them for a while. I got into them when I knocked booze on the head and I was looking for something else to do, something to keep my mind off drinking."
Pepper, now 12, already comes to his gigs. "She's a very sociable kid," he remarks fondly. "She likes to be where things are happening and she doesn't like being bored. When I was a kid I used to like going to restaurants where everyone was jolly and laughing, and she's like that too."
I ask if he ever hankers for the old days, being anonymous and not in a multi-million-selling band. "I do," he reflects. "I'm very nostalgic about the past. I look back at when I was at university and the friends I had there and I get a little ache for a time when nothing mattered that much and when I could stay up until 4am talking about art."
Does he still have angry moments? "Yes, well, sort of," he replies vaguely. "I have a feeling that's not too dissimilar to anxiety but I don't shout or rage or throw things. I did throw a guitar through a window once, but it was an accident. I threw it onto the sofa and it bounced and went through the French doors."
Coxon reckons he's probably got 20 years left in this world – "maybe 30 if I give up smoking" – and has come to the conclusion that he needs to stop wasting time and concentrate on the important stuff. What important stuff is that, I ask. With the utmost seriousness he replies: "I really want to get better at playing the sax".
'A+E' is out now on Parlophone. The single 'Ooh, Yeh Yeh' is released on 11 June
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