Graham Coxon: 'I was a mardy brat in my 20s … I'm quite mellow now'

Blur’s guitarist reflects on the state of pop music, swearing, and why he’s glad he doesn’t have to wear makeup any more

Graham Coxon enters the studio through a thick cloud of vapour. “Banana and yoghurt,” he announces cheerfully. I had expected Coxon to be a bit more taciturn, given his reputation as the second least chatty member of Blur. But earlier, as I waited outside, I heard him loudly, happily tootling a song to himself. As he vapes, he fizzes with enthusiasm, his body barely still for a second, even when he is trying to sit down and talk. “I can get quite stressed,” he says, shuffling in his seat, “but I’m in a good mood when I’m in the studio.”

We are in London’s Konk Studios, near where Coxon lives, to talk about The End of the F***ing World, the Channel 4/Netflix drama about two damaged teenagers falling in love, for which he wrote the gorgeous soundtrack. He abbreviates it to “The End of the World”, though, because he is around kids a lot, his own now being 18 and five. “The older one hears a few expletives every now and then, but I don’t swear that much any more. I just find it a bit grating. I’ve used every swear word under the sun but… ” He shrugs. “Who’s got the energy to be that het up that they’re going to use swear words? You need to be relaxing, not swearing. You need to be doing something else.”

During the 1990s, when Britpop galloped through the mainstream, Coxon was a troubled soul: he has said that it was a “fraught” period. This led to some time in rehab and a seven-year separation from Blur. They were reconciled in 2009 for live shows and released an album, The Magic Whip, in 2015. Now 49, he has calmed down and grown up.

Tickled pink … Blur check out the Grimsby Telegraph’s Blur supplement in 1995, from left: Graham Coxon, Dave Rowntree, Damon Albarn and Alex James.
Tickled pink … Blur check out the Grimsby Telegraph’s Blur supplement in 1995, from left: Graham Coxon, Dave Rowntree, Damon Albarn and Alex James. Photograph: Local World/Rex Shutterstock

“I was a self-centred, mardy brat for the majority of my 20s,” Coxon says, “because I saw everything as not being part of my plan. But I didn’t even really know what my plan was. I just wanted to be in the Who. But then suddenly it all seemed a bit fake. Everything seemed fake 60s: Union Jack guitars, the news, the Labour party. It was all a bit, um… ” He clicks his fingers. “What’s that chipboard covered with plastic? Melamine. It was all a bit like that. So I used to go to the pub and chat to painters and decorators, because I thought they were funnier, more entertaining and brighter than most people I met in the music industry.”

These days, Coxon is more laid-back, even mellow. “I’m quite mellow,” he says, cautiously. He doesn’t smoke any more (vaping helped), he no longer drinks and he is “mostly” vegan, though he admits to a recent cheese relapse. He is at his happiest in the studio. “It’s a bit like a party all the time,” he says. “Not like a crazy party, not like sex, drugs and booze everywhere. It’s a nice party. Quite often, there’s a bowl of crisps. You get something for lunch and there’s chatting and music on. It’s quite like a party, isn’t it?”

He is here “just working on some stuff”. The Magic Whip put his solo work on hold for a while, but he has been rehearsing for a tour in the US, where he will play alone, doing songs from the End of the F***ing World soundtrack and from 20 years of solo albums, and maybe a Blur track or two. “I’ll see if it works. I’m probably going to mess up loads,” he says. “Unfortunately, I couldn’t take a band with me, because the music industry is in such a terrible state. So I’m doing it on my own.”

Since 1998, Coxon has released eight solo albums – nine, if you include this soundtrack. What keeps him at it? Is there more to say? “I feel there’s always more. Life isn’t long enough.” He sighs. “But I feel, also, what’s the point?” He regrets not doing more when he was younger, “like exploring lots of music I was really into and not feeling like I shouldn’t really do that, that I should stay in my little indie world”. Why did he feel that way? “I imagine it’s a lot of self-worth issues.”

Coxon was at art school and barely 20 when Blur got together. “I was in a group before I could even play that well, so I didn’t have time to learn my craft, become a great blues player, be a shredder, be able to sit and go.” He twiddles an imaginary riff. “Not that I wanted to do that anyway. But I didn’t have time. I was in a group and I had to get on with it. So I learned in public, really. I’ve been quite slow. But I haven’t been in any rush. And I do feel there’s a lot to explore now. Maybe it’s too late. I’m 49.”

We chat about the state of pop. He thinks it is too business-led, though he admits that it may have always been that way and that he has “turned the corner into that middle-aged world where it’s not that I don’t understand the music, it’s just that I can’t”. I wonder if he feels any nostalgia for the 90s, now there’s a bit of distance. Does he remember any excitement?

“I was excited once I figured out where the good music was coming from,” he says. “And it was from America and from leftfield. Talking as a guitar player, Britpop for me was dull. It was fucking really dull. No one was doing anything interesting with a guitar. Of course, Jonny Greenwood was, Radiohead, but for the majority of it, it was just drongos who were there to back up a female vocalist.”

English musician Graham Coxon, photographed at Konk Studios in north London. 22 August 2018.
‘Guitar player is my job’ … Graham Coxon. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

They were labelled “sleeperblokes” by the music press. “They’re all jolly nice and totally good on their instruments,” says Coxon, “but it became a thing and it was very, very boring. For me, people like Sonic Youth, Bikini Kill, Pavement and other small-label punk groups from America – these kids were teenagers, they were playing like they didn’t give a shit and like their life depended on it.”

Coxon’s American influences were all the more incongruous in the years when music magazines were stoking a rivalry between Britpop and grunge. “That was bullshit, really,” he says. “I didn’t understand that. That’s why I got so upset, because that should have been a time for me to be like, wow, brilliant. There was a particular kind of proto-grunge punk rock, with people like the Melvins and the Wipers, and these bands are brilliant unsung heroes, really.”

What he loved about the sounds they made, he says, was how expressive they were, how that spoke to his shyness. “I liked it being expressive. I needed the guitar to be that tall for me, because I couldn’t do it in any other way. That’s why I used Blur live gigs, quite often, to get a lot out of my system and be a lot noisier than the records probably.”

It is easy to forget that, during that time, Blur were boyband-famous. “We were presented that way, yeah,” he says. “Our label thought, ‘Oh, good-looking boys, get ’em in Smash Hits.’ They’d put tons of makeup on you, brush your eyebrows up so you looked totally mad, and make you smile and put pretty T-shirts on you.”

But being that kind of spectacle wasn’t in his nature. “I felt horrible. I felt hideous,” he says. “But I thought, ‘That’s just what you do’. I didn’t feel comfortable with it, but I didn’t feel comfortable if it was just nice and moody black-and-white photography, either, in some groovy newspaper.”

Was there any point at which he did feel comfortable? “I never felt comfortable. I’d be OK playing live. And I was quite comfortable after quite a few drinks. But that was the only time. I’ve since learned that that’s because I’m a totally addictive person.” He giggles. “And so of course, I’m never gonna feel anything other than less-than and anxious unless I was totally tanked up. But that’s a whole other thing, recognising that, doing something about it and growing up a little bit.”

When Blur reunited in 2009, they were all “a lot more level”, he says. “It was like you could do all that again, but without all the pain. You can do it in a lovely way, with nice aeroplanes and in nice hotels, and people are gonna come and see you, and the audience is the same age as they were back then. I didn’t feel the need to be absolutely blasted all the time. In fact, I did it all sober, mostly. So it’s much better.”

When asked about the possibility of another Blur album, Damon Albarn said recently that “a reunion is never not a possibility”. Coxon says that is exactly what he would say, too. “It’s just one of those things. When that moment comes around and we all want to do it, I don’t see why not.”

For now, though, he is happy in the studio with his vintage microphones. “I haven’t really worked much,” he says with a smile. “So making music and going out and playing it with people, that’s my plan.” There is a point to all this then? “I mean, I could stop it and just get a job. I said this to someone the other day. They said, ‘But this is your job’. I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, guitar player is my job’. I like writing music, I like concepts. So I’ll just keep doing that.”

  • Graham Coxon is on tour in the US: 27 September Philadelphia Foundry; 30 September San Francisco, CA August Hall; 1 October Los Angeles, CA Lodge Room. Details here


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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