They say you should never meet your heroes. In the case of Johnny Marr, they couldn’t have been more wrong, but interviewing Graham Coxon – one of the coolest guitarists to have come out of the UK in the last 50 years – was not the joy I had hoped it would be. Perhaps he just wasn’t in the mood. Maybe he had better things to be doing. Whatever it was… well, let’s just say I’ve had better days at work, too.
At the time, Graham was promoting The Spinning Top, an album that owed a lot to late 1960s folk troubadours such as Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. But woe betide anyone who called it a ‘folk album’, as I was quick to find out.
‘A lot of journalists are allowed to just do their thing – bullshit their way through it, really. There are a few bad apples spoiling the whole crate of, err, journalists.’
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 The 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 The 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 – bullshit their way through it, really. There are a few bad apples spoiling the whole crate of, err, journalists.’
‘I love to go back to the group and play interpreter to Damon’s madness… and make big noises.’
There’s no question that The 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 The 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 The 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.
Originally published on Time Out Abu Dhabi in 2009.