Monday, July 27, 2015

Blurred Visionary...An interview with Blur's Graham Coxon

The time was 1995 and optimism was sweeping Britain with a force the likes of which few could remember. Tory rule was waning fast and the vibrant and youthful opposition leader Tony Blair seemed poised to assume the Prime Minister’s office with a promise of better times. Britain was having its driest summer in recorded history, the Northern Ireland peace process was kicking into gear and Damien Hirst had just won the Turner Prize with two bisected cows submerged in formaldehyde. In short, it was a time in which anything seemed possible.

Few bands define this particular era as much as Blur. A fresh, brash, intelligent pop quartet blessed with dashing looks and an ability to channel the most agreeable parts of British culture into ambitious albums. The angst-driven sludge of grunge, vanquished by the suicide of its most recognisable figure, had been replaced by Britpop, an Anglocentric movement that recycled the high points of the last 40 years of British music, most notably The Beatles, early Pink Floyd, The Smiths and The Kinks. Blur wrote songs that kids and grandparents could sing along to: “All the people, so many people, they all go hand in hand, hand in hand through their Parklife”. It was the nearest thing to the Swinging Sixties any subsequent generation could imagine, and it seemed to take everyone by surprise.

At the heart of this uncharacteristic rush of English euphoria was Graham Coxon, Blur’s bookish guitarist and co-songwriter, a musician largely credited with the band’s musical ingenuity, an endlessly inventive counterpoint to singer and lyricist Damon Albarn’s effulgent melodies and rich character studies.

“I wish I could have had fun,” says Coxon over the phone from a hotel in Paris where the band is on tour. “I wish I could have allowed myself to have fun and enjoy it. When you have an idea of how things should be and you enter into it and it’s not how you imagine, it can be an odd experience. It’s not an easy road to get off once you’re on it,” he sighs. “There’s a lot of rubbish music, rubbish politics, rubbish people. The people who say they had fun in the 90s, I don’t think they’re the musicians, I think they’re the predators; the press, the record labels. I’m not sure bands were having an awful lot of fun.”

If Blur were merely writing and not living the joy others associate with their wry parochialism, arch-rivals Oasis were certainly doing their best to stay in the headlines and live the idealised rock and roll lifestyle. Their euphoric anthems played perfectly into the media’s desperation to bring class, geography and distorted personalities into a constructed musical war. As an indication of quite how strange these times were, an unofficial cassette recording of Oasis arguing for fourteen minutes made the British charts.

“The guitarist I have a lot of time for, the drummer I don’t know, I hear he’s a nice guy,” Oasis’s Noel Gallagher told the NME in 1995. “But the other two, Alex and Damon, I hope they fuck off and die of AIDS.”

It was the sort of statement record labels and publicists lived for, it was also exemplary of the sort of chat at which Oasis excelled. When the music tabloid press formally announced a ‘Battle of Britpop’ – pitting the foul-mouthed lads from Manchester against the moddish London-based Blur – the bands had little choice but to play their parts. The ‘Battle’ reached its apex when the new Oasis single Roll With It and Blur’s much anticipated Country House were both released on August 15, 1995. Only one of these songs contained the lyrics “he knows his claret from his Beaujolais”, and it wasn’t written by the band that spent their first million-dollar paycheque on cocaine and Brisbanian prostitutes. The national media made their best efforts to turn the chart countdown into a Generational Moment. Millions picked a side and responded accordingly when, with some help from Damien Hirst’s video, Blur’s Country House debuted at number 1.

While Oasis are estimated to be several months off announcing a lucrative reformation, Blur are making their first visit to Australia in 18 years, promoting their first album in 12; The Magic Whip. Within seconds of its opening song Lonesome Street even those with only a passing knowledge of the band’s hits can instantly tell it’s the same foursome who soundtracked the mid-90s.

“We still get on,” says Coxon of the band’s 30 years of history. “We’re not doing anything we don’t want to do. We don’t feel like we’re being forced to do anything by the record labels.” Even band photo shoots? “Well,” he sighs deeply, letting silence envelope the line before laughing. “Some things don’t change.”

Unlike the other members of Blur who’ve moved counties and changed careers, Coxon seems to have changed the least. He still lives in Camden Town, still dresses as though he’s not interested in impressing anyone, and still regularly releases albums. Besides Albarn (also a member of super-group Gorillaz), drummer Dave Rowntree has run as a candidate for the British Labour Party and now works as a solicitor, bassist Alex James has spent the years since their last album, 2003’s Think Tank, writing opinion columns and making cheese on his farm in Oxfordshire, where he lives next door to friend David Cameron. James has insisted that he and Rowntree have “never had a political conversation” and scoffs at the idea of the band being on anything but friendly terms.

“We spent an awful lot of time with each other, touring, etc.” says Coxon of their heyday. “But when we had time off, most of that time was spent trying to fix up our own lives. When you go on tour there’s always a lot to do once you go home, it’s natural. For a few years between 2002 and 2008 we hardly talked at all. We had an enforced break that was really needed. At the time it seemed confusing but now it seems obvious. It was just very difficult trying to initiate it.”

According to the very attentive (and not entirely dispassionate) music news sources at the time, by 2002 Coxon’s alcoholism had become untenable. Following a ‘blazing row’ he was forced out of the band during the recording of Think Tank, a story he hotly contests.

“I don’t think it was my fault, not at all,” he says between lengthy pauses. “When Blur and me went our separate ways I was completely sober, and I’ve remained so since. I held my hands up and said ‘yeah, I’ve got this problem’ so it was easy for the rest of the band to blame me for everything because I admitted to it. Everyone has their issues. It’s just that some people are better at dealing with it, and some people are more prone to going under.”

In his biography Bit of a Blur, James cheerfully admits to spending over one million pounds on champagne and cocaine. Rowntree was admitted to noted rehabilitation clinic The Priory for addiction to cocaine and Albarn wrote their number one hit Beetlebum about using heroin with ex-girlfriend Justine Frischmann, but Coxon downplays suggestions the band were out of control. “Blur were clean living compared to other people,” he laughs. “Even what Alex wrote in Bit of a Blur…I mean, really, that’s nothing compared to other groups.”

Reflecting on his statement, Coxon leaps in to justify himself. “See,” he explains keenly, “no one really knows how they’re going to react when they first get on a record label and start touring and partying and all the rest of it. No one knows how their body or mind will handle two months of solid partying. It’s usually in quite a negative way, it’s not that good for anybody.”

Regardless of what was happening to various minds and livers during the mid to late 1990s, Blur were remarkably workmanlike, writing dozens of diverse and acclaimed songs, as they transitioned away from their bright Britpop roots into songs that reflected darker times. Their albums Modern Life is Rubbish, Parklife, The Great Escape and Blur are some of the most acclaimed of the era. Despite their often maudlin lyrics songs like For Tomorrow, Girls and Boys, He Thought of Cars, The Universal, Song 2 and Tender still sound galvanic.

“I don’t think we ever made really optimistic music,” says Coxon. “There was often an undercurrent of sarcasm and a sense of absurdity about life. When we played the songs it was often quite chaotic. We were probably very visually interesting live because we were all pretty tipsy when we were playing, but I think we play the old stuff better now. We certainly play a lot harder and sound a lot stronger.”

Though Blur reformed for a 2009 tour, released two singles in 2012 and closed the 2012 Olympic Games, there was never a hint that new music would be recorded until several months before the release of The Magic Whip. The album only exists because of the chance cancellation of a concert in Tokyo that left the band with five days to fill in Hong Kong, and the frequent questions from journalists about making new music fresh in their minds.

“Honestly, I was happy just to get some sleep. My hotel room had a circular bed!” says Coxon with a laugh. “But Damon had other ideas. We agreed to jam for five days and see what happened, and soon we rather glibly said: “OK they want this album, let’s bloody make it then.’”

Released in April, The Magic Whip has already become the band’s highest charting record both in Australia and the US and garnered rave reviews from critics. As which much of their previous work, the album is full of imagery and inspiration from their environment. Just as they channelled the buzz of the mid-90s before exploring pre and post-millenium tension, this album is full of personal responses to shifting economies and changing cultures, leading some to make accusations of ‘orientalism’, charges the band laugh off. Albarn refers to events such as the Hong Kong student protests, his time in Sydney, holed up in a hotel following the Martin Place siege several blocks away, and a nostalgia both for England and, perhaps, glory days.

“We made it very differently to albums we’d made before,” says Coxon. “We jammed out lots of material – mostly based on Damon’s home recordings – for five days then 18 months later I and [producer] Stephen Street edited it all and presented it to Damon in 12 songs while he was in Australia. He heard what we’d done and decided to commit to it. On his way back from Australia he stopped in Hong Kong for 48 hours and retraced his footsteps, made notes, made films and stuff like that and wrote the lyrics over that New Year. In a way Damon can be misunderstood as some kind of autocratic General by Blur fans, but I think he actually appreciated me taking it off his hands and sorting it out.”

Despite the geographic separation of the band, the success of the album and the time spent touring together, Coxon doubts that this method of recording is likely to be repeated for Blur, and doesn’t foresee any further albums.

“The gods don’t seem to allow us to repeat ourselves. We try to repeat past processes and it falls on its face, so it’s almost like this process found us in a way. It wasn’t something we did really on purpose, we wilfully picked up instruments and all that, but overall the process that resulted in another album was something that we didn’t plan, we couldn’t plan it. So that way it caught us out.”

This article was first published at Junkee under the title "Rubbish music, rubbish people, rubbish politics: We spoke to Blur's Graham Coxon About the '90s" on July 14, 2015.

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