TIM HUGHES finds out that for Blur guitarist Graham Coxon, life is far sweeter on his own.
OF all the members of Blur, Graham Coxon, you could argue, has stayed closest to his roots.
While Damon Albarn went off to write operas and hang out with his virtual cartoon band Gorillaz, Alex James found joy in cheese in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds, and Dave Rowntree took to politics and the law, Graham carried on doing what he always did best – playing intelligent observational pop. Only now he writes and plays it alone.
Eight solo albums on, the modest, self-effacing guitarist seems to have truly found his stride – and is back to his acerbic and abrasive self.
New long player A+E is pure Coxon – with him playing practically everything on it.
“I feel like I’ve opened a door with this album,” he says, “Now I want to go through it and have a look around.
“A lot of the album has a mesmeric groove, and I like that. I’ve had these influences all my life, I just concentrate on different areas. I wanted to dehumanise the music a little more, using drum machines and a few sequencers.”
And being a one-man band had its advantages to the famously impulsive Graham, 43, who relished the freedom of not having to accommodate other musicians – other than producer Ben Hillier, who provides keys.
“I hate sitting around waiting,” he says. “If I’d got a bass player, they’d lug all their gear in, probably late, spend two hours tuning and ‘finding their sound’ and then insist on doing a load of takes. But I have it done in half an hour, tops. Much better that way, just get it recorded and get out.
“There are some awfully cheap sounds on this album,” he admits. “I have a horrible little drum machine, but it did the job. If something made us swear or laugh, it stayed on. That was the quality control – and that’s what the record is about, I think.”
Graham presents the new album, along with live favourites, at a gig at the Oxford O2 Academy tomorrow – the first date in a 14-date UK tour. The show will be the first chance Oxfordshire gig-goers will have had to see him play since last summer’s Truck Festival. And he’s looking forward to it.
“I don’t get nervous or anything,” he says. “Well the big Blur shows are very nerve-racking, but at my own ones I don’t worry. I just like to get on and make sure the crowd have a good time. They’re on my side; they’re there for a lot of noise, and mardy singing. They know exactly what they’re getting.”
Graham seems such a natural singer-songwriter it’s hard to believe his solo career, beginning with 1998’s debut The Sky Is Too High, actually started by accident.
“At first it was just something to do to keep me occupied,” he explains. “A friend of mine was putting a script together and they asked me to write some songs, and even though I wasn’t a songwriter I thought I’d give it a go. I wrote Me You, We Two and some other bits and bobs during tours with Blur.”
But, as strange as it seems, coming from a member of one of the world’s biggest bands, it also meant overcoming his own shyness.
“Being a constantly embarrassed person I didn’t really know what to do with these things,” he says.
“I was going to release it under a pseudonym, but I ended up feeling a sense of fulfilment after writing a song. It was like a rock diary entry, the process worked for me on a lot of levels.
“You can say what you want to say, back it up with noises and rhythms, and when I realised that it became an addictive form of expression, I couldn’t quite stop.”
Although he released two more albums while still a member of Blur, he says it wasn’t until the third, The Kiss Of Morning, released around eight months after he left the band in 2002, that he realised his future lay in playing alone. “When I left Blur I had no plans, I just started writing songs, sitting down for my own pleasure,” he says.
“I wrote Freakin’ Out and Bittersweet Bundle Of Misery and I realised I can write these big pop songs. I started concentrating on catching up on the things I’d missed by being in a band.”
Of course the reformed band are not far away – and the countdown is already on to what promises to be the biggest gig of their careers, playing the closing ceremony to the London 2012 Olympics. And, this time, it seems he is enjoying it more than ever.
“Now the pressure is off and people are used to us being back, it feels nice again,” he says. “Blur are capable of a lot of really interesting stuff, so it’s really healthy, and we can do what we feel like doing. We’re not forced to get on the treadmill. It's a great situation.”
* Graham Coxon plays the O2 Academy Oxford, tomorrow. Tickets are £17 from ticketweb.co.uk Doors open at 7pm.