Distortion And Delay – Graham Coxon

Illuminating his unexpected return

Fifteen minutes late. Fifteen minutes! Chasing down one side street then another, trying to locate some obscure address which is apparently in London. A twist, then a turn – a right, then a left. Suddenly it’s there, and the door opens up.

“Some people, eh?”

It’s Graham Coxon. He’s grinning, holding a Jack Russell in his arms. The guitarist is clad in double denim with his jacket folded open to reveal a Wipers jumper, fraying around the edges. Trying to get my breath back, he invites me down to the kitchen and begins to make a cup of tea. Despite his new album ‘A + E’ causing ripples on the release schedule, Coxon is almost entirely unfazed, with his shy, boyish demeanour unperturbed beneath an unkempt bowl cut.

Let’s get this out the way first: ‘A + E’ is not the album some people would have been expecting. It’s immediate, but this is immediacy as applied to the creative process. At times literally thrown down on tape, Graham Coxon seemingly wanted to make something which sounded as cheap and nasty as possible. It’s a difficult shift to make, but repeated plays reveal something quite special – filtering and re-interpreting his influences in new and startling ways.

Start at the beginning. ‘A +E’ opens with a cut called ‘Advice’ which is all out of tune guitars, staggered riffs and Graham Coxon pointing an accusing finger at his younger self. “I suppose I had a couple of goes at it. I just pressed ‘record’ on my little thing upstairs with a guitar and just started playing that riff. I just sort of made it up as I went along,” he explains. “It’s just poking fun, really. There’s a bit about touring being boring and writing a new song, being unhappy with people not writing songs. It’s funny because I’m having a jokey jibe about people not writing songs but I know that a lot of people write really good songs in a traditional way. I’m by no means a traditionalist musically, really, but it’s the most improvised album I’ve really made. So it’s totally hypocritical.”

It’s also totally infectious. ‘Advice’ has the same splatter-clatter-rama-lama charm that ran through late-’70s experimental punks Swell Maps, something Graham Coxon seems pleased to hear. “They kind of squashed tradition a little bit and it kind of leaked out at the edges,” he says. “The drummer isn’t really doing correct drumming – none of them are doing correct anything. I suppose that’s what a lot of the good punk rock bands were about. They weren’t pub rockers. Those are the groups that excite me more about that era – The Sex Pistols to me were a kind of rock band.”

Recording his early demos onto fairly basic equipment, Graham Coxon became obsessed with the idea of improvising, of simply letting his mind wander wherever it would choose to go. Collecting together a series of tracks, the guitarist then hooked up with Ben Hillier who was charged with re-interpreting these muddy, basic rants into a studio context. Arriving with some of his favourite (malfunctioning) gadgets, Coxon bumped straight into a producer who had come to exactly the same conclusion. “I had all my usual posh stuff, like my Marshall amps which I’ve used forever. But I knew that Ben has all these great noise-making things, so I just took everything in which I thought would be fun. Any old organs that I had, my saxophones, all my silly shakers – basically all my bits and bobs, took them in,” he chuckles. “We surrounded ourselves with his synths and wrote songs which were created by Ben playing along on a drum machine which probably wasn’t its best and me with a really hideous sort of guitar sound.”

Setting up in a cramped studio space, Graham Coxon was finally freed from the shackles of continually tuning guitars, setting up amps and making sure the mics are turned down – he just simply plugged in and created music. “It was all recorded in one room so there was not much separation. The mixing desk was just a few feet away and all the mics were around, all turned on – it seemed to be everything just bleeding onto one another. When I was putting this down there would be some strange monitoring or some headphones would be blasting out into a mic so you would get this other strange sound,” he describes. “We wanted it to be fun and to get things down as quickly as possible, without really worrying ourselves. I think it was the first album I had recorded where I had decided to tune my guitars and I wasn’t told to. So if they got really out of tune I would think, ‘oh I’d better tune it’ and reluctantly tune it up. I like things out of tune but I’m never allowed to do that. But Ben, as long as it sounds exciting, would keep that.”

Eager to throw the element of chance into the recording process, Graham Coxon even put down the guitar. Choosing to write on a four-string, the bass lines which burn through ‘The Truth’ and ‘Knife In The Cast’ are rock solid – sheer physicality fit to dominate the entire song. Using an unfamiliar instrument, though, also allowed Coxon to experiment with some unexpected noises. “There’s a lot of unwanted – what would normally be considered unwanted – glitchy, digital sounds from spinning nobs on the pod. There’s a lot of hiss on it. It’s about as far away from a fussy, classy sound as I could get without recording live onto four-track or whatever and obviously I can’t really do that because I play everything,” he insists. “There is some posh bits. There is a bit of psychedelia coming through.”

With its distorted – often brutal – tones, ‘A + E’ bears comparison with the post-punk era, and in particular the birth of Industrial. “I suppose the whole sound of it is – if you think visually – over-saturating. Colour-wise it would be slightly too much. It’s always when an engineer comes in and says, ‘Oh no no no, don’t push it anymore than that!’ and then that’s when you do. You give it another five percent and then they’re like, ‘Oh God!’ They’re in pain! That’s exactly when…it’s good!” he laughs.

Lyrically, Graham Coxon sometimes bears the marks of an outsider issuing cynical blasts against the wider world. ‘Meet – Drink – Pollinate’ for example, is a sober analysis of Binge Britain, the young men and women who stumble through Saturday night and into Sunday morning. “It does sound quite bleak at times but I suppose I’m more sarcastic in lyrics than I would ever allow myself to be in real life. I’m not very sarcastic at all in real life but in lyrics I am – I take the mick a little bit,” he insists.

“It’s sort of about why these people that you see on the TV who go to these clubs which you would probably never go near – God knows what goes on in there! Basically a cattle market night out, one of those which you see on the telly so much; you see groups of girls going out and they’re sort of hammered in a half-hour from doing tonnes of shots and it’s a bit worrying,” he says, his voice fading slightly. “Then you see Binge Britain, and all the violence – these lads and these girls and they’re all over the place and it’s just a bit worrying to see. So I guess that when people go out they want to pull, they want to get drunk and enjoy themselves but really I suppose they do so many shots that enjoying themselves and pulling has just instantly gone out the window. So it’s sort of about that messy night out. A lot of it is really about those things.”

Teetotal, Graham Coxon can give off the impression of being a reclusive. Rarely venturing to gigs for fear of being recognised (“It’s not their fault, it’s my problem”) he seems hemmed in by Britain’s obsession with alcohol, left isolated by our love affair with booze. “It’s pushed at us isn’t it?” he sighs, before almost mocking his own standpoint. “How dreadful the British are, really. I’m kind of isolated by it because I don’t like those situations, I’m pretty much a homebody. When I do go out I quite like pubs that are quiet, full of old geezers, really. People that are talking – I always used to like pubs that didn’t have music in.”

A disgust at hedonism runs through ‘A +E’. In a weird sort of way, the ragged, throw-caution-to-the-wind way in which it was constructed runs completely against the manner in which Graham Coxon conducts the bulk of his life. The final track, ‘Ooh, Yeh, Yeh’, finds the guitarist leaving his house to grab a pint of milk, only to bump into a friend who is – ahem – somewhat under the influence. “Bumping into somebody I sort of knew and they were like a stumbling waxwork, melting into the gutter,” he muses. “It’s frightening bumping into people who are so out of themselves they don’t know what’s going on. They’re wandering along Camden Road at half eight in the morning. It’s a bit.. Bloody hell! I thought I was a bit rock ‘n’ roll at times but not at half eight in the morning,” he laughs. “Obviously been out all night, or trying to get home all night, I don’t know.”

Centred on a gently strummed acoustic, ‘Ooh, Yeh, Yeh’ finds Graham Coxon in more familiar sonic territory. A blues of sorts, the song finds Coxon encountering temptation and deciding that a pint of milk will do him fine. A note of humorous redemption, ‘Ooh, Yeh, Yeh’ is fuelled by a love of psychedelia yet seems uniquely unhinged, as if the tape it was recorded on were to catch fire at any minute. “It’s the only song which is reasonably connected to traditional stuff. I mean, it’s almost a blues,” he explains. “But it’s a bit of a messed up blues. It’s got more of an American parched atmosphere to it, whereas actually it’s about over ’ere – outside Carpetright. It’s got a traditional guitar solo, although the guitar was pretty out of tune by that point. So there’s two guitars on that solo and they’re way out on each other. I like that,” he smiles. “I like that people are going to frown when they hear that.”

Words by Robin Murray
Photo by Alex Harley

This feature appears in the April 2012 issue of Clash magazine, out 8th March. Find out more about the issue HERE.

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