Interview by Susan Hansen // @SusanHansen_
“I approach music in a similar way as I approach art,” Graham Coxon tells Clash. “I like them to reveal themselves. I don't exert my will too strongly on what I'm doing. I like to observe what is happening, and hopefully, I am observant enough to take things in the direction they need to go. That is with drawing and music.”
More than an outlet for immediate and spontaneous expression, the Blur guitarist’s relationship with art is distinctly individual. Over the years, his art has taken him places – externally and internally - it has made him delve deep, and made him explore compartments of his personality. “My creativity has always has been personal, because it is a sort of therapy”.
Driven and inspired by the direction music can pull someone in, it is the effect sound and production can have, and how they can elevate that motivates Graham Coxon. Even today he prefers to hear sounds that jump out and entertain. He puts this down to being brought up in the end of the '60s and into the '70s, where he found himself surrounded by dynamic, psychedelic music from The Beatles, prog rock bands such as King Crimson, and well as progressive soul and funk inventors Sly and the Family Stone, and his expectation for music became high as a result.
Growing up, as a young kid, it soon became a matter of inventing art therapy for himself. And even prior to knowing about the role therapy would come to play, when coupled with art, he would draw to express himself. It was, he found, a way for a six-year-old to be listened to. “When young kids are not listened to,” he considers. “When their feelings aren’t being taken into account, and not affirmed, they just stop opening up, they tend to find ways of doing it, and my way to express myself was through art.”
Not fully aware of the journey he had embarked on, he was aware of the role art represented deep inside, it was a way of relating to the world, it offered a window of opportunity to learn about other people, their feelings and the conditions they were experiencing. It was exciting. “I would express myself with drawings,” Coxon contributes. “I would figure out how the world felt through the music I heard, these things are not careerist, commercial, or mainstream.”
A quick fast forward to the present day, his relationship appears to be unaltered in this respect, especially when viewed in relation to his sole focus on creating art and being immersed in it. The new project is extensive. A grand achievement ‘Superstate’ is the elaborate embodiment of his relationship with art and creativity.
Bringing together Coxon’s full creative vision, it is bold and ambitious, with a multi-disciplinary activity that includes a soundtrack, a book – a graphic novel - and art prints by Coxon. Made in collaboration with Z2 Comics, the novel concept constitutes original song material, writing from Alex Paknadel and Helen Mullane, and graphics from artists like Marie Llovet, Ryan Kelly, Christian Dibari, Rahel Debebe-Dessalegne, Charlene Hector and many more.
Set in a Dystopian world, on planet earth, at a point in the future, it represents a gloomy place where multiple characters are encountered. At a first glance, it appears to be a depiction of a fictional external world, but there is also some evidence that a deep, more personal symbolism is at play.
“It's an expression of my neurosis,” he reveals. “It’s about how the future can be, and how it could be not be a far away society from right now. But it's also an expression of how it has been for me mentally over the years, about the fact that I've been a state. As such, it’s the story of a person, who is struggling with external problems, and trying to get free. It's about getting free, it's about finding an escape to be free, and then finding peace of mind and healing.”
While the desired outcome is positive, the underlying inspiration for a projection as dark as this is in part influenced by news and current affairs, and even though the fictional narrative is set in the future, Coxon might have been reflecting things that are happening in the world right now, which aren’t so great. “Look at Afghanistan,” he points out. “I mean, it's not that much different, actually. We're lucky that we aren’t yet ruled over by narcissistic overlords, so we're not doing too badly.”
It is a society where angels are free to meander, but the masses are controlled – and drugged out - by government officials. Storytelling is the key driver for this project where stories are told through graphic illustrations and words. A place where each story relates to a song in a soundtrack of fifteen songs, the two become partners in this sci-fi adventure.
Although the project only just landed, and it all feels completely new to us, it is far from new to Coxon. In development for a few years, it is poignant that he wrote the first song ‘We Remain’ for the soundtrack on January 10th in 2016, on the day a music hero’s passed away “I started recording it a long time ago, however long David Bowie hasn't been with us, because that's when it began. The rest of the music was finished a couple of years ago.”
As the project continued to grow, he would experiment and write new songs in his home studio setup. He found himself experimenting, seeing how he could bypass himself by acting the parts of other singers - other people. The purpose was to detach himself more and be able to say things that he wouldn't normally say and sing melodies, he wouldn’t usually sing. It was about making this happen in an expressive, less self-conscious way, as much as growing and developing everything from there, creating ambitious and big arrangements in the process.
Choosing such an open-ended, fluid approach worked well with his studio arrangement and preferred way of working. With available equipment in the room, he would mess around with things for as long as he wanted. Sometimes, this would be for 16 hours a day, and at other times, he would still be fully absorbed at four in the morning. The use of loops, synthesizers, and a computer allowed him to write in a bigger way than usual, and the approach was fulfilling and freeing.
In some ways, it represented a return to a more fundamental way of writing songs and what he felt this soundtrack required. Starting with an acoustic guitar, it was about building the skeleton. Chucking in loops, and dealing with the bigger sound, he started incorporating synthesizers, bass, synths, while adding drum sounds. “The sound I wanted was a denser, more rich sound,” he explains. “I wanted more voices, so I was demoing while writing, and I was altering my voice to take care of the parts that I wanted for female vocalists. Some of them stayed on the final album, some of them were replaced, there is a mother universe voice.”
The full realisation and completion of Superstate marks a compelling chapter for the songwriter, who is in a good place. Residing in North London, a part of London he is very fond of, he is involved with a range of projects to keep him interested. He has been doing things with Duran Duran, his involvement with supergroup The Jaded Hearts Club is ongoing, and his next creative project is already in full swing.
Having a remarkable CV, a question that continues to linger is whether a musician as accomplished as Graham Coxon does master every technique. As a guitarist, does he know everything about his instrument, are there still things he wants to learn? Rather surprisingly, he nods in confirmation, prior to adding “I can't just shred, I can't do what they do on the YouTube videos.”
“I'm not an athlete in that way on the guitar. Knowing techniques, the scales, and knowing the theory is all well and good,” he decides, interjecting that he has “always had a small Jackson Pollock pitch to guitar playing, and this means fun notes. I've been in situations where we've been having a blues jam, and I've just felt foolish, but I’ve just never been that sort of a person.”
What does he make of contemporary guitar music? Inspired by some of the sounds he has heard, bands like black midi are interesting, he says. “I'm encouraged, and I can see where the anger, the agitation and the anxiety inducing sonics come from. It's interesting that things are noisier, things are more rhythmically complex. The last six months surprised me, I have the radio on and suddenly something like that comes on. I wish it would have been 10 years ago.” The secret is in their technique, it is “actually crazy. It’s obviously geekery in that they know what they're doing. But it's like prog rock on speed, a bit shorter, but there’s definitely a prog-metal-jazz thing going on.”
His knowledge, the understanding of himself, seems to seep through everything, and the obtainment of details of his inner setup is a personal project. Superstate points to a compartment of this journey, and for the past year he has exploring things in further depth, having attended therapy sessions nearly every day since last May 2020. “I realised that some interactions with people have been faulty, a lot of relationships I've had over the years were just not right, and I felt I had to see why.”
Even though the past year has been traumatic for many people, a part of him believes there is at least one positive to be taken from the depression, the effects of the collective trauma, and it relates to the idea of having the time to take stock. “I'm glad it happened,” he reflects. “I think a lot of people realised that this sort of treadmill they were on wasn't right for them at all. We were able to express those things in life, it helped me too, and we needed help doing that, so we don’t get on another similar treadmill.”
A constant, ongoing relationship in his life is the connection to Blur. Even though he says he doesn’t miss the ‘90s much, he does like to be involved in a big group. “I like the camaraderie with the extended family that Blur had, the brass players, the long suffering road crew etc. It was the idea of being in a family for a long, long time. It’s great to lash out, the tours were incredible, those were great occasions, and I really enjoyed it.”
He seems a lot less convinced about the idea of dealing with the chaotic day to day of being in a band of a similar size to Blur again, month after month, year after year, could he still do that? “I'd probably hate it,” he predicts. “Now, I like to be doing less, but with more projects.”
The projects are there awaiting his attention. As long as it is enough to keep Graham Coxon interested long term, it will be fine, because he is on great creative form.
'Superstate' is out now.
Words: Susan Hansen // @SusanHansen_
Photo Credit: Joshua Atkins