Hitting the Leadmill this month, Andy Hill collared one of Britain's most talented musicians for a chat.
"What am I up to today?" ponders multi-instrumentalist, visual artist and all round Britpop legend Graham Coxon. "Not much, if I'm honest. Probably just gonna sit indoors, maybe wander out for lunch in a bit. Could really go for a nice enchilada."
His predilection for iffy Mexican stodge aside, I think I love everything about Coxon. His voice - impish borderline cockney/Essex rapscallion. His look - unkempt pre-hipster mummy’s boy (indeed trendy-wendy clotheshorse Alexa Chung, no less, has dubbed him her "style icon"). But, dear reader, it is for his guitar playing alone that his name will forever be engraved on this correspondent's soul.
Providing the dirty snarling grit (but also, somehow, the high class muso polish) of all Blur's seven studio albums, there’s nothing in all the kingdom of rock n' roll to challenge the originality, flourish and sheer balls-out flair of this man's licks. Sure, we've all bounced around a sticky nightclub dancefloor after closing time to Song 2 (WOO HOO - na na, na na na, na na na naaaa - WOO HOO), but I urge you to dig deeper and behold an artist - nay, a craftsman - of the very highest calibre.
Whether you're into mosh-baiter 'There's No Other Way', or the rarefied strings of anthem of anthems The Universal, it must be said the man is a national treasure. Incidentally, I saw them in Hyde Park the other year: the 'oh my baby/oh my baby/oh why/oh my’ refrain of Tender was heartily backed up by all 50,000 of us happy souls long past the encore, into the street and for most of the tube ride home.
And bless my soul, lucky old us... he's got a new record coming out! A+E, his eighth solo album, takes the listener on a mad joyride around Coxon's musical mindscape - from the tangled electronic underbrush of 'What'll It Take' to the bright sunlit uplands of indie belter 'Running For Your Life'. As satisfying a suite as he's ever compiled in my opinion, I'm dying to know if it's all his own work.
"Oh yes" he replies. "Ben [Hillier, producer] maybe set down a couple of basic backbeats, some programming and that, but the live instruments and vocals are all me. I think at this point in my career I have a sound in my head that I'm trying to get at - and it's just so much quicker and easier to do it myself. It's not an ego thing, I just really love to play and have control over what comes out. You don't get any moaning or complaints. I just sit down, bish bash bosh, half an hour and it's done. I reckon one day I could make an album of just organs and saxophones". He adds, after a slightly awkward pause. "Everyone would hate it though, wouldn't they?"
Not that he's short of adulation already. Erstwhile nemesis Noel Gallagher has gone on record to hail Coxon as one of the all-time greats, and undisputed six-string king Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead has said that any tune with Coxon on it is well worth getting hold of. "Yeah, that was nice of him," he says when I bring this up. "You can't knock praise from The Greenwood, can you?" So, who are you into yourself? "Jonny Greenwood, of course. When I was growing up, Pete Townshend, he got me into that whole hefty rhythmic thing. Making perverse sounds and going beyond what's normally acceptable. That's why I'll often use three different distortion pedals at the same time; it makes an effect, sure, but it's really just sheer bloody mindedness. In that respect I've always been a massive fan of [The Smiths'] Johnny Marr. His guitar parts are just so well thought out. I reckon you must have to be extremely patient to be Johnny Marr. Working with Morrissey can't have helped, he's a right miserable c**t as well, isn't he?"
Similarly uneasy with too much happiness and positivity (he's said elsewhere that "I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of straightforwardly happy songs I actually like"), I'm curious as to what the main underlying lyrical theme is on A+E.
"Oh, bloody hell. The country's going insane, isn't it? I've been watching loads of crap documentaries, Binge Britain and all that. You see all these people, they're like animals, in the big mainstream clubs. Drinking shot after shot, then fighting and being sick. It feels dangerous to me, sort of... like saturation. Society is getting saturated. There's a track on the album called Meet+Drink+Pollinate that's mainly about all that. And the album production, overall, I think reflects it too. We made a point of turning up the hue, overlaying stuff, not being too clinical and making all the parts sound mad and over the top. It really works. I find that, the older I get, the harder I have to work to satisfy my own ear; if I'm listening to jazz or weird prog or whatever the simple straightforward stuff doesn't turn me on any more."
So, obviously not much of a drinker lately then. What, pray tell, does the great man do for recreation nowadays? "Gawd knows. Watch the news. Drive about. Got a motorbike now. I like to play my saxophone along to old records. And my trampoline. I love a good bounce on my trampoline."
I'm a bit reluctant, as this interview is solely intended to promote his solo work, to bring up Blur, about whom he has been less than forthcoming in the past. Indeed, his PR guy rang me up the day before to warn me off the subject. But he seems in a good mood, so here goes - describe the mood in the Blur camp...
"Really great, nice and warm and friendly. We're going in to rehearse soon for the Olympic closing ceremony gig - with New Order and The Specials. It's going to be great."
Well, I certainly didn't expect that. Warm words indeed, although sadly still "no plans to record". Can this mean at last he's turned a corner, and won't let the spectre of his poppy, 'Girls and Boys' past haunt him as it has for the past decade or more? "Look, don't get me wrong. I'm not about to become, I dunno, some sort of Dick van Dyke figure, all chirpy strolling down Camden High Street. But as I get older I've realised, and you'll realise this one day too, that none of us have any real control over what we're doing. I used to be this massively uptight, angry young man. Luckily I had a guitar to take it out on, and in hindsight that went really well. These days I'd really love to get a bit more painting done, but there I am day after day indoors on the couch, and all I seem to be able to do is grab the Stratocaster and have a good old play. Sometimes you just have to stop and say, f**k it, I'm gonna give up stressing about stuff."
For the upcoming tour Coxon is pioneering a whole new way of picking support bands. "It's an idea we cooked up with the NME. In truth it's quite an old fashioned way of doing things. Every town we play, we basically let the locals vote in advance who they want the support bands to be. That way you avoid the normal crap thing for support bands, where no-one knows you or cares. They're guaranteed a warm reception, and everyone basically has a really good night out."
And there you have it. An extraordinary, once in a generation talent who still at 43 blessedly has it in him to knock out a thoroughly legitimate and thought provoking art rock record - and he wants you to come party! Form a queue - after me.
Catch Graham Coxon at The Leadmill on Friday April 20. Tickets are £16, see www.leadmill.co.uk for more.