Graham Coxon interview

Connect with Artist

One of the most iconic guitarists of his generation talks effects, style and saxophones. Oh, and the small matter of closing the Olympics. Interview by Jamie Franklin, pic by Essy Syed.

We catch up with guitarist Graham Coxon to talk about what effects he uses and what they mean to him. With a unique ‘outsider art’ playing style and a passion for psychedelia, Graham’s guitar skills put the edge into Brit Pop, while his absorbing passion for music and tweaked sounds have borne eight solo albums (including the excellent A&E, released in April). Coxon’s adventurous creativity is an inspiration – if a mystery – to guitarists. Thankfully he was happy to explain the methods behind the madness.

What’s your history with Roland and Boss? My history is with Boss pedals. I got into effects very early on. Mainly because of what I’d been listening to. Maybe I relied on effects to entertain my own ear and cover up for a bit of a lack of competence. So distortion pedals and things like that.

Where did you get them? It was whatever was lying around. In studios – and we know people who just collect hundreds of pedals so there was always tons for me to try.

Any favourites? It was imperative that I had a tremolo, coz I love tremolo sounds, and a flanger. It was always Boss that would do these in an easy to use, and instantly gratifying way. I’ve recently got into Chorus pedals. On an early blur track called Oily Water, I tremoloed two guitar tracks at different rates. At one point, for one beat of the bar there’s quite a woozy effect. I guess it’s from my liking for progressive rock and psychedelic music.

What bands are you listening to? Things like The Jam, who used the odd bit of flanging. But I‘m big a fan of old ‘50s effects. I was a big fan of Link Wray – and you need a tremolo for that. Oh, and Pink Floyd. I like delays too. There’s an old Boss pedal and you could make the delay really quick and then feed it back. I used to fiddle in front of my amp with that, trying to make myself trip! So really, effects would take something simple that I was playing and they would give it some identity. I’m not theoretically advanced, so it was nice to use these effects for expression. On each album we did, the more I explored effects, the more boxes I needed to do it live so I ended up with quite a few.

My fave track in A&E is City Hall. I think you and The Horrors do that kind of hypnotic sparseness so well, with eerie sounds triggering randomly throughout. I love that I can’t tell where the sound is coming from, you know? Thanks! Yeah, a lot of the sounds are just what’s being picked up in the room – even the sounds coming out of a discarded pair of headphones, that are too close to a mic that’s turned on. We didn’t clean it up – we just put effects on. You put the delay effect of feeding it back, turn and the rate down and you get that lovely ‘Schwwooop’ sound.

I heard you used a JUNO 6 on the album too? Oh yeah, it’s not mine, I wish it was! – it’s Ben Hillier’s [who produced A&E]. He’s got a lot of synths. The Juno has a decent arpeggiator. Towards the end we just start pressing any keys so the arpeggio just loses the tone and the chords go out the window. The sound was intense.

We sold you a Roland Gaia synth a while back, was that used? Yes. We use that live too. It does everything. I don’t know much about synths but I was looking at that one closely so it was great that Lucy in my band got it. That’s our synth!

I was listening to some Phil Spector songs, and love the 60s sax sounds. You play a sax solo on City Hall right? Yeah, that’s a baritone sax. I wanted to get a city foghorn sound, rather than a sea foghorn sound. I love saxophones straight, but I like putting effects on them too.

We asked our Facebook followers if they had any questions for you and this one came in from Rupert in Newport: How are you enjoying the trumpet you bought off him last week? Oh my God! Yeah! I bought a little pocket trumpet off him!

How’s it working out for you? It’s really hard. The trumpet’s difficult! I think it’s simple mechanically but it needs a lot of work on the lips. I can nearly play a scale but it’s so different from the saxophone, which I‘m used to. It’s a smashing little trumpet though…

I imagine you have an Aladdin’s Cave of instruments. Do you bring them back from your travels?  I have got a few weird things. Trumpets, sitars, saxophones, the machine tablas. I’m a sucker for instruments. I don’t bring back junk though – I try to bring things back that I’ll use in a good way. Damon’s [Albarn] studio is chock-full of insane objects, but I’ve tried to cut down a bit. I don’t have many guitars lying about – a couple of acoustic guitars, a couple of electric guitars, a little amp and a few pedals.

Have you seen the new G5 Stratocaster? If you like effects you’ll love it! I am traditional(ish) but I’m a Telecaster player and a lot of people think I’m horrible because I use so many effects. I was never aware of this sort of thing – I thought you could use an instrument how it suits you, I didn’t realise that because I used a Tele I had to keep it pure and play amazing country licks. I’ve always used guitars as a vehicle for how I feel. So sometimes on A&E the amount of effects I’m going through, I could be playing on a box with rubber bands on it. I love new technology and seeing what it can do. That’s not a million miles away from the G5 really. It opens up a massive scope for interesting sounds. That’s what instruments are about – they’re a vehicle for the performer so you get all sorts of weird and wonderful things – it depends on who’s playing it. Something that’s technologically a challenge, like the G5, is really going to do what a performer wants – it’ll help performers and it’ll be really good.  I’d love a go on one…

I heard you’re into soundtracks? I do like the odd soundtrack yeah. It was probably watching Sergio Leone films that got me into them.

Do you ever write songs off the back off a film? Not that I know of – but I like that idea. I do drawings while reading a book: you can create you’re own imagery inspired by what you’re reading.

Do you find music or painting better for expressing yourself? They’re the same really – I don’t really feel like I’m an artist first and a musician second – I’m just an artist. I don’t feel the pressure to do visual art for an audience. I think drawing is so personal that you can get away with more than you can with music, its more forgiving. Gone are the days where people say, that’s a piece of shit, and doesn’t belong in a gallery. I do believe in developing technical skill in whatever you’re doing though. In drawing I don’t know if I have or not. I quite like what I do but I know, technically, it’s not brilliant – the same with music really. In the future I’ll be trying to develop my music more than anything else.

I’d like to get my [musical] knowledge as good as it can be before I cark it – but I’m not in so much of a hurry with painting. I guess my guitar playing could sometimes be described as outsider art. I’m not Bert Jansch or Eric Clapton you know? I’m something else and I’m like that with art as well. I would like to get as good as I can get with both before I cark it.

How do you feel about your Olympics gig with Blur? I feel fine. I feel like it’s about five years away. We haven’t even rehearsed yet so it feels like it’s not for ages.

Do you really need to rehearse? We’ve got to be good haven’t we?! We’ve got to give ourselves the best chance to be good. It’s important for me to know what I’m doing and not play bum notes – not that I often get bum notes these days – and to play at the best of my abilities. I don’t want to feel like I didn’t give it everything.

The Glastonbury and Hyde Park gigs were amazing. What’s it like for you playing these huge gigs? It’s a pleasure to play gigs on that scale. Technology’s moved on such a long way since we were first playing. The sound was louder, the speakers were smaller and the sound onstage was phenomenal. The equipment is incredible now. When you have a nice guitar, a nice amp and you have thousands of people watching you, it doesn’t get much better. [At Glastonbury] It was mental – I thought we were playing better that we ever did.

Did you feel like you have anything to prove? A little bit. Blur requires a hell of a lot of commitment and energy so I was happy that we could do those shows and do them justice, and not look like old clapped out gits. That’s what Blur performances have always been about – taking us to the edge of exhausting ourselves. We’re all pretty hyper.

At Hyde Park I saw you do a backwards roll whilst playing a riff and you didn’t miss a note. I don’t even think I can do a backwards roll, let alone play guitar while doing it…

(Laughs) You just saw the one that went OK! There have been 50 times before where I ended up flat on my face with a broken headstock on my guitar. It’s always a risk. Yeah, but sod it. Most of my guitars have been broken anyway. My favourite SG was broken before I even played it at a gig, thanks to British Airways.

Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music said that you were one of his top five guitarists of all time. Oh my God! Really?

Yeah, Johnny Greenwood from Radiohead said the same thing! That’s good isn’t it?

Who are your favourites? I love all the old lot – I love Pete Townsend and Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Jimmy Hendrix. I love Eric Clapton. I love Johnny Greenwood’s stuff too. Acoustically, I like people like Charlie Byrd, Sonny Sharrock and Davy Graham and Nick Drake. I had to do both rhythm and lead guitar in my band, so that’s why I was drawn to people like Pete Townsend.

What advice would you give to kids starting up? I’d say don’t listen to all the soppy crap that’s been out in the last couple of years. Go back and listen to music when R’n’B and blues still had an influence on pop music, and get into that. I’ve got nothing against Ed Sheeran at all; I really like watching him live. But so many people are trying to do that – there are so many little Ed Sheerans but we’ve got an Ed Sheeran already. We need people to try to be Jimmy Hendrix – to be really expressive – and to really have the balls to do it and not be all namby pamby. Guitars are best when they’re loud. I’m old-fashioned. I like old-style guitar playing from the 50s, 60s and 70s.

This article is from issue 2 of PowerOn, Roland’s music magazine for the iPad and iPhone. PowerOn is available from the App Store and includes the latest gear, artist interviews and articles about recording technique and the business of music. Find out more about PowerOn on the App Store.

Artist’s Gear