Graham Coxon has always been an eyes-down sort of guy. As one quarter of Blur, he would unleash the kind of fretwork that found him rightly heralded as one of his generation’s finest guitar players whilst maintaining a gaze affixed firmly upon shoe. Across more than two decades of solo releases, meanwhile, the 52-year-old has often taken the contrarian path, offering up three albums of attention-shunning melancholy at the peak of his fame and, more recently, eschewing traditional albums entirely in favour of soundtracks (he produced the music for both series of acclaimed Netflix drama The End Of The F*cking World) and other more conceptual projects.
“I’ve always retreated, I’ve always been a lot more [about the] inner world really…” he notes, unsurprisingly, over Zoom today, sweating out the summer heatwave from within a room full of instruments and paperwork.
In some ways then, his latest project ‘Superstate’ - an audio-visual collaboration with 15 graphic artists, based around an overarching dystopian narrative involving “lots of depression and supression and terrorism and religious maniacs and angels” - makes a lot of sense for a man who, it seems, has often found reality a bit much. “I started fantasising about a world where people like me are pretty much the scum of the earth - middle class white men - and that one day people like me might be hunted down for fun…” he begins explaining, before chuckling knowingly at the direction his brain is wont to travel.
In other ways, ‘Superstate’ is entirely the work of someone embracing total freedom. There are guest vocalists, and moments where Coxon’s own familiar tones are shifted up to unrecognisable pitches; there are songs that are funk-leaning and unmistakably fun, and ones that come buoyed by comic strips full of X-rated shagging. Written across five years, the project is brimming with wild, sci-fi-indebted flights of fancy and escape, but through the extremities, Graham ended up crafting something unexpectedly closer to home.
“When the dust settles after writing music, I think a lot of people realise it’s a lot more autobiographical than they thought,” he nods, “and when I relistened to the album about a year ago, I realised more and more that actually ‘Superstate’ isn’t about a place, it’s about me, really. How much it was about me and my situation was kind of startling…”
“Music and drawing are part of how I therapised myself growing up, I didn’t really know what else to do.”
‘Superstate’ as a project began on 10th January 2016, the day David Bowie died. The start of one of the bleakest periods in modern history, Graham found himself in a place of personal unrest as the world outside continued to destroy itself. “I felt isolated in a lot of ways - self-imposed or otherwise,” he recalls. “I found myself in the studio a lot; I was sleeping in my studio; I was painting in my studio; my interaction with the outside world was getting less and less because of various things.
“The outer world then seemed pretty hopeless, especially as a musician when you’re getting told to expand your skills and start doing other things to earn a bit of dosh,” he continues. “I was in America from the beginning of 2019 until April 2020, and it’s just acceptable now for [politicians there] to lie; it seems like a real degradation of what is good and right. It’s manners really I suppose, there’s an awful lot of disrespect from the people we’re supposed to hold in some sort of esteem, and that sort of behaviour doesn’t inspire anyone to behave reasonably.”
Bedding down, he worked on concocting an alternate fantasy universe, one that - though not entirely comforting - was “not without hope”. Attempting to get “lots of camera angles on the same action”, Graham began to experiment with writing in different voices, singing in characters and starting from different places so as to build up the rich world he was trying to create. Perversely, he explains, it allowed him to dig in further than ever.
“It helped me with performing vocals to not be Graham Coxon, because I’ve always found him a little bit too shy and too apologetic and reticent to sing out properly even if he feels like it,” he explains. “So I’d decide to be a different character, and I found that really helped; if I have a chord sequence and I just attack it as if I’m Scott Walker, then I’m not me. I’m doing something else. And somehow I’ll find a melody and words that way that are from a different place, from my subconscious, rather than just skimming the top of the soup in my head and getting the obvious stuff. I was exploring different ways of getting to the deeper stuff inside me and it worked.”
“When the dust settles after writing music, I think a lot of people realise it’s a lot more autobiographical than they thought.”
There are moments across the project, indeed, that don’t really sound like Graham at all. On ‘L.I.L.Y’, he duets with a disorientingly beguiling, pitch-shifted vocal of himself; ‘I Don’t Wanna Wait For You’ takes his largely untapped love of disco and lets it run wild; ‘Tommy Gun’ finds him musing “about parenthood and being terrified that one day you’re not there for your children” with a plaintive tone that’s at once familiar but far away. Across its 15 tracks, ‘Superstate’ is unpredictable in the most gleeful of ways: an active reshuffling of his own boundaries that ends up being classic Coxon by merit of doing exactly what most of his peers aren’t.
“I come from a place of the arts, and I suppose I approach music in a similar way. I don’t think I could ever get a bunch of songs, sling them on a record and put them out without it really meaning anything or coming from a need to do it,” he decides. “Music and drawing are part of how I therapised myself growing up, I didn’t really know what else to do. So it’s always come from a need, and it’s a job I suppose? But it’s a job that has to mean something to me. I’ve seen some plumbers that don’t seem at all passionate about it and others where they love it and it’s their life. I suppose that can apply to musicians as well. If I was a plumber, I’d be a good one, I think…”
Back in the day, this need for absolute authenticity was at the root of the tensions that arose within Blur at the height of their mainstream success. “I went down a noise hole for a long time, and it was my own reaction to what I saw as the commercial tinge that Blur had: I was always in tension with it, and that was my own personal hang ups really,” he says of the period. “I thought, one or two hooks per song is fine, but six?! That’s just too much…” These days, however, he’s loosened up a little - heck, Graham’s even joined ‘80s yacht-straddling, art-pop legends Duran Duran to play on their new album.
He’s still doing things merrily his own way, but he’s also seemingly reached a place where he’s allowing himself to enjoy it a bit more too. If ‘Superstate’ is a fictitious journey through a world where love, life and freedom are all on the line, then its parallel journey is a smaller one, of an artist wrangling with those ideas within himself and finding something a little different out the other side.
“Maybe it’s to do with getting older, getting a little more mellow and thinking shit man, whatever, happiness is more important than anything else,” he muses, “ But what’s wrong with that?”
‘Superstate’ is self-released in association with Z2 Comics.
As featured in the August 2021 issue of DIY, out now.