Graham Coxon releases his new album A+E on Monday, April 2 and starts a huge UK tour on Friday, April 13. He tells Andy Welch about what plans the reformed Blur have for the coming year.
For a man who once found interviews a harrowing experience, Graham Coxon has learned to enjoy talking about his music. After all those years as a member of Blur, and releasing eight albums under his own name, he can now see the appeal.
"I just used to find it maddening talking about the same thing over and over and over, but it's what you make of it," he says, the day after his 43rd birthday.
"Now I just see it as an opportunity to really work out what I think. And it's good to find out people's thoughts on the record."
That Coxon clammed up in Blur interviews is a shame. Self-deprecating and outright funny in equal measure, he's hugely entertaining company, even if he still finds it hard to "blow my own trumpet about my solo stuff".
His new album A+E, however, is well worth blowing a trumpet about. Leaving the finger-picked folk of 2009's The Spinning Top behind, it sees Coxon in abrasive mood, with nods to German experimentalists Neu! and British alt-punks Wire.
"I feel like I've opened a door with this album," he says, "and now I want to go through it and have a look around.
"A lot of the album has a mesmeric groove, and I like that. I've had these influences all my life, I just concentrate on different areas. I wanted to dehumanise the music a little more, using drum machines and a few sequencers."
Recorded quickly with producer Ben Hillier, Coxon plays virtually everything on A+E, with Hillier programming any electronic equipment and playing keyboards where needed. While Coxon misses not being able to jam with other musicians, he does enjoy the amount of time being self-sufficient saves him in the studio.
"I hate sitting around waiting. If I'd got a bass player, they'd lug all their gear in, probably late, spend two hours tuning and 'finding their sound' and then insist on doing a load of takes. But I have it done in half an hour, tops. Much better that way, just get it recorded and get out.
"There are some awfully cheap sounds on this album," he adds. "I have a horrible little drum machine, but it did the job. If something made us swear or laugh, it stayed on. That was the quality control. And that's what the record is about, I think."
With so many column inches already devoted to the post-Blur endeavours of Coxon's bandmate Damon Albarn, it would be impossible for his own solo work to seem anything but overshadowed.
Nevertheless, there's never been anything but praise for his records. And seeing as Coxon's solo career started almost by accident, and the idea of the spotlight terrifies him, it's difficult to imagine he would want to swap places with his old friend.
"At first it was just something to do to keep me occupied," he says, referring to his 1998 debut The Sky Is Too High.
"A friend of mine was putting a script together and they asked me to write some songs, and even though I wasn't a songwriter I thought I'd give it a go. I wrote Me You, We Two and some other bits and bobs during tours with Blur.
"Being a constantly embarrassed person I didn't really know what to do with these things. I was going to release it under a pseudonym, but I ended up feeling a sense of fulfilment after writing a song. It was like a rock diary entry, the process worked for me on a lot of levels.
"You can say what you want to say, back it up with noises and rhythms, and when I realised that it became an addictive form of expression, I couldn't quite stop."
He released two more albums, The Golden D and Crow Sit On Blood Tree, while still a member of Blur but, as he admits, it wasn't until The Kiss Of Morning, released around eight months after he left the band in 2002, that his solo music became something more serious.
"When I left Blur I had no plans, I just started writing songs, sitting down for my own pleasure.
"I wrote Freakin' Out and Bittersweet Bundle Of Misery (from 2004's Happiness In Magazines), and I realised I can write these big pop songs," he says. "I started concentrating on catching up on the things I'd missed by being in a band."
Coxon says being in a band is about pushing and pulling with the other members, "making noises" and trying to be heard. His own songwriting, however, was far more fundamental than that, building everything from the ground up.
The next big concern for Coxon is his live shows, with a huge UK tour beginning on April 14.
"I don't get nervous or anything," he says. "Well the big Blur ones are very nerve-racking, but at my own ones I don't worry. I just like to get on and make sure the crowd have a good time. They're on my side; they're there for a lot of noise, and mardy singing. They know exactly what they're getting."
With the solo career in rude health, it seems roles have reversed and Blur has become Coxon's side project. He says he, Albarn, Alex James and Dave Rowntree have regular meetings, and plans are well under way for their performance at the London 2012 closing ceremony in August.
"Now the pressure is off and people are used to us being back, it feels nice again," he says. "Blur are capable of a lot of really interesting stuff, so it's really healthy, and we can do what we feel like doing.
"We're not forced to get on the treadmill. It's a great situation."
Extra time - Graham Coxon :: Graham Leslie Coxon was born in Rinteln, West Germany, on March 12, 1969. His dad Bob worked as an army bandsman. His family then moved to Derbyshire to live with his grandfather.
:: The Coxons relocated once again, this time to Colchester in Essex when he was eight. It was here he met future bandmate Damon Albarn.
:: The pair met Alex James and Dave Rowntree while studying at Goldsmith's College, London.
:: Coxon has a daughter with a former girlfriend. Pepper Bak Troy Coxon was born in 2000.
:: He left Blur in 2002 for personal reasons. He rejoined when the band announced they were reforming in 2008.