Graham Coxon on Happiness In Magazines

The little miracle of Graham Coxon’s latest solo release, Happiness in Magazines [Astralwerks], is not that it’s a ferocious funfest of thrilling, loud, and off-kilter guitar hysteria.
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The marvel is that this brutally intense record was made by a cat who is happily over his rock star days as Blur’s former guitarist, way into raising a three-year-old daughter, and committed enough to tackle all the instruments on the album without having it sound like one multitasking guitarist timidly playing drums, bass, and everything else. Here, Coxon dissects his strategies for crafting empathetic and ballsy guitar tones and making a one-man band sound like a band.

What was your concept for the guitar sounds on the album?
Generally, my outlook on guitar is pretty traditional. It goes from the guitar sounds on [the Beatles’] Abbey Road to the crisp, but distorted new wave of the Cars. It’s a shorter hair than what some people would define as a real rock sound. If I want to get moronic, I just add a phaser or something.

As far as choosing specific guitar sounds, it’s usually the song that tells you what to do. Every song has a vibe, an influence, or an inspiration from somewhere that affects the sound. Some songs, for example, ask for roomy drum sounds and fat guitar tones. Other songs want everything snappy and tight. From that foundation, I often use historical references. If the song needs some bite, I might think about “The Kids Are Alright” by the Who, and then add some “Another Girl, Another Planet” by the Only Ones. All sorts of things are in my head and available for inspiration. It could be a snippet of something by the Jam, or something classical, or a spot of something from ELO, the Yardbirds, the Ruts, Can, Scott Walker, or the Beatles. I’ll even “hear” parts that aren’t really there—like a flute melody—and then I’ll decide we should put down the phantom part for real.

One of my favorite tricks for adding excitement to a guitar track has nothing to do with guitar—it’s overdubbing maracas. I’m not a huge Stones fan, but when I first heard the maracas come in after the saxophone solo on “Brown Sugar” it gave me goose bumps. There’s something swampy and greasy about maracas. Tambourines sound too happy.

What gear did you use on the sessions?
You know, for the longest time, I thought guitars were guitars. I didn’t know anything at all. I had always played Les Pauls, but when I recorded Blur’s Leisure, I had a go on [producer] Stephen Street’s Telecaster, and it was like, “Oh!” The Telecaster doesn’t have an obvious rock sound—it’s creaky and noisy—and it’s so versatile. It can rip your head off, or it can be very mellow. It can be very much a rhythm instrument, or it can sound great when soloing. They just zing, man. And, hey, The Boss [Bruce Springsteen] uses them, right?

So I used two Telecasters on the album—a blue Relic, and a crazy old ’68 model that was modified with a great big humbucker in the neck position. I typically play a track on the Tele, then double it with a Gibson SG, and pan the two tracks hard right and hard left.

For amps, I used old Marshall heads and Marshall 4x12 cabinets, as well as some smaller amps. I still use racks for effects, although I have a couple of pedals—a crazy Japanese fuzz called a Sanyi, a DOD FX76 Punkifier, and an Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail. For strings, I use Ernie Ball Skinny Top/Heavy Bottoms. I use Dunlop .076 plectrums turned the wrong way around with my fingers quite close to the round edge. That’s a pretty hard piece of pick, and I really slam the guitar, so I tend to saw thin strings in half.

A good share of rock albums where one musician recorded all the parts sound stilted and lifeless. How did you manage to make Happiness in Magazines sound so alive?
Obviously, I don’t want the records to sound like one bloke, so I play the drums, the bass, and the guitar within an inch of their lives! Actually, the process of tracking the parts is easy. I put the meat and potatoes down—the guitar, bass, and drums—and then I have a think about where the track should go. After that, I just make sure that nothing I do messes with the lead vocal.

The hard part is not getting tense when I press Record. Doing records on your own is very difficult, because you don’t have a group of musicians doing what musicians do—which is feed off each other’s energy. I’m jamming with myself, which is kind of weird, so I always have to come up with something that excites me. If I’m sitting back and smoking a cigarette, then I know I’m not doing a good job.

As a guitar player, how do you approach the drums?
Like a guitar player—or so I’ve been told by jealous and territorial drummers! Actually, I’ve played drums longer than I’ve played anything else. I have an old ’68 Slingerland four-piece kit. What I do is play the drums to a guide guitar track that’s just berserk. Then, when I get on the drums, I’m playing with this lunatic on the guitar, and I’m trying to impress that guitarist who is actually trying to impress me.

And how do you manage not to play the bass like a guitarist?
A bass line isn’t a guitar solo—you have to remember that. If a bassist listens to the record, and he or she can tell the bass is played by a guitarist, then I’ve failed. My gear is an Ampeg SVT, a Rickenbacker, and a phenomenally loud, old Japanese Tele-style bass with one pickup.

There are so many cool tones on the album—and it’s obvious that you do serve the emotional impact of the song with your guitar textures—but do you ever fear that your palette is so diverse that people won’t be able to find “The Coxon Sound” in the mix?
Listen, it’s not possible to find the perfect guitar tone, because there are a million perfect guitar tones. Listen to Cream’s live version of “Crossroads.” My God, that’s one of the most perfect live recordings ever. But “Stroll On” by the Yardbirds is a perfect live recording, as well. It really comes down to how you use a particular sound, and whether that sound is right for the song. Eric Clapton’s “woman tone” is a very cool and sexy guitar sound, but it won’t work in every song.

Also, like most people, I have many extremes to my personality. I can listen to everything from Chopin to Talk Talk, and each aspect of whatever I listen to will bring an emotional response. So I’m far too humble in the face of music to have the arrogance to say, “This is my sound.” Human beings have a massive emotional range, and you should explore the extremes and everything in between, rather than striving to forge one particular voice that you want to call your own. Too many musicians say, “This is how I am, and I won’t change.” I think those people are arrogant idiots. Someone has given you all of this intelligence, and, if you think that way, you’re not using an ounce of it.