You’d be hard pushed to argue that Britpop was synonymous with anything intergalactic. Its basic tents were grounded in the grit of realism. However, that was thirty years ago now, and in the meantime, Graham Coxon has been pushing through a wide array of creative realms. His latest is his most ambitious project yet.
Superstate, which is due for release on the 27th of August, comes with the logline written by Coxon himself: “Superstate is a story of escape… in a society where war rages between the forces of negativity and positivity, encouragement and discouragement… Where only the struggle from oppression, chaos and brutality leads to the fragile road to freedom. A road that burns its way through the far reaches of space to a planet called… heaven”
This sprawling epic concept saw the former Blur musician team up Z2 Comics for a graphic novel, for which the album serves as a soundtrack. The 15 songs that Coxon crafted over the last four years have been transposed into 15 separate stories featuring the work of 15 artists, and writers Alex Paknadel and Helen Mullane, with the album and book cover artwork by Coxon himself.
We chatted with Coxon earlier this month to discuss this unique concept, his daring creative approach, the seismic shake-up of lockdown and what the future holds…
An interview with Graham Coxon:
On the sound…
Comparisons are always a tentative thing to mention in an interview. It stands to reason that if an artist has spent years pouring their individualism into a project, then they might not want it redacted down to cheap sound-alike judgement, particularly if it is with somebody that they don’t care for. Thus, it came with great relief when the utterance of, “Superstate sounds a bit like if John Coltrane at his spiritual peak was in Daft Punk,” washed very well Coxon.
“I was definitely mucking around with prog-disco,” Coxon enthusiastically agrees. “I was listening to a lot of Absolute 70s and that was sort of mixed up with the sonic perversions of my mind and the sorts of stuff I was listening to as a teenager like Soft Machine and King Crimson and a lot of psychedelic stuff. I guess I sort of ended up making something that was a bit more like disco really but with all these other elements.”
While musicologically the rhythmic traits that run throughout his work remain, the bombastic synth-driven sound is a welcome shock that Coxon joyfully acknowledges. “I realise that the record is a bit of a departure sound-wise,” he declared. “I guess it coincided with me learning a bit more about home recording really and getting myself a set up over the last few years because when I started this record, I didn’t have much of a setup. Then obviously I got bitten by the bug of home recording and did the TV series The End of the Fucking World which opened up possibilities. Then I realised you didn’t have to have a tonne of gear to make good recordings.”
While the revelation of DIY producing may well have come as a revelation, the sonic concept itself has been maturing over almost half a decade. As Coxon explains: “This is something that I’ve been working on for the last four years or something and I think having access to technology and loops, and just to be able to record very easily when and where I need to had a big impact.”
Adding: “Like there’s a song called ‘Ball of Light’ that was recorded at four in the morning, so it was kind of possible to be inspired, for want of a better word, and just to be able to go and do it. Other than that, the difference in the sound was in exploring other areas of the music that I was interested in.”
And thanks to the wonders of modern technology he was able to weave everything that tickled his gaping fancy into one sui generis piece. “With Logic, it was really easy to throw things in when I was feeling a bit bored,” he adds. “Just to throw loops in and see if they worked. And coming up with melody lines over loops or chord sequences that I’d come up with. And I guess that was also helped out because it wasn’t really me singing them. That’s where a concept kind of came in.”
On the concept…
Having a DIY influenced disco-prog album that follows the unfurling whims of your inspiration is one thing, but embarking on a concept as bold as a soundtrack to a graphic novel is quite another. “The idea of the graphic novel came later,” Coxon explains. “At first, I was exploring with the idea of songs where I wasn’t particularly the singer. I found that if I pretended to be someone else I could say a lot more about things because I felt less anxious about being personal, less anxious about singing about subjects that Graham Coxon would feel slightly more reticent or shy about,” he adds with a quirky third-person reference.
Then from this singular songwriting construct his idea began to snowball. “It started out like that, then it sort of built into these kitchen sink dramas almost. There are visitations from angels and there is extreme inequality in society with ‘Yoga Town’ serving as this first episode where you don’t really know why this situation is the way it is but it makes you want to go to episode two. So, there’s a situation where this woman is screaming at this guy. And you sort of think, ‘Where are the children and what’s going here?’ with recurring interest.”
“This kind of made it a task to keep a narrative too, but also to not let the narrative overpower the song.” The result of this is a fluid creative splurge where the record coalesces with the story and transcends it in equal measure. “In amongst it, there is moments of emancipation in songs like ‘Goodbye Universe’, which is about the journey into space.”
Sonically this journey allowed for a window where the music informs the narrative as opposed to the other way around as the track reaches an exultant wall of sound akin to a frenzied fever dream of a Leo Sayer incarnation of ‘The Four Horsemen’. Which Coxon describes as, “an extended psychedelic outro that I really wanted to be very long because it’s just a sort of nice headbang really.”
Adding: “I like the idea of music being contemplative and very rhythmic, to serve as a vehicle to a sort of trance, rather like the way Pink Floyd used to with organ solos on stuff like ‘Saucerful of Secrets’ or like ‘What Goes On’ by the Velvet Underground. It needn’t have gone on, it could’ve only been four bars, but it gets you into a repetitive movement which is a great thing about music that you don’t get with a radio edit.”
All that being said, venturing into the world of graphic novels is not really somewhere that you’d expect a creative muse to bolt unless you’re familiar with the form itself. For Coxon, this began slightly later in life. “It wasn’t until Deadline Magazine,” he explained about how he got into graphic novels. “And meeting Jamie Hewlitt in the very early nineties and Tank Girl and The Wired World by Phillip Bond and things that Glyn Dillon was doing and I suppose I was quite seduced by the drawings.”
“It was almost like a form of TV. They drew very attractive characters. Then I got interested in Akira and a lot of the Japanese Manga stuff mainly for the drawing and I just thought it was beautiful stuff. It’s nothing I obsessed over but I liked the idea that it was just like watching TV really, it wasn’t complicated and you could just sort of nip in.”
For the album itself, the concept of a graphic novel began to take form with an errand sketch that later became the cover art, created by Coxon himself. “I had this sketch of this tower of crowns and I thought it was a cool idea about this sprawling town and then this rubble, I guess sort of like L.A.” he explains. “Then there’s this huge tower that was where the rich people were. So that sketch kind of informed the project.”
Other inspirations came in the form of the works of the writer Brian Aldiss, one of which is also called Superstate. There are other concepts borrowed from his work too, as Coxon explains: “ In ‘Goodbye Universe’ there’s the voice of angels living in trees and then I wanted these pathological narcissistic overlords who were forcing information into the population which is a bit like now but amplified.”
On the influence of lockdown…
Over the course of the last year and a half, the global pandemic has represented a huge moment in history and as such society has transmuted. Seeing as though we live in the age of individualism, this also means everyone’s personal outlook has also changed. This is something that Coxon has done some musing on, and it clearly informed his work too. “I was just thinking about what heaven is and maybe it is a planet and when we’re visited by things we don’t understand maybe they are angelic entities from a planet rather than heaven.”
Adding: “I just sort of looked at the Old Testament in a different way, but in the project, I wanted to present the idea that angels and mother earth and mother universe were both somewhat terrifying and beautiful at the same time.”
He then philosophically adds: “I think with lockdown it gave a lot of people great pause in their life to reassess and whatever came of that, whether it was to ask big questions or look at the route they were taking with their life, it just gave people a chance to re-evaluate and shrug off the life they thought they had been enjoying or the one they felt they had been dealt and make changes, and that certainly happened with me. So, the whole thing with Superstate is you could also look at it as yourself and what is actually happening inside you.”
On future plans…
The grand scope of the multimedia project and sprawling list of collaborators will no doubt make the logistics of touring Superstate very difficult, but Coxon is positively undeterred by such things these days. “I’d love to be able to tour the album eventually, all the girls and the boys on the record were up for it,” he says.
“And there are other things, I’ve been recording a new project that hopefully you might have something to hear from by the end of the year. Jaded Hearts are still on the go and I’ve been hanging out with Duran Duran a bit. I think lockdown told me to just have fun really and that happiness is important. We’re only here once perhaps and you’ve just got to do what you find fulfilling which doesn’t mean be selfish necessarily but just to make sure what you do would be good for you.”
Superstate is written by Graham Coxon, Alex Paknadel and Helen Mullane.
The tracklisting and artist credits for Superstate is, as follows:
1. ‘Yoga Town‘ (Artist: Kendall Goode)
2. ‘Uncle Sam‘ (Artist: Eryk Donovan)
3. ‘It’s All In Your Mind‘ (Artist: Andrade Estevez)
4. ‘Only Takes A Stranger‘ (Artist: Anna Readman)
5. ‘L.I.L.Y.‘ (Artists: Luisa Russo)
6. ‘Bullets’ (Artist: Goran Gligovic)
7. ‘I Don’t Wanna Wait For You‘ (Artist: Ryan Kelly)
8. ‘The Astral Light‘ (Artist: Soo Lee)
9. ‘Heaven (Buy a Ticket)‘ (Artist: Koren Shadmi)
10. ‘The Ball of Light‘ (Artist: Vasilis Lolos)
11. ‘Tommy Gun‘ (Artist: Minerva Fox)
12. ‘Goodbye Universe‘ (Artist: Kim Canales)
13. ‘Butterfly‘ (Artist: Dave Chisholm)
14. ‘We Remain‘ (Artist: Ivan Stojković)
15. ‘Listen‘ (Artist: Taylan Kurtulus)
As well as a standalone digital release, the Superstate soundtrack will be available on vinyl bundled with the book. A deluxe bundle that includes the soundtrack, a hardback copy of the book with an exclusive slipcase and 3 art prints, will be available. As well as a limited super deluxe bundle will also include a copy of the book signed by Graham. You can find out more details by clicking here.