Ahead of appearances at the Beat-Herder Festival in Lancashire’s Ribble Valley and Portmeirion’s Festival No.6 in North Wales, writewyattuk tackled Damon Gough – aka Badly Drawn Boy – on everything from Beck to Boney M and Bruce Springsteen.
Before I get going, I need to make a confession. This interview almost never happened, and it was all down to sheer incompetence on this blogger’s part.
I’d clearly got quite complacent with my digital voice recorder in recent times, but a couple of weeks back I somehow got two input jacks mixed up and produced a perfect half-hour tape of me asking questions and no responses from my interviewee.
What’s more, that Friday afternoon piece was my last that week, determined to enjoy a couple of World Cup matches and a little family time and get back to it all the following Monday.
On finishing my call with Damon Gough, better known as Badly Drawn Boy, I told my better half what a lovely bloke he was, coming over as friendly, open, pensive and candid. It was bound to make a great feature.
The following Monday morning I had a great phone interview with Mick Stokes, lead singer of Lancashire bouzouki-wielding folk-rockers Deadwood Dog, and then uploaded both … only to find acres of empty audio in response to my questions. Cue panic.
Thankfully, Mick was cool about it and we reconvened a couple of hours later, but for the next week and a half or so I was sweating on trying to get hold of Damon again.
I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d told me to ‘do one’, but with a bit of hard work from Emma at his PR company, we finally got there 12 days later, and thankfully Damon was again in (forgiving) fine form.
With all that in mind, I had a different opening question second time around for a 44-year-old, who has carved something of a reputation over the years as one of the UK’s finest independent singer-songwriters.
Have you ever recorded something you considered truly fantastic only to find it’s not been there when you’ve listened back?
“I’m sure it must have happened … in the studio, all the time. The worst thing is thinking you’ll remember a song in your head if you go out to the shops and don’t have the time to jot it down or put it on a dictaphone, then suddenly it’s lost.
“Duke Ellington famously said if an idea’s good you’ll always remember it, but I’m not sure he was right.
“You hear about people having a notebook by the bed, but I don’t bother. I often dream songs, waking up with an idea in the head.”
Do you tend to take something around with you these days, with that in mind?
“Not as much as I should. I have something close by in the house, but not so much when I’m out and about. I should do though. I’m kind of lazy.”
Damon was born in Bedfordshire but moved to Bolton at an early age, and retains a love for his adopted Lancashire.
And this Chorlton-based Manchester City fan will be close to his old home territory this weekend, when he heads for the Ribble Valley for the Beat-herder Festival.
He started recording in 1997, with the self-released EP1, the first of five such extended plays, his reputation steadily growing, his big break coming three years later with the release of The Hour of Bewilderbeast.
A £20,000 Mercury Prize win and mainstream success followed, that album going on to sell 300,000 copies.
The multi-instrumentalist has released seven albums since, including the soundtracks for Paul and Chris Weitz films About A Boy (2002) and Being Flynn (2012).
While Damon may not be gathering quite so many column inches these days, you get the feeling he will again soon, the critical acclaim remaining for this trail-blazing indie artist.
Oh yeah, and he’s penned some bloody good songs along the way as well, as no doubt those who see him at the Beat-Herder (incidentally, a sell-out) this weekend will witness.
So what kind of set can we expect from him?
“Stuff people know, together with a couple of new songs and a couple of covers. Mainly hits, I suppose.”
Damon is also set to appear at Festival No. 6 in early September, a three-dayer in the surrounds of William Clough-Ellis’ stunning Portmeirion neo-Italianate village in North Wales, perhaps best known as the home of cult ’60s TV series The Prisoner.
On that occasion, the bill is topped by The Pet Shop Boys and Beck, and also includes The Undertones, Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, Peter Hook and The Light, London Grammar, Martha and the Vandellas and Neneh Cherry. And that’s just the music.
Damon featured on last year’s No.6 bill too, so I’m guessing he enjoys the woodland vibe.
“Yeah. And I think doing a solo set gives me a freedom to play songs in any order I feel like. If I’m with a band I sometimes have to play a song or set a certain way, but playing on my own I can vary that, pulling something off the cuff or merging songs together – playing the way I feel really.”
You’ve had a fair few band-mates down the years, but you’ve not been particularly allied to any in recent times.
“People just come and go and in your life. People move on. I’ve still got friends that played with me around the time I was touring the first album. They’ve gone on to do other things, but sometimes come back into the frame.
“I recently bumped into friends that played on my first album and could feasibly do things with them. There are several people who live around the corner who I play with on a regular basis at local gigs. But I haven’t got a fixed band as such.
“I only really come to that if I’m doing a lengthy tour. A while ago I did a tour with a drummer, bass player and two backing singers, but just for a handful of gigs. Sometimes I feel it just works for those gigs, then you want to try something different.”
One of the artists you’re looking forward to catching at Portmeirion is Beck, on the Saturday night. What is it that resonates with him?
“Beck for me is one of the most influential artists of our generation. In 1994, when he emerged, he had all those different albums on different small labels, which had never been done before. He set a new benchmark there.
“I was in my early 20s then, working on a four-track recorder in my bedroom and feeling like there was no possibility of having a record deal. I didn’t even try, but someone like Beck made me feel it was possible.
“When I first got chance to meet him, out in Australia, I thanked him for his inspiration and he was very flattered, surprisingly saying not many people say such nice things to him.
“We’ve seen each other a few times since, and this could be a good chance to meet again, at least to shake his hand and see how he’s getting on.”
Any chance of the two of you joining forces at No.6?
“I’m not sure if he’s around on Friday, when I’m on, but I’ll be around the next day to see him and would love to introduce him, perhaps – give him a ‘big up’ in front of the crowd. I’d like to just say hello anyway. He’s a good bloke.”
I was going to ask who you’d like to play live with or collaborate in the studio with, and I’m guessing Beck’s pretty high on that list.
“He’s definitely one, although I do find it hard to answer that question. There are a few artists out there. I always though I could write as good song for Bruce Springsteen – not that he struggles himself, but …”
Your appreciation of Springsteen is mentioned by another fan, Nick Hornby, in his 31 Songs. Were you aware of Bruce’s music pretty early on?
“Similarly I’d heard of Bob Dylan but didn’t really know who he was or what he represented.
“Thunder Road was my in-road to Bruce’s world, but unfortunately around that time all most of my mates saw or heard was Born in the USA, and that put most people off.
“It alienated a hell of a lot of people – quite ironic in that it also made him a global star. But throughout my teenage years I stuck with Springsteen.
“It’s fascinating really – there’s a only a period of about six years between this guy on stage looking more like Roy Orbison with a suit jacket on, before The River, and this muscle-bound Born in the USA guy.
“If you think of that in terms of a career, mine’s already spanned 15 years – when you’re 12 or 13, that’s half of your life.
“But Bruce was massively important to me, and when I first met Nick Hornby that was one of our main talking points.”
He also describes Damon as ‘un-English’ in his music, in that he wouldn’t appeal ‘to Ibizan clubbers or boozed-up football hooligans’.
“Well … when I first read his essay on A Minor Incident, it really moved me because of the angle he takes on it.
“I knew he liked the song, but didn’t know the detail about his own home life and how he applied that song to how his son is. It takes someone like Nick to explain that.
“When I met him he was in awe of the ability to write the three-minute song and felt inferior that he had to write things in long form, in the form of a novel.
“He’s such a fan of songs. I told him I didn’t think I could write a novel, which sounds like hard work to me, but can write a three-minute song. So we both decided to stick to what we can do!
“Nick made the lyric feel even more poignant than I’d intended it by applying some of the lines to something real.
“A lot of people have come to up to me and said something similar about those lines – they had children, and felt the same.
“When you write songs like that on one level and then when it’s out there it becomes something completely different, that’s where the magic begins.
“And music’s worth nothing unless somebody is listening to it.”
You were a Dad yourself by the time you wrote that soundtrack. Did having children make you re-evaluate?
“Definitely. You think differently. I should get back to thinking more like that. Actually, it’s quite therapeutic this chat, in a way, to talk about such things.”
Damon’s children are now approaching 14 and 12, and while I can’t imagine him without his feet on the ground, it must help.
“Yeah. I can still trail-blaze my way through a few bars on a Friday night, but I’ve become a bit more sensible as I’ve got older. And I do look after them.”
“It’s very much part of who you are. I’ve always been very attached to my home roots, and I’m not the greatest traveller.
“I would love to see more of the world though, including these past few weeks watching the World Cup – seeing how beautiful and fascinating Brazil looks, despite all its problems.
“I am quite rooted, although I’m very lucky to have travelled because of all this. It’s been forced on me though, otherwise I’d just be sat lazily in my own back garden.
“The job’s taken me all over the place, so while it’s sometimes tough it’s given me a good view of the world, as a bonus.”
You were born in Dunstable, but soon moved to the North-West. Where is home for you these days?
“Chorlton, just three miles from Manchester’s town centre. I’ve been here since the mid-’90s in various houses.
“I grew up in Bolton with my mum and dad, a brother and two sisters, but every Sunday we’d come across to this part of Manchester, where my grandmother lived and made the best Sunday roast.
“We lived in Breightmet first off, but my mum and dad wanted us to move to a nicer part of town, even though we had good times there, growing up on a housing estate.
“We had lots of mates, and although it was rough and ready it was brilliant. I didn’t want to leave. But we moved to Belmont when I was 13 and I left in my mid-20s, having been to Leeds’ College of Music in between and had a few jobs.”
“In some ways the isolation of living in a village made me veer towards being a solo artist, in a strange way, because I was used to being on my own.
“I was in a couple of bands, but always had the mentality of being a solo artist, perhaps because of that village isolation.
“That definitely had some influence on the route I took, and my mum and dad being self-employed – running their own small business – probably gave me that attitude of doing it for myself, starting my own record label.
“When I moved to Chorlton I met Andy Votel and we started Twisted Nerve, because I didn’t really expect to get a record deal any other way.
“The combination of those few things made me become this Badly Drawn Boy. I wanted to make a record and Andy wanted to start a label.”
From the start Damon seemed to tackle the artistic marketing side of the business well.
His was a truly independent spirit, no doubt something that helps him out in the current market, with the record industry so different now to how it was when he started out.
“Yes. I think everybody’s been forced to have a certain attitude to getting music out, and it can only be good that people have to think outside the box and not worry about other people liking them or not.
“You’ve got to believe in yourself in any kind of creative world, and not be reliant on people like Simon Cowell to tell you that you’re good, which is what I always hate about things like The X-Factor.
“It is what it is and will never go away, but I think people should have belief in themselves and do things for themselves, like I did. People are forced to do that these days.
“God knows what the state of the record companies is at the moment though. I’ve not actually dealt with anyone in those circles these last few years.”
Similarly, if Damon hadn’t got that Mercury Prize award in 2000 I don’t think it would have made that much of a difference to his approach. Perhaps it just gave him a financial breathing space.
“Possibly, yeah. It was very exciting and I will always be grateful for it starting my career. People talk about it being an Achilles heel or an albatross, but I think it’s just a coincidence that the acts that receive it are not the kind of artists who tend to stay in the charts. They make records in their own time and space.
“I’ve not been in the charts for years, but I still make records and music. I’ve had a couple of years off and I really need to get back to it now.
“People keep asking what I’m doing, so I better get cracking!”
I’m guessing you’ve been working on a lot of new songs.
“Slowly, but surely, with lots of ideas cooking.”
When will that next album be out there?
“Last year I was saying this year, and this year I’m saying next year. But this time I’ve got to stick to that.
“Maybe we can re-release it as a new package. There would be some good stuff to include, such as extra tracks and other takes.”
A deluxe edition?
“Yeah. It would make a really good package. That alongside a new record.”
And live dates too?
“It would be great to do a proper UK tour again, like theatre dates, especially for a new album and re-release of old stuff.
“That would make for a nice all-round year. That’s something to aim for. That’s a loose plan!”
“Not since Being Flynn, which criminally didn’t seem to get a proper release. I’m not sure if they mis-marketed it or aimed it too high.
“It should have been for smaller theatres, with the type of film it was. Far be it for me to criticise, but that’s how I saw it. Perhaps because they spent so much money on it that they needed to claw it back.
“It’s a shame because it was really decent. I spent some time on it, but just feel sorry for Chris Weitz in that it didn’t come to much.
“Other than that … there’s a Zach Braff film just coming out, Wish I Was Here, which has used one of my songs on the soundtrack (The Shining).”
So what are you most looking forward to at the Beat-herder other than your own Saturday afternoon set?
“I’d like to see James Lavelle, who I’ve worked with before, and I think we’re all intrigued by Boney M, aren’t we?
“I remember a statistic, for 1978 I think, how they still hold the record for the number of singles sold in the UK in one calendar year, including the Christmas No.1, Mary’s Boy Child.
“This is the thing about nostalgia. Everyone will love singing along to Brown Girl in the Ring. I’m not sure if it’ll be a full band though.”
You could always join them and offer instrumental help. I can just see you in the trademark woolly hat getting down to Daddy Cool, Rasputin and Rivers of Babylon.
“I’d love to get on stage and have a little dance with them, if possible. I’d love to get to see them!”
With thanks to Damon and also to Emma Bosworth at Carousel PR for ensuring I got a second go at this interview.
For all the latest from Badly Drawn Boy, head to his official facebook page here.
This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post, published on July 17, 2014. For the original online version, head here.