It was almost six years since I’d last spoken to Damon Gough, and a lot had happened since in his life. On that occasion I cocked up, putting the lead in the wrong jack (which sounds like some obscure late-‘80s house track), recording half an hour of me asking questions and getting inaudible replies. Thankfully, my interviewee – better known as Badly Drawn Boy – was good enough to go through it all again 12 days later. But I didn’t go into that this time. First, because I thought he was unlikely to remember, and second, because I barely got a word in for the first quarter-hour.
There’s only been one Badly Drawn Boy LP since 2010’s It’s What I’m Thinking, Pt.1 – Photographing Snowflakes, and that the soundtrack to 2012 film, Being Flynn, which I understand never got a UK release. But that tells little of the real Damon Gough story, involving brushes with alcoholism, depression, rehab and therapy, finally knocking the drinking on the head in 2016.
What he now admits was a ‘long-time personal crutch, and an artistic one’, became something habitual in a busy career pattern of recording and touring for two decades, doing most of his best work at night, suitably relaxed after a few drinks … until that method stopped working. And that’s without mentioning an inevitable relationship breakdown.
In the end he quit the booze thanks to the help of a residential facility in Kent, counselling, and the love of the new woman in his life. Meeting him at a low ebb, in time they married and, in May 2017, had a son. Meanwhile, the world was going to hell in a handcart, Damon like many of us consumed by all those social and political changes, messing up his head even more. That’s where the therapy came in, and he reckons, ‘I’ve had to grow up a lot’. And now he wants to help others, reconnect, sing, perform and engage again, his subsequent ‘Pocket Guide To A Midlife Crisis’ a key part of that, Banana Skin Shoes rightly presented as one of the most honest pop records you’ll hear this year.
As he puts it on the opening song, ‘It’s time to break free from this plaster cast and leave your past behind … It’s time to supersize your soul.’ This is Damon ‘fessing up to his fall from grace but refusing to be dragged down, that title track upbeat, defiant, inspiring, and fun, neatly setting the tone. And he reckons this is ‘the poppiest record I’ve made’ but still wants ‘to say a few things and try to subtly be a conscience for people that might think like me, whether you call it your fanbase, people who are like-minded, Remoaners or whatever…’
Not as if it all came together so quickly. Away from his personal ‘journey’ there were trips to and from studios and producers. Four years ago, he recorded six songs in eight days with producer Youth (Paul McCartney, Crowded House, The Verve) in London. Then there was year-long paternity leave. Reconvening closer to home, he worked with Seadna McPhail at Airtight Studios and Keir Stewart, ex-Durutti Column, a neighbour with a home studio (Inch Studios). Then, at Eve Studios, Stockport, along with producer Gethin Pearson (Kele Okereke, Crystal Fighters) he whittled 20 songs down to 14 that properly told a tale, helped out by Public Service Broadcasting’s Johnny Abraham (brass), Skindred’s Daniel Pugsley (bass) and Davey Newington (aka Boy Azooga), the songs and recordings swimming into focus.
As his press release puts it, ‘Over 14 songs Banana Skin Shoes is the sound of a songwriter skipping between musical idioms, and between emotional extremes, but doing so with a cool, calm confidence’. He’s clearly happy with the result, and rightly so, as suggested by the fact that this interview had been going at least 17 minutes before I managed to get in my second question. Having scribbled down two pages’ worth before calling, I ended up mentally ticking off more than I needed ask this Bedfordshire-born, Bolton-bred, Manchester-based 50-year-old, who broke through to critical acclaim in 2000 on the back of Mercury Prize-winning debut LP, The Hour of Bewilderbeast. The furthest I got was, ‘How’s the lockdown been for you so far?’.
“Erm, well I dunno. It’s a bit weird, innit? It equalises us all and some say some are more equal than others, and I get that. It depends where you are and where you live, what your outlook on life is, how your mental state is. Where we were before predetermines how we’re equipped to deal with it, I suppose.
“I’m lucky. I live in a nice place. I’ve got my wife and little boy with us. We’re in a relatively nice version of lockdown. For somebody living in a high-rise flat with three or four kids, it might be a different story. We’ve got a nice big house and gardens, and that helps. I live in a nice area, Chorlton. I haven’t gone out much. Then again, I don’t go out much anyway.
“I gave up the boozing nearly five years ago, so I’m used to isolation of a certain type. When it’s imposed on you it’s different, I suppose, and while I can cope with this, you feel other people’s pain. As this unfolds, the things that are important ….
“I’ve got two other kids, 19 and 18. My daughter was at uni, first year at Leeds, and has had her time cut short. My son was about to do his A-levels. My newest arrival, Reuben, is nearly three, and he’s not seen his nursery pals. That’s just me, one story. People’s livelihoods have been affected as well. At the moment we’re all wondering how we’ll end up living with this virus and coping with it.
“It’s easy to point the finger at the Government. I feel sorry for them to a point. I feel they were underprepared and made some fundamental mistakes, but to keep on going on about that is futile. It should be about getting it right now. I watch all these political programmes and I’m suck of hearing people complaining about it. Let’s work together, do something now.
“A lot of the stuff on my new album reflects this – the world at large, how’s it’s operated these last few years and how that frustrated me. Now we’ve got this virus it’s perspective on other things, and you couldn’t have written that better, after three years bickering about Brexit and the time wasted doing that, with other issues overlooked because of it.
“I finished this album last November and it was made from that period of the referendum in 2016. I started recording in 2017, took a little break when my boy was due and once he came, after just a few weeks in the studio. There were a few false starts, but I resumed in 2018 around the corner with a friend, Keir Stewart, who’s got a studio in his house.
“Then last year I got Gethin Pearson to help finish it. So that three-year period seems like a moment in time, and this album for me in time will define a period in my life. I couldn’t have made this record any other time. I tried my best to reflect personal struggles I’ve come through.
“It’s a personal triumph to make this album, having gone through lots of knockbacks and the break-up of a major relationship with the mother of my two elder children, breaking up after 14 years. That was largely down to my drinking really, and not coping with all this. I was so busy for 12 years, from the first album in 2000, touring the world and what-not. I became a habitual boozer because of it and the break-up fuelled that further.
“There’s a song on the album, ‘I Just Wanna Wish You Happiness’, about maintaining dignity throughout that, and managing to do that was a triumph, coming through that then meeting Lianne, my wife now, having met only a few months after the break-up.
“I was hardly looking for another relationship. I honestly wasn’t. But she helped me get through those first few years. I carried on partying, having a good time, the kids living with their Mum around the corner. We kept it all dignified, and me giving up the booze helped enormously. I’m more present in everyone’s lives now, and after I’d given up the booze I thought it was time I made another album.
“Time’s taken care of itself these last seven years, and it doesn’t feel to me like I’ve been away as long as I have, because of all these events. It was more or less my 40s – a lost decade in terms of being a recording artist. If I could turn back time and change that, I would, but because of all these things I’ve come up with a positive set of songs. I’ve had some tough times, but I’ve come back stronger. And I still believe there’s hope for me and there’s hope for everyone.”
It comes over as very reflective, and perhaps your most personal album yet.
“Yeah, they’re all kind of personal, but I feel I’ve learned lots of big life lessons, and if you’re going to bounce back from something like that … I feel I’m a better new version of me through the resilience I’ve had to show to come back. I wanted to articulate that in an album to help other people. Everyone’s got struggles of one kind or another. As life goes on, you’re lucky if you don’t encounter hardship. You learn so much more than if life was a breeze. If you come through that, you appreciate life more.
“This coronavirus is a great example. Hopefully we’re all in a better place, and the one thing everyone can do is appreciate life more. We’ve had a lucky escape if we get through this okay. And I’ve been through that on a personal level, on the brink with drink. I had to give up, and Leanne helped with her support and strength.”
And why call this Banana Skin Shoes?
“I wanted it to be a comedy title and a comedy take on a serious matter – taking ownership of your own mistakes. I’ve done everything I can to not come across as feeling sorry for myself. I’ve had health issues as well – I’ve had Crohn’s disease, diabetes, a hip replacement two years ago because of complications with Crohn’s and the medication I was on, steroids. But even when I was diagnosed with Crohn’s, I wasn’t bothered. My younger sister’s had it all her life, and as a teenager she nearly died through operations.
“When I was diagnosed I was almost jubilant, in solidarity with my sister, who’s lived with it for 30 years. She’s ok, and it’s made her a very spiritual person. I felt the least I could do was not let this bother me. It set her back at the time, missing a year of schooling, her grades suffering, so it didn’t phase me.
“Similarly, with diabetes – the discipline I gained from giving up boozing was just the beginning. Once I’d cracked that and regained some self-pride – feeling worthy again of people’s love, especially my kids – I was back to a better me, and that gave me strength and discipline. I thought about losing weight, lost nearly three stone, and that reversed my diabetes. I’ve also been doing some therapy over the last 12 months – more like life coaching, and that’s been amazing, sort of helping me manage my mind a bit.
“Depression and that is common with artists and with boozing, and again it’s something I’d love to help others with. Think more from your core self than from your brain, which gets cluttered with all the information the world throws at you. No wonder there’s so many people struggling at the minute. And on this album the messages are all kind of loosely based around reconnecting with who you are, ‘supersizing your soul’ as I say on the title track.
“You’re only useful to others when you’re in a position of strength yourself, and ‘I Need Someone to Trust’ is a spiritual song about that. ‘I lost control, a part of my soul, bring it back, make it whole’. Coming back from the brink of disaster, finding strength then being able to help others – ‘Where the river bends, you bounce, fall in, and if this should happen, keep a grip of my hand’. I’m offering some kind of guidance. Some is metaphorical, some is true. You immortalise these things when you put them in a song, making something bigger than it actually is.
“The gesture in real life only needs to be small, and doing lots of small things can contribute good things to the world. That’s what I’m trying to do with this record – adding something good to the mix rather than something meaningless.”
I was going to pick up on one of those songs mentioned. ‘I Just Wanna Wish You Happiness’ seems to be the antithesis of Elvis Costello’s ‘I Hope you’re Happy Now’. I feel you might have written a similarly angry song if you’d voiced those emotions straight away. Instead, we have more measured, reflective thinking further down the road.
“That’s a good point actually, and a really good analogy, but the sentiment of the song was there really soon. I wrote the skeleton of that song just a few months after the break-up, although I didn’t finish it until more recently. I knew that was the sentiment I wanted to carry through. Even though I didn’t orchestrate the break-up – Clare was ditching me, as it were – I still knew in my heart of hearts it was largely my fault. I felt a duty to pay respect, and the opportunity was there to do that.
“I couldn’t think of another song where somebody had said that in so many words. There have been some classic break-up songs. You’ve just mentioned one, and Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks was like a whole album’s worth. There’s another song on this album, and while I didn’t want to write more than one as I didn’t want this to be a break-up album, the other song touching on that is ‘Funny Time of Year’. The reason I kept that was because it tells the story from the point of view of the person doing the dumping, and the person having to make that choice. My ex-partner had to make that difficult choice, and that’s my take on trying to understand her and how that‘s not easy either.
“It’s hard being at the receiving end of being ditched, but just as hard in certain circumstances being the one making that hard decision. It was the day after my daughter’s birthday in December when I was asked to leave, and there’s never a good time of year. When you lose someone at a certain time of year, it’s always going to be a bad time. A ‘Funny Time of Year’ is basically any time of year it happens really.”
For me, songs like that, ‘I’m Not Sure What it Is’ and ‘You and Me Against the World are more noticeably Badly Drawn Boy of old. Deceptively simple, effective songwriting. And I could hear Glenn Tilbrook delivering ‘I’m Not Sure What it Is’ – something Damon sees as ’a milestone song for me, like ‘Once Around The Block’’ – with Squeeze. What’s more, I could also see him sending it to … erm, Michael Buble, his subsequent cover potentially setting Chorlton’s finest up for another year or two, financially.
“Ha! Well, daft as that sounds, I really like the idea. You’re bang on. It’s definitely a nod to what people know from me, stylistically, and in my head, I was trying to do Georgie Fame meets Frank Zappa. ‘I’m tired of climbing ladders’’. A jazzy big band number. ‘I know what I want when I see what it is’. That’s where Michael Buble works as a suggestion, weirdly.”
Maybe you could get your people to talk to his people.
“Well, it’s a great idea. I’m flattered by that, while years ago I may have put the phone down on you! Being older and wiser you realise the value. I’m not as competitive as I used to be. I appreciate other people’s abilities are different to mine. There’s room for everybody. So I’ll take that as a compliment, and I always find it fascinating what other people see in the potential of a song. Cover versions are an amazing thing in themselves. Remixes aren’t as much a thing as they used to be, but a good remix would enhance your own vision of what a song is capable of.
“The most obvious cover version that springs to mind for me when I’m trying to explain it to people who maybe don’t get music in a certain way and how a song can manifest itself in so many different ways is Joe Cocker’s version of ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’. His is probably the definitive version, even though the original is brilliant. It makes the original better. And more likeable. That’s what a good cover does. Like Hendrix doing ‘All Along the Watchtower’. That makes the original feel more powerful, show in the strength of the song.”
You could turn that concept on its head too. Imagine if Joe Cocker’s version was the original, subsequently covered by The Beatles.
“That’s a strange thought. That would seem even more improbable. You’d think, ‘How did they get that version out of his?’. Wow!”
Talking of songs taken into unexpected areas, the title track, ‘Banana Skin Shoes’ kind of reminds me of Kirsty MacColl and Johnny Marr on ‘Walking Down Madison’, as does ‘Tony Wilson Said’. There’s a fusion of styles there, and it might not be what people expect from you.
“Again, that’s a nice point. I love the reference, and Johnny Marr was working with Billy Bragg around them, working on his version of ‘Walk Away Renee’, the version I learned to play guitar from. ‘Walking Down Madison’ is a song I’d forgotten about. As an artist I’ve a lot of things that inspire – lots of soul music, dance music, hip-hop even. And with ‘Banana Skin Shoes’ and ‘Tony Wilson Said’, particularly the latter, it needed to be a joyous song.
“It’s one of those songs I’d have never thought I’d write. It just came to me while I was sat at the piano, humming a melody when those words came into my head. I kind of laughed, went outside, had a coffee and a fag – I don’t smoke anymore, I’m just vaping now – but reflected on it, and it took a bit of courage to pursue that song in the studio, with a few attempts, jamming it out. It eventually became a dancey, upbeat, kind of song reflecting that Manchester scene.”
Talking elsewhere about his Tony Wilson tribute, Damon revealed, ‘When we emerged in the ’90s – people like me, Andy Votel, Doves, Elbow – there was a thriving scene in Manchester largely because people like Tony had kept things going through pretty hard times.’ And there’s arguably an underlying Happy Mondays feel to the result, I suggested.
“I had The Beastie Boys in my head for some reason as well. None of that came to the fore but there was the essence of some spirit of what hip-hop’s about, as well as The Clash meets Motown. That line, ‘You symbolise and crystalise freedom’, is more like a Mick Jones melody. Big Audio Dynamite rather than pure Clash. But there’s something of that spirit in there. And it’s a Joe Strummer thing to do – championing a guy that meant something to you, like Tony Wilson.”
Now you mention it, I hear something of later Joe, on a track like ‘Bhindi Bhagee’ on splendid 2001 Mescaleros LP Global a Go-Go.
“Yeah, the fascinating thing about The Clash was that crossover of styles for what was in essence an angry punk band to begin with, with soul music creeping in, and reggae, and a fusion of influences, that Clash of styles. And Joe’s sensibility of spirituality and stuff …
“I was fortunate enough to get to know Joe well. I’ve been so fortunate in my career to meet people, and Joe was probably one of those at the top of the list. We hung out a few times, I met him at the Q magazine awards in 2000. I’d already won the Mercury Prize, was getting a handful of other accolades, and was up for best solo artist, while Joe … his acceptance speech humbled me. It was my first record and I’d won all that, then Joe walked on stage to accept his and said it was his first-ever prize, and was so honoured. I thought, ‘Wow!’
“Then we were stood waiting to get our photographs taken, and Joe tapped me on the shoulder, said, ‘Thank God someone in our country is making great music again. I thought he was talking to someone else, but he gave a hug. That was a shock, something I didn’t expect. I felt honoured but also there was this thing that Joe had done so much yet he was just getting his first award, while I was getting awards on my first outing. It made me realise how fortunate I’d been, and we stayed in touch.
“We ended up doing a few festivals where he’d be watching me from the side of the stage. When he died, I was involved in a few gigs with Mick jones and Billy Bragg, at Glastonbury and at Strummerville, and planted trees in Joe’s name, so that connection was always there.”
A creative purple patch followed, The Hour of Bewilderbeast followed by 2002’s film soundtrack to Nick Hornby adaptation About A Boy and next studio LP Have You Fed The Fish? that year. In fact, a mutual friend, much-loved broadcaster Pete Mitchell earlier this year told Damon’s story through a radio documentary celebrating the 20th anniversary of his 2000 breakthrough album. And subsequently, Damon was among those artists paying tribute to Pete in a Chris Evans-presented Virgin Radio tribute show in April, a few weeks after he died.
“Yeah, Pete came to my stag do and wedding, and I think because of this lockdown and everything I haven’t really had time to process Pete dying. I was in London at the time, just before it all took hold. I’d gone down to do Chris Evans’ breakfast show, which felt a bit odd when social distancing was starting to happen. Then I came out of that interview and Andy Votel told me Pete had died the day before. He wanted to call me rather than I find out through social media. I was floored by that news, having just been with Chris, a friend of Pete’s. Then we did that documentary.
“Pete went ahead and did that Bewilderbeast programme without me. He messaged me, but I thought there was no urgency as the album came out in June (2000) – I thought it’d be later in the year. But he cracked on, doing it with some of the archive stuff he had anyway. He said, ‘No worries, it’s great anyway, I’ve got it all together.’ That was the last I heard from him. I’ve still got his text. I’m going to print it out, frame it as a keepsake.
“It crops up in my head at certain moments in the day, and I haven’t had a chance to see anyone – I’d have gone to the funeral if I’d been allowed to – so haven’t had that real send-off feeling in my head.”
Staying with tributes, we talked about ‘Tony Wilson Said’, and on that song there’s a sense of adventure, as if you’re driving around Tony’s old patch with the music playing. In that respect, it’s kind of ‘Once Around the Block’ revisited. Perhaps you need to make that the next single from this LP, reshooting that breakthrough single’s promo video, this time taking in a few Manchester cultural landmarks en route.
“A video? I wonder if I’d get away with shooting my own video during lockdown. This morning I was talking to my management about putting together a video for ‘I Need Someone to Trust’ – that’s the next single.
“’I’m Not Sure What It Is’ is going to be another, but some of these songs will just go out and make it on to playlist platforms rather than being physical releases. I’m not sure how it works, but we’re hoping ‘I Need Someone to Trust’ gets on Radio 2’s playlist, as happened with ’Is This a Dream?’.
In old money, I’d say the latter would surely have been a hit single. It’s catchy, you can sing along, it deserves success, and it’s good to hear it received plenty of radio traction.
“Yeah, that was out at the end of January and got played through February on a few stations. That got us off to a good start. It’s a lottery though with anything like that. I’ll just be happy to get the album out. Then it can just sit there, do its thing, people discovering it in their own time, over a few months permeating its way into people’s consciousness. You never know.”
“It was tough to compile. Because I had so much time away, I had quite a collection of strong songs, so they were almost fighting for space. ‘I’m Not Sure What It Is’ is one of my favourites. If you listen to it on its own, you really get it. Where it lands on the album you don’t get chance to digest it before you go on to the next song. With other albums, especially the first, I really took time making sure it listened down well, making segues, making songs breathe, little palate cleanser before you hit the next one. With this album I didn’t endeavour to do that.
“It was more like I was compiling a playlist – like a best of for my last seven years’ songwriting. I had a bit of irreverence for that, arriving at the running order relatively quick. There’s a kind of chronology in terms of what the songs mean, but I didn’t overthink it. In the modern era, people will put one song on, then listen to another at another time of day. I’ll let them do what they want with it. It could work in so many ways. People will have their favourites.
“Ultimately, I’m just happy to get a record together this time. It’s felt as close to making a debut as you can do again. So I tried to be instinctive, not worry too much – just to get some more music out there was a result.”
When we spoke in 2014, you were set for Lancashire’s Beat-Herder Festival and North Wales’ Festival No.6, having played there the previous year too. Did you have lots of dates in the diary this summer?
“Fortunately not many that have had to be postponed or cancelled. We had a cluster of dates towards the end of May, small venues to begin with, like Manchester’s Stoller Hall, which I’ve never played before. There were five or six dates planned, with maybe more to follow, but now we don’t really know what’s going to happen. I’ve been doing online streaming gigs recently to compensate for a lack of ability to play live. But who knows when we’ll be back to a situation where we can play.”
Before the lockdown you did manage to sell-out The Roundhouse in Chalk Farm, London, though.
“That’s right, at the end of January. That was amazing. I knew about the venue, but I’d never seen a band there or played there before. I was shocked. It was one of my most memorable gigs, particularly in London.”
An interesting history too, from railway days through to its rebirth as a venue, its hippie collective past, the fact that the afore-mentioned Mick Jones would be there as a kid attending shows, and so on.
“I’ve seen footage of a few bands playing there and it never comes across on TV. You only really know how special it is by being there. It was like playing a mini Royal Albert Hall or The Barbican – a combination of that modern feel and an arty venue. It was a big deal me playing there, and I didn’t know it would be my last gig for a while. I got there for my soundcheck and just knew it was going to be special … as long as I kept my head together and did a good set.”
Also since we last spoke, you’ve had your busking cameo on long-running ITV drama Cold Feet, in 2017. How did that come about?
“I got an email from my management saying they wanted me involved. I knew John Thomson and Jimmy Nesbitt. When they were filming the original few series, they were often in Chorlton, and I got to meet up. They were pretty wild in those days, out all night, drinking …”
When you were telling me your story, I was thinking about John Thomson, and a few personal parallels.
“Yeah, and John knocked the boozing on the head a while ago. I knew John and Jimmy pretty well, and when I got that call, it was a nice thing to be invited down on set, see them again and be part of that.”
You’re in great company. I recall Jimmy’s rant in an earlier series about The Undertones, pointing out to his newborn son the wonders of John O’Neill’s songwriting.
“I think Jimmy might have had something to do with this as well. He came to a lot of my gigs back in the day. And John – me and him have crossed paths a lot doing various weird shows, like the Manchester v Cancer show, with Frank Sidebottom sweeping the stage before I came on.
“And with Cold Feet, they let me choose which song I thought would work best. I felt ‘The Time of Times’ (from 2006’s Born in the UK) was appropriate, and they went with that. Yeah, it was a really nice thing to do.”
Talking of time, it had marched on by now, with so many of my original questions subsequently jettisoned. Maybe I’ll talk about some of that in an LP review soon. But on such a personal record, I felt I should at least ask more about closing number, ‘I’ll Do My Best’. Is that perhaps the closest to where he’s at right now? There’s a nod to one of his songwriting heroes, Bruce Springsteen, who popped up in conversation last time. But that link’s fairly subtle, despite something of a feel of The Boss around the time of ‘Streets of Philadelphia’.
“Well, it’s nice that you picked up on that. Being at the end of the album, it’s kind of where I’m at in life now, so it was the right place to sign off for now. The album as a whole is reflective but forward thinking. It’s about what do I do now, what do we do now, and what life holds for lots of us. ‘Apple Tree Boulevard’ is near the end because it’s an ode to this country, my love poem to England, and the fact that apples are synonymous with us, the boulevard element a piss-take of us not really knowing what our identity is, with this island eroding away. That was fairly political, after three years of nonsense we’ve been through. But signing off with ‘I’ll Do My Best’ was me saying that even though that’s all gone, I’ve got this, I’ve got my relationship and I want to step up to the mark.
“Since we’ve been married, I’ve been too busy to perhaps be the man I need to be. That line, ‘it’s hard to start a fire when it rains’ is the link to Springsteen and how you ‘can’t start a fire without a spark’, but I feel I’ve made it different enough to call it my own.
“The interesting thing is that when he finished Born in the USA, Bruce’s manager and label were saying they didn’t have a lead song there. He came up with that line because he couldn’t write a song. He had no ideas, no inspiration. That became the song itself, writing backwards from the chorus, ‘Dancing in the Dark’.
“For my take on it, ‘how do you start a fire when it rains?’ is about not being my best because I’ve let things get to me, but now I’m through that, I’m in a better place to deal with these things and fulfil those vows we made. ‘I’ll Do My Best’ was the last song I wrote and recorded for this album. I’d half-written it, but knew I needed to put something in it that made it more rounded, bringing it back round to proper real life.”
And for a link to the 2014 feature/interview on this website with Damon Gough, head here.