Published Nov 01, 2002Damon Gough is getting ready for his appearance on the legendary UK television chart show Top of The Pops. Gough will be performing the new Badly Drawn Boy single, "You Were Right," in which he imagines living common law with Queen Elizabeth and next door to the Material Girl, who takes a shine to him. The crowd will consist of tweens and teens who will likely wonder who this is with the long matted hair smushed below a knitted hat and why he couldn't bother to shave. In four minutes, they will get but a taste of his pop eccentricity, but to get a more complete picture of Gough, they'll have to venture out to a full-on Badly Drawn Boy performance. Or should that be performance art?
He can be a bit of a loose cannon on stage. It's what endears him to his legions of dedicated fans, who delight in the next ridiculous stunt he'll try to pull. It also sometimes annoys the unfamiliar, who often just want him to shut up and play. He's become known for performing for more than three hours at a stretch something that got him fined at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in London and he's got a presentation style that can be, to put it mildly, odd.
He's been known to stop mid-show to eat a banana, for example, slowly and deliberately, then pitch the remains into the audience. He'll exchange insults with the louder patrons in attendance. His banter sometimes stretches on long enough that it becomes difficult to distinguish it from a stand-up comedy routine that occasionally features songs. At a Toronto stop on his last tour, he played one chord, and continued to play just that one chord, until the level of applause grew loud enough to satisfy him a process of repetition that lasted more than five full minutes.
"I admit, there's been the odd moment of ineptitude or lack of professionalism," Gough says. "But that's precisely what I'm doing it for. It's precisely what I'm about." He knows that his live persona may not be for everyone, but he also feels there are times when the press blows things out of proportion. "Criticism usually comes from the press, especially the British press, who don't know what the fuck they're talking about most of the time. Unless they're praising me."
His approach is his own, there's no doubt about that. But Damon Gough still feels misunderstood. "There is part stand up comedy about it because that's the way I am, and people get confused by that," he reasons. "I've been compared to Andy Kaufman, because that's what he did, but I'm not comparing myself to that. There's a correlation to draw there because I'm willing to test myself a little bit. I mean, if they don't come, I'll be satisfied with just playing songs maybe, and I'm getting closer to that." But having earned and yes, to a certain extent encouraged this reputation, Gough now finds his eccentric performances to be somewhat self-fulfilling. "I think most people who like what I've done in the past get let down if I don't do something out of the ordinary. I'm getting laughs now when I'm not even trying. It's just ridiculous."
Along with travelling all over the world to perform his variety show, Britain's most novel singer-songwriter releases his much-anticipated second album, Have You Fed The Fish?, this month. In June of 2000, he unleashed his debut, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, a beautiful collection of small, fragile folk and pop songs, mostly dedicated to the love of his life, Claire Pearson. The album's singles went Top 40 in the UK, and in September of that year, he won the prestigious Technics Mercury Music Prize, an award given to the outstanding British album of the year. It was a catapult that brought him attention around the world. Gough was honoured, he says, but the attention was not without its downside. "It made it easier for people to be aware of that record. As a musical snob, I was concerned. Similarly with the soundtrack [to the Hugh Grant film About A Boy], my one concern was that I was too comfortable to find now."
Have You Fed The Fish? is a pop record that lures you in with its sense of humour and bright, catchy melodies. It has a friendlier, more unrestrained sound than its predecessor, showing the potential Gough has to break through. "I think [the songs are] a little bit more of a step ahead, and having said that, I hope I don't offend anybody that was a fan of anything I did before, because there is a certain part of what I do that is based on adding focus to subtlety and fragility. That's sort of where my heart is. There are ways of doing both things and that is what I was aiming for to get these songs to sound bigger, and perhaps, dare I say it, played on the radio. Everything I write is of a certain quality, and sometimes I get overlooked as an artist. I wanted to make it a little more friendly for people, to get a wider audience, but I've still, hopefully, not lost the essence of what I started with as a songwriter." The polish he's acquired "is just a natural evolution because you've been on tour and you get better at playing the guitar and singing because you're doing it more often," he says. "I think that just contributed to a more natural, bigger sound without trying for it. It just went that way."
An assignment earlier this year helped to focus Damon Gough's vision for Have You Fed the Fish? In April, Badly Drawn Boy's soundtrack to the Hugh Grant film About A Boy (an adaptation of Nick Hornby's novel) was released. "It's an unusual circumstance to me, and to anybody really to be releasing two completely different projects in the same year. Radiohead did something like that with Amnesiac and Kid A, but that was kind of like the same project split into two halves. This is totally two different things, different mindsets."
When he was approached to write the score, which he likes to point out he did on his own ("most of the music in the film was originated by me and finished by me"), he was busy planning the recording of Have You Fed The Fish? "I didn't expect that to come along," he admits. "The soundtrack was a brilliant thing for me to do. It expanded my horizons and made me aware of my own skills a little bit more. It also gave me a bonus of a catalogue of songs that I never would have written otherwise."
About A Boy is not typical as a soundtrack nor as a Badly Drawn Boy album. It avoids film score conventions, and sounds more like a proper album, yet it works thematically, revealing a greater focus and sensitivity, flowing smoothly from start to finish with the odd instrumental thrown in. With the help of producer Tom Rothrock (who also worked on Fish), the music is a surprisingly gentle affair, side-stepping Gough's normal idiosyncrasies for something a little more accessible. It opened his mind to the possibilities, and after the film's success, opened to door for harsher critics. "I might have had an idea that I could do music to film, but I didn't think it would be a mainstream, big film. I thought it would be a little, quiet, private cinema film, like an art house show. It opened me up to criticism by certain elements of the press, claiming I'd gone off and become a prostitute for Hugh Grant. If anything, I should have been applauded for having the nerve to do it."
Having put his sophomore album on the back burner, he quickly jumped back into the studio. "It was my decision to truck on with the album proper, as people might want to call it. The songs were ready to come out, and I knew that it had been too long since I had made my personal statement." Have You Fed The Fish? is another step in his pop evolution, melding its sense of professionalism with his eccentric peculiarities. Instead of small and fragile, he is now showing how fearless and gregarious he can be. "I think there is a new found confidence that couldn't have been there before. I found my voice a bit more and feel like I'm writing different kinds of songs now. Not vastly different, but different enough to not repeat myself."
Have You Fed The Fish? is in some ways a conventional record, but Badly Drawn Boy is not one to conform to any sound but his own. "I've always thought of myself as more left of centre, but then that's the stuff that I really love, like Bobby Conn or Serge Gainsbourg," he says. "I love really weird stuff like Tortoise or Pavement or Ween or Guided By Voices. Those kinds of things really turn me on musically. And I always feel like I'm aiming at that, but I end up somewhere more right of that because I'm a sucker for melodies in songs. If somebody's really weird, they're gonna look at my stuff and think it's really, really mainstream, but if somebody's really got no knowledge of music and only listens to what's in the charts, they're gonna say, God, you're a bit weird.' I like to think that my heart is a little bit more in the weird, but I don't want to be leaning towards fake. I mean, I like Tom Waits, but I want to be an artist that's gonna use my position wisely if it increases to a point where I get more popular, to make music that perhaps goes against that grain of popularity."
It's been a rapid rise, this five-year journey from a relatively unknown Mancunian musician (he actually hails from Bolton, a small town just outside of Manchester) to one of the more conspicuous acts in the UK. Early on he was compared to the Beta Band, Gomez and Elliott Smith, even garnering the title "the British Beck." He began his career with a slew of self-produced EPs released on his own label, Twisted Nerve, with the help of his friend and business partner Andy Shallcross (who records under the name Andy Votel). His first two EPs, now out of print and considered collector's items, show his early interest in just getting things down in the studio. From these lo-fi roots, he has evolved into the wide array of sounds on Have You Fed The Fish?, including strings, back-up singers, and his backing band, which now includes former Smiths bassist Andy Rourke.
His sonic evolution suggests a more disciplined approach to his craft, something Gough denies. "I'm not really a fussy kind of person when it comes to the sound of my music. I'm really not that critical. I don't sit there worrying about it too much, as long as it's sounding okay. I just try to pile things in there and see what sticks. I'm not trying to be cool about it. The energy comes from the freedom of doing it in the first place."
That freedom has seen Gough combine personal exploration (as on The Hour of Bewilderbeast) with his quirky take on the universe and more than a few in jokes, including the new album's title. It's a commonly asked question in the Gough home. "I was looking for titles, lyrics and phrases that were out of the ordinary, and have you fed the fish was a real thing we say in the house every day, because we have two goldfish. I was just at the piano one day and shouted Have you fed the fish?' to [girlfriend] Claire. You can't feed them more than once a day, apparently, because they might die. Just after I said that, I was playing some chords, and the song just came out like that." Of course, having named his album that, it's changed the household dynamic. "It's starting to feel stupid now like I promote my own album every day. I have to find a different way of saying it: Have the fish been fed?'"
While Damon Gough continues to hope that the music will be the primary focus of attention whether it's the ragtime and country feel of "Tickets To What You Need" or the "sexual healing" power of "The Further I Slide" he's resigned himself that it might be otherwise. There's the toque, for example, a subject over which the British press has spilled a ridiculous amount of ink.
"The original woolly hat the stripey one that, I don't wear anymore, because it was stolen three times and never returned on the third occasion. I've not seen it for about a year now." Last year, when he decided to auction off the trademark hat for charity, it was stolen only to be returned the next day, just in time. It was sold for £1500 (about $3500 CDN), to none other than Gough himself. Now that the hat is gone for good, Gough is indignant, but philosophical. "If nothing else, I made a hat famous. How many people can say that? That hat was actually recognised on its own if somebody saw it on a chair, chances are they could recognise it. That's an achievement in itself."
Other non-musical subjects also continue to garner attention. "My live show's a talking point, for one reason or another. Usually people call me some kind of a comedian, which is again aside from the songs. The hat's been a talking point, my beard's a talking point, my non-image, which has now become an image, is a talking point, Badly Drawn Boy the pseudonym has always been a talking point. None of this was calculated, it was just what I do, and it constantly surprises me that people focus on these little things."
The pseudonym in particular is a recurring subject. There is a difference between the man and his creation, but he jokes, "It depends on the day I am asked." He does show an interest in acknowledging the difference. "Some days I feel like it's essentially one and the same," he declares. "I think Badly Drawn Boy is just a name that represents the music Damon Gough does, because Damon Gough didn't feel confident enough in his name. Badly Drawn Boy has served me well, on its own, in that it was a talking point from the very early days. It just gives me a perspective on what the music should sound like. When it sounds right, it sounds like Badly Drawn Boy music, and for the time being, that's what I'm sticking with. I might change the name at some point, but it's served me too well. I've got to remain loyal to it a little while longer now."
The Boss Is On the List
Based on Badly Drawn Boy's music, guesses about who his musical heroes are might include the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays (for the geographical proximity) or Bob Dylan and Captain Beefheart (for the influential sounds) but his childhood hero was actually the Boss. "I remember being 14 and falling asleep with headphones on, listening to bootlegs of [Bruce Springsteen] from this gig in the 70s from San Francisco." After performing various Springsteen covers live and announcing that Bruce's name will appear on the guest list for every show Gough plays, he has yet to actually meet the man, but knows that a mutual admiration exists. "I've had various messages sent to me that Bruce has bought my album and he really likes it. A personal friend of his has come to my shows and said that he's really into what I'm doing. Just to know that Bruce is aware of me, that's another thing I can rest happily with. My childhood hero knows who I am. Not that I need that to survive, but it's a definite bonus. I feel like I've done something right if that guy knows who I am."
Twisted Nerve Records
Twisted Nerve was founded in 1997 by Gough and Andy Votel. Though he was initially a major part of the company, Gough admits that things have changed since his career picked up. "I'm proud of the label and what it's done, but I have to [credit] Andy Votel, because in the last year or two, he's kept it going." What sets their label apart from others is the special treatment each release receives, be it the magnificent artwork by Votel (who is the label's graphic designer) or the way a record is released (Gough once released a single as a music box, complete with a handle to crank out the music). "I think we shared a common idea that you can do things a little bit more special and make it feel like it's a place to be a part of and a good place to be involved with, in terms of being a fan of it and working within it."
Badly Drawn Boy EP3 (1998)
Since EP1 and EP2 are virtually non-existent now, this EP is a good example of what his early music sounded like and shows Votel's talent for sleeve design. "My Friend Cubilas" is retro, funkified trip-hop while the strongest songs, "I Need A Sign" and "Road Movie," are key blueprints for the lazy folk rock that would follow on his debut.
Badly Drawn Boy It Came From The Ground (1999)
This fourth EP is led by the epic title track. Again, Votel's artwork is stunning, complementing the eerie sounds. "Outside Is A Light" is another precious gem, though it's almost too simple.
Andy Votel Styles of the Unexpected (2000)
Ambient hip-hop and folky electronica, featuring some real loopy noises and sweet guest vocals. A full-length debut album, All Ten Fingers, is due soon.
Dakota Oak Am Deister (2001)
Possibly the most talented act of the TN roster, Dakota Oak, led by Dave Tyack, creates some fantastic little songs hinting at both Krautrock and the folk-based pop that Badly Drawn Boy perfected, without any lyrics.
Alfie If You Happy With You Need Do Nothing (2001)
The biggest TN act to emerge from the shadows of Badly Drawn Boy, this five-piece were formally introduced through this compilation album combining their previous EPs. It's another quiet, folky affair, but the melodies are to die for and the experimentation is unique.
Various Everything You Need To Know About Twisted Nerve *But Were Afraid To Ask (2001)
A compilation of the entire roster that sums everything up nicely.