‘People keep asking what I’m doing, so I’d better get cracking!’
MALCOLM WYATT talks Beat-Herder, Beck, Belmont, Bolton, Boney M, The Boss more besides with Damon Gough, alter ego of Badly Drawn Boy
Among the big draws at the Beat-Herder Festival this weekend is an act with true Lancashire pedigree.
Although born in Bedfordshire Damon Gough – AKA Badly Drawn Boy – moved to Breightmet, Bolton, at an early age, and retains a love and respect for his adopted Lancashire.
That included a decade in Belmont, and this Chorlton-based multi-instrumentalist will be close to his old home territory this weekend when he heads to the Ribble Valley for the Beat-Herder Festival.
“I’m based just three miles from Manchester’s city centre, having been here since the mid-‘90s.
“I grew up in Bolton, but every Sunday we came across to this part of Manchester, where my grandmother lived. She made the best Sunday roast!
“I lived just over 10 years in Belmont. I grew up on a housing estate in Breightmet. Although it was rough and ready it was brilliant. I didn’t want to leave.
“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.”
Damon, 44, better known by his stage name Badly Drawn Boy, has carved something of a reputation as one of the UK’s finest independent singer-songwriters.
He started recording in 1997, his big break coming three years later with The Hour of Bewilderbeast, leading to a £20,000 Mercury Prize win and mainstream success, that album going on to sell 300,000 copies.
The multi-instrumentalist has released seven since, including the soundtracks for Chris and Paul Weitz films About A Boy (2002) and Being Flynn (2012).
While Damon may not be a big chart success at present, you get the feeling this trail-blazing indie artist will be again.
This weekend is his first taste of the Beat-Herder, so what kind of set can we expect?
“It’s probably going to be a broad selection across the albums - stuff people know, together with a couple of new songs and a couple of covers. Mainly hits, I suppose.”
Damon is also at Festival No. 6 in early September, a three-dayer in Portmeirion, North Wales, the Italianate-style setting of cult 1960s TV series The Prisoner.
He featured on last year’s bill too, so I’m guessing he enjoys the vibe there.
“Yeah, and 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 on my own I can vary that, pull something off the cuff or merge songs.”
One of the acts Damon is looking forward to catching at No.6 is Beck. What is it that resonates with him about this acclaimed US artist?
“He’s 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, feeling like there was no possibility of having a record deal. Someone like Beck made me feel it was possible.
“When I got chance to meet him, in Australia, I thanked him for his inspiration. He was very flattered, saying not many people say such nice things, surprisingly.
“We’ve seen each other a few times since, and this could be a good chance to see how he’s getting on.
“I would love to introduce him to the crowd – give him a big-up. He’s a good bloke.”
I’m guessing Beck would be high on the list of those Damon like to play live with or collaborate in the studio with?
“He’s definitely one, although I do find it hard to answer that question. There are a few. I always thought I could write as good song for Bruce Springsteen – not that he struggles himself …
“I was 14 in the mid-80s when I heard Thunder Road, my in-road to Bruce’s world.
“Unfortunately, around that time all most of my mates saw or heard was Born in the USA, and that 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 stood by him.”
His appreciation of Springsteen is mentioned by author Nick Hornby, in 31 Songs, drawing on his love of Badly Drawn Boy’s A Minor Incident, from the About a Boy film soundtrack.
Hornby described Badly Drawn Boy as ‘un-English’, in that he wouldn’t appeal ‘to Ibizan clubbers or boozed-up football hooligans’.
“Bruce was massively important to me, and when I first met Nick Hornby that was one of our main talking points. When I first read Nick’s piece on A Minor Incident, it really moved me because of the angle he takes on that song.
“I knew he liked it, but didn’t know the detail about his own home life and how he applied that song to his experiences with his autistic son.
“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.
“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!
“He made my lyric feel even more poignant than I intended by applying it to something real, and a lot of people have come to up to me and said something similar.
“When you write songs on one level then when it’s out it becomes something completely different, that’s where the magic begins.”
You were a Dad yourself when you wrote the About a Boy soundtrack. Did having children make you re-evaluate?
“Definitely. You think differently. I should get back to thinking more like that. It’s quite therapeutic this chat, in a way, to talk about such things.
“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.”
Damon’s homesickness during a long US spell in 2003 led to him recording fourth LP One Plus One is One closer to home, in Stockport. Does that remain an issue?
“It’s very much part of who I am. I’ve always been very attached to my home roots, and I’m not the greatest traveller.
“I’d love to see more of the world, not least these past few weeks watching the World Cup – seeing how beautiful and fascinating Brazil looks, despite its problems.
“I’m quite rooted, but I’m very lucky to have travelled. 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, so while it’s sometimes tough it’s given me a good view of the world.”
Do you feel there’s a sense of that Lancashire setting in your music?
“The isolation of living in a village made me veer towards being a solo artist. 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.
“My mum and dad running their own small business probably gave me that attitude of doing it for myself too.
“When I moved to Chorlton I met Andy Votel and we started Twisted Nerve. 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 character. I wanted to make a record and Andy wanted to start a label.
“It can only be good that people have to think outside the box in today’s record business.
“You’ve got to believe in yourself in any kind of creative world, not be reliant on people like Simon Cowell to tell you you’re good.
“People should have the belief in themselves and do things for themselves, like I did.”
If Damon hadn’t won that Mercury Prize in 2000, would his approach have changed?
“Possibly. It was very exciting and I’ll always be grateful for it starting my career. People talk about it being 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.
“I’ve not been in the charts for years, but 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 lots of new songs?
“Slowly, but surely, with lots of ideas cooking.”
When will that next album be out?
“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.
“It’s the 15th anniversary of the first album next year, so it’ll be nice to release something new as well as perhaps remind people of 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.”
With 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.
“That would make for a nice all-round year. That’s something to aim for. That’s a loose plan!”
About A Boy seemed to push you in a new direction. Are the film soundtrack offers still coming in?
“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’s a shame because it was really decent. I feel sorry for Chris and Paul Weitz in that it didn’t come to much.”
So what are you looking forward to most at the Beat-herder other than your Saturday 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, how they still hold the record for the number of singles sold in the UK in one year, including the Christmas No.1, Mary’s Boy Child.
“That’s the thing about nostalgia and festivals. 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 to see them, and I’d love to get on stage and have a little dance with them, if possible.”