Damon Michael Gough, better known as Badly Drawn Boy, chats with Kevin Cooper about depression, his ambitions, the re-release of his debut album The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast and his forthcoming tour.
Damon Michael Gough known by the stage name Badly Drawn Boy, is an English indie singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
After the release of four Eps, Gough’s first album, The Hour of Bewilderbeast, was released in June 2000. The album was critically acclaimed and Badly Drawn Boy was successful in winning the 2000 Mercury Music Prize, beating his contemporaries Doves to the £20,000 prize. The album sold well and is widely considered to be his defining work.
Later scoring for the film, About A Boy, he went onto release Have You Fed The Fish? followed by One Plus One Is One.
Later releasing Born In The UK, Gough donated the profits from his tour to Oxfam. His next album Is There Nothing We Could Do? with music taken from and inspired by the film, The Fattest Man In Britain, was released on his own BDB Records label in 2009.
His seventh album, It’s What I’m Thinking Pt.1 – Photographing Snowflakes, may be the first of a planned trilogy of albums all to be released under the title It’s What I’m Thinking.
Whilst busy preparing for his forthcoming tour with his new band, he took the time to have an honest and forthright chat with Kevin Cooper. This is what he had to say.
Hi Damon how are you?
Hi Kevin I’m good mate thanks.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to me.
That’s ok mate, thank you for wanting to listen to me (laughter).
So how is life treating Damon Michael Gough today?
Its ok but I am just about to start rehearsing later today but I feel like I have not got into it yet. I really need a couple of days to get into it because the next month is going to be full of me doing live shows. I will be playing the whole of The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast album for the very first time. So until I start rehearsing I suppose that I am a bit edgy Kevin, if I am answering you pedantically about today (laughter). It will be nice for me to be back working again as I haven’t worked properly for a bit now.
The last few years have been quite tough for you haven’t they?
That’s right Kevin they have. They have been up and down for me as I was going through a breakup with my ex Claire, which is something that I haven’t really talked about publicly but I suppose enough time has passed now as it is three years since we broke up. Although I am now with someone new, Claire and I maintain a good relationship which is good because of the kids. The last three years have really been a big adjustment for me and is perhaps why I haven’t been writing or releasing new stuff. That’s not an excuse Kevin, it’s just the way that things have been happening in my life.
So why have you taken the decision to re-release The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast?
Well that’s a funny one Kevin (laughter). At the end of last year it suddenly dawned on me that it is fifteen years since I released my first album, The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast. I thought that if we re-released Bewilderbeast it would give me an incentive to do something new because the last thing that I want to do is to rely on old material. So that has been a help, it has started to make me think that this is like starting again in a way.
I have to say that I have played the album again today and to me, it sounds just as fresh as it did back in 2000.
Really, well you must have got a good copy of it then Kevin (laughter). I think that one thing that I can be proud of with the album is that the naivety that went into it; it being my first attempt to record an album. I think that the naivety shines through. I think that probably is the main reason why people took the album to heart. There is a certain honesty in the sound of it. That is something that you can never really repeat. Try as you might your first album is your first album. I think that is what is special about that album to me.
And how does it make you feel when you listen to it now?
Well Kevin, I have been listening to it in order to relearn some of the songs that I haven’t played for a while now so that I can once again get the vibe of the track. When I play it on the forthcoming tour I want to get it to sound as close as I can to the original record. You can never do it exactly the same but I want to capture the spirit as much as possible so I have been listening to it quite a lot now. I have to say that it is refreshing for me and it has made me feel like I want to do something new but not similar to Bewilderbeast. I am proud of all of the records that I make and they all have a different feel to them but I have to say that Bewilderbeast has got this mystical charm about it to me.
Even as its creator, and with the benefit of hindsight some fifteen years down the line, it has almost a comforting feel to it. But more than anything it reminds me of good times. I was on the verge of something then as opposed to being a middle-aged idiot now (laughter). Don’t get me wrong I like where I am now being a middle-aged idiot who is still trying to make an album that is as good as his first one (laughter). But back then it was all about to happen and so it reminds me of good things.
I remember hearing an interview with Bjork some time ago and she was saying that to her the most exciting time is before anything happens; it is almost like Christmas Eve is better than Christmas Day sometimes. The feelings of what is about to come is better than when it actually does (laughter).
It is the anticipation of it all isn’t it?
Yes that’s right Kevin. I think that’s what that album represents to me. Music is music and we all have songs that are the soundtrack to our lives. It is what it is. You can put on a Nirvana song, or a Smiths song, or a Springsteen song, and they have all got their place in your life. Thankfully for me there are a lot of people out there that took this album to their hearts which is why it is a nice thing to re-share it.
Playing devil’s advocate here, when you listen to the album is there anything that you think that you could have done differently?
All of it (laughter). I am actually pleasantly surprised when I hear it. It’s weird when you listen back to stuff that you recorded quite a while ago. I often think how did I come up with that as I can’t even remember thinking that. At the end of Cause A Rockslide there is a montage of sounds which is me messing around with samplers and coming up with different sounds and all sorts of weird stuff but there is nothing that jars me. There are a couple of pieces where I think I could have sang better as I do get embarrassed about my vocals but a friend of mine once said to me that this is the beauty of the album.
My voice has got better over the years but the document of the record is where I was then. I was fifteen years younger and I sound quite young on some of the songs but there is a nice charm to that. I am loosely toying with the idea of putting Bewilderbeast out as a live album; record it during the forthcoming tour.
Why do you think people embraced the album as warmly as they did?
That’s a good question Kevin and to be honest I don’t know. I think that the timing was quite good. There are so many elements that contribute to something finding its place and being successful. Looking back I think that over a three year period from 1997 to 2000 when the album came out, I was loosely making the album over that whole period; I think that it reflected that time. There probably wasn’t much else like it; there weren’t many singer-songwriters about at the time, it was all about the bands.
I think that the people who took me to heart as an artist were the people who understood and perhaps still do understand that I am willing to make mistakes and I do it all the time (laughter). I played a gig last night that went pear shaped but I believe in honesty in what I do Kevin. God knows why else people like the album but it went on to win the Mercury Music Prize, which was a massive added bonus as well. That really did put me on the map as a songwriter. Also I think that the name Badly Drawn Boy deserves a bit of credit.
But is it not true that you are not too keen on the name?
That’s perfectly correct Kevin. Even though I came up with it I have always hated it (laughter) I have always been embarrassed by it. But I have to say that it served its purpose in creating some kind of enigma. I chose the name rather than going with my own name as I have never been a band, I am a solo artist and so I wanted something that was a little bit different that would encompass different ideals.
You briefly mentioned winning the Mercury Music Prize with Bewilderbeast. How did it feel beating Doves to the prize?
Well I think that they have finally forgiven me Kevin (laughter). I have to say that it is amazing the respect that I have earned over the years from people on the street and also from my peers that admire me. It feels great when other songwriters who I like, from Joe Strummer to Bruce Springsteen to Paul Weller to John Shuttleworth, who I was playing with last night, give me recognition and respect. I met Bill Bailey for the first time last night and he told me that he had Bewilderbeast and that he loved it. Every time that somebody tells me that I’m astonished Kevin. I have just been speaking to a chap from Belfast and he told me that he remembers being on the bus going through Belfast and he had the album on a cassette tape and he was listening to it.
The imagery that conjures up to me; some guy on a bus in Belfast listening to it, is fascinating. I have just said to a friend that there is a good chance that somebody somewhere in the world is listening to one of my songs right now. But then I thought what if nobody is listening; what if absolutely nobody in the world is listening to one of my songs (laughter). Even that thought on its own is fascinating and is why I love music because it takes on its own journey. People are always telling me about one of my songs which accompanied a part of their lives. Perhaps I should interview loads of fans and ask them loads of stuff about their stories whilst I am on tour.
I have been thinking that it is fifteen years since Bewilderbeast was released and there must be loads of people who were fifteen years old at that time who came to my shows back then as the younger part of the audience and now they are thirty years old and now perhaps they have their own kids and this album is still part of their lives and now their kids are listening to it. That’s one way of looking at it.
So tell me, where did the title come from?
Surprisingly Kevin, hardly anyone ever asks me that as they tend to concentrate on where Badly Drawn Boy came from. I was in Japan on tour with a band called Alfie who were signed to my Twisted Nerve label and who were performing as my backing band for that tour. We were doing a sound check in Tokyo and me and the bass player Sam, had a bit of a night out and he was a bit of a light weight. He was well and truly hungover, and he said that he felt bewildered. One of the others said he was like a wilder beast, then a Bewilderbeast and so the word popped up and I thought that I would have that. So I jotted it down in the notebook in my head, as I just liked the word.
For a while that was going to be the title just Bewilderbeast but I thought that it didn’t evoke enough and that it needed to be The something of the Bewilderbeast. It took me a while to crack it but the album became an hour long and so I called it The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast. I kind of thought that this was my hour and Bewilderbeast being a reference to me, as pretty much most of my life I have felt that I don’t belong here, I don’t understand life. Brian Wilson once said that he wasn’t made for these times. There is an element of that to it.
You always appear to be hard upon yourself.
It’s true that self-deprecation is something that people always associate me with Kevin. I am always half putting myself down and half saying that I am the best thing ever. I am a bit of a contradiction so Bewilderbeast was just a reference to me being like I haven’t got a clue but this is the best that I can give you.
Do you still get a buzz out of touring or is it a pain in the backside?
(Laughter) I always think of Bruce Springsteen’s comment on this when he said that when he was on stage he liked being on stage but when he was not on stage he didn’t like not being on stage (laughter). It is a bit of a cack handed way of saying it but I now know what he was trying to say. The thought of touring always terrifies me Kevin. I sometimes sit there when I am at home and think to myself god can I do this anymore and do I really want to do this gig tomorrow night. But as soon as I get to the environment of the stage and the venue it all comes back.
A gig can only be a gig with an audience. It is the audience that make it. Some of the gigs that have gone wrong for me, whilst I am not going to blame the audience, it is down to the fact that I don’t feel appreciated or they were not as warm as they could be. I sometimes take that personally and often piss people off by letting them know that I am none too pleased (laughter). People often ask me if I am looking forward to touring and I honestly reply not really, no. I can’t look forward to it because it only counts when it is happening. So until I am on that stage at The Rescue Rooms in Nottingham on the 16th July I won’t be able to think about it until that moment. I pride myself upon whatever happens on that night is usually unique to that night.
I do take the risk of treading a dodgy line of getting it wrong sometimes but that also brings with it a chance that you are going to be brilliant that night because you are keeping an open mind.
So how will this Bewilderbeast 15th Anniversary Tour differ from a usual Badly Drawn Boy tour?
What a good question! Obviously this tour is different Kevin, there is a bit of a regimented idea behind playing the album as a thing as opposed to most gigs where I don’t have a set list as such. I usually write down around 30 song titles on a piece of paper just so that I can glance down and think Oh I will play that one now. But with this tour there is a sense of order to a degree and a bit of discipline in terms of playing the whole album which will be good probably, if we play it well at least it will make the first half of the show good (laughter). And that will give me the excuse to make the second half crap (hysterical laughter).
Is it going to be you on your own or will you have a band with you?
I will have a new band with me Kevin who I am going to meet this evening for the first time, but they tell me that they have been rehearsing the album. It was a tough decision because I have worked with several different backing bands over the years. It is a bit like Bob Dylan who would record an album with one set of musicians and then tour with a totally new set of musicians. You have to ask yourself the question of who is going to sound good on the record and who would sound better playing live. There are people who I have worked with for ages in the studio and have hardly worked with them live and vice versa.
I don’t even know what they look like yet but I am hoping that they are cool (laughter) and that they are not wearing crap clothes. It will be funny and it will be a different experience for me. They have been learning the album for the past week or so and we are going to start rehearsing together tomorrow. So it is a little bit of the unknown for me. It could go all wrong but I am reliably informed that they are all pretty much the best musicians that I could get at this point in time. It’s not the way that I normally do things but with the discipline of playing a whole album it would take me so much time to teach other people to play the music, when I can’t even remember it myself. I will be relying on them to re-teach me. By hook or by crook it will hopefully sound like a good live version of the album (laughter).
There is something that I have to ask you. In 2010 you released the album Photographing Snowflakes as the first album of a trilogy. Is that still the plan?
(Laughter) I don’t know I will have to see how I feel. I actually feel like a bit of a charlatan, if you pardon the pun. As a band they are very good friends of mine. I intended to make a trilogy Kevin but much like releasing Bewilderbeast again, I am kind of using that as a bit of a catalyst to make me want to do something new. So with Photographing Snowflakes I called it Part One to give myself the idea that I might do a Part Two and Three (laughter). But as yet I haven’t done that and I may never do them. So if that is letting anyone down, it is just a title Part One. I think that if I can get round to it I will but there might be another project in the meantime.
I feel that the next album that I am going to do won’t connect to that; it has got to stand alone so Part Two might come along in a few years’ time (laughter) maybe.
You have written a few movie soundtracks, About A Boy, Being Flynn and The Fattest Man In Britain. Does it take a different mind-set from when you are writing for a Badly Drawn Boy album?
Yes Kevin most definitely and I find it very interesting. The one that I like the most is the soundtrack to The Fattest Man In Britain. About A Boy came after the first album and it was a blessing in disguise because it gave me a reason to record the difficult second album. I feel lucky that projects like these have come my way because as a songwriter it broadens your horizons. It makes you look at things from a different angle and especially as you are trying to please someone else rather than just yourself. The thing that I find most difficult is expressing my feelings and that is the kind of style that I am stuck with. That’s what music is for me, it is a conversation with myself or to whoever is listening.
That can be painful in terms of does anyone want to listen to me whinging on again about relationships. So the soundtracks that I have done slightly take me away from that burden of simply representing myself. It is a nice rewarding feeling like a liberating way of making music so whilst there might not be a vast difference in results the process is a little bit easier in terms of the stress that it puts on me. I wish that I could apply that more to my own writing. Whenever I have made a soundtrack like About A Boy, don’t get me wrong it was hard work, but I found it to be refreshing and liberating and I felt invigorated with ideas coming out of my ears and out of every pore. It was just such a good thing to do. I have often thought that I should apply this feeling to what I do on my own albums but as much as you try you can’t. It is interesting how it makes you think differently.
You mention that you think about whether anyone wants to listen to you whinging on again about relationships. All that I can say is that it worked for many years for Holland-Dozier-Holland at Motown. So they must want to hear about relationships.
Exactly Kevin that’s a good point. It’s amazing really that a massive percentage of songs that we all love like the Motown collection or Burt Bacharach are all written about love. Love gets mentioned a lot along with being let down. But I think that the challenge is to express love in a way that no one else has said before. With all of the great poets and composers it is all born out of unrequited love or disappointment or love working out. It is all of those things. I am really envious of the people who can write abstract stuff and I wish that I could write a little outside of the box, like going to Lego Land and falling down a mining shaft or something like that, but I can’t. It has always got to be something about me.
Do you feel that you are forever reinventing the wheel when writing a new song?
Let me tell you Kevin that I did a gig the other night to celebrate the 10th anniversary of a very good friend of mine, comedian Hovis Presley passing away. I can remember that when he heard my first album I was flattered when he quoted back to me one of my lyrics. He told me that he thought that it was one of the best lyrics ever written and it was from the song Magic In The Air. It went, ‘we laughed so much and then we cried all night and you left your shoes in a tree with me and I will wear them to your house tonight’. It is a daft lyric but he loved it. Again just stressing that no one else has ever said that you left your shoes in a tree. No one has ever said that so the challenge of writing a song is to find phrases like that, for example, take a left, a sharp left and then another and meet me on the corner again. It’s just like going around the block and starting afresh.
That is always the challenge to me. There are endless ways of saying things as there is with music. People who use the cliché that there are only so many notes to me is utter nonsense. There are so many things that you can do with those notes. The problem is Kevin that people are lazy and they are happy to fall back on old ideas and steal stuff. It is just them being lazy because there are all sorts of things that you can do with music. I feel as though I am pretty much just beginning again as there is so much more that I can do, hopefully (laughter). Although I shouldn’t speak too soon as it may all fall flat.
You mention recording the difficult second album, how was it writing Have You Fed The Fish?
Have You Fed The Fish? came on the back of About The Boy Kevin. That album was spawned from the idea that I was missing writing from my personal point of view and I was in Los Angeles so much recording About The Boy and I would call Claire at home where we had two goldfish and I would keep asking her if she had fed the fish, because apparently if you don’t feed them they will die and if you feed them too much they will die (laughter). That was me trying to go back to real life after making a soundtrack to a Hollywood film.
So who has influenced you?
I would have to say Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and many others but if you look back through the 90’s Beck was my hero. I think that they were one of the most influential artists of the modern era. When Beck emerged in 1994 he was a massive influence upon me. He gave me the confidence as a man in my early twenties with a 4-track in my bedroom. He made me think that something was possible because he was doing all that.
And what about you earning the reputation as being shambolic?
(Laughter) well it is like this Kevin, back in the mid-nineties if we are talking about Manchester, Oasis were the band and at that time everybody in Manchester was trying to be the next Oasis. So when I sprang onto the scene as a guy with a guitar and a drum machine together with a Casio keyboard, handing out flowers, I rapidly earned the reputation as being shambolic (laughter). Rightly so in a lot of cases but I was also doing something a bit different and it got me noticed.
Are there any ambitions left to achieve?
That’s easy Kevin, happiness is the main one. Consistent happiness rather than just a fleeting moment of it. Don’t get me wrong I’m bloody lucky, I’ve got two wonderful kids, I haven’t got a mortgage, I have got a lovely girlfriend, an ex-partner who I still get on with, my mum and dad are still around, and I love life; I love the world and I love people. I just happen to be a difficult character in terms of only acknowledging in recent years that depression has been a part of my life but that is what has inspired me to be a writer. Depression is a common thing and unfortunately it goes with the territory.
I can’t wait until I have got ten or twenty albums behind me when I will be able to say that I have achieved something then. I saw John Otway last night and he has been doing this since the early 70’s. Bruce Springsteen is still prolific as is Bob Dylan. I saw Dylan play last year at Blackpool Opera House and I thought to myself how the hell does he keep doing that. He is simply on a different plain, a different level to the rest of us. I think that if I could still be around and still considered to be relevant in the next fifteen years that is my ambition together with allowing myself to enjoy life a little more. Maybe to give myself a break sometimes and not take things too seriously.
The re-released version of the album, will there be any surprises on there?
I have not been tempted to remaster anything Kevin because I just think that would be pointless with this album. I think that part of its success was the naivety of how it sounded and it was just a moment in time in terms of what I was capable of. So I wouldn’t want to change a thing in terms of that. The packaging is different with the artwork being rejigged. The new sleeve is a homage to Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man’s proportions and that model has got different elements in it. There are quite a few remixes which were done for singles off that album so they will all be included as well. The deluxe version is made to look like it has been made out of wood and is made from embossed leather.
Well I am coming along to photograph you at the Town Hall Birmingham on Saturday 25th July.
Really, so I will get to see you then. Please come and find me as it would be a pleasure to say hello. We will have to have a chat. Nice one Kevin.
I almost forgot to ask, will it be available on vinyl?
Oh yes Kevin, definitely. That is the other thing different. The original vinyl was only 63 minutes long so that is obviously 30 minutes per side which people won’t do anymore. I actually had to argue at the time to keep it onto one piece of vinyl. I remember buying K-Tel records, the old compilations and the grooves would be so tight because they had put twenty songs on each side (laughter). I wanted it to be low fi and on one piece of vinyl. But the collectable edition that is out now we decided to put it out on double vinyl in a gatefold sleeve just so that hopefully it will sound better than it ever did. So by putting it out on double vinyl there is a wider cut because there is more space to work with.
It should work really well on four sides of vinyl which works out roughly as fifteen minutes per side. And the splits thankfully work quite well too Kevin. There are only fools like you Kevin who will put the vinyl on so I wouldn’t worry too much (laughter). When I see you in Birmingham I will make sure that you get a copy, ok.
In that case I will try to get your best side on a few photographs for you.
Well that will be my back (laughter) me walking away down some lonely street.
Jake Bugg has already done that.
I know Kevin, never to be seen again (laughter).
Damon it’s been a pleasure speaking to you. Have a fantastic tour.
Cheers Kevin and thank you, fingers crossed (laughter).