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Damon Gough, who performs under the moniker Badly Drawn Boy, has a thing or two to learn about being an English pop star.
Whereas most prominent musicians from his homeland dress flamboyantly, maintain piss-off attitudes and regularly issue bold proclamations about the enduring significance of their work -- whether such claims are justified or not -- Gough seldom goes anywhere without a wool hat that has him looking like a homeless person preparing for the first cold snap of the season, is friendly in an almost hyperactive way, and quite frequently deprecates his work. "An ambition somewhere down the line is to write an album of acoustic songs the way someone like Dylan did it, but that's something I don't think I'm capable of at the moment," he says in a manic mumble that makes his tumble of words seem like part of a single, infinite sentence (punctuation has been included for your convenience). "Perhaps one of the reasons I strive for my songs to be bigger and bolder right now is because I think that's the only way I can impress anyone with them."
To put it mildly, Gough, 31, is selling himself short. His first long-player, The Hour of the Bewilderbeast (released in the States last October), earned the Mercury Music Prize, Great Britain's most prestigious pop-music accolade. (It's the U.K. equivalent of the U.S. Grammy for best album, won this year by Steely Dan's Two Against Nature largely because aging electors didn't want to give Eminem their vote of approval, and because they remembered kinda liking Pretzel Logic and Katy Lied back in the '70s.) This well-deserved acclaim instantly brought Gough to the attention of the hemisphere's critical establishment, whose members attempted to pigeonhole him in typical fashion. Suddenly, he was the subject of profile after interchangeable profile, with most scribes comparing him to dead tragic geniuses (such as Nick Drake), lucky-to-be-alive tragic geniuses (like Brian Wilson) or performers apt to be seen by future generations as either dead tragic geniuses or their lucky-to-be-alive counterparts (e.g., Elliott Smith). Moreover, virtually every article pivoted on Gough's fondness for Bruce Springsteen, portraying him as a quaint, eccentric Boss-head -- despite the fact that Bewilderbeast and Born to Run are about as similar as Gisele Bündchen and the woman with the gaudy eye shadow on The Drew Carey Show. Even the easygoing Gough has had enough of this last angle by now.
"It's sort of reaching a breaking point," he concedes, "because I don't want people to think Bruce Springsteen is the be all and end all. In contemporary terms, a lot of bands throughout the '90s, from Guided By Voices to Flaming Lips to Ween to Sebadoh to Pavement, and going back farther to Neil Young and Frank Zappa and people of that ilk, are all equally important to me, if not more so. It's just that Bruce Springsteen was probably the most important figure in my life when I was fourteen, and when I look back he was probably the biggest reason why I got into music. But I didn't expect people to get that bothered about it. In England, people just do not give a shit about Bruce Springsteen. When I was growing up, I was the only kid in school who even liked him."
As for Gough, he wasn't quite friendless, but neither was he the hippest youngster in Bolton, the town near Manchester where he came of age. When he wasn't working at his parents' print shop, he was using a four-track to record songs that were seldom heard outside his bedroom. But after he moved to Manchester in 1995, he began making a greater effort to engage the outside world. With DJ Andy Votel he formed Twisted Nerve Records, on which he put out several EPs that he now regards as musical ground-clearing for Bewilderbeast, and he also persuaded the Fall's Mark E. Smith, another of Gough's many influences, to record one of his tunes, "Tumbleweed." Then, in 1998, Gough signed a deal with XL, the British imprint closely associated with Prodigy. But although he contributed a song, "Nursery Rhyme," to Psyence Fiction by Unkle, the electro supergroup assembled by Mo Wax founder James Lavelle ("Say Unkle," September 24, 1998), he resisted the temptation to join the short-lived electronica revolution. Instead, he slowly, methodically honed compositions earmarked for his full-length debut, winding up with far more than he could possibly fit onto a single disc.
"There were so many of them -- some that I'd written ten years previous," he says, "and with almost all of them I felt, 'This one's got to be on the album, and that one's got to be on the album.' I kept recording songs that seemed like they were begging to be on there, and trying to decide which ones should be was a personal nightmare. So I ended up creating a scenario to work to, a mild song cycle. It's not a major concept thing, because to do a proper concept album you have to write a story and characters. It was just a matter of coincidence that all of the songs were based on similar ideas. They were basically documenting my twenties, and my failures, and the futility of trying to pursue a relationship, wondering, 'Is it worth it?,' because you always feel like you're giving and giving and giving and nothing is coming back -- and trying to tell about all of that without sounding corny, because everyone goes through these things. And then, after I established a beginning and an end, I just piled in songs that I hoped would fit and tried to shape it like a puzzle. And that puzzle became the album."