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.
Badly Drawn Boy
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"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."
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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."
Bewilderbeast does indeed have an unmistakable sweep. The lead track, "The Shining," is introduced by Matt McGeever's cello and Sam Morris's French horn, and a trio of subsequent instrumentals ("Bewilder," "Bewilderbeast" and "Blistered Heart") serve as gorgeous bridging devices, not to mention strong incentives for reviewers to mention Pet Sounds. Overt loveliness of this sort is rare on a rock-based recording these days, and Gough has a pretty good idea why. "It's a hard thing to get right -- it's hard to achieve that kind of beauty and still keep it cool. And in the musical climate in England from the early '90s through Oasis and Brit pop and whatever, the only commodity that people seemed to give an iota of a shit about was 'cool.' I don't mean to put any of those bands down; Oasis, they've done a great job in their way. But it isn't me, and I've accepted that.
"I knew I was never going to be the best-looking guy in the world, or the coolest guy, or whatever," he continues. "So I've been true to myself, and I've never relied on bombast and cool, like a lot of these bands do, because the subtleties get lost if you do. I've tried to do things that some people might think are cool, but are also extremely beautiful, like some of the best film composers do -- like Angelo Badalamenti, who David Lynch works with and whose music has this mystery within the beauty. That's what I strive for, and I think I'm on the first rung of the ladder to achieving that."
That's not to suggest, however, that Gough's work is wispy and fey from one end to the other. He takes pride in his eclecticism, and on Bewilderbeast he demonstrates it by following the gentle if vaguely creepy "Stone on the Water" with "Another Pearl," which gives off a slinky, almost glam-rock vibe; the clubby snippet "Body Rap"; and the soulful, swinging "Once Around the Block," which he assembled in thoroughly modern fashion, utilizing a bass line that he sampled and looped. Elsewhere, songs such as "Everybody's Stalking" and "Disillusion" feature clever, ornate arrangements that belie the lo-fi tag that's been slapped on the platter by dint of the fairly primitive equipment with which Gough recorded it. "To me, calling it 'lo-fi' is almost a slur," he says, "because I tried to make everything sound as magical as possible, or as energetic as possible, or as worldly as possible. It's a fantasy thing that I'm doing; it's reflecting on my life, but it also imagines a lot of things that could be better. And it's not like I want to be considered like a Peter Gabriel or a Trevor Horn, but there's a lot of things on some of these songs. On 'Once Around the Block,' there's sixteen tracks of backing vocals and four or five guitars, which doesn't seem very lo-fi to me."
Of course, reproducing such intricacies on stage is impossible, and Gough wouldn't be interested in doing so even if it weren't: "Who'd want to be, like, just another band, doing a set that sounds just like the album and then going off without a care in the world?" he asks. To that end, he puts as much focus on between-song storytelling and anecdote spinning as he does on the music itself. "I try and impregnate a whole show with little gestures or moments, moments of spontaneity where I could fall flat on my face. I get a thrill out of that. The reason I mostly get nervous before a gig is because of the unknown territory I'm going to cover, not the songs I've rehearsed. It's like the Rumble in the Jungle in When We Were Kings, the Ali documentary, where Ali comes out in the first round and throws fourteen or twelve right-arm leads in the first round, and you wonder, 'Did he plan that? Did he debate it in his own head until the last second? Or did he just do it?' That's the kind of thing that I think about before a show, and when something spontaneous happens, that gets misunderstood by a lot of people. They think my tomfoolery detracts from things, and maybe it does to their personal taste. But for me, the only way to go forward is to live on those survival instincts."
He expects to take a similarly off-the-cuff approach on his second CD, which he'll start assembling as soon as his current tour of North America is over. Most performers in his position would feel pressure to top their previous work, but for him, "I think the next time it'll actually be easier, because I'll only be doing this one album and not trying to document my whole life up to that point. That was the difficulty last time, trying to cover every single angle possible -- but for the next one, I won't be so bothered about the whys and wherefores of recording a particular song. I'll just be able to record a great song, and then another one, and another one..."
Maybe he's getting the hang of this English pop-star racket after all.
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