For someone about to embark on his first U.S. tour, the English-based Badly Drawn Boy — who’s really a man named Damon Gough — expresses an astute level of insight when it comes to trans-Atlantic relations. This might have to do with the constant comparisons to Elliott Smith and Beck, or that, for the majority of British bands and music scribes alike, success in America still represents the ultimate object of desire. For Gough, however, the United States is simply where his musical heroes reside.
“I don’t attempt to sound American. I’m not American, so I’m always surprised and flummoxed by English bands that turn out sounding American. I’m just inspired by a lot of bands like Ween, Sebadoh, Smog, Guided By Voices, Flaming Lips, Superchunk, then going back to Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young.”
Badly Drawn Boy released The Hour of Bewilderbeast this year jointly through his own label, Twisted Nerve, and Beggars-XL Records. It’s an intimate, warm and personal album, absolutely deserving of the Mercury Award — sponsored by Technics for the best UK songwriting — it recently garnered. Gough, however, eyes the recent hoopla surrounding him with a measure of indifference.
“The only change that’s really happened for me since winning the Mercury is that I get recognized walking around the streets anywhere in England.”
One gets the sense that Gough is tired of talking about and hearing about the Mercury win, not out of a lack of appreciation, but because he feels his time and energy aren’t well served with after-the-fact self-congratulation. Besides, Badly Drawn Boy’s music seems to speak for itself. Combining the mid-fi, mini-orchestral guitar sound of his American indie influences with lyrics that are suggestive of Mark Eitzel and (yes, I can’t help it) the aforementioned Elliott Smith, Bewilderbeast not only sounds great, but operates on an honest, emotional level sorely missing from many current British bands.
Perhaps this is because Gough has been inspired by American artists not only sonically, but also by the way they approach their craft. Much of this he attributes to differences between the two countries.
“The charts in England are just full of manufactured, cheap-to-make music which reflects in what people see and hear, dilutes people’s knowledge of music and makes them less likely to delve deeper to find better music.”
While one could argue the same is true of the charts in the United States, here we also possess an interesting middle ground where underground rock and pop artists can exist and even thrive. Gough explains, “You do get the crap rising to the top in America like you do anywhere else, but you still get bands at least having a healthy longevity and career. They’re perceived as album artists, where success isn’t just about sales and hit singles. It’s about putting faith into their work. I’m inspired more by that attitude, and the way that their music seems to come out with less of a burden on it.”
Certainly this relationship between the UK and America — which amounts to a musical dialog of shared and reflected ideas — has been in place for quite some time. Gough, for one, is acutely aware of his forerunners.
“You go back to jazz and blues through rock ’n’ roll, especially with the British Invasion. Ever since then, you can’t really look at any other two countries that have done so much for music. For that reason alone you want to come to America and hope that your music is going to be understood and embraced, not start talking about, ‘Well, I’m going to come conquer America.’ I can’t really look at it like that.”
The goal then, remarkably, is to complete the loop, not increase record sales. Compare this attitude to that of Badly Drawn Boy’s peers and one senses his distinction.
“It’s a scary thing,” Gough states. “I was talking to Travis (another Brit band) at the Q awards in England, and they’re just finishing 40 shows in 60 days in America. Sounds like a lot of work.”
For Gough, his upcoming tour is instead a chance to get better acquainted with the place that has been so influential to his music.
“I’m excited about the places that I’m playing on this tour because they’re things that you grow up with — the names and places,” he says, recounting past experiences. “I’ve personally only been to America three or four times. Once was to shoot a video in New York. I’ve been to San Francisco to record the UNKLE track with DJ Shadow (”Nursery Rhyme” which appeared on the star-studded Psyence Fiction) and pretty much that’s it. There’s a hell of a lot of ground in between the East and West Coast that is unique.”
Gough completes the thought by saying, “It’s thrilling being in a band and having the opportunity to play these places. Every day, a new gig.”
And, in turn, we’re lucky he’s playing Detroit. At least the brave-new-globalized world has some benefits.
For two really great Web pages on Badly Drawn Boy, check out: www.badlydrawnboy.co.uk and www.xl-recordings.com/artists/badly_drawn_boy/story_1.htmlAaron Warshaw is the Metro Times listings editor. E-mail him at [email protected]