Badly Drawn Boy

It’s hard to believe that ten years have passed since Manchester’s Badly Drawn Boy released a studio album. Not that Damon Gough has been completely away from music, there’s been the serenely beautiful soundtrack work and the occasional live gig, but the past few years have seen major upheavals, both in the wider world, and on a personal level for Gough, and it’s these events which have given him the impetus to craft the brilliant new album ‘Banana Skin Shoes’.  It’s an album which revels in redemption and positivity, which is even all the more astounding given that some songs on the album deal with a break-up, yet having found new love, it’s a tale of triumph over tragedy, told as only Gough knows how.

Throughout his career, he has never shied away from pouring his heart out to document love, domesticity, and all the emotional  ups and downs everyday life throws up, yet ‘Banana Skin Shoes’ seems to take that honesty and raw emotion to a new level, all backed by Gough’s inspired use of beats, samples, guitar melodies which range from the Beck meets Beastie Boys sound of the title track to the reflective cinematic folk pop of ‘I Just Want To Wish You Happiness’.  “It’s the most important album I’ve made to date as it’s brought me back to who I am” he states, and as we delve into the stories behind its creation, Gough explains what fuelled the songwriting fire and why he’s been relatively quiet on the album front for so many years:

“It’s just an accumulation of everything of the last several years, you could call it the last twenty years if you want but for the last five or six years it’s been a tough time to be alive on this planet. I’ve got a three year old and my older two are nineteen and eighteen, I mean you don’t even have to have kids to feel how bad things have gone. It’s just a slipping of moral and spiritual standards across the globe in a way. I use that phrase moral and spiritual standards because I heard it the other day mentioned with reference to the stuff that’s going on in America. This guy called Dr Cornel West used the phrase moral and spiritual standards, and I suppose with my album I’m just trying to speak for something good generally. I think I’ve tried to do that throughout my career but more so because I had a bit of a break away from it, I’d come back to try and contribute something good to the world. Particularly the referendum in our country that was in 2016, and the signal that that sent, there was a lot of unhappiness in our country, I don’t want to get into that argument about Brexit and all that, but it feels such a waste of time and resources, the three years that were spent bickering about leaving or staying in Europe. The argument shifted to something bigger than it was intended in the first place, and then at the end of last year we get people just voting for Boris Johnson because he kept saying he’d get Brexit done because people were so sick of it. In all honesty, it’s the most sickening passage in our history, all of it. So before the referendum I was concerned about the likes of Donald Trump, I mean to put someone like him in power and now that we’re in a time that’s even more critical with Coronavirus, and then the riots added to that in America, to put Donald Trump in power you’re asking for trouble. “

It’s not just world events that have got him fired up again, having had a period of reflection following the break-up of a long term relationship has also given him a new perspective and even a more optimistic outlook for the future as he recalls how the last few years have been challenging:

Cuddly Drawn Boy

“I was trying to fix myself you know, over the last several years I’ve been away because I broke up with my ex partner, Clare ended our relationship after fifteen years and two kids, so that knocked me for six. But, a lot of that, I have to take the blame for, for my part in the downfall of that relationship, so with this album I’m acknowledging that with the title ‘Banana Skin Shoes’. I have to say that even though she ended it, she was trying to help me. I’d done eight albums in twelve years, so I’d been busy for twelve years with two young kids and trying to keep this career going, I’m not saying “boo-hoo” or anything like that, but it was a tough twelve years and it took its toll. I became a bit of a drinker through that period to cope with it, and the boozing and other things were what contributed to that ending.”

“I genuinely want to try and contribute and make the world a better place in some ways.”

Having given up the booze, meeting his new wife, and finding a new sense of optimism have also become focal points for the new album as Gough explains:

“My wife now, Leanne, who I met shortly after the break up, she helped me get to a place where I was ready to give up the booze and try again. So, it took me a while to get myself back on my feet and fix myself in a way, so I feel like there’s a strange dichotomy of me fixing me while the world was crumbling. With all that happening, I wanted to try and make an album of positive messages really that might contribute in some way. I thought of this analogy the other day, it’s not a particularly clever one, but it’s of the world being a broken place as it is, and if you just visualise that as a jigsaw that just needs putting back together then I’d like to think my album is a piece of that jigsaw at least. However big that  jigsaw ends up being, it could be a million pieces and I’m just one, but as long as you ‘re contributing something good back, because I think that the world needs fixing in  more ways than one and a lot of it is basic moral standards and people are being dehumanized. Donald Trump doesn’t care about other human beings full stop, neither does Boris Johnson really. A lot of this white male supremacy thing that exists, it’s not like we’re all bad, not all white men are, but those that seem to rise to the top haven’t got any empathy, that’s why they rise to the top. Kinder people do jobs that matter, your people in the NHS for example that get paid not enough for what they do, they don’t get appreciated until a time like Coronavirus and everyone starts clapping them on the doorsteps, and at other times they don’t get any credit for doing a job that’s really important. It’s all skew-whiff. We need to get back to some real justice. That’s a very long convoluted answer but I think, like the analogy I made about myself, I brought a lot of the problems on myself, I’ve took ownership of that, and I’m not complaining to anyone else that I’ve had personal problems, a lot of that was down to me, so I’m coming back fighting with an album that almost laughs off my own personal issues. I genuinely want to try and contribute and make the world a better place in some ways.”

I think the album does that because on the title track sounds like you giving a message of encouragement to yourself “it’s time to realise your goal, super super size your soul” but then you “keep slipping on banana skin shoes”, is it your way of telling yourself to keep going no matter how many times you fall down?

Well Made Brew

“It’s nice that you see that. I just hope that the messages aren’t too subtle because I’m trying to give people a helping hand. With mental health issues, some of the stuff has become a lot more prevalent in the last ten years. It’s no wonder there’s a lot of mental health issues as well because I think my generation, I just turned fifty last year, but for people in their thirties, forties, there’s been a lot of stuff that can get you down very easily if you let it. Even when you’re doing ok like I am, even though I’ve had a rough time myself, I’m doing ok, I’m not living in poverty, I’m not in a part of the world that’s oppressive and at war for example.”

Staying positive and making the most of whatever life throws at you, are themes which flow throughout the fourteen tracks,  “I think that the main message is remain in hope” Damon enthuses, “People have to be helped to see the best in themselves and to see their own potential. Everybody deserves a chance to meet their own potential, because everybody’s got things that they’re capable of doing that they don’t even know about. I think maybe a positive that will come from where we’re at, at the moment, will be that more people get that help, more people will offer their help to others, let’s rise up here a little bit and count for something good. Maybe this cruel virus, as horrible as it’s been with people suffering and dying, hopefully that doesn’t go on too much longer and people can realise that the human spirit is still there and that there’s still something to fight for.”

“Always be good to anyone you meet because you don’t know what they’re going through”

Although ‘Banana Skin Shoes’ was written before the pandemic kicked in, many of the lyrics have somehow managed to sum up the current mood. None more so, than the sentiments reflected in ‘Note To Self’ – “Always be good to the people we meet when we have no clue what they’re going through”. Surely that’s how we all should be living anyway, spreading a bit of kindness, especially in these uncertain times?

“It’s nice that you picked up on that line. That’s such a simple lyric, almost naive lyric, “it’s a simple life if we surround ourselves with things we like”. I mean that’s a basic message, surround yourself with good things and simple things, life can be simple and rewarding, you don’t need multiple possessions and a flashy car. I mean it’s nice to have a nice house, and I have got a nice house, but I think because I’ve been through some problems myself you realise that the people you love and your friends, and other people, your neighbours all of that and their happiness is what makes things tick. The line you picked up on “always be good to the people we meet”  I took that from Bob Dylan’s ‘Chronicles’, the book he wrote in the early 2000s I think, the book he mentions what’s the best advice he was ever given, and he quotes his  grandmother, as his grandmother said “ always be good to  anyone you meet because you don’t know what they’re going through” and so I thought that was a nice thing to quote because it came from his grandmother to him and it’s just such a simple basic thing. I think about it all the time, and that’s why I put it in the song, because since reading that book I’ve kept it with me as a mantra for wherever you go.

Badly Drawn Boy

There’s stuff everyday that can trip you up, and that can annoy you, stuck in traffic or someone’s rude in a supermarket queue, or doesn’t hold a door, basic little things, politeness in general. I mean it’s moments of kindness, like when I’m driving along and someone lets you in a queue, it makes your day that someone was kind just for a second. Those little moments that accumulate can make you have a better day. It doesn’t have to be much. The opposite effect is that you can have a terrible day because two or three people are rude or are not helpful. It’s a very simple domino effect between you having a good day and a bad day sometimes, it’s on a knife edge. Your own positive attitude can help you have a better day and that’s helped along when other people contribute and it’s not a lot to ask, and it has a ripple effect. Human beings are very sensitive creatures and the ripple effect you can give to others just by being good to them, it’s a basic principle really, and I think that’s where you have to start from.  When the world is struggling as it is, it’s like the charity begins at home cliché, but it’s more than that, if you’re just good to the people you encounter on a daily basis that’s the same as at home, whatever crosses your path, as long as your intentions are good, you don’t have to be doing massive gestures and throwing roses everywhere and giving everyone hugs, then the world ticks along better when people are just permeating kindness.”

Giving something back to people and expressions of gratitude are scattered throughout the album, with one song in particular, ‘Tony Wilson Said’ being a homage to a man who helped Gough throughout his career, and has in Gough’s words “left more than a million footprints all over this town”,  he was someone who was always there to help, as he explains:

“He helped indirectly and directly, the song is kind of an acknowledgement in the first place. Like when I came through in the  90s with my peers and my friends, Elbow, Doves and others, a cluster of bands, there was a lot of us that knew each other on the Oldham St scene from Night n Day Cafe and Dry Bar and places. When you’d grown up through the 80s with The Smiths, Joy Divisions and New Order and bands like that, Tony was this prevalent character, so I’m kind of acknowledging that  without him, the Manchester scene may not have been what it was.  When I started the label, Twisted Nerve in 97, he called me and Andy Votel, he summoned us to his office, which was near where The Boardwalk used to be, we didn’t know why he wanted to see us, we just went out of intrigue and it was  like’ what’s all this about?’. We sat waiting for Tony, and he walked in and he was punching the air, and saying ‘go on lads, you’re doing something exciting!’ he was just proud of us, he was just saying well done  for doing something exciting again, and he said if there’s anything  you need let me know. He drew some stuff on a blackboard, like a chart of the history of music that inspired him, and then drew us on the chart ‘you’re here now’, and it was hilarious, and we kind of didn’t know why we went, and when we came away, we still didn’t know what it was all about, but looking back it was one of those amazing moments, that I’ll always keep with me. He didn’t really want us to do anything, he was just offering us his help.

Highly Strung Toy

Several times since that, before Tony passed away, I met him and worked with him a few times at In The City, and every time I encountered him he was just as enthusiastic, he was like treating me like one of his protégés, one of his sons, even though we didn’t directly work together like he did with The Mondays and other bands, he still treated me like I was one of his, protecting me almost. I was outside a nightclub in London one time, I couldn’t get in, and by coincidence Tony was leaving and he saw that I was struggling to get in, and he kicked up a fuss, he said “do you know who this is, this is one of our best songwriters, Damon”, and he walked me in the club, bought me a drink, sat at the bar with me and we chatted for two hours, he was leaving  and he stayed for another two hours to chat to me. The last time I saw him was on Whitworth St, I was parking up my car, Tony was on the other side of the street, he was with someone, and he crossed over and shook my hand and introduced me to Anton Corbijn, the director of the film ‘Control’ which they were working on at the time, so that’s my last memory of seeing Tony, he crossed the street to say hello and give me a hug and to ask me how things were. He was like the unofficial Lord Mayor of Culture in Manchester really, irreplaceable. I was nervous about doing a song about him because of what people might think, what’s my right to write about Tony Wilson? The best thing that’s happened recently, is that I knew I had to contact his son Oliver, I know him and have met him a few times over the years, but I hadn’t seen him for a few years, so I nervously had to contact him and say, ‘look I’ve written his song about your dad’ before the album came out. I wanted him to hear the song before I was released, and thankfully I’ve got his blessing. I sent him the lyrics, he loved the lyrics, and listened to the song and was blown away, so I was relieved that his son approved. Did you cross his path a few times?”

Yeah when I went to In The City, and also further back when he came to my school to do a speech one day. He was in his suit with a pair of trainers on, and I just found it so inspiring that there was someone from Manchester that was in the music business, and that’s what made me wanted to get into the music industry, working for a record label in the 90s, and also getting into music writing.

“Whenever I’ve talked about him in interviews recently, it’s really surprising. You’re not the first person I’ve spoken to who’s been touched by him in one way or another. So I’m really chuffed that the song seems to have been received in the way it was intended, which is just a celebration of him really.”

“Soul music is what connects me to hip-hop to The Beastie Boys, even bands like The Clash and Billy Bragg whom I’m a big fan of, the ideas are rooted in soul and human spirit.”

Talking about other people that may have influenced you, I read recently that reading The Beastie Boys book gave you some ideas for this album, did it make you want to go back to using more samples and sound snippets in your songs?

Badly Drawn Boy

Not even as specific as that. When I was finishing the album in Stockport at Eve Studios, the last few months of mixing, doing the vocals, getting the songs finished, I had the book and Gethin Pearson who was finishing the album with me, he was reading it as well, we hadn’t met each other before we worked together on the final stages of this album, so it was a nice coincidence that we were both reading The Beastie Boys book. Even just the aesthetic tone of the book, the pictures, those years where The Beastie Boys were forming in the late 70s and early 80s, that period in my life where I remember, even those I was young, all the music I was listening to. They were obviously in New York, and a similar age to me, maybe a year or two older, they were just starting out, and it’s such an inspiring book. To hear Ad Rock talking about Adam Yauch as this guy that gave them this self belief that they can do something in the world, and the way he talks about him in the foreword section, of the book, it’s quite tear-jerking . I’ve not seen the movie yet, there’s a movie that accompanies it that I’m desperate to watch, I’ve not seen it yet. Considering the kind of goofiness, Ad Rock’s known for, you wouldn’t expect him to speak to eloquently about his fellow band mate that’s no longer with him, even that alone is touching. There’s pictures of them in the club scene in the early 80s, and it was inspiring to look at these pictures and know the comradeship they had as a band, they were just three kids really, giving it a go, and it’s that spirit I was tapping into. That reminded me again of where I started with Any Votel in the late 90s we had that similar spirit, ‘well why not, let’s try this’, we pressed up a seven inch single and took it to the shops ourselves, and it was very much a homemade cottage industry, this small record label that we’d started.

We didn’t know where it would take us, I did a handful of shows, and people kept saying do another show, do another show, it was all very organic. It was harking back to that feeling of the realness of it. I’ve got that back to a degree with the way I can interact with fans now. As damaging as the digital stuff can be, and streaming affecting record sales physically, there’s some positives in the connectivity we’ve all had to do in lockdown, with zoom and stuff. So, back to the question it was just the tone of that Beastie Boys book, it reminded me of where I started out in the 90s, I just had a four track and an old Akai sampler in my bedroom. I’d make crude loops out of bits of music and then write songs on top of these drum beats, so ‘Banana Skin Shoes’ the title track in particular was a homage to my beginnings in the 90s. It was a song that I actually started back then as well, it was an old idea that I never finished, I didn’t put lyrics to it, and it was just a bass guitar and a drum loop. I wanted to go back to that period, to reintroduce myself really, that’s why it’s the first track. The Beastie Boys just seeped their way in, I wouldn’t say it’s obvious to notice it, but it’s in the aesthetic and the spirit of things in some way, especially on songs like ‘Tony Wilson Said’, that song is like a clash of things. There’s elements of The Clash, and Big Audio Dynamite and Motown I suppose, soulfulness is the real connection. Soul music is what connects me to hip-hop to The Beastie Boys, even bands like The Clash and Billy Bragg whom I’m a big fan of, the ideas are rooted in soul and human spirit. That’s where this all made sense to me, somehow.”

Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg’s clever lyrical wordplay, speaking up for the downtrodden, set against great folk inspired pop melodies was a huge influence on the teenage Gough who bought his first Billy Bragg album at age thirteen and would then go on to work with the man himself.

 “I think a lot of us during this period in lockdown, you want to think of good times, of good memories, when times were better, not that they won’t be better again, I’m convinced that they will, but it just made me have a reflective moment. I don’t talk about some of my influences as much as I could or should and Billy Bragg’s one of those people. He means so much to me as a writer, I’ve got to meet him over the years and got to know him a little bit, worked with him and got to play with him on stage. He’s such a shining light of what it is to be a great musician and artist and the stuff he stands for, his manifesto that he set out, and for me to get that as a thirteen year old it made me feel quite proud to think I was pretty smart as a thirteen year old to be listening to stuff like that. Maybe I was lucky too, that there was music around like that to get into. I mean there was The Smiths as well, to be a thirteen year old listening to Billy Bragg and The Smiths, it was a good education as to what counts, it was real music, and it was real messages. I’ve mentioned those two bands, and it’s weird because the b-side of ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ (Billy Bragg’s classic single from 1986) is ‘Walk Away Renee’ where Billy talks about falling out of love with a girl because she cut her hair, it’s such a beautiful piece of poetry, and Johnny Marr is on it. They did it as a chance thing in the studio I’ve since learned, Johnny was playing ‘Walk Away Renee’ on guitar, Billy liked it, recorded it and did this poem over it. It’s one of the most influential pieces on me, as a teenage I spent months and months listening to that, bought a guitar, and taught myself to play it just by listening to it. It took me months! To this day my playing is the same as what I learned in those months, my basic ability to play and find chords, use my fingers instead of a pick, I learned it all from that one piece of music, so that’s why I wanted to bring it up currently. I’d forgotten to say so before, there’s certain things you forget, so it’s nice to remember them and bring them up. Billy and The Smiths were very strong early influence on me.

All those years of guitar practice finally paid off when Gough was invited to play that song with Bragg on stage at The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester in 2008. Having that recognition from your peers is something Gough is always grateful for, with one if his other musician friends being Bruce Springsteen, another musical hero of Gough’s growing up. They’ve already played live at New York’s Carnegie Hall back in 2007, when Gough joined him for a brilliant version of ‘Rosalita’ as part of the tribute to Springsteen event , so could a joint album ever be on the horizon?

Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP/Shutterstock (10466248bu)
Bruce Springsteen performs at the 13th annual Stand Up For Heroes benefit concert in support of the Bob Woodruff Foundation at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden, in New York
13th Annual Stand Up For Heroes, New York, USA – 04 Nov 2019

“Wow. I mean I don’t know, it would obviously be a dream come true if that scenario could ever come to be. The last time I saw Bruce was in October, for my 50th. My wife Leanne managed to get these very exclusive tickets to see Bruce talking about his new album at a screening of the film that accompanied ‘Western Stars’ his latest album. I was outside, Leanne went to the loo, an I’d gone outside to have a go on my vape, just ten minutes before the screening at this hotel in London, quite a swanky place, and I saw this car pull up with blacked out windows, I thought ‘this is going to be Bruce’, I’ve not seen him for a while. He gets out of the car, instead of walking straight into the hotel, because he was dropped right at the door, he kind of turned left and saw me, and I wasn’t going to jump out and shout his name or anything, I was just happy to see him turn up, he turned left and saw me and walked twenty paces to me and gave me a huge hug. I burst into tears because I’ve not seen him for a while. He’d just had his seventieth birthday, and I’d turned fifty, and it was just bizarre. My wife had gone to the loo so she missed it all, but he give me a hug and says “are you coming in to see the film”, I said “yeah”, he said “great, good to see you”.  Then after the film we were able to chat to him for ten minutes or so, there were quite a few people chatting to him. Leanne got his autograph for me because I’ve never asked for his autograph before and I wish I had longer to talk to Bruce about other things because I know he’s openly admitted he’s struggled with mental health issues over the years, and he’s inspired me to be able to talk about mine as well.

I’ve learnt so much about that in the past eighteen months, I wanted to pass on something of the stuff I’ve learnt to Bruce because the film that accompanies his album, it’s so beautiful and sad, it’s almost like a guy that knows he’s at the latter  years of his life and he’s reflecting on it. It’s not pessimistic, he’s acknowledging he’s in his twilight years perhaps, and he’s still troubled by things that run deep, and lots of us are troubled by things like that, things that go to your soul. Back to my album, the stuff I’m trying to tap into is reconnecting with you and your spirit. Stop thinking from your head, you can learn to think from another pace, from where your core is or your soul. For me personally  you can stop letting the world impact you, you can still be worried about it, things are still worrying but they don’t crush you. Like for me I’ve learned how to stop letting that happen to you because it was just debilitating and I was struggling for a while, another reason why I was away from making music for a while. So now I want to be back stronger, contributing something whilst I can. But, working with Bruce… God knows if that could ever happen, blimey! If the right thing came along it would be a dream, yeah!”

As we’re still in lockdown, without any gigs on the horizon, what’s next for you?

“We had some tour dates that were in, around now. I was meant to be playing The Stoller Hall in Manchester. It’s a venue that’s not been around that long and it looks amazing. It’s like a mini Bridgewater Hall for classical gigs, it’s about half the size, it’s about five hundred, so quite intimate, but beautiful and modern like the Bridgewater. I was meant to be playing there around the album release and a handful of shows around the UK and a couple in Europe. They were never announced, because we were just about to announce them when it became clear that stuff wasn’t going to go on, so we didn’t have to at least take them back off sale or postpone them. So now I’m not sure, I mean we’re going to have to feel it out and see. What I want to do as an artist is, if possible, help some of the venues get back on their feet. I mean if it means doing some compromised gigs to smaller portion of an audience, I don’t know. I mean I talked to some one the other day about this, about the potential for easing our way back in and maybe doing more interesting types of gigs initially, until things get normal, proper normal, but we don’t know how  long that will take. It’s interesting, it remains to be seen. I’m also on a mission to continue doing other stuff.

There’s this ‘Eat Well Manchester’ thing that I’m involved in with The Creameries in Chorlton who I know quite well. They’re helping people get decent food who otherwise probably couldn’t, whether they’re homeless or frontline workers, they’ve been supplying food to people so that they  eat well every day, and a lot of us have got involved in that. So it’s perhaps being involved in a network of people doing good things for other people that might come out of this for me personally. I mean I’ve always done my bit to contribute but sometimes I want to be slightly more involved if time allows, so I don’t know, I’m not really thinking too far beyond the basics. I want live music to come back, more for the people that rely on that for their income, the people that work at venues, and also for the venues themselves to be preserved and kept going, because some of these amazing beautiful buildings, they don’t seem to be held in as high a regard as other places, like stately homes or castles or whatever, yet some of these music venues are beautiful old places that have got a rich history of keeping the human spirit alive you know. I think that’s a focus for a lot of us. It’ll be a triumphant thing, when gigs can happen again, even if they start on a sliding scale of smaller things to bigger things, it would hopefully be a really interesting collaborative thing between the artists and the venues to do something special, because it will feel special anyway due to the time that we’ve had, where all of that has been threatened, the future of it’s been threatened, let alone the current income that they’re not getting. So, hopefully there’s lots of good things to come.”

With ‘Banana Skin Shoes’ Badly Drawn Boy has made an album that brims with optimism, which let’s face it we could all do with right now, yet it also feels somehow timeless, an album to get us all through these challenging times and into a hopefully brighter future. A contender for album of the year already….

Banana Skin Shoes is out now on AWAL Records. Check Badly Drawn Boy’s Facebook and Instagram for his livestream gigs and other info.

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From the early days of creating handmade zines, in a DIY paper and glue style, interviewing bands around town, then pestering Piccadilly Records to sell them, to writing for various independent mags such as Chimp and Ablaze, writing about the music I love is still a great passion. After testing the music industry waters in London with stints at various labels, being back in my hometown again, writing about this city’s vibrant music scene is as exciting as ever. All time favourite bands include Sonic Youth, Nick Cave, Patti Smith although anything from electro to folk via blues and pysch rock will also do nicely too. A great album, is simply a great album, regardless of whatever musical cage you put it in.