Badly Drawn Boy: Home Boy

After two albums in LA, Badly Drawn Boy returned to Manchester to make what may be the perfect English pop record. Here, he takes Craig McLean on a tour of the old haunts that inspired him
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The Independent Culture

The mews in Ardwick Green is not as lovely as it sounds. It's part of an industrial estate in a Tarmac-scarred area of Manchester and, like most industrial estates, is soulless, dispiriting and devoid of handy shops. But step through the first door on the left, up a couple of flights of stairs and into a cavernous room of functional office sterility - there lies a land of musical fairy tales.

The mews in Ardwick Green is not as lovely as it sounds. It's part of an industrial estate in a Tarmac-scarred area of Manchester and, like most industrial estates, is soulless, dispiriting and devoid of handy shops. But step through the first door on the left, up a couple of flights of stairs and into a cavernous room of functional office sterility - there lies a land of musical fairy tales.

As you enter, boxed CDs, addressed to small record labels and distributors in America and Australia, are stacked on the floor. The likeness of a mildly unsettling glove-puppet rabbit with crossed-out eyes is everywhere. There are gold discs on the wall, a trophy awarded to the BMG Publishing Top Footie Team on the window ledge, and piles of torn Jiffy bags and unsolicited CDs from unknown bands - which arrive at the rate of seven or eight a day - by the stereo. Continuing the general theme of scruffy industry, the meeting room contains broken canvas chairs, an uninviting sofa and a bowl of sad chews.

This chaotic, low-rent space is the home of Twisted Nerve, the best little independent record label in Britain. It was started seven years ago by two mates whose real names were Damon Gough and Andrew Shallcross. They first met in 1996, when Shallcross was DJing in a Manchester bar. A mutual friend was doing projections on the wall. They bonded over Shallcross's copy of Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger and The Trinity's version of The Flesh Failures/ Let The Sunshine In from the musical Hair.

A friendship and a partnership was born. Shallcross became Andy Votel, Gough turned into Badly Drawn Boy. In 1997 they released the first record on Twisted Nerve, a seven-inch single of lo-fi indie-folk by Badly Drawn Boy titled EP1. They sold all 500 copies. Then came EP2; all 1,000 copies were snapped up. The pair's habit of playing their own version of doodle-centric TV quiz show Catchphrase via fax machine threw up the bunny logo (they can't remember what catchphrase it depicted).

Twisted Nerve and Badly Drawn Boy went from strength to strength. The label would release a succession of cult records by local artists such as Dakota Oak, Mum & Dad and Alfie, all clad in beautifully designed sleeves, often courtesy of graphic-design graduate Votel - who, when he wasn't running the label, was a jobbing DJ, remixer and artist in his own right.

Gough, meanwhile, signed a deal with XL, the big-thinking London independent label that is home to The White Stripes and Basement Jaxx (although all BDB records would still be released with the Twisted Nerve imprimatur). He sold a million copies of his debut album, The Hour Of Bewilderbeast, toured the world, won the Mercury Prize in 2000, wrote the soundtrack to the Hugh Grant/Nick Hornby smash About A Boy, recorded two albums in Los Angeles with Beck's producer, and secured the fannish patronage of everyone from Bono to Liam Gallagher to Coldplay. He also became that rare thing, a People's Artist. He was like us, but not. He was Badly Drawn Boy, genius troubador sporting binman chic, given to eating bananas and dishing out roses onstage, waffling away between blasts of effortlessly melodic pop that seemed to just pour out of him.

As Nick Hornby told me in 2001, as the (faultless) About A Boy album was released, "What I like about Damon's music is that it's recognisably English without all the irritations that implies. It's got soul, it's literate without being pretentious; the quiet bits aren't wimpy, it's not boorish. Who else is there?"

And now, after all that, the business partners are once again artistic collaborators. For the first time since those early EPs, Badly Drawn Boy and Andy Votel have made a record together, One Plus One Is One.

The time was right: this is Badly Drawn Boy's fourth album in less than four years, and his last for XL. He has now signed an even bigger deal f with EMI. Before moving up a gear - and the ever-prolific Gough is already writing songs for the next record - he had to go back to basics. So, over six on-and-off months last year he and Votel played, recorded and produced in a studio in an old toffee factory in Stockport, a 15-minute taxi ride from Gough's home in the nice Manchester suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy. It was out with expansive, and expensive, LA studio technology, and in with downhome Mancunian songsmithery.

With his sublimely poetic new album, Damon Gough has come home, and today he is taking us on a tour of the places that made him.

The Twisted Nerve offices, Ardwick Green, Manchester

An overweight scruffy herbert in full beard and familiar tea cosy hat sticks his head round the door, smoking a fag and drinking an Oasis. Damon Gough is always late. There's just time for him to talk us through the detail of a 3D montage propped against the wall. Votel constructed it for the cover of The Hour Of Bewilderbeast. There is a receipt from the Nashville pressing plant that made the 500 copies of EP1 for 25p a throw. A diagram of the basic four-track tape-recorder on which he made his early bedroom symphonies. He and Votel's first magazine front cover, from Manchester listings magazine City Life, in which they dressed like "bling, bling, hip-hop stars". Childhood photographs of Gough and his family on holiday in Wales.

He's just bought his own static caravan in Conwy. He relates with pride that on a recent trip he found himself pointing out the castle to his two-year-old son Oscar. "Just like my dad did to me. The baton is being passed on."

He says this like he says most things: never laughing, barely smiling even, but with a twinkle in his eye. I don't think he's being sarky: Damon Gough may have a deadpan sense of humour, but he is also earnest and sincere. You might say he was a typically plain-speaking northerner: blunt, refreshingly down-to-earth and fancy-free, and possessed of old-fashioned family values. But that would be regionalist. However, it does explain his choice for our next port of call.

First though, there is time enough for another fag for the ever-puffing Gough.

The Stockport War Memorial and Art Gallery

We drive along the A6, the old London Road, and stop outside this grand Edwardian edifice with its roll call of Cheshire war dead. Gough passed here on his way to the studio every day during the making of One Plus One Is One, f but has never been inside. Given the importance to the new album of the memory of his grandad, killed in France during the Second World War, he's not sure why.

Last year, Damon Gough had a leaky roof. His Uncle Will, his dad's brother -a builder - came round to fix it. Talk turned to Damon's paternal grandad. William Gough had been bayoneted in the Normandy landings. He was 34. Will told Damon how he had gone to see his grave in France; he was 34 at the time. When Damon heard this story, he himself was 34.

"I got to thinking a lot about numbers," Gough says, "and how things can come around, how time can be bent." He became interested in the power of the number one: the quietly soaring title track, which opens the album, can be about the indivisibility of a loving union (he is devoted to his partner Clare and his kids Oscar, two, and Edie, three and a half, all of whom appear somewhere on the album). Or, he says, it can be a reference to the more yoga-friendly notion that one is the ultimate number, the only relevant number. "But the real reason for the album title is that one day I had a total mental block: if one times one is one, and one divided by one is one, how come one plus one isn't one? I really couldn't work it out."

All of which is typical Gough thinking: sort of woolly, a bit batty, but also compelling and strangely poetic.

William Gough's grave bears the inscription: "To live in the hearts of those that you loved is not to die". It's a paraphrasing of a line from Harold Robbins' book A Stone For Danny Fisher ("To live in the hearts of those you leave behind is never to die"). As well as the coincidence of their ages, Damon knew he also had to get this aspect of his grandad's story into his album. The epitaph duly forms the chorus of "Takes The Glory", a gentle, profoundly moving piano ballad.

Inside the Stockport War Memorial And Art Gallery, Gough finds his grandad's name. He stands in the cool of the Portland stone and gazes thoughtfully at it. Overhead is the carved legend: "Let Those Who Come After See That Their Name Be Not Forgotten".

"My grandad's story and his epitaph," says Gough, "came to characterise the density and feel of the album."

Nelson's Tavern and The Blossoms pub, Wellington Road South, Stockport

Across the road from the war memorial is Nelson's, a favourite haunt of students from the nearby Stockport College. Votel, a part-time lecturer in graphic design there, joins us for the first pint of the day.

Lagers swiftly despatched, we pay the 80p fare and take the 192 Stagecoach Manchester towards Hazel Grove. We get off just past The Blossoms pub, the recording studio's local and the vaguely dodgy-looking gaff that gives its name to a paradoxically beautiful flute-driven instrumental on the album.

As Gough nips to the off-licence for some bottles of San Miguel, Votel talks about the artists and records that influenced the sound of One Plus One Is One: "Hurdy Gurdy Man" by Donovan; British folk icons Vashti Bunyan and Pentangle; Paul Giovanni's soundtrack to The Wicker Man; Serge Gainsbourg's L'Histoire De Melody Nelson; and the Langley Schools Music Project, a kitsch retro classic featuring over-enthusiastic and occasionally off-key Canadian schoolkids singing 1960s and 1970s standards, called Innocence and Despair.

"The album's a return to the start," Votel says. "It was a chance to make a singer-songwriter album. An honest, sunshine pop record."

Moolah Rouge Studios, Hallam Mill, Stockport

In the light-filled main recording room on the fourth floor of this imposing old building, Gough points out the old-school instruments they used to make the album: the Fender Rhodes and Hammond organs, tubular bells, vibes, celeste (a keyboard that plays chimes). He sits at the Steinway Pianola that provides "the meat of the album", and where he wrote or finished off many of the songs.

In keeping with their plan to make a simple, honest, intriguing and real-sounding record, there are odd noises on the album. "Takes The Glory" has the crackle of old vinyl. "Another Day" features pub ambience. "Life Turned Upside Down" has Gough singing words phonetically backwards; the tape is then played forwards. And 80 seconds into the Nick Drake-esque "Easy Love", there is a strange slap.

"I'm glad you noticed that," says Gough. "That's one of the songs that might not have made the record." Last year, round the time of his own birthday, Gough had visited a friend who was in a bad way (drugs, it seems). The friend gave Gough a photograph of himself up an apple tree when he was a kid, signing the back of it, "To Damon, happy birthday, love Matthew". Two days later he was dead.

"And this photograph, this tree thing, became a focus for what I wanted the album to sound like." And "Easy Love" was the track that sounded like the pastoral English of old ... "And as I was recording the take, that slap, that noise happened. What the fuck was that? It nearly stopped me playing the guitar. It was a noise like a twig snapping. But nobody [in the studio] knew what it was, it was just a random sound that happened.

"I mean, you don't want to put too much emphasis on it being ..." As he often does, Gough doesn't finish the sentence. But I think he was about to say "on it being a ghost". Then he continues: "I just thought it was Matt. So that was the take of the song I had to go with."

The Nose bar, Chorlton cum Hardy

Why does Badly Drawn Boy wear a big hat all the time?

"By accident - it found a niche for me. A recognisability that I didn't really have before. Of course I've done it to death now. But that's because it makes me comfortable."

Is it not a pain in the scalp?

"No, I've got so used to it - I get laughed at. I've always felt like I was somebody who has drawn attention throughout my life. People are always picking on me for what I do."

Our day in the life of Badly Drawn Boy finishes as it should, in his local pub. The sun is shining, drinkers are spilling on to the pavement. Everyone seems to know him. Clare's sister drives by; Badly Drawn Boy is shirt sponsor for her football team, Buxton Ladies - "which is a great laugh," he says between sups of Hoegaarden. "Anything exterior to music, the more you do it is an added bonus."

Last week, he handed out the awards at a horse show in Urmston. "It was the most hilarious day. I missed the first three goals of the City match because of it, but it was worth it. It was so much fun, and I'll have an amazing biography."

In an entirely good way, Badly Drawn Boy is as straight as they come. He doesn't care what he looks like. His hero is blue-collar rock icon Bruce Springsteen. Trendy pop star posturing is not his game, nor is compromising his art.

On his new album he sincerely wanted to honour his war hero grandad and his tragic mate. To rekindle the excitement he and his old sparring partner Votel first had when they were starting out in music. To make a simple, affecting folk record that sounded exactly like him and no one else. After two albums of elaborate LA orchestral pop, he wanted to come home. And he's managed the lot. One Plus One Is One is a unique album, passionate, imaginative and evocative. Give it enough listens, immerse yourself in its lovingly constructed soundscapes, and you might find yourself transported to Damon's world too.

'One Plus One Is One' is released on 21 June