Home taping isn't killing music

Much of Badly Drawn Boy's Mercury-nominated album was recorded in his flat. He tells John Harris how the Portastudio has made him the lo-fi poet of sincerity
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There aren't many spheres of human endeavour that still support an old-school Marxist analysis - but the capitalistic world of pop music may be one of them. Uncle Karl, let us not forget, was a lifelong advocate of historical materialism; the notion that it was impossible to understand any social, political or cultural sea-change without first grappling with the technological shift that produced it.

There aren't many spheres of human endeavour that still support an old-school Marxist analysis - but the capitalistic world of pop music may be one of them. Uncle Karl, let us not forget, was a lifelong advocate of historical materialism; the notion that it was impossible to understand any social, political or cultural sea-change without first grappling with the technological shift that produced it.

Thus, just as you'd be hard pushed to truly comprehend the birth of rock'n'roll without reference to the electro-magnetic pick-up, it's impossible to empathise with some of our most lauded musical minds without taking account of the Portastudio. Pioneered in the early 1980s, its early models allowed 4-track home recording for a relative pittance; the upshot, if you were extremely clever, was that you could sit at home working with the same palette The Beatles used for Sergeant Pepper.

Beck wouldn't have got anywhere without his - the generational anthem "Loser", like much of his early music, was a Portastudio recording. In his wake came a veritable glut of acts - Smog, Arab Strap, The Beta Band - who were similarly indebted to the bedroom 4-track. And in 1998, Gomez won the Mercury Music Prize for "Bring It On", largely recorded on home-based hardware that would have been purchasable for the proceeds from a stolen moped.

This year, Badly Drawn Boy - aka Damon Gough - is the UK's Portastudio user of choice. Nominated for the Mercury, he currently sits behind favourites Coldplay, at a very enviable 7-1. He's been shortlisted for his debut album, The Hour Of Bewilderbeast - all of which was born, and some of which was recorded, well away from the gleaming environs of high-budget studios. The sleeve credits several tracks as having been recorded at "Damon's"; in other words, his rented flat in South Manchester.

Their home-baked fragility is an integral part of their appeal. Bewilderbeast, in fact, is quite the most touchingly human record imaginable: a collection of love songs, written over the last ten years, that ooze a very rare kind of intimacy. Heart-on-sleeve songwriting hasn't been heard much of late; Damon Gough has it in him to sound like a grand master.

Gough recently turned 30. He's an endearingly scruffy presence, seemingly inseparable from both a brown tea-cosy hat, and patchy beard. He's been releasing records for little more than two years, having spent much of his twenties working in his parent's small-scale printworks (they make labels for supermarkets). For most of that time, he was using decidedly lo-fi equipment to record most of the musical ideas that popped into his head.

"I suppose I started writing songs in 1991, maybe 1992," he says. "At first I was sticking to that Duke Ellington rule: if something's good, you won't forget it. There's a famous tale about him throwing this score in the bin, and this guy saying, 'What are you doing? That could be brilliant!' He just said, 'If it's that brilliant, I'll remember it'. But I did forget stuff. I began to use dictaphones round about that point."

In 1995, just as he moved to Manchester from his native Bolton, he bought himself a 4-track home studio: a Tascam 144, as used by his one-time idol Bruce Springsteen on Nebraska. From then on, his oeuvre snowballed.

"Everything is just stored away on tapes, in loads of carrier bags," he shrugs. "Are they catalogued? No. Just totally random. I reckon a thousand songs isn't going over the top - maybe 1500. A song is a song for me once there's 30 seconds of music I can develop.

"It's a bit annoying - 'cos it's an ambition to get them all out before I leave the planet. The fact that I've only done 6 EPs and one album means I'm a long way from realising it. But I'll always be dipping back into them. I'd like to release a kind of Stars On 45 megamix of all those demos."

Gough became Badly Drawn Boy in 1997, taking the name from a long-lost cartoon strip in Viz. He released his first, decidedly scratchy EP on his own Twisted Nerve label, and then watched, poleaxed, as the phone rang off the hook. "It sparked this frenzy of all the major labels," he remembers. "I was totally shocked." He eventually signed to XL Records, for a fee rumoured to be close to a million pounds; in truth, he pocketed under a tenth of that amount.

His concert career began soon after the first EP, and Gough rapidly earned a reputation for a performance style best described as "wayward". Very often, large swathes of his audience were sent running for the exits, as he prematurely aborted some of his best songs, went in for rambling monologues, and either extended or curtailed his live set according to his mood. His record is a stadium-type 1 hour 45 minutes, which almost got him into a punch-up with a suddenly-redundant DJ.

"I like the idea of showing that humility... that honesty," he explains. "The songs matter, but I do get bored of playing some of them. If there are any plus points of being a solo artist, that's one of them. It's your prerogative: you've no-one else to upset. And some people actually loved the fact that I did it - they'd never seen it done before. The other thing is, I Iiked the idea of setting out my stall: if people could grasp that I did that, then they'd grasp whatever followed."

In fact, his unpredictability has become one of his most treasured attributes - to the extent that even he himself is baffled.

"It's now reached the point where I'll get applauded for stopping songs, or pulling out a guitar lead, or slipping on some beer," he smiles. "It's like this folklore myth or something. It's pretty ridiculous."

Listening to The Hour Of Bewilderbeast, it becomes clear why his snowballing fan-cult is so devoted. In addition to all its other virtues, it has a particularly touching trick up its sleeve - its 19 songs trace the course of a semi-fictional relationship, from first longing glances to final heartbreak. Gough is cagey when it comes to identifying the inspiration for each song: it's fair to assume that though no one affair has followed the pattern he sketches, its elements are drawn from real-life relationships.

Whatever, he will happily agree that many - "The Shining", "Everybody's Stalking", "Once Around The Block" - are founded on his love for his current girlfriend. That, of course, begs one crucial question: how does she feel about being captured in song?

"Fortunately, I don't think Clare, my girlfriend, takes it that seriously. She knows certain songs are inspired by what's happened between us - but it doesn't affect our daily lives. [Pause] Music gives you the power to say the cheesiest things in the world, doesn't it? But it's not as if I put the record on and woo her out of an argument - like, 'Listen to this - it's about you.' She'd probably take it off and throw it out of the window."

Tonight, Gough has a one-off gig to play at the decidedly poky Camden Monarch, for the benefit of a web-based TV station. It's the embodiment of exactly the rough-hewn, low-rent aesthetic he's come to embody - though he's keen to look towards altogether wider vistas. In fact, his portastudio days may well be numbered.

"To be honest," he says, his eyes noticeably widening, "I'd be thrilled by the idea of being the commander in the middle of a huge orchestral battlefield, telling the strings what to do, and bringing on the horns. Being, you know, the General."

Comments