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Oct 01, 2006 Web Exclusive
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More than just a cheeky reference to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album, Badly Drawn Boy’s Born in the U.K. is Damon Gough’s assessment of current world affairs as filtered through the eyes of a quintessentially British songwriter. Nostalgic, bittersweet, and ultimately redemptive, Born in the U.K. marks Gough’s return as one of pop music’s most focused craftsman. Nostalgic, bittersweet, and ultimately redemptive, Born in the U.K. marks Gough’s return as one of pop music’s most focused craftsman. Portions of this interview appeared in the Fall 2006 issue of Under the Radar; the following is the full transcript of our interview with Gough.

Under the Radar: So your new record is about growing up in the U.K.?

Damon Gough: No. I wouldn’t say that. It’s just the title of the record and one of the songs. Born in the U.S.A. was never all about Vietnam; it was just that one song. It’s not that I was trying to copy Springsteen; it just came out with those lyrics. It’s just that one song, really. If anything, the rest of the album is music I wrote, I would say loosely, because I grew up in a certain place in the world and those are the influences that come into my brain. That’s why I make the music that I make. It’s a very loose connection. But lyrically, it’s not about me being in this country. It’s about all sorts of things, like who I am and why I’m here and what’s coming next—confusion, as usual. It’s not specifically about one thing. It’s about a million little things, I’d say.

UTR: Would you say this one is more rooted in the U.K. than your others?

Gough: No. [Laughs]. I think they’ve all been of the same ilk. It’s just the music I make. I pride myself on sounding like who I am. What gets me is a lot of English bands that sing with American accents, and I’ve always been one of those singers who speaks with—not exactly my speaking accent—but with a more English kind of tone. That’s harder to do. It’s harder to write songs that work with your voice and accent. It’s easy to write songs with an Americanized kind of voice, because that’s rock and roll. That’s what it is and what it has always been. That’s what bands have always done, whether they’re from America or England or elsewhere. That’s the sound of rock and roll. If anything, I pride myself in going through my whole career just being who I am and doing things my way. It takes a lot of time to do that, but it’s kind of natural. It’s just the way I do things. But I think [the album] is just a continuation of what I’ve been doing. Honestly, some of these questions are too hard to answer because I’ve just made the record. I don’t know what it is myself yet. I’ve gone straight into touring, and I’m trying to make sense of it myself. That’s the best I can do.

UTR: So, this record you recorded once, and then did it a second time?

Gough: No…I’d say they are two different records completely. I made a record that didn’t come out, and then I made this one that is coming out. I’ve made loads of songs that have never come out, and I write songs all the time that will probably never come out. There’s too many of them to put out physically. Maybe someday, when I have time, I’ll sit down and put them all together for some sort of anthology sort of thing. But when it comes to making an album that’s going to come out, with a large focus on it and a record company behind it, then you try to make something that people are going to enjoy and listen to and that I can make money from so my kids can survive. These are just the records that I put out in the public eye. The rest are made under close surveillance, and nobody hears them unless I want them to. This is just one of the records that I made that comes out. The one last year that I made didn’t feel good enough to put out, which was devastating to me. It was the first time I got to a point where I thought my career was over, this time last year. I thought, if I don’t get this right now, I’m fucked, and I might as well quit. That’s how much this record meant to me, to get it right. If it didn’t come out this year, I probably wouldn’t have put it out. I’ve shot myself in the foot by saying to my record label, “If it doesn’t come out this year, I’m quitting. You can have your money back. It’s over for me.” That’s what’s making me so busy at the minute. It has to come out in October or I’d never put it out, and I’d start making another record. That’s the way it goes, isn’t it? I’m kind of restless to be set with the same set of songs for a year. A year’s too long anyway. I want to keep making a record a year if I can.

UTR: What about this set of songs stood out to you as being good enough to put out and make an official album?

Gough: I don’t know. I don’t even know if it is good enough. It’s just the best I could offer in this timeframe. Like I said, if it didn’t come out this year, I might as well quit, because I need to maintain some kind of momentum in order to be an artist that people remember. If I’m going to keep this relationship going with an audience and keep doing it, I have to arrive at some kind of decent resolve, which I think this is. If I had spent more time, I could have made a better record perhaps, but you have to cut off somewhere in order to move on. And somehow these songs felt more realized than what I was doing last year, even though the songs I was doing last year are all good songs. They just didn’t work in the recordings of them. They didn’t sound as vibrant or essential as they should be. I don’t know what that was, but it’s a gamble every time you try to record anything, because every song can take on 20 different characters. You can do it any different style, with any different style of production. You kind of have to work instinctively and hope for the best. I think I’m as happy as I could be. I’ve had the hardest year of my life making this album, and it has made me realize that I must want to do this for some reason. I don’t know what that reason is. Every time I release a record, I’m terrified that people are going to hate it or like it too much or whatever. It’s up to them. It took me four weeks to actually listen to it once it was finished. I just couldn’t be bothered to listen to it. Then I finally played it for my girlfriend, which I was terrified to do, because she knows what I went through. And I was terrified of all of my friends and family listening to it and thinking, ‘Why’d that put you through so much? It’s shit anyway.’ That’s what’s hard about making good music, it puts you through the mill. Thankfully, my girlfriend thought it was great, so that was that hurdle over and done with. So now I’m trying to play the songs live and reinterpret them in the live arena. That’s getting more enjoyable, because the songs work well when we’re trying to play them live. That’s a bonus.

UTR: Do you think that the difficulty you had writing and recording this record is reflected in the character of the record?

Gough: No. I don’t think so. I don’t know how that would be reflected if it could be. If something is difficult, hopefully the result is good. At least I know it’s good. I know it’s not the best record ever made, but I know it’s better than a lot of records that I’ve heard. That’s about all I can manage to do. I don’t think the difficulty should be known to anyone else. I shouldn’t even be talking about it, but I can’t not speak the truth. Because it was hard to me, that doesn’t mean that it should sound that way. In a way, it should sound effortless, because of how hard it is to do. That’s what it should be. It should sound like I put a lot of effort in but [that] it was effortless in the end. It’s really hard to put into words. Making any kind of art from scratch is never going to be easy. I’m hoping in the future that I’ll learn from this experience and know that I’ll have to be better prepared before I go into the studio. I always write too many songs, and I never finish the words because I don’t have the intelligence to finish them. I write so many melodies so quickly that I couldn’t possibly write the words to match the melodies. That takes me months to finish them, so I end up with 60 songs floating around, and I don’t know which ones to go with, and I get confused. That’s what was going on with this record, and I had to leave songs off the record that I thought were better than the ones I chose, just because at the end of the day I want to make an album that listens down well. It’s 45 minutes to an hour of music that hopefully someone can listen to without skipping around too much. That’s the kind of record I’m interested in making. Not that I want to take up people’s time too much, but that’s what I think albums should be. I think too many people in the modern age we live in make singles and then try to fill out the rest of the album. They focus on singles, which I could never really do. I don’t really understand what singles [are]. They’re just adverts, these days, for an album. They’re not what they used to be.

UTR: Did you have any specific goals for the album?

Gough: I definitely felt that it was necessary to try and make a record that might have more mainstream acceptability, but doing that without compromising what I do anyway. I think that’s exactly what I’ve done. I think it’s a much more commercial record. I think almost any song on the album could be a single if you wanted it to be, because they’re all pretty well constructed tunes, but it’s not like it’s going to alienate anybody who liked my music before. That was my principal goal—to make something that wider audience might get into but that the people who already knew and liked what I do would like it too. That’s always my main goal, really. I think that’s going to be my goal from now on, to make records that appeal to the people that understand what I do. Hopefully I can bring a few more on board, as well.

UTR: Aside from the title track, would you say that this record is inspired by people like Springsteen? Or is that just a reference that is rooted in the title track?

Gough: I couldn’t really say what it’s inspired by. I would be foolish as a songwriter if I said to myself, “What I need to do next is write a song called ‘Born in the U.K.’” I wouldn’t be able to do it, for starts. I can only write the songs that come instinctively, without trying too hard. The initiation of any song comes within seconds of an idea coming from your brain to your hands to your guitar, and then you hum a melody, and it all connects, and you capture the idea on a tape, and that’s it. That’s what happened with the title track. I was trying to set myself the task of writing and recording a new song every day for three months, which I did from September to December. So a lot of songs didn’t have finished lyrics. With “Born in the U.K.”—the song—I had no words at all, apart from me humming the melody. The only line that I sung that sounded like I was saying something sounded like I was saying, “Born in the U.K. I was born in the U.K.” So that stuck in my head, and I thought, ‘I’m going to have to use that, because I like it.’ It subsequently dawned on me that it was close to what Springsteen had done, and I thought, ‘Shit! I can’t get away with that, can I?’ But then I thought, ‘Fuck it, if anyone can get away with it, I can,’ because I bring Bruce up so much, hopefully he’ll see it as a compliment. Maybe someone would have done it sooner or later, but it’s not meant to be ironic or funny. It’s just a song that came about. I’m about the same age as Springsteen was when he wrote “Born in the U.S.A.” so it felt like a gift from the gods. Most songs are. Without being stupid R&B-and-spiritual about it, where everybody finds God, you don’t know where songs come from. They just sort of arrive in your lap. And that one did, and so did the rest of the songs on the album. They were all quite instinctive. The only thing I labored over was the lyrics and the actual production of the song, but the actual writing of the idea itself takes just a matter of minutes, actually. Usually a good song comes that quick.

UTR: In the same way that Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” was a critique of post-Vietnam America, do you think that your “Born in the U.K.” is a critique of British society in the 21st century?

Gough: I’d like to think so. I don’t like to be political within my music, but there’s a little bit of politics in that song in particular. There’s always an undercurrent of social comment in my music anyway, because I want my music to be an act of good. I’m trying to make the world a good place and wondering why there’s so much shit going on, so I think that’s an undercurrent, the underlying theme, in all of the music that I make. I just want to share something decent. But I think there’s a strange similarity in how I chose to write “Born in the U.K.,” because I have several different angles that I could have come from, different eras of my life that I could have focused on writing about. I chose to go with the early memories that, for some reason, stick with you, even though they’re the vaguest memories that you’ve got. For some reason, they stick with you the longest. I can’t remember things that happened last year, but the stuff that happened in the first ten years of my life, it’s quite strangely vivid yet lucid. You can’t quite grasp it, but you can feel it. It’s like a smell or something like that. I chose to focus on those images, that I had as a kid, growing up in the ’70s and early ’80s—the pointlessness of [former British Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher sending people to war. And that’s still happening today with Bush and Blair sending people off today, so there’s a little bit of that in there, which strangely comes full circle with “Born in the U.S.A.” Again, that’s serendipity, rather than me trying to think about what to write about. It just came out. That makes me feel kind of proud, like I’m doing something right, because I’m only following instincts. I didn’t study any of this stuff; it just came out. That’s what happens when you write songs. Writing music and the rock and roll lifestyle, the main reason you want to do it is to get away from study and real work, to get away from all of those things you have to do at school. When you write a song, you just instinctively follow your feelings and just make stuff up. That’s how the stuff comes about.

UTR: Do you think the U.K. of your youth is a lot different than the U.K. of today?

Gough: Yeah, I think it is. I think there are parallels, in that there were always troubles in the world. Maybe for me, it feels different because you’re shielded from those troubles when you’re a kid. Childhood is supposed to be a period when you’re protected from all the crap that goes on. My kid is not aware of 9-11, because I don’t want him to be. You don’t want them to have to experience the terror and tragedy of something like that. A lot of the things I’ve written about are kind of retrospective. I just know the names and details. One of the main points of that song [“Born in the U.K.”] is that I was so young that I didn’t know what punk rock was. I’ve learned about it since. For me, it was more about the Silver Jubilee. I don’t remember punk rock. That’s the reason to put that in the song. I think the world has gotten too complicated, and people were probably saying that back in the ’70s, but 30 years down the line, the world really has gotten too complicated. There’s too much technology, which on one hand is helpful but on the other hand detrimental. Computers crash and businesses go out of business, because we rely so much on this technology that is always fucking up. I don’t want to be old-fashioned, but it would be nice to go back to the horse and carriage and get rid of cars. Then Bush wouldn’t have any reason to go to Iraq and get the oil. You’d be going somewhere else to get the best pony. That won’t go down well in the American press will it?


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