Interview: David Thomas Broughton
‘It’s joining funny things with serious things – just the way that life is.’ JAMES SURRY talks to singer-songwriter DAVID THOMAS BROUGHTON about his music and unique style of performing, and letting what happens happen.
David Thomas Broughton is a mysterious man. The Leeds-born self-styled “Gypsy Freddie Mercury” has been dividing audiences for the last few years, being hailed as both a genius and a car-crash in equal measure. Combining luscious and often haunting vocals with improvised spontaneity, Broughton’s music is a story of incompletion and insecurity. As his songs ponder the difficulties of relationships, the awkwardness of emotion, he plays the same games with the audience. During his recent London show he managed to combine Beach Boys’-esque vocals, a toy elephant mask, and a personal rape alarm. All at once.
While it sounds like stand-up, it’s most definitely music – beautiful, soul-crushing, vulnerable music. Still, attempts at grasping exactly what Broughton does has always been a fairly futile task. Even Broughton himself struggles to define the music he creates. “I just play music”, he tells me, then checks himself: “No, I don’t even play music. I just make noises that I think are nice. I pick things up that make interesting noises, or harsh noises. Sometimes people give me things that make noises so I use those, or sometimes there are things in the venue. It’s like an assemblage, a collage.”
Five years ago Broughton’s first album, The Complete Guide to Insufficiency, was performed and recorded live in one take. “It all happened by accident. I never intended to do music. And then I ended up recording an album, twenty pounds it cost. It all kind of escalated from there. The opportunity to do something I enjoyed was handed to me and I just carried on doing it.” That, and working for TFL, which he continued up until very recently, whose influence definitely shows: what’s so charming about his music is the way it’s grounded in the anomalies and abnormalities of the everyday. Within a set he’ll go from lyrical anecdotes about being on the dole into executions and sex-shows.
The aforementioned theatrics were never his initial plan: “It got boring just sitting there and singing, so I just started moving around, seeing what was there, using the space. It evolved over time. When you start to perform for a certain amount of time you realise that the performance you do on stage is a thing in itself and the music you record is a totally different experience.” Critics have analysed Broughton’s performances as distraction tactics. Broughton, however, doesn’t like to think it about it like that: “It’s just a kind a joining of funny things with serious things – just the way that life is.”
“There’s always people who don’t like it. The Union Chapel was pretty intense– somebody shouted ‘pull the plug!’ It was a really serious folky audience, and I just gave them a load of feedback and really battered their ears. I did that myself though; I elicited that reaction through my own actions. Usually people just get up and walk out and fair enough – I don’t like it sometimes. Sometimes it’s kind of uncontrolled.”
Broughton’s new album, Outbreeding, presents a different side to his music, with songs abiding to clearer structures, including one or two more upbeat numbers. His name being associated so much with improvisation, I asked if this demonstrated a conscious move towards ‘refinement’. “I always thought having a go at proper production and everything would be fun. It’s a different approach, a thing to do. But I think it’s just a side step, a different way of presenting my songs. We did overdubs and everything, but we kept a lot of what we did in just one take.”
Before I leave, I ask Broughton if his lyrics stem from first-hand experiences. Was he ever actually struggling to buy a pasty from Greggs? He smiles: “No comment. Life is life. What happens to people happens to people. Whether it happened to me, I don’t know. I’m not telling you.”
David Thomas Broughton plays live at the Portland Arms on Wednesday 1st of June.
His new album, Outbreeding, is out on the 13th June on BRNLV records.