The light and the dark of David Thomas Broughton

By Jonathan Fisher
13 May 2011, 19:17

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Phil Jones photo

One day back in 2005, David Thomas Broughton went down to Wrangthorn Church in Leeds, set up his equipment, and recorded some music. “I had had these songs already, so I had an idea of what I was going to do,” he recalls. “The engineer just pressed record, I played, and then he pressed stop. The only thing we did after that was change some of the levels of the different microphones, which were situated at different positions around the hall. No overdubs.”

With very little preparation, and in one take, he’d made his debut album, The Complete Guide To Insufficiency—forty minutes and five track record of loops, cloudy electronics, delightful finger-picking and the kind of doomed soul lyrics that might fit better on a Norwegian death metal album. “I wouldn’t take her to an execution / I wouldn’t take her to a live sex show / I wouldn’t piss or shit on her would I?” That this lyric is rounded out with “’Cause I love her so” is a headfuck—a walk down the garden path only to be grabbed by the shoulders and shaken back to some semblance of normality. Much of the DTB live experience is like this, distraction tactics that leave it to the last possible minute to drop an emotional A-bomb on the audience.

When I ask Broughton what he considers his profession to be, his answer is vague and uncertain. “Performer? I don’t know,” he replies. “People get introduced to me as ‘musician’, but I think that’s misleading, because they might understand from that that I can play an instrument very well, which is not true. I kind of like saying sometimes just ‘singer’, but then when you meet real singers, you realise you’re not singing properly.”

For someone about to release their third album after eight years of performing, “semi-seriously, but not seriously at all”, this seems somewhat slapdash. But Broughton’s is a talent that cannot be fully realised until experienced at a live performance. Scribes sent to write up reviews of his shows have described him variously as a bard, an inventor, a clown and a conjurer – clear evidence that he’s not the only one in the dark about what he actually does.

“I always thought it was to do with trying to get people to focus their attention by providing more things than perhaps were necessary,” he explains. “I tend not to think about it too much, but it’s something about hiding things in an overall mess. So there’s a melody, there’s a lyric, there’s something I think is really nice, but I’m trying to show…” He pauses. “Perhaps it’s a reflection on that the whole of our existence is about trying to find the nice things in the big mess of life. I’ve not really thought deeply about it. I just kind of… go in, and it’s what I feel at the time.”

This going in can entail, from this writer’s experience, placing rape alarms in each corner of the room to blare out for ten minutes at a time, pulling Elvis-style dance moves to get a rise out of the crowd, vigorously rubbing a microphone around his person to amplify the sounds of different fabrics or wandering through the audience with a miniature amplifier to serenade an onlooker. I’ve seen crowds laugh, I’ve seen crowds cry and I’ve had friends walk out on me in sheer terror, but I’ve never heard of a single person treading a middle ground between love and hate.

This isn’t to say that his recorded output doesn’t stand up—The Complete Guide To Insufficiency is a stunning piece of work, and further recordings have seen him explore other ways of presenting his tragicomic narratives. His upcoming record Outbreeding is the most straightforward collection of songs he’s released so far. They have introductions, verses and choruses, and feature bass, drums, guitar and his trademark sonorous vocal. Most of the songs end after four or five minutes. When I ask how this more conventional setup will work live, his response is unexpected. “I wouldn’t be able to recreate the record live, it’s not one of those kinds of things,” he says. “It’s a straight set of songs recorded in a studio. It’s something that I was interested in putting together because it’s a different way of presenting the songs – it’s not necessarily a new direction, it’s a sidestep.”
When we speak, Broughton has some free time on his hands, and is about to begin a month-long May tour of the UK and Europe. Has the time given him the opportunity to get stuck into his music?

“Not really,” he replies. “I’m working a little bit and doing different things. Looking after the house. I’ve discovered that having free time means I just don’t have a clue where to start. It puts pressure on you to try and do something—so much so, that you end up just not being able to. I think it’s useful to try to fit it in around working.” So, a distraction tactic then? He laughs at this. “Yeah, perhaps.”

Each time I’ve seen David live, he’s surprised and compelled, repelled and endeared. That his live shows are partly improvised is no great shock, but the way he can capture and manipulate an audience’s undivided attention with no need of a set list or any pre-planning is quite astonishing. “Occasionally I’ll have a piece of paper on which I’ve written things down,” he says, “but over the course of a show I’ll have mislaid it because I’m not really concentrating on the piece of paper.

Rather, I’m thinking: ‘this’ll be funny, if I do this thing it’ll entertain the crowd, I know that some people will laugh and understand what I’m doing’. But no, that makes it sound like I’m doing a comedy show—it’s not intended to always be funny, it’s meant to be a mixture of serious and funny, the light and the dark.”

Take what you will from it—here lies an individual, colossal talent who is more in tune with what moves you than you are. If you’re bored of watching guitar boy bands standing in formation, or if you’re in need of a little inspiration, I implore you to experience this confounding performer at least once.

David Thomas Broughton plays live at King’s Place on May 20th, and Outbreeding comes out on CD and MP3 the following Monday. Visit Broughton’s site at www.davidthomasbroughton.co.uk

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