Andy Votel and Badly Drawn Boy’s Twisted Nerve label might have been accidentally conceived, but it went on to birth not only a different, more compelling, side of mid-to-late-90s Manchester, but a range of artists who produced musical gold. Speaking to both Votel and Damon ‘BDB’ Gough, Luke Bainbridge revisits the label’s origins, its halcyon days and its legacy. And in doing so discovers that maybe the label’s story has another chapter still to be written…
It’s 25 years since Twisted Nerve first put Badly Drawn Boy and Andy Votel in the spotlight. It was only a short period of their multi-faceted creative careers – they’ve both led fascinating musical lives before and after – but it was the “short-lived dysfunctional family” (Votel’s description) of Twisted Nerve that first launched them into the national psyche.
I meet Andy Votel in Manchester Piccadilly Station, near where he and Gough were once photographed for an early Twisted Nerve photoshoot, outside the long-gone subterranean barbers in the stinky underground public toilets. Gough picks us up and drives us back to his adopted home of Chorlton, where he’s lived since shortly before the birth of Twisted Nerve in 1997. It was Damon moving to Chorlton that sparked the fortuitous chain of events which led to him meeting Votel and the formation of the label, more of which later.
I’ve known Votel and Gough since those halcyon days in the 90s, when they were first kicking around ideas that would mutate into Twisted Nerve. Manchester is a very different city now, and we’re all slightly different people, having lost hair (some of us more than others) and acquired children along the way. ‘As the fire smoulders, I never will get older’, Gough sang back then, ‘because I drink from waterfalls’. Maybe some of us didn’t drink from enough waterfalls. Does it feel like 25 years, or does it feel like yesterday?
“It definitely feels a while ago,” says Votel. “Once you have kids, you tend to judge time against their lives. My daughter is 19 now, and Twisted Nerve feels like several lifetimes before her.”
“It does freak me out a bit when you put it like that,” says Gough. “1997 was 25 years ago, so 25 years before that was the early-70s and The Beatles had just broken up.”
Votel was only 21 when they launched Twisted Nerve, but he’d already been once around the block. He was a very early starter, going to leftfield clubs before he’d had his first sip of beer. His dad took him to club nights at Parkers Hotel and Precinct 13 (at Votel’s behest) from the age of 15 (“I already had facial hair at that age”). Originally a whippersnapper battle rapper – his real surname is Shallcross, the adopted moniker comes from his early hip hop outfit Violators of the English Language – when the teenage Votel mentioned to his dad one night that he was worried about missing Gang Starr on Leaky Fresh’s Out to Distress Rap Show on Sunset, his dad drove him down to the pirate radio station and knocked on the door. Leaky Fresh said: “No problem, come upstairs.” And the 15-year-old Votel rapped his own lyrics for Guru and DJ Premier. Guru put him on the guest list for their gig the following night at International 2, met him outside and took him inside. As Votel watched Gang Starr perform from the side of the stage, he thought to himself: ‘You know what? I’m never going to get a real job. This is me from now on.’
The young Votel started DJing around Manchester, helped and inspired by people he’d met at Parkers Hotel. Unsung underground heroes like Caroline Maloney (“the most important DJ from Manchester in the last 30 years, in my opinion”) and Barney Wynters (aka Barney Doodlebug). Originally from Bristol, Barney and his doodlebug flyers and posters were everywhere around Manchester at the time, instantly recognisable. As was Barney himself, more likely to be seen in a dapper tweed suit only he could pull off, than the staple Mancunian mid-90s cagoule and baggy jeans. While most of the city looked like they were off to the match, Barney looked like he was sneaking off to the coolest late-night speakeasy you’d never heard of. “That Bristolian contingent were pretty important to Manchester,” says Votel. “People like Barney, Matt Triggs and Steve Smith, from Weston-Super-Mare, added another flavour.”
This was the time Votel and Gough first met, shortly after Gough moved to Manchester. Originally from Bolton, Gough spent his early 20s working at his family’s printing press, while messing around making music with his then partner Janine in their spare time.
“For six years we were kind of a couple,” he recalls. “But we were more like mates. We nearly formed a band, or tried to.”
After they split up, Janine moved to Berlin, and fell in with a new crowd including Peaches, and a few years later became the acclaimed electronic artist Planningtorock. Gough moved to Manchester but didn’t really know anyone either. Fortuitously, one of the first friends he met took him to an exhibition launch in a bar one night, where the young Votel happened to be DJing. The two got talking after an intrigued Gough plucked up courage to ask Votel about the records he was playing. “I was really down on my luck at that point,” says Gough, “and if I hadn’t moved to Chorlton and met those people I wouldn’t have gone that night and met Andy. The serendipity is amazing, but you still gotta make something of it. It’s not a given that something is going to happen…”
“I said this on stage when we did the Twisted Nerve reunion in December,” he continues. “Andy was the person who made it all seem possible to me. Everyone needs a mate like that in their life.”
Votel got a job with Grand Central and quickly transitioned from playing hip hop to the obscure 60s and 70s records and film soundtracks that would prove the bedrock for what became Twisted Nerve (that’s a very truncated précis, Votel paints a fuller picture later). He was also producing most of the artwork for Grand Central, Fat City and Ear To The Ground, and like the sponge that young enthusiastic kids are, soaking up everything about how to make a record, from the actual recordings to how to send a record to manufacture, design and print artwork, get it into shops, and then promote it.
“Andy was already a bit of a star,” says Gough, “I remember one of the first big nights we all went out with Doves. We bought a copy of The Face on the way home and there was a review of Andy’s ‘Spooky Driver’, and I was really impressed. So, I was kind of in awe of him, initially.”
“Initially!” laughs Votel, at Gough’s unintended caveat.
Through 1996, Gough and Votel grew closer. Gough started to play Votel his nascent solo recordings, although he was still self-conscious about his voice. He would play his demos in the car, but fast forward them when it came to the vocals. One day Gough stopped to get petrol, and as he went in to pay, Votel pressed play and was impressed by what he heard and suggested he put it out as it was. “The psychology of that first record is important,” says Votel. “You didn’t think it was ready, but I was like ‘Nothing is ever ready, nothing is ever really finished!’”
“I loved the lo-fi idea, I didn’t need to be persuaded about that,” replies Gough, “I was just probably nervous about putting my ideas out there and needed you to persuade me it would work. Andy’s artwork made it all seem more real, and all a sudden it was like: ‘We’re doing it…’”
A friend of Votel’s, Gerald at Jazzman Records, told him about a place in Nashville that pressed cheap 7-inches. “They were 26p each, which was cheaper than cassettes,” remembers Votel. “Then if you wanted an extra colour on the label it went up to 38p.”
Even then, there was no plan further than releasing the first couple of EPs. “I can’t remember us sitting down and having a specific conversation saying: ‘Shall we start a record label?’” Gough says to Votel. “Did we?”
Haven’t you called it an ‘accidental label’ before?
“That’s exactly what it was.” says Votel.
The name Twisted Nerve came from a Hayley Mills horror film and Votel came up with the accompanying rabbit logo for the artwork. It was around this time I first met Gough, when I was working at Manchester’s City Life magazine. Badly Drawn Boy was still just a rough sketch when he called me out of the blue one afternoon. “Is that Luke?” said the faltering voice. “My name’s Damon and I’ve started a record label with a friend of mine and we’re putting out my first EP and our friend Rick Myers said you might be able to help us…”
We met in Atlas bar. Gough gave me a copy of ‘EP1’ and explained the name Badly Drawn Boy came from a cartoon his nephew had drawn. He talked about the sort of music he wanted to make, and influences from Broadcast to Beck to The Beatles. He played his first solo gig, a ramshackle affair to 30 people at the Britons Protection pub. It was obvious he was a singular talent, if still rough around the edges. But despite that undoubted raw talent, I don’t think anyone at the BP that night thought he would go on to produce a debut album, ‘The Hour of Bewilderbeast’, of such timeless magnificence and win the Mercury only three years later. As Votel later said: “What none of us knew at that time, was that Damon was an absolutely brilliant songwriter.”
The name ‘Badly Drawn Boy’ was another incident of accidental brilliance at the accidental label. Neither Votel or Gough realised at first just how apt ‘Badly Drawn Boy’ was. “It’s like: ‘This is broke before you get it, we’re making that clear’,” explains Votel now. “Don’t bring it back and say it’s not quite finished! It’s ‘sold as seen’.”
As ‘EP1’ caused a buzz around Manchester and got them national recognition, Badly Drawn Boy and Twisted Nerve quickly became slightly mythical figures. Gough recalls going to the toilets in Dry Bar and two blokes next to him discussing who this ‘Badly Drawn Boy’ was, with no idea he was stood next to them, “because no-one had any idea what we looked like…”
The aesthetic was key to Twisted Nerve. Drawing on influences as varied as his teacher at Stockport college, the designs of Abram Ganes, library records, local peers like Barney Doodlebug, and the DIY aesthetic passed down from his dad, the lo-fi, cut’n’paste, less-is-more approach of Votel’s design reflected the music within. It couldn’t have been further in look, budget and ideals from the excess-all-areas mainstream music industry approach of the time, which saw Oasis sleeve designers Microdot rent a country mansion and sink a Rolls Royce into the swimming pool for the cover shoot for their bloated opus ‘Be Here Now’.
The accidental label became more of a real label once other artists and people in their orbit began to bring them music. Both Votel and Gough cite Dave Tyack joining the label as bit of a turning point. Suddenly, they had a responsibility to other artists. Twisted Nerve reflected that while the outside view might have been that the Manchester music scene in the mid-90s was struggling to emerge from the long shadows of Oasis and The Haçienda, underneath the surface much more interesting things were happening. Quite literally underneath the surface a lot of the time, as a lot of these things were happening in basement clubs. Under the paving stones, Manchester had everything but a beach. From Luke and Justin Unabomber launching Electric Chair, to Sankeys Soap and Jockey Slut, to Grand Central, Fat City and beyond, the musical landscape of Manchester was being redrawn, the hangover of the Madchester years subsiding. Twisted Nerve, Gough and Votel cut across the Venn diagram of the Manchester underground, attracting people from different tribes. They were feted by the music and style press, every issue of The Face at the time seemed to feature Badly, Votel or an associated Twisted Nerve act. They signed more acts including Mum and Dad, Alfie, Misty Dixon (featuring Jane Weaver, who went on to carve a brilliant solo career for herself after Twisted Nerve, and also married Votel) and Aidan Smith.
Gough and Votel were, for a short while, the bearded lo-fi answer to Damon Dash and Jay-Z. If most of the label’s acts were in little danger of troubling the charts, that wasn’t the point. Most of their ‘bands’ (apart from Mum and Dad, Misty Dixon and Alfie) were one-man acts and didn’t really exist outside the bedroom. “People thought we were making the bands up,” says Votel, “which we were in a way. They were like: ‘Where are they signing them from? Where was the bidding war?’ because that’s how the major labels thought.”
Although they did their best to avoid any comparisons with other record labels, if they were Factory, Badly Drawn Boy was Joy Division, the act the label initially coalesced around and surprised everyone by producing such an utterly timeless debut album, while Votel was Martin Hannett, Peter Saville and Rob Gretton in one, setting the sonic palette and design aesthetic for the label, and convincing others it was possible to do it on their terms. Neither of them wanted to be Tony Wilson, they’re just not made that way. Not the type to shout from the rooftops. Although after Twisted Nerve launched, they were invited to an audience with the late, great Wilson. “I remember going to meet him, and he just spent about an hour and a half talking at us, and drawing diagrams on this board, showing the links from Motown to Factory to Twisted Nerve,” recalls Gough. “I just kept looking at Andy, and he was sat on this little stool, spinning round. Tony was talking and talking, and Andy was just spinning round, getting a glimpse of Tony every time he turned.”
“I don’t remember that!” laughs Votel, “but I like the sound of it, I’m having it!”
“We went to so many meetings around that time,” says Gough, “where Andy and I just turned to each other and were like: ‘Why are we here?’”
It seems the recent Twisted Nerve 25th anniversary gig at the Golden Lion in Todmorden has them thinking again, addressing the Twisted Nerve elephant in their room. What was the feeling like when the dysfunctional family came together for the first time in decades?
“Euphoric,” says Votel with conviction, then reaffirms it when he sees me wondering how serious he is. “No, I genuinely mean it. Euphoric. It really is, now. There was a cooling off period, initially, of about five years, and then there was a slightly apologetic feeling from some people who realised they had unrealistic expectations of the label.”
Not every Twisted Nerve act was going to win the Mercury Music Prize, but a couple of them naively made the mistake of thinking they were set to follow in Gough’s footsteps simply by signing to the label.
“It was a revelation,” says Gough, of the reunion. “I felt tearful. It just took me back to the good days.”
“There was a fracture that we’ve not really talked about,” says Votel. “In the same way that Dave Tyack made Twisted Nerve a label when he joined, when he went missing and died, we lost a lot of focus, and that can’t be understated. The biggest fan of the label was Dave Tyack. After Tyack died, I didn’t know who I was trying to impress, and I didn’t know who our audience was. He was the barometer.”
“The thing is,” Votel sums up. “We all built each other. We all made each other, and we didn’t realise what a family it was at the time. No matter what happens, you’re never going to meet people as important as that again. We share the same memories.”
“When you see old friends again who are important to you, it’s like a piece of you coming back to you,” says Gough. “Even if you didn’t appreciate at the time how important they were.”
In the nearly two decades since Twisted Nerve, Andy has concentrated on his Finders Keepers label with Doug Shipton and Dom Thomas. “Basically, I always had over ambitious dreams of having my own outernational psychedelic label… so I set up an imaginary one with Twisted Nerve. Eight years later I set up a real one in Finders Keepers, working with our heroes on a daily basis. We had won the Eurovision Wrong Contest!!”.
He’s also a hugely underrated DJ (not by everyone, he’s fully appreciated by many, but maybe not enough). One of my favourite DJ sets of the last decade was his brilliant psyche space rock set at Bluedot festival in 2017. I was stood with Jimi Goodwin from Doves. Both of us had seen Votel DJ many times but were both blown away by his set that night.
In lockdown, Andy started rapping and rambling. He went back to his first love of hip hop and put out a new record as Violators of the English Language. He also started going out walking with a group of old heads, all appreciating the benefits of blowing away the mental cobwebs of lockdown and middle age. ‘Trek Your Head’, Votel hashtags it on Instagram. He now goes out most Thursdays, with a group that includes old Twisted Nerve heads and associates like Paul Vella and Stan Chow, and comedian Justin Moorhouse, and is hoping to tick off all the Ethels (peaks in the Peak District) by the end of the year.
Gough seems happier, calmer, and more positive than he has been for a few years, if still a little bewildered, in the best possible way, about how he got here. How we all got here. He’s seven years sober (since Votel’s 40th birthday party in Marple), after a difficult period when there were a few high-profile on-stage meltdowns. A lot of his focus is on his second young family with new partner Leanne, and after his ninth studio album ‘Banana Skin Shoes’ came out at the start of the pandemic, he’s now currently on his own Badly Drawn Boy 25th anniversary tour. There’s clearly, thankfully, a lot of music still to come from Gough. He’s still searching for another pearl.
After a few hours discussing Twisted Nerve’s long and winding road, Gough drives us to the home of Mum and Dad’s Ian Rainford, who has custody of the Twisted Nerve scrapbooks, and has kindly agreed to lend them to me. We leaf through the pages of press cuttings, memories and synapses triggered. “It’s unbelievable the amount of press coverage we got, really,” says Rainford.
It’s a been a long day, and we’re tired and hungry, so Votel persuades Gough to drive us to Stockport, so he can show us how his hometown has changed in the last few years. Stockport, as Luke Una has proclaimed several times on Instagram, is apparently the new Berlin. Votel gives us a whistlestop tour of the new independent bars and record shops on the steep cobbled streets. There’s a definite vibe, albeit more early Northern Quarter than early Berlin. “There’s nothing like this in Bolton,” says Gough, impressed. We pop into SK1 the record shop, and bump into a few old faces, including Jason Boardman of Aficionado. Then we part ways, Andy off to meet his son Herbie to watch Stockport v Gillingham, which ends up a drab 0-0, and Gough off home, to get ready for his imminent dates, Something to Tour About: 25 Years of Badly Drawn Boy, and possibly, to ponder something Votel suggested earlier that day.
As we talked through and around Twisted Nerve’s legacy, the highs and lows, the years seemed to drop away. Votel was about to say something when Gough got up to go to the toilet and said, “carry on without me”, but Votel changed the subject and waited until Gough was back before he continued, wanting him to hear what he had to say.
“Twisted Nerve was like this imaginary label, which was unachievable, so we made this fake label with names like Bimbo Quick and Gabriel Greenburg and all these fantastic names,” he sums up, “and its gestation allowed me to go and make the real label, which is Finders Keepers. So, I’ve been doing the real label for 18 years, but what I failed to realise is it’s actually the pantomime version that… that excites the most, because it’s creation. All this great stuff on Finders Keepers, we found all these amazing things ‘cause I’m a great archivist, it’s what I do, but I didn’t make that music. Twisted Nerve made this music. We created it from nothing… the most exciting thing that could possibly, possibly happen now, is for us to relaunch Twisted Nerve, and carry on where we left off. Nothing has happened since that has put Twisted Nerve out of context, because there was no context for Twisted Nerve. It’s an alternative universe that can exist anywhere and anytime. I remember a DJ reaction sheet from Norman Cook to a Dakota Oak record that said: ‘This doesn’t work on the dancefloor, but you also can’t chill out to it’. What? So, dancing and chilling out are the only two emotions music allows you to have? We spent all our time trying to fill in all the gaps in between, and in 20 years of being a record detective and travelling the world, I’ve found nothing quite like it…”
The return of Twisted Nerve? Well, that’s the conversation old friends Andy Votel and Damon Gough need to have. As Andy said to Damon, 25 years ago: “Nothing’s ever really finished, Damon…”
Watch this space.
ANDY VOTEL ON TWISTED NERVE’S ORIGINS
“Unlike many Mancunian record labels, that were born out of successful club nights, Twisted Nerve was really born out of failed club nights. Myself, Stan Chow, Rick Myers, John Walsh and Dom Thomas ran a string of club nights such as Wandy’s World and Teen Tonic which were promoted under the Doodlebug/Hocus Pocus/Hoochie Coochie umbrella thanks to the confidence boost of Barney Wynters. You can’t overestimate the influence of Barney on Manchester in the mid-90s. I first met Barney at Parkers Hotel, and he definitely instigated/authenticated or framed the early careers of myself, and other people like Dan ‘Black Lodge’ Dwayre and Mr Scruff.
“Twisted Nerve’s aesthetic was born solely out of the records played at these events. My earlier tactic of playing hip hop records next to their original samples had won me favour with Fat City, but within a year in Grand Central’s company playing alongside other turntable-type DJs I had stopped playing hip hop altogether in favour of obscure 60s and 70s records.
“The labels that were undeniably the blueprint for Twisted Nerve were all from the 1970s. Cadet Concept from Chicago was a definite hymn sheet for me, they released Rotary Connection, Dorothy Ashby, Terry Callier, Electric Mud, Archie Whitewater, John Klemmer’s ‘Blowin’ Gold’ and many more records that never left my DJ bag. Cadet Concept was a subsidiary of Chess Records, ran by Marshall Chess, the son of the Chess founder Leonard Chess, and the cast of totally unknown bands that adorned all the inner sleeves represented another unexplored universe. It was almost as if these bands were imaginary, because it wasn’t easy to find the records and you never knew what they were going to sound like, but thanks to Charles Stepney and Richard Rudolf (who married Minnie Riperton) they were all good.
“This idea of a group of fantasy bands that didn’t really exist was hugely inspiring. It also helped everyone with their stage fright. Electronic pop records by Jean-Jacques Perrey, Pierre Henry, Dick Hyman, John Murtaugh, The Hellers and Walter Sear were 100% the EXACT sound I wanted for Twisted Nerve, and WE ALL bonded over these records and agreed that a label that made this kind of lost music would be amazing but also achievable. The label that united a lot of these artists in the late-60s was called Command and without question I wanted Twisted Nerve to be just like Command. The artwork was great too, very uniformed.
“When I first heard tracks like ‘Bimbo Quick’ (Sirconical) ‘Riding with Gabriel Greenberg’ (BDB) and ‘The Man With No Name’ (Dakota Oak) they all ticked all these boxes, so it was absolutely plausible that we could make it happen as a multi-artist label… and this realisation was the most exciting moment.
“Other artists that we were all into at the time included the American psych bands Silver Apples, The United States of America, Fifty Foot Hose and Elephant’s Memory, who all pioneered the use of electronics. When Broadcast emerged around the same time as Twisted Nerve, they sounded like The United States of America so I decided that Mum & Dad (called Christmas at the time) should sound like 50 Foot Hose. This was how I justified things in my head, a bizarre gameplan. Broadcast records came out on a label called Wurlitzer Jukebox alongside Pram, Plone and the first Mogwai record, among others. If Twisted Nerve had anything at all that resembled a contemporary it was Wurlitzer Jukebox. The artwork for the first Broadcast and Plone 7-inches inspired me how to achieve great minimal artwork with no money.
“Unbeknown to me, there had been a label called Absurd Records in Manchester 15 years earlier, who totally achieved, via imaginary bands, the small M.O. of what I wanted to do with the label. If I had known Absurd Records back then, I might have never started Twisted Nerve. I never intended it to exist outside of ten records, a lot like the aforementioned imprints.
“The Twisted Nerve artwork was the result of lessons taught at Stockport College by the very influential Ian Parkin who demonstrated to us how to communicate in just two colours, economically in every sense. The mantra of famous designer Abram Ganes was ‘Maximum Message, Minimum Means’ which was also the label’s unpublished manifesto. Two other musical inspirations I should mention – the list of fake band names in the record shop in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ (Rick Myers and I were obsessed) and library records, in a big way. Stockport College, where I studied graphics, had hundreds of deWolfe Library records, so I was a very early adopter of this vinyl phenomena. A vast majority of the music on DeWolfe (and others) was based on fake bands (often more famous bands in disguise to evade contractual obligations). I was fascinated by this, and fake bands that appeared on 60s and 70s film soundtracks were a direct extension of this very phenomena.
“This all might sound niche and geeky, but this was the absolute unshakable blueprint of what the extended Twisted Nerve family were listening to. Nobody really asked us or explored this side of Twisted Nerve back then, but for me it’s the most exciting part of the story.”