Growing Through The Cracks: Gagarin Interviewed

Graham Dowdall, aka Gagarin, talks to Bobby Barry about his new album, plus working with Ludus, Nico, John Cale, Pere Ubu and getting his tea made by Morrissey. Portrait by Brian David Stevens

In 1939, MGM released the Ernst Lubitsch comedy Ninotchka with the tagline “Garbo laughs!” to capitalise on the unprecedented novelty of a smile breaking out on the face of the film’s famously stoney-faced Swedish-born star. It comes with scarcely less of a jolt of astoundment to hear – and from her old drummer, no less – that Nico, the equally deadpan German chanteuse once foisted upon The Velvet Underground by Andy Warhol, was, in fact, "a right laugh".

Graham Dowdall – known as ‘Dids’ since his childhood – was a regular member of Nico’s band for most of the 1980s, mastering a battery of percussion mostly fashioned from junk and scrap metal found in the streets. A Zelig-like figure in British music, Dowdall started playing with Nico in 1982, three days after leaving Linder Sterling’s Manchester post-punks Ludus, and remained one of her most regular accompanists up to her untimely death from severe cerebral haemorrhage (she had a heart attack while cycling in Ibiza) in 1988.

Along the way, he would find time to moonlight with John Cale (on his Artificial Intelligence album), Eric Random, Zor Gabor (with John McKay of Siouxsie and the Banshees), and Michael Wadada’s world music collective, Sons Of Arqa. Since the mid-90s he has worked in various capacities (percussionist, sound engineer, keyboardist, electronics…) with David Thomas’s groups Two Pale Boys and Pere Ubu. In 2011, he released an album called Biophilia just four months before a well-known Icelandic singer-songwriter took the same title for her own latest opus (“I’m absolutely convinced,” he tells me, “that it wasn’t nicked.”)

Next month he will release AOTICP, his sixth solo album of atmospheric electronics and razzed up beats under the name Gagarin. We met up in what Dowdall describes as a “yummy mummies cafe” in the middle of Balham, his manor since the late 70s. The place is all cupcakes, prams, and vintage lampshades. It’s an incongruous place to find oneself discussing a woman Andy Warhol once claimed had “thrived only in the gloom”. Dowdall paints a different picture. “She was very funny, very jokey in the van,” he tells me. “One of the lads, really, Nico.”

Dowdall was born in 1954, eight miles east on the South Circular, in Lewisham. “I’ve often regretted the year I was born,” he tells me, “because in a way I was too young for the 60s and –weirdly – felt too old for punk. Even though I was 21, 22 when punk came along.” With time, however, he has grown reconciled with this in-betweenness as something that “actually given me greater freedom because I haven’t felt tied to a scene.”

At an early age, Dowdall moved with his family to the sleepy Sussex town of East Grinstead when his Dad’s factory moved to Crawley. He remembers singing folk songs as a boy soprano, and working the bass pedals of the organ at his Scottish grandfather’s church “which was just an incredible physical and sonic experience for a three-year-old.” But even as he spent his youth walking the South Downs, he “was always aware that I was a Londoner” and would “spend every weekend, from the time I was allowed, to jump on the train – coming up town, going to Soho, wandering around.” This polarity of town and country, flitting back and forth between the two, remain, he insists, “is what made me”.

“I took up drums at the age of ten,” he says, after receiving a plastic snare drum bearing the face of Ringo Starr as a birthday present. Today he regrets that that first drum perished six years later in “a piece of performance art” that “must have involved some critique of imperialism.” Details of this performance are fuzzy, but Dowdall remembers “starting with chains on the snare then moving to an axe.” In 2004, a snare drum just like the one Dowdall had once possessed went for £657.25 in an auction at Christie’s.

In 1977, Dowdall moved to Balham to practice law. The south London neighbourhood was a far cry, then, from its present regenerated and gentrified state. Badly bomb-damaged during the war, the area had since gone to seed. Dowdall recalls “buddleia trees growing out of broken walls and stuff like that.” Much of the business at his legal practice came from black youths defending themselves against police violence.

Dowdall started making field recordings, developing at the same time his distinctive mode of post-industrial drumming using found materials. At a free jazz session on Brixton’s Railton Road in 1980, “two strange looking people came up to me and said, we’ve got a band in Manchester, are you interested in joining?” Their names were Ian Devine and Linder Sterling. The band was Ludus.

Dowdall left law behind and never looked back. He remembers getting off the train in Manchester and arriving at a house in the Whalley Range district. He knocked on the door and was greeted “by a very nerdy looking young guy with glasses, who introduced himself as Steve and said the band were out and would I like a cup of tea.” Pretty soon the pair got chatting about the New York Dolls. This “nerdy looking guy”, it turned out, was coming to all of Ludus’s rehearsals – not to play, just to watch (“Frankly,” says Dowdall, “he’d make tea for us”). He would sometimes introduce the band onstage, write fervid letters about them to the NME. It would be another couple of years before this Steve formed his own band and began to be known solely by his surname, Morrissey.

“With Ludus, it was a bit of a rollercoaster, really,” Dowdall reflects. It all came to an end two years later when he was sacked by a letter in the post “for reasons that I’ve never quite been sure about”. Later that same day, he was in the offices of New Hormones, the record label founded by Buzzcocks manager Richard Boon, when he got a call from local club promoter Alan Wise asking if he wanted to be in a band with Nico.

If Ludus was a rollercoaster ride, working with Nico, Dowdall says, was “more than up and down.” A heroin addict since decade-long relationship with French film-maker Philippe Garrel in the 1970s, she could become “a bit of a monster” when the drug was hard to come by. But “musically,” Dowdall insists, “she was great. And we had some amazing adventures. You would meet characters the likes of which you didn’t think really existed, ranging from ex-Fellini actresses in junkie squats in Paris to beat poets – Gregory Corso came on tour with us for a while. I mean, it was really that. It was characters out of fantasies really. Some of it is documented in Jim Young’s book.”

James Young worked as keyboardist and arranged for Nico during the same period. His Nico, Songs They Never Play On The Radio was published in 1993. The book describes Dowdall as “a vicious, Puck-like creature, a bit like the kind of thing that used to vomit boiling oil from the towers of medieval cathedrals … His friends were all car dealers, car repairers, and car thieves, and they would give him bits of cars to play with onstage.” The Paris squat mentioned by Dowdall is described even more colourfully as “a microcosm of Beirut. The walls were smoke-blackened. The curtains eaten by fire. The sofa and chairs charred and disembowelled. The kitchen was piled high with the solidified remains of a hundred spaghetti dinners. The sweet, pungent reek of lactic acid and stale parmesan vomit cut through the all-pervading smell of burning.”

John Cale, producer for the Nico album Camera Obscura that both Young and Dowdall worked on, comes off little better: a “flatulent Druid” forever drinking “champagne from a pint mug”. Dowdall concurs that working with Cale on Camera Obscura and the former Velvets viola player’s own solo record Artificial Intelligence was “not a great experience, to be honest. Everyday started productively – until the coke and the champagne hit a certain wall, then it would get horrible. He’d lock us out of the studio. He’d erase really good bits and cover everything with guitar solos. By four in the morning, five in the morning, great tracks had been ruined.”

After Nico’s death, Dowdall found himself casting around for new projects. he got drawn into the ambit of David Thomas by degrees – first replacing trumpeter Andy Diagram for a single Two Pale Boys tour of Holland, later becoming that group’s sound engineer, later become sound engineer to Pere Ubu. Each time Dowdall would patiently explain to the Floridian art-rock singer-songwriter that playing trumpet or working live sound were not things he had ever done before. Each time Thomas’s response would be much the same, “I don’t care what you do” Dowdall adopts a gruff American accent when quoting David Thomas, “I’ve heard that you’re good.”

Finally, one day, Dowdall gets a phone call.

“Dids, I’m afraid I’ve got to sack you as sound man,” said Thomas down the phone.

“Oh, ok,” Dowdall replied.

Thomas says, “because I want you to join the band.” Pere Ubu’s keyboard player had left and Thomas needed a replacement.

“Ok, right,” Dowdall replied with only a little trepidation, “you know I don’t play keyboards.”

“Yeah, but…”

“David doesn’t mind what you do,” Dowdall tells me, “as long as you do something good.”

Alongside working on various David Thomas projects, Dowdall has also been doing various community music projects, teaching disadvantaged kids. Through that he began the Welsh-Iranian folktronica project Roshi feat. Pars Radio with singer and fellow community musicker Roshi Nasehi. He’s recorded one album (and begun a second) with Rothko’s Mark Beazley, under the name Low Bias, played drums with London avant-pop group Raf & O, toured with Nick Hobbs and Keith Moliné as Infidel, and somehow also found time to develop his own solo project.

In 1995 Infidel played “a sort of shamanist music festival in far distant Siberia” and followed up with a tour of Russia. Upon returning home, Dowdall chose Gagarin, after the hero of the Soviet space programme, as the name for his solo project. “I wanted it to be electronic,” he tells me, “I wanted it to be instrumental. I wanted it to be atmospheric and draw on all the stuff that I’d loved listening to: Kosmische German stuff, Hawkwind, Soft Machine, dance music.”

As Gagarin, Dowdall has developed a sound that blooms in the spaces between other scenes and other genres; equal parts sound art and post-techno, incorporating field recordings and grime-influenced beats. It is the music of man perpetually divided the quiet mystery of the English countryside and the lure of London city streets. “Those two sound worlds – the post-industrial and the more bucolic, rural sound world of birdsong and running water, have just stayed with me forever,” he says.

He’s had the same home studio setup in his Balham home for decades now, gradually adding to its arsenal of old Juno and Wasp synths over the years. The window looks out onto a garden full of trees, at the bottom of which runs the Southern mainline through to Victoria. “It’s semi-soundproofed,” he tells me, “but you can’t really keep out the sounds of the railway. That was kind of frustrating when I started doing recording.” It was David Cunningham, the genius behind The Flying Lizards who went on to produce Zor Gabor featuring Dowdall and John McKay, that helped him see it in a more positive light.

“David,” Dowdall said one time Cunningham was round his place, “it frustrates me that I’ve got this sound leakage in my studio all the time.”

“Don’t fight it,” counselled Cunningham. “Go with it. It’s your signature sound.”

“The penny,” Dowdall tells me, “dropped.” What Dowdall calls the “sonic interface” between the urban and the rural – field recordings and industrial rhythms, buddleia trees bursting through pavement cracks – has informed his work ever since. That was the message behind Gagarin’s last album Biophilia and it continues to inform his latest, AOTICP: “that interface when nature comes back into the city.” The results are somehow peculiarly English and uniquely intoxicating.

Gagarin will perform live at the Fiddler’s Elbow, Malden Road, London on June 16

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