The Times July 18, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Raised amid violence, fostered at the age of 3, addicted to cocaine… Goldie has had his fair share of demons. Which makes it all the more extraordinary that, in his forties, the drum’n’bass pioneer enthralled the nation as he took up the baton in Maestro, the television conducting competition. As he prepares to unveil his first classical composition at the Proms, he talks to Ginny Dougary

goldie
Photo: Jude Edginton

Goldie is the very model of concentration, his wide topaz eyes taking everything in. There’s a massive thunderclap of drums rolling, followed by a spooky whispering, hissing sound from the 70-odd sopranos and altos of the London Philharmonic Choir, the basses come in, quietly at first, their voices gradually swelling to another crescendo, a banging of a metal sheet, the BBC Concert Orchestra builds as one, as the whole choir sings out in full majestic force… and then silence, followed by applause.

The drum’n’bass pioneer, who experienced the harshest start in life, has just heard his first orchestral piece, which will have its world premiere at this year’s Proms. Sine Tempore (Without Time) – only seven minutes, but each one a thrill – is his response to the concert’s theme, evolution; not one big bang but a series of explosions heralding the birth and growth of new life. Just before the orchestra started up, he and his Maestro mentor, Ivor Setterfield, gave each other a quick hug. It was hard to tell from their expressions which of the two men was more excited – and apprehensive.

Straight after the performance – which is the first time the work has been heard, live, in its entirety – the team is back to work, honing and polishing and adjusting. Goldie is hands-on; no question of him not knowing what he wants, as he stands over the huge pages of the score (converted from his own musical “map”). The tempo isn’t quite right for him, so he sings out the notes to illustrate where he wants them to fall. Setterfield jumps in and asks for more “pungency” in the sound, and “protein” from the basses. “It should be looser, but not sloppy,” he says, and refers them to Goldie’s instruction that the sound needs to be “creamy”. There’s a titter at that but not a disrespectful one.

The rehearsal is taking place in Henry Wood Hall, a Grade II-listed converted church, with handsome columns and vaulted windows, which has been used as a recording space by the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Alfred Brendel and André Previn. Goldie has joined their ranks because of his commission on the back of his appearance in Maestro, last year’s hit TV series, where eight celebrities competed for the chance to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra at the Proms in the Park. Comedian Sue Perkins won, but Goldie – the runner-up – was the undisputed star of the show.

We had met a couple of weeks earlier at his home in Bovingdon, near Hemel Hempstead, in Hertfordshire. He opens the door, flashing his gold-toothed grin and shaking my hand. I’m a bit early so he tells me to make myself at home while his own Man Friday – a role which, until recently, was performed by his kid stepbrother, Stuart, 12 years his junior – fixes him an old-fashioned Mothers Pride sandwich.

It’s a perfectly comfortable home but no rock-star mansion. There’s a slight bachelor-pad feel, with lots of stuff lying around, including a Ducati motorbike (a gift from Val Kilmer) as a sort of sculpture on wheels. The walls are taken up with Goldie’s art – canvases of collages and a large work which looks like a psychedelic reading of a heart-monitoring screen. We sit at a substantial wooden table, at one end of the living room, and Goldie kicks off with a history of the drum’n’bass movement which, frankly, loses me completely.

What is clear is that he doesn’t suffer an iota of self-doubt on this front – “I became the picture boy of the Nineties in terms of the PR machine… that I didn’t employ… because I didn’t need one,” he says. Now 43, he is also knowing enough to be aware that part of his appeal, notwithstanding his talent, was that he had street cred, in spades.

We have barely touched on this, when he’s into the nitty-gritty: “People used to ask me, ‘How can you make music that’s so uncompromising and wear your heart on your sleeve, and bare your soul to the general public?’ and I’m like, ‘When you’re in a children’s home with 25 kids and you’ve gone from foster parent to foster parent, and all these different things, do you think that sitting in a roomful of critics is really gonna make a chink in my armour?’”

This is followed by another challenging stream of consciousness about Goldie’s spirituality, delivered with enthusiasm in his flat Brummie accent, while he endeavours to explain (actually, I’m not sure that he’s all that concerned about my receptivity) how he has exchanged that armour for a more translucent way of being.

He stops off, en route, with the memory of a very old astrologer who lived in a flat above Waitrose in Finchley Road – introduced by his then girlfriend, Björk, a major influence on him – who warned that he was going to burn himself out: “You are burning all the time and you cannot stop giving.” Thence the parallels between him and jellyfish: “If you see them in their environment, not washed up on to a shore, and you think about how ghost-like and beautiful they look, how they reach out with all these different tentacles, all electrifyingly dangerous and pulsating, but overall they just have a spiritual feeling of wanting to be left alone in this ocean… to be able to absorb everything and not just see everything but be able to sense everything…”

You are saying that you are like that jellyfish? “In a funny way, I am a little bit. I think I’ve just learnt that I’ve had to keep the depth around me to survive. If Goldie came along and made Timeless, which he did…” (This was his 1995 album, which went into the mainstream charts at No 7, a first for drum’n’bass.) I stop him abruptly because what interests me is the way he has started to refer to himself in the third person. “My persona has been created by a boy wanting to create a protective shell around himself, but the boy has always been there. When you look at me… [he meshes his fingers together in front of his face, opening and closing them so that his features go in and out of focus]… Goldie’s here but underneath that façade of everything, there’s still this little boy underneath that you can sometimes get a glimpse of.”

When Goldie was that little boy, his name was Clifford Joseph Price and he lived in Wolverhampton with his older brother, Melvin, and their Scottish mother, who was finding it difficult to cope: “She was getting beaten by one boyfriend and my dad was flitting around England, working in foundries in Leeds, not turning up when he was supposed to, disappearing for days and days,” he explains.

He remembers playing on a three-wheeled trolley with his brother, rolling down a steep road called Coronation Street, when a woman approached them to say they had to go home. Miss O’Connor, his first social worker, was there smiling. She beckoned him into a car and drove him away to a children’s home, the first of young Cliffy’s many new homes. He was 3 at the time and didn’t understand why he’d been sent away. Miss O’Connor, he says, was very kind to him but was taken off his case for becoming too emotionally involved.

Goldie’s family history is one of those grim cycles of abuse, anger and violence that is passed on, like a poisonous mantle, from generation to generation. When I ask him what has become of Melvin, the brother who remained with their mother, he says: “He’s in the Midlands, not really doing anything… just waiting. Well, no, he’s a fitness fanatic. He’s shorter than all of us and I think he’s got a little man complex because he’s like a maniac with his body building.”

Does his brother have problems containing his anger? “I think that’s why he trains so much.” While Clifford was dealing with his own problems in care, he says Melvin was being “beaten like crazy” at home by his mother’s partner.

For most of his adult years, Goldie has been unable to forgive his mother for sending him away. The difference for him now is that he understands and – the really deep change – empathises with her. He corrects me, for instance, when I assume that she had a drink problem. “No, she didn’t,” he says firmly. “When I readdressed that, it was her boyfriends who had a drink problem. She was just a victim of that, where she would just say, ‘You know what? I’m gonna have to drink to get rid of this…’”

What was her upbringing? “Bad. Really bad. A father who beats and hits her, who beats all the kids. She was one of many children – 11 brothers and sisters, something like that – and she was the one that ran away. But then she fell in love with two black men at the same time because they both, you know, promised her the earth.”

How about his Jamaican father, what was he like? “Very, very charismatic. I went to see him in Miami many years ago [Goldie was making jewellery there, including his ‘grills’ (gold teeth), got involved in a cocaine cartel and later became addicted to the drug], and I was, like, ‘Do you know what? I used to think that my mum was the one here and, to tell you the truth, you’re the one that really washed your hands of all responsibility. And then you tried to blame it on a woman who you promised the earth to and you couldn’t deliver.’”

Who does Goldie think he is more like, his mother or his father? “I think my mother, more than I’ve ever felt.” How? “Just very sensitive and…” Is she a lovely person? “She is lovely.” Do you wish you could have rewritten her life for her? Goldie yawns. Is this boring you? “No, it’s just… emotional… It’s fine, but sometimes I think that if my mother hadn’t gone through what she’s gone through, then I would not be half the man that I am now.”

It was so odd that he yawned at that point, something he does again when a question hits a nerve. I ask him whether it’s some sort of reflexive reaction to me delving too deep.

“I think so,” he says. “I really was condescending sometimes towards her,” he continues. “And that was really terrible of me because when I think of what she’s gone through and when she comes down to stay some weekends, and I just see this woman who has been in and out of hospital with various cancers and things like that…

“But whatever she’s been through, she still has her sense of humour. I think that’s what’s kept her on her toes. When she’s with her grandkids, I can see her really enjoying it. More than she ever did. I always try to think to myself, well, you know, the Eskimos say there are 100 words for snow, and there are 100 different kinds of loves and I love her in my own way, which is very special to me.

“It’s only recently, because I never really knew, when I started to ask, ‘Mum? The music… where does it come from?’ And, you know, she’s a singer! Yeah, she used to sing in bars, and she had a beautiful voice but I almost dismissed it for some reason.”

He says that his brother, Stuart, to whom he is very close, helped him to see that the way he treated their mother was wrong. “He was always, like, ‘Come on, man, you really give Mum a hard time.’ And that’s why I wanted to do the Hoffman [an intensive therapy course which he credits for turning his life around] because I needed to address a lot of stuff.

“I felt so angry toward her. I couldn’t hold a conversation with her for longer than five minutes, it would be so f***ing painful…” Another yawn. “And I really do have that relationship now where I call her up out of the blue and… well, God forbid, you know… I just need to make the most of that.”

Part of what made Goldie so watchable in Maestro – apart from his sinewy grace and the electrifying way the music seemed to course through him – was a lurking edge of danger. There was an air of grave intensity about him, quite unlike the other contestants, in the way that he stared so intently at the judges – who were bowled over by his musicality – as they advised him how to improve his conducting skills. Only once did his anger threaten to flare up, when the sassy cellist, Zoe Martlew, tempered her praise by gently mocking his “flip-flapping” non-conducting hand, and recommended he use a baton.

I ask him why his response had been so bolshy – he had snapped back that the orchestra understood exactly what he required them to do. “I think it’s because she fancied me. You wanna talk about being Freudian?” I hadn’t actually but… “Yeah, probably.”

But your conducting did improve when you had the baton. Another slightly torturous response: “That was probably the best thing to happen because what she’s done is to tell me to contain the method used to get my being misunderstood across. So back to that again, aren’t we? Back to those issues of what I wanted. So I took it on board.”

I ask him why he had looked so aggravated. “Because I was being told to by a woman. I probably had problems with that where, you know, this button’s been pressed, now what do you do? Press this one, that one. No! Don’t press them, wait. OK, engage. I’m going through the real process of doing that. So answer then, instead of going, ‘Well, f*** you!’”

“But I’m thinking even though this is television, I’m really looking at the one-on-one help thing, and I don’t need a teacher to go, ‘Stand up, Price, let’s all laugh at you.’ Because I know women. I don’t care what anyone says, a guy wouldn’t have said it like that.”

It took Goldie two years to kick his cocaine addiction – at its height from 1996 to ’98, when he was dating the likes of Stella Tennant and Naomi Campbell, and he and Noel Gallagher would indulge in 20-hour snortathons – but he says that he was still left with “an anger that was overwhelmingly too powerful”. In fact, for him, cocaine acted as a mood suppressant rather than an agitator, “and when I stopped all these emotions came out”.

The therapy has helped him understand that he cannot go on punishing women for what happened to him as a child. “All those years of never being able to really settle down with a woman ’cos I never trusted them. What would happen is I would pull them in and I would let them love me and then I would just… get rid of them.”

His chief regret is the way he ended his year-long relationship with Björk – “the only one that was really the most fascinating woman. And I ended that situation because I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to carry it through. I was very, very scared and I also felt that I hadn’t evolved enough. Why couldn’t I love this person who was all-encompassing, musical and everything? Why couldn’t I?

“She was a woman who had every guy at her feet, in a sense. I was the person who ended it and everybody was, like, ‘You’re mad! You’re crazy!’ After many months, I called her up and said, ‘Look, I’m really sorry for what I put you through because I just felt I wasn’t ready. I felt that you could have been everything but I felt I had to move on…’”

He sounds so regretful that I ask if there’s no hope of a reconciliation, “Oh, I’m in love,” he beams. “I’m in love with a woman I’m very happy with, a lady called Mika.”

Before we get on to Mika – who, in the photograph he shows me, bears a marked resemblance to Björk around the eyes (Goldie is shocked when I say this and cannot see it at all) – there’s a lovely moment when he talks about Björk introducing him to the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the Polish composer Górecki’s response to the Holocaust.

“I was in Iceland, where it had been snowing for a week, and I was in this house, sitting on the windowsill looking out at the port which was covered in snow, listening to this symphony of sad songs and I never got so moved by a piece of music. It was terribly beautiful and terribly sad, and hopeful – and I wanted to do something in the same vein. That was why I made Mother [an hour-long track on SaturnzReturn, which looks pretty disturbing on a YouTube clip].”

When he heard the Górecki symphony with Björk, the words were in Polish and he didn’t know what they meant. It was only much later that he saw a DVD of the work performed in Auschwitz, with subtitles, and: “Do you know what the opening line is? ‘Mother.’ She’s actually singing about her mother. And it’s all to do with lamenting the mother but I didn’t know that when I wrote it.”

We talk about Mika, whom Goldie met some years ago on one of his lucrative DJing gigs in Shanghai. She’s a half-Japanese, half-Dutch-French-Canadian, who moved from her mother’s home in Montreal six months ago to be with him. They met at a dinner and Goldie was “fascinated by her. She just has this glow… She’s not into fame or any of that; she’s made up of different stuff, very much like a Buddhist. I asked her what she does [she works in the fashion industry] and she said, ‘I make lots of clothes that people don’t need.’ Do you know what I mean?”

They were apart for the next year and a half, while Mika stayed on in Shanghai, and wrote love letters to help fill the longing. More letters flowed between them when she moved back to Montreal and “the great thing about letters is when you read them, they’re like pockets of air in your mind, and you’re reminded of who we are,” he says.

Our interview covered so much more, from his failed marriage to Sonjia Ashby (the wedding appeared in Hello! with its fabled kiss of death; “It was like I got married almost to upset my mother”) to his regrets about his abandonment of his own four children and his attempts to rectify the damage. Chance, his daughter, and he “are as thick as thieves, but I’ve still got unfinished business with some of my other kids”. One of his sons is slightly autistic and Daniel, his second born, is lead singer in a punk band: “Yeah, unbelievable! He’s doing remarkably well. I’m probably going to end up producing him next year.”

Before I leave, Goldie shows me an album of Mika and his billets doux, with groovy stencilled hearts, a long scroll-like letter written in his italic script thanking the dead composers who inspired him in Maestro, and most amazing of all, the map of his composition, an artwork in itself that perfectly explains everything he needs to convey to the second.

We hang out in his office, sitting on the carpet, while he plays some of his drum’n’bass tracks – Sea of Tears is a good one, the music whooshing over us in amniotic waves, a sub-sonic sobbing in the background – and he kindly makes me a mini-compilation to listen to later. How could one not warm to him?

Some journalists have felt uncomfortable about the ease with which Goldie talks about his horrible upbringing, as though there were something suspect and manipulative about it. But my impression was of someone who had learnt to look at the broken shards of his childhood and piece them together, so that he could now see the picture as a whole and move on with the rest of his life.

From the moment that he could be creative – be it his graffiti art (featured in a book and a Channel 4 documentary, Bombed), breakdancing, DJing, drum’n’bass, and now his entrée into the world of classical music – he has been so hungry to absorb and learn everything he could and he has soared. During the rehearsal of Sine Tempore, Goldie turned round and looked up at Mika, with such a dazzling smile; he didn’t need to say, “Who’d have thought it, ay?”

I ask Goldie, finally, what he thinks it is about him that has allowed him to flourish. “What I think about it is that – innately – it is a gift of some sort. And part of my gift is a seanceability – I’ve never heard anyone say that word – but I will get musicians together and I will pull something out of them which they would never have thought possible.”

But the gift is not much good without the grit? He agrees: “It’s determination that comes in my path of wanting to be somebody and wanting to stand out.”

And there’s something else, too: “Music and art are fundamentally the two greatest saviours I’ve ever had. They’re the last bastions we can all have. If we take away either of those two things, we’re completely f***ed.” I’m sure that Daniel Barenboim, Peter Maxwell Davies, and all the hundreds of Goldie’s illustrious fellow musicians at this year’s Proms, would agree.

* * *

A two-part documentary, Classic Goldie, is on BBC2 on July 31 and August 7. His orchestral composition, Sine Tempore, premieres at the Family Prom on August 1