03 May 2005

Hitting the Master Reset Button

This article was published in the Colorado Daily on Friday, Jan. 30, 2004:

Even after only five years, Gomez have a lot to look back on. In 1998, the regal bluesman John Lee Hooker, beamed live from San Francisco to England’s Q Awards ceremony, held the British pop quintet’s debut CD, Bring It On, in his hand.

I heard the new band Gomez.” Hooker intoned. “I’ve heard the album over and over and I found no defects -- I think they’re very, very good. They’re going to go places, especially with the young kids, and the old folks will surely follow. Keep on, kids."

It still blows their minds to remember it.

No strangers to blown minds, this group of students from Southport, England gathered in a garage and started making noises. Lifelong friends Ian Ball and Olly Peacock and their college pals Tom Gray, Paul “Blackie” Blackburn, and Ben Ottewell compiled their spacy, blues-soaked pop songs on a demo tape that they handed around to a few friends, including an acquaintance who worked at a record store. Ten minutes after Ball handed Steve Fellows his tape, the amazed Fellows ran out of the shop and caught up with Ball in a nearby pub. Fellows had made several records with his own band and knew where to send the tape. (Later he became the band’s manager.)

Bring It On was the result. The fledgling band’s first album turned Gomez into the United Kingdom’s Next Big Thing, virtually overnight, winning their prestigious Mercury Music Prize as well as a couple of influential British music magazines’ best new group awards.

When the hoopla surrounding Bring It On demanded that Gomez tour to support it, the group found themselves short on stagecraft; they simply hadn’t had much practice at performing together.

“It was really a case of a few English boys who didn’t know how to play guitar making music,” Gray recently recalled in an interview at home in Brighton, England. Ottewell added, “It was only a couple of years ago that I got past being utterly terrified to go onstage.”

Their second studio album, the trippy Liquid Skin, had limited commercial appeal because of its genre-bending psychedelic rock and seven-minute songs. The singles “Revolutionary Kind” and “Rhythm and Blues Alibi” enjoyed their brief moments in rotation, and the band went back to work and continued to teach themselves how to play together and how to play live. They toured whenever they weren’t recording.

Gomez’ first couple of albums were successful enough to allow them to release Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline, a collection of B-sides and new tunes that hadn’t made it onto the first two albums. But three-and-a-half solid years of touring and recording had tipped the band’s balance toward burnout. Gomez took a long break, but even on their vacation they couldn’t resist collecting sounds from around the world to bring home for their next record, which they made in a rented country house jammed with recording gear and copious quantities of booze (and who knows what else).

Peacock said that after their early success they believed “people would do things for us because they liked us.” But fate had a humbling slap upside the head in store for the band. The week Virgin Records’ tiny Hut label released In Our Gun, the axe fell at parent company EMI, which slashed 20 percent of its recording artists and staff; Hut was cut from seven people to four. So while Gomez celebrated the new CD’s release, they also had teary phone calls with current and former record company staffers who had come to be friends and supporters.

In the sobering lull following In Our Gun’s release, their manager recommended that they tour America. No one can say now who thought they were less prepared: the record company or the band. But the group recognized that if they wanted to keep on playing, they had to not only record and tour but also take on their own promotion.

When Gomez came to the U.S. in the spring of 2003, Boulder was among the places that surprised them with a heroes’ welcome.

“I remember Bouldah,” Tom said, drawing out the last word with a knowing look. “People were shouting themselves hoarse from before we even came out. They didn’t stop all night long. It was truly mental!”

In another twist of fortune, a fire at a rented studio melted their gear. So Gomez converted a warehouse into a new recording studio, “With our bare hands,” chuckled Ottewell wryly. They went to work on their latest album, tentatively titled Split the Difference, slated for release this May, and recruited veteran producer Tchad Blake (Pearl Jam, Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow).

“We’re being much more professional this time,” said Gray. “We have a lot of nine-to-five days.”

“More like twelve to seven,” countered Ottewell.

“We can’t spend too much time in the studio. It’s either really hot or really cold,” Peacock said.

“It’s made us more direct. We’d go in and say, ‘Let’s make rock ’n’ roll history,’” Gray said.

“It’s loud in the sense of a ’Seventies rock record, said Ottewell. “We’re pushing the level of sound we can get out of our studio.”

“The sound is always teetering on the edge of just beginning to distort,” explained Peacock.

“But in a nice way,” Gray reassured. “This record will really fly out of your stereo!”

“One of the words that kept coming up was ‘abandon,’” Tom continued. “We’d say we were hitting the ‘Master Reset’ button, trying to find out who we really were after losing our way.”

I asked what advice they would give to their younger selves.

“Keep your eye on the sodding ball,” Gray said.

“Focus. Work hard,” added Peacock.

“You wouldn’t believe what a shock it was,” confided Gray. “We went from stoner college students doing bugger all – and I mean nothing – to…” Gray couldn’t bring himself to say “rock stars” out loud, but that’s what they were. “It was culture shock-o-rama!”

“We’ve been totally surprised by the amount of work it takes,” Peacock said.

Gomez will be guests for a taping of etown at the Boulder Theater (at 7 pm) and at the Fox Theatre (at 9 p.m., with Rachel Yamagata opening) on Sunday, February 1.

copyright 2004 Rise Keller

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