"When we made our CD Split the Difference in 2004 we were a mess," says Tom Gray. "Half of us were in personal turmoil due to marriages or long-term relationships breaking down, and half of us were hanging on for dear life, wondering if we still had a band. Meanwhile, our record company's falling apart and our manager isn't getting out of bed. It was like, 'Thank you, men in the sky who make decisions. Thanks a lot.'"
Like his similarly bespectacled bandmate Ben Ottewell (vocals, guitar), Gray (vocals, guitar, keyboards) is still more redolent of a geography teacher than a rock musician. The amiable pair are at their PR's offices in St John's Wood, London to discuss Gomez's new album, How We Operate. It is easily their best work to date, a heartfelt coming-of-age record that deserves to precipitate a change in the group's fortunes.
Gray and Ottewell are now 29 but, by their own admission, they were "just kids" when I first interviewed them. That was in 1998, a year before Gomez won the Mercury Music Prize with their bluesy Americana-flavoured debut, Bring It On. The Southport-formed quintet secured a Mojo cover story on the back of that triumph. But then came the growing up in public, the record company reshuffles and, over the course of four more studio albums, the slow realisation that the British music press had largely turned its back on Gomez, deeming them terminally uncool.
"Even at the height of our popularity we were never part of any scene", reflects Gray. "We were always on the outside looking in, and doing our own thing musically. You could get bitter about the media backlash that happened, but there's no point. People give you their attention if they want to. It's not a right."
In terms of being misunderstood or left to fester by their record company, there was a moment of epiphany. It came when the band went to see the head of Virgin Records, Philippe Ascoli, after crushing redundancies at the Virgin imprint Hut Records had left Gomez's albums all but un-promoted. Ascoli advised the band to tour more, obviously unaware that they had already played over 80 shows that year. "And it was only March", notes Ottewell, smiling stoically.
Touring the US in particular has in fact been Gomez's bread and butter of late, the band acquiring a loyal state-to-state following and securing a live-album deal with the American label ATO that, circuitously, led to their current UK deal with Independiente. Not that spending vast amounts of time Stateside hasn't complicated things for Gomez: while Gray and Ottewell have settled with English girls in Brighton, Ian Ball (vocals, guitar), Paul Blackburn (bass), and Olly Peacock (drums) currently live with gals respectively based in Los Angeles, New York City and Michigan.
Listening to How We Operate, it seems clear that its quality owes something to Gomez's current "fresh start on all fronts" approach. They have a new manager, a new PR and a new record company. More crucially, perhaps, How We Operate is the first Gomez record that isn't self-produced. Gil Norton (Pixies, Foo Fighters) has brought some much-needed order to the free-for-all that had previously been the typical Gomez studio session.
"When you're producing yourself it's easy to get lost in the textures at the expense of the lyrics and the song", concedes Ottewell, "so in the past, some of our songs ended up sounding like fledglings. The new stuff stands up played on one acoustic guitar, though - you couldn't really say that of our other records."
"We were tired of being ambiguous and escapist", adds Gray. "Every song on this record is about a relationship or a friendship. We'd reached an age and a point in our careers where it felt important to write a record that was actually about something."
Broadly speaking, you could describe How We Operate as another Americana record. It's more acoustic-based, though, with better melodies and stronger choruses. The Gomez modus operandi is such that the three lead singers in the band (Ottewell, Gray and Ball) sometimes write for each other's voices. Thus Ottewell, whose powerful baritone rasp has long been the most noteworthy sound in the Gomez arsenal, tackles "Chasing Ghosts With Alcohol", although its lyric is a Ball-penned one about the demise of his last relationship.
It was the same with "See The World", says Gray. "A song like that, which needs to be sung out, I'll immediately take to Ben, because it would be stupid not to use a such wonderful resource like Ben in that context. A simple, melodic pop tune like "Girl Shaped Love Drug", on the other hand, is something I'll sing myself."
But what is the Jayhawks-like country twanger "See The World" about? Ottewell: "It's about saying to someone, 'Wake up. Open your eyes. Look at what's good in your life with your music and the opportunities it brings.'" A reaffirmation of why the five of you got the band together in the first place? "That's precisely it", says Gray. "We grew up in the same streets together. We were born in the same hospitals and we went to the same colleges. For a while there we'd lost our enthusiasm, but with this new album we've got it back."
There is something reassuring about the Gomez story. The music industry can break hearts and trash friendships, no doubt about it, but here is a five-way bond that has survived the kind of career wobbles that often lead to in-fighting and on-paper squabbles between lawyers. Ottewell says that Gomez have never lost faith in their ability to make decent music together. That, and being careful to keep on talking while giving each other much-needed space, has certainly been useful, but Gomez's policy of splitting royalties evenly, regardless of who wrote what, has certainly helped, too.
"REM always divided the money equally", says Gray. "Most of the proper bands do, so we always thought it was a good model to adopt. In the beginning, there was no telling who wrote our songs anyway", says Ottewell. "Most of them were jammed out at 3am when we were quite well on with booze or whatever."
In Gray's view, the trials of the last few years have actually been something of a blessing in disguise for Gomez, their endless touring and insistence upon making precisely the kinds of records they wanted to, buying them time and space in which to develop, if not getting them massive chart success.
"We're still here nearly 10 years on and seven albums in", Gray says, "and that feels pretty good. The early success we had was a happy accident, and all we ever wanted was to make enough money to record the next record. In many ways, job done."
Gomez's new single, 'Girlshapedlovedrug', is out on 22 May and the album 'How We Operate' is out on 29 May, both on Independiente