Sing something simple

On their new album, Gomez return to the direct appeal of their melodic sound. It makes people happy, they tell Phil Meadley
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The Independent Culture

"I dare you to describe us as just a rock'n'roll band," goads Gomez's singer and guitarist Tom Gray. We are discussing the confusion that surrounds the band's persona - as much a mystery to them as to the media that have tried to define their sound since their Mercury Music Award-winning debut, Bring It On, in 1998.

Gomez are in a small north London studio shooting the video for their second single from the new album Split The Difference. Due out in May, this fourth record sees a switch to a more direct, punchy, live sound, relying on three-minute songs filled with catchy melodies, strong lyrics and the classically simple power of bass, guitar, drums and vocals. It could just prove to be their biggest breakthrough yet.

Although the band relies on three interchangeable singers, Gray takes centre stage for the first single "Catch Me Up" and its follow-up, "Silence". "We used to joke that I was the loud mouth, Ian was the good-looking one, and Ben had the talent; so if you put us together you'd have one fantastic front man," Gray smiles. The band are all dressed in black suits, black ties, and mod-style two-tone shoes.Aside from a jet-lagged Ian Ball, who has just flown in from LA, where he now lives, they're all in surprisingly good spirits, considering that they've had to pose under glaring studio lights for the last couple of hours. "I can't say I enjoy the process of video making, but I like seeing the finished product," says Gray. He seems to take most things in his stride, which is perhaps indicative of a maturity gained from being in a rock band since his late teens. "As a band we were quite protected early on, because we were so young and there were people trying to keep bad influences away from us. But obviously you mature fairly quickly in the environment we've been in."

Gomez began life as a four-piece schoolboy rock band from Southport. Gray had known Blackie (Paul Blackburn, the bassist) since he was 12, while the drummer, Olly Peacock, grew up two doors down the street. Peacock and the guitarist and vocalist Ian Ball were childhood friends, and Ball spent a brief stint alongside Blackburn in a local heavy-metal outfit, Severed, before meeting gravel-voiced Ben Ottewell at Sheffield University. The band's name arose from a sign hung outside the venue of an early gig to tell their friend Gomez that they were playing inside. Some of the audience assumed that the name of the band was Gomez, and it stuck. Their early four-track demos recorded in a garage started to attract A&R interest, and under manager Stephen Fellowsthe band signed to the Virgin Records subsidiary Hut. Four members of Gomez now live in Brighton, and the band's studio is on an industrial estate in the nearby town of Portslade.

"Catch Me Up" has trademark vocal distortion laid back in the overall mix of the song, allowing all the instruments to take a leading role. This idea was formulated on their debut single "78 Stone Wobble". "I think the obsession with distortion comes from listening to too much Tom Waits," Gray explains. "Someone described the new single as halfway between The Strokes and The Coral, and I thought, 'If only we'd had these reference points when we started, then everyone would've understood what we were!' Our music was provocative at the time because we weren't trying to get a record deal, we were just trying to make music that we wanted to hear."

While the distinctly bluesy edge of Gomez has drawn comparisons with the American folk-rock drawl of Tom Waits and Tim Buckley, the psychedelia of Jimi Hendrix, and the soul of Al Green and Marvin Gaye, Gray maintains that the Gomez sound is resolutely British. "We are more akin to the British psychedelic bands of the late Sixties, or Mod bands.I think us Brits are musical magpies. We're not so worried about national identity or where we're from, and that sometimes confuses people."

There are several descriptive tags that bother Tom Gray. "Experimental" is one; "real music" is another; and "timeless appeal" is a third. "I suppose we are hard to work out sometimes. We're scared of being pretentious, or being perceived as pretentious, because where we come from you can't be like that or you'd get slapped. It's just about trying to find the terminology to describe what you do, and the trouble for some people is that we are what a rock'n'roll band was in 1970.

"But then again, it's not about retro, and that is where the confusion comes from. We just want to make albums that will keep you involved from start to finish. That for me is what makes a great album, as opposed to the present-day homogenised rock album, where every song sounds alike, with the same vocal quality and the same guitar sound. I prefer picking up old albums where you know you'll be happy for 45 minutes."

The video accompanying "Catch Me Up" was made by a Canadian animator, and shows a forlorn blackbird being chased by a hungry fox. It's an amusing, melancholy visual representation of a jaunty pop single about love and escape. The video for "Silence" is more bizarre. "It's mental," Gray laughs. "It starts off with us above the clouds on pillars, then we get sucked down through the clouds, then we end up on a shipwreck under the sea. It wasn't our idea, but it conforms to the stuff we're doing on the record. All the artwork is inspired by that kind of Sixties psychedelia."

All the band members agree that Split The Difference is their most cohesive effort yet. This could be in part due to the outside influence of the producer and engineer Tchad Blake, whose credits include work with Tom Waits and Crowded House, and who, according to Ottewell, helped give them a denser, rockier edge. "We'd played pretty much all year before we started on this album, so the BPM level was up," says Ottewell. "And we did a lot more demos this time around," Peacock adds enthusiastically. "We realised that the simpler progression chords are really sweet - you forget that sometimes. It was exciting to do three-minute songs and not go off for another three minutes in the middle section like we used to do."

In Our Gun explored lo-fi electronic processes alongside bluesy rock riffs and folk-rock refrains, but the band decided to dispense with overt experimentation on the new record. "When you're playing live you have that spontaneity, and we started to feel that a lot of bands were doing that electronic stuff better than we do," Ottewell explains. "It's good to dabble, but guys like the Super Furry Animals have got that stuff down to a fine art."

"We are experimental in that we like to throw everything into a song to see what sticks," Peacock interjects.

"But," Ottewell says, "That's different from being self-consciously experimental, like In Our Gun was.We'd got that tag from somewhere and I guess that's what we thought we had to do. But it really wasn't, and we learnt that lesson from playing live again."

Gray adds, "The last album was really ephemeral and all about sound. But I've never wanted to be a musician's musician. I hate that. We were never that good. Olly is an extremely good drummer, and that makes up for a thousand sins as regards our playing. But this album is just about banging songs and energy. That's what we needed to do to get ourselves motivated again. We had to make music that was thrilling to play."

'Split the Difference' is due to be released in late May (Hut)