Gomez land a bigger prize

The Southport band had a meteoric rise to fame when they took the Mercury Prize in 1998, but were soon forgotten. America has been their salvation, says Fiona Sturges

Friday 03 April 2009 00:00 BST

Nearly 11 years later and you'd still struggle to pick them out of a crowd. From a distance I mistake at least two people for Ben Ottewell – one of the band's three singers – at a cafe where we meet near his Brighton home.

In the end it's the specs and crumpled shirt that give him away. Back in the early days Gomez were never the types to employ the services of a stylist and, amid the swathes of vainglorious, tousle-haired Brit-poppers, were best identified by their scruffy ordinariness. "We didn't really care how we looked and still don't," Ottewell says blithely. "Two of us in the band wear glasses so we were never going to be seen as cool."

Looking back at their Mercury win, Ottewell remains pleasantly bewildered. "I remember our first meeting with (the record company) Hut after we got signed. Our manager said: 'If we sell 10,000 copies of the first album then that would be a success. We see you as a band who will build steadily over time'. Six months later we won the award and it just went crazy. We hadn't even played a decent gig at that point. People would applaud us for being this laid-back, shambolic mess, but the fact was that we really couldn't play."

If their inexperience gave them away during early gigs, Gomez are now a very different live proposition. A decade of touring America has made them professional to a fault. Such is their success on the live circuit that the band now spends up to seven months of every year in the US. Three members – bass player Paul Blackburn, singer and guitarist Ian Ball and drummer Olly Peacock – have even set up home in Detroit, Los Angeles and New York respectively (singer and guitarist Tom Gray lives near Ottewell in Brighton).

"We've spent so much time in the States that they all started relationships over there", says Ottewell. "Since the last record, How We Operate, there have been four kids and two marriages in the band. I'm just glad I'm not our manager."

Despite the logistical challenges of being scattered across two continents, the band have recorded a new album. A New Tide is Gomez's sixth and finds them in typically eclectic mood, drawing on a range of influences including Seventies psychedelia, Delta blues, acoustic folk and, in the case of "If I Ask You Nicely", African guitar music. Ottewell's extraordinary vocals remain the band's secret weapon. A voice way beyond his years, his is an untamed blues holler that can articulate pure tenderness and anguish in the slightest syllable.

Ottewell says that of all Gomez's albums he is proudest of this one. "It's always a balancing act when you've got five guys writing songs. Although we have broadly similar tastes, there's no single vision and you never know how a record is going to turn out. But this one's closest to the way I wanted it to sound."

To start with everyone wrote their own songs at home and posted them online for the others to tinker with. In order to overcome the geographical distance, early tracks on the album were written and recorded individually and then merged on the internet.

"When they first go up they're really just sketches," says Ottewell. "It sounds like a strange process but it's gives you time to work out what you really want to do. The studio can be a manically creative environment, and it can become claustrophobic. Working this way is a good way of trading ideas before you get to the studio."

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If anything unifies Gomez's albums, Ottewell maintains, it's their determination never to repeat themselves and to give rein to one another's musical tastes. "We don't want to make one type of music consistently," he says. "That's why it would be impossible to make, say, a Coldplay album. There's too much input, too many different ideas. There are songs on this album such as "Airstream Driver" and "Win Park Slope" that I love, but would never have made myself. This is the dynamic we've always had – pulling in different directions, and always looking to subvert the original idea."

The band's refusal to stick to a particular genre might also account for the dwindling audience in their homeland. Certainly, fans holding out for a repeat performance of Bring It On's retro Americana were in for a disappointment as subsequent LPs saw Gomez dabbling in everything from electronica to straight-down-the-line indie rock. Now, more than a decade after their meteoric rise, Gomez find themselves in the peculiar position of being lauded in the United States and virtually ignored at home.

Ottewell says that their US success is "what has kept the band afloat" and admits that there have been moments of bitterness about the lack of love in the UK. "We have become a forgotten band over here. Even though we have a solid fanbase and we're still going strong and making, to my mind, good and interesting records, we have never fitted in with the musical landscape at any point. Are we disappointed by that? Of course we are."

That's not to say that the British fan base has disappeared entirely. Last November, in order to mark the 10th anniversary of Bring It On, Gomez played a series of sold-out shows in which they played the album in its entirety. "It was just a laugh really," recalls Ottewell. "I mean there was an element of: 'Oh no, here we go again,' but ultimately we have to acknowledge that Bring It On is the most successful thing that we've done, and a lot of people really, really love it."

While Ottewell has the greatest respect for their fans, the same cannot be said for the industry in which he works. "It just kills bands," he states. "Most bands over here don't make it past the second album. Either they die a death or they get told they're so good that they can't possible meet expectations and just fall apart. At least in America you are given more time to grow and learn your craft. Here the industry eats bands and spits them out."

He notes that, if the industry is the enemy, then the media are its fickle accomplice. "Even in the 10 years that we've been doing this, (the music press) has got noticeably worse with the whole build 'em up, tear 'em down thing. I wouldn't want to be starting out now, that's for sure."

When Gomez first emerged in 1997 they were less a regular band than "a bunch of blokes who played music together". The band's name was inspired by a sign hung outside the venue of an early gig to tell their friend Gomez that they were playing inside. Bring It On's inception was equally haphazard. One day someone decided to record their garage sessions on a four-track recorder; the resulting demos earned them a record deal, and made up the bulk of their debut.

It's perhaps a reflection of Gomez's reluctance to embrace the limelight that the singing was split three ways from the off. In fact, theirs is an unusually egalitarian set-up, with all of the band members responsible for songwriting and royalties split evenly.

"That's just the way that it's evolved," says Ottewell. "When we started, it was impossible to work out who had done what, as most of the songs were written at three o'clock in the morning, probably after a lot of alcohol. When we were recording you might bring a song but if someone else could sing it better than you, then so be it. A by-product of this is that it means no one really leads the band. I think it has been problematic for people trying to sell us more than anything, especially these days when bands are supposed to have this cohesive vision."

With their second album, Liquid Skin, the tide already seemed to be turning against Gomez, with critics writing them off as uncool. "Maybe because we were students, and we came out of nowhere without being championed by magazines, and then suddenly won the Mercury Prize, I think people were just having a dig," Ottewell reflects. "We had nothing to sell except the music, which is often the last thing the music press is interested in."

After the release of their third album, In Our Gun, Gomez were left with the unshakeable feeling that no one, least of all their record company, cared about them any more. Their Damascene moment came in 2004, a few weeks after yet another record company reshuffle, during a meeting with their new label-boss. "We had just come back from a six-month tour where we'd played around 80 shows," Ottewell recalls. "His advice was to play more gigs and get in more magazines."

Hut promptly went out of business and the band were picked up by the alt-rock luminary Dave Matthews's ATO label in America (they have since signed to the indie label Eat Sleep in the UK).

Nowadays, Ottewell is philosophical about the bad times, and concludes that when all is said and done, integrity and longevity are what's important. Now a father of twin 18-month-old boys, he simply wants a steady income and to be able to carry on making records without interference from the men in suits.

"There's no pension plan," he says. "You have kids and you wonder what is going to happen in the future. But I think we've weathered the worst and come out the other side. Our last record, How We Operate, was our most successful yet in the States. I want to keep going as long we can. We've always been in it for the long haul, and the lack of egos has served us well. We've been together for over 10 years and we're all still friends, so we must be doing something right."


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This Dido-esque singer-songwriter is a million-selling superstar in the US, where her fans include Ellen DeGeneres. Her solo career began in America in 2002 when a demo of her song "Finally Woken" was played on the Los Angeles radio station KCRW and became one of its most listener-requested songs, leading to her first record deal with ATO. Despite her best efforts, the Welsh singer has failed to win the same love back home.

Billy Idol
British audiences struggled to take this sneering, peroxide punk (above) seriously in the Eighties. One music paper carried an article asking: "Is this man a plonker?". But Idol's panto-punk schtick was embraced in America, which has kept him in codpieces for nigh on two decades.

A Flock of Seagulls
The 1980s Liverpudlians, notable for their preposterous hairdos, peaked early here with "I Ran (So Far Away)" and then slid into obscurity. The band responded by decamping to America where they sustained respectable sales for the remainder of the decade.

Led by Gavin Rossdale, best known nowadays for being Mr Gwen Stefani, the Nineties grunge-lite outfit from London performed in vast arenas in America, while still trawling the pub circuit back home.

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