Out of nowhere to the Belly Up
October 27, 2006
Gomez came almost literally out of nowhere to take the Mercury Music Prize in 1998, a prestigious award given by the British music press for the year’s best album. Just months before recording the debut “Bring It On,” Gomez played its first gig, in a small club in Leeds. The band was as anonymous as the venue they played that night in late 1996. The quintet didn’t even have a name when the show started; “Gomez” came from the sign they left out for a friend with that surname, to let him know where exactly they were playing.Several months later, Gomez made the demo recording that earned them a deal with Virgin Records. A few more months on, and “Bring It On” won the band rave reviews, a following on both sides of the Atlantic, and, in a victory over better-known quantities like Massive Attack, the Verve and Robbie Williams, the Mercury Prize.”It was very overwhelming,” said Gomez bassist Paul Blackburn, talking (in the vicinity of a very loud, very busy PA speaker) from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. “We were quite young at the time and it happened very quickly. We didn’t know what to make of it. It was confusing, but also very pleasant. It was nice for people to be saying all these nice things.”
If the members of Gomez, all in their early 20s at the time, were overwhelmed and confused by the accolades, imagine what they must have experienced when the positive buzz turned sour with just as little warning.”Following it, we saw the backlash from it,” said Blackburn, now 31. “It was our first record; we get all that praise. There was a sense: ‘How do we live up to that?’ Ultimately you end up in a situation where people are saying you got too much praise.”There have been no more Mercury Prizes, or even nominations, for Gomez since. In some circles – perhaps particularly in the U.K., where the rise-and-fall cycle for pop bands tends to be fast and brutal – Gomez is considered a disappointment. In fact, the band has engendered a neologism: To “do a Gomez” means to create a debut album so successful that fulfilling its promise is a virtual impossibility.Still, the actual Gomez has marched on, with an additional six albums, including this year’s “How We Operate.” While the band has never much exceeded the acclaim of the “Bring It On” days, they have been anything but an artistic disappointment. Instead of contorting their sound and themselves in an effort to please critics, Gomez has stuck to the fundamentals: a mix of old blues and modern rock, a fierce sense of experimentation. The result has been more of an American measure of success than a British one: Gomez is not a tabloid sensation at home, but in the U.S., they play the biggest festivals – Bonnaroo and the New Orleans Jazzfest this year, Coachella in 2003. And their CDs reflect a determination both to continue on their own course and to broaden that path each time out.
“The only thing we’re trying to fulfill is to make a good recording every time,” said Blackburn. “You just try to collect your own understanding of it and create something new and exciting. It’s not about recreating a previous album.”Perhaps what the British press was responding to when it gave Gomez the Mercury Prize was the boldness and freshness of “Bring It On.” The three singers, Ben Ottewell, Ian Ball and Tom Gray, sounded as if they were grown from the same Southern soil that produced John Lee Hooker – or at least, Greg Allman. But songs like “Get Miles” also showed that Gomez was interested in adding something contemporary to the blues, much as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones had done. If Gomez has been successful, it is in the way they have expanded the sound and structure. No Gomez song ever goes by the numbers. Blackburn says the most apt comparison is to a few American bands who, as it turns out, are endlessly celebrated here.
“If there’s a category we fit in with, it’s My Morning Jacket or Wilco,” he said. “Where it’s coming from, there’s a similar feel behind it. Basically, it’s kind of like experimenting with the music. It’s about writing songs with all the basics of what good music is about, melody and such, but trying to experiment with it, make it sound new and interesting.”Showtime is 10 p.m. for Gomez, with Justin Gordon opening. Tickets are $20.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org