Mind Over Matter: A Q&A With Gomez

(Photo: John Patrick Gatta)

When British alt-rockers Gomez won the esteemed Mercury Prize in 1998 for the band’s debut, Bring It On, it could have all gone downhill from there with the quintet joining a lengthy list of recipients whose careers barely made a dent in the American market.

Instead, Tom Gray, Ben Ottwell, Paul “Blackie” Blackburn, Ian Ball and Olly Peacock TK a consistently strong catalog of eight studio albums, a live document and two compilations. That now includes 2011’s Whatever’s On Your Mind. Like previous efforts, it’s a multi-layered mix of rock, country and electronica that subtly sticks in your memory and doesn’t let go.

Formed in Southport, England, Gomez is now spread out across its native land as well as in America. Using file sharing and Logic Pro during the songwriting process has made distance a non-factor. A lack of ego also aids in the desire to do what’s right for the song.

As one of the group’s three singers, Gray explained that for him, constructing a tune is the most important element, rather than stepping in front of the microphone. Although his vocals can be heard on “The Place and the People,” “I Will Take You There” and “That Wolf” on the new album, he’s more interested in discussing the title track, which he wrote for Ottwell’s voice, or getting serious about how his children’s album came to influence his work in Gomez.

When you write a song such as “Whatever’s On Your Mind,” because you have the option of three singers, what is it about that number that causes you to say, ‘I wrote this song but Ben I think you should sing it and not me?’

I spent many years writing songs expressly for Ben. Whether it’s “See the World” on “How We Operate” there’s dozens over the years. I’ve only become a decent singer over the past few years. I was never really a good singer. And I’ve always just considered myself to be a songwriter.

When you write a song that’s as big and expansive as that, you need a big voice to carry it off. It’s as simple as that. I wrote it for him. I wrote it then I phoned him up and said, ‘I’ve got a song. You’ve got to come and sing it.’ When the rest of the guys heard the song, the first time they heard it, they heard the version of Ben singing it. That was it. It was written for Ben.

While the members of Gomez are all over the globe, you still record and perform quite regularly. How did you adjust so well to the circumstances?

I don’t know. We just do. We’re just well-adjusted people, I suppose. It’s not very difficult. I think part of the truth is hidden in your question really, which is we spend a lot of time working. And so we’re still playing theaters all over the world all the time. So much of our time is spent together regularly anyway, in truth.

I think you’d find it hard to find any band that, once they come off the road, spends an awful lot of time together. Especially bands that have been together as long as us like 16, 17 years.

With band members living so far apart, when you began the initial stages of songwriting for an album, are you e-mailing mp3 files to each other?

A few years ago that was probably what we were doing, but for a while now we’ve had sort of a central FTP (file transfer protocol) site. And we all work in Logic Pro, so that we can open up each other’s projects straight away. And we send each other whole projects so you can play with everything within the projects. You don’t just get a bit of something to mess with. You can change the drums. You can change the bass. You can change everything. And that’s kind of it.L

There’s lots of respect in Gomez. We are as much producers as we are songwriters. Everything that surrounds the song is as integral to the song as the song. A lot of the time is spent doing that kind of thing, tinkering. We’re great tinkerers.

I interviewed Ian [Ball] two years ago in regards to A New Tide, and we were discussing that album versus the previous one, “How We Operate.” He viewed “How We Operate” “as more song- based, but the band didn’t have enough time to really explore the more creative musical side of things. He felt you did that on A New Tide. Do you feel Whatever’s On Your Mind is a mix of those two approaches?

Umm…no, I don’t actually.  I think the reason is a little bit more complicated than that. The last two records were made with producers. And very clear-minded producers. Gil Norton was very much like, ‘You can’t have bells and whistles on it, it’s just got to be songs.’ And then with the last record, I think, we didn’t go into the studio with songs, so a lot of the music  just tends to be just the bells and the whistles. But with this record, it was like, ‘This is going to be ours. We’re going to completely control the outcome of this ourselves. Let’s make sure that the songs are absolutely there and then go crazy with the bells and the whistles.’ We didn’t have someone stopping us doing the bells and the whistles, and we weren’t letting ourselves down by not necessarily having the songs in place. My feeling about this record is that it’s very, very song led, and, as you say it’s a kind of smorgasbord of production.

I read that you wanted to make an album’s worth of songs this time around, and not have a lot of extra material that you’d have to figure out what to do with at a later date. Why the change to recording just 10 songs, rather than picking and choosing after the process ended?

In the modern era you can’t waste money like that. You can’t just sit around recording loads of stuff. You have to focus. You have to strike while the iron is hot. As you know, the thing for us is let’s make a really focused record. This is not only the shortest album we’ve ever made, but it has the least number of songs we’ve ever put on a record. And that for me is kind of key. I wanted to make a record that people could really  just enjoy, not get bogged down in and not feel like fast forwarding through. You know what I mean? To me it’s always a disappointment when you finish an album and you go, ‘I know people are going to skip that track and skip that track.’ [laughs] And with this record, there is very much a strong feeling that if it was one that some people might skip, then it shouldn’t be on the record.

Is it easier to make such a decision of picking a track or leaving it behind during the songwriting process or after you have recorded it and you see its potential?

Well, the truth is, it happens all along the way. We dispose of a lot of tunes before we went anywhere near arranging them or recording them. We probably lost 30 odd songs that way. And then in the process of recording, we probably lost another three or four because we didn’t feel that…they didn’t hold up to band arrangements. And then when we finished, we probably lost another couple because we just stopped liking them. And that, you know, [laughs] I’m ashamed to answer, ‘All of the above,’ but that is the truth of it, actually. We like to get rid of as much as possible before we go arranging and recording.

With so much work being done in advance via your FTP site, does it make it easier in the studio because so much of the arrangement has been done in advance?

Oh, 100 percent. It takes a lot of the worry out of it. You know what you’ve got. You just need to get more feel into it. It’s like, ‘Is everyone happy with this arrangement already?’ and if they are then you just get into it. You just dig into it. Whereas if an arrangement isn’t right, we spend a lot of time with some songs. I remember “That Wolf” in particular, got rearranged about five or six times. Verses got moved around, sections got moved a bit, and fortunately that all happened before we got to the studio.

“The Place and The People”  has this nice mellow groove throughout much of it, and then the bridge comes out of nowhere compared to the rest of the song.

The song is a dark song. The song is a break up song. And I think at that moment, that section of the song is narrative more than anything else. And as the line “Can you hear what I say?” comes through this noise, this din, it’s a “are you really hearing me loud and clear?” kind of message. So, that’s the idea, really. This is the point that the protagonist in the song is saying, ‘Ok, you split up with me, but why did you have to ruin everything else as well?’ [laughs] That’s kind of the theme of the song.

You did the soundtrack for the puppet show Flyaway Katie. Writing material for something that’s children-oriented, did you apply any of those songwriting ideas into your future work for Gomez?

It’s pretty difficult to say. I’m kind of a classicist when it comes to songwriting myself. There’s a lot of things I can do when I’m writing for children that I don’t have to think about when I’m writing for Gomez. There’s certainly things like melodic structure, and certainly some of the more lush things that I’ve done for the kids worked their way back into Gomez. I don’t think I’d necessarily be writing songs like “Whatever’s On Your Mind” if I hadn’t done the more open melodic stuff for the kids.

Last thing. Imagine you are on the Mercury Prize Committee, would you still give out the award to your debut Bring It On or, if not, which one of your releases would replace it?

[Laughs] I don’t know. I don’t know. I hate awards. But, yeah maybe…hell, let’s just give it to this one. Why not? This one’s certainly more one of the mad ones.