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Published: 2006/04/16
by Mike Greenhaus

Gomez: How We Operate

It’s a hectic humpday in New York and Gomez drummer Olly Peacock is having a rather odd week. In between a blitz of promotion and press for their new album, How We Operate, Gomez’s three guitarists, Ben Ottewell, Tom Gray and Ian Ball, offer a pair of performances at two hip New York venues: the Hiro Ballroom and the Housing Works Used Bookstore. Given that How We Operate is the most stripped-down and mellow recording Gomez has issued in a number of years, it seems like a fitting way for fans to preview the group’s newest songs. But, for Peacock, it’s an utterly bizarre experience, one of the few chances he’s had a catch a frontal view of his bandmates onstage.

Antsy, he decides to drum along backstage, before joining the acoustic trio onstage for a handful of songs each night. Sometimes it’s difficult to exactly understand how Gomez operates: an English band with an American sound, an indie-rock out fit with a pronounced emphasis on improvisation, a five-headed beast with a single, distinct voice.
So, I wonder, if watching Gomez onstage gave Peacock a chance to reflect on his band’s progress since releasing its first album back in 1998. Or, maybe, he just had a good time drinking and dancing along. Either way, Peacock has always been a big fan of his band.

MG- How We Operate is Gomez’s mellowest album in some time. Did you intentionally try to write a more laid back set of songs?

OP- For this album, it started out with all five of us on acoustic guitars or maybe with one guy on keyboard. That was where that influence comes from. It felt really good to be taking it down to that level. Plus, we kept getting complaints from the neighbors so we had to mellow it out anyway [laughs].

We really wanted to strip it back down, concentrate on some solid, strong, simple songs. We normally have a lot of space in the tracks: samples, loops and little funky things. But, for this one, we really wanted to focus on refining our songs a bit. Pulling off all this stuff live will be a whole lot easier. Of course, we shot ourselves in the foot and had to put strings and stuff on some off the songs [laughs].

MG- Like your live show, Gomez’s writing process seems very collaborative. Do you feel How We Operate emphasizes any band member’s voice in particular?

OP- [Producer Gil Norton’s] voice was really part of this album; he really wanted to bring more vocals to the table and to feature Ben more. It was good. I think he really brought out some of the best stuff in this band. Sometimes Ben shies away from singing his best. Ben can sing really mellow and really sweetly, but at the same time when he rips it up he is at his most natural. Plus, Gil really wanted to get different combinations of people singing together. Sometimes different people would take different parts of the same songs or trade off verses. He really wanted to feature vocals as much as possible, which we hadn’t done for many years.

MG- How We Operate was recorded soon after Gomez completed a rather extensive world tour. How much of the album was written on the road?

OP- There were definitely some songs kicking around, which had been played live, but for the most part we wrote these songs in mid-April of last year, after we stopped touring. That’s when we had time to really concentrate on writing as a band. Everyone kind of writes tunes individually and then we all get around with acoustic guitars and sort of work them out together. “Hamoa Beach” is one song we had played live before we recorded it and we also played some songs live which we recorded for the album, but which didn’t make it in the end.

MG- What is your favorite track on How We Operate?

OP- “Charley Patton Songs” because its one of the most distinct songs on the album. We kind of go into this whole German minimalist thing on that song. We haven’t done a lot of songs like that before and it was also the most mellow track we had done for a while, which I like. It is similar to a Tortoise song, really. It sort of has a minimalist feel, incorporating all these noises and all these sounds.

MG- Gomez’s frontline [guitarists Ian, Ben and Tom] recently wrapped up an acoustic tour. As an audience member, what were your perceptions of that outing?

OP- It’s definitely a bit unusual to walk into a room and see the band that you’re in playing. But, even though it’s obviously not a normal Gomez gig it was kind of cool to see my band from that perspective and they brought me up on stage both nights in New York. We made some videos for How We Operate. While the guitarists were playing onstage, Blackey [bassist Paul Blackburn] and I put one of the videos on a computer and played along to the backing track.. Nobody could see us but—-we were backstage—-but it cool to play anyway. It was kind of silly, but also kind of worked.

MG- Last year Gomez released its first live album, Out West. Can you talk a bit about those performances?

OP- Well, we recorded three nights for that album. It’s funny because we had just come off playing two nights at LA’s House of Blues, which were both amazing shows, some of the best shows we’ve done. And then we got to the Fillmore, which is our home away from home. We absolutely love that place. But during the first night we had some sound problems, acoustic guitars being out of tune and whatnot. So, we couldn’t use anything from that night, so we had to draw from the next two shows.

MG- I also found it interesting that Out West focused primarily on Gomez’s early material

OP- Basically, we did a different set each evening. We try to change up the set as much as we can, keeping the middle section—-which works really well—-pretty much the same each night. We really wanted to play as much as we could. Actually, if we had recorded everything properly it would probably have been a very different album. It probably would have represented a bit more of everything. But, we had to draw from what we could—-there were some songs that just didn’t make it because they weren’t recorded right.

MG- How has your live show evolved in the past two years?

OP- I think we really learned to play more as a band. We rely less on loops and really learned how to play together. It’s great to have all those loops, but there is less room to maneuver, to improvise. So, that’s where we have been heading with most of our new tracks really. [On Out West I think our goal was really to represent where we were as a band at that point last year. We had been on the road for about a year or a year-and-a-half at that point. If we record a live album again, I think our live show will have changed a little bit—-it would be a whole different scene.

MG- Speaking of which, Gomez has definitely become a close cousin to the jamband community in recent years. But, in reality, how much emphasis do you place on improvisation?

OP- It varies from night-to-night, really. I try to improvise as much as I can and play different parts differently every night. I’d say the most improvising comes from me, Ian and Ben. Blackey kind of holds it all together and plays some sort of representation of the songs [laughs]. He is our man. If he folds, we’re fucked, we’re going down [laughs].

When we first played Bonnaroo some people thought we’d translate well to the jamband crowd. We weren’t sure. We’re an English band. We fit into the jamband scene in that we do improvise a little bit in certain songs. Or at least we did at that time. Now, it is sort of going away and our songs are getting shorter and shorter and shorter. But, it’s good that we can dip our toes into that scene. We’re not really in one category, we kind of float between scenes.

MG- Shortly after playing Bonnaroo in 2004, you also performed a Headcount benefit at Red Rocks with Gov’t Mule. How did you find your way onto that bill?

OP- We did a version of “Don’t Let Me Down” by the Beatles with Warren Haynes after Bonnaroo so he asked us to play. He is such a force, just flying around and playing with people [laughs]. I don’t know how he does it [laughs]. Ben, Warren and Ray LaMontagne did a couple of songs together. Ray’s voice and Ben’s voice are in the some kind of ballpark. It was hilarious, they were really egging each other on, like whose voice can get more coarse over the night. It was insanely loud [laughs].

MG- After being on Virgin for much of its career, Gomez released both Out West and How We Operate on ATO. What initially drew you to that label?

OP- It initially came through one of our lawyers. We had been between labels for a while. We didn’t know of ATO beforehand, but had heard of them here or there. But, for the most part, we chose them because they were a small label doing things in a very different way. They kind of operated on a cooler level and seemed to really respect their bands. They’ve let us do what we wanted to do. We’ve always had a lack of control with our record label. In fact, Gomez has really never had any record label influence. So, we just wanted to find a place that would accept us and let us do what we wanted again.

MG- Despite being one of America’s most successful artists, [ATO co-founder] Dave Matthews is still relatively small in England. How familiar were you with his music before signing with ATO?

OP- We actually knew more about My Morning Jacket and Ben Kweller, but we knew Dave Matthews from his albums back in the day.

MG- Of all the festivals Gomez has played, what has been your favorite experience?

OP- We have done festivals over the place, but probably the Fuji Rock festival in Japan. It’s an insanely good festival and all the bands stay in the same hotel. I remember the first time we went there we stayed at this ski resort. We went to the bar and there was Primal Scream, Ian Brown and Super Furry Animals right there. Within five minutes everyone sort of descended on this bar. It was out of control. Also, there was Glastonbury in 1999. We did two shows and headlined the second stage. I think there were about 40,000 people in attendance—-and they were there for us. It was sickening! We walked onstage and were like oh my god, what are we going to do. We can’t call this off!’ It was just incredible

MG- Gomez has the distinction of being an English band with an at times American sound. Who are some of the American artists who first inspired you?

OP- Well, we grew up listening to some of the big guitarists, like John Lee Hooker. You get to be like 16 or 17 years old and your taste just widens. We started to listen to more Hendrix and ore of the Doors. Hendrix was a big key into getting me into some of the stuff. It was quite bizarre, Hendrix live in Seattle but became famous in England.

MG- Can you tell us about your first trip to America?

OP- Fall of ’98 or ’99. We did Bring It On and then kind of disappeared and went straight on tour, which is a good thing. It was really surreal. My impression of the states was nothing like I saw when I landed in LA for the first time. I was like, “this is it?” I’m not sure if I am down with this place. Weirdly enough, our first tour was in support of Eagle-Eye Cherry, which was one of the weirder things [laughs].

Contributing Editor Mike Greenhaus stores his typos at Greenhauseffect.com. His podcast, Cold Turkey, is available every week at www.relix.com/radio

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