Gomez recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of their first gig, a show in Leeds, England, that saw them enter without a name and leave with the moniker that has followed them ever since. Throughout the last decade, the band – Tom Gray, Ben Ottewell, Ian Ball, Paul Blackburn and Olly Peacock – has put out eight albums, toured relentlessly and won England's coveted Mercury Music Prize.
But what finally helped them move from a band with a fervent fan base to one with a little more popular acclaim? "Grey's Anatomy." After the song, "How We Operate," appeared on the show earlier this year, sales of their most-recent release of the same name soared.
I sat down with Tom Gray – the second time I've talked to him – to discuss their failed relationship with Virgin Records, how being in a band got him ready for marriage and his favorite places to eat and drink in Brighton.
Read the Q&A below or just stream the interview, which is pretty damn funny at points.
SomethingGlorious: It's hot as hell out here.
Tom Gray: It's stinking hot, innit?
SG: Looking through your website, I noticed that you do a lot of blog diary postings. One was about your rules – don't shit on the bus, don't take life too seriously … is there one rule that you live by?
TG: Um, well, that's a funny situation. I was asked to write that for a magazine … one of the many in the UK. It was a section called Rock Rules and you had to write your life rules. It's a bit of a difficult thing to do. When I was writing it, I thought that in this industry you have to understand it.
SG: What's the key point of understanding it?
TG: To understand other people's interests.
SG: You're talking from the business side.
TG: Yeah, but people are kind of surprised when they discover things like that.
SG: Well you seem to have learned how to deal with all of that and to manipulate the system in a way…
TG: [laughs] Yeah, a little bit.
SG: So when your relationship with Virgin ended – and I'm putting that nicely – was it more of a mutual thing?
TG: Yeah, we asked them to let us go. It's funny when people say oh Virgin dropped you … insomuch as we asked them to let us go. We clawed their fingers away from us. We were on a little label called Hut Recordings. It had Verve, Placebo, Embrace, Neneh Cherry. It had loads of interesting things. David Gray was on there. It just existed under the Branson version of Virgin. Under the EMI version, they got shut down. But they put out 10 million albums. It's not bad for a small label. They got shut down two weeks we were going to put out our fourth record, Split the Difference. You've worked for six months for the new record … worked to the bone … getting ready to put it out and they shut down the label. And it's everyone who worked on your record.
SG: So what did you do?
TG: Then we were made into a Virgin band. And we worked with people we didn't know and didn't give a fuck about us. After about two months we were like "you know, let's not wait until you have an option on this contract. We don't want to work with you and you don't want to work with us. Let's work this record until the bitter end and then let's move on." It was over two months before the record even came out.
SG: Do you feel, going back to the idea of pleasing other people do you
think the relationship with ATO Records now, do you have the freedom
and creative ability to do what you want, do you have the support from
TG: Yes, absolutely. What's complicated is when you're in a band you're not just a solo artist. You're constantly having to think of ways to compromise and create in a consensual situation. I don't like to think of it in the terms of freedom, but in space. They give you your space in order to do the thing you need to do.
SG: From an artist perspective, that must be refreshing. There's no
pressure. One of the things I read was you were saying with the major
labels your creativity is based on a fiscal year.
TG: Yeah, it blows me away. One of the reasons Hut got shut down was because Coldplay delayed their record. It didn't go into that fiscal year so EMI was forced to make cuts. It shouldn't be Coldplay's responsibility. If you start making a record, finish the record and then sell the record.
SG: Instead of saying you have three months to make it … go.
TG: And maybe we will sell it or we won't. Maybe we will back it or we won't, which they're contractually obliged to do but they don't. They'll spend $10,000 on you and then $3 million on Janet Jackson's makeup. And it's like, "great, this is so fucking stupid." You have businesses that are worried about market share and not actually about making money. There has to be a natural down point on that. That's what's happening to major labels.
SG: In terms of market share. I feel like How We Operate is the most
successful and commercially viable. Next to Bring it On it probably
is the best album you've put out. Sonically, it's not that different
from everything else you've done. Why all of a sudden do you think all
of a sudden .. what caught on.
TG: We just cleared up the sound a little bit. We didn't do our usual lo-fi rumblings. We put that to bed a little ways so the people on the radio hear clarity and drums. They want to hear drums and bass – very clear and precise. They don't want to hear 20 shakers and some filthy loop. We know that but they don't know that.
SG: So you think it's the clarity.
TG: I think it was Gil [Norton] going "I know how to make a Gomez song sound like a radio song but still keep it as a Gomez song."
SG: Tchad Blake did the last one and I don't want to have you pick
sides, but do you think the way Gil worked with you on this record was
more ideal or beneficial?
TG: Of course it was more beneficial, but it would be wrong to say that [Tchad] produced the last record. He's not credited with producing the last record. It says "made by Gomez and Tchad Blake." He was more a partner in crime. He wasn't setting the agenda. If Tchad was producing the record, that would be a different story. Seventy percent of those recordings, we did ourselves in our shit hole studio in Brighton. Most of those were done before they went anywhere near Tchad.
SG: So it's all your fault?
TG: Basically yeah. Everything is our fault. We chose Gil for this record because we felt it was something we needed to do. We were starting a new relationship with a new label and we wanted to give them all the artillery that we possibly could to get off on the best foot possible. We're perfectly capable of making a pop album, but we kind of don't want to.
SG: You shouldn't have to. It's not what you're all about.
TG: Precisely. It's a confusing situation. It's like "You guys could write a great pop album if you want to?" Sure, but not today [laughs]. It's been the constant problem with Gomez and this may sound arrogant. There's a great burden in potential. Everyone can see it. It's like "these boys can all write songs and they can sing and it's all there, but …" We just stay at our own pace. A few years ago, Peter [Buck] from R.E.M. said to me, "Don't make the album they want yet."
SG: Right because what comes after?
TG: Right, what comes after? We're an unusual band in so much as we've had a genuine career. I think our eighth album release is coming out, with our As and Bs record coming out. That's a symbol of how good I kept relationships with Virgin. The day after I went back to them and said don't sit on our catalog but don't release a "best of" either. I want you to release a B-sides album because none of them have been released in America. This new album, Five Men in a Hut has 24 unreleased tracks on it. It comes out in October. That's been fun putting that together. It's been my baby for a few weeks. It's completely fucking nuts.
SG: It's like having an album of basically all new material.
TG: There's some great stuff on there too, stuff that should've been on albums but we were too stupid to see it at the time … and some awful shit that should've never have been on albums, for a good reason! It amazes me that we're still going…
SG: Yeah, you're about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of your first gig.
TG: But I'm not 30 yet. I'm 29.
SG: Isn't that amazing though? You started when you were 19 and you
guys have known each other since you were kids. At this point, do you
think there's anything that can do anything to the friendships?
TG: It's a brotherhood, it's not friendships. It goes beyond that. It's a family – love, hate – you live with each other all the time. It's the real world. But it still manages to work.
SG: It's a dysfunctional family that works
TG: Yeah, like all families! That's exactly it.
SG: Is there anything you want to get off your chest about anyone?
TG: No, not at all. That's not the deal. You know, life's a compromise and being in a band is definitely a compromise. We're not one guy with a bunch of stooges behind him.
SG: Yeah, you're Gomez.
TG: We're Gomez. Everybody's in the band, creating. It's for real. And hitting the right balance all the time is impossible. But most of the time is alright.
SG: Since you guys have this groundwork of brotherhood and living with
other people and traveling that it prepared you for marriage and
adulthood in that way? Are you all married?
TG: No, two of us aren't, three of us are and I only got married like a month ago. I think part of the reason it's worked is we're all pretty grounded people in the first place. We're unusual as a band because none of us had starry eyes. None of us wanted to be famous. We just wanted to make music for ourselves and have a bit of fun. We were doing other stuff. And then someone offered us a record contract and we were like, "We can go on this big adventure together or we can go on carrying on in the life we were in anyway." And we were like, "Fuck it, let's go on a big adventure."
SG: And you're still on it.
TG: We're still on it.
SG: did you ever think you were going to make it to 10 years?
TG: We didn't think we were going to sell 10,000 records.
SG: And how many have you sold over the career?
TG: Somewhere between one and a half and two million records. Something like that.
SG: You and I talked a couple of years ago and we talked about how you
were somewhat dissatisfied after winning the Mercury Prize and not
having attained more success financially. You have a great fan base and
you're a huge touring band. Do you still feel that dissatisfaction or
are you more content?
TG: I feel good. I do think, um, a little more financial security would be fantastic. I was probably dissatisfied but that wasn't because I was disappointed about any expectations I had. I certainly don't have any expectations in that regard. But yes, I would be happier if I had more money. Sometimes you just think fuck it, for this amount of traveling and this amount of work … and just about covering the mortgage is kind of a strange scene. You think sometimes I'll just stay in bed and get a job talking on the phone all day.
SG: Yeah, but after living the life of a rock star, can you see yourself sitting in a cubicle in an office park?
TG: I remember we went to this music distribution company and the guy there goes – and it was this miserable room with all these people in these little cubicles – and he was like, totally serious "Look at them all in their little cubicles." We broke out laughing and he had no sense of humor and didn't realize how patronizing it was.
SG: Like Ricky Gervais in "The Office."
TG: It was so embarrassing. It was like "somebody stop this man." It was just like Ricky Gervais. I can imagine doing something else, but I would never be in a cubicle.
SG: Do you ever think what else you'd want to do?
TG: I do get involved in other things. I did a children's puppet show recently, did all the music for that. IT was at the Edinburgh festival – it was a roaring success. I think I'd be a good music manager but I don't think I could be bothered to hang out with rock musicians anymore.
SG: I was going to ask you who's new that you'd want to smack around,
but I decided we don't need to go there. We'd have the NME writing a
big scandal story. But a lot of times the critics have a hard time
putting you in a category. Do you think about that when you craft your
TG: That was the point of Gomez – it was the raison d'être of Gomez.
SG: Say that again, it sounded really cool.
TG: The raison d'être of Gomez [laughs]. We started doing this because of conversations we had – I remember talking to Ian years ago before we started this. There was a point in the music, probably in the late '60/early '70s when rock became experimental. And those records aren't really rock records or blues records. They were just musical and interesting and they're pop and they're all of these things. It's kind of like a high water mark for where music can get to. And we've gone through all this other stuff as well, and we were raised on dance music. We're quite capably of forming a band that brings of this together – so why don't we just do it.
SG: So you never wanted to be a rock band or a blues band. I was
surprised to read that Charles Mingus and Nina Simone are influences of
yours. Some of the rock bands, like the Dead, makes a lot of sense. And
you say that and it does make sense.
TG: With Nina it's just a melodic thing. She fucking knew how to write a song. It's not a vibe thing and a space thing you get from Coltrane. But you try to put that sense of space and movement into the music, but not in a noodling jazzy way. It's a headspace, that's all. Everything's an influence, that's the thing. I always say "how can you stop being influenced by anything you hear?" If you turned off … I'd rather be somebody who's listening to everything and hating a lot of it than someone who's listening to their little corner of things so they can be apathetic and like those things.
SG: That just brings the balance. Going back to How We Operate,
there's definitely that mix in there as well. Even lyrically, you have
a song like "See the World," where you want to hug people and sit under
the sun and dance in the fields – it's this beautiful song. Then you
have songs, lyrically at least, like "GirShapedLoveDrug" or "Hamoa
Beach," where it talks about insecurities or awful wicked people. But
you present it in this beautiful sonic package.
TG: I think we try to make the music as charming as we can. There's too much of a dumbing down generally and we know. We go into radio stations and they're like, "so you've got three singers. That's really unusual." And you go, "well, there was the Beatles and the Eagles and the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills & Nash" and you keep going until they're bored. People think now you have to look like a band – one guy and three guys behind him.
SG: Don't you think because you have such a distinct sound? You've got
Ben [Ottewell] who's got one of the most incredible, distinctive voices
in music. You hear him and then you hear you and you're like "wait,
what's going on?"
TG: The Band is a good reference point for Gomez. You could tell who was singing what song. It's not like a Dennis or Brian kind of vibe. [laughs].
SG: My blog is more lifestyle …
TG: I've seen your blog it's cool.
SG: Thanks, well, I'm going to London in the first week of October. What are
things you would recommend to
people visiting London that aren't the
mainstream touristy things? Any restaurants or cafés …
TG: I live in Brighton, on the beach. Well, if you come to Brighton … I'd go have a Bloody Mary at the Blanch House. The cocktails are great there. There's a very nice restaurant called Paston Place. Going to Hove on the high street, there's a Thai joint called Aumthong – go the little one. Some of the best Thai food. My favorite pub is called the Lion and Lobster. I'm kind of done partying [at clubs].
SG: Well, thank you for the time. I'm glad we got to sit in this shady area.
TG: It feels like it's cooled down a bit.
SG: I'm still feeling pretty moist. Poor guy, you're in your jeans and your rock and roll outfit.
TG: Rockin it out, ya know. We gotta do it properly. The problem was we were taking pictures and shit. Otherwise I'd be in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts and shit.
SG: On stage? That's so not rock and roll.
TG: [Laughs] It's so not rock and roll.
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