Their biggest single, “Get Myself Arrested” was released in 1996, and got a fair amount of attention, but they are not and never have been a single-driven group. Their albums are dense, complex affairs that sound almost schizophrenic as the band shifts vocalists and styles, toying with everything from goofy electronica to raging blues. The first four tracks off their first album Bring It On sound like the work of four different bands. Their latest album, In Our Gun, was no less chameleonic, though the individual songs were less mercurial, favoring instead a more concise approach to song-writing. Or maybe the songs just happened to not be in the same key this time around so they couldn’t be compressed into the ramshackle epics they mastered on Liquid Skin, Ian Ball, one of Gomez’s three lead singers, suggested in an interview last Thursday.
Of their songwriting habits, Tom Gray, singer and multi-instrumentalist with the band said, “Imagine any possible permutation or combination with four or five songwriters and three singers, and we’ve done that.” When Bring It On came out, it was soon branded “American sounding.” “Well, that’s rock and roll isn’t it? I suppose it’s an American invention,” said Gray. “Everyone expected us to sound like an indie band, and there we were with this massive drum kit and a percussionist—what’s that all about? The thing is, I never really liked the Smith’s and they’re sort of the classic English band. So we didn’t sound English,” Ball said.
In concert at Avalon, the third show in a month long tour of the US, the three singers adopted different onstage roles: Ben Ottewell, center stage, was tall and aloof, eye-closed-crooning and occasionally howling into the microphone; Ball was a wiry dynamo, leaning into his mic and moshing at every opportunity. Gray often had little to do until the signature screwball breaks in the songs and consequently acted as a cheerleader for the crowd, exhorting them to greater feats of whooping and bouncing. As he came forward to sing “Sound of Sounds,” the closest thing Gomez has to a make-out song and the only Gray-led song of the night, he joked, “Now you poor bastards have to listen to me sing.” Gray is possibly the least talented of the Gomez vocalists, but only in the same way as George Harrison was the least talented of the Beatles vocalists. The pleasure was all ours. Not since the Beatles has a single band seemed united in such gorgeous harmony.
Gomez’s set drew substantially on their most recent album and despite the complex layers of loops and samples that underpin many of their songs, their performance was seamless. “We used to be a lot more messy,” Gray claimed. “The show has gotten much tighter since our early days.” Both Gray and Ball disavow any knowledge of the mess of buttons and samplers that sit behind drummer Olly Peacock onstage, from whence come the skittish beat of “Detroit Swing 66” and the manic piano riff of “Army Dub.” But perhaps the most impressive element of the show is the band’s ability to reproduce the rich vocal harmonies from their albums live with near-Beach Boys faithfulness and beauty.
This sort of hands-on anarchy is perhaps the closest thing Gomez have to a “signature sound.” They have always self-produced their albums, a fact which Gray says has contributed to their independence of record company whims and standards. Rumor has it that the sessions for Liquid Skin saw them singing through toilet rolls as well as underwater, while the album take of “Get Miles” is the second time they ever attempted the song, after the first take had to be abandoned when a microphone fell off the barrel where it had been resting. For In Our Gun, they mastered much more complex and demanding studio techniques, but still using their trademark DIY technique. “There’s probably much easier, simpler ways to do all the stuff that we did…we just haven’t figured it out yet.” Gomez are in the process of building their own studio, a testament to their intention to stick around for the long haul—though they claim it’s simply cheaper than always having to pay for studio time, particularly if one experiments in the studio as much as they do.
Though they certainly played with the energetic Avalon crowd, Gomez didn’t play to the crowd much. They did play “Get Myself Arrested,” but also produced several oddities and little-heard B-sides. The obtuse “Steve Mckroski” was turned into a heavy-metal headbanger which Ball attacked with obvious glee. Ottewell had his star turn with a melt-in-your-mouth solo take of “Wharf Me” and a stripped-down, “X-ray” version of “We Haven’t Turned Around.” Returning for their second encore of a set that felt only too short, the band ripped into “Whipping Piccadilly,” a rollicking number sporting the line, “We like loving, yeah / And the wine we share,” and a sound that, though unlike anything on their last album, could only be Gomez. The audience pogoed in unison with the bouncing Ball, while Gray grinned at the crowd like a fan who had finally found his way onstage with his favorite band. Which is perhaps not that far from the truth.
One crucial question still dogs Gomez: what sort of music are you anyway? “Random,” says Ball without hesitation. “Or Shuffle. Or maybe Program. Yeah, Random, Shuffle or Program.”