Keep on Truckin'

Times may be tough for Gomez, but three nights at the Fillmore proves you can't keep a good British band down

"Sadly, eight years of hard work and critical acclaim but little return in terms of commercial success inevitably takes its toll, and a group decision was made to finally lay the band to rest ...."

That was the grim message posted on the Web site of the Beta Band a few months ago, announcing that once 2004 expired, so would the quirky U.K. quartet. But such a death knell could just as easily have been sounded by a great number of once-hyped British acts that tried and failed to make a lasting impression on America, then found themselves shunned at home as well, thanks largely to the notorious build-'em-up, tear-'em-down agenda of the British music press.

"It's happened to a fair handful of English bands that are really great but never got to that next stage," says Ian Ball, one of three singer/guitarists for the English five-piece Gomez. "And there's bands still going, like Super Furry Animals and Supergrass, that I think are all good enough to be reasonably successful in America in a way that they perhaps aren't at the moment, and we are definitely in that camp."

Gomez: All dressed up with three nights of shows.
Kevin Westenberg
Gomez: All dressed up with three nights of shows.

Indeed, you're not likely to hear Gomez's rollicking, psychedelia-laced blues-pop blasting triumphantly from your car radio -- programmers these days seem to prefer that their Brit acts be mushy, midtempo balladeers instead. If Ball or any of his bandmates -- singer/guitarists Ben Ottewell and Tom Gray, bassist Paul Blackburn, and drummer Olly Peacock -- were sitting on the barstool next to you getting plastered, you'd probably have no clue thanks to a complete lack of television exposure (the closest they've come to that was having their exuberant cover of the Beatles' "Getting Better" soundtrack those Philips flat-screen TV ads a few years back). And if you blinked, you might have missed Virgin Records' efforts to promote the group's fourth studio album, Split the Difference, which arrived to terrific reviews and consumer indifference last spring (the quintet has since split from the label).

And yet, despite all the odds being stacked firmly against this band, whenever the Gomez bus rolls into practically any city in the United States, the rooms are invariably jammed to the rafters. Currently on a West Coast jaunt, the group is set to play to a packed Fillmore for three nights straight this week, a feat most current buzz bands would have a tough time pulling off. Gomez is certainly an anomaly among its British brethren: willing to travel the back roads of the U.S. for months on end -- like an old bluesman determined to walk from town to town to get his music heard -- then take a short break, then do it all over again, making just enough scratch to keep the cast and crew chugging along.

"We have become this crazy, constantly-on-the-road manly beast, this group of old grizzled touring bastards," Ball laughs. "We've had some pretty weird gigs in weird places, y'know: We've played Fargo in the absolute dead of winter and remote parts of Idaho where no other bands ever go, much less these weird English guys. But it's been, like, well, our record company deserted us because the radio wouldn't play any songs, so the only way anyone is gonna know about us is if we go to their towns and tell them ourselves, so that's what we've ended up doing."

All the effort is reaping reputation dividends for Gomez. It's that word-of-mouth about the band's transcendent performances -- joyfully intense, maniacally energetic affairs that combine epic, spacey groove-jams with shorter bursts of muscular guitar stompage -- that brings out the spirited crowds and gives Gomez a reason to carry on the good fight. "It's become really surreal in the sense that, like, wow, we have a following!" says Ball. "Where did these people come from? There's a good 100, 200 people that travel all over the place and come to every single show. We can pretty much count on that core of people always being there no matter where we play, and with the local crowd on top of that, the places usually fill up pretty quick. It's pretty mind-boggling."

It's especially ironic considering that when the band dropped its brilliant, Mercury Prize-winning 1998 debut album, Bring It On, it hadn't played so much as one live show. That early acclaim, bolstered by scads of Next Big Thing articles in glossy music mags (plus that ubiquitous Philips TV campaign), helped buoy the band through the live-show learning curve and build anticipation for the follow-up, 1999's slightly more uneven Liquid Skin.

By the end of 2000, however, the momentum had begun to slow. The band was on a six-month hiatus to recharge its batteries, and the British press was already beginning to hammer away. 2002's In Our Gun, helmed by Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, brought dubby electronic elements to the Gomez table; hailed as genius by some and experimental rubbish by others (the London papers and magazines were particularly vicious), the album didn't blow away the U.S. charts. It was at that point the musicians realized that Britain was a fairly lost cause, and that they'd have to put all their eggs in the touring basket to maintain their small but loyal American fan base.

Predictably, that's also when the troubles with Virgin really began -- a tale that countless bands over the last half-decade will find painfully recognizable. The label halved its global workforce around the time of In Our Gun's release, and among those cut were virtually all of Gomez's early supporters. Last spring, the situation came to a head when Virgin shuttered its U.K. subsidiary label Hut -- to which Gomez had been signed from day one -- the week that Split the Difference (a return to the more traditional, rootsy vibe of Bring It On) was released, and brought the band into the fold of the mother ship. Neither side knew the other even remotely, and the relationship quickly dissolved.

"We were like the awkward child of a broken marriage, you know?" Ball recalls with a laugh. "It was like, 'Oh God, you want him? Nah, I don't want him, you want him?' So we were like, 'Ahhh fuck it, just let us go.' And they did, it was that simple. They faxed a letter to our manager saying, 'If you sign here, it terminates your contract.' Bang. Full stop. No fucking 'Thanks for selling 2 million records, nice working with you,' it was just like, 'OK, that's that.'"

"I mean, a lot of the people who worked our stuff in the States were wonderful people," he continues, "but they actually had to do it on their own time and from their own heart because they weren't allowed to do it during office hours, they were supposed to be working on fucking Lenny Kravitz. So I'm not slagging off the individuals, just the concept of the corporation and how they treat people. Business is very liquid, and when the numbers don't add up, whoever owns the company starts wielding a wild ax."

Still, explains Ball, the members of Gomez were hardly sad about leaving -- after all, they didn't receive a dime in tour support from the label during the last four years of their tenure. Chuckling that his band is far too broke to front the expenses needed to start up its own venture, Ball says that Gomez is negotiating another record deal with a smaller label that the band trusts, and once that's in place the group will set about working on the next album. The singer/guitarist isn't too worried about that at the moment, though -- the band is preoccupied with digging through its catalog to meet the challenge of crafting different set lists for each of the three nights at the Fillmore; he promises there'll be acoustic tunes and material broken down to resemble a radio session, in addition to Gomez's renowned, expansive jams.

But in the backs of their minds, Ball and his optimistic compadres know that holding things together and pushing forward with the heavy-duty touring, as exhausting a road as it can be to travel, keeps the door slightly ajar for the possibility of long-term success.

"I was speaking to Jeff [Tweedy] from Wilco about that at some length when I met him a couple months ago," says Ball. "He's been on the road for fuck knows how long, for, like, 20 years if you go back to when Uncle Tupelo started, and then all this time later it finally all falls into place. That's scary that it can take so long, but it's great that it even happens at all. Wilco's the bright shining beacon to all bands that have been going and going and going and kinda treading water, and all of a sudden bingo, a stroke of magic occurs. It gives a band like us a little bit of hope."

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