There's going against the grain, and then there's not even knowing that a grain exists. Extraordinarily hyped English quintet Gomez is on tour this summer, despite the fact that they're in the middle of recording their fourth studio album, their last American tour just ended in December, and they're not really popular here.
That's par for the course for the band, though. They practically lucked into success; giving a garage rehearsal tape to their favorite record store's manager, without knowing he had the connections to get them a record deal, which he did. (He's now the group's manager.) Their unique combination of American-style Country Blues, acoustic Psychedelic Rock ramblings, and three intertwined vocalists made them the darlings of England, and their first record, Bring It On, won the British equivalent of a Best Album Grammy. You might know them for their rendition of The Beatles' "Getting Better," which they recorded for a Philips flat-screen TV ad.
Five years since that debut, here they are, loaded into a bus, driving through the American heartland instead of recording. Just before heading out, singer/guitarist Ian Ball, standing outside the band's self-built studio in their hometown of Southport, England, takes a break from rehearsing with his bandmates -- Ben Ottewell (vocals/guitars), Paul "Blackie" Blackburn (bass), Olly Peacock (drums) and Tom Gray (guitar/vocals) -- to explain that they have to relearn their songs because they haven't played most of them since at least December.
"There's loads of places we didn't get to the last time we were over there," he says. "Once we're out there we think it won't seem weird. And we'll get to play a lot of new stuff, which will be good. American audiences seem different than the rest of the world -- they don't need a reason for a tour. I don't think people give a shit; they just want to go out and hear the music. If you're into a band, you're into seeing them whenever."
There are a lot of reasons to be into Gomez's live show (one of the perks of being a Rock crit: I saw them sound check at San Francisco's Fillmore where they jammed, literally, for nearly an hour on one song. Yes, they do smoke some weed). Bluesy ballads, psychedelic jams and three different lead singers don't keep them from their singular focus. Rooted in classic rockisms, Gomez's songs take off in unexpected directions -- extending simple phrases into quick minute-long jams, placing drum machine and Dub-colored bridges in the middle of straightforward songs -- for a richer sonic texture.
But the secret weapon is Ottewell's voice. He doesn't sing the majority of the songs, but when he does, it's stellar. Somewhere between Joe Cocker, Otis Redding and liquid butter, it gives the band's sound depth and emotion without drawing too much attention to itself. They subtly blend hippie Folk, Blues and post-modern, cut-and-paste methods with Jam Rock, all without forgetting to emphasize that it's all about songs.
Ah, yes, the songs. In the time since the band's third album, In Our Gun, released just over a year ago, the songs have had to wait. The pragmatic Gomez got the hammers and nails out to build their own recording studio, which they needed to cut down recording costs, given their tendency to record and record and record.
"We don't have to have the next record finished until October, and we've recorded somewhere in the region of 30 tracks in the last month or so. The only question is what happens between now and October," Ball says. "I think we're going to have 50 tracks before we get to choosing what's on the album. We'll just keep going because you never know what's going to happen. It's going very quickly, which is always a good sign."
The benefit of taking a break to tour in the midst of recording is that, for the first time, they will be able to road-test songs before committing them to disc. It should improve the quality of the band's next record; their previous work has suffered by comparison to their live shows.
"We've always recorded tunes before we've played them live," Ball says. "We're going to try and get 10 or 12 (of the new songs) up and running, and play five or six of them every night to see what people think. We're thinking of putting a clap-o-meter up, you know what I mean? And then we'll see what people think.
"We're going to do the album by democracy ... American democracy. We'll do it democratically, then cheat at the end."
Ball laughs when he says this, but you get the feeling that even if the band asked its fans to pick songs, they'd still find a way to do the album their own way.
GOMEZ performs at Pepsi Jammin' On Main on Friday at 8:15 p.m. on the Kroger Stage (at Main Street and Central Parkway).