An interview with Ben Ottewell and Olly Peacock
by Alexander Laurence
I first saw Gomez in New York City at the CMJ convention four years ago. They had just won the Mercury Prize and were curiously thrown into the spotlight. Gomez seemed like a humble band that had an affinity for American-styled rock. When I heard their song "Tijuana Lady," I thought that they were from New Mexico. It was hard to believe that vocalist/guitarist/keyboardist Tom Gray, vocalist/guitarist Ian Ball, vocalist/ guitarist Ben Ottewell, bassist Paul Blackburn and drummer Olly Peacock got their start in Liverpool, England. Now they have been together six years and a well established band. Gomez is a wild mix of American blues, funk, electronic music, and psychedelic rock.
Gomez' debut release, Bring It On (1998), revealed the influence of artists like Tim Buckley and Tom Waits. The band's fame rose steeply due to the publicity generated by Ben Ottewell singing the Beatles' "Getting Better" for a TV commercial. The release of two more critically acclaimed albums, Liquid Skin (1999) and Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline in (2000) followed. After six American tours, and six years of being together, they have gained a massive American audience. Their recent tour culminated in two sold out shows at The Fillmore and two shows in Hollywood at The House of Blues. Their new self-produced album In Our Gun (2002) should collect more fans in the meantime for Gomez on their next tour. I spoke to Ben Ottewell and Olly Peacock in the lobby of the Fillmore as we looked at posters of bands who had played at the venue over the years ranging from The Grateful Dead to Erasure.
AL: Gomez isn't gimmicky. The music is the most important thing?
Ben: Yeah. The most important thing is being a musician. We don't have much else to focus on.
AL: When did you work on In Our Gun?
Olly: We finished this one at the end of 2001. Last year.
AL: Did you work more individually on this record this time?
Ben: Yeah. We did that this time. This record wasn't played live at all at the time. We took a six month break. It was interesting that because obviously playing it live is going to affect the way it sounds. Liquid Skin was played live all the time before we recorded it. In Our Gun was done more like Bring It On. Some of the original recordings were stuff we had done on machines at home. It was slightly better machines this time. We went into a big manor house for a month or so to finish it up at this place called Real World.
AL: Is location important? Like doing stuff at Abbey Road?
Ben: Yeah, definitely. It's cool to say that you recorded at Abbey Road but I think that Real World is better.
Olly: Abbey Road costs a fortune. We recorded Liquid Skin there.
AL: The early albums seem like a cohesive statement. In Our Gun seems more like an eclectic mix of songs.
Olly: The early albums are more like a pairing in a way. The latest one has more toys and sounds. It is the result of experiments. There is more time between this one and the others. By the time the first one was released, we already had quite a lot of songs that could have either gone on that one or the next one. We had written quite a lot of songs at that time. There is a feel on the first two albums that is the same feeling. By the time we got to Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline, we had cleared the decks. All the songs we had done in the first four years had found a home. Since then it's all been up to date.
AL: In Our Gun is a real departure then?
Ben: They are all new songs. We took a break because we had burned out touring. We had been on tour for three and a half years by the time we stopped. We have toured the States five or six times. We have done Europe the most. Then we have done quite a lot of stuff in Australia. That's a big place to go around. There's only about five major cities there. Then there's a lot of desert where no one lives.
AL: Who does the songwriting in Gomez? You have different lead singers and different songs. It almost sounds like a different band from song to song.
Olly: That is the point of the band: that it is mixed up and you could expect anything. Songs can come from anything. It can be generated from a sample, or a bass lead, or someone can have a song, or a half-written song, and bring it to everyone else. Everyone plays around with that and things change. It's a messy process.
AL: Did you get a lot of new gear to play around with on this record?
Ben: We did get a bunch of new gear. We have always been into that but we haven't had time to mess around with it before.
Olly: It just gave us more opportunity to create material to play something on top of. We had more time to practice and get newer sounds out of machines. People just turn on the machine and get this basic generic sound and play straight from that.
AL: Are you against conventional songwriting? The song "In Our Gun" stops, and then there's a bass riff, and the song gets really fast and goes somewhere else totally unexpected.
Olly: It's usually for our own amusement. We like it if it sounds good.
Ben: We get bored very easily. That's usually just a result of someone having a new good part. The song is going into a certain direction, then we come up with something else, and we say put that in there, and see if it works. We try it out. That's what it's like being in a group and having ideas coming at you all the time. We can try it out and see if it works. If it doesn't work, you can throw it away straight away.
AL: Are you still capable of being influenced?
Ben: Now we are listening to a lot of Rockabilly before the shows. It's cool. Eddie Cochran and Carl Perkins are really great. They have probably played here before at The Fillmore. Everyone has played here including Erasure. Oh dear.
AL: Did you grow up being a fan of music?
Ben: Yeah. We grew up in the CD age. When you got to your music buying potential, and you had money, basically that's when CDs came out. That was amazing. That's why most of the decent bands around today sound like they do. There's a whole heap of bands out at the moment who mix things up. A lot of it has to do with the availability of music these days. When you go into a store today there's almost one hundred years of recorded music available to you today. There are records from the 1920 to go delve into and listen to. That probably defines us more than anything else. I wasn't one of those guys who goes into every record store and every record fare there is. I didn't have the time. When I was younger, and I got into music, that was when CDs came out, and that made it easier to discover things.
AL: But some bands seem stuck with their influences. There are bands today who pretend like they never heard of Aphex Twin.
Olly: Yeah, sure. We absorb everything really, whether it's cool old stuff or the new Primal Scream record. It's all music. It's all going to get into you somewhere, not to the point that you are going to listen to Aphex Twin then go push buttons.
Ben: It's just music not a lifestyle choice.
AL: What was it like winning The Mercury Prize over some established groups like Pulp and Massive Attack?
Olly: That was all amazing and good. It was a bit bewildering. We were just about a year old as a proper touring band. It was an alien experience. We had to learn very fast. We were like chucked into the pool and had to learn how to swim.
AL: Have you played with any other bands or musicians that you liked recently?
Ben: Joseph Arthurs is great. We have played with him a lot.
Olly: Ian Brown is cool. We played with Cornelius a few months ago in Japan. It's a proper show with massive visuals. They are all timed and syncopated. It was awesome.
AL: Did you grow up listening to a lot of Heavy Metal?
Olly: Loads of it. When you twelve years old, you were either into indie Manchester stuff like Inspiral Carpets, or you were into Metal bands from LA or the Bay Area.
Ben: Well, I used to listen to Slayer. Mostly stuff from the Bay Area. We still like to play fast and loud.
AL: How do you choose who sings lead vocals on a song? Am I to suppose to think that whoever wrote the lyrics is the one who is singing the song?
Ben: Depends on the song. Sometimes whoever wrote the lyrics sings it. Mainly that's how it works, but sometimes one person writes the lyrics, one person writes the melody, and one person sings it. We use the voices like we use anything else, like guitar effects, just to get a different sound.
AL: Have you produced all your records?
Olly: We started out on a four-track. We did it at our parent's houses and garages. When we got signed we stipulated that we wanted to carry on in that way. They were happy for us to do that, and that process continued. We are happy producing ourselves and we are getting better at doing it.
AL: Do you use drum machines?
Ben: We use lots of drum machines live. Olly played most of the samples into the drum machines. There are samples and loops. There are various things running onstage all the time. We play on top of that, behind, in between.
AL: How has this tour been?
Olly: Really good. It's hard what to think after coming back after so much time off. One thing we knew was that we were getting better musically. People in the States haven't seen us in years, and in that time we knew that we had improved. More people have showed up to gigs this time and it's been great. It's a big place. It takes a while for word to go around.
AL: Some bands have to tour five or six times before people will have heard of them in America. Many bands put out a few records and do a few small tours and never come back. Only then, when they have gone people start to get interested.
Ben: You have to keep going. Bands in England think that they can do what they did in England over here quite quickly. In England, they have a solid music press. There is a weekly publication for the whole of the country. It's a little easier to get some recognition. But over here the country is so big.
AL: Many kids who are younger than eighteen and live in the suburbs don't go to shows because their parents won't let them go.
Olly: Most shows in England are flexible for ages generally speaking. Many kids come down.
AL: What qualities do you love about music?
Ben: Primarily because music is a means of escape. Not in a bad way, like I would want to get away from everything, but entering another reality. That applies mostly to playing music live. In the studio it's more like a craft thing where it's a challenge. It's like a puzzle a lot of time. But live you can wake up after a song and don't know where you have been. It's a trip.
Olly: It might make you feel really good as well. You might feel stinky or shitty in the morning, then you put on some Slayer and then it gets you going.
AL: Are you very political?
Ben: We are not like a political collective, but our eyes are open.
Olly: The biggest problem now is with the Palestine and Israel. Americans pump in three billion dollars of aid every year to Israel. That is where the Arab world has grievances with the Western World. Things should start right there.
AL: What is Gomez going to do for the rest of the year?
Ben: Go back home. We have some dates in England. Possibly we are going to come back to the States early next year. We don't know yet. But as soon as we can, we are going to do another American tour.
AL: When will you record again?
Olly: We have a whole new studio to rehearse and record in. That is being built at the moment. It should be done in a few weeks. So we will begin recording bits whenever we can.
AL: What should people expect when they come and see the live show?
Ben: Chaos. And turmoil.