Blending acoustic and electric guitars, blues and beats, natural percussion, and crisp, cryptic songs, Gomez have spent the past few years establishing themselves as a critics’ dream. Until this year, the group’s entire US output on Virgin consisted of two full-length CDs, 1998’s Bring It On and 1999’s Liquid Skin, as well as the odds-and-sods 2000 collection Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline. Civilians have taken to Gomez too, especially in their native England, where Bring It On stunned the musical establishment by winning the 1998 Mercury Prize, a kind of pop Pulitzers.
Long-time friends from Southport, a dowdy beach town 20 miles north of Liverpool and 40 years after the Beatles, Gomez went on tour for so long that they had to take a break before their recording career blossomed earlier this year with the release of In Our Gun (Virgin). "We’d been on the road for three and a half years," Tom Gray explains in a barren interrogation room in Virgin’s loft-like New York office. "You develop a way of not talking to each other, because you’re having the identical experience. You’d be on a bus, and you’d say, ‘That’s a bird,’ and everyone goes, ‘Yes, that’s a bird.’ Everyone plays the same gig, and all you have to say is, ‘Yes, that was a gig.’ "
In Our Gun, which may have a slightly punchier electronic edge than their previous discs, otherwise shares its predecessors’ multitude of virtues. There’s the organic vitality of R.E.M. in their four-guys-in-van stage. There’s the quirky pop originality of XTC. And there’s a comfort with oneself and with history that exudes the visionary joy of a bluesy jam band like, say, the Allman Brothers.
That’s not all. On "Sound of Sounds," a new song that Gray calls "a love song to music itself," there’s enough harmony to evoke the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. But if homage recurs in Gomez’s music, the tips of the hat seem to come without premeditation. Songs look to have been constructed from the ground up; you sense the band start with a seed, not knowing whether it will grow into a rose or a tomato. "A lot of time is spent deconstructing and reconstructing and seeing where things fly," Gray acknowledges, "until at some point we say, ‘Well, that sounds finished.’ The music is very considered, but it can take you wherever it likes."
It would be appropriate at this point to list the members and their particular roles, but Gray is only half-kidding when he says, "We’re invisible, mystery men." Names, song credits, and who plays what don’t appear on Gomez recordings. One does glean that Gray plays guitar and keyboards, Paul Blackburn (a/k/a "Blacky") bass and guitar, Ian Ball guitar and harmonica, Ben Ottewell guitar, and Olly Peacock drums. They all pretty much sing. There are no lyrics or photos of members of the band hidden in the tiny CD jewel boxes, but that’s not to say they’re not available. Aside from their own colorful and engaging Web site (www.gomez.uk.com), there’s an excellent fan site (www.step-inside.com) that posts the words to all the songs from each album.
And those enigmatic lyrics, along with the band’s musical wit, recall the pre–jazz pop of Steely Dan, though they’re less cynical than skeptical, even hopeful. "Sometimes the words are non-specific, even cryptic," Gray grants. "On this album, the songs seem to be more about something, which wasn’t necessarily true in the past." Citing the new "1000 Times," he goes on, "It came to me when I was looking at a newspaper, on the front page there was a picture of Posh Spice and [her husband, English soccer star] David Beckham, they’re like a Royal Family in England, seriously, and on the fourth page, it was like, ‘50 killed in . . . ,’ and I said, what kind of universe am I living in here? The last thing people need is another band pushing their bullshit on people."
On their way to the Mercury Prize, the band got their big break playing the Glastonbury Festival in 1998, one of the many outdoor pop events that help compensate for England’s months of meteorological gloom. Their debut CD had just come out and Gomez were already on the bill, though hardly a headliner, when another spot on a second stage later in the day became available. "We played the main stage at like one o’clock in the afternoon, and then in this small tent later on, and it made us a lot of friends."
And though Bring It On never made the Top 10 in the hype-heavy Brit charts, it did stay around for months. Word of mouth, friend to friend, Gomez seem comfortable taking over the world, or not, one listener at a time. "We don’t understand the cult of personality, and like most people, we feel vaguely patronized by it," Gray says. "People’s ambitions are devoted to their careers these days rather than their music, and it’s a shame. What we are is musically very ambitious, and I’m very happy, because it’s what we set out to do, and it seems to be getting people’s attention."