One night back in 1996, a nameless garage band played its first-ever gig at a tiny social club in Leeds, England. The group of young Brits were worried one of their friends wouldn’t be able to find the place, which was tucked away in a residential area, so they posted a sign with his name—Jason Gomez—above the door. Their friend and eventual moniker inspiration found them that night, but nearly eight years and five-and-a-half albums later, it seems the members of Gomez are still trying to find themselves.
Synth loops and quirky dissonance have always played major roles in the band’s organically psychedelic lexicon—dating back to 1998, when it parlayed Bring it On (referred to by one member as a “30th-generation demo tape”) into the Grammy-equivalent Mercury Music Prize, edging out established acts like The Verve and Massive Attack. Yet with its latest release, Split the Difference, the band is trying to shake off the “experimental” tag it reluctantly picked up somewhere between its brilliant sophomore effort, Liquid Skin, and 2002’s awkward In Our Gun. With the latter, Gomez pushed to blend disparate sounds, a long-winded approach that made it difficult to put the record to bed and disappointed many fans and critics. Playing the album’s songs live convinced Tom Gray and the rest of the band that the trip-hip crown was best worn by the likes of the Super Furry Animals and Flaming Lips.
“Layered and esoteric we’ve always done quite well, but we were simply trying too hard to be weird,” Gray—one of the group’s three distinctive vocalists—explains from a Milwaukee hotel room. “We were on tour last spring when we realized that all we needed to do was get ourselves motivated again. We knew we had to make banging music that would be fun to play.”
So when the time came to record Split the Difference, the band members put aside much of the studio gadgetry that plagued In Our Gun. They converted an old warehouse into a studio in the Brighton area—where much of the band currently resides—and laid down 50-plus demos between North American tours. The batch was winnowed down to 13 and carted over to Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in nearby Bath to “put on the spit and polish,” as Gray puts it.
Gomez friend Tchad Blake—who’s worked with everyone from Tom Waits and Pearl Jam to Travis and Joseph Arthur—was tapped to co-produce the album, a first for the band. “There’s never really a sense of production on our records,” explains Gray. “With each song there’s a concept, a sound idea and an approach, and that informs everything that we do. Tchad helped us achieve these ideas.”
Split the Difference is more raw, imminent and—in many cases—louder than anything Gomez has ever recorded. Gray, who says the rough-hewn vibe of Kings of Leon and The Black Keys inspired the sessions, describes it as a “big, loud, tight rock ’n’ roll album with some psychedelic elements.” The first three songs clock in at under three minutes, with Gray, Ben Ottewell and Ian Ball taking turns on the mic.
The band recorded several versions of each song, including takes of the aggressive “Silence,” with every singer taking a crack at the vocals. But in the end they kept Gray’s original version; despite the tendency to experiment with alternate avenues most of what you hear on the record is usually a first take. “We’ve never been great rehearsers,” notes the 27-year-old Gray. “We’re much better at capturing a moment on tape. … It was important for us to regain a sense of identity, musically, since In Our Gun was so much of a ‘push me, pull you’ record that had us going in 15 different directions at the same time. It felt good to focus more on songs and less on sounds this time around. With our previous records, people have needed six or seven listens to sort of ‘get it.’ I think people will ‘get’ this one the first time.”
Gomez’s musical A.D.D. has dictated its still-young career, and while Split the Difference is far from homogenous, a mixed bag it isn’t. “Do One” sounds like an angrier “Bring it On” (from Liquid Skin), and “These Three Sins” recalls a frenetic “Whippin’ Piccadilly” (from the band’s debut). “Sweet Virginia,” a fractured, multi-tempo waltz featuring a string-filled chorus, proves Gomez hasn’t totally abandoned its signature meanderings. Melody and chaos co-exist on nearly every track.
The group’s sound doesn’t fit neatly into any one particular scene, yet it piques the interest of Brit-pop, jamband and even electronica audiences. For the band’s fans, Ottewell’s tuneful growl—the one heard pimping Philips electronics a few years back with a cover of The Beatles’ “Getting Better”—is the “true voice” of Gomez, though lead duties are shared equally with Gray and Ball, whose vocals have more of a decidedly British flavor.
This rootsy eclecticism has been both a blessing and a curse for the band. It’s sold more than two million albums worldwide, yet in the U.S. Gomez is known more as a must-see live act than a true hitmaker. A bit ironic, considering the band only played one official gig—in Leeds—before signing with Hut Recordings. Gray says Americans’ seven-night-a-week appetite for live music will keep Gomez on the road for much of 2004, including appearances at this summer’s Lollapalooza and Bonaroo music festivals.
“Americans have a natural appreciation for being able to pull off something that’s not necessarily easy to pull off,” says Gray. “People see us and go, ‘oh bloody hell, there actually is a band who does a million different things and sings harmonies and changes instruments and alternates styles.’ And they don’t question that really. It’s not like it is in Britain, where we stick out like a sore thumb. Here we still stick out, but there’s a little more affinity with what we’re trying to do.”