Operational Indeed

Charleston City Paper | September 30, 2006
“I’m kind of like an overwhelmingly serious Heathrow expert these days,” says Ian Ball of Gomez, speaking cheerfully last week by phone from the chaos of the ultra-secure London airport, just before leaving for a quick tour of Australia. “I live in L.A., so I spend a lot of time in Heathrow, so I know all the ins and outs. You offer yourself up to the x-rays, then you can get through all queues pretty cool.”

Ball has a pretty snappy attitude for a guy who’s been traveling and working for nearly 10 years with the same band in a tough biz. “I just bought the complete works of Shakespeare because I’m going to Australia and I figured that would keep me in pain while I’m on my way there,” he adds. “Hopefully, I’ll be a smarter puppy by the time I get there in about 8,000 hours.”

Far removed from the glam-racket center of the ’90s Britpop scene, Merseyside natives Gomez forged their own way toward a unique style of melodic pop music … and they gladly took their time doing it. And they’re still at it, years later, with what might be their most confident collection of songs to date — a 12-song album titled How We Operate.

Guitarists Ball, Tom Gray, and “Big Ben” Ottewell (all of whom tag-team lead vocal efforts), bassist Paul Blackburn, and drummer Olly Peacock first got together in the small town of Southport, Lancashire in 1997. Fresh out of university, they managed to casually assemble a stunning debut album titled Bring It On (Hut), performed on British TV’s popular Jools Holland Show, and enjoyed something of an overnight success.

Ottewell and Gray handled most of the electric guitar duties (the slide work and solos), while Ball played the acoustic guitar, harmonica, ukulele, and other stringed instruments “that kinda sound like shakers.”

Gomez stayed busy through their early years, releasing three more critically-acclaimed albums, including 1999’s Liquid Skin, ’02’s In Our Gun, and ’04’s Split the Difference. They toured the world multiple times and pressed ahead at their own pace.

Known for throwing the kitchen sink and a few extra tricks into the production of their albums, the new one — released on ATO Records, as was last year’s two-disc live album, Out West — stands out as a crisp, well-prepared, effective pop record with a polished, delicate sound, but uncluttered — despite all the extra instrumentation.

“It’s damn clean,” says Ball. “There’s not that much on there. There’s a heap of stuff, but not as much as before. It’s always nice to try something different every single time and this time, we decided we’d to try to make a record like everybody else makes them — whereby, they go in and they rehearse, which we’d never done before. And they pick out which songs they want to record, as opposed to trying to record 50 like we used to do. And we decided to record it all in a studio, as opposed to kinda in bedrooms and stuff. We put ourselves in a traditional situation. We were curious to do it and see how it would turn out.”

Listeners might discern a hint of Southern twang in this Northern England pop music. There’s a pull-quote attributed to Ball in the Rough Guide to Rock that reads: “It’s not a crime to put some country music in a pop tune.” Listening to How We Operate, that statement still applies to the band’s music. Even though there is some instrumentation that you might hear on what those in the U.S. and U.K. might call “Americana” records, there’s still a lot of music that sounds completely unlike what you’d hear on country radio.

“It is pretty country,” Ball shrugs. “I guess the thing with country is that it once was the most incredible music ever — like with Hank Williams, it’s fucking amazing. They knew how to write and craft songs. The problem that country music has got now is that Nashville is just turning out shit after shit. It’s all the same. It all sounds like it’s been written by one Danish dude or something, and they just turn them into these bland country things.”

The band and studio producer Gil Norton (Foo Fighters, Pixies) sound very organized in arranging the tunes and recording the album — perhaps more so than ever with the band’s previous output.

“It was very organized,” asserts Ball. “In comparison to other records we’ve done, it was 5,000 percent more organized. We’d never used a producer before and it made our lives much fucking easier. I wish we had done it earlier [laughs]. Nowadays, we basically pick a time when we know we’ll be working and everyone turns up to do that, as opposed to when we all used to live near each other; it wasn’t as clear as to when we were to be working and when we were to be drinking. It helps us stay organized, which is a beautiful thing … not that I can really advocate organization too much, but a little bit goes a long way.”

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