England's Shame

No one told Gomez's Tom Gray that British rock stars are supposed to be loudmouths.

Gomez is an up-and-coming English rock group, but its members don't act like it. Their clothes aren't terribly exciting, their music doesn't "shimmer," "jangle" or "pulsate" from the speakers of a dance club near you, and they resist the urge to tell the press that their British peers are either "wankers" or "total rubbish." Worse, Tom Gray, a vocalist and guitarist with the quintet, seems to feel that his distressingly low-key approach to interviews is totally justified. "Why would a musician tell a journalist which bands they hate?" he asks. "I hate lots of other bands, but I'm not going to tell you one of them." Neither will Gray boldly declare that he and his mates (vocalist/guitarists Ian Ball and Ben Ottewell, bassist Paul "Blackie" Blackburn and drummer Olly Peacock) are the next Beatles, bigger than Jesus, or capable of giving Buddha a run for his money. "We're not going to tell you that we're going to take over the world," he confirms. "Instead we're going to insidiously and quietly worm our way into your life." After a pause, he reconsiders this statement: "I'd better not say that. It sounds like we're a poisonous gas."

No one has expired due to Gomez exposure thus far. On the contrary, the group's 1998 debut album, Bring It On, has garnered accolades from reviewers on both sides of the pond. The consensus, according to Gray, is that "we're a breath of fresh air," and he's right. Especially striking is Ottewell's singing, which sounds like it should be coming out of a swamp-soaked bluesman who's done time in Seattle; it's an Eddie Vedder growl without the gloom. Ball's voice is a softer affair by comparison, offering a counterpoint to Ottewell's bluster that helps the album achieve a nuanced balance of musical styles ranging from blues ballads ("Tijuana Lady") to digital experimentation ("Whippin' Piccadilly") and stripped-down acoustic rock ("Love Is Better Than a Warm Trombone"). "The music isn't so experimental that it struggles with people to make them like it," Gray says. "But at the same time, it isn't immediate music, and people have to listen to it for a while before they appreciate it."

Gray, Ball, Blackburn, and Peacock grew up together in Southport, a city near Liverpool in the northwest portion of England, and after enrolling at Sheffield University, they teamed up with Ottewell. Their approach to choosing a moniker for the band that resulted was typically laid-back. "A friend of ours had the surname Gomez, and we needed a name," Gray says. "So we thought, all right, we'll just have his name, then."

Bring It On was recorded before the combo played its first show, and it did so well upon its release that the members who hadn't yet received their degrees left school early to become full-time musicians. Not bad for a combo whose oldest participant is just 22 years old. "We never struggled," Gray admits. "We just sort of walked into it. We said, okay, let's form a band; okay, let's make a record; okay, let's play small clubs; okay, let's go to other countries. In a few months we went from messing around in a garage to playing in little tiny clubs to flying on planes around the world and playing festivals in front of 40,000 or 50,000 people. It's all happened so fast, it's been harsh, mentally, to work out what the hell's going on."

Did the stress associated with this meteoric rise bring on the sort of internal strife capable of curtailing the climb to international stardom? In answering this question, Gray finally conforms to British standards--by making a joke out of it. "Yes, we had some tension, on May the 3rd of last year," he deadpans. "Blackie started tickling me, and I overreacted and hit him. But we forgave each other. That sort of reconciliation is part of our universal mission."

Such lightheartedness is typical of Gomez, whose indie rock lacks the anger typical of the genre. "There's a lot of humor in what and how we perceive, and there isn't a lot of angst," Gray agrees. "I don't think angst comes from struggling to make music; it's what teenagers generate in their bedrooms. Some musicians just forget to lose the angst, so you get 35-year-old men singing songs about being angst-ridden in their bedroom, and that's silly."

So, too, is the complaint among some trendy Englanders that the men of Gomez aren't glamorous enough. Still, Gray and company have been able to avoid capitulating to glitter, gloss and feather boas thanks to strong sales and widespread acclaim that reached its peak when Bring It On won the Mercury Music Prize (a sort of British Grammy) as 1998 Album of the Year, besting the Verve's Urban Hymns disc in the process. Since then, Gomez fans have spawned a panoply of Web sites, including two 24-hour chat rooms. "I've gone online to the chat rooms a couple of times, but I haven't written in," Gray notes. "Mostly they talk about what song they prefer. They'll say something like, '"Free to Run" is better than "Here Comes the Breeze"--Rachel in Portsmith, 2:30 a.m.'"

Although Gomez rules in England, conquering the colonies may prove to be a tough proposition: Despite positive reviews in Rolling Stone, Spin and the Wall Street Journal, which named Bring It On one of the top five alternative albums of last year, the band is little known here. But the players don't seem worried. Rather, they're taking advantage of their first U.S. tour to soak up Americana. "Blackie told me today that he was waiting to get into the restroom in a book shop, and when he was in line, he picked up a calorie-count book and read that half a cup of Durkey pork gravy has 35 calories," Gray announces. "That's what he learned while he was waiting for the toilet, and that's typical of Gomez--that we're always taking every opportunity to learn." He adds, "I want to work with children and animals in the future."

A visit to Washington, D.C., was similarly educational. "We were walking towards the Lincoln Memorial when an enormous storm hit for fifteen minutes," Gray says--and while he and his Gomez brethren were huddling at the feet of the massive statue waiting for the skies to clear, he claims that their time of reflection with Mr. Lincoln "led to a long and lasting peace among all nations." Possible tour name resulting from this encounter? "World Salvation and Gomez," he decides.

Don't look over your shoulders, Jesus and Buddha: Gomez may be gaining on you.

Gomez, with Mojave 3. 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 23, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $8, 303-443-3399.

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