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The Boston Phoenix Northern Souls

England's Gomez come home

By Mark Woodlief

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  You might expect arrogance and flash from a guy whose band just won Album of the Year in Britain. But Gomez singer/guitarist Tom Gray is no Noel Gallagher. When his band's Bring It On earned this year's Mercury Music Prize (the British Grammy) -- besting competition from the acclaimed likes of Pulp, the Verve, Catatonia, Massive Attack, and Cornershop -- he was as surprised as any one else.

"We had no idea," he says over the phone from a tour stop in Arizona. "People were supporting us and saying, 'You should win,' but you don't believe people when they're saying things like that, y'know?"

Never mind prestigious awards -- Gray and his mates, who are all in their early 20s, are still simply getting used to being a band. Although most of them grew up in the seaside village of Southport, near Liverpool, the current line-up of Gray, vocalist-guitarists Ian Ball and Ben Ottewell, bassist Paul Blackburn, and drummer Olly Peacock didn't officially come together until 1996, when they were all attending university in Yorkshire. They went on to record Bring It On before they'd ever played a gig. Their first-ever tour, supporting fellow Brits Embrace, was only last December; since then, Gomez, who headline at T.T. the Bear's Place this Sunday, have been to Australia and Europe as well as the US. Yet they have fewer than 75 shows under their belt. "We're still learning how to play live," Gray admits. "We're still changing all the time, so it's kind of a big learning process for us."

Gray says the group's lack of live experience isn't a liability, and that growing up around Southport -- a town that caters to tourists and isn't "the most exciting place in the world" -- allowed Gomez to develop at their own pace. "I think if we'd been born as a live band, we might've sounded completely different. We weren't interested in playing live, anyway. So we used to spend all our time messing around in garages recording, making an individual sound and working on something original, rather than catering for audiences."

Although Gray acknowledges the important distinction between the studio and stage, he says Gomez's strong suit is spontaneity in either format. "Live, there's a lot of improvisation, and we don't really know what's gonna happen. It happens in the studio, as well. I mean, we work very, very quickly in the studio. We try to catch moments."

Ambitious in range, Bring It On is built on an organic foundation of blues-rock psychedelia that draws on the classic (Grateful Dead), the contemporary (Pearl Jam), and the strange (Tom Waits). Ottewell's gravelly voice brings to mind a composite of Tom Waits and Eddie Vedder; Ball's harmonica flourishes have the tone of a seasoned blues vet. There are sublime, even elegant moments that belie the band's youth. "Rie's Wagon" stretches out with piercing slide-guitar passages and dreamy tales of heavy alcohol intake. Elsewhere vintage keyboards, string arrangements ("Make No Sound"), funk grooves ("Love Is Better Than a Warm Trombone"), and arid acoustic-guitar phrasings ("78 Stone Wobble," "Here Comes the Breeze") dot a sonic landscape that suggests a very different sort of British Northern soul.

Mindful of the disc's American roots, Gray has felt an eerie connection to the States during Gomez's inaugural US tour. "In lots of ways bringing our music here is like taking our music to its spiritual home. But I think what brings it home to us is that though this vast country is where most of our influences came from, it's still not like a movie. It's real, and we're gonna have to work hard to make people sit up and listen to us. In some ways it's very intimidating being here, 'cause we come over from England, where we're playing 3000-capacity venues. Here, we're a little support act and nobody knows who we are. You can't go out on stage and say, 'Oh yeah, we're Mercury Prize winners,' and this, that, or the other. So you just go out there and see if they like it."

Work has already begun on a follow-up to Bring It On, and Gray says the band are looking toward another classic American influence. "All I know is we're gonna make a record that is very ambitious in its scope. It's gonna be more Phil Spector-ish. It's just gonna get bigger. And maybe a little quicker as well. The experiment continues, y'know?"

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