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Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012

Gomez Celebrates 15 Years of Being Average Blokes

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"We've never been fashionable," Gomez's Ben Ottewell says in his deep-set voice. "We were never cool." Gomez has thrived despite this, without much in the way of radio play. For 15 years they've brandished a plush, orchestrated blend of roots, rock and pop, vacillating between loose-limbed jams and insistent, hook-laden songs. The English quintet won the United Kingdom's most prestigious music award, the Mercury Prize, for their 1998 debut, Bring It On, but to hear Ottewell tell it, that hardly changed their profile.

"It's a funny thing. Basically, that prize sold us a million records," he says. "We're not a band that anyone would think would sell a million records. I think the press' expectations got bigger, like all of a sudden we're supposed to be a big band, but we're not. We're just blokes playing music."

This casual attitude has endeared them to an idiosyncratic fandom as broad as their music. Though their appeal stateside took root first in the jam band culture, their approach has always been wider than that, a byproduct of having five songwriters.

You'll find the sumptuous instrumental warmth of chamber pop, the sturdy backbeat of Beatles-inspired rock, the soulful sway of Motown (particularly in Ottewell's vocals), an expansive folkiness that harkens back to Haight-Ashbury, and bursts of electronic clamor with an obvious debt to Radiohead. It all comes together especially nicely on the band's seventh album, Whatever's on Your Mind.

It's their strongest release in years, driven by the discovery of a new way to collaborate. For the first time they swapped material over the Internet long before hitting the studio, meaning many songs came in more fully formed than usual.

"The collaborative aspect was the thing that was maybe missing on the record before. It was actually a relief to know that we could work that well together again," Ottewell says. "We wanted to find a way five guys living on different continents could collaborate successfully without pissing each other off. We've spent a lot of time in confined spaces together, and sometimes it helps to be at arm's length."

Trading demos rather than working songs up together in the studio allowed everyone to expand on an idea in their own space and time. This benefited the album's rather upbeat, song-based focus. Though still rife with sonic detail, the songs move like they have a destination in mind.

"If you're writing sprawling pieces and jams, it's cool to [write in the studio]," he says. "But if you're going to write pop songs, they have to be arranged right. That was our main concern. We needed to go into the studio with the arrangements written. All the other stuff—crazy keyboard parts and guitar solos—is just fun."

The wide-ranging album includes the strumming, horn-aided propulsion of "Options," the drifting, harmony-laden shimmer of "Just As Lost As You" and the quirky, surprisingly throbbing R&B pulse of "Equalize."

For their 15th anniversary, the band is letting fans pick part of their set list every night of their tour. They were inspired by Elvis Costello's famous Spinning Songbook tour in '87, which Costello reprised last year. At the beginning of the evening, they play a set they've chosen. They then return from their break to play the fans' 10 favorite songs in descending order, as chosen for that particular night on their website, gomeztheband.com.

"It's all of our songs, so they can pretty much pick anything they want to," Ottewell says. "We've had to relearn a few things, but it's been real fun."

Recording the last album apparently got their juices going. The group has already begun laying the groundwork for new songs, using old tapes dug out of Ottewell's father's attic. "[They were] full of music that had kind of been abandoned by us. So we're going to explore a little of that," he says. "It's a look back, like an embarrassing photograph."

Gomez plays the Pabst Theater on Wednesday, March 7, at 7 p.m. with opener Hey Rosetta!

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