For How We Operate, their fifth studio album, Gomez didn't set out to reinvent the wheel. Oh no. The British quintet just wanted to change the blueprint for a different sort of rounded object: Their own records.
"As a creative partnership, and as friends, we had to regroup and make a career-defining record," says Tom Gray (vocals, guitar, keyboards). Longtime cohort Ben Ottewell (vocals, guitar) concurs. "The last album" -- the 2004 studio set Split the Difference -- "was pretty rocking, and reflected the live show a lot. With this one, we wanted to focus on songs, melodies and words, rather than volume."
Gomez -- which also features Ian Ball (vocals, guitar, harmonica), Paul Blackburn (bass, guitar), and Olly Peacock (drums) -- have been playing together for a decade now; they celebrate the tenth anniversary of their first gig in October, 2006. But their friendships date back even further; Ian and Olly have been friends since they were still in short pants, while the rest of the lads rallied around as the duo progressed through academia. Drawing on their disparate tastes, which ranged from Nirvana to Woody Guthrie, Motown singles to barbershop quartets, they honed a one-of-a-kind sound that incorporated all their influences around their shared point of reference: A deep, abiding love for creative music of all stripes.
After releasing their debut single, "78 Stone Wobble" in spring of 1998, Gomez soon attracted international attention when they won the Mercury Music Prize for their debut full-length, Bring It On, which SPIN anointed "a damn beautiful album." It was followed by Liquid Skin (1999), the rarities-and-B-sides compilation Abandoned Shopping Trolley Hotline (2000), and In Our Gun (2002).
2004 brought album number five, Split The Difference, hailed by the BBC as "one of the finest releases of the year." But soon after, Gomez split -- literally -- from their longtime label, Virgin, who dropped them. In 2005 Gomez inked a new deal with Dave Matthews' ATO Records, who issued the band's first live album, Out West. The label switch has proven fortuitous for the band, says Gray. "It's been a breath of fresh air, after the deeply ridiculous world of today's corporate record industry, where the tax year dictates creative output."
To help focus their energies on their first studio release for ATO, the band decided to try a wholly new tack, and enlist their first outside producer. When Gil Norton (Pixies, Foo Fighters) was named as a candidate, Gray leapt at the suggestion. "I've been a crazy, huge Pixies fan my entire life, since I was thirteen," he gushes. Others required more convincing. "Back when Tom was listening to the Pixies, I was heavy into Slayer," confesses Ball. Fortunately, they soon found a common point of interest: A shared passion for Liverpool's Everton football club.
From their first meeting, Gray felt confident the band had made the right choice. "Gil could talk about all our records, and tell us exactly what he thought he would change about what we do. Which, essentially, was force us to actually think about what the songs would be before we went into the studio, and really concentrate on pre-production of all of the songs."
"The principle was to keep the whole recoding very simple," says Ball of the parameters within which the twelve tracks on How We Operate were written, rehearsed, and laid down. If everyone didn't agree on a potential song, it was promptly withdrawn from consideration. "Time and money were limited, which was good, because in the past we have occasionally tended to, shall we say, go to town."
"On our old records, certain elements were carefully thought out, but a lot of things were simply done in the spur of the moment," explains Ottewell. "On this one, we didn't lose that spontaneity, but we thought things through a bit more. Ever since our second record" -- 1999's Liquid Skin -- "we've been involved in a long process of trying to tease out the best bits of what we do, and not clutter things up. Gil helped show us the way."
"The main thing with this record was to get everybody together in one room, work on all the songs together, and make sure that it was a really unified vision," Gray confirms.
At the same time, Norton recognized that he was overseeing a band that had grown up together, and features multiple songwriters. Consequently, integrating the best of everyone was also essential. "Everyone had to be represented on this record," concurs Gray. "We needed to get the balance right again. Gil isn't at all conservative. He just loves a good song, done well, and he doesn't think that adding too much coloration actually helps bring a song to life."
But while Norton helped the band select and put finishing touches on songs long before entering London's fabled RAK Studios to cut the album, he was hardly dictatorial. "At first, it was odd, dealing with somebody who was making suggestions, but not coming up with answers," admits Ball, who half-imagined some multiple-Grammy winning hot shot who would explicitly tell the band how to re-write a chorus if he didn't like it.
That wasn't Norton's modus operandi at all. "Gil would say, 'This song needs something...' and that would be it," Ball continues. Um, okay... something. Trying to figure out the best shape to plug each hole inspired new solutions, and renewed excitement for old skills. "I thought, 'I can't just sit down at the piano or a guitar, and go, Okay, now I need to figure out how to complete this song." But necessity proved otherwise. "I learned how to sit down and figure the missing bits out."
But what of the results of this new approach? Judge for yourself. On the opening "Notice," brushed snares and an elastic bass line gently anchor a swelling melody; moments of silence punctuate the building momentum, and vibrant vocal harmonies blossom as the song unfolds. With its sing-along chorus and discrete hints of Appalachia, the jaunty "See The World" ("a distant cousin of 'Ooh-La-La' by the Faces," admits Gray, its author) is a buoyant ditty in search of a sunny day and a vintage convertible, a welcome affirmation that the words "pop" and "integrity" are not mutually exclusive.
Keep listening. Scrutinize the spacey, almost psychedelic title track closely, and the advantages of the band's judicious new approach to arrangements are evident. "Girlshapedlovedrug" is a beguiling portrait of "a wicked girl... the worst in the world..." who still proves irresistible to the narrator, while elsewhere, the bluesy "Chasing Ghosts With Alcohol" and the twilight reverie of "Charley Patton Songs" find Gomez in a more reflective mood.
"There's always been a certain ragged glory to Gomez, " concludes Gray. And How We Operate retains and revitalizes that glory -- and presents it in a more immediately gripping form. "This is certainly the most cohesive record we've made," observes Ball. "And yet it remains stylistically genre-less." Which is to say, it's still brilliantly, unabashedly... Gomez.