Back in 1997, after just one gig apparently, a bidding war erupted, with Gomez at the epicentre of it all. After playing to 25 labels, they settled on Hut Records, who then released the debut album Bring It On. Not only did it go platinum (300,000+ copies in the UK alone), it won the Mercury Music Prize the following year.
Ben Ottewell, one of three singers and four songwriters in the band, still smiles at the memory of it all. "It was very unexpected, and there was no time to catch your breath," says Ben, who has lived in Brighton for ten years. "I was a late comer to the band. The rest of the guys are from Southport (Ben is from Derbyshire), had grown up together and been writing and recording together for a couple of years before I joined. A mutual friend of ours had a tape of theirs (a tape!) and it already had the likes of Whipping Piccadilly and 78 Stone Wobble on it, pretty good stuff. I met Ian (Ball) in a bar through mutual friends – like a blind date – and we got friendly over Tom Waits and cheap beer. He heard me sing, we did a tape, the others heard it, and I was in.
"We all came from musical backgrounds with parents that had grown up in the sixties, most of them around Liverpool. That pretty much speaks for itself. I think also that the proliferation of the CD reissue in the 90's had a massive effect – all of a sudden you could get your hands on anything that previously you'd have to trawl through oceans of vinyl stores to get hold of. For me it was my Dad's jazz and blues and my mum's west coast stuff, that really interested me. That along with a metal spell in my teens…
"We continued demoing for a year or so – never played live – and we got the tape into the hands of Steve Fellows who worked at Record Collector in Sheffield (and was previously frontman for new wave poppers Comsat Angels), a place we would always be lurking around in (and which is still trading), Steve instructing us on the various merits of John Martyn and Tim Buckley. Turns out Steve knew some people, sent them our demo and news spread."
Shortlisted with the likes of Pulp, Massive Attack, The Verve and 4Hero, Gomez unexpectedly won the Mercury Prize in '98, a remarkable achievement for a band who only played their first gig in 1996, at a time when they didn't even have a name. Legend has it that the band left a sign out the front of the venue at that first gig in Leeds, which read "Gomez in here" for a friend whose surname was Gomez to indicate that it was the site of their first gig. People saw the sign and assumed that the band's name was Gomez, and the name stuck
"The first couple of years in the band were crazy," says Ben. "I don't think either the record company or ourselves really expected that level of success for what was a pretty weird band. It always amuses me when people discuss the curse of The Mercury Prize; that thing enabled us to sell a million records!" Released only 16 years ago, but pre-digital age, bands can only dream of selling anywhere close to that number these days, and a million sales for even the biggest of stars is rare. Gomez came to the party just in time… "it's getting a bit tiresome, the curse of the Mercury… But, I don't think we would still be doing it if it wasn't for that, it put us somewhere where we never would have been…. this psych, blues pop weirdness."
To the extent that Gomez has three singers and four songwriters in the band and that they combined psychedelia with blues, rock, folk and indie in new and interesting ways, may mean that Gomez are weird (and Bring It On is uniquely different), but they struck a mainstream chord, interlacing slightly whacked out psych-rock songs and jams with more orthodox songs. From the drowsy psychedelic-blues of Tijuana Lady to the upbeat Britpop of Girlshapedlovedrug and from the ska-inflected Get Myself Arrested to the epic rock of How We Operate, Gomez always looked like they were having fun (their videos are often funny and/or surreal), and looked like they would be fun to be around (although they are the first to admit that some of the drinking got out of hand).
Their second album, Liquid Skin, made number two, and third album In Our Gun was another top ten album. Although their fortunes dipped from here onwards, America was really starting to take the band to their hearts, and up until the end of the noughties Gomez were a full time unit, touring globally, still selling records. By the time of their last record, Whatever's On Your Mind, the band's members were starting to take on other projects, bring up families, have a hiatus of sorts. Ben has been pursuing a solo career, with debut album Shapes & Shadows released in 2011, followed up this year by Rattlebag, a crowd-funded record and which will be officially released in early December via Rob da Bank's Sunday Best label. "I did one of these Kickstarter things to get it done," says Ben. "At first it feels like you're begging, but it was the really the only way I could get it together, without going through a record company. "So I got it made, and I've spent the last month mailing the CDs and vinyl to all the people who donated. People enjoy getting involved with it; it's quite transparent, getting updates, little videos from the studio… Music has been so demythologised, people appreciate that transparency."
Gomez was all about collaboration, a band who shared vocal duties fairly evenly, and worked their songs together, some being frazzled, but always dynamic jams that went to many unlikely places. As this seems to be Ben's modus operandi, he teamed up with old friend Sam Genders of Diagrams, but best known as founder member of Tunng. "We grew up together in a small village," he informs me. "For me he's one of the best lyricists around. I come up with the guitar parts and we basically bounce ideas around…" Less experimental than much of Gomez's output, Rattlebag is a superb collection of beautifully written and executed songs that hinge around the acoustic guitar of Ottewell and, of course, that fabulous voice, a growling rasp that is as deep as it is soulful. So, as well as playing around the world as a solo artist – he's just been touring in both America and Australia ("There's a special affinity down under, real hard-cooked Gomez fans. I had a blast"), thoughts have turned back to Gomez; they are just about to play two shows, including one in Brighton, the first time they have gigged since 2012.
It may never have happened. Being such a close unit for many years had taken its toll by 2012, and while no official announcement was made, they have effectively been on hiatus since then and not at all sure if they would ever do anything together again. They are, of course, still divided by the Atlantic Ocean, although the score is now Brighton 3 America 2, with Ben, Tom Gray and bassist Paul Blackburn (who has just recently re-located back here) living in Brighton, while Olly Peacock and Ian Ball remain in the States (both Olly and Ian are married to Amercans). "It just feels like the right time," says Ben. "It's been two years now since the last show and longer still since we played here in the UK. I'm excited." Are there any future plans for Gomez? "Nothing fixed. We are just about to start rehearsals and it'll be the first time we've all been in a room together for two years, so I guess we'll cross that bridge first. I'll just keep on playing, with or without Gomez… I'm pretty much unemployable!"
As for Tom… "Tom? He'll be drinking coffee, writing a song…"