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SupaJam interview Ben Ottewell of Gomez

  • By Art. Author Avatar
  • 19 March 2013

I’m sitting on a sofa backstage at the Electric Brixton – dank, littered with green leaf salads, and cans of red stripe – absent-mindedly listening to two guys’ chat about German Wheat Beer. Ben Ottewell walks in fresh from opening the one night festival in London. The Gomez man then picks a beer out of the fridge. Before I switch on my Recorder App, which I’m later told is a great way of capturing midnight ideas, Ottewell chats  about how he needs to get back in time for his first daughter’s birthday party to give her a beautifully bounded book that “she definitely isn’t going to be happy with”.  Seeing as Ben was soon going to have leave from Rock N Roll to roly poly, I wanted to try and swiftly divulge some nuances of his songwriting and his outlook on the industry.

SJ: So when you write a song, what is it in its simplest form?

Ben: Normally (pauses) well, I’m a huge Led Zeppelin fan. That’s where I first got into and started getting excited about music. Basically, it starts with a riff and a counterpoint. I try not to think about it too much, that’s why I play in open tunings. I find it very hard to write chord-driven songs, in a Nashville way.

SJ: There’s a lot of dissonance in your writing

Ben: Yeah, usually it starts with a strong riff or a fingerpicking motif. I just like riffs (laughs). Things like words get more important later, but in its essence it boils down to a riff, and if I haven’t got that then (shrugs shoulders). The riff could be something like a delicate guitar line or something bluesy. But that’s where I start.

SJ: So when do you call a song ‘done’? Whether it is new or old?

Ben: Normally, it’s when the words are finished, in a real sense. When it conveys a narrative or feels like you’ve emoted the way you set out to. But I think realistically, songs are done when the money runs out in a recording studio! (pauses) The wonderful thing about performing live and doing solo stuff is that you can play with the form. It’s an interesting thing but it’s only ever going to be a version.

SJ: What’s the defining sentiment behind your latest record Shapes & Shadows?

Ben: A lot of it’s very reflective, and it deals a lot with my childhood and growing up. I co-wrote a lot of it with Sam Genders from Diagrams and we actually grew up together. So a lot of it is to do with love and loss, but some of the songs on the record are quite old – they’re tunes which never really fit Gomez. There’s a lot of looking back, hence Shapes & Shadows, and how your perspective changes as you get older, having kids.


SJ: Did you use older songs to perpetuate that sentiment?

Ben: Yeah, well it’s strange being a parent. A lot of the songs are speaking to me back then. It’s hard to convey (pauses) – it’s almost like a sentimental record? (laughs) But not in a cheesy sense.

SJ: The record felt like accounts about different people.

Ben: There are a couple of songs which are very much about particular people, and my experiences with them in the past. It’s all stuff that’s happened in the past (pauses) there’s some raw stuff in there, emotionally.

SJ: Is this the type of writing that you’d carry onto another record?

Ben: The new solo record that I’m working on at the moment is different. I’m listening to a lot of Ali Farka Toure, trying to write a more blues-driven record, not in a Chicago Blues kind of way but more of an attitude. But I don’t know how it’s going to turn out as most of the songs I’ve already written aren’t like that at all (laughs). I’m really interested in J.J. Cale, Troubadour and that kind of linear writing where the slightest changes in the rhythm or guitar are huge because it’s so submerged. I’ve been helped by the fact I play in open tunings, so in a mechanical sense I have to hint at chords as opposed to completely re-structure for them.

SJ: When will that be ready (the new album)?

Ben: I’m not totally sure, yet. (laughs)

SJ: How do you feel about the British Independent Scene?

Ben: Well. I don’t really know too much about it. (laughs) But it was one of the reasons I wanted to play tonight, Unhinged is 100% independent and it’s really important to support that. But as far as new stuff goes I don’t really know, I never really have.

SJ: You guys (Gomez) were an enigma really. 

Ben: Yeah, we never really belonged. There was no scene or emergence; we just went from nerds who spent too much time listening to records to being in a band who had some backing. (pauses) We were lucky that we were around in a period where people like the Spice Girls and stuff were bringing in all sorts of money into the company (Virgin) so we could spend a lot of time in the studio (laughs). I don’t think new bands could afford that kind of luxury nowadays.

SJ: Without any scene, what did you draw from?

Ben: Well, I think we were in the first generation of musicians who had a genuine access to any music they wanted. Before you’d have had to scour shop after shop to find Tom Waits’ back catalogue but because of all the CD reissues of classics you were able to go into a store and order whatever you wanted, which was great. We were all very lucky to be from relatively opulent backgrounds. (pauses) I suppose it’s gone even further with Spotify now, even though I can never find what I want on there (laughs). But I do miss the ceremony of putting on a record; I remember it from being tiny; watching my dad put records on.

SJ: My Dad still has sheds full of records!

Ben: (laughs) Great, real vinyl?

SJ: Yeah, he collects.

Ben: Ah. Well yeah, I miss that ceremony and value to vinyl. It’s a shame that nobody buys music anymore really.

SJ: I best let you go, cheers, Ben, have a great night. 

Ben: Thanks.