Robert Gomez Talks Poetic Beheadings (Just Don't Ask Him to Make You a Vegas Bomb)
It's impossible to discuss the magnitude of the Denton music scene without including Robert Gomez as one of its pivotal players. Since 1993, Gomez has been everywhere from Denton to Istanbul, and the list of musicians he's played with include Norah Jones, Philip Glass and Tico da Costa. He'll perform material from Severance Songs, a new concept album based on the short story collection Severance by Robert Olen Butler, at Dan's Silverleaf on December 14. Tonight, he will perform alongside Sarah Jaffe on Jimmy Kimmel Live!.
I sat down with him recently and we talked about his new album, the current state of jazz, and why one of the best radio stations in the area can only be heard within a two-mile radius of the square in Denton.
- Robert Gomez on his other project, Ormonde
So you are a multi-instrumentalist. When did you start playing?
I started playing when I was 6, something like that. I started with the ukulele. Then I jumped over to guitar. It was a little kid's guitar. And then a big guitar when I was big enough. I tried to quit when I was 12, but my mom wouldn't let me. Actually, no. I tried to quit guitar lessons when I was 12, and my guitar teacher, who's a really great guy who has since passed away, he basically convinced me to play music. He really inspired me. His name was John Benson.
At what point did you know you wanted to make albums?
I just kind of started gravitating toward jazz music and classical music, and those were kind of the main things. It wasn't so much about recording albums, it was more about just being an instrumentalist and being as good as I can be. So I just practiced a lot, for hours and hours. But I don't practice so much anymore.
I don't know. I guess I just don't see the point anymore (laughs). No, it's just that I can already play what I need to play for what it is I want to do. My music doesn't really have any guitar solos or any virtuosic moments. It's more about being really solid than anything. That's the overall desire.
So besides the lessons, any other formal training?
Yeah, I studied music at the University of North Texas. I did not finish, but I got through as much as I could without graduating. I went there in '93. I graduated from high school early to get out of Corpus Christi as fast as possible. I had just turned 17 in November and started at UNT in January. And from there I went to school off and on until '97 or '98.
What happened there?
I don't know. What did happen there? I just got tired of the whole thing after a while, just like studying music in an academic setting. At that point I was playing mostly jazz and Cuban music. I wasn't writing songs or doing much outside of that. And I was already working as a musician at that point, so I just felt like I could start doing that.
Tell me what it was like being adept at music as a small kid in Corpus Christi.
There wasn't really a lot of outlets for anything creative in that town when I was growing up, especially if you wanted to play more esoteric styles of music. If you wanted to play jazz or something like that, there's nowhere to play hardly, unless you want to play for maybe two or three people. It was tough. So growing up I played lots of rock, and don't get me wrong, I liked rock and roll. I was also in a cover band. That was like my job in high school. Instead of working at Arby's or something, I was playing in a cover band.
What kind of covers did you guys do?
It was classic rock, Top 40 stuff mostly. We'd do some Beatles and some Kinks, but not the cool Kinks, more like "You Really Got Me" and stuff like that. We'd do some Jimmy Buffet, you know. Whatever, it didn't matter. We would always play for older crowds, so we'd play a lot of older music. It wasn't like we had a Smiths cover band or anything.
Tell me about your musical endeavors before you started putting out records as Robert Gomez.
I did a Latin music record in '99. It was called El Borracho. And that was under the name The Latin Pimps. We used to play on Fry Street back in the day and it was quite a scene. We made another record and had a pretty good following here, but then I moved to New York in 2000. But yeah, I guess that was my first recording. And then after I moved to New York, I put out a jazz trio record in 2001 under the name The Robert Gomez Trio. Then at the end of my tenure in New York, around 2005, I started writing and recording songs, and that's when I made [2005 debut] Etherville.
So where in New York did you live?
I lived in Brooklyn in Park Slope, but I hung out mostly in Manhattan and it was still kind of a jazz scene. I was still mostly playing jazz then, but right around the end of my time there, around 2004, I was kind of gravitating toward something else. And I just really got to questioning jazz and whether it was what really resonated with me. A lot of that just had to do with how jazz came to be really about virtuosic playing, and so it kind of turned me off. I just wanted to play something more reachable, although you can do that with jazz too, but not a lot of players do that.
Who are your favorite jazz guys?
I mean, John Coltrane. Just... everybody that everybody already knows. Mingus is amazing. Really, at that time, jazz really had something, but now, it seems like it's struggling to find itself. That's where songwriting and pop music isn't struggling. It's just a lot more innovative now. It's reinventing itself again. I'm thinking of bands like Deerhoof. That, to me, is music to record.
Sure, but you can say the opposite about certain modern Top 40 music.
Who are your biggest influences in the pop world?
These days, I love Broadcast a lot. I love Serge Gainsbourg a lot. But you know, the older stuff. Eighties Gainsbourg. I like Deerhoof a lot. I always forget bands that I'm listening to. But right now, my friend made me a compilation with Morricone on it. That shit's amazing. And I love soundtracks. That friend that made me the Morricone compilation, he came into Paschall, and I had him DJ, because he has a radio station here, 1670 AM. They broadcast from the square, and it's like a low-frequency station. His name's Peter Salisbury. Anyway, we have very similar taste in music, so I always listen to his radio station, and because it's a low-wattage station, you can only catch it within a two-mile radius of the square. But he came into the bar and spun all these records, and one of them was the A Man and a Woman soundtrack, and I knew that movie, but I didn't know that I didn't know that the soundtrack was available to buy, and Peter was told me there was a vinyl copy at Recycled. So the next day I went and bought it, and I listened to it over and over. Because that's what I do. I just take one thing and run it into the ground. I tend to obsess about things.
Is that what you did with the Butler book?
Yeah. It just seemed like the right thing to do. I'd been toying with the idea anyway, putting a poet's words to songs.
So they were all his words? You didn't adapt them or anything?
Not at all, and that's kind of the fun of it. The only creative license I have is where the breaks are, because there are no breaks [in the poems]. And where you would have a kind of punctuation dictates the rhythms of the songs. But it was hard because I didn't repeat any sections. I didn't repeat any words, and I didn't eliminate any words, so I was always being painted into a corner. Initially, I thought that the words were always the hardest part of songwriting, so I thought, "Wow, the words are already done. This is gonna be easy!" But it was not. This is the hardest thing I've ever done.
I was listening to Severance Songs again today, and I was wondering: A) How you came up with those melodic lines, and B) How the hell you remember where the breaks are, and is that reproducible live?
Yeah. I'm gonna play Severance Songs December 14 at Dan's. I don't know if I'm gonna do the whole album, but I'm definitely gonna do most of it. We have the whole album rehearsed, and I have a great band put together for it. Peter Salisbury is playing guitar and keys, Steve Hill on drums and myself.
Near as I can tell, these Butler poems are about the moment a head is severed, and the stream of consciousness involves the subjects' lives flashing before their eyes, as well as a sort of cognition of the fact that their heads have been severed?
As far as the moment when the head gets cut off, you don't have this moment where it's like, "Holy shit, my head just got cut off," like if you cut your hand off. When you get your hand cut off, your childhood wouldn't come flooding into your mind, so that's the difference. When [decapitation] happens, there's this sense that this is the end, just as if you were in a car wreck and your life flashes before you. I've had very traumatic instances where that happened to me. It's very much like when you turn on your computer or something and all of the pictures you put on there start to flash on the screen for a minute. Except in real life there's more pictures and it's a bigger time frame.
Was there any personal stuff in your psyche at the time that made you feel a connection to the book?
Maybe with some of the characters. I could identify with it. But as far as the concept of death, it is something I think about more now that I'm 37, as opposed to when I was 27 or 17.
You've played with a lot of international stars: Norah Jones, Philip Glass and Sarah Jaffe's getting huge. How did you get hooked up with all these amazing people?
Well, I played with Norah when we were in school together here at UNT. We did a little Brazilian thing and she used to sing, and then we all went to New York at the same time, so she was there. Being in New York, I met so many people and was playing so many different styles of music. It seems I was always getting a call to do something that I'd never done before, and one was to play with this Brazilian artist named Tico da Costa, and a big fan of his was Philip Glass. One night we played The Blue Note in New York, and Philip came up and sat in on a couple of songs. He had played on the record, so it was a pretty amazing experience to me to share a tiny little stage with him. Sarah Jaffe I met here. John Grant, I met through Midlake. I played with him. Bella Union definitely helped me go to Europe and meet some people over there. But you never know when you say "yes" to play a show or play in someone's band where it's going to lead. It's just kind of all by chance, really.
How long have you been working at Paschall?
I've worked there for a year. I like it. I've gotten really into mixology. Like I said, I get obsessed with things, so cocktails I got obsessed with. But I can always be stumped. There's so many drinks. The majority of my knowledge is mainly per-prohibition. So if someone wanted me to make a Vegas Bomb, I'd be like,"'I can't even make that right now." I'm not like the overall bartender, I'm just really specialized. But that's the kind of bar we are, really specialized.
So you're going on Jimmy Kimmel. Is this the biggest thing you've ever done?
I don't know. It depends on how you look at it, because I've gotten to do some really cool things that no one even knows about. I played in Istanbul once for the president there. This was in 2005 or '06, I can't remember. I've played Avery Fisher Hall, and that was pretty exciting. Although I've done television, this is the first national show I've ever done. I'm sure it'll be like all the other TV spots, but I'm maybe a little more stressed about it. You know, you're just kind of waiting around, and then someone comes in and tells you, "OK, now go!" I mean, it is live, so that part's really cool. Mostly, it's taped, and if worse comes to worst, you can just redo it. There's no redoing live shows, so that's exciting. I don't really get nervous these days, but situations like this, you get the butterflies.
So Sarah's star is really rising. How far do you see her going?
She's amazing. She can go as far as anybody. Her music is real accessible but still challenging and beautiful and emotional, but not overly so. It has a certain balance to it that's really great. I think she can appeal to a lot of people, especially live. I've seen her walk into a room to play for people who have never heard of her, and all of a sudden she'll have the whole crowd on her side. She has that ability, so for her, it's just a matter of playing for more and more people.
You mentioned, regarding the music industry, that independent musicians are suffering the most. You're a bartender, and I don't know if you need to be at this point, but so is [Jaffe bandmate] Scott Danbom, and so is Brent Best. Do you think that 20 years ago, musicians of your ilk could just be living on record label money and not have to tend bar?
I guess it depends on your type of music and your audience. I think there are advantages now, in that you can make weird music and have a good audience because you can reach out to them on the Internet, so that part is great. The part that's lacking now is that the people in their teens and twenties have grown up with free music for as long as they've probably listening to music, and I think that now people are just used to it always being free. Although it never was free. It was just accessible, but what happens now is that you have a lot of musicians that just can't survive because there's no money being generated. There's no consumers. And with an artist, they need time to make art, and they need a space and they need resources. These things are expensive. And they also need to pay their bills, so you have all these artists that are really just doing it on the side, and I don't know if that's a great place to be. As for me, I could probably make a living playing music, but I choose to make the music that I want to make, and that's what having another job allows me to do.