Chris chats to Jon Gomm about setlists, Dan Tompkins and karaoke
Photo credit: Katie Croft, KTcroft Photography
Of all the acts on the bill at Tech Fest 2014, Jon Gomm was one of the ones generating the most discussion. Despite not being at all ‘metal’ – or at least so I thought – people really wanted to see him and his renowned acoustic guitar skills.
Interestingly, Jon was the only person we spoke to all weekend who actually started the interview with the first topic of conversation: my t-shirt!
I like your shirt!
What is that?
It’s Cyclamen! It’s a Japanese guy called Hayato; writes everything on his own in his bedroom then brings a band together.
It’s a really beautiful shirt.
Yeah, he draws it all himself as well. He’s got all sorts of stuff like this, really good.
I’m a bit wary of pneumatic anime girls…
…but yeah, it’s really beautiful. I’m suuure that’s a vagina at the top as well.
That is a vagina. There’s no doubt about that!
That is some quite brutal metaphor there! Maybe it was accidental! Who knows? Anyway, sorry Chris!
So, Tech Fest! It’s a bit of a different one for you isn’t it?
How did you get involved?
Not sure how that happened! I’m not sure how I sidled my way in to the metal world. I just figured that there’s a lot of metal fans, and musicians – and people who are both, because that exists a lot in the metal world; like, there are so many people who’re into metal who play an instrument, even if they’re not doing it in a band or anything – so I just figured that a lot of those guys seem to be people who are in to my music. And also, playing to those audiences seems to be really fun and really rewarding, so I basically just asked my manager if she could try and get me on at Download, and that happened, and then this happened as well. This seems really like it’s going to be…it just seems like a really special little festival, so I’m quite excited about playing.
What kind of tipped me over the edge in thinking. “let’s explore that avenue” was when I met Randy Blythe from Lamb of God – he’s just a fan of mine, and he got in touch and said he was playing in my town, could I come and meet him and stuff, so we hung out for the day and just going to the gig, the way the audience reacted to him, and the way they reacted to me when he just shouted my name out from the stage, was really amazing. It’s funny – it’s completely the opposite of what the stereotype is of metal music and metal fans is that they’re really not afraid to show their emotions, you know, especially positive emotions, in a way that other worlds – other musical worlds or social worlds – might consider to be uncool or something. Metal fans aren’t bothered about that – it’s just an awesome, awesome world.
I mean, there’s definitely a perception of you know, sort of grungy, black t-shirts, long hair and being surly.
Serious people who, you know…I dunno, it’s quite serious music, it’s quite heavy, and people think it’s really aggressive, and it’s funny because it can be really aggressive, but there’s a reason that you make aggressive music, and I make some aggressive music sometimes, and the reason that you do it is to express that stuff that you have inside of you in a way that isn’t going to hurt anybody, you know? That’s why you do it in art.
It is cathartic. I could have just said that! (laughter)
There’s been a lot of people have been saying of your set that, you know “I’m really interested to see Jon” – like you said, there’s a lot of musicians around, people hang around for the whole festival, it’s very friendly and they appreciate technical music.
I certainly make technical music. It’s funny because I come from a shred guitar background.
Yeah, when I was a teenager. I’ve been through many phases of playing guitar but that was a big one, and what I do now on the guitar is way way way way harder, it really is (laughter) and it’s funny because it doesn’t sound harder necessarily all the time. It’s looks harder if you look at it but it doesn’t sound it. But yeah, if I get the opportunity just to play notes and do nothing else, and just play one note at a time – it doesn’t matter how fast they are, it’s just so much easier than trying to play notes, play a bass line, play percussion and sing all at the same time, it really…yeah, so I think people can appreciate that, which is cool.
Speaking of singing, a couple of nights ago we had a karaoke sort of deal going on – what would be your karaoke song?
I don’t have to hypothesise about that because I’m from Blackpool, which is the spiritual home of karaoke, so I’ve done karaoke loads of times. In fact, I’ve won loads of karaoke competitions.
Yeah – I’m not like a karaoke devotee, but if there’s karaoke happening in somewhere then I’ll go and do it because it’s I think it’s just the most awesome fun that you can have. So what do I sing when I sing karaoke? Depends. It depends of there’s a prize that I want to win!
If there’s a prize that I want to win, I’ll sing, like, “Heard It Through The Grape Vine” by Marvin Gaye – really try and go for that – but if I just wanna sing karaoke for the fun of it I’ll sing things like “California Girls” by The Beach Boys, that’s one of my favourites to sing. It’s a really ridiculous song. Really, it’s just ridiculous, I find that a lot of fun. I think I did “Superstition” once, Stevie Wonder, in Spain, and the lyrics had clearly been translated from English into Spanish and then back into English. So the lyrics to “Superstition” is all bad luck, so it’s “thirteen month-old baby, broke the looking glass” but the lyrics that came up on the screen, which I sang because they were better, was “thirteen month-old baby, dirty-looking face”
What the fuck! (laugher) What the fuck is that?! You dirty-faced little bastard! So yeah, I think I won that night, but I won a bottle of sparkling wine that was 7% alcohol which I didn’t dare to drink because I thought “I’m not gonna get drunk, it’s gonna taste terrible, and I might get ill”, so I just threw it away.
Lovely! I’ve never actually seen you before, but I’ve got a friend who has, so I gave him a ring and he gave me some interesting tidbits. He said whenever he’s seen you, you have an unorthodox approach to your setlist, in that you’ll start with one particular song – is it “Temporary“?
Yeah, I haven’t been for a while, but I do sometimes.
And then he said generally you’ll ask people what they’d like to hear. Do you still do that?
Yeah. I’m not sure how long my setlist is today, I think I’ve got an hour or something, so I might do that. I’ll probably do a few songs first, and then I’ll ask people if there’s stuff they wanna hear. I dunno, I haven’t got a setlist today – I haven’t even decided what to start with. My songs are all in completely different tunings, so part of coming to one of my gigs is standing and watching me tune my guitar. I do tend to talk quite a lot on stage as a result of that because just listening to somebody tune is pretty dull, so I can’t talk and tune at the same time. So yeah, that defines the setlist to a certain extent because I can’t go from one song to any other song – they have to be fairly close together in terms of the guitar tuning. But yeah, I don’t have a setlist today. Normally I would have a setlist for a festival, but I think today I just want to play it by ear a little bit, I want to see how it goes, because I’m not sure what to expect from the vibe, so…
Just see what happens?
Do you bring several guitars or do you have just the one?
Just one guitar. Having more than one guitar on stage…I dunno, it’s a pain. Acoustic guitars are completely different to electric guitars. It’s like a living, breathing organism in comparison, and you can tune it and leave it for half an hour and it’ll just be completely out of tune when you come back to it, so you can’t really use different guitars for different tunings. I don’t know many people who do that, so yeah, just one guitar. But one good one.
I understand that one of your songs is also partly in Urdu…
“Waterfall“? Did you learn Urdu in order to do that, or…
No, that would be too much work for one song. Um, no, it’s because I got really in to Indian music when I moved to Leeds where I live now, and there’s loads of Indian music in the Leeds Bradford area. So, I went to some concerts, some of which were in town centres, sometimes just in people’s houses, so they just put on a concert in the living room, and you know, take donations, you get fed, mum makes dinner and you just go to a little concert in someone’s living room.
I got really into that music and I wanted to try and express things about that, and the song is actually about a goddess called Saraswati, and I found out about that from a guitarist I know called Amrit Sond who’s a genius – won a Grammy in fact – and I stayed at his mum’s house. Amrit wasn’t there and it was just me and his mum for about three days, and his mum doesn’t speak a word of English, and so we communicated by basically just pointing at things really, and that was it. And she had a picture of this goddess on her wall – a painting of this goddess sitting at the bottom of a waterfall playing an instrument called a veena, which looks like a sitar but it’s more like a guitar almost. So I was asking her about that and she got me this book which had English writing, all about this goddess, so I learned about that, and I wanted to write a song about that really for Amrit’s mum, so I just got a friend to help me with the translation – ’cause thankfully I’ve got loads of friends who speak Urdu and Punjabi and Bengali and Hindi – so yeah, we went for Urdu because it’s supposed to be the language of poetry.
Is it difficult to learn just what you’ve got for the song – is it something you can recall easily, or do you have to sort of go over it a bit?
I dunno – I just do!
If someone asked for “Waterfall” tonight, would you be able to do it?
Oh yeah! I don’t know how I do that, is that weird? (laughter) That’s my only song that’s not in English. I’m planning another one at the moment – I’ve not decided yet though. I’ve not picked the language yet either, so I’m not decided. I’m thinking about it though. We’ll see.
Awesome. So, one of the big reasons that I think people at this festival particularly would be aware of you is because of Dan Tompkins, because he’s performed in a number of bands that have performed at this festival in the past couple of years. How did that collaboration come about?
I don’t really know! Dan just…I just got an email from this guy who I had no idea who he was, and he asked me if he could use the audio form one of my songs to record his own version with vocals – it was just an instrumental – so I said yeah, that’s fine, ’cause I’m totally up for anyone doing that, so I didn’t check him out or anything like that, I just said yeah that’s completely fine, so I sent him the original audio and then he made it. I didn’t really think any more about it then he told me he’d put it on YouTube, and I watched it and was like “fucking hell, this guy’s amazing.” It worked so well, and he’d done such a beautiful job with the video as well, just put so much care into it, and yeah, I don’t know why he heard that in his head when he heard the song, but I’m glad that he did.
I met up with him on my last UK tour when I was passing through Nottingham, where he lives, and he came and sang that song with me at the gig. That’s really weird for me; I don’t really do collaborations as a general rule, so it was really really weird for me to have that, but it was really great, and he’s a fantastic musician. Since then I’ve been listening to all of his stuff as well, and kind of listening to bands that he’s been in, and other bands that I’ve heard about, but to be honest I didn’t realise that that had been such a gateway in to the metal community being in to me, so that’s fascinating.
Are there any of his projects in particular that have stood out to you?
Is it White Moth Black Butterfly? Yeah. That’s with the guy in India he’s doing that. It’s a kind of collaboration with him. I’m sure he said there’s a guy in India he works with who’s a producer. He’s either in India or he’s Indian.
Yeah, Keshav Dhar. He’s in a band called Skyharbor with Keshav and it’s like a full five-piece. Most of them are in India, and there’s a drummer in Toronto and then there’s him, but he also works with Keshav on White Moth Black Butterfly.
Extraordinary. And what they do is really special and really beautiful and…I dunno, is it metal?
No, no I wouldn’t have said so, but a lot of people are still very receptive to it.
Yeah, it’s got metal influences – the guitars are more metal than anything else – but the rest of it is kind of…there’s like ambient electronica and stuff happening inside that, so yeah. But you know, he’s a great musician, so I’m really glad for that and that association with him. Especially for a policeman – I’m not generally keen! (laughter)
I’m gonna finish off with a few quicker ones. So, if you could play in any fictional location, where would you play?
Fictional location? That’s a fucking brilliant question! Wow. People must tell you that’s an awesome question all the time. I dunno, I’ve never thought about it. God. I’d like to play at The Bronze. Do you know where that is?
That is the nightclub in Sunnydale. Do you know where that is?
From Buffy The Vampire Slayer! Ahhh, of course!
So that is the nightclub that they go to in probably about half of the episodes. Um, so yeah, that would be by far the coolest place to play. There’s an episode where Aimee Mann, who’s a great singer-songwriter, she plays. She’s probably the most famous person they ever had actually playing on that, and she’s playing and it all kicks off and people are getting eaten and bitten by vampires and then she just comes off stage and says “ugh, I hate playing vampire towns” (laughter) it’s pretty funny. So yeah, there you go, that’s my answer: The Bronze.
Lovely. We’ve had a couple of Mos Eisley Cantinas…
…Oh, I dunno about that.
Bit of a rough crowd I think.
If you could travel to any gig in history, or period of a musician’s career and see them play,is there anyone in particular you’d like to see that you haven’t?
Ahh, that’s really really hard. Probably…I’d like to…I guess 1970, ’cause then I’d get Joni Mitchell, I could get like, The Band, Neil Young, and of course Jimi Hendrix…Beatles had stopped gigging by then, but I could go and watch them on the roof. That was 1970 wasn’t it? When they did the gig on the roof in Liverpool?
I’m not that familiar with The Beatles, which is a bit of a heresy I know…
(laughter) so anyway, I could go and see a lot of classic stuff in 1970. That’d be pretty good. I’d probably really like to go back to 1930, and just go and hide out by the crossroads and see if Robert Johnson ever actually did appear in some Satanic ritual, so yeah, who knows? But 1970 would be good.
Other than music, what’s your next biggest talent?
I don’t have any. None. Let me think. I paint, but…awful. But having said that, it’s funny, because my approach to music…well, not music, but being a musician – or being a guitarist – it’s very technical and push myself really to the technical limits of what I can do, so it can be really stressful actually; it can be hard work sometimes, so I quite like doing things that I’m shit at because you can be creative. ‘Cause, you know, people use creative arts as therapy for people who suffer with mental health problems or are very stressed out, and all that kind of stuff – but the way I play guitar wouldn’t be of any benefit to anyone suffering from stress! So yeah, painting I do enjoy, and if I was to try and become a technical master as an artist, that would completely defeat the object for me.
That’s fair enough!
I practice to relax. I play scales to relax. That’s my other thing: just play scales.
Cool! And hopefully this won’t happen, but, what would be the worst eventuality that could happen today, gig-wise?
Do you prefer not to think about it?
No, everything’s happened! Everything bad that could happen to me on stage has at some point happened. I’ve done thousands of gigs in my life so…and also, to be honest, when stuff’s going really well, you’ve got nothing to focus on but what you’re doing. Sometimes, if there’s some aggravation or problem…like a technical problem…you can actually play better because it takes the pressure off you know? I don’t know how else to really put that. So yeah, there’s nothing really that could go wrong. Get booed off? That’s never happened. I don’t think that’s ever happened anyway! (laughter)
Last of all: would you rather have legs as long as your fingers or fingers as long as your legs?
Definitely wouldn’t want anything happening to my fingers, so I’d rather just have the tiny legs
There’s not much doubt about that!
Lovely. Thanks very much Jon!
Jon is due to play Clonakilty International Guitar Festival in Ireland next month.
Previous Tech Fest interviews: