Jon Gomm [Interview]
Imagine you’re a guy with an acoustic guitar. You practice a lot. You get good. You experiment with every technique you can possibly think of. You record an album, with the goal of getting gigs. It works – a bit too well. You end up touring for several years, performing in countless countries and covering every continent on Earth.
Things are going pretty well by the time you record a solo performance video for a song that, on paper, shouldn’t have commercial appeal. It’s six-and-a-half minutes long, your vocals aren’t auto-tuned so badly that you sound like Hatsune Miku, and you don’t have your hair cut in a trendy style that makes you look like an Iced Gem. But it also goes viral on the back of the fact that by now, you are a legitimate and undeniable Jedi-level virtuoso. Praise comes flooding in from every corner of the world. You win fans as diverse as Stephen Fry and Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee.
When you’ve been through a journey like that, and it’s still ongoing, you could probably be forgiven for developing a big head and being a bit of a knob. Jon Gomm, however, remains a true gentleman despite social media success, global popularity, and the fact that his star remains deservedly on the rise. Whether you’re a long-time Gomm fan (Gommaholic?) or just curious, read on as Jon Gomm digs deep into the story behind his new live album Live In The Acoustic Asylum and discusses authenticity, drunk Italian dockers, and the counterintuitive reality of being a bipolar performer…
Your new live album Live In The Acoustic Asylum is out next month. What thoughts and feelings are going through your head right now?
Fear, I guess! Not so much about the album release, but just kind of releasing the songs onto the Internet one at a time – because that’s where they get the most added exposure – and then, you know, are people going to like it, are people going to be into it, is it going to be popular, and all these different things.
It’s a little like being a bird with babies in the nest, and then you push them out pretty much hoping they’ll fly, and if not they’ll go splat on the ground, and you’ll be pretty upset!
How did you go about selecting the songs you recorded for the album?
Well, at my gigs it’s pretty noticeable – particularly in the UK – that there’s generally two kinds of fans in the audience. There’s the smaller number, who are people who’ve been coming to see me for five or ten years, who know all my stuff, and then there’s the bigger number, who’re the people who found out about me since I had a viral video. And quite often, people from the smaller and older group will shout out songs they want to hear, and it tends to be certain songs.
So I play them, and after I’ve played them it’s clear that a lot of people in the audience from the bigger group have never heard that song before. They’ve certainly never seen me play that song before, like on the Internet or anywhere else, so it’s like new material for them. And I thought, “I’ve got old songs that I really like, and that other people like, and I should give them a chance to get some of the exposure that my newer stuff gets online”. That way, before I release any new stuff I can make sure that people have heard my old stuff.
That’s cool! So how would you say you’ve evolved, as a musician and as a person, since you released Hypertension back in 2003?
It’s such a huge contrast. Even though the recordings that I made for Live In The Acoustic Asylum are just live, so it’s just cables coming out of my guitar pedal board and going into a computer – that’s how it was recorded, pretty much – it’s not just a nice, clear recording. It actually sounds so much better than the albums that the songs came from!
I know so much more about how to make a good sound. I know so much more about how to do that technically, and also I play so much better than I did 12 years ago when I made Hypertension. I’m such a better player, and a much much much better singer, than I was. Hopefully I’ll keep getting better, and there’s definitely still room for improvement, but it’s just so much better, and that’s the best thing about having versions of these songs where I put on the recording and I feel happy with it, and I’m happy for people to hear it. I’m proud of it.
And then as a person, I’m so much more self-aware than I was, and that’s a really good thing to have as a musician. Because if you’re an acoustic solo artist, it’s really important that you communicate in a sincere and authentic way – it is to me, anyway, when I listen to people.
I don’t want to listen to lyrics and think “I don’t buy that,” you know? You get that with a lot of young singer-songwriters where they’re singing about their life experience, and you just don’t quite believe that it’s real. Even if it is stuff that really happened to them, they don’t know how to make it feel real. They’re not open enough as people; they’re too timid, as young people are, of being exposed and being criticised. And as you get older you care less about that, and you’re able to be much more open.
So a lot of the songs that I used to play, when I wrote them I was really being honest, but when I performed them, even for a record, I was trying to be good and have people be impressed. Whereas now, I feel the same when I play a song as I did when I wrote it, so if there’s exposed nerve endings in the song, if it’s a really brutal, up close and personal song about personal life experience, which might be negative, then I’m happy to do that when I perform and I don’t care if people think that it’s weird or that I look weird or think less of me or something.
I just want it to be real, so I think my evolution as a human being is a big part of why I think I play better, as well.
You’ve played on every continent on Earth, so this is my cheesy interviewer question: Which is your favourite continent, and why?
It’s really hard, because some continents, I’ve only played in one country. So in Australasia, I played in Australia! So I guess…I always feel at home when I come back to Europe. And I think the more you travel, the bigger the expanse of stuff you’re prepared to call home.
So if I’ve flown overseas, as soon as I get back to an airport, if I’m in Amsterdam Airport or something, I feel like I’m pretty much home now and I recognise everything. I know what the food’s going to taste like before I eat it, and I understand how to communicate with people in different countries, and I have a smattering of other languages that I need in Europe. Whereas if I’m in China, it’s like holy crap – it’s like I’ve landed on Mars, it’s so different to here in so many ways.
Culturally, the food, the smells, the sights, the noise, everything is different to here. Though yeah – Europe is my favourite continent to travel around. We’re so lucky to live in it; it’s just amazing that I can just get in my car, drive to Hull, get on a boat, arrive in Rotterdam, and then just drive to any country I want in Europe and go and do gigs! And anybody can do that, and it’s just completely awesome. We’re very lucky.
Yeah – that makes a lot of sense!
Yeah – in your face, Nigel Farage [pronouncing it “Farridge”]! I refuse to call him “Farahhge”. Good old Farridge…
After all those shows, do you ever suffer from stage fright or nerves?
Sometimes. I go through phases where I don’t at all and then phases where I do, but I have a thing called bipolar disorder, which is where sometimes you’re very very confident and outgoing, and really don’t give a fuck – and sometimes you’re really feeling anxious, depressed, and really timid.
So generally it depends what stage I’m at in that bipolar cycle as to how I feel when I go onstage. But it’s funny – what I’ve realised quite recently is that when I’m in this stage where I’m really, it’s called mania, but it means that you’re kind of outgoing, it’s a little bit like being drunk, you don’t feel drunk but you don’t have inhibitions in the same way. And I get onstage and I feel like I can do or say anything and it’ll be fine, everything’s going to be fine, and I really enjoy playing. Whereas in the other stage I might feel more nervous – but actually I play better, when I’ve actually heard recordings and had the clarity of mind to listen back honestly to how I performed, I play much better when I’m in the more kind of low state. Which sucks [laughs]!
I can imagine, yeah…
But I don’t quite have a handle on why. I think it’s because I’m more self-conscious, and so even though I might be nervous onstage I actually play better. I think the self-awareness and self-consciousness is better to have than just ego and feeling abandoned and uninhibited. Because you might think you play well, but actually you’re more messy, you might play songs too fast, or whatever.
That sounds heavy. I have some friends with similar conditions; it’s not something to be taken lightly.
No – it’s a real pain in the arse [laughs]! It really is. It really sucks. But it’s funny – bipolar disorder is such a huge range of things. People could have bipolar disorder and be completely different in terms of the symptoms they have. Not completely different, but very different to somebody else who has it.
It’s just a word that people, doctors, use to define a whole range of symptoms that people might have. So it’s not a very specific thing, it’s not like you’ve got a bipolar switch in your brain and you either have it or you don’t; it’s more like a range of personalities, which are troublesome enough to be classed as a disorder which needs sorting out. But quite a lot of musicians have got mental health issues, so I’m not alone in that!
What would you say is the most difficult thing about being a musician, especially doing your own thing?
There’s so many things which are challenging and hard work. So many different things; it’s really hard to pick one, but today what I’m doing is, I’ve got a new video coming out [on August 18] and I’m transcribing that, doing the guitar tab, and I’ll sell that on my website alongside the single. And transcribing my own music is so hard – so difficult!
It just takes so long, it’s so laborious, and it’s really really tough – but I kind of don’t trust anybody else to do it right, because I need to know that if people come to me and ask me, say via Facebook, “I don’t quite understand how you do this bit,” then I need to be able to tell them straight away, and understand the transcription that’s been written, so I always do it myself. But yeah, it’s really hard [laughs], and there’s a lot of hard things but because that’s what I’m doing today, I’m particularly noticing that it really sucks.
But there’s loads and loads of things about being a musician that’s tough. Just trying to make a living is probably the hardest thing.
Definitely. So what’s the craziest thing that’s ever happened at one of your live shows?
I had a really drunk Italian docker try to get onstage with me.
This was years ago, and I was completely on my own in this town, about 50 people in the audience, and he got onstage and I was trying to negotiate with him to leave the stage, in my terrible Italian. Huge guy as well, really really drunk, and then he was trying to explain something to me but I couldn’t understand his Italian, he was too drunk – and then he reached out and grabbed my guitar. Which was like, he’s crossed the line [laughs]! So I had to remove him from the stage physically [laughs]! I remember grabbing him by the shirt, pressing him against the back wall and explaining very very clearly why he was going to have to leave. And then he did, he just walked away – but the audience were pretty shocked! But there you go, nobody got hurt.
I remember once in Weston-Super-Mare, I was onstage in this kind of rock club, really late on a Friday or Saturday night. And it was free entry into the venue, and it was really fun for about the first half an hour of the gig, and then a bunch of women got onstage with me and just started dancing [laughs]! So they were dancing as I played! And I thought “This isn’t going to work for some of my slower songs, so they’re either going to leave, or it’s going to go badly,” so I just kept playing fun, uptempo songs for the rest of the gig and just went with it. The gig consisted of me and seven backing dancers! It’s not like they were just dancing with each other – they were turning to face the audience and doing synchronised moves!
Then there was the time somebody offered me some weed in Penzance, and said “Oh, but be careful, because I think there might still be some crack in the bag,” or the time I was transported from backstage to the stage on the back of a mechanical floating swan! I don’t think I should explain any more about that last one, I’ll just leave that open [laughs]!
I could just go on for hours and hours about weird shit that’s happened!
If you had to pick just one moment as a highlight of your journey so far, which would it be and why?
Probably the first time I went to a gig with my dad was the most important thing that’s ever happened. I would’ve been about ten years old, and my dad took me to the back room of a pub where somebody used to put on blues gigs. And there was a blues band, probably from the northwest of England, playing in there to an audience of about between fifty and a hundred people, a really small place. And getting to see somebody play guitar in real life, and seeing the way people reacted to it, and the feeling in the room…it was so exciting, and impossible to put into words. That was the most important moment.
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