Tom Gray on green touring, Wal-Mart, and why he won’t proselytize
Tom Gray isn’t sure where the stuffed monkeys came from. He just knows that at the moment, they’re in the way. Moving them to one side, he offers me a seat on the cushioned bench at the front of the Gomez tour bus — or, as he laughingly refers to it, “our own private shithole on wheels.”
Shithole or not, the bus — which runs on biodiesel and “smells of French fries a lot,” Gray told me — is a perfect symbol of the type of tour that Gray and his fellow bandmates have undertaken. Following the lead of groups like Guster and Hot Buttered Rum String Band, the Brit rockers partnered with CLIF Bar to green their recent U.S. tour.
This stop in Seattle was one of their last before a two-week hiatus and a return to the U.K. But the quintet had spent a busy few months taking their bluesy, ’60s-tinged indie rock from Melbourne to New York, even making an appearance on The Tonight Show. During the summer, they surfaced at major music festivals like newly eco-focused Bonnaroo to promote their latest album, How We Operate.
The band has taken the tour-greening to heart, ensuring it’s about much more than choosing the right fueling stations and getting good press. They’re recycling where possible, and trying their best to make sure what they’re consuming — and selling — is organic and locally sourced. When I gestured toward a nondescript box of fruit sitting in plain sight (as if planted there for the purposes of this interview), Gray examined a pear closely, deeming it “too gnarly to be genetically modified or whatever.”
Despite his feeling that it’s “kind of fucked up” that the only way to educate people is through celebrity, the bespectacled Gray — the band’s guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist — amiably shared his views on how to approach environmental issues. “I don’t think anyone’s gonna scare everybody into doing something,” he said matter-of-factly. “I just don’t think that’s the way it’s going to work. It’s got to be economically triggered.”
Our conversation was surprisingly mellow as it rambled from sustainable lodgings to German purity laws to American media. It was interrupted just twice — once as Gray wished bandmate Olly Peacock happy birthday and once as he settled a $10 bet over the star of ’50s musical Gigi (a bet Gray lost “fair and square”) — and all the while provided a clear look at exactly how this up-and-coming band operates.
Is this greening something new that you’ve started or something you’ve been interested in for a while?
Well, obviously, I think everybody’s interested in it. I think you have to be a moron not to be interested in it.
What’s happened with this tour is basically the CLIF Bar people are looking for marketing opportunities, and we’re looking to turn the tour green. We kind of all meet halfway. They pay for all the extra — the excess of the entire tour going green and organic, which would cost us a lot more and would actually make the tour much harder to pull off — and we bring in the corporate sponsorship. Everybody wins. They get to sell their CLIF Bars, and say, “Hey, we’re part of this cool music.” And we get to actually do something that we care about. So it’s a win-win situation.
And I heard you guys are staying at sustainable hotels along the way?
We just try to look for places that are also interested in sustainability and are environmentally aware.
Our T-shirts are made organically. We try to make sure everything that’s brought into the tour is sourced locally. I mean top to bottom … Everything on the bus is recycled. There’s recycling bins under there [lifts a curtain near the front door] … We’re trying to see how far you can do it. There are limits obviously, but it’s pretty successful so far.
So what’s on the list of stuff you have to have backstage?
What’s on the list? A lot of beers on the list. Vodka. Water. Odwalla. Fruit. That’s about it, really.
You go for the organic beers and vodka?
Where possible. I mean, to be honest, we only really drink German beer … and that’s brewed under the German purity law. I don’t know if it’s entirely organic. It hasn’t got anything else weird in it.
As you’ve gone through this process of greening your tour, is there anything you’ve learned that maybe has surprised you?
The accessibility of biodiesel. There are organizations trying to bring about the truckers and everyone so that they can do this. That’s the ridiculous thing — it’s become viable, but people are still talking about it like it’s not viable. And it is. I suppose that’s the point of doing this — to draw people’s attention to that. You know? Say hey, you can do this. This is possible.
Do you mention it to your fans during the shows?
Well, it’s all around. There are big posters telling people about it, and we leave information cards near the doors. We’re not here to proselytize. Not interested in doing that. I’m not on everybody’s back to suddenly become ecologically aware. That’s just not me …
You’re just doing it, and by doing it, showing that it can be done.
Yeah. That’s it. It’s easy to do. I’m not going to tell anybody else what the right or wrong thing to do is … I’m just saying that it’s possible.
Are there any particular issues that you follow?
I’m not so much of an issue person. I’m more of an old-fashioned realist. Always been politically motivated. You know, poverty … is that an issue? I wouldn’t describe it as an issue, really. Calling it an issue kind of belittles it.
What about your inspirations — not just musically, but in the social activism realm?
I don’t know, really. I’m not much of an idolizer in that sense. I don’t really care for that. Plus, I find that whole “cult of a personality” thing a bit overwhelming. I think it allows the media to focus on the personality rather than focusing on the issues. The fact is that the issue gets dealt with but only in a secondary way. It’s kind of a shame. It’s not socially responsible of the media to not be reporting the issues or for artists to need to be using their celebrity to draw attention to the issues.
I think the media thinks that people don’t want to know about stuff … and of course they do. But they don’t want to be told in a “when the earth gets destroyed” kind of way. I suppose it’s not much of a story in saying, “Yes, be socially responsible.” You know, maybe that’s not enough of a story. But it certainly should be.
You guys are from the U.K., and you’re over here touring in the U.S. Do you notice a difference in media coverage of the issues, in people’s awareness, in the availability of organic or biodiesel?
On the coast, it’s very easy to get ahold of organic things. Seattle is case in point. Probably in cosmopolitan cities, it’s easier than it is in the U.K. But across the board … you go into the middle and people are … you know … someone needs to shut down Wal-Mart.
They are starting to sell some organic stuff.
Someone needs to just force their hand. There needs to be more competition in the area of organics. That’s the whole problem. There’s not enough competition. Whole Foods and what have you are far too expensive … It shouldn’t be a middle-class thing.
Everybody should have access.
To decent food, yeah. It’s absurd. People should be growing their own vegetables and shit. They really ought to. The world’s losing touch with itself. Kids don’t know where fruit comes from. They don’t even know the names of half of the vegetables. You haven’t really got much chance of educating somebody about saving the planet from CO2 emissions if they don’t know what a zucchini is or where it comes from.
If they’ve only ever seen it come from a can.
Yeah. It’s just a skewed thing.
And the news is terrible in America. That’s the other thing — the news is just awful. But I think everyone knows that. It’s just weird. It’s like watching a mock-up of the news. They’re not talking about anything, they’re just talking in a certain way about nothing. The “cult of the personality” in American news is a real shame as well. It’s all about the person presenting the news. Who gives a toss what that guy thinks? You know what I mean? Who are you? You’re a journalist. You’re not supposed to have an opinion. So that’s the only hard thing … I mean not having the BBC.
Do you get your news online then?
Yeah, I listen to the BBC news online. I advise everybody to. All Americans should listen to the BBC news online …
We patronize people. It’s OK to give people something that they don’t necessarily know that they want. That’s the truth. It shouldn’t just be led by the moron dollar.
Lately the politics here are shaped by this discussion of American values, of moral issues –
Well, sure. But that’s a load of bollocks, isn’t it? Because we all know that’s just to take everyone’s attention away from what’s really going on … and that everybody is economically motivated.
So what else do you have planned for the future, for your next tour?
We’re going to be sponsored by Shell.