Hardy Northern perennials Elbow have been together for over 17 years. They’ve released four albums and been nominated for the Mercury Music Prize (in 2001 for their debut, Asleep In The Back), but have remained steadfastly under the radar of popular acclaim. Yet to their dedicated and growing fanbase, Elbow are a hidden treasure, their relative obscurity only adding to their unique appeal.
musicOMH indulged in a conflab with lead singer and BBC 6Music DJ Guy Garvey, ostensibly to discuss their recent album The Seldom Seen Kid, ‘the band’s heaviest album yet’, but couldn’t seem to prevent the conversation from straying into discussions on, amongst other things, the evil of James Blunt, the coolest new cocktail on the block, and the possible extra-terrestrial origins of one Richard Hawley…
“Ello mate”. It’s 11am on a fresh spring morning, and Guy Garvey sounds like he’s experiencing the morning after the night before. On record his voice is a wonderful thing that can flit between the gritty, confessional baritone of Nick Cave or Mark Lanegan one moment and the soaring falsetto of Rufus Wainwright the next, but today he’s, well, a wee bit throaty. But while his voice may be drenched in smoke, the man himself couldn’t be more open or affable, answering every question thrown at him with good humour and, well, a frankness that at times borders on the libellous.
First things first, though, and for Elbow, well, things really started a long, long time ago. The band met at sixth form college in 1990, and soon ditched the rather dodgy monicker of ‘Mr Soft’ for the far less priapic Elbow. Where better to begin my conversation than with a quick trip down memory lane: given that most bands these days struggle to stay together for 18 months, let alone years, what, if anything, are Elbow doing right?
“Well, we enjoy what we do, and always have done, we don’t fancy stopping, really.” Right. So no sessions of band counselling, then…? “No, we’ve always kept our own council. We respect each other as musicians and also tend to find each other very funny as people. We have a lot of things in common; for example, we find sleep deprivation funny – which is good, as you don’t sleep much in bands. You tend to age so much in your first year.”
Would you say that Elbow is a democracy, then? “Yes, very much so. We don’t really discuss it, but we all tend to gravitate towards what we do best. For example, I tend to look after our sleeve work, how the band is perceived publicly; I’m the rentagob, basically.” Rentagob is perhaps putting it a tad strongly, but Garvey has always been someone that likes to speak his mind, memorably describing the band’s time in Bury when interviewed by the NME as “hideous. I know loads of great people whose growth has been stunted by Bury.” He’s equally candid when I bring up their nomination for the Mercury Music Prize.
“Yeah, that was astonishing; we were over the moon, we were made up, really. I was on a train to London when I found out, and the guy across from me had just become a practising GP, and when he observed my reaction to the news – which was pretty dramatic – he thought that I’d had a seizure, and he basically thought he’d stumbled across his first real patient… It’s funny, we quite often get asked ‘are you not pissed off about not being as big as your contemporaries, like Radiohead and Coldplay‘, because, well, we’ve all been around the same amount of time…”
Garvey sounds mildly peeved at having to repeat this fact to me, and he’s got a right to be: the notion that Elbow have somehow missed out on achieving wider success seems to crop up again and again in their interviews. It’s difficult to really see where this idea comes from: Radiohead may be fully paid up members of the awkward squad these days, but people forget that their license to experiment was built on the solid foundation of radio-friendly hits like Creep, and bands like Coldplay and Snow Patrol have rarely strayed from their path of bland but tuneful housewife fodder. I can’t really see much of a connection: does Garvey really think that these bands are his contemporaries?
“No, I don’t think so. We’re extremely happy to have been able to live very comfortably off music for 10 years; we put our heart and soul into our records, but promoting them is just a laugh. If it all fell apart today, I wouldn’t regret a single moment, cos so many bands have come and gone in the time that we’ve been together. On the new album, we’re dealing with bigger things. I tend to write about myself, my own experiences, and as well as the last two years in my life being the best two years of my life, there’s also been some heavy stuff happening. I’ve fallen in love – which is great – and it gets better all the time, and I’m happier than I’ve ever been in that respect.
“The boys in the band having babies – that’s always great,” he continues, “but at the same time I lost a friend. A friend of mine died, and I’ve never felt anything so…absolute…in my life. That made me consider some pretty big questions, y’know? That loss made me realise that I was going to die myself one day, and it also made my realise how important my friends are to me. I enjoy socialising and drinking, and I’ve been around music for such a long time, it’s been tempting to think that, as I met most of my friends around music or booze – or both – that maybe the friendships aren’t as valuable as I think they are. But it only takes one loss for you to realise how wrong that feeling is. I know everyone thinks that they have the best mates in the world; well, I actually have.”
Did you have to seriously consider if you wanted to write about such personal topics in the new album, and put them out there for everyone else to hear? “No – that would be dishonest. I’m one of those people that lives to work, and my work is writing songs, and there are one or two songs that I’ve written that I’m so immensely proud of that the whole 17 year thing is really justified by those two or three little 3/4 minute songs. I know I’ve achieved something that nobody’s done before. And I’ve expressed myself; to me, sincerity’s not important in music, but honesty is.”
What’s the difference between those two concepts for you? “There’s nothing wrong with honest to goodness, bubblegum pop music. I’ll tell you what I can’t stand – insincerity, like someone mournfully singing about love without understanding anything about it. It’s just horseshit for the masses; it makes me want to strangle them to death.”
His voice is still soft, and it’s difficult to connect murderous impulses to a lyricist who manages to communicate with such sensitivity, but I’m filled with the conviction that Guy Garvey doesn’t have much time for people that can only talk the talk. He’s not finished, either. “I heard this woman on Radio 4 today called Amanda Ghost; she co-wrote I’m Beautiful by James Blunt. I heard her interviewed on Woman’s Hour, and she got asked ‘Why do people hate that song?’, and her answer was that English people hate success – go to New York, she said, they love it. Now that’s just nonsense – I don’t hate that song because it’s successful, I hate that song because it’s the devil’s shit. It’s taking up space in my brain that better songs could be using instead.”
I’m a little taken aback, and find myself in the unenviable position of trying to justify James Blunt – not exactly my finest hour. Struggling, all I can really come up with is attempting to claim that there’s not really much to like or dislike in people like Blunt: to me, songs like You’re Beautiful are the aural equivalent of Athena posters, or Thomas Kinkade prints: they’re just, well, there, neither being good or bad enough to really merit much attention. That’s not good enough for Garvey, though.
“Yeah, but it’s ‘just there’ too much for me. For me, it was like James Blunt was following me around, stalking me, for three weeks. Now, I’m sure he’s a charming fellah, but having Mr Blunt following you around for three weeks, singing that song…well, you get the picture. It’s a real problem for me; I can’t switch music off, whether it’s playing as background muzak in a lift or even just screaming out of someone’s mobile phone. I’m always aware of whatever music is being played, wherever I am, and I can’t help rating it as good or bad…and that song…is not good.”
Right-o. We blether on a bit more about contrasting honesty and sincerity in popular music, and while I can appreciate Guy’s point that it’s easier to make a song that’s raw and from the heart if you focus on suffering and pain, I feel a bit depressed by it all. Surely this isn’t the band that have chosen to release the swaggering, rocky song Grounds For Divorce as the first single from The Seldom Seen Kid?
“Yeah. It’s got a really Tom Waits-esque feel, the first line of that song, it reminds you of that sort of ridiculous bar-room, twisted gentleman figure that Waits is quite fond of writing about in his work. It’s a funny one, really, the genesis of that song; I had the lyrics written down – before I really knew what they meant – and I had the riff kicking around for a good ten years, and it took that long for me to put the two of them together. The little loop right at the start is from the original recording of the jam that the riff came from; it’s a little snapshot from an Elbow jam around one microphone, and we just kept the same tempo and the same vibe from that session. In terms of the lyrics… well, things weren’t great round here, after my mate died, and I just wanted to get out, really.”
Out of music?
“Out of music, out of Manchester, out of the relationship I was in. I just didn’t want anything to do with anything. And I eventually came round from it, and I realised that I was going through a period of mourning for my friend. Around that time, we were messing around with an an old blues jam, and I thought ‘I need to get something out of this experience, something good’. That’s one of the best things about being a ‘creative,’ I think, that you can take something awful, and twist it around and make it pretty positive.”
“I know everyone thinks that they have the best mates in the world; well, I actually have.” – Guy Garvey, being friendly
Anyone that’s listened to Elbow’s new album can appreciate Garvey’s words. On The Seldom Seen Kid he delivers some of his most personal lyrics; while the album shies away from being a fully-fledged concept piece, a sense of loss and nostalgia for days and people gone by hangs heavily over it, creating a tangible presence that even the album’s lighter songs (like The Fix, a duet with Richard Hawley) can’t completely dispell. It also contains some of Elbow’s best music to date, with the mellifluous Weather to Fly and the soaring, powerful The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Drive being the stand out tracks for me. But the entire album benefits from an incredible attention to detail: its an audiophile’s delight, and the first album that the band has fully produced by themselves. Was the experience different to their previous times in the studio?
“No, in general we’ve worked with some great producers: Marius de Vries, he’s a great producer and a real gentleman; Tom Rothrock, whom we worked with in LA – another beautiful guy – and our old friend Ben Hillier whom we did 2 records with; he’s still a close friend. Craig’s [Potter] had a healthy interest in the recording process for the past 5/6 years, and that really came through on Leaders Of The Free World. We did a lot ourselves on that album, but just felt in the end that we wanted some outside opinions. This time, however, we’ve pretty much gone for it ourselves; it’s all recorded, produced and mixed by Elbow. Do y’know, I heard The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver on the radio this morning, on 6Music; now, that was never meant to be a played on the radio and it just sounds… fantastic.”
Garvey is happy to big up those responsible. “Craig’s done us really proud on this record; he’s messed with stereo in a way that very few people are doing these days – not total separation, just giving things their own space. We really wanted to get a bit more experimental again on this album; for example, my favourite sounding song on the current album – also my favourite personal song – is Weather To Fly. The rhythm track there is made up of piano sounds; not keys, though, but us hitting the body of the piano and slapping the lid. He’s [Craig Potter] a clever bastard, he is; you know, that’s another reason that we’re together after all this time. I’m prone to exaggeration, but the rest of the band are all individually the most capable and skilled musicians at their instruments that I’ve ever come across.”
It’s obvious it takes a lot of work to gets things right in the studio, but what’s it like to try to play those songs live?
“Quite good fun, mainly because you’re not actually sure you can still play them! Quite often you can’t remember what you were actually doing when you recorded a track; it just seems like such long time ago. Currently Craig is trying to work out the piano part to Mirrorball. Now, I wrote it with him, and the last time he tried to play it it was totally divorced from what it sounds like on record. So he’s rehearsing the shit out of that song… (laughs)”
We’re almost at the end of our alloted time, but I’ve still got a couple of questions burning a hole in my notebook. The first concerns Garvey’s duet with Sheffield’s most famous musical export, Richard Hawley. What was recording with him like?
“Well, he was nicknamed ‘The Alien’ by Steve Osbourne, another former producer of ours, who once observed him stay completely in time with a click track after it had faded out on him. Steve just faded it up again later on and there was Richard, still completely in time with the metronome. Freaked Steve out in a big way, hence ‘The Alien’. There is something very odd about him. He’s the only person that I know that can eat an entire black forest gateau in two mouthfuls – and does! – and he eats kebabs and all that shit and he never puts on any weight…”
Finally, Guy, if you actually had to make a cocktail called Grounds For Divorce, what would be in it?
“Right – well, you’re not going to like this because you’re Scottish, but two measures of Jamesons in a pint glass filled to the top with ice – not ice from a bag, ice made with normal tap water from one of those plastic ice tray things that shatters when you use it for the first time. Then fill it up with ginger ale – cloudy if you can get it – add a half of lime, stir, and enjoy.”
Come on – that doesn’t really sound like full-on grounds for divorce to me – it barely registers as a tiff in my alcohometer.
“Alright then… let’s think… I know, drink it completely naked, in your mother-in-law’s kitchen. That’ll do it, I think.”
Elbow’s album The Seldom Seen Kid is out now through Fiction.