Guy Garvey: ‘My son’s birth made my Dad’s death part of things, rather than the end of things’
Personal and global events have made Elbow's eighth album a much darker and more experimental record, says the singer
Elbow room: Giants of All Sizes is a departure from the band’s last few records
It’s a sunny day in Manchester and Guy Garvey is in a good mood. He’s just come from rehearsals with Elbow at their Salford base, Blueprint Studios, where they have been running through their new songs. They’re sounding good, he says. “Just listening to the songs coming together live – we were all grinning from ear to ear. We can’t wait to get out and play them.”
It’s safe to say that since breaking through to the mainstream with 2008’s The Seldom Seen Kid, Elbow have become a very different band to the one they started out as 22 years ago. If they wanted to, they could probably retire on the royalties of One Day Like This alone, given how often it is played at weddings and over emotional sports montages.
If there is one way to gauge a band’s hunger and drive, however, it’s via their willingness to progress. Their eighth album, Giants of All Sizes, merges the good old reliable Elbow with a band who have rediscovered their experimental side. Given that their last album, 2017’s Little Fictions, went to number one, their willingness to rock the boat is especially interesting.
“We were really pleased with how that album did,” says the eminently warm, likable Garvey, noting that it came at a period of turmoil for the band. “It was a tricky one because of [drummer and founding member, Richard] Jupp having left, and therefore there were different ways of writing, and just the group dynamic changing. I think you can hear it, actually; it’s got quite a reserved element to the music, it’s got quite an introspective slant. But also, it was all done surrounding the birth of my son Jack and Mark [Potter, guitarist]’s daughter, Cici – so there’s a lot of joy and love in that record, as well.”
With stand-in session drummer Alex Reeves in their midst, Elbow changed up their recording process this time around, too. That included travelling outside of the UK for the first time to record, partly through desire and partly through necessity. Several tracks were recorded in Hamburg, while others were recorded in Vancouver, where Garvey’s wife (actor Rachael Stirling) was filming a TV series for three months. Reeves “brought out our prog roots and our rock roots” when it came to the music, but Garvey’s lyrics were informed by both personal and global events.
“There are sort of dark shadows over everybody at the moment, and that really came through in the writing,” he agrees. “Plus, typical life events of men in their forties; I lost my father a year ago in March, and two very close friends of the band died last October within eight days of each other, which was shocking. All of which sort of adds to this being a much darker record.
“Doldrums was about me very much feeling the isolation in Vancouver, because I knew my dad was gonna die when I was out there with my family. I was in the right place, and I didn’t regret that decision, but it was a very dark time for me. And I suppose it made me focus on the darker side of what was going on in Vancouver, which has huge drug problems – as do most major cities in the western world. It was a dark and frustrating time, so that’s where that came from.
“The Delayed 3:15, Mark had written the music for that. Somebody went underneath the train that I was on, and I had the music with me to work on – so I wrote all the lyrics for that song while we were stopped, waiting to move on. So they were two very dark themes on the record.”
Elbow - Empires
Jack’s arrival really helped me through Dad’s death, because it made Dad’s death part of things, rather than the end of things
Having gone through two of the biggest life events in recent years – the death of a parent and the birth of a child (his son Jack is 2½), it’s little wonder that Garvey is feeling especially reflective on this album.
He audibly lights up when his son’s name is mentioned. “He’s obsessed with David Bowie, and quite flatteringly asks to hear Elbow every now and again,” he chuckles. “And quite unflatteringly, he also sometimes shouts ‘No Dada singing any more’. So yeah, he’s a tough audience but he’s a little cracker – I love him to bits.
“One of the main things I’ve found in terms of Jack, and my dad passing away, is that Jack is the absolute image of my dad at that age. And I am the absolute image of my father. And we cover that in the last song on the album, Weightless. The most remarkable observation I made there was that Jack’s arrival really helped me through Dad’s death, because it made Dad’s death part of things, rather than the end of things. And it made my own life part of things, rather than the point of things. I heard someone say, ‘When you realise how similar you are to your father, it makes considering yourself your own man a fool’s errand.’ I thought that was a lovely way of putting it.”
Musically, Giants of All Sizes is certainly a departure from the band’s last few records. That earlier reference to prog is an accurate one; songs such as White Noise White Heat and Empires take unexpected twists and turns, while there is an unbridled sense of freedom on sprawling lead single, Dexter & Sinister, which features Jesca Hoop. In many ways, it harkens back to their debut album Asleep in the Back, when songs such as the phenomenal Powder Blue were what set Elbow apart from so many of their peers.
Now in their forties, Elbow are edging closer to elder statesmen territory
“I think on the last record and, to a degree, the one before it, we were writing songs traditionally with traditional structures,” he agrees. “On this one, it was about being in a room together again. And also, when you write separately, as we do, in the past there’s been something that happens whereby somebody comes up with an idea and they then throw it to the group.
“What we did this time was people went further with their ideas before they came to the band. We made decisions sat around in a circle playing, which we haven’t done for a while. And also, just this sense of ‘let’s do something that we’re start-to-finish incredibly proud of’.
“It’s tempting to write for the audience you know you have, and it’s tempting to sort of consider the songs and how they’re gonna be live, and that kind of thing. We didn’t do any of that – we just stuck to the rule of ‘what do you want to do next?’
“The comparisons to Asleep in the Back – everyone has made that comparison, amongst the people who’ve heard it. I can’t hear it musically, myself – but it’s a really positive thing that people think that. We’re all very flattered by that.”
When a young, vital group like that come and tell you that you’re relevant to them, that’s, like, the biggest compliment
Now in their forties, Elbow are edging closer to elder statesmen territory, but Garvey says they’re fine with handing on the baton to the next generation.
“I tell you what is a huge buzz: when we played in Dublin last, we asked if Fontaines DC could support us, because we’re all mad about that band, they’re just so good,” he says. “So they played and that ‘big’ single of theirs, Dublin in the Rain; the rain was pouring down when they were playing it, and it was just perfect. Afterwards, they came and said hello and that they were big fans. Whether they were paying gentlemanly lip service or they were telling the truth, that’s a huge honour. When a young, vital group like that come and tell you that you’re relevant to them, that’s, like, the biggest compliment.”
Reinvention of sorts
Giants of All Sizes may be a reinvention of sorts for Elbow, or an attempt to reclaim their indie kudos in the face of mainstream success, but there is no doubt they are now a festival-headlining, arena-filling band – whether they ever intended on becoming one or not.
“We were on the brink of calling Asleep in the Back ‘Disc 1 of 4’ – now, that would have been an error,” he laughs. “The whole idea there was ‘let’s make four killer albums and walk off into the sunset’. And I’m really glad we didn’t do that. We still get a huge buzz out of it. I remember my sister did a crazy charity parachute jump when she was at university, and she had a T-shirt made which said: ‘Take not thy altitude in vain, for the ground shall rise and smite thee.’ So I try and keep that in my mind at all times. It’s very nice to feel like an established group and to have that love and support when we release a record – but none of us ever take it for granted.”
Giants of All Sizes is out on October 11th. Elbow play Dublin’s 3Arena on March 28th, 2020