'Oi Elbow, get a job'
As Elbow were applying the finishing touches to their imminent fifth album in December, they let LAUREN MURPHYin to their Salford studio to tell her about going global just as they’re settling down in Manchester – and how you know you’ve made it when you’re adorning fridge magnets
GUY GARVEY is sitting across the table with a mug of steaming tea and two chocolate biscuits, gazing in wonder at the fridge magnet I’ve just handed him. ‘F***in’ ’ell, Pete, look at that!” he exclaims, nudging his bandmate. The magnet, spotted this morning at a city-centre market stall hawking all things northern, bears the inscription “‘They return the love around here, don’t they?’ – Guy Garvey on Manchester”.
“I’ve arrived,” he says. “Now I know what I’ll be getting all of my family for Christmas.” Elbow’s frontman may joke, but there’s no getting away from the fact that things have changed for his band over the past three years. It’s a freezing December day in Salford, Manchester. We’ve come to Blueprint Studios to hear the follow-up to The Seldom Seen Kid, the record that brought the quintet critical and public acclaim after a decade of keeping their heads above the waterline.
READY FOR LIFT-OFF
Upstairs, keyboardist and producer Craig Potter is in the control room, tinkering with the last tiny details of Build a Rocket Boys!Garvey, bassist Pete Turner, guitarist Mark Potter and drummer Richard Jupp, meanwhile, are talking about how they’ve managed to keep their feet on the ground amid the mad phase they good-naturedly call “winning all the awards”.
“Our egos have grown at precisely the same rate, so it doesn’t really affect our relationships – we’re all twats,” smirks the amiable Garvey. “A Manchester compliment is . . . well, when we were ‘winning all the awards’, I was on Portland Street, and somebody wound down the window of their car and shouted ‘Oi Elbow – get a job, y’twat’.”
That northern grounding also provided the basis for much of the new album’s lyrical themes. The singer spent a lot of time ruminating on his childhood and distilling the memories and emotions associated with it in to lyrics that worked.
“I suppose with Seldom I had fallen in love when we started writing that. And we’ve moved in together now, to my old neighbourhood – on the same street where Pete and I used to share a flat, actually.
“Even though I’ve never lived outside Manchester I’ve recently decided that I want to be more a part of my family again. Because when you’re young and you’re having it wild – which we all have been doing for the past 15 years – you perhaps see your folks at Christmas or whatever. But now they’re getting on a bit, I’ve got plenty of nieces and nephews, the boys have all got children, so a lot of the themes on the record are remembering teen years, remembering growing up – the difficulties as well as the joys of being a teenager. And they’re also sort of questioning where I’m at now.
“It started with the doubt, this record. Because I’ve decided to build a home and start a family, like the rest of us have, you kind of curtail your more impulsive behaviour in order to do that well. Well, we get to go on tour, so it’s not entirely true that we’ve curtailed all of that impulsive behaviour . . . we still drink way too much when we’re on tour,” he smiles. “But yeah, your considerations change, and it would have been dishonest to write 10 ‘baby-baby-babies’ for this album.”
INTO THE GROOVE
Bringing the groove back in to Elbow’s sound – as heard on many of the new songs, including opening track The Birds and the striking High Ideals – was central to Build a Rocket Boys! after the more languid compositions dotted through its predecessor.
“That’s something we’ve been worried about in the past,” says Turner. “The groove not being ‘cool’. There’s a lot of it on this album, though. I think it’s kind of a little bit rough around the edges – certainly more so than Seldom. There are areas where you’ve done your part, and maybe in the past we would have done it again to perfect it, but not this time. There are little bits and bobs that just aren’t as polished as previously, but I think it’s probably the place we’re at. We enjoy those things now, hearing little mistakes here and there.”
“I think we’ve really nailed the range in the songs, and keeping them as simple as we can,” adds Potter. “You can work on a song for so long, and know whether it’s working or not. I think the songs are less laboured because of that; the cut-off point was a lot quicker.”
The new album is certainly different to everything that’s gone before, but in many ways it also harkens back to Elbow’s early days. There are parts of several songs that could almost pass for cuts from the Asleep in the Backsessions. That was no accident, says Garvey, although the potential estrangement of their new fans was also borne in mind.
“I suppose with Seldom, we opened the door to a lot of new people and sort of said ‘Come on, come and have a look at these nice big tunes that did so well’. But as much as we love those songs, there’s other sides to what we do – and we felt that now we have their attention we can perhaps go back to those places that we haven’t visited for a while that we really enjoy.
“But if we’d done something that was pure left-field ‘art for art’s sake’ without considering the fact that we were gonna tour, and play them on a stage, or the fact that we need to make money in order to keep doing this – that would have been quite a churlish move that would probably have ended our careers. We would have made a very beautiful album that nobody wanted. Also, if we’d come out with 10 stadium-filling stompers we’d have disappointed the people who’ve been with us for the last 15, 20 years.
“We just decided very early on that we were gonna do what came naturally, and try and write as honestly as possible. I think this is the record we’ve always wanted to make. I think we all feel that way, actually.”
The band’s approach to writing album number five also differed slightly, although not necessarily as a result of their recent success. The band decamped to Scottish island Mull for initial writing sessions, and Garvey broke with his usual solitary lyric- writing process, too. There’s even a song on the album – Jesus Was a Rochdale Girl– that appears in its original demo form, having been written and recorded in an afternoon during their last tour.
“There’s two strands to writing with the band: we all work on the music together and, traditionally, I’ve worked on the lyrics very, very separately. I brought them in when they were done and asked the lads’ opinions. But a lot of the lighter stuff on this record, we workshopped the lyrics together. They were still coming out of my journals, and they were still my words, but the lads were helping me chug it along, and it was a lot more fun. In the past that’s been a lot of pressure for me, even though they’ve been dead patient. This time, less so. It’s always a bit tricky; it always results in some sleeplessness and a real craving to get pissed out of my face, and that happened again . . . I got pissed out of my face. But less so than before,” he laughs.
“Like I said, we’ve always wanted to write this record, so there was that keeping me going. Being really, really proud of the music that you’ve made helps you write emotionally about stuff. We have no idea how it’s going to be received, but I think that’s healthy. It means we’ve not made the same record again, which is the most important thing.”
ON THE GARVEY TRAIN
None of the band can pinpoint exactly what made The Seldom Seen Kidso tremendously successful – so it’s certainly not a case of repeating a magic formula, they insist.
“I think you’ve got to think at some point, when does every record you make stop being the be-all-and-end-all of your musical career and when do you just make records ’cos that’s what you do? And that clicked for us around Seldom,” says Garvey. “We’d been in and out of so many record deals, and we’ve still all lived off it for, at that point, 10 years. So it was ‘this is what we do – let’s get on with it’.
For all their musings on the recent past, however, Elbow are now firmly looking to the future with a new-found confidence for perhaps the first time in their careers – especially given the fact that they were without a deal by the time even The Seldom Seen Kidwas finished. The backing of Fiction/Polydor is invaluable, they say, given the way some of their previous albums were marketed. An arena tour also beckons, and they promise a big show with plenty of intimacy despite the cavernous venues they’re booked into, particularly for Dublin’s O2, where the tour ends.
But no matter what happens, they all agree, they’re going to savour the nerves and excitement that comes with the process of letting a new album out into the wild.
“My friend Sandy has a good ear, and is good with the advice. When we were struggling with Cast of Thousandsway back when, I was saying ‘I don’t know how I feel about this album. I don’t know what it’s gonna sound like. It’s half-finished, etc.’ And he said: ‘Just remember as you go along that you’re allowed to do a shit one.’
“And so far, I don’t think we’ve done our shit one. So if everyone decides that this is it . . . ” says Garvey, leaning back in his chair with a hearty chuckle. “Nah. I think it’s such a buzz to get to this point, and for all of us to be still in love with the songs. I just can’t wait to see what people think of it.”
Build a Rocket Boys!is out on March 4. Elbow play Dublin’s O2 on March 31