Alternative rock band Elbows its way to the top of the British music scene

by Chuck Myers

McClatchy-Tribune News Service (MCT)

26 August 2009

(Chuck Myers/MCT) 

The British alternative rock band Elbow finally finds itself “mercifully free of the pressures” of anonymity.

All it took was three brilliant records, followed by an overdue commercial breakthrough.

“The Seldom Seen Kid” (Geffen), the latest album from the rock quintet (singer-guitarist Guy Garvey, bassist Pete Turner, drummer Richard Jupp, guitarist Mark Potter and keyboardist Craig Potter), has reaped well-deserved praise from numerous music quarters, and scored the prestigious Mercury Prize in 2008 and the Best British Group award for the band at this year’s Brit Awards.

Yet, as any long-time Elbow fan will tell you, “The Seldom Seen Kid” merely represents the latest installment a well-established creative continuum.

Recently, frontman Garvey discussed Elbow’s success and artistic process, as the group from Manchester wrapped up its latest North American tour.

The Mercury Prize represents a significant high point in Elbow’s career. But it didn’t come easy.

The band, which has played together for 18 years, released its debut, “Asleep in the Back,” in 2001. The album exhibited a ranging musical dexterity that echoed early Radiohead and the progressive vibe of rock legends like Genesis and Pink Floyd. The record also earned the ensemble its first Mercury Prize nomination.

Elbow’s follow-ups, “Cast of Thousands” in 2004 and “Leaders of the Free World” in 2005, further underscored the group’s talent for moving, potent numbers.

The band faced a significant problem with its label, V2, however, during the release of “Leaders of the Free World.”

“By the time V2 released that record, they were collapsing,” recalled Garvey. “The fact that they were collapsing meant that we’d didn’t get the record service the way we wanted ... We’re very proud of that record, and still are. But there were Elbow fans in the world that didn’t know it was out. It was a huge disappointment. But the first thing we always do when faced with a disappointment or a setback, which has been going on for a long time, is get in the studio and start writing.”

Any concern the band felt over V2’s demise gave way quickly to focus in the studio, and in early 2008, “The Seldom Seen Kid” arrived.

“Mark said a long time ago that you don’t need record labels to make records,” said Garvey. “And, he’s absolutely right. We made ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ without a record label, just the five of us, with Craig doing the producing this time. So for this one to be the one that’s got the commercial success, the first one we’ve done completely on our own, in our own studio, makes us even prouder.”

Elbow’s sound seethes and swells as much as it blazes over sundry scales. The band’s graceful harmonies and melodic textures result from an extensive sonic trial and error process.

“We do an awful lot of experimenting,” said Garvey. “For every song that makes a record, there are 12 that don’t. And they become nothing most of the time or we grab odds and ends of them and use them in different song. We’ve got this terrific synthesizer fanfare thing that I wrote about three or four years ago, maybe more than that. When we finally get it on a tune, it’s going to put whatever song we put it on over the edge.”

Field recordings and expanded instrumentation are among Elbow’s most effective music tools. The barking dog that intros “Fugitive Motel” on “Cast of Thousands,” for instance, sets up the song’s longing air beautifully, while the bit of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” that plays out “The Bones of You” on “The Seldom Seen Kid” grounds the number in a sense of daily life.

“It’s always been whatever the album needs, and on a smaller scale, whatever the song needs,” explained Garvey. “If it needs a trumpet refinement or if it needs a bicycle wheel, we’ll use a bicycle wheel ... They can work as a mood changer or an answer.”

One or more stirring ballads typically anchor an Elbow album. The emotive atmosphere in these songs, such as the yearning and aching isolation conveyed in “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver” on “The Seldom Seen Kid,” owe their expressive force in no small measure to Garvey’s exceptional, vivid lyrics.

“I live in a confined place really,” noted the 35-year-old singer-songwriter. “I only write about things that I’ve experienced, because that’s the only thing I feel any authority on.”

Poignant ballads aside, Elbow also likes to have fun musically. One recent ditty, “The Fix,” offers a good-natured take on a racetrack scam, performed as a duet with guest artist Richard Hawley.

“If you try to do anything heartfelt as a duet, it’s immediately cheesy, with very few noble exceptions,” said Garvey. “We decided that the best duets were comedy ones. So we came up with the idea of two guys that fix a horse race and how they’ll spend the cash.”

Each Elbow album furnishes a decided start-to-finish listening experience. Yet the group’s records may not reach listeners in their entirety these days due to music downloads.

While downloads provide income for recording artists, Garvey has mixed feelings about the distribution method.

“I’d be lying if I said we didn’t consider commerciality when choosing singles. But, I would love to be able to bundle an album. ... In download culture, where music is concerned, obviously it’s troubling that people are stealing music. At the same time, I’ve only got a problem with that if you can afford music. If you can afford music and you steal it, then there’s a special place in hell reserved for you.

“Yeah, but I wish you could only download albums (in their totality).”

In the meantime, Elbow has its attention on a more immediate matter — a fifth record planned for sometime in 2010.

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