Leaders of a Powder Blue World

An Interview with Elbow

by Eddie Ciminelli

Elbow takes some time to show us a high-class hangout, but end up proving they've stayed grounded.

As I ride the green neon encased escalator up to the Hudson Library Bar mentally preparing to sit down with Manchester band Elbow, one of my favorite bands of the past few years, there is only one thought rattling around my head: “I am in deep shit.”

When I began writing for this website eight months ago, the very first assignment I requested was to interview this band. I had recently been put in touch with the people at their label V2 and convinced them to let me talk with the band as I treated them to drinks at a nearby bar. I romanticized the idea of sitting with Elbow in some seedy watering hole in the Lower East Side as we shot pool, drank dark ale, and mourned lost love. But as I make my way through this bar, surrounded by suits and old money, I quickly realize that I and my checkbook are out of my league.

The band opts for a place I have never heard of in Midtown West. The Hudson Library Bar is elegant. The walls are covered in books on high unreachable shelves, whose purpose seems to lend an aesthetic charm to the place rather than books to its visitors. There is a pool table in the middle of the room with an enormous lampshade providing illuminating warmth to the felt cover of the table. Inexplicably there are numerous paintings of cows in clothes, walking, eating. It is fascinating and seems vastly out of context. Comfortable leather couches are plentiful, certainly to the disapproval of their surviving brethren that keep a resentful watch. I eye a couple chessboards sitting unoccupied in different corners of the room but the band is nowhere in sight. So friend and PopMatters colleague Timothy Kiteless and I sit down anxiously awaiting our guests. He orders a drink. I drink water as I calculate how many rounds my bank account can afford.

It is only right that I am here with Tim. It was he after all that introduced me to this band four years before as we sat in his dark apartment in the midst of a frigid Boston winter listening to their debut Asleep in the Back while drinking Sam Adams Winter Lager; he chain-smoking cigarettes as I did my best to find enough shake in my bag to get high. I remember hearing this album and feeling like someone was beside me looking out the same windows, missing the same woman, and faltering under the same vices. I remember distinctly hearing a young, grizzly Peter Gabriel. Four years later, on the eve of their only show in the United States in more than three years, Tim and I are introduced to Pete Turner (bass) and Richard Jupp (drums).

They are warm and polite, the very definition of British hospitality. The four of us sit completely engaged with one another for the better part of 20 minutes as we wait for lead singer Guy Garvey to finish another interview. The publicist comes up and whispers in my ear that the label will take care of everything this evening and we should enjoy ourselves. A weight is suddenly lifted from my shoulders and a Bombay and Tonic is agreeably placed in my hand. The band drinks Scotch with a single ice cube. They have to leave in a couple hours to attend the MTV Woodies, the new “indie” music award ceremony. I am confused. They appear to be as well. When I ask if they had been nominated for anything or were performing, they shake their heads. Then why are you going? The open bar.

Pete explains: “We do what we love and we get paid nicely for how we make our living, but we aren’t millionaires. Yeah, we make good money but we would rather put our money aside into savings than blow it on getting pissed. No matter what happens with the success of our band, free booze is still free booze.” He says this with no pretension or the slight bit of care to whom he is saying this. Not only are these two gentlemen very genuine, but they are clearly quite pragmatic.

As we wait, Jupp tells me that we should clear some extra room for Guy because he had broken his foot and was in a cast. Completely unaware of his recent accident, I ask what happened and Jupp replies with a simple smile. “You will have to ask him. And there he is now.”

Tim and I turn around to see this bear of a man in a sport coat and a thick beard the color of a late autumn gold smiling apologetically as he navigates through tight spots, his cane looking for some open. When he sees his friends from across the room, they all exchange smiles. From all the press I have read about Elbow it is understood that theirs is a group of old intimate friends, full of inside jokes and experiences that bind them together much more than any professional commitment ever could. As Guy is introduced to us and we find an extra chair for him to elevate his leg, I see how accommodating and affectionate these men are with one another. It is clear that he would prefer people not to fuss over him and I am instantly reminded of a line from “Snooks (Progress Report)” when Guy pronounces, “Stuff regarding all my friends / Some are married / All are fine / These are good friends / These are mine.” It is these everyday observations that the band so effortlessly turns into musical poetry. Guy’s fascinations with people watching that naturally lead him to writing such distinct lyrics.

“Back in the day I used to have a friend who worked at the post office and he would steal me free bus passes and cigarettes and I used to go into town and sit on a bench and watch people,” says Guy.

He has had a habit of keeping little journals on him at all time; jotting down ideas of the everyday things that he comes across. In fact one of these journals went missing somewhere between London and Manchester shortly after Asleep in the Back came out.

“When you lose something like that you convince yourself that your best stuff was in there. I suppose the saddest thing about it was that I have journals going back since I was 14. And that is the only hole in the collection. Anything that was good you remember.”

And Elbow is a band remembered for their words. Elbow chooses to address much more mature yet commonplace issues of the human fabric. Each member shares various stories of fans commenting how personal their songs had become for them. There is the woman who had a miscarriage and wrote the band to tell them she only felt solace when playing “Newborn” off of their first album. She wrote how she felt less alone and able to address her pain most when listening to this song.

One of Guy’s earliest poems was mildly adjusted and included in the opening track of their new album, “Station Approach.” The chorus begins with “I feel like I designed the buildings I walk by”, which was taken from a journal whose original line read, “Walking around the city / Like a finger puppet hippie / Like I designed the city” (“That was from a poem I wrote when I was sixteen and its complete crap. I took the idea and just flipped it in my head.”). My personal favorite Elbow song, “Powder Blue”, also has a unique story behind one of its more sentimental images.

“There is that line from ‘Powder Blue’: ‘I’m proud to be the one you hold when the shakes begin’ and that comes from something that I witnessed years ago. I saw this couple ailing in a bar, both obviously having trouble withdrawing from something at the time. She was tapping a coin on the bar trying to get a drink. It was really loud—it was a marble-topped bar. And everyone in the bar was staring. She was just concerned about getting served cause she was so strung out. Then the guy came up from behind her and steadied her hand and there was a little bit of an exchange. He was being tender, he wasn’t reprimanding her or anything. And they both ended up in tears; both in a bad way—especially her. So I took that couple and they got married in my head. ‘I am proud to be the one you hold when the shakes begin.’ It is because in the depths of our degradation, unhappiness, and despair we have each other and that is as strong as any love story ever told.

“I met this girl once who was a fan of our music and she told me her story about ‘Powder Blue’. This girl lived with one of her friends and developed epilepsy. Her roommate shortly after became a DJ, she was very supportive of her and ‘Powder Blue’ became their song, especially the line we are discussing. She used to play it for her on her radio show. She would never say her roommate’s name and would just say, ‘This is for you,’ and made it seem like she was playing it for everybody and people never really knew what the song being played was all about. And tragically the girl who was the disc jockey shortly after died in a car crash and the song ends with a bottle smash. It’s all a little too eerie. And this woman began to tell me why she loved this song and that’s far more emotional than the lyrics in the version that I had written. And that happens with songs. Once you put them out there, they aren’t yours anymore.”

Pete adds, “You know when you take a song and you have an idea about what it’s about and you sort of make it work for you? When I always find out what something was intended to mean it sort of takes it to a whole other level.”

This is precisely what makes Elbow one of the most moving bands in music today. Whereas it seems a band the magnitude of Coldplay are often condemned for forcing emotions upon a listener, Elbow chooses to let their music mean whatever their listener needs it to be. To me there is something spectacularly beautiful and intimate in the line in “Great Expectations” when Guy mutters, “You only smoke because it’s something to share”, and even though I can’t say for sure, I know exactly what he means. But to Guy- to this band- their music is a gift to us to help get through our days. To celebrate the ebb and flow of what it means to be alive; the idea that every day is a new day to start all over again and do our best to get it right.

The band is a bit puzzled when I ask them if they hate the States before I follow it up by asking them why they don’t come here more often to which Guy, without missing a beat, asserts it’s the US’ “lack of cow paintings and our lampshades aren’t big enough.” The band turns serious and expresses the same frustration that we stateside fans have when we usually have to wait five to six months after the UK release date for their albums to wash up on our shore. They wish they had more effective communication with their label and were able to get everything out at the same time, but they insist their job is to just make the music.

The collaborative spirit of the band is most evident in the DVD that accompanies their latest album, Leaders of the Free World. The band rented out a large warehouse space, Blueprint Studios, just outside of Manchester and camped there for a year while recording their new album. A group of their friends who make up the workshop The Soup Collective set up cameras and microphoness across the entire room capturing the intimacy of the period, showing the band handling the skeletons of many of their songs and how they went about adding layers. The coverage over the year was enough to create 11 music videos for the new songs. Their videos are true to their respective songs and done very much in the vein of the band’s signature look. There is a moment at the beginning of “Mexican Standoff” where you can hear a child laughing. This is none other than Jupp’s three-year-old son, Dylan.

“If you listen to the beginning of that song you can hear this strange noise and that was Jupp playing with the pedals of a bike we had in Blueprint. It was upside down and we had it rigged to record the sound and little Dylan was watching him. Imagine being a little boy and seeing your father do these silly things with a bike!” Guy says.

The theme of the same song is a point of interest to me as well. I ask Guy if he considers that he immortalized his girl’s ex in this song as he sings and muses how the ex would look beneath the wheels of a car. I would love to know that a song was written about me even if I was the subject of an idle death threat.

“Yeah, I have considered that but I could hardly care. I am sure he knows the song is about him, but that is fine. I am not even with the girl anymore.”

When Tim inquires about their relationship with fellow Manchester neighbors and peers Doves, the band is nothing short of affectionate toward their peers. Tim asks why it seems that most Elbow fans are familiar with Doves, yet not every Doves fan is familiar with Elbow.

Guy explains, “I think it comes down to they are very good at the anthem. They have a big base amongst the soccer fans at home. We are considered to discuss the same subject matter lyrically, musically we have the same roots, and they are a little bit older. Very basically they are contemporaries of ours and very beautiful men. Cool as fuck.”

Jimi Goodwin, lead singer of Doves, was credited in the liner notes of the band’s second album Cast of Thousands as were hundreds of attendees at the 2002 Glastonbury Festival. Guy had the entire crowd singing the chorus to gospel-infused “Grace Under Pressure”, and it is moving to hear 8,000 people singing “We all believe in love, so fuck you!” Each of the men positively glows when reflecting upon this moment. I realize that it wasn’t the control of the crowd that gets these guys off; it’s the understanding that an Elbow fan is one who still believes in that sentiment and isn’t embarrassed to say it. Or yell it.

The band insists that despite the new album’s overtly political album, they aren’t trying to make some grandiose political statement but don’t shy away from calling a spade a spade. The album’s title track is a direct dig at both United States President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. I directly mention the line: “But the leaders of the free world / Are just little boys throwing stones / And it’s easy to ignore / Until they’re knocking on the door of your home.” I wonder about the significance of such a line back home after the London bombings this summer.

“Well obviously that is the point—to wake people up. I am not going to sit here and say we predicted something like that happening but it takes something like that for people to start raising their hands and asking, “what’s going on here?” says Guy. He hesitates just for a moment when I ask him what we would do if stuck in an elevator with Blair and Bush for an hour.

“Oh I would probably try and plot them against one another; get in their heads and whatnot spouting conspiracy theories about one another. Bush I most likely would just stare at until his mind exploded.”

There are times throughout the interview I most likely ask something so straightforward they seem reticent to discuss certain topics during an interview. But when Tim and I assure them that these are questions coming from fans and not reporters, they ease up. Three-quarters of this interview is done off the record and it is simply enjoyable sharing their company. We talk about their concern that they are perceived as this super serious band—all tissues and tears—but in person they may be the funniest and self-effacing musicians I have ever spoken with. The next half hour the five of us sat around ordering more drinks covering everything from the Peter Gabriel comparisons to Guy’s voice (Jupp: “I can hear it.” Pete: “I don’t, but that should be taken as a compliment” Guy: “Absolutely.”) to who would win in a drunk ping pong tournament (Guy insists it would be himself as he could hold his liquor the best before Pete informs him that it would be Craig (Potter, organ) because “he would pretend to be pissed just to win”). This is a band that attended college together (“I don’t know how much studying was necessarily done”), was dropped by two labels and together for ten years before their debut was released. They have been through it all together as a band and appear to dismiss the rocky road they have traveled other than to reflect upon its lessons because it had finally lead them here. They have finally made it. They understand why they don’t sell nine million records but on the flip side they understand why they receive letters from fans like the ones we discussed. They smile about their mistakes when they trip up, even quite literally in the case of their hobbled lead singer.

And what about Guy’s leg?

There isn’t any fancy story that comes along with that. He wishes there was but sheepishly admits he was simply crossing the street when his foot got caught “before going down.” Their publicist tells us time is up and the band has to be shuttled off to an award ceremony they are uncertain about the exact reason they are attending. We shake hands and I look at Guy and ask what the chances were of hearing “Powder Blue” the next night.

“Oh man, we haven’t played that song in like seven or eight years. I wouldn’t count on it, but we will see.”

The next evening, as I am surrounded by some of my best friends who have come from different corners of the country to see this unassuming little known band from Manchester, I hear the opening chords of “Powder Blue” and practically feel paralyzed. I put my head down and my hand on my face. I would be lying if I didn’t admit part of me was convinced the band played that song after the conversation we had and my personal request at the end of the night. That might sound a bit self-important, but then again I’m confident the Elbow is just fine with me making that moment anything I want it to be so long as I enjoyed it.

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