[9 March 2011]
Some bands seem to appear out of nowhere and immediately start shifting huge quantities of records and selling out arenas. Then there are those who put in years of hard craft and eventually achieve some well-deserved recognition. Elbow fall firmly into the latter category; their career always seemed to be a slow-burner.
The great promise shown in their debut album, 2001’s Asleep in the Back, certainly suggested that they would go on to great things. But, despite two subsequent albums that won them ongoing praise and a committed following of those in the know, they never appeared to reach the tipping point they’d seemed destined for. Then, in 2008, they released their fourth album, The Seldom Seen Kid, and everything changed. Commercially, the record performed better than any of their previous albums, and then later in the year it won Elbow a Brit award, two Ivor Novello songwriting awards, and the prestigious Mercury Music Prize, cementing their status as one of the most accomplished bands in Britain.
This year, they bring out album number five, Build a Rocket Boys!. A few days before its UK release date, I caught up with bassist Pete Turner to discuss where this record will sit in relation to the rest of their flourishing career.
He concedes that after the huge success of The Seldom Seen Kid, expectations for the new album might be high. “You’d assume it’d be like second album syndrome,” he says, “but it was the most fun to make and the most relaxed of all our albums.” The fact that Elbow were at a high point in their career as a band certainly aided the process. In the past they have been dropped by labels, but that scenario is no longer on the cards. “We had confidence,” Pete says. “We knew that it would come out and that a large number of people would hear it. We had no pressure on ourselves, so of all of our albums, this one was actually the easiest to write.”
After touring extensively in support of The Seldom Seen Kid, Elbow sat down to think about what they would do next. “We didn’t want to look like we were cashing in on our success,” says Pete, “so we had to ask ourselves ‘What would you want to hear next if you were a fan?’” Of course, their fanbase has expanded in recent years, so it’s now harder to determine what the archetypal Elbow fan wants to hear. But the band seemed to have a pretty good idea. The first song from Build a Rocket Boys! that was made available to hear was “Lippy Kids”, a moody keyboard-led piece that harkens back to Elbow’s early sound, which Pete tells me was a very deliberate move. “That was for the old fans, to show that things hadn’t changed,” he says. “I’m proud of The Seldom Seen Kid, and I can’t help but be pleased with its success, but we probably write for the older fans.”
“Lippy Kids” is one of the highlights of Build a Rocket Boys! and will no doubt be well received by fans old and new. The song finds singer Guy Garvey reflecting on the younger generation, asking, “Do they know those days are golden?” That nostalgic mood is typical of the album, and a bit of a change of pace for the group. I was interested to know how this tone has come about. “It’s the age we’re at,” says Pete, “and the success of The Seldom Seen Kid. We’re in a good place, but looking into the past is more interesting. Guy joked that if he was writing lyrics about what he’s doing now, it’d be a song about choosing wallpaper. Our previous albums have tended to focus on just the past couple of years, but this one goes back further.”
It seems an appropriate time for Elbow to take a retrospective glance. They have been playing together for 20 years, maintaining their original line-up throughout. What is the secret to their longevity? “Well, we’ve been through a lot together,” Pete says. “We’ve toured the world together, and we’ve seen each other have families. And we enjoy each other’s company; we’re really good friends. I can’t imagine things being any different, I don’t question this part of my life at all.
“We are pretty fucking lucky,” notes Pete. It should be noted, however that it isn’t just the band’s recent breakthrough that has made them feel so fortunate. “We’ve always felt that way, not just for the past few years. Things were good before The Seldom Seen Kid: we’ve been making our living as a band for the past ten years, and we’ve always been received positively by the critics.” All of Elbow’s members have remained committed to the band throughout their history. I ask Pete if there has been a temptation to pursue solo work or other side projects. It turns out that while they have worked with other musicians on occasion, Elbow has always remained their priority. “I’ve done things with Stephen Fretwell,” he says, “and Guy and Craig have done some producing. But I can’t really imagine doing anything else. If I wasn’t with Elbow, I don’t know what I would carry on with.”
Another constant in their work is Manchester, where the all of the band have continued to base themselves. There seems to be something particularly Northern about their sound—it’s not just Garvey’s accent that creates that mood—and this is presumably a product of the city where they work. Since their third album, Leaders of the Free World, Elbow has recorded there, at Blueprint Studios, which Pete tells me they have a great attachment to. “It’s in Salford, on the edge of the city. When you look out of the window you see blocks of high-rise flats, and Strangeways Prison [which was of course immortalized by another Manchester band, the Smiths]. It looks grey, but it’s actually inspiring. We were asked recently if we could imagine a life somewhere like L.A., but I think it would be strange and bizarre to write outside of our city.
“Also, Manchester is where all of our families are. After we’ve been away on tour, it’s nice to go back to normality and get into a routine of going to the studio to work, and then going home.” Elbow is by no means the only great band to come out of Manchester, and the city’s musical heritage has been influential. “We were leaving school when the whole Manchester scene was going on: the Stone Roses, New Order, Joy Division.” But it’s the ethos of Manchester music as much as the sound that has proved an influence. ‘Manchester musicians are all very easy going,” says Pete. “There’s no hierarchy in Manchester music. Even people like Manny are real people, good normal people.”
Then there are the musical influences that go beyond Manchester. “We have albums and artists that we all agree on,” Pete says as he then reels off a list that includes Spiritualized, Tom Waits, Radiohead, and the Smashing Pumpkins. “Sometimes we stray off into different areas, but if there’s one band that influences us the most than that would be Talk Talk.” As for Pete’s own listening habits, he admits that he has a tendency to fixate upon a particular album. “When I love an album I’ll live in it for a long time.” Currently his favorite band is Beach House. “If I’ve got 18 minutes spare at the moment, then I’ll always put on a bit of Teen Dream; I love that album.”
No doubt many listeners will soon feel the same way about Build a Rocket Boys!.
Alan Ashton-Smith has a PhD in Humanities and Cultural Studies from the University of London, where the subject of his thesis was Gypsy Punk. He lives in London, and is Live Reviews Editor for the music website Shout4Music.