"A Language That Nobody Else Could Understand": An Interview with Elbow
With their new album The Seldom Seen Kid fresh on shelves, the guys in Elbow sit down with PopMatters to reflect on the losses, tragedies, and hopes that got them to where they are now, all while celebrating the music that continues to unite this group over nearly two decades of existence.
Guy Garvey looks frustrated.
His group Elbow is playing New York's Webster Hall this evening but at the moment they are in the midst of sound check. The band is working their way through the bombastic introduction of one of the band's new tunes "Grounds for Divorce" off their latest album, The Seldom Seen Kid, but Guy continuously cuts the song short unsatisfied with how the acoustics of the room are treating this particular tune. Finally, on the fifth or sixth try, Garvey voice bellows "I was working on a cocktail / called grounds for divorce" and his eyes instinctively gravitate toward the balcony area to gauge the response of those looking on. He smiles, appearing confident that he has finally heard whatever needed correcting on the half dozen takes before.
Twenty minutes later, Guy appears dressed entirely in gray and black, his smile two steps ahead of his stride and outreached hand. When the label's publicist introduces us, I make a casual mention of our interview a couple years back, and Guy smiles assures me he remembers both me and this conversation. While normally my bullshit detector spikes off the charts in such moments, this evening I find myself secretly hoping that Guy does in fact remember our first encounter. I doubt I am surprising anybody to inform you that a handful of bands can be quite condescending and haughty when speaking to journalists: some do not elaborate on their answers, while others understandably are bored and irritated by having to answer the same question over and over and over again, recycling rehearsed sound bites. But I will always remember my interview with this band fondly because I genuinely liked these guys who were clearly comfortable in their own skin, no matter who was sitting around them. Guy immediately begins to apologize for running late and asks us if we wouldn't mind waiting another five minutes so he can watch tonight's opening act Jessica Hoop sound check.
"She is amazing and I won't be able to watch her play later. Do you mind?" he asks in an earnest tone, soon leaning over the balcony's edge, hands clasped, enraptured by the guitar strumming chanteuse opening for his band. Twenty minutes later, my friend Steve and I are sitting over beers with Guy and Mark Potter (Elbows lead guitarist) in a nearby bar and he is still gushing.
"So the Watson Twins are good friends of ours whom we met when we were mixing [their third album] Leaders of the Free World in L.A.," begins Guy, "and Leela Watson -- one of the twins -- made me a compilation of some different stuff and [there] was a bit of Bob Dylan [and] Blonde Redhead, [but] there was one Jessica Hoop song [on there] and out of all the tunes it was the one that grabbed me.
"I got a little radio show on the BBC back home and I played the shit out of Jessica's music, so I interviewed her on the phone and then when we knew there was a couple support slots open, we asked her if she would do it. Luckily, she was up for it. One of the joys of being in a band is when you get the chance to share the stage with somebody you admire, you know? I am a big fan of Jessica Hoop's music and we get to watch her play from the wings before we go out. Knockout."
And such is Elbow. Forget that there are a hundred people outside waiting for the doors to watch his group play. A band that has been heralded by critics since their debut album several years back and subsequently with every effort since, including their latest album, the band's fourth. This is a band whose five members have been friends for nearly 20 years, a band made up of best friends and brothers (literally). No, they have never threatened the top of the Billboard charts nor do they have a song featured in the latest Apple commercial that will make them the next hot commodity. But what they do have is a fan base of intelligent, passionate listeners who -- as the thousands of fans from the 2002 Glastonbury festival shout at on the track "Grace Under Pressure" -- "still believe in love" (and sure as shit aren't embarrassed to say so). Because of their loyal base and unquestioned talent, the band has recently found themselves called up to the big leagues of the major label circuit. The band recently parted from the now-defunct V2 label are presently working under the massive umbrella of Geffen and Universal Music. While in the past, label frustrations have included silly staggering release dates between Europe and the US coupled with what appeared to be a frustrating neglect of focused promotion of a band that could develop a much larger following if only people could hear their music. Guy and Mark are both pleased during this transition and appreciate everything that has come with their journey.
"It is all really cool this time," says Guy nodding. "Of course it is a massive, massive company -- the biggest -- but it means that it is absolutely unavoidable now to go where the money is. We have little Elbows to feed. When we were younger we could afford every single decision we made to be based on principle or artistic grounds. But to be honest, working with a big record company doesn't compromise our principles anyways. Fiction is great. And Geffen is great. And we are still friends with the guys we were at V2 with. They are old friends. So it literally it couldn't have worked out better."
Of course, the band also loves the new boss, and they are still friends with their old label. I mean, everyone leaves a job with glowing references and fond memories, right? It's certainly the case here. Guy Garvey is a songwriter who has been carrying around a notebook since he was a boy and his lyrics reflect a certain consideration and respect for language in the words he chooses and the songs he writes. This is a refreshing characteristic too often dismissed by many bands who are selling ten times as many albums. This is a band who is comfortable sitting around drinking bourbon with a writer, going off in a variety of tangents never overtly concerned about the tape recorder resting in the middle of the table, yet instinctively aware that it is on. On their latest album, the band has produced a piece of work that pays homage to the place they call home and the people they call their family and friends.
The album's name refers to a nickname Guy's father had given to one of the band's longtime friend's, Brian Glancy. Brian was a musician from Manchester who had been close with the band's members for years. He passed away suddenly in 2006 yet it is clear that the band is still dealing with the untimely loss of their friend. This album seems to work both as a cathartic exercise in their mourning process while at the same time a beautiful tribute to a man who by all accounts was well known and well liked in his hometown. I had read in an earlier interview where Guy mentioned that Brian had been chosen as best man at seven of his friend's weddings. The album also marks the first time the band produced, edited and mixed an album without any outside help, overseen by Mark's brother, keyboardist Craig Potter.
"All of us have always had a hand in the production, even when working with other producers. But Craig has the golden ears and he has put a lot of time and hours into learning how the process works," says Mark of his brother. "He has blown me away with this album. I think it is our best sounding one yet."
"Craig by his very nature looks at precision. He loves things to be neatly arranged -- almost to artistic standards," adds Guy. "He cannot understand why anybody would want anything less than perfect. If it was me or Pete making a record, it would be so fucking slap dash. It would skip between mono and stereo all the time." Potter's ear for details is boldly shown through a bit of his playing on the impressive piano featured on "Mirrorball." Mark and Guy laugh about how frustrated Craig was getting while trying to nail the bit, but it wouldn't be half the song it is without Potter's talented solo in the song.
In the course of their first three albums, the band has amassed a handful of distinct opening tracks that engage the listener immediately, while leaving an emotional epitaph to conclude each record. "Starlings" and "Friend of Ours" may be the finest bookends of any Elbow album to date. "Craig put the arpeggio down and the drums and the sort of bassline," Guy begins when discussing "Starlings." "We had just that for a long, long time, and originally the words over it were a poem about my first girlfriend. It was called 'Whenever I See a Crimson 105.' And it was okay. It might have made an entertaining B-side. It wasn't brilliant. I certainly didn't think it was album strength, you know?
"So then I changed the lyrics completely. I wrote the 'how dare the premier' thing. I would say that all the words to that song were written in an hour, which is fucking great for me because it usually takes months for me. And I was so vibing on it and I got to the 'darling is this love?' line and I thought, 'You can't say this!' It is quite cliché really: you can't say that, and that is where we came up with the horn blasts. Quite often we will have a sound in our heads, but we don't know what it is going to be and you go looking for that sound.
"It was one of those things where the benefits of being together with the same people for eighteen years is you have a language that nobody else could understand. I understand what Mark means when he is suggesting something and if he thinks that I am going down the road, you know what I mean? I went back in and continued to work on the lyrics and when I came back into the room and they had it working. I had a moment of feeling very, very proud at the speed and accuracy of our communication for that song.
"We knew it was something special at that point, I think. Every time we played it from the top, we would pace around the room and try to act like somebody wasn't expecting that horn blast. And then every time the horn blasts, we would piss ourselves laughing because it is such an audacious opening move. It was a lot louder than that. We had to temper it a little bit because it was forcing the boys to turn it down in the car. You don't want people skipping a tune."
The song is destined to become an instant Elbow classic. It opens up quietly before the aforementioned horn and string cacophony violently shakes your core before quietly settling down, replaced with what sounds like a xylophone gently playing a flamenco like melody. Elbow has never been a band ashamed of their romantic tendencies and has (in this writer's opinion) penned some of the most elegant songs about love, sex and remorse over the past five years. That is because his words are his observations and he can keep them simple without losing any effect. We can all agree there is nothing overly original about the lyric "you are the only thing in every room you're ever in." But upon several listens of the album, it is a line that you start to eagerly anticipate and a sentiment, despite how clichéd it may sound, that is actually a beautiful metaphor for a feeling too difficult to ever literally explain. It is a visceral reaction, that longing sense of hope that someone will love you like in such a way that we can all relate to.
The closing track "Friend of Ours" is a song dedicated and written about Brian. Guy makes mention that it is the only song on the entire album where he plays guitar. On this album Guy made a conscience decision to focus on using his voice as more of an instrument than he has in the past. In this song, his voice is vulnerable and he sounds as sad as we have ever heard him. Pete Turner's bass and drummer Richard Jupp's whispering rattle act as the crux of the song. A dewy guitar line -- coupled with the twinkling of some piano keys -- brings the song and the album to an understated but deeply touching conclusion as Guy concludes with the plaintive but heartbreaking line "love you mate."
"That is a low-fi recording on the album. At first the song existed without the orchestration and we wanted the contrast between the beautiful opening coming in and just the five of us playing in a room," says Mark. Guy adds, "It is the only track we recorded where we all just sat down and played our instruments together in one take. And we threw the violins in afterwards. And because he was our mate ... we knew we had to have the best song on the record."
The remainder of the album is made up of songs looking at still frames of the everyday feelings and moments of our lives. The things that are in fact beautiful but we never stop to consider until we see beautiful photograph or hear them in a song. Besides the decision to produce and mix the album on their own, the band also opted to work in a more isolated working environment. Mark and Guy both agreed a desire to stay focused and generate the creative juices.
Guy goes on: "It had to be the five us. It had to feel like us against the world again. After enough time your band starts to feel like a gang. Because part of wanting to be in a band is wanting to be in a gang. 'Weather to Fly' is about the early days of the band and for that reason it is my favorite song on the album. I told a journalist that recently and he said, 'Oh God: don't start getting self referential now!' and I thought, 'Well fuck -- have I not earned the right playing 18 years with the same people?' I am allowed to write one song about how much I love this lot.
"The only line I had with 'Weather to Fly' was 'pounding the streets where my father's feet still ring from the wall' because that is Manchester, you know? That is my Manchester reference for that tune. Everything after that came pretty quickly because I was positive (at that age) about being in Elbow. This is still something I never take for granted- even after this amount of time. As far as I am concerned, I am really lucky to be in the best fucking band I could imagine being in."